Lynn Shelton’s Humpday: On Men and Closeness

Humpday (Lynn Shelton, 2009) | Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is a film that reminds me of high school. This is probably in part due to the film’s more nostalgic properties—in 2009, when the film was first released, I was a fresh-faced freshman with no lexicon for queerness outside of “gay” or “lesbian” or “faggot.” But what has stuck with me most about this film, and indeed, that year, are the dudes who entered my life and disappeared just as quickly, then reappeared long after I’d abandoned the version of me they’d met.

Two indie staples stand at the center of the film: There’s pre-Zero Dark Thirty Mark Duplass with his buttery, boyish charm, and there’s post-Blair Witch Project Joshua Leonard, his erratic lost-in-the-woods energy still intact and sparking off in every direction. Their dynamic is classic and worn, but not unwelcome: Duplass, as Ben, plays the domesticated goofball on the verge of planned parenthood with his wife Anna. Leonard, as Andrew, is the wandering free-spirit with awkward tattoo placements and for whom boundaries are merely a light suggestion. The plot of the film is simple and familiar: two straight guys reconnect after an undisclosed period of time, settle back into their old fraternizing rhythms, and decide to make a gay porn film for a Seattle-based porn film festival for no reason other than they think they should.

Shelton’s camera in Humpday is a scalpel—it opens the flesh of male-on-male anxiety with such precision and nuance, it wasn’t until the credits unfolded that I took stock of my investment in the central duo’s game of gay chicken and realized how moved I was. How wholesome it seems in 2020—dare I say, borderline adorable to watch men squirm at the notion of physical intimacy with one another. Of course two straight white guys discover that their biggest fear looks like the other’s penis. Of course two straight white guys, for whom the names “Sean Cody” would conjure nothing but the memory of a long-forgotten fraternity brother, would believe fucking each other on camera constituted a form of punk expressionism—some dangerous, revolutionary act.

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If working towards an MFA for poetry has taught me anything, it’s this:

1) The work I write now will read like horseshit in morning,

and

2) It takes straight white guys three times as long to start hugging people at bar readings.

As a person generally uncomfortable with touch to begin with, this is not meant to be an indictment. Often, I wonder if my aversion to physicality not rooted in self-defense is the last remaining connection I have to a version of manhood. However, the number of fist bumps I’ve exchanged with straight guys in the program is alarming—often, I feel like I’m living in a simulation where every man is inexplicably Tony Hawk. It’s not that I expect the hug, or even want it. But in a room full of people who’ve traded in hand waves for this new form of social greeting, the fist bump can’t help but feel inadequate by comparison.

In Humpday, hugging is key and also something done in private. Ben and Andrew hug once when they’re reunited in Ben’s living room, away from Anna’s gaze. The hug is warm, drawn out, and a bit unnerving—it’s the kind of hug you give to someone when you’ve suddenly been reminded they exist. The second hug occurs in a hotel room booked as the setting for their proposed porn film. The hug is a silly exercise in male-on-male contact, intimate in the way collecting dog shit from the sidewalk with your hand is intimate. The two men hold each other tentatively, repulsed by the feeling of the other’s skin, eyes open. They do this to test their willingness to penetrate—the hug is simply a light toe in the water. If they can get through this, they’ll be able to submerge themselves completely. Except, once the hug has run its course, Ben and Andrew sheepishly put their clothes back on.

Humpday (Lynn Shelton, 2009) | Magnolia Pictures

Despite their aversion to hugging, touching isn’t not a love language they partake in. There’s a scene where Ben and Andrew play basketball in the middle of the road. At first, it’s competitive in the sense that a ball and two men are present. But Ben, who is taller, makes basket after basket, until Andrew, determined not to be humiliated so publicly, turns their game into a wrestling match for the whole neighborhood to witness. The spectacle is perhaps more mortifying to watch than two grown men playing a game of pick-up with a hoop designed for children. They roll on the ground, shirts riding up, unaware that they are blocking street traffic. Finally, a car honks and it’s game over, this new intimacy gone as quickly as it arrived.

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Humpday is special in that it plainly remarks upon how many straight-identified men have experienced moments of queerness—or desire that reads in hindsight as queer. The film affords its male characters with the space to discuss those desires openly, without fear of judgement. What’s more is that Humpday understands that queerness isn’t inherently physical—it can bloom in the realm of what goes unsaid between two people. Queerness can be a shared glance, or in Ben’s case, a swell of emotion that turns into mortifying thought: what if this person thinks I’m strange? This is to say: In Humpday, there’s no buried homosexual trauma that eats away at the core of man until he acts violently to avoid probing any further. There’s no wide-eyed panic or perceived threat that unhinges a character to the point of self-flagellation. There’s just tender consideration of memory and a quiet reckoning with the past self, the one who didn’t want to know, or explore, the feeling that drew him briefly away from heterosexual desire. 

My favorite scene in the movie is when Ben admits to Andrew that once, as a young man, he was enraptured by another male who worked at the local DVD store, and that their constant exposure to one another inspired feelings Ben couldn’t language. There’s a sadness here—these feelings drove Ben away from the store entirely because he couldn’t handle them, and was given no resource to explore them in a deeper sense. His admission is raw, powerful in its openness, and riddled with shame that anchors him to the porn project not simply as a joke, but as an exploration, a test to see if this one fleeting moment has any room left in his currently wedded life. It’s not a coming-out story, but it’s close to one: a pulse-check to see if he, after all is said and done, can remain inside the life he’s built.

But what strikes me most about this casual retelling is the ease with which he relays this story to Andrew, who reckoned with queerness the night prior and arrived discomforted by his own self-consciousness. Andrew, who engaged in a botched threesome with two lesbians and subsequently fled the scene once a dildo was brought into the equation, reveals a different kind of shame entirely, stemming from a place of deeply felt uselessness. In a room with a fake penis and his own, the fake penis triumphed, delivered a satisfaction his own could not perform. Ultimately, Ben and Andrew’s admission to one another prescribes emotional comfort as a thing straight men can derive only from other straight men who share a fear of the multitudes they contain. The porn project they circle reveals insecurity, doubt, laughter, disappointment, frustration, and above all, a kind of release.

“I wish I was a little gayer,” Ben remarks at one point, shirtless yet again in the hotel room he booked for the action. As a viewer, I can’t help but agree. But the point is that they can’t do it. The point is that they paralyze themselves by thinking too hard about what fucking each other might mean for them. Is it worse if they feel nothing after? Is the project a failure if they aren’t changed in some radical way? The fear then, is not of the penis, but the uncertainty of what comes after it.

Listen. While I certainly don’t miss being read as a man, I do miss the ease with which I could enter a conversation with one. Being read as a man by other men meant I was privy to “guy talk,” that I could participate in it. Not only that, I could use its shroud to cover over the political implications of speech and its consequences, its privileges. I could say anything I wanted in the circle of men, severing the cord connecting the brain from the tongue. I could say I belonged there, and that I welcomed the kinship, the physicality of straight male communication. I could take the back-slaps, the punches. I could say this is a kind of love.

 But even now, I might be misremembering who I was back then, among my men.

Even before I had a name for my transness, I was definitively queer. There was no question, no DVD store to flee from. So maybe what I miss is not the memory of ease, but the possibility of it. The raw sight of it, from a distance. The Ben and Andrew-ness of a comradery not based in fear or shame, but in the unburdened joy of straight male bonding devoid of any political considerations. I want so badly to be the golden retriever wagging its tail at the door upon hearing the bell, grinning for the sight of literally anyone. I’m profoundly embarrassed by my want to talk openly with a man and not feel unnerved by the sound of my own voice contrasting with his.

*

On a walk back to the train from campus, a straight guy friend in the MFA tells me: “What I like about Joe Rogan is that he just lets his guests say the craziest shit. It’s funny to hear Alex Jones just rage about nothing!”

Forgive me—I spend hours online trying to prove him right, to prove I have an open mind to this sort of thing, this puff-chested content that straight men consume ravenously like I do estradiol. I partake in the act of watching Joe Rogan in the hopes of another conversation. I search to find the same thread of humor, or at the very least, locate a part of me that wants to see more. But what I finally walk away with, after five episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience, is a mounting dread. I watch Rogan discuss transgender people with the same kind of skepticism that allows our murders to go unquestioned and unpunished, our bodies to be legislated, rejected, and scrutinized. I watch his eyebrow lift suspiciously at the suggestion that not all children need assistance when they determine who they are. I watch Rogan expecting to understand the humor, for the joke to reveal itself. What is revealed instead is the notion that Rogan has no transgender friends, and sees no reason to change this. What is revealed is the limit of my humor, which is the only thing I feel good about as I shut my laptop closed.

I wonder what Rogan would make of Humpday. Would he see the ending as inevitable, knowing already that Ben and Andrew would never go through with fucking each other? Is it that predictable? Or would he scoff at the project from the jump—argue that no straight man would ever put themselves in a scenario involving another exposed penis, even for the sake of art? That no man with any commitment to heterosexuality should feel, or at least admit, to the queer-tinged memory Ben shares inches away from his best friend? I have no answer, but I’m admittedly curious. I hold the concept of “guy talk” as a contradiction: I want to partake because I want to feel closer to the men in my life, but I can’t help how gross it makes me feel when I listen in from afar.

Still, it’s hard for me not to look away from the dialogues of men. They are at once alien to me and make me feel alien for not being able to tap into them. Forgive me again: there’s a part of me that longs to take the shiny orb of Rogan’s head in my hands and examine it the way monkeys examine human hair for insects. Like an extraterrestrial, I want to probe deep into his brain circuitry and fiddle around for a bit. Already, I’ve wasted hours sifting through his prolific archive, scanning for data to bring back to my woman planet for study. That four-hour interview with a booming, bipedal red-faced fuse box known as Alex Jones—I want so desperately to make sense of it, to know what laughter can be gleaned from it. I imagine Ben and Andrew hunched over their screens. My gut tells me they’d find the thing that eludes me, probably share in the same laughter I can’t seem to locate. They’d know what it’s like to function as a vessel for the kind of brain power that conjures such questions as “would I rather be murdered by a tiger or a gorilla?”

