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SIFF ADVANCE: Do I Sound Gay? - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: A-

There's a fine line between a "personal project" and overt narcissism, and journalist/director David Thorpe straddles that line in Do I Sound Gay?, a documentary in which he inserts himself as both subject and guinea pig. A whole lot of the film consists of footage he shot of himself, by himself, using a tripod. The film opens with him getting coffee shirtless in his apartment in the morning. Later in the film he literally holds a microphone to his gurgling belly.

These things don't sound a whole lot relevant to the issue of an effeminate speaking voice, although Thorpe does tie them into the sense of self-worth and/or self-loathing that launches this project in the first place: he hates the way he speaks, and wants to change it. Can it be done?

Thorpe was present for a Q&A after the SIFF screening I attended last night -- the film will open locally this summer -- providing a lot of context audiences might not otherwise get. He also invited local gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who was one of the many great interviews in the film, having been shot when Savage was Grand Marshall of the Pride Parade in New York City that occurred just days after same-sex marriage was legalized in that state.

It's easy to be skeptical of a film like this and suspect its authenticity, particularly with how quickly Thorpe moves through the story in 77 minutes -- but this was culled from footage spanning over four years. Plenty of scenes that in the hands of other directors would have been transparently staged, to Thorpe's credit, have no real feeling of disingenuousness to them. That still has little bearing on the clearly massive amount of time he turns the camera on himself, making him arguably a bit of an exhibitionist of his own insecurities, but neither does it change how fascinating he manages to make the subject at hand. Thorpe may or may not be a narcissist, but he's sincere.

And he makes it perfectly clear from the outset what the answer is to the question his title poses: "Yes." But only in the context of our cultural understanding of what "sounding gay" is. With a charmingly subtle bit of humor, we hear him announcing the words of the title cards, talking in his naturally effeminate voice. As the movie goes on, though, Thorpe examines how our culture, and even gay culture, pathologizes what it means to be masculine, and reveals that there is truly no "dialect" exclusive to gay men. Arguably it occurs more often with gay men, but that so-called "accent" you hear is the result of "micro-variations" of speech patterns adopted from role models of different genders while growing up. Certainly we all know there are straight men out there with "gay-sounding" voices, and Thorpe finds one such man who grew up in an ashram around mostly women, and he sounds more effeminate than most gay men.

Thorpe snags some great, high-profile interviews, from Margaret Cho (who correlates the discussion of shame around manners of speaking to how her father tried desperately to lose his Korean accent and sound American) to David Sedaris to George Takei. Dan Savage, Thorpe said, was the first person asked to be interviewed, and Savage arguably has the most insightful commentary here. When asked why he thinks gay men regard effeminate speaking voices with such negativity, he says, without hesitation, "Misogyny. Homophobia is misogyny's little brother." This gets to the heart of the problem: men don't want to sound effeminate because they feel being like women is beneath them.

Although it's never explicitly stated, this movie might just as well be called, "Do I Sound Like a Woman?" (David Sedaris talks about how, to many people, he quite literally does.) The literal answer to whether Thorpe -- or any gay man -- "sounds gay" is, technically, no.

Conclusions in Do I Sound Gay? are vague at best, but the film is undeniably fascinating, looking at a subject not often discussed. Thorpe takes us along as he visits multiple speech therapists from New York to Los Angeles, and over the course of the film, he finds his speech exercises help him in unexpected ways, but not in the way originally intended. Thorpe presents this largely as a story of self-actualization, which is fine. It might have worked better in a more objective context, but the inclusion of himself and his admittedly pretty witty friends makes for a good helping of spirit-lifting humor. If you're looking for perfection, you won't find it here -- just as Thorpe himself learns, on camera -- but you'll find plenty of refreshingly provocative entertainment.

David Thorpe (center) asks the question we all know the answer to as soon as he opens his mouth in DO I SOUND GAY?

Overall: B+

Opens at Northwest Film Forum on Friday July 24.
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