In one of her podcasts, the handsome butch JJ places two dildos in front of the camera. One is playfully multi-colored, nearly disguising the fact that it is an artificial cock, and the other is black with an angry red head and strong veins on the shaft. While JJ can’t get her head around the one with a spectrum of crayon colors, she also cannot understand why black dildos seem to only come in size gigantic. “Short and wide” would work better.
The ground-breaking feature “Stud Life” by the UK filmmaker Campbell X takes place in a contemporary East London scene where fine-looking young queers are trying to sort out the place of love and sex in their lives. The film uses laugh-out-loud wit and stark emotional honesty to take a generous view of the complications of romantic commitment. The characters bring a burst of eye candy and empathy to the story. This is a film that gallops along, up and down the emotional spectrum, drawing you into the lives of wildly attractive, good-hearted friends.
I followed the making of this film on Facebook where the filmmaker Campbell X (photo at left), whom I have met several times in London and many times on FB, documented the demanding process of making an independent film by and about young queers. In an email interview, Campbell X told me, "The mainstreaming of queer movies means that we generally see images of lesbians who are feminine and white. Stud Life puts a dark-skinned masculine woman who is sexy and desirable at the centre of the frame – in a way in which people of all genders and sexualities can relate to her story."
JJ’s best friend and partner in her photography business is a white gay guy named Seb. When JJ meets the lovely Elle in a club and they get together, jealousy between Seb and Elle rules. Seb thinks Elle just isn’t right for JJ, but JJ questions his qualifications to judge considering that Seb is always trolling the internet for a spot of rough – that is, for anonymous sexual encounters with hyper-masculine types. Seb rejects the attentions of a doting long-haired drug-dealing college student.
The first time we see them in bed together, Elle is naked, but JJ is wearing boxers and a T-shirt. . JJ is a stone butch, which means that she does not like to be touched. She is unable to open herself up and let herself go enough to let another woman make love to her. Beautiful Elle asks her, “So I can never fuck you? Can I touch you here?” She lays her hand on JJ’s chest, which earlier JJ bound with an Ace bandage, squashing her breasts flat. “But I like licking labia,” the sensuous femme insists with a smile. “Can’t blame me for trying.” Contrary to the visual expectation, the femme takes a lot more sexual initiative than her butch.
Elle tempts JJ into increasingly kinky scenes, taking JJ’s hand and slapping her own face with it. JJ is taken aback, discombobulated, and we realize that in many ways she is an innocent. Her fierceness is mitigated by a kind of naiveté. Another time Elle creates a powerful scene of restraint that has the unexpected appeal of sexual power for JJ, and pushes Elle into tearful gratification.
Spoiler Alert! -- As handsome and full of swagger as JJ is, she is unprepared emotionally to learn that Elle makes her living as a professional Dominatrix. JJ tries to keep up with the variety and intensity of Elle’s desires, but she is unable to handle the news of her lover’s profession and leaves her – for awhile.
Later, in her podcast, JJ wonders why all women seem to want cock: “Either they want it in them or they want it on them.” She recognizes that, “It takes all kinds of sex to make a lesbian nation.” Campbell X explained her approach to Stud Life to me this way: “It would be so tempting to make a film that was mono-sexual – boys with boys, girls with girls – or mono-cultural. But my stories reflect London life, where it is possible for a white gay man to be bff with a stud. Where white LBGT people chat patois fluently though they have never stepped foot in Jamaica. Its mixed up and messy, but fun and sexy.”
So as we follow JJ’s work photographing queer weddings, we meet that rainbow of possibilities. A tall black cross-dressing bride, glamorously outfitted, towers over her new adoring older white husband. Her family refused to attend and he hasn’t heard from his grown children lately.
A lesbian couple who have been together for 25 years bring their lovers to their marriage ceremony. The femme kisses her girlfriend and the butch embraces her lover, a balding man who insists, “I’ve only been involved for about three months. I’m just along for the ride.” He turns out to be a transman. Seb is blown away. “Twenty five years,” he says, “It’s a different generation, innit? We just throw things out and get a new one.”
Not everything is rainbows and hormones. Real life, in the form of violent homophobic lads prowling the neighborhood, intervenes. The demands of earning an income need to come before romantic compromise. The filmmaker does not avoid facing the complexities of sex, the challenges of knowing our own needs and desires, or the dangers faced by butches on the street. Rather, she draws us into a reality that, as distant from our own lives as it might be, has the irresistible appeal of bold honesty and human truth. “Stud Life” is just what a film should be: funny, moving, full of wisdom, and gorgeous to watch.
The 29th annual Boston LGBT Film Festival will continue screening over 120 films at six venues in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge until May 12.