Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: "Angel" by Laura Lee

Angel by Laura Lee
Genre: Literary fiction (GLBT)
Itineris Press, 2011
4.5 out of 5 stars. 
(See Reviews Guidelines.

When I first chose Angel to read, I was a little reluctant. Would I be thrown into some massive anti-Christian diatribe? Such things I find are as based upon ignorance and bigotry as is the view of gays from the far right. Both are equally annoying and a waste of time. But I was intrigued by the subject matter, and because any writer had been brave enough to do it - I couldn't resist taking a look. So I forged ahead. I'm glad I did.

Angel is the story of an ordinary church minister who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. A widower who deeply grieves his wife Sara, he is amazed to find himself drawn - first as a minister, and then romantically - to a young male drifter and addict. Their consequential affair, which inevitably comes to the attention of the parishioners of the conservative church, shakes Paul's life up in ways he could never have imagined or foreseen. The romance of the novel is however the superficial story - through it the author bravely delves into much deeper themes, and that is what makes Angel a gem.

Laura Lee is a gifted writer: her use of language ranges from fully capable to at times truly eloquent:
His sexuality wasn't confusing or complicated at all, really. He had fallen in love with Sara, and he fell in love with Ian. Simple. It only became complicated when he tried to fit that reality into the shorthand of official categories. That these labels failed to describe how he felt about himself should not have troubled him much, but so many people had faith in the categories that he was inclined to believe the problem was with himself, and not the check boxes. That was where he became confused.
Lee juggles a number of themes: conservative society's view of homosexuality,  religion and bigotry, bisexuality, and others - without ever muddling up the book. This is not easily done, and is a testament to her skill. The novel is laced with subtleties - metaphorical imagery, expertly-drawn secondary characters, and symbolism. Even the name of the protagonist is an interesting symbol: Paul was the apostle who had perhaps the greatest metamorphosis, the one who struggled the most with personal demons, and a preacher himself.

For me, one mark of sophisticated writing is that it is not simply narrative. Occasionally, the best writers weave in a little personal philosophy, something for the reader to chew on intellectually a bit. Another beautifully-rendered paragraph:
His desire for Ian had the force of an ocean, a tornado, or a mountain. The mountain defies any effort by humans to tame it. You can build at its foot if you like, but when the mudslide comes, you'll be buried regardless of ordinances or zoning laws. None of that exists in the face of nature. Nature has its own order. There is no motive to ascribe to the mountain. It does not kill with vengeance or purpose. It just evolves as it does, and whatever human order we try to create is temporary at best. If sexuality was a force of nature, then wasn't that closer to God than the human laws we try to impose on it?
The most important point that any review of this book needs to make is that it is if anything a courageous work. The author has chosen to write subjects that it may not be politically correct to talk about in many circles. She risked as much backlash from the Left as from the Right.  But she has presented an intelligent, well-considered novel that forces those on either side of the fence to look more closely at the complex issues in our society today.

It is interesting to see how the author handled the world of the everyday life of a church. As someone raised in that world, I found it extremely well-done: realistic and fair.  The author carefully painted a comfortable, comforting atmosphere, so that when it comes crashing down the reader is deeply affected. As a reader, I was somewhat bothered by the book's reluctance to address the reality that there are more liberal churches than the one presented. I felt that a picture was being painted that wasn't fair to all churches, in an era when Christianity is poorly understood to begin with. However, upon more consideration I realized that it is not the business of this book or its story to address all that: this is ultimately a story about one man, one church, one group of believers. It doesn't need to address the wider political reality.

Finally, it should be mentioned that although Angel is a deep read, Lee has a way with humor that makes the book even richer. The San Francisco Chronicle has said of her work, "Lee's dry, humorous tone makes her a charming companion... She has a penchant for wordplay that is irresistible." Witness this passage: 
When an ordinary-looking person wears an ugly hat, you assume he is out of touch with fashion. When a young and beautiful person wears an ugly hat, you assume you're the one who doesn't get it. 
Technical literary points:  The only structural objection I can offer about the book is that the author has placed at the beginning of each chapter a short paragraph or two concerning mountains - their history, their geology, their social significance and therefore their symbolism. I believe that her point was the timelessness and enormity of these structures, as compared to the timelessness and enormity of Nature's truths. I can appreciate that, and I applaud the uniqueness of the attempt as a literary device. However, it often felt very intrusive, and the interruption in the flow of the narrative was by the second half of the book so overwhelming to this reader that I found myself - reluctantly and with some guilt - skipping those passages.

