The only legitimate video store in Lacolle (the one that wasn’t just a convenience store with some video shelves in the back) opened on Church Street in what had previously been a flower shop, right in the middle of town, across from the general store and the United Church. I remember the daughters of the general store owners making fun of other kids in elementary school. I also remember them being a lot more demure after their father came out as gay. These are only memories. They might be false.
The general store then became a dollar store. Now the building sits empty after the dollar store moved down the street in what used to be a furniture store, one of the largest commercial spaces in town. Of course, the video store didn’t move; it just closed.
I didn’t limit myself to blockbusters. Around the same time, I sent my mom to the store with a list of videos I wanted, which included Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy. My mom came back empty-handed. The store owner told her that I was the only one in Lacolle who rented such movies.
When you grew up as a queer kid in the country, you took your gay content where you could find it. I would tape as many daytime soap operas as I could and watch them when I would come back from school, buy Soap Opera Digest at the drugstore and cut out pictures of shirtless hunks (I once made a Days of Our Lives collage), and I rented White Squall at the video store. This was all before I came out, even to myself.
As I now read the text on the White Squall jacket, I realize that every sentence – synopsis, tagline, review blurbs – ends with an exclamation point, like in an Archie comic. “The Adventure Of A Lifetime Turns Into The Ultimate Challenge Of Survival!” “Hollywood favorite Jeff Bridges (Blown Away) stars in this thrilling high seas adventure!” “Spectacular!” –USA Today
Having recently watched Dirty Dancing again, I now think of it in the same category as White Squall: slight period pieces that look more like the year they were made than the one they’re pretending to take place in. Dirty Dancing takes place in 1963, but its aesthetic is undeniably that of the year of its release, 1987. White Squall takes place in 1960-61, but it is most definitely from 1996. In the same category, I should maybe add the movie White Squall is most often accused of copying, Dead Poets Society, released in 1989, but pretending to be 1959.
The absence that was actually enticing to my gay teenage self however was that of women. As critic Roger Ebert noted, in White Squall, “Women play a secondary role (in this case, limited to the transmission and healing of venereal disease).” What we are left with are men pretending to be 16-year-old boys. In reality, most of the actors were around 20 years old. Baby-faced Scott Wolf was 27. In order to pass for teenagers, there is not a single chest hair in sight, though it is possible the actors were already down with shaving before production. In the 90s, body hair wasn’t in.
The first three quarters of White Squall indeed play like an advertisement for men’s fashion. The first time we see Ryan Phillippe, he is shirtless and glistening. In the 90s, it was in Phillippe’s contract that he needed to be shirtless in every onscreen appearance: The Secrets of Lake Success, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Homegrown, 54, Cruel Intentions. Only The Secrets of Lake Success and Homegrown managed to pass by me.
Every time one of the boys needs to insult someone, they go straight for the gay. When they discover that Dean is cheating on tests, they corner him. “Where are you going?” Wolf asks him. “To take a piss,” replies Dean. “Oh, really?” inquires Phillippe. “Yeah, you want to come in and shake it for me?” Dean dares him. Later, when Dean is drunk, he slays with, “Look at these guys… They’re homos.” SNAP.
Of course, the line between homophobia and homosociality is so porous that, when the boys finally begin to bond, what would have been an insult just a few seconds earlier suddenly becomes a way of showing affection. When they offer to help Dean study, the bad boy asks why they would help him. “We got a hard on for you, pansy,” replies Phillippe, smiling coyly.
All the drama only makes me wish I could go back to the fantasies of beginnings, to the high school on a boat, the VHS jacket on the shelf, the possibility of escapism. But it’s all nostalgic whitewashing. The Albatross lies at the bottom of the ocean, the video store is closed, and movies rarely work their magic on the jaded adult I’ve become. There is nothing on the other side of the round window. The empty fish bowl speaks: somewhere there is a dead fish.