“Guys Reading Poems”

A Visual Feast

Amos Lassen

Hunter Lee Hughes’ “Guys Reading Poems” resembles a silent film with its use of visual storytelling without dialogue. Throughout the film, the characters speak only a handful of words to one another and the poems interspersed throughout function much like songs in a musical film, occasionally moving the story along but more often establishing mood and tone. “Guys Reading Poems” is an experimental art film that was shot in black and white with limited dialogue. The characters are unnamed and are referred to by their roles in the film.

Patricia Velasquez is the Mother, and Alexander Dreymon is the Father. When the Father has to leave Los Angeles for a project in New York, he leaves their child with the Mother, who finds herself unable to cope with the burdens of parenting. Luke Judy plays their son. The film is structurally non-linear and poetry is used to connect the scenes. We get the feeling that the director is trying out new things and thus requires some patience from the audience. What seems random at first will eventually be explained; the elements are here but require time to cohere.

At first it seems that there is no story at all but with patience all comes together. But until that point, the film has wonderful visual style that relates a great deal without the characters speaking much at all. Every moment in the film looks is visually gorgeous,

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him, In order to deal with this, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  In effect, we get a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout — fear and grief, anger and sorrow — is seen through the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals. There is a lot of emotional content and we soon realize that “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy, which means that it is also neither. It is one the line between realism and artistic conceit but that is not a negative statement.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual. He have a prologue that shows the courtship of father and mother and the rift that develops between them later — as well as the conflict it creates in their child.

Director Hughes has taken tremendous risks and achieves tremendous rewards from them. Some 32 works make up most of the spoken poems in the film. These poems become a comfortable presence and give voice to the soul of the story. It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization has such an authentic emotional connection thus allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like petals on a flower.

The poems includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and West Hollywood poet laureate (and my friend) Steven Reigns, among many others but it is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah. The film “revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply embedded memory.”  The actors must communicate complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably. At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars. Since the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles. Their soulful delivery provides the heart of the film and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes. Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience and each of them are gorgeous examples of the male aesthetic.

The emphasis on maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), suggests a gay subtext. This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency are relevant themes within the LGBT community, and all are intricately woven into every second of the film although not overtly yet vivid nonetheless. This is what makes the film an addition to the canon of queer cinema.

By channeling the pain of the damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, Hughes has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile psychic scars within their own life and a movie that illuminates the path to transcendence. “Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such will mot be a box office hit. It is a much-appreciated effort and should be seen. It is one of the most beautiful movies that we shall see all year.  It is not our regular gay indie film with an overt, LGBTQ-themed plot line. We are presented with life’s most perplexing questions – “what is love, is there any real meaning for humanity, can art transcend its ethical boundaries – under the guise of a performative reality that is as mind-bending as the film’s literary puzzle.”

We see how much the caregivers in our lives can aid or hinder our growth and how our childhood scars carry on with us well into adulthood. The film gives us the ability to grasp the many facets of imagination in the context of the human psyche and leaves the viewer with the question of when art stops and brutality begins. It is at this point that the director reminds us that his film is a fascinating puzzle that is meant to be and cherished, rather than understood.

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