Angel is a unique read, pleasurable from beginning to end, terribly thought-provoking, and above all, brave. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.


Angel is widely available both in paperback and in eBook formats.

Metro Detroit native Laura Lee divides her time equally between writing and producing ballet educational tours with her partner, the artistic director of the Russian National Ballet Foundation. In addition to her novel, Angel, she is the author of more than a dozen non-fiction books with such publishers as Harper Collins, Reader's Digest, Running Press, Broadway Books, Lyons Press and Black Dog and Leventhal. She has also written one collection of poetry (Invited to Sound), and a children's book (A Child's Introduction to Ballet). She brings to her writing a unique background as a radio announcer, improvisational comic and one-time professional mime.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Haunting 3 : Conclusion of a Milestone in Erotica

Ricky Roman and Arnaud Chagall. Courtesy Cockyboys
NOTE: Whether I am reviewing a book or film, my interest is in appreciating the artfulness and quality of a work, not in blind praise or unfair criticisms. It is my humble hope that through this discussion of plotting as it relates to this film, writers and anyone who deals in narrative as art, can find something valuable to keep. I hope that I can offer the viewer/reader something to think about, and all creators something to consider for future projects. For me, part of supporting fellow artists is giving a fair and honest review of their work; that is a personal ethic that I take seriously. The following review is not PG-rated; if you are offended by sexually explicit language, do not read it. 

This review contains a few spoilers; please do not let those dissuade you from viewing the episode! If you haven't seen Episode 3, please view it before reading.  


"Gay porn awards shows don't give out awards for videography, editing, scores, and scripts, but if they did, this is where all the nominations would come from." - The Sword, review of The Haunting

The final installment of Jake Jaxson's innovative, courageous, and beautifully-made three part gay porn film for Cockyboys, The Haunting, was released today to much anticipation - not only from loyal fans and curious porn aficionados, but from many professionals in the porn industry.  Jaxson in the past year has established Cockyboys firmly as the studio to watch: not only are the short videos increasingly decorated  with the characteristics that set them off from others in the gay porn world as something different, forward-thinking and classy, but his series Project Gogo Boy and The Haunting, are such a stretch from the standard and norm, that they have made many a jaw drop. Beyond the merits of the individual episode or the individual series, Jaxson has indisputably and forever  changed the industry - something for which he can be hugely proud. If he keeps this up, he will force gay porn, and eventually hetero porn, to increasingly consider questions of production quality - and the combination of coherent, intelligent plot with erotica.

I believe that I am the only non-porn blog to review The Haunting. (See my review of Parts 1 and 2.)  Consequently, my review is a bit different: others look at the porn, the camerawork, perhaps the overall production.  I look at the production, and the plot and narrative quality.  I have brought such reviews to this blog because I believe that we have begun our way down an important path - with Jake Jaxson at the helm - at the end of which we will see quality literary narrative merge with explicit sex scenes. And why not? It has happened in literature - we have seen story and explicit sex scene merge in the past decade as never before in the world of books.

Courtesy Cockyboys.
Now, whether we have seen it merge successfully all that often is up for debate. But to have moved forward is enormous! I don't believe that every book needs a sex scene: however, I do believe that - sex being a basic and integral element of human experience - it is not only acceptable and legitimate but healthy, that we as a society have come to the point where books can be beautifully-written, narratively sound, and contain sex scenes that advance and enhance the plot and the reader's experience.  The same should be true of film. Sure, mainstream feature film has given us cheap sex scenes for some time now; sexually explicit in a healthy sense? - I would argue "no". Too many are gratuitous, have little to do directly with advancing plot in any meaningful way, and God forbid we see male frontal nudity. Forget a quality gay sex scene. We have a long, long way to go.

