Queerty’s SXSW correspondent Daniel Villarreal interviews Bear Nation director Malcolm Ingram to see how Ingram’s film could have been smarter than the average bear.
While I was still a closeted and very much self-loathing high school teenager, a close friend of mine came out. And when he came out “the closet burned down around him” (as I used to say). One day, he was Will. The next day he had a lisp, tighter clothes that must’ve constricted veins and vas deferens, and tons more sassafras. He started dancing at gay bars, marching at pride parades, dating a hot guy, and having lots of sex. And I hated him for it. Not only because I was jealous but because as my first gay role model, he embodied all the affect I’d spent my life trying to hide, and all the changes worried that I’d have to make as a gay man. Bear Nation, a documentary by Malcolm Ingram, shows I wasn’t alone in wanting to resist the identity of gay man as queenie twink, a circuit boy, or a gym bunny. There exist tons of gay guys out there who want to be themselves… and some of them are very large and hairy.
With interviews (with actual bears!) and first-person camera work, Bear Nation gets at the heart of bear subculture in gay society. For those of you new to the game, a “bear” is a large, hairy gay guy; a bearded, burly truck driver sort known for their “girth and mirth.” There are many types of bears: big bears, muscle bears, leather bears, and subtypes depending on age and size (such as silver bears, cubs, and otters). The film champions bears as an all-inclusive group of men who reject gay stereotypes and embrace their imperfect physiques rather than giving into shame.
Ingram made the film to celebrate the very subculture that helped him come out, get laid, and accept himself, but he also thinks that bear culture’s being taken over by guys who are more about the bodies than the worldview. “Look man,” Ingram says, “this whole gay thing is like high school, and the bears are the A/V geeks and the rest of the high school is filled with cheerleaders, jocks, and preps. People are pursuing masculinity via bears—so basically, the A/V club is becoming cool and the jocks have crashed it and are trying to take it over. The circuit queens are getting older and fatter and they’re bringing their negativity over from that world.”
Bear Nation‘s a welcome contribution to the gay cinema world, especially since it promotes self-acceptance in a culture that’s damaged with self-loathing and nonstop images of chiseled underwear models. But watching it, you get the sense that Ingram’s still finding his voice. The film has no narrative through line. While the quest for self-acceptance is great, there’s no greater stake or any single event that ties his film together.
Ingram admittedly doesn’t like documentaries where directors tell the audience what to think; he began making Bear Nation without doing very much research, preferring to discover bear culture alongside his audience. But as a result, he’s overlooked some very important avenues for a more thought-provoking film.
For example, he doesn’t go into bear pornography of the sort you’d find in Pinups and Butt magazine; a great way to discuss the co-opting and celebration of bearish men. Nor does he present any bears or color or get into health issues that these 300+ pound men face—how do bears of different races handle their attraction and what’s the line between self-acceptance and destruction? All important questions.
Granted, Ingram says the film’s still a work in progress and that he didn’t want to make a film that’s too tangential or wrapped up in a heavy-handed political message. As it stands, straight filmmaker Kevin Smith emerges as the freshest (and funniest) voice in the film discussing the myriad ways that his fat dorkiness have helped make him a young, counter-cultural indie director.
Talking with Ingram, it’s apparent that he, as a young director, has a lot of well-developed opinions on bear culture that would have served his audience well. If he shared them in the film. For one, he remembers the early 90s resurgence in gay film-making (with such directors as Gregg Araki, Bruce LaBruce, Gus Van Sant, and Todd Haynes). It seems to him that most gay films now are rom-coms that have really lost their queer voice or sense of direction.
But the need for distinctive queer voices is a part of the reason he admittedly like bear-loving indie mags like Butt. “I think they’re fucking amazing,” Ingram says. “I think it’s awesome that the alt-world is mixing into the mainstream and that it’s creating a newer, heavier gay culture. I think things are getting queerer and queerer and that’s great. Gay is so gay, you know?”
RATING: Two out of five hairy-backed beasts. While Ingram’s first feature Small Town Gay Bar had a tight, modest, and successful focus, this cut of Bear Nation istoo all over the map to be very insightful or sexy. Let’s hope the final cut awakens this grizzly out of hibernation.