THE LARAMIE PROJECT
Director: Moises Kaufman
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Mark Webber
Available on DVD - order here
After Matthew Shepard’s murder, lines were clearly drawn and though the group spewing the indignant gay pride rhetoric assumed they were doing the right thing, Shepard was in fact violated by both sides equally, as they each snatched up the circumstances of his life and murder, made him either a martyr or a demon respectively, and distorted the facts of his life and death as they pleased to add grist to their own mills.
Shepard was the victim of a cruel and horrific crime, but he was not a gay Jesus, just a person living in a rough part of the country who lucked out big time after getting involved with a couple of dangerous guys. In life, Matthew Shepard was not a walking vessel of gay rights, and he certainly wasn’t a poster boy for small town America.
The response to Shepard’s murder was nauseatingly pat and has been unrelentingly so ever since. The gay response in particular was to jettison thought and complexity in favour of quasi-religious blind devotion to a new Jesus, behaviour aptly described by Camille Paglia as “a simplistic melodrama of virtue versus villainy … (pumping) the public discourse full of intelligence-insulting schmaltz” (source).
Unfortunately, this Sunday School approach infects The Laramie Project, a docudrama about Shepard’s shell-shocked home town, which, despite some powerful moments and an earnest heart, is intellectually, emotionally and cinematically one dimensional.
The film begins with stirring music that plays over dissolving shots of long highways and a quiet little town going about it’s business. Laura Linney, the first of an endless line of famous faces, appears as a yokel. Like the whole ensemble, she delivers her lines straight down the barrel of the camera lens, looking right at you and saying “Nobody duh-suhvs thayt, I don’t care who-oo y’ar”. Camryn Manheim’s up next, playing a school teacher, followed soon by Steve Buscemi, who appears to be some kind of mechanic, or maybe he’s a farmer fixing his own tractor.
Excessively schmicko camera work offers perfectly composed shots of breathtaking Rockies scenery, or indoor “interview” scenes which place performers front and centre in warm and comforting studies and kitchens. With the volume turned down, the film could be a recruitment video for a religious cult, or a series of TV commercials for Nescafe.
With the volume turned up, we’re reminded that real people don’t talk like actors. They don’t hit their marks in sentences, they don’t pause for effect in the right places, they don’t furnish their speech with appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures. The well-trained actors of The Laramie Project are talented and capable, but their professional diction prevents them from believability as the population of a Wyoming town. Actually, the film is more like a documentary about the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, held for security reasons in a remote rural town, with everyone in a strangely downcast and reflective mood - like as if James Woods or someone has unexpectedly died five minutes before the camera crew arrived.
Scenes are short, are placed back to back with little use of fading or transition devices, and jump from one of the too-many characters to another with no entry or leave time. So, we know who the sympathetic characters are, and who the villains are, straight away, from the second they open their mouths, which is usually the same second they appear on the screen. It’s a little like flipping through a picture book, and instead of feeling realistic and earthy - which it should, given it’s docudrama, scripted with the very words of the locals - is disjointed, fake and plastic. Ten minutes in, you’re craving real documentary that features real Laramie locals, ones that don’t look like Christina Ricci, and the end of the incessant string score that speeds the whole boring thing along.
Bad acting is unfortunately common - highlighting the false confidence and rushed feel of the whole production. Eyebrows furrow to show interest, hands go to lips to show shock and sorrow, heads shake slowly to show dismay, and those playing the irritatingly quirky posse of New York film makers chuckle respectfully in unison when Laramites relate quaint local attitudes.
A sterling film - a hybrid of Boys Don’t Cry, Deliverance, and Ode to Billy Joe - lies somewhere in the story of Matthew Shepard, but that film is yet to be made.