For me, The Haunting Part 3: A Kiss Before Goodnight, was the most challenging of the three installments of this film. Jaxson had previously established with Part 1 a storyline involving flashes into the past, and a strong tie-in with a narrative involving the present. Scenes involving past flashbacks were infused with an old-fashioned feel - accomplished by strains of classical music, soft-focus camera-work, vintage clothing, and antique artifacts - that served both to draw the viewer into the story and add to the creepiness of the storyline. In the ending seconds of both Part 1 and Part 2, there was a startling surprise of a moment that quickened the viewer's heartbeat (and believe me, I'm not exaggerating that!) and set up questions about the next installment. It was genius: fans were engaged through the weeks in between releases.

The viewer's expectation, then, going into Part 3, was a tidy resolution of plot, more creepiness, and the continuation of the mood set in Parts 1 and 2, and of course some quality explicit sex. This third expectation was granted. It's the first two I wish to address, again from the point of view as one whose life is literature.

(Warning: Spoiler!) Narrative tension exists when a conflict is established and draws the viewer/reader along to the end. That may be the "end" of an episode or the end of a series. Timing is everything, and in the world of literature as in the world of film, it is something that takes practice. In Parts 1 and 2, Jaxson's plot design was near-flawless: even as the reader was watching the scenes unfold, he or she was wondering what, whom, why - it never stopped. Right up until the last startling, mesmerizing moment. Here in Part 3, however, the mystery that drove Parts 1 and 2 is revealed and explained in literally the first few minutes, ending narrative tension. Now Jaxson might argue - and I think rightly - that he was trying to then shift the tension to another conflict - that of an artist who finds his well of creative inspiration empty.  I have to admit, I didn't get this clearly: I was a little surprised to find it in Jaxson's introductory note to the episode: I had been so anxious to view the episode that I hadn't read it until I was 2/3 of the way through viewing the film. I thought "Really?"  I don't know if a little more in the way of showing the private life of the artist, revealing what others gossiped about him, or dialog, would have helped; as a writer I could think of several ways to accomplish it. The point is, this conflict - which could have and should have replaced the first and driven the entire episode from there - was not clearly established. It is a shame, because it reduced this episode to more porn film than a plot-driven erotica piece, as were the first two.

Roman, Chagall. Courtesy Cockyboys.
The biggest issue was the lead character himself. One thing that is difficult for a writer to learn is that a lead character must be sympathetic: he may be a pig, but he must demonstrate that he is human, understandable and relatable, and worthy of pity if not respect. If he is not three-dimensional in this sense, the audience is not interested in him. The lead character here, artist Klaus Heist (played earnestly and adeptly by Christian Wilde), is not a nice person: that is all well and good. The problem is that Klaus has no redeeming quality, nothing that allows us to understand him, relate to him, or care what happens to him. As a viewer, I got excited when I saw a spark of something late in the film - when a few paint strokes upon his canvas incite a vision experience in which he sees the past and what has happened in the house. I thought that it would somehow have an effect on him, that he would finally have some revelation and exhibit an iota of humanity.

This brings us to the second element necessary in successful plot, besides conflict: there must be change. Usually, this change must happen to the lead character or characters: he or she must experience a revelation, make a decision, take an unexpected turn. If it had been clear that Klaus Heist was struggling with his inspiration, and if it had been clear that the vision led to his successful resolution of that problem, the plot would have worked. As it was, we are given a decidedly unpleasant lead character, with dubious conflict (certainly none that we care about), and a merely interesting moment that should have led to resolution.

It is very difficult for a writer - or a filmmaker - to clearly see a difference between what he understands about his own plot, and what the reader/viewer will be able to glean.  How many hints to you give? When are you being too obtuse? And what is the point at which you pound the audience over the head and insult intelligence?  The work of an artist is to learn what these boundaries are, and that comes with experience.

