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Leave Blank


Todd Verow

Gregg Tucker,
Todd Verow

Unrated, 77 minutes

He's Gotta Have It
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online February, 2012

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There are three things that I can always expect when watching a new film from  indie writer/director Todd Verow (Frisk). The budget will be low, the acting will be mixed, and the sex will be explicit.

The press for Leave Blank, his latest, calls it "a follow-up (not quite sequel)" to his earlier Anonymous. When viewed in that context, the film takes on meanings it might not have otherwise. However, I hardly expect all of my readers to have seen the earlier film. I mention it because of the salacious attention being paid to Michael Fassbender's current turn as a sex addict, not to mention his full frontal nude scenes, in a "shocking" new film called Shame that has the media a-buzzing. You would think that tales about sexual compulsives have never been told before. The terrain explored in the new film is actually re-treading territory trodden long ago by independent cinema.

levae blank picTodd Verow's 2004 Anonymous told a similar story about a man ruled by his penis.  Verow went one step further than Shame's director by starring in the film himself. This produced, in the viewer, the voyeuristic impression that we were watching something confessional. (Did I also mention that the main character's name was Todd?) The hero was often naked and the sex was explicit. Some might dismiss the film as being self indulgent porn but it was too raw, too visceral, to ignore.

leave blank picVerow stars again in 2011's Leave Blank. Once again the character's name is Todd, begging comparisons. The story is simple. Todd has hired a hustler, whom he met over the internet, for the weekend. Paul (Gregg Tucker) is open to whatever happens. Todd wants to do everything over the course of the weekend. He wants to experience, for the first time, drugs, anonymous sex with multiple partners, and un-safe sex.

leave blank picAs prologue, Paul the hustler rides in the back seat of a cab. The soundtrack is a voice-over montage of their phone conversations. From here we cut to the hotel room where we will spend most of the film. Todd is filming the festivities as well, and so Leave Blank's visuals are a mix of both high definition video and grainier camcorder stock to suggest the character's camera rather than the director's. There is almost no music. This is a good thing because even the most subtle Electronica usually evokes the score from a porn film when two people are having sex onscreen. The sex is hot and the absence of music has a lot to do with it.
leave blank picNeither of the men is a Chippendale dancer but both are handsome and in good shape. Both have hairy chests. Todd's head is shaved. They begin having sex as soon as Paul arrives at the hotel. Forget small talk, Todd wants to fuck. And they do. Nothing is simulated. They have bareback sex. Paul asks Todd if he's sure, and then ominously inquires: "Positive?" This is a challenge to the viewer who, until this moment, was being titillated. After the sex, the camera lingers on Todd in the shower and he looks tired and, when he steps out, old… vulnerable. This goes beyond simple gratuitous nudity; our main character is really standing before us naked here.
leave blank pcIn between the more hardcore interludes, Todd and the hustler bare their souls to each other. Much of their dialogue isn't anything we haven't heard before but it sounds honest. (Both actors admit in an interview on the DVD that they hustled when younger.) But before I can say "been there done that," the film ends nothing like I thought it would. Puzzled, I find my thoughts constantly returning to Leave Blank and re-thinking my first impressions.
leave blankI don't know what to make of this one. Like Verow's other films, Leave Blank has stuck with me but I can't really discuss why without giving away the ending. An interview with the director on the disc reveals that the conclusion is based on a true story. It seemingly comes out of nowhere but, on a second viewing, a few early lines of dialogue eerily foreshadow Todd's journey. I leave it to the viewer to discover what happens but I can safely mention (without spoiling the ending) that the climax unfolds in real time, in one painfully long take, and that it is one of the reasons I admire what I do about the film.
LEAVE BLANKI have often written that I have no problem with explicit sex in films as long as it is an integral part of the plot. But when this is all a film has to offer, the film becomes porn. Does anything besides the satisfying sex scenes in this film stand out? The cinematography is hardly Nestor Almendros… the acting is sometimes wooden… but yet this film stays with me. Other queer films I see are instantly forgettable. Not his, and not this one either.
leave blNKThe use of silence, ambient noises and no music recalled a similar treatment in the director's earlier Anonymous. Both do so effectively (though nothing tops the scene where Verow danced and stripped to a boom box in Anonymous and looked intentionally ridiculous because the soundtrack was silent). Is it the same character in both movies? It actually doesn't matter, but there is so much of the autobiographical in the director's films that it can be fun connecting the dots. 
leave blankBut I have some issues with the film too. Even though the denouement makes clear Todd's self destructive behavior, I found the emphasis on their bareback sex to be excessive. In the name of realism, we watch graphic close-ups without a condom in sight. I presume that both actors were tested beforehand otherwise this would be definitely be a case of taking method acting a  bit too far.  But what then to make of the later scene which repeats the same controversial close-ups with two different, though headless, actors? (We know for sure that they are not the same men because one of them dons a Prince Albert.) Who are these guys and what was the point of this gratuitous scene? Why are we watching two other guys have un-safe sex? I found this distasteful, if not irresponsible.  It's not its explicit nature that bothers me, it's the cavalier attitude towards depicting unsafe sex. If the intent was to shock, it worked… but not in a good way.
lave blankI've had a love-hate relationship with Verow's films ever since I was first freaked out by Frisk in 1996. Then I saw Bulldog in the Whitehouse (2006). It was terrible on every technical level but the idea of re-setting Dangerous Liaisons in the Bush White House was agitprop at its finest. Filming in digital video with non-existent budgets is his preferred method of working. Unconventional, sometimes incoherent, plots are his hallmark but it is not uncommon for his actors to deliver improvisational scenes that get under your skin. There is always sex, often artfully filmed. The scripts are offbeat,  no attempt is made at being commercial. His last film, Deleted Scenes, mocked its own format by giving the segments titles like: "Sean speaks to Wolf for the first time (bad dubbing)."

leavw blankIn a manifesto that Verow penned for the 2009 Berlin Film Festival Teddy Awards, reprinted on his Facebook page, Verow asked, "Aren't you tired by now of these buff, shiny, happy, pretty pretty gay people in (alleged) comedies about hooking up and being shirtless and oh-so-pretty and oh-so-vacant?" His question is valid and I know that I've seen my share of such movies and so his raw slices of life are a great diversion. It is a given that one of Leave Blank's undeniable pleasures will be its emphasis on the carnal. Is this film for everyone? Probably not; most of us are bound by the constraints of traditional narrative films. Verow likes to provoke. I was provoked. Do I like his latest film? Well, let's put it this way. Leave Blank is raw, controversial and far more interesting than a mindless big budget CGI blockbuster. My feelings towards it are mixed but I am not going to forget it anytime soon.


More on Todd Verow :

Bulldog In The Whitehouse
Between Something & Nothing

The Boy With The Sun In His Eyes

Deleted Scenes

The Endless Possibility Of Sky
Bad Boy Street

Berlin Film Festival Essay:
No More Mr. Nice Guy
a Manifesto by Todd Verow