DVD Review: Streamers: Don't Ask, We Can Tell

It's almost impossible to watch this 1983 Robert Altman film today with the mindset of the time in which it was created. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing ... and in fact, that mental schism ends up highlighting just how much some things have changed in so relatively short a time. And how much some things haven't changed.

Based on a play by David Rabe that was written in the late 1970s and set in the 1960s, this is the tale of a band of soldiers about to be shipped off to Vietnam who discover that one of their own is a homosexual. Years before the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell," gay soldiers weren't telling anyway, because they knew what they'd have to endure as a result, and the threat of that is what looms over the story. Small-scale and made for the stage, the film is compact in its physical and emotional space -- it takes place entirely in one night in the soldiers' barracks -- so that looming is the primary suspense the film holds for us today.

There was an additional suspense Streamers would have held for viewers 30 years ago: Which of the soldiers is the gay one? It's not revealed for quite a while as the soldiers talk about their lives, their fears, their dreams. Is it Carlyle (Michael Wright) or Roger (David Alan Grier, in his first film appearance), for whom gayness would be an additional burden on top of their blackness in a society that denigrates both? Is it handsome, arrogant tough guy Billy (Matthew Modine)? Or is it sensitive, introspective Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein), who proudly calls himself pretty?

It is obvious to a 2010 audience that, clearly, Richie is gay ... so obvious, in fact, that I spent half the running time second-guessing myself and the film. Wouldn't it be dramatically interesting and vitally cliche-busting if it were Billy who turned out to be the one keeping the secret of his homosexuality? But a twist like that would only work today, when the openness of the past 30 years has led to new cliches (like that a "tough guy" can't be gay, or that a sweet, fey guy must be). Of course, mainstream audiences in the early 1980s -- in the time before everything gay came out of the subculture closet -- likely wouldn't have guessed which character was gay. Hell, we didn't even know the Village People were gay back then, and the thought that we could have been so blind sounds ridiculous.

No, Streamers is a product of a time when more basic misconceptions were still at work in the zeitgeist, and those are the ones explored here. And merely because we can look at this tale through eyes that are more enlightened than might have been conceived of when it was made doesn't make it any less worthwhile. The performances alone are must-see. But it's the prospect of getting your mental boat rocked in an unexpected direction that is the most provocative reason to check this out. Attitudes can change, it seems, sometimes even for the better. That's an optimistic notion for a pessimistic time.

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MaryAnn Johanson asks and tells at FlickFilosopher.com. (email me)