There were other things that were very interesting indeed about this film. Particularly intriguing was the dichotomy between the two sex scenes. Both were very drawn-out but never less than hot, and Jaxson used them to make a point about sex and pornography. In the first, unlikeable lead character Heist seduces - through intimidation as much as heat - the young real estate agent (Max Ryder - in a really nice performance) selling him the house. This scene occurs very early in the film. Heist is a practiced lover, but not a very passionate - or COMpassionate one. He is one of those you see in porn films, where if he were in your bedroom, after five minutes of the near-continuous degrading, demeaning, and decidedly mean-spirited dirty banter, you would be tempted to slap him and scream "Just shut up for chrissakes!". It's enough to make you lose a hard-on. (Well, you know what I mean.)  It was so excessive that I wasn't sure whether I wanted to giggle or scream at the screen; that combined with the coldness established by the lead character, made me want to fast forward through the scene. But I sat tight and trusted Jaxson's instinct, and I was right to do so: at the end of the scene, Heist throws a towel at the young agent and spits out a chilly, "Now clean up and get out", leaving the young man hurt and confounded. (Ryder is excellent here - the emotion on his face is subtle but convincing - you feel used for him.)

In the second scene, which occurs at the end of the film and takes place within Heist's vision of the past, and between lovers Raif and Joe (played quite competently and movingly both in this episode and previous, by Arnaud Chagall and Ricky Roman, respectively - lesser actors in these roles would have altered the effectiveness of the films greatly), the romance is palpable, the mood quite different. Here, the occasional dirty talk is done lovingly, in stark contrast to the previous sex scene. This enormous contrast provides considerable food for thought, both about the porn world and about sexual human nature.

Self-portrait, Jake Jaxson, 2012.
I missed the creepiness factor in this episode. The storyline which provided it was gone when the mystery was blurted out early.  After that, we seemed to be taken in a direction in which we hadn't traveled before, which was never creepy and much less interesting. I wonder if a few minutes of ending - both to show the change evolution in the lead character and to revisit the poignancy of the love story shown in the earlier episodes - would have wrapped this all up more successfully.

The same high-quality production values that were present in the first two episodes of The Haunting are evident in this one: soft, gold-tinged lighting, alteration of focus to change mood, very competent acting from amateur performers, beautiful setting and music. In earlier episodes the beauty of the decor and the soothing nature of classical music made a stark contrast with the tension of the ghost story. Here, without much ghost story, these elements were simply a pretty setting.

I want to emphasize that which I said in my earlier article on The Haunting: watching this will amaze you. Early in the hours after the release of Part 3, Zachary Sire wrote in a review for the gay porn blog The Sword that "...Cockyboys' Haunting finale should make other gay porn studios very, very scared . . . no other studio is taking adult film to places . . . that it's never been before." Sire is right. Jaxson has dared to tread on untested ground: explicit, story-driven erotica and good quality filmmaking can be successfully combined, and he has proven it.
“Gay porn awards shows don’t give out awards for videography, editing, scores, and scripts, but if they did, this is where all the nominations would come from.” - See more at:

Watching this film is fascinating, thought-provoking, and hot. Considering the overall package - episodes 1-3 of The Haunting - Jaxson has established himself not only as an innovator in his industry, but as a storyteller and innovative filmmaker. As is true with any artist of unusual creative vision, or any filmmaker of talent, he can only get better and better, his vision can only stretch further and to new, even more unexpected limits. I can't wait to see what he does next: it's guaranteed to be no less than inspiring.


The three episodes will be available soon on DVD as a complete film. Check in coming months for details. 
no other studio is taking adult film to places like…well…places that it’s never been before. - See more at:"
CockyBoys’ Haunting Finale Should Make Other Gay Porn Studios Very, Very Scared - See more at:

See the official trailer for The Haunting.  The trailer for Part 3 alone is here.

The price of a trial membership at is well worth seeing these films for literary and film-making merit as well as for some beautiful men doing what they do best.

Visit Cockyboys and Jake Jaxson on Twitter at @cockyboys .
See Jake Jaxson's website at