There’s a collective fluster among the crowd, who are seated in a theater in Chelsea, waiting for the world premiere of Bridegroom at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The screening is running almost thirty minutes late and nothing is happening. George Takei, who is probably the most famous gay geek on the planet keeps coming in and out of our row and apologizing immensely each time. In typical NY fashion we’re all complaining to the ushers and Tribeca Film Festival volunteers. What’s going on?! No one has answers. We all have places to be. Whether it’s catching the right train home or making it on time to another screening that happens to be on the opposite side of Manhattan. We’re restless and already trepidatious about watching a doc chronicling a very real and tragic love story. Emotions are ubiquitous, until someone informs us that we’re waiting on the arrival of a “very special guest.”
A few minutes later the very special guest shows up and it happens to be former President Bill Clinton! He looks amazing. Almost otherworldly, as if he was projected from a high-definition TV. He’s slim with a full head of hair and is vibrant as ever. All is forgiven in the theater, as we all give him a welcoming standing ovation. We all would have (patiently) waited another hour if we only knew we were going to be serenaded by one of the most charismatic presidential orators of our time.
Once the crowd calmed down he started to introduce the film. “This is really, on one level, a wonderful, sad, heartbreaking yet exhilarating and life affirming story, and on another level it’s a story about our nation’s struggle to make one more step in forming a more perfect union, for which marriage is both the symbol and substance,” Clinton told the crowd.
The audience seemed to be hanging on his every word. “America needs to see the consequences of a world in which gay people who love each other are accepted, and one in which they are not accepted, both in the same movie,” Clinton says. All too often, we only see the two narratives separately. In the media, the conservatives are projecting one view and the liberals are projecting its opposite. While Bridegroom illustrates the interior world of a couple who are loved unconditionally by friends and family, it also shows how much control the exterior world has on something so personal and interior like love. The external world can shatter the interior world of a same-sex couple. How can the government prevent someone from visiting a loved one in a hospital? In what world does that make any sense? Bridegroom doesn’t have the answers but it does ask these fundamental questions. The film puts faces to this (unnecessary) political struggle. It personalizes the strife felt by many gays and lesbians living in the United States. Just last month a man in Missouri was arrested after refusing to leave a bedridden partner in a hospital. These are very real situations happening to very real people.
“I hope you enjoy it as much as I did,” President Clinton said before stepping down from the stage while the theater lights start to fade out. The film opens up with title cards asking the audience, “As a heterosexual man, if you were told who you loved was wrong and you must be with men, how would you feel?” This documentary is not wasting any time and jumping right to the point.
The film is very similar to the video Shane Bitney Crone uploaded to YouTube titled “It Could Happen to You” just a year ago. A video which went viral and has garnered more than 3.7 million views. It has almost 30,000 comments full of support and empathy. Comments are still being written to this day. In the video Shane tells his story. In ten short minutes he introduces us to his partner Tom Bridegroom and shows us pictures and videos of them in love. They were dating for almost six years, owned a home, dog and company together. They were living the American dream until one day a tragic accident happened and Tom passed away. This is where the American dream becomes an American nightmare. He was denied access to his lover in his hospital room because there was no government-approved connection between them. To top it all off, Tom comes from a conservative family which banned Shane from attending his partner’s funeral. We learn all of this in ten minutes time.
With the momentum of the viral YouTube video still growing strong and all of the support he received on various social media outlets, Shane decided he wanted to make a documentary. Emmy-nominated Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, best known for creating the CBS sitcom Designing Women was on board to direct. She met the couple a few years prior at a wedding in Los Angeles. They used KickStarter, a crowd-funding site to help finance the film and raised close to $400,000. It actually was the most funded project in the history of KickStarter (until the Veronica Mars movie broke that record just last month). Together, Shane and Thomason sifted through hours of film and audio and hundreds of photographs to tell this “American love story.” Interspersed with this footage were interviews with Shane’s family and the friends they shared. There was certainly a void felt in the film and that was caused by Tom’s family who declined to participate in the film. But despite their absence, Shane spoke highly of Tom’s family. He even mentioned a time when Tom’s mother Martha came to visit them in Los Angeles and what a good time they all had. There were even photographs from said trip with all three of them smiling from ear to ear to prove it. According to Shane, Martha enjoyed herself and seemed to accept them as a couple. This is why it was so devastating when Martha seemed to have a change of heart once her son had passed.
