In its own modest, shoestring, digital video way, Kirby Dick’s documentary Outrage has more to tell us about the screwed-up priorities of closeted gay careerists (and the dangers that their priorities create) than even Tony Kushner’s much-ballyhooed play Angels in America. Outrage gets to the heart of the matter much more succinctly as well—at least more so than Mike Nichols’s bloated, miscast Kushner adaptation for cable a few years ago.
The movie begins, somewhat less than promisingly, with audiotape of Senator Larry Craig’s arrest for “seeking activity” in an airport washroom. Underscoring the Miranda reading and the former senator’s protests of innocence, composer Peter Golub’s ominous piano and strings music strives too self-consciously to evoke an atmosphere of dread. Outrage doesn’t need these stage cues to do our reacting for us, because the other sounds and sights are potent enough. Moments in, there’s footage of Craig at an outdoor rally in his native Idaho, speechifying under a clear blue sky to reassure his constituents of his steadfast devotion to God, Country, and all things Heterosexual. Somewhere among the crowd, a man’s cajoling voice pipes up, “C’mon, Larry, be gay!” in much the same tone that someone might proffer, “Be black, baby!”
Craig’s charade continues in an interview alongside his faithful spouse, Suzanne. Seated on a plump, well-upholstered sofa, the epitome of convention in their tastefully chintzy living room, the Craigs impressed me as completely credible in their united front. The late Rodger McFarlane, commenting on the footage, has a superlative moment when he praises Mrs. Craig for an “admirable performance,” then in the next breath adds, “That’s some weird shit.”
Director Dick thoroughly documents the disgraceful voting records of Congressmen, senators, and governors who’ve spent their long careers vetoing any and all gay rights legislation, all the while engaging in same-sex affairs. More significantly, he delves into the psychology of why. The journalist Michelangelo Signorile relates a childhood anecdote of ganging up with herds of “straight” boys to beat up queers, real or perceived. Camouflaging his own identity, the young Signorile could pass undetected—at the expense of others like him. The movie, thus, brings it home that being a hypocrite in elected office merely extends this playground mindset well into adulthood. Voting “no” somehow proves, in the minds of Craig, former Representative Ed Schrock, and Florida Governor Charlie Crist (to name a few), that they’re not gay.
The most mesmerizing, true-to-life aspect of Outrage, for me, as a native Southerner, lies in the too brief section on allegations/revelations encircling former Louisiana Rep. Jim McCrery. We’re introduced to a man who first met McCrery in the 1970s when they were brothers in the Sigma Nu fraternity and “instantly knew Jim was gay.” They became lovers, and the interviewee makes this astonishing yet not totally alien admission: McCrery “used the frat house as his gay bar,” roaming from room to room after dark, “touching inappropriately.” The scruffy, blond-bearded individual whom we spy in photographs was known as a liberal in college, a Democrat, and an outspoken atheist. The political aspirations were there early on, but apparently (and here the movie leaves out a crucial transition) McCrery had no backers to launch a campaign until an unspecified group came forward to bankroll his run, if he would embrace their agenda. He did, but I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of a lefty unbeliever who neuters himself into Christian Right blandness. Outrage, which has several targets to hit in its scant 90 minutes, abandons McCrery’s narrative a bit too fleetingly, yet it holds him out there just long enough for McCrery to emerge as a motif for self-negation, for the irresistible allure of selling out. Or as Bill Maher puts it to Larry King: “Hating yourself is the greatest love of all,” which, as flippant as Maher’s sentiment is, gets at the essential masochism underlying the gay Republican mode of discourse. (This applies to closeted Dems as well, here personified by a tuxedo-clad Ed Koch, seen in a clip warbling “Lullaby of Broadway.”)
The movie also indicts media banality and culpability. “All the reporters are gay,” states Rich Tafel, the former executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. And in the footage of television anchors that the filmmakers have thoughtfully collaged, the connections between dissembling careerists protecting other dissembling careerists become only too clear. There’s a visual suggestion, also, that put me in mind of Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. When the camera pans across a sea of Capitol Hill suits (we don’t see their faces, only their torsos), their striped ties swaying in the wind, I couldn’t help but think that they were voguing. Livingston’s gay, black drug addicts in ball gowns may seem light years away from white Republican staffers in D.C., yet both are caught up in being something that they’re not, in layers of pretend and make believe, getting high, strung out, on the elixir of role-playing.
There are a few missteps: alone among Dick’s interviewees, the overrated, overexposed, Bell Curve enthusiast Andrew Sullivan has nothing compelling to say. Conversely, there could have been more from Elizabeth Birch, one of the few voices here on the lesbian perspective, and from playwright Larry Kramer, whose presence serves as a valuable reminder of just how destructive Ronald Reagan was to generations of homosexuals. In the movie’s most ingeniously edited sequence, Dick crosscuts between Kramer’s lament, “We don’t have rights,” and twirling, almost slow-motion footage of Charlie Crist’s December 2008 wedding to Carole Rome. A reverberant guitar (it sounds like Bill Frisell’s playing) twangs softly as Crist, immaculate in white tie and tails, dances on a stair landing with his new bride. The juxtaposition couldn’t be greater: the rage of truthfulness versus the placidity of a sanctioned cover. In this, Outrage momentarily looms larger than a mere documentary film; it seemed to me to become an American cavalcade of our society’s overwhelming back-asswardsness.
House contributor N.P. Thompson lives, writes, and photo blogs in the Pacific Northwest.