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Stories of when they realized the truth

Gay men and women reveal humor and pain in two documentaries about self-discovery and how they dealt with the life afterward.

June 23, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer
  • AN EARLY SENSE OF DESTINY: Northern Californian Emile Norman discusses his life as a gay man and an artist in ?Emile Norman: By His Own Design? at 10 p.m. on KCET.
AN EARLY SENSE OF DESTINY: Northern Californian Emile Norman discusses… (Brookes Clement / PBS )

As wedding bells for gay couples ring up and down the state, television -- which has in many ways led the fight in treating homosexuality as no big deal -- this week offers a couple of cheerful films on the subject.

"When I Knew" (premiering at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on Cinemax), directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ("The Eyes of Tammy Faye") and based on a book by Robert Trachtenburg, is simplicity itself. Gay men and women in assorted ages and colors and from a variety of mostly very ordinary walks of life tell stories of sexual awakening and self-acceptance, of hiding out and coming out.

The stories are sweet, funny, sometimes sad. (Families don't always understand.) Realization comes a thunderbolt, or a slow dawning, or in a dream ("I woke up the next morning and I told my fiance, 'Baby, we need to break up' "), inspired by a crush on a teacher, a best friend, the "man on the Doan's pills box" ("He made excruciating back pain seem sexy"), a Barbie doll, Grizzly Adams, girls in Playboy.

The "when" of the title can be as young as "always,"though most had worked it out before they were out of their teens -- a lot to know about oneself by an early age. Not all were happy about finding themselves the yellow duck in a flock of white. One speaker felt so alien that he believed "my blood and my bones and my organs were actually different." Another young man tried masturbating to a Farrah Fawcett poster to turn himself straight. Everyone here, of course, has gotten past that. And these are still-changing times.

The filmmaking itself is somewhat bothersome, with blurred "re-creations," scraps of so-called ephemeral films, and special effects slotted in for visual stimulation. But they distract from more than enhance what is already persuasive and entertaining testimony. You could watch this one with your back to the TV and it would work just as well, if not better.

You will, however, want to keep your eyes on Will Parrinello's "Emile