In Their Room London
Dir: Travis Mathews
Cert:18 • US: 32 min • Ghost Crab Films • April 13 2013
The latest episode of Travis Mathews’ series of short films, In Their Room London, was shot in the spring of 2012 and was given its world premiere at this year’s Fringe! Film Festival. As in the Berlin and San Francisco episodes, Mathews uses his fly-on-the-wall, verité style to show gay men in their private spaces at private moments. They eat and wash and groom and wank (not necessarily in that order) and talk about aspects of their sexuality, from what they like in bed to their dreams and desires regarding relationships. In this, and all his work, Mathews manages to create an air of intimacy that is never intrusive, because we have been invited.
In Their Room London also introduces a distinct element of narrative into the ongoing project, albeit slight and loosely constructed. The film and its subjects explore the theme of hook-ups, using websites and phone apps, and talk about what that experience is like for them – what they want out of it, what can happen in reality, and how that reality often differs from, or occasionally meets, their desires. The film also invites the viewer to consider their own attitudes and feelings towards their desires when new technologies not only facilitate but also create those desires, and what sex might mean right now for individuals within communities increasingly fragmented, depoliticized, and commodified.
One of the film’s subjects, the painter Ryan, draws the parallel between sex and shopping which is so apparent in this context; you are ‘looking at the merchandise’ as he puts it and click on the thing you want. Like a lot of online shopping what you see isn’t always what you get (some people put up false pictures, according to Shane), and like a lot of modern technologies, these apps and websites give the sensation of widening options while at the same time narrowing your choices. Don’t they reduce the elements of chance and surprise in meeting people to something akin to Amazon’s ‘if you liked that you’ll love this…’?
At the same time, perhaps the casual encounter is less physically and emotionally risky if you use these means by which to hook-up. Of course, you can have a few people on the go at any one time, auditioning them if you like for a cameo in your sexual history, a bit part in your life story. Ryan finds it difficult to separate sex from emotion, but not always, though, as some of the other subjects say, you can have emotion in casual hook ups, and sometimes it’s easier to do that than in relationships. As one of them, Ben, says, even when the sex is disposable you can still feel a connection with the hook-up, but he does wonder how this intimacy is sustained afterwards.
There’s a nice variety in the film’s subjects, from young Dalstonistas and Deptfordites to Jeannie Dee – who’s ‘really’ John and in his/her seventies – to Shane, who’s not as ghetto as he looks. They’re all thoughtful, thought-provoking and funny at times and while we might laugh occasionally at what they say it’s never with judgment of malice; Mathews manages to create that sense of empathy and attachment that his subjects talk about experiencing when having sex with someone they’ve only just met. For the thirty minutes or so of the movie we hook-up with these guys and the film seems to confirm the potential for instant connection. Special mention should also be made of Santiago Latorre’s ethereal music that provides the film’s delicate soundtrack. His saxophone is a murmuring voice, sometimes a fragile whisper, and offers the perfect accompaniment to the vulnerabilities expressed by the film’s subjects.
These different men all also want slightly different things from these websites and apps, offering different versions or facets of themselves. There isn’t one experience of these encounters and, for people like Jeannie Dee, they may well provide a sexual outlet otherwise very difficult to access. “Bring your wishes,” Pietro tells one of his hook-ups, “because it’s all about finding a way for your wishes to get out there in the universe.” The “anonymous emotional support” that Max gets and gives from hook-ups is becoming more and more the norm the days, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was an illusion, or, if not an illusion, the emotional equivalent of junk food – instantly gratifying but not nourishing – but that’s me, not them. Like the film itself the best we can offer is a speculation, a proposition, about such things, rather than easy resolutions.