This over-the-top throwback to exploitation and queer films from the 60s and 70s revels in its tastelessness, delivering an edgy yet affectionate ode to its fruity forebears.
The last few decades have seen a significant change in the way GLBTQ people are perceived by the general public. In the space of a single decade (2004 – 2014), the United States went from same-sex marriage bans in certain states to countrywide legality of same-sex marriage. We have seen a huge surge in trans*-visibility, and greater understanding of the intersectionality of race, class, gender and sexuality.
As such, the camp outrageousness of the works of Russ Meyer and John Waters have largely fallen by the wayside; rather than queer cinema being treated as outsider art, there’s been a mainstreaming of queer stories, as evidenced by more nuanced, critically acclaimed features like Moonlight and Tangerine.
These developments in GLBTQ rights and representations in media make Josh “Sinbad” Collins’ Fags in the Fast Lane stand out all the more. The film is an obvious homage to those campy and crass midnight movie classics Waters and Meyer were known for – in fact, the film features Russ Meyer muse Kitten Natividad in a “super-starring” role as a Mae West-like GILF house maven. While there are some missteps in updating the outrageousness of 70s camp to the modern day, Fags in the Fast Lane still manages to deliver a gay old time.
The extremely loose plot follows the adventures of a rag-tag group of queers: the mutton-chopped leader Beauregard Cockslinger (Chris Asimos), perpetually horny and dapper Lump (Matt Jones), transgender femme fatale Salome (Sasha Cuha), eunuch assassin Hijra (Arish A. Khan), and kidnapped homophobe turned homosexual Squirt (Oliver Bell). The group chases after a group of thieves who stole a mythical “golden cock,” which grants the beholder with power and wealth – in Kitten’s words, it “brings luck to the fuck.” What follows is an extremely episodic adventure, with the group encountering myriad friends and foes as they chase after the golden cock.
Visually, the film is fantastic, making the use of its low budget to make something that feels truly underground and appealing. The colors and costumes are dazzling, eye-popping and extremely stylized; it’s a great showcase for the bright, bold aesthetic sensibilities of drag and camp. Especially exquisite is the use of stop animation and obvious miniatures for establishing shots – there’s a homespun feel that aids in Fags’ hearkening of an earlier era of outsider cinema. It’s refreshing to see this type of artifice in a film in a time where the uncanny valley of CGI reigns supreme.
However, the nonsensical plot isn’t always as charming or engaging as one would hope. Specifically, the film’s attempts at humor or sexuality can feel a little forced – sometimes, the gags really work, like an inspired bit involving a fake butt sticking out of a trash can with a bloody baseball bat jammed halfway in. There are extended sex scenes, played out with dry-humping PG theatricality that aids in the camp factor. However, as Susan Sontag said of intentionally campy films in Notes on Camp: “it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody in Camp.” While there are enjoyably campy moments in Fags in the Fast Lane, there’s a desperation inherent to its edgy gags that takes you out of it more often than not.
While Waters and Meyers’ films were perfectly transgressive in their time, it’d be difficult for gags like Divine eating shit in Pink Flamingos or, well, anything in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to fly in a film made today – that throws a bit of a wrench in FitFL’s ambitions. The film is squarely putting itself in an anti-PC space, and this will more than likely divide many viewers over whether they find it refreshing or problematic. For example, the Indians in the film are filtered through some pernicious stereotypes, with exaggerated accents and sitar music in the background; and yet, most of the Indian action is performed by notorious Canadian musician King Khan, who’s known for onstage antics like urinating on his audience – his predilection for relishing in filth, filth, filth certainly fits the brief for the character.
Also, one point, the character of Salome is reborn into a character named “Shemali”; in the US, that word is highly charged as a transphobic pejorative, as evidenced by the debate of RuPaul’s use of the word “shemale” on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m sure cultural attitudes about these stereotypes vary between Australia (where this film was made) and America regarding some of these issues, but it’s tough to reconcile the two when glimpsed from an American viewpoint.
It’s tempting to dismiss these criticisms as overly sensitive PC scolding; this is, after all, a film intended to provoke in the same spirit as its forebears. But it also raises the question of the extent to which queerness intersects with transness and race, and how that affects potentially offensive jokes. One wonders: is the intent of the joke to make fun of the insensitivity of exploitation movies, or of Indians and transgender people? This is always the potential downfall of satire, especially in an homage/parody – what exactly is being satirized? Waters and Meyer were able to toe that line wonderfully; Collins’ ode to their works occasionally feels a little superficial.
Still, at its core, Fags in the Fast Lane is an intentionally anachronistic queersploitation homage full of boobs and abs and stop-motion alligators with dicks on their heads, and in that respect it’s a good deal of fun. It feels tailor-made for midnight crowds in small, queer-friendly underground theaters, where the energy of the audience matters more than the jokes thrown on screen. While some of the gags might get lost in translation, there’s an affection for its influences that helps bolster its sense of breezy fun.