Though, the film was very sad at times, it wasn’t all tears and heartbreak. There were moments of sheer comedy. Whether it was Tom making a fool of himself dancing awkwardly in the living room or whenever Shane’s 90-year-old great-grandmother was on screen being interviewed with her dog Snoopy on her lap. She shared those scenes with Shane’s grandmother who refused to take off her sunglasses. During one interview his great-grandmother had this to say:
“So, they are Romeo and Romeo. So what? Get over it.”
The entire audience roared in laughter. It was moments like this that made the film so poignant. Thomason’s use of Shane and Tom’s footage was remarkable. We got to know them so well. Thanks to Shane’s incessant need to record and document his life in any which way he could, there was a lot of material. From an early age, Shane was a documentarian. He was from a small town in Montana and struggled with his identity. He was bullied in high school for penning a love letter to his best friend. He watched Philadelphia at a young age and it scarred him. He grew up battling anxiety and depression, even contemplating ending his own life at times. It seemed he turned towards his camera for support. While filming himself in Montana, he used to call them video diaries.
Tom was from a small town in Indiana. He went to West Point and then studied at Vassar. He was even friends with Anne Hathaway. He lived a very charmed life, which was very different than Shane’s. He didn’t seem to struggle as much as Shane. Since Tom was a gifted musician and desired to be an actor, he too spent a lot of time filming himself.
Since both Shane and Tom were documentarians at heart, there was more than enough footage from the archives of their lives to tell an intriguing and thoughtful story. Along with the photographs, video diaries, YouTube channels, audio, webcams and interviews, the documentary also featured original music from a lot of their friends (even Tom is seen performing a song). Bridegroom is a deeply personal, intimate and confessional film. At times embarrassingly so. It’s sentimental and a bit heavy-handed and can be over the top at times. It relentlessly stirs up your emotions with long-winded montages, which are carried by such a melodramatic score, you begin to feel bad for thinking the film is cringeworthy. But the subjects are so endearing you completeley forgive the film for its flaws.
The on-screen text messaging and “look” of the film was a bit amateurish as well. Though, this is Thomason’s first documentary you wouldn’t expect a seasoned director like her would overlook something like production value. The film looked cheap; It almost felt like an educational video you would watch in your high school science class. The budget was not the issue. 400K is a lot of money. Films like Jonathan Caouette‘s Tarnation and Walk Away Renée had modest budgets (the former reportedly cost only $218.32). Caouette’s films are on par with Bridegroom because they were both documentaries that used both archival and “new” footage to tell a story and they looked well made. Where was the money spent?
Then there’s the question of autonomy and exploitation. Did Tom want this story told? Did Tom want his musical recordings shared with strangers? I believe that Shane knew Tom better than anyone else and wouldn’t have embarked on this venture if he didn’t think Tom would have approved. They were always on camera together. They were always documenting. They traveled the world and made travel videos. They owned their own company and website promoting themselves and their endeavors. But some viewers (perhaps Tom’s family?) may watch this film and feel as if Shane took the story and ran. There’s a question of authenticity too. In the film, there is footage that seems superficial and provoked. But even the YouTube videos that Shane shared after the death of Tom were self-aware. How genuine are those tears when you know there is a camera filming your every move? But all of this doesn’t really matter. The flaws are irrelevant when the story is as important as marriage equality. Staged or not, it’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that deserves to be told and shared.
May 7, 2011 was the day that Tom passed away. “That was the first day we met,” my boyfriend James whispered into my ear during the movie. I’m not suggesting our relationship mirrors Shane and Tom’s (after watching this film can any love ever compare to theirs?). But seeing that date branded in a title card during such a pivotal, devastating moment in the film, we couldn’t help but notice the ironic significance. A love like theirs is reborn every few seconds. Gay love. Queer love. Straight love. It just so happened, that our love began just as theirs changed dramatically. If just one person watches this film and changes their mind about their idea of love, then all of the film’s flaws and missteps become inconsequential. If this film can persuade one person to see these two men as two human beings in love rather than two gay men in love, it has achieved its ultimate goal. Since the film won the Heineken Documentary Audience Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival it seems it has already exceeded its goal and will continue to change people’s minds about love and equality. Tap. Tap. Tap.
4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS