Two penniless former lovers who have decided to shack up again in post-Katrina New Orleans are vividly portrayed in “They Glow in the Dark,” a low-key documentary debut from Greek scribe-helmer Panayotis Evangelidis after two medium-length gay-interest titles (“Chip & Ovi,” “The Life and Death of Celso Junior”). Though technically mediocre, with smudgy digivid lensing and so-so stereo sound, the pic gradually, impressively reveals the complexity and depth of experience of its two HIV-positive male protags. This Fipresci prizewinner should shine bright at festivals and in ancillary.
Somewhat muddled in the early going, the film takes some time to establish that Michael Sterling and Jim Baysinger — who met in the 1970s in San Francisco and briefly were lovers before becoming friends — lost touch with each other ages ago and only reconnected recently, when they decided to move in together in New Orleans, where Sterling used to turn tricks as a youngster. They returned not long after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and almost miraculously managed to scrape by, selling homemade Cajun-themed dolls at the French Market.
For much of June 2010, the helmer-lenser follows the two housemates around with his agile camera and simply lets them do most of the talking, with Evangelidis occasionally asking a question offscreen. Though Baysinger and Sterling share a house and a history, the director and editor Araseli Lemou arrange their onscreen interviews, as well as glimpses of the men’s daily activities, in a way that cuts against expectations. What emerges is less a straightforward depiction of the deep bonds of friendship, or a demonstration of the residual affection between two former lovers, than a look at two middle-aged, HIV-positive men whose decision to confront the future together and support each other when needed is an extremely pragmatic one, and who are otherwise keen on living their own lives.
Baysinger and Sterling might not eat dinner together because, as the official excuse goes, they don’t have a dinner table. But as the subtle, cumulative force of the material starts to kick in, one gets the sense they wouldn’t want to stare at each silently while emptying their plates anyway. When Baysinger says they’re lovers “in just about every way but not exactly,” it’s followed by the admission that, “it’s not as desperate as it sounds, but just about everyone we know is dead” — a sobering admission that immediately puts their clearly co-dependent relationship in perspective.
Sterling is less philosophical; he’s also less healthy physically, suffering from frequent muscle spasms. When taking a bath (neither subject has a problem with oncamera nudity), he proudly shows his bubble butt before explaining he never had one until recently, and now that he finally does, he has “this face” (i.e., that of someone in his 50s). “It’s not fair,” he says, seemingly aware of the drama-queen tone in his voice but not in the least bothered by it, as he’s absolutely sincere.
For Baysinger, the physical transformation from youth to middle age is at least as difficult, as he used to have a career as a gay pinup and proudly shows off his stack of nudie magazines, in which he poses with a ripped body and a smile that bring to mind Matt Damon circa “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” However, he’s quick to add that he can hardly remember what it’s like being inside that body. He speaks about his “Augustinian transformation” after learning he was HIV-positive and the fact he’s been liberated by having been celibate for years.
Besides being a multifaceted portrait of two unique, marginalized characters, “They Glow in the Dark” also functions as a document of middle-aged gay life and a reminder that resilience and compassion can take many forms. And New Orleans, while only occasionally glimpsed, is more than mere background filler here; the city’s thirst for life and continuity post-Katrina finds a clear parallel in two people who survived the devastating gay plague, and who are trying to get on with their lives the best they can.
For the record, Evangelidis’ first name is occasionally transcribed as Panagiotis, including in the copyright notice of the otherwise Greek-language end credits.