Tuesday 20th February 2018,

Travis Mathews’ Films Probe Intimacy and Play With Genre

Note: Many links NSFW

We consume adult video in private, and in America, we only see sex in specific types of media. The decline/conglomeration of art house theaters, the easy availability of VHS then DVDs, the immediacy of streaming online video and OnDemand have all made it to easy to hide our private proclivities and sequester them from traditional film and television. Yet for years a handful of filmmakers and artists  have pushed against the trend: from Annie Sprinkle to Todd Verow, and more recently directors like Joe Swanberg and John Cameron Mitchell.

Might we add Travis Mathews, whose web series and upcoming film have the gay blogosphere buzzing, to our list of provocateurs? After the jump, why Mathews is important and an interview with filmmaker!

In truth, Mathews is not troubling culture so much as bending genres, which is usually, I suppose, a provocation. Mathews has directed several films, including  a documentary on gay men and body image (Do I Look Fat?) and more recently a web series, In Their Room, both of which examined the lives of gay men and their issues around sex and the body. In Their Room, published on Vimeo, is a voyeuristic docu-series about a group of hairy/smooth, twinky/bearish gay men in San Francisco. Later this year, Mathews will release a feature co-produced with Naked Sword called I Want Your Love, which does something similar, keeping the low-key style but adding a fictional narrative.

Mathews’ work reflects a number of aesthetic and cultural trends of the past five to ten years. One is the casual (often handheld), digital aesthetic, Cassavetes/Dogme redux, adding quirky editing and an even more intimate feeling. Of course the genre most associated with this style is mumblecore, and Mathews is a fan: “Funny Ha Ha and Humpday are amazing films that nail emotional honesty. A lot of mumblecore movies are poorly executed, but the spirit of them inspires me,” he told me. For me, Joe Swanberg’s work offers the clearest connection. Swanberg is known for many things, but sexual honesty — paired with intimate voyeurism — is chief among them. The possibility and denial of interpersonal connection and intimacy are regular themes, best executed in LOL, in my opinion. Swanberg has, several times, filmed his own naughty bits — fully erect in both Kissing on the Mouth and in his own explicit web series Young American Bodies (example) – a rarity for any director, and Swanberg isn’t, I would say, traditionally attractive. His new web series, Stagg Party, documents a photographer with erotic interests. The difference between Swanberg and Mathews is Mathews appears much more attuned to aesthetics; Swanberg’s work is quite drab, hyperrealistic to the point of being unflattering (a fine aesthetic unto itself, really). A number of blogs have mentioned Shortbus in relation to Mathews, an obvious connection, however tenuous. John Cameron Mitchell’s film not only dared to show explicit sex — not a novelty (see, for instance, Baise-Moi, Brown Bunny) — but also had his characters laugh and fumble through it. Of course, Mitchell’s aesthetic is more fantastical, more buoyant, than Mathews. “IWYL is mostly being compared to Shortbus because they both have explicit sex in them and we’re both homos,” Mathews said. Still, both his web series and film are in conversation with the art-house hits. The difference between I Want Your Love and something that screens at SXSW seems to be a few extra minutes of sex (ok, perhaps more than few).

In Their Room

Shortbus and the mumblecore bunch are, in the end, meant for art-house theater consumption — though increasingly for at-home cable. What makes Mathews interesting is his work is honest about being both arousing and artistic: “mumbleporn,” to add a snappy label, or perhaps a version of alt porn it’s certainly in conversation with more gender-pluralist (but feminist-focused) Crash Pad and its series. This all makes cultural sense: why can’t we have web series and films that do both? If the Internet is for porn, as we learned from Avenue Q, why isn’t our broader televisual culture? On XTube and its many peers, people already allow cameras into their bedrooms and broadcast them for millions to see. Yet Vimeo, perhaps also Metacafe, seems to be one of the few major aggregators to allow for such revelations — YouTube, Hulu, etc. have their boundaries and probably missed a potentially profitable market, as we’re seeing now with MIA’s new video. The pleasure of looking — at others, at nudity — is endemic to online media consumption; this includes everybody.

