Green Plaid Shirt (1996): Natale’s AIDS Movie

“Green Plaid Shirt,” film journalist and Variety contributor Richard Natale’s honorable feature directorial debut, adds a voice to the growing body of films dealing with gay life in the turbulent age of AIDS. Spanning a decade, this pertinent, solid — if also flawed — drama scrutinizes the joys and sorrows of one gay relationship from its romantic beginning to its tragic demise.

This personal picture may not hold the crossover appeal of a movie like “Longtime Companion,” but is a likely bet for theatrical release and should be seen on the bigscreen by its core audience of gay men.

Natale’s intimate, semi-autobiographical narrative assumes the nature of a memory film, with its lead character motivated by an urge to look back on his past and “make sense” of a tumultuous chapter in his life that was as emotionally rewarding as it was painfully frustrating. Benefiting from a genuine insider’s perspective, pic’s greatest asset is its mature, utterly candid and often moving quality.

Shrewdly reversing the structure of “Longtime Companion,” which unfolded chronologically and culminated in its hero’s death, “Green Plaid Shirt” begins in 1988, with the death of Guy (Kevin Spirtas), longtime lover of Philip (Gregory Phelan). Story then flashes back to 1978, to their first casual meeting at a yard sale, when both were interested in buying the same shirt.

Jumping back and forth, pic illuminates in brief strokes a gay relationship that was very much a product of its times, from the days of the sexual revolution all the way to the devastating AIDS era. The novelty of Natale’s approach is that, unlike most American movies, it doesn’t dwell on the “easier” part of relationships, the thrill and exhilaration of first love and wild sex, but rather ambitiously dissects the “harder” part, the day-to-day maintenance of love and trust.

Experimenting with the notion of an open relationship, Philip is teribly hurt when he first experiences Guy’s promiscuity. Later, he’s caught vulnerably off-guard when Guy leaves a message on his machine that he has fallen for another man and has decided to move out. This event, however, doesn’t signal the end of the bond, which continues to exist, albeit in a different form.

While alternating flashbacks and flash-forwards enriches the film’s intricate texture, it also makes it too fractured, creating a distance between the audience and the story. This strategy also prevents helmer from chronicling in detail the gradual, step-by-step evolution — and dissolution — of an attachment that had long-enduring effects on both men.

The two lovers, who differ in personality as well as in needs and expectations, are deftly etched. But Natale is less successful in delineating absorbing portraits of his secondary characters, who often come across as types. This is especially the case with Jerry (Richard Israel) and Devon (Russell Scott Lewis), the couple’s bitchy friends, who are used for dramatic contrast and comic relief.

Determination to hold his central duo under a tight magnifying glass also precludes Natale from paying closer attention to the broader political context, which would have made his tale both more resonant and specifically grounded. Natale acquits himself better as a writer than director. Consistently sharp and lively, his dialogue rings true to the witty lingo that bright gay men employ when they are amongst themselves. What’s missing, however, is a more energetic staging and a more nuanced tempo that would have made the film’s earnest moments more engaging.

As the helmer’s alter ego, Phelan gives a highly intense, commanding performance, admirably holding his deep pain by reserves of moral strength. He’s assisted by Spirtas, who’s very handsome but not wholly up to the difficult task of playing Guy, a tough, not entirely sympathetic role. Crystal Jackson plays the yarn’s only female with verve and wit; remainder of the cast is decent and likable without being distinguished.

Considering the film’s low budget and reportedly 12-day shoot, production values are appealing, particularly Amit Bhattacharya’s lensing, which effectively evokes the story’s subtle changes of mood and tone.

Cast

Philip Gregory Phelan
Guy Kevin Spirtas
Jerry Richard Israel Devon
Russell Scott Lewis
Linda Crystal Jackson
Todd Jonathan Klein
Leon Tony Campisi
Mother Sierra Pecheur

Credits

A Vicious Circle production. Produced by Luca Norcen, Denis Chicola. Executive producers, Lamar Damon, Richard Natale, Bohdan Zachary. Co-producer, Skip Loge.
Directed, written by Richard Natale.
Camera (Deluxe color), Amit Bhattacharya; editor, Hugo Rynders; music, Norman Noll; production design, Chris A. Miller; costume design, David Ruble; sound (Dolby), Luther Yee; supervising sound editor, Calvin Loeser; associate producer, Laura J. Zuckerman; assistant directors, James Fox, Mikel Lancaster; casting, Anne Etue.

Reviewed at Directors Guild of America, L.A. July 20, 1996.
Outfest ’96
Running time: 87 MIN.