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cast: Derek Long, Matthew Montgomery, and Rasool Jahan

director: Sean Abley

90 minutes (18) 2007
TLA DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Sean Abley is a director who cut his teeth on genre kids TV. His back catalogue includes writing for series such as Sabrina the animated series and Digimon. As you might expect from that kind of track record, his first foray into the land of the writer-director is a work of science fiction. However, Socket is not just a work of science fiction; it is also a work of gay indie cinema.

The film begins with Dr Bill Matthews (Derek Long) recovering in the hospital after having been struck by lightning. However, far from having been seriously injured by this event, Matthews is fit enough to flirt with earnest and oleaginous intern Murphy (Matthew Montgomery). Upon being released from hospital, Murphy informs Matthews that there will come a day when he starts to crave something and when he does, he should give him a call and attend a 'meeting'. Matthews is sceptical but upon arriving home, he finds himself compelled to tidy the place from top to bottom. Concerned at this departure from his traditionally slobbish ways, Matthews calls Murphy and is invited to a meeting of other lightning-strike survivors who all share the same hunger.

At the end of the meeting, the group forms a circle and hooks themselves up to a generator making them all high and ready for a binge of dancing without shirts on in a nightclub that looks like someone's flat. As time goes by, Matthews and Murphy get involved, and the pair continue getting high together, prompting the two doctors to collaborate in order to create a set of electrodes that allows them to connect to each other and the mains without having to stick a fork into a plug socket. However, when Matthews is attacked by a mugger, he uses these wrist-mounted electrodes to defend himself and he discovers that the best high of all comes from the electricity stored in the human body. This leads Matthews to start murdering prostitutes and homeless people and, eventually, one of his closest friends.

Thematically, Socket feels like the kind of synopsis you might get if you plied an elderly gay man with horse tranquillisers and then forced him to watch Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983). There are some thoughts on addiction and there are some thoughts on body modification but neither of these ideas are explored in any detail as they are kept isolated from the rest of the plot.

For example, the sockets the characters place on their wrists are pure body horror; their organic, foreskin-like protrusion and retraction are undeniably reminiscent of the eerily organic game pods of Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) but after the initial effects shot, Abley has nothing more to say about them so they fail to have much impact at all.

The same goes for the addiction plotline where, as in Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996) and Choke (2001), support groups form the basis for rather than the solution to transgressive behaviour. Unfortunately, rather than exploring these ideas and maybe saying something interesting about the social nature of addiction, Abley prefers to chicken out and toe the line of social acceptability by suggesting that it is okay to take drugs as long as you use it to augment dancing and sucking face with cute guys, but the second you start killing your closest friends you should probably think about cutting back.

Socket raises these issues but deals with none of them, preferring instead to devote huge amounts of screen time to the utterly pedestrian and frankly unconvincing relationship between the dull Matthews and the wetter-than-wet Murphy. This quarantining of the film's intellectual meat not only makes Socket a wasted opportunity, it also makes it crushingly dull to watch as time and again we return to Matthews and Murphy sitting in bed and exchanging poorly-written and chemistry-free banter.

This lack of thematic impact is not helped by the film's technical shortcomings. Interestingly enough for a low-budget production, these are not at the level of the special effects, which are genuinely decent if a touch overused (in particular the montage of static and images from other scenes used when characters get high). Instead the problem comes from a film that looks like a straight-to-DVD title. The lack of movement of Abley's camera, his choice of conventional shots and his poor choice of lighting means that the film is utterly devoid of anything that might approach mood or tension. This problem is only amplified by the weak writing and performances.

Long and Montgomery lack any kind of chemistry and their characters seem like little more than cardboard cut-outs. The two lesbian characters are similarly under-written and are transparently there only as (totally ineffectual) comic relief and as a permanently nagging maternal superego. However, it is difficult to blame the actors for their failures when they are given so little to work with to convey much emotion. Indeed, Abley's relationships are quite breathtaking in their utter failure to transcend the generic. Unfortunately, the situation does not improve when we move from relationships to ideas as Abley fills in the holes in his plot with pseudoscientific horseshit by the shovel full ("energy is pure order" apparently).

It would be easy for me to simply slate Socket as an empty-headed gay exploitation film that constructs a weak plot around scenes of guys with their shirts off, but what is actually deeply tragic about this film is that it wants to be so much more. From the unusual science fictional trappings to the downer ending and the hinted at but never explored ideas, Socket clearly wants to push the envelope for this kind of filmmaking. Most tragically, it is not the weak writing, the weak acting or the poor camera work that kills this film; it is the creative cowardice of the director.

In order to understand what has gone wrong with Socket, it is necessary for me to raise the subject of TLA Releasing, this DVD's distributor. TLA has clearly come to be one of the backbones of the gay indie film scene. TLA do a good job of picking up and finding audiences for those gay indie films that are too niche, too explicit or that simply lack the critical and festival inertia to give them crossover appeal (as was the case with Celine Sciamma's Water Lilies). This is undeniably a good thing. Without people like TLA a lot of gay films would not get released and their, ahem, straight-to-DVD deals clearly contribute to an economic climate where gay indie filmmakers can pull together financing and get their films made despite a lack of mainstream interest. However, there is a downside to this. While TLA pick up lots of different kinds of films, they do tend to favour films featuring attractive leads, quite a bit of nudity, and plots that revolve around coming out, going to nightclubs and finding true love. For every Lionel Baier (Garcon Stupide, 2004) who tries to say intelligent things about gay culture and gay life there are ten Q. Allan Brockas (Boy Culture, 2006; Eating Out, 2004) who want nothing more than to sell people a vicarious sexual and emotional life that is as shallow as it is self-regarding and narcissistic. The problem is that the Brockas of the scene are clearly starting to crowd out the Baiers and a rigid formula is emerging.

This battle for the soul of gay indie cinema is clearly visible in Socket. Through the phallic body horror of the wrist sockets and the self-destructive cycle of the drugs-and-face-sucking lifestyle, Abley lined up two holy cows not only of the gay indie cinema scene but also of the gay lifestyle itself. Indeed, in its choice of themes, Socket showed the potential for a different side to what it means to be gay. Its eventual capitulation to scenes of guys with their shirts off and the lionisation of the 'gay = drugs and face-sucking' formula is not only a missed opportunity but an act of creative self-destruction that is as frustrating as it is unpleasant to watch.

If only for the sake of the poor straight people who review these films, can we please move on from the face-sucking?

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