A slim woman jogs through the woods wearing a windbreaker and the kind of high-cut ’80s leotard you would see in a Jane Fonda workout video. She stops in front of the wooden pen where her neighbor, a young man, is tending his goats. The man is beautiful, with Schwarzeneggerian muscles accentuated by a grey tank top. They eye each other while the woman performs a series of bouncy stretches. Later, when she kisses him by a campfire, he rebuffs her—they’re both married, after all; their husbands are away with the army, stationed in Djibouti. At this, the woman flies into an indignant monologue about the impracticality of monogamy, especially there, amid the loneliness of the army base. This changes the man’s mind, and they have sex.
In Benjamin Crotty’s first feature film, Fort Buchanan, this kind of thing happens a lot. The script—comprised largely of lines from American soap operas translated into the film’s French—places its characters in a bull market of emotion and desire, where sex, violence, and despair are always close at hand. The film is segmented into four seasons—it opens with shots of the austere French countryside in winter—and follows the fortunes of lonely army spouses, two men and four women, over the course of a year, as they maintain the fort and try to amuse themselves in their husbands’ absence. They live in high-design, modernist cabins in complicated shapes; they drink wine and complain while lounging in fields or crouching beside bonfires. Everyone is good-looking in a severe, European way, and, as in a porn film, they’re all incredibly fit for no apparent reason. The spouses sleep with one another, miss their husbands, and worry about their children in a series of brief plot episodes, in which the emotional stakes are repeatedly raised to their peak and then promptly discarded.
The film’s main character, Roger (played by Andy Gillet, a jawline), is a weak-willed man, married to the emotionally and physically distant officer Frank. Their marriage is failing and their teenage daughter, Roxy, is moody and resentful; in the opening scene, she punches Roger, and he falls, bleeding, to the ground. Roger misses sex; Frank doesn’t call. In the spring, when he whispers his frustration to the fort’s wives, he is shocked to discover that they have all long since opened their marriages; he protests that this is cheating. But Roger seems unconcerned when the women decide, moments later, to entertain themselves with a competition to see which of them can sleep with his daughter first. In the following scene, they vie to seduce her as she folds laundry off of a clothesline.
Fort Buchanan was recently shown at Lincoln Center as part of a program called “Friends with Benefits,” organized by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan, a retrospective that presented Crotty’s work along with that of three other American filmmakers with whom he is vaguely affiliated: Gabriel Abrantes, Alexander Carver, and Daniel Schmidt. Crotty made the short film Visionary Iraq with Abrantes in 2009, and Carver and Schmidt co-wrote and directed their debut, The Unity of Small Things in 2013; the remaining links between the four are less clear. It may be fair to assume that their grouping is just as much social as it is artistic. Dan Sullivan characterized their association in Film Comment this way: “neither a tightly knit collective in the style of the post-’68 Zanzibar group, nor an informal network of friends (and sometimes rivals) like the French New Wave, their grouping seems more like a swingers’ party, with collaborators freely swapping partners.” None of them has been working for more than a decade; some of the pieces shown at Lincoln Center looked like student films. For artists being given a “retrospective,” they’re younger than you would think. Crotty, the oldest, is 35. All four look like they would get carded at a bar.
What the directors do seem to have in common is a boyish love for subversion and satire, particularly around queer narratives. In concert with the Lincoln Center program, Crotty, Abrantes, Carver, and Schmidt curated two nights of queer films at the independent Brooklyn theaters Spectacle and Light Industry. One program featured two tellingly irreverent gay porn films: in Raspberry Reich, the 2004 satire by Bruce LaBruce in which a group of gay socialist militants kidnap and eventually fuck the son of a wealthy industrialist, propaganda crawls across the screen in black and red letters, like a news ticker, and the characters yell things like “Homosexuality is only to be used for the purposes of revolution!!” In Kiss Hug Fuck Love, a soft-toned, pointedly vacuous buddy porn that’s stylized somewhere between a Corona commercial and a John Mayer music video, a group of three men strum acoustic guitars, ride in the bed of a pickup truck, and eat lemon meringue pie al fresco around a bonfire. When they fuck, they do it in a perfectly stylized minimalist bedroom, in a crisp white light that reminded me of a J. Crew catalogue. The two films seemed to bookend the spectrum of dumb queer politics, with the notion that homosexuality is inherently radical and politically righteous on one end, and the queer embrace of bourgeois lifestyle fetishism on the other. In Raspberry Reich, there’s the anti-assimilationist queer radicals whose embrace of simplistic identity politics can make their narcissism a little too transparent (“I don’t care about American intervention in Iraq!” a wigged socialist cried out in one scene. “I care about my! Orgasm!”) In Kiss Hug Fuck Love, you have the white gay gentrifiers, who have vague sources of income in fields like design or marketing, and speak glowingly of the surrogate who they underpay. Fort Buchanan is a more challenging film than either of these, one with a greater appreciation of nuance and no axe to grind, but one way to understand it may be in the context of the filmmakers’ rejection of these two extremes.
In How to Do Things with Pornography, the feminist theorist Nancy Bauer posits that the plotted world of porn operates according to a social logic in which all desire is reciprocated immediately, and with equal intensity. It is this logic that makes sex so frankly and easily omnipresent in the porn world. “The ordinary perils of sexual communion simply don’t exist,” she writes. “Everyone is desired by everyone he or she desires. Serendipitously, it always turns out, to gratify yourself sexually by imposing your desires on another person is always to gratify that person as well.” The desire is universal, and its exchange is instantaneous.
Fort Buchanan is shot and plotted somewhat like porn. The camerawork leans heavily on voyeuristic long takes, and outbursts of intensity between the characters, sexual or otherwise, are spontaneous and reciprocated with little prompting. Everyone is always on the verge of hitting someone or bursting into tears, only to fall into the arms of whoever scorned them in an earlier scene. For a queer love story, this isn’t so unusual: think of the breathless earnestness and high drama of canonical stories like Nightwood or Giovanni’s Room. The difference, in Fort Buchanan, is that Crotty’s style of storytelling has already digested these tropes—you would be hard pressed to find a film that is more self-conscious about parroting its own genre. With its recycling of soap opera dialogue and its knowing embrace of cliché, Fort Buchanan seems to imply that melodrama applies the same logic to emotion that pornography applies to sexuality—that it creates a world in which vast and spontaneous intensities of feeling are exchanged with prolific frequency and little consequence.
It would be easy to think that a film like Fort Buchanan would wind up being a little too smart for its own good—that it would betray the kind of self-satisfaction that often sours a satire. What saves the film is that Crotty seems to genuinely love his characters: the spouses’ emotions are extreme, but genre, not feeling, is always the butt of the joke. Eventually, in the summer section of the film, Roger and the other spouses fly to Djibouti to see their husbands. Frank isn’t happy to see them; alone in his room with Roger, he declines sex again. Desperate, Roger shaves his head and dons a pair of ridiculous tight cut-off shorts, and gets drunk trying to entice his husband at a rooftop party. Frank rebuffs him again, leaving Roger on the dance floor, bathed in red light, as an aggressive techno song plays: it’s over. A less kind filmmaker would revel in the silliness of Roger’s sexual failure, or wink at the reference to the homely girl stood up for the prom. Instead, Roger’s face has a quiet dignity: what’s more striking than his failure is his grief. It’s an accomplishment that I can only think to call mature.