But mostly, I reopen my laptop and drag the YouTube clip as wide as it will go because part of me—the most rotted part—is jealous. The way men speak to each other—it’s like there’s no other species on earth. Rogan’s brand of masculinity is intriguing precisely because, as a woman whom Rogan could probably never wrap his head around, I recognize the masculine parts of me I abandoned—or rather, transformed—so that I could be regarded as the opposite. In this field, I would call myself a raging success. I stare at my screen, at all these men talking—yelling— and feel a kind of anthropologic itch to understand what I’m witnessing: a comfortable proximity to men at their most relaxed, where every word is taken at face value and absorbed as quickly as cocaine breaks down in the body—where nothing is lingered on for too long to consider any stakes. Still, even after all this looking, I must admit: I can’t find myself there at all. The more I watch, the more my investment feels like a form of self-erasure.

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Humpday (Lynn Shelton, 2009) | Magnolia Pictures

The Humpday men may be the stars of the show, but my favorite character is actually Ben’s wife, Anna, played by Alycia Delmore. Maybe this is because I relate to her attempts at connecting with Andrew, even after he steamrolls into her life and promptly shuts her out. To Ben and Andrew, Anna serves as a roadblock to their newborn passion project—she wants a baby with Ben, and Ben wants to fuck Andrew on camera so that he can prove he has an open mind. But how does one begin to explain this to their wife? How does a straight man articulate his need to enter another man for the sake of security to the woman he is trying to impregnate? The answer is: he doesn’t. He lies to save face.

Ultimately, what Ben and Andrew get wrong about Anna’s anger is its target. She isn’t angry that her husband wants to explore himself sexually. She’s angry that he can’t even be honest about it—not just with her, but with himself. She sees what he can’t, that his cowardice about telling her ultimately defeats the entire purpose of the project. Who’s to say he can even explain it to himself? What’s the fucking point if he can’t? But perhaps what hurts most about Ben’s lie is his unwillingness to imagine a version of Anna that is as complex as he is, a version of her that might also have desires that aren’t rooted in him. I’ll admit—even writing this feels, at times, in service to the re-centering of men who act small, meek, or embarrassed as a means to ignore the rooms they’ve swallowed with their presence—the furniture, the air, the women squeezed into them. But Anna admits to having kissed another woman before, and in an instant, her life extends beyond Ben’s reach. This admission jolts him—he can’t fathom a world in which he, her husband, is not the sole object of her desire. As such, the failings of his goal are brought into the light—Anna has already fulfilled her desire to peek into the door of queerness, while he has just barely reached for the knob. In this sense, it is Anna, not Ben, that proves she is more than just bland heterosexuality. She is what he fears—the one person who knows he doesn’t have the guts to go through with his mission. Yet, in a way, she is what he aspires to become. 

I relate to Anna because I too try so damn hard to make a good impression on men that fear what my perceptions of them might be. Yes, I have tried to accommodate the discomfort of men by laughing too loudly, or shrinking myself to make room for their egos or insecurities. I have tried to prove time and time again that I am not shrill, that I can be down, that I can take a joke. Why is that? My attempts have always been fruitless. 

Often, my efforts to prove I’m cool to hang with are often thwarted by my presumed moral standing. As a trans woman of Mexican descent, I’m repeatedly positioned as curiously powerful by the men in my life, even as power to define myself in their company has been taken from me in this exchange. I’m thought to possess the ability to blacklist or “cancel” on the basis of my experience as a marginal body, a space commonly assumed by my straight guy friends to be at the top of the current literary food pyramid. I wonder if they see themselves at the bottom there, looking up. And like Ben, I wonder if they presume I’ll squash them with anger if I learned this was the case.

Perhaps this is the wedge that prevents me from full-bodied comradery with men—the sense that I’m always searching for a way out of the conversation, that I never wanted to be there in the first place, even as I put myself there. But I’ve known the bottom intimately, have watched my high horse drown in the mud. All this to say: sometimes, like Anna, I want to shake the shoulders of the men I care for, the men in my life who hinge their doors while mine stays open. I want to show them how often I’ve stumbled into words I can’t take back, or memories that throw me into questions I have no answers for. If Humpday has taught me anything, it’s that my own desire for openness is not a flaw, and that my silly want for further connection has only served to spotlight the insecure parts of me that were already present. I’ve invested my time in them, hoping for some new clarity on the self as a subject. And like Ben and Andrew, I too have buckled under the weight of my limits and walked away as stubborn and flawed as I’ve ever been.