Mathews is making an important intervention: “With the advent of free internet porn I think people are getting increasingly bored with simple money shots divorced from feeling. I’d like to make a movie where people are engaged with the characters, either because they feel reflected in them or because they seem like real people.” He is taking web series (a tool to intimately connect with consumers), film (historically scopophilic), digital culture and our long history of embracing/denying sexual openness and wrapping them in delicately conceived and erotically attuned visual packages. I Want Your Love may be the kind of groundbreaking film to open up an small genre.

Okay, enough of me talking about why I think Mathews is so interesting. The director kindly agreed to an email interview. I’ve posted it in its entirety below, largely unedited, because it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

TELEVISUAL: First, tell me about you. What’s your background in film? You’ve done documentaries before, both short and feature-length, right? Are you a film school guy?

TRAVIS MATHEWS: I have a paltry one semester of film school under my belt from when I was barely 18. So this was quite awhile ago. I’ve always wanted to make movies and luckily I wasn’t encumbered by the structure of film school. I see a lot of film school graduates who think there’s a “right way” to make a movie, which usually involves a lot of hands and money. Sure, that can be true, but you have to jump in there and make stuff if you’re passionate about it. Film school paralyzes a lot of people…that said, it’s a great place to make connections.

My first real film was a documentary called Do I Look Fat? from 2005. It’s about gay men, body image and eating disorders. As a subject, it hadn’t been seriously breached in the gay community and it was something I’d struggled with myself. The idea of doing something that hadn’t been done while also creating a resource was an idea that appealed to me. There are a lot of themes and intentions with DILF that I continue to work with in my more recent movies: issues of masculinity, vulnerability, honesty, intimacy. I’m always going to be drawn to this subject matter, I just might express it from a different angle.

Making short/long format documentaries is how I learned to make movies, but my interest has slowly moved toward narrative. In Their Room is sort of the bridge between the two. None of that is scripted, but the narrative underneath all of these intimate moments felt palpable to me. I wasn’t even finished with my first installment of ITR for Butt Magazine when I started writing the script for I Want Your Love.

TV: What led you to do In Their Room?

TM: Butt Magazine was curating a video show in NYC that I wanted to be part of.

I’d recently been inspired by Kelly Reichardt’s movies, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and I wanted to make something observational and introspective in a similar vein to her films. She captures uniquely American characters that relate to very current issues without seeming too heavy-handed. The idea of doing an ethnographic film about the people around me was something I was also interested in. In April of 2009 I made a short called Linda Gets Ready for Bed, Alone where I basically filmed my friend doing just that. There are little moments of her checking her phone and suggestions of her being lonely, longing. It was just an experiment, but I saw the potential of storytelling via nuanced and in-between moments that often get overlooked.

This all sounds strategic, but it’s just on reflection that I can see how things came together.

TV: Explain the plot (or plots) of I Want Your Love.

TM: With I Want Your Love I wanted to make a story with interconnected friends that had San Francisco at its heart. The basic logline for I Want Your Love, which isn’t even hinted at in the demo, is about Jesse leaving the city he loves. He’s been here for more than a decade—er, like myself—and because of reasons that involve money he has to move back with his dad in the Midwest. The feature takes place during the last 24 hours before he leaves San Francisco, providing a lot of opportunity for all the major notes I’m drawn to: reflection, intimacy, playfulness and sex. The demo is actually the only flashback in the movie, the moment when Brenden and Jesse first move from friend column to other. The feature takes place several years later when Brenden and Jesse are now exes.

TV: Where do you hope the film will be seen/distributed? (NakedSword is a co-producer, right? Will it travel both in the porn and art house circuits?)

TM: That’s what I’m shooting for! I want to make something that is NC17 enough to have an arthouse release.

TV: One of the things I like about your work is they are perfectly pitched for this moment when people are used to seeing strangers broadcast their lives sexually (XTube, etc.) and yet rarely see sex explicitly in the cinema (especially gay sex, as in Shortbus, to which you’ve been compared). Are you an XTube fan? A Shortbus fan? Where do you fit yourself?

TM: I’m fans of both. I think my work leans more in the direction of Andrew Bujalski’s work than John Cameron Mitchel’s though. IWYL is mostly being compared to Shortbus because they both have explicit sex in them and we’re both homos. I’m thrilled with the comparison, but I think our aims are different. With the feature, I’m hoping to use sex as just another tool, like dialogue, to capture intimacy, honesty.

With the advent of free internet porn I think people are getting increasingly bored with simple money shots divorced from feeling. I’d like to make a movie where people are engaged with the characters, either because they feel reflected in them or because they seem like real people. That in and of itself is sexy i think. If you’re invested in these characters then you care about the things that happen to them, and this includes seeing them get it on.

TV: What are your thoughts on voyeurism? It seems to me that your films really make explicit how voyeuristic film can be.

TM: With In Their Room, I understood that getting into the rooms and minds of these guys was a privilege. It also objectifies them and makes them that much more vulnerable as they take clothes off while revealing intimate parts of their lives. The viewer is seeing, or seeing into, something that is usually private, it’s inherently voyeuristic. If the subjects were engaging with me as I was filming it would break this tension and be something totally different, less voyeuristic and more collaborative. I like that the fly on the wall, peeping tom, nature of this turns some people on while making some people feel like they’re watching something too private that they shouldn’t be seeing.

TV: Vimeo apparently is playing a role in your success, as it is, I assume, one of the few video hosting sites that will allow nudity – aside from XTube, YouPorn and the like. Do you hope someday YouTube and the like will allow more explicit content?

TM: Hah! Honestly, I’ve never given it much thought.

TV: Would you ever produce videos for XTube?

TM: Not so interested. I like the working relationship that I’m building with NakedSword. They respect what I’m doing and they’re giving me a lot of creative freedom, I can’t complain.

TV: Is sexuality more open today than it was pre-Internet?

TM: Geesh, I’m no expert here, but I would say that kids are more sophisticated because of the Internet. They’re also more inclined to find they’re sexuality reflected in something on-line from a really early age. Anecdotaly, it seems like there’s a lot less shame floating around there.

TV: You don’t really use “actors” it appears. Do you think you’re anti-“acting” in the traditional sense? Maybe anti-“porn acting”?

TM: I’m anti-BAD acting. You can correct a lot of mistakes made during production, bad acting is not one of them.

TV: You used the term “mumbleporn” to describe I Want Your Love. Were you a fan of the mumblecore movement/genre? Some of those films also paired sexual and emotional honesty.

TM: Obviously. Funny Ha Ha and Hump Day are amazing films that nail emotional honesty. A lot of mumblecore movies are poorly executed, but the spirit of them inspires me.

TV: For both the web series and the film, do you hope the viewer’s first impulse is to a) sit back and watch or b) get off.

TM: I just want them engaged, however they are connected, that’s cool with me. I’m thrilled that the comments for the IWYL demo have been pretty evenly split between “hot” and “sweet”.

TV: What films or directors inspire you?

TM: A lot of 70s directors remain my favorites: Ken Russel, Nicholas Roeg, Curt McDowell and Radley Metzger. Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is my favorite film, and not just for the famous sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, although it is beautiful.

I’m also inspired by the mumblecore movies already mentioned, Funny Ha Ha in particular. And then there’s Kelly Reichardt whom I also mentioned. Radley Metzger’s Score, is a great example of a smart and playful movie with a lot of sex. The acting is terrible and stagy (it was a play first) but there’s a lot of glean from it. I just got a rare Score poster for my birthday and the vinyl soundtrack to Don’t Look Now. I couldn’t be happier!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.