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Thread: DO I SOUND GAY? (David Thorpe 2014)

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    DO I SOUND GAY? (David Thorpe 2014)

    David Thorpe: Do I Sound Gay? (2014)


    A lively but not-too-deep American look at what seeming homosexual means

    In David Mitchell's semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green, set in 1982, the 13-year-old protagonist Jason Taylor is by his own admission (and self-aware analysis) only a middle-status boy in his school who's shy and has a stammer. For Jason many things he might like to do, such as admit he writes poetry, are off limits because, in the eyes of his contemporaries, that is, they're "gay." It doesn't mean gay, really, more like wimpy, goofy, not macho. Not accepted by the crowd.

    But it may be hard to distinguish between "gay" and gay. Even grownup openly gay guys are worried about seeming "gay," it turns out. Following a breakup with his boyfriend (and perhaps in need of a new direction) David Thorpe began to think about his voice, and how he was unhappy with it. And so he made this debut filmmaking effort, a little documentary in which he works through this problem, or tries to, for himself and the screen audience. The result isn't challenging or deep, but will arouse amusement and stimulate discussion and go down easy with gays and some straights. In the end, Thorpe's self-searching is skin deep. Armond White points out in his Out review, which adds savvy pop music references, that Thorpe with his long-jaw, beard and shaved head affects a "modern day clone identity."

    Should grownups be worrying about such things, especially men who are, in fact, gay? In principle, not. For one thing, how you sound is partly an accident. Thorpe gives examples he knows of men who are heterosexual, but have "gay sounding" voices -- that is, light, tentative, high-pitched, feminine -- or effeminate, ending sentences on an up pitch like a question. And the reverse: some gay men have a deep masculine way of talking. It seems to have to do with who they were around growing up. Thorpe talks to a lot of people to discuss this, and show how they talk. He goes to a speech pathologist and Hollywood voice coach to be evaluated and given exercises to change his voice, make it deeper, more out of the diaphragm, better projected, the vowels less drawn out, the sentences starting up and going down, and so on. He seems in search of his own kind of Henry Higginsd. But unlike Liza Doolittle, his "gay sounding" voice isn't dramatic, nor does he go through a big transformation. It's not really easy to hear the differences and when it's all over and Thorpe has done months of exercises, he seems to revert to how he talked at first.

    Along the way by talking to old friends Thorpe learns something significant, though. They tell him that when he was young (though he can't remember and there are no recordings of his voice back then) he talked differently, more like everyone else, and the "gay voice" was something he put on, or greatly heightened anyway, when he came out as a gay person in college. A close woman friend actually resented this, she says: she found it artificial. In fact Thorpe has now decided he is not speaking in his authentic voice, thought whether he finds that isn't clear.

    Not wanting to "sound gay" is a sign that gay men are still uncomfortable with being gay, experience "internalized homophobia." Wanting to sound gay, on the other hand, comes from a desire to be recognized, identified, "out" to everyone with the first word they hear. There are examples of overtly, flaming gay voices, like Paul Lynde's, or Truman Capote's, or Liberace's, though at the time, being "out" wasn't a thing and the word "gay" wasn't in the mainstream vocabulary.

    Do I Sound Gay? is a mildly entertaining film, but it's not profound or thorough. Like other documentaries of its type, it's a person working out his problems in public, and drawing a lot of interviews, examples, and factoids along the way.

    In doing exercises fed him by speech therapist Bob Curtis to deepen his voice, lower its center, and project it better, Thorpe is dong two things. He's learning to speak "better," more in the kind of round tones delivered by one of the film's famous talking heads, "Star Trek's" now openly gay, indeed gay icon, George Takei, who may sound gay, but doesn't have a wispy voice and speaks firmly, clearly, and with dignity. Thorpe learns to project his voice forcefully enough so that at an "Occupy" rally, he can be heard yelling a slogan to the crowd. Secondly, he is trying, if intermittently, to return to the more natural way of speaking he had earlier in his life before he chose to be openly gay. So being gay is one thing; being "gay" is another. It often involves playacting.

    Along the way Do I Sound Gay? reminds us of a several things. One is that the voice signifiers aren't conclusive: straight men can sound gay; gay men can sound straight. Some public figures like Lynde, Capote, Liberace, and movie characters who sounded super-gay may have influenced styles of intentional "gay" speaking. Thorpe talks to Tim Gunn, David Sedaris, Margaret Cho, Dan Savage, Don Lemon, and other known gay figures. (White calls this "celebrity reenforcement," though he calls the film "probing.") Some men, like David Sedaris, who says his voice sounds like that of a tiny little man (but is often mistaken on the phone for a woman's) aren't necessarily happy with how they sound in theory, are reconciled to it in view of the success of their lives (look at the nice place where Sedaris lives, and his long happy relationship with a man -- a thing Thorpe most wants). But even Sedaris admits he's pleased sometimes when somebody tells him "I didn't know you were gay." Dan Savage warns, "Many gay adolescents are right to be worried about how they sound because it draws violence." In fact Thorpe talks to Zach King, the loud and proud high school "diva" whose filmed beating by school bigots was an Internet sensation. There's an ugly, complicated side to all this that white middle-class journalist Thorpe may be ill equipped to deal with here. Though Thorpe talks to Brits and French guys with "gay" voices, I wondered if the effeminate voice wasn't partly also a cultural thing; that American men all sound "gay" compared to men in some other countries. I also wanted to hear more about the colorful talk of American black "sissies." These topics need much more exploration.

    Do I Sound Gay?, 77 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2014 and showed at over 17 subsequent festivals. It opeened in cinemas and on the Internet 10 July 2015. It opens 24 July at Bay Area Landmark theatres.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-23-2015 at 12:06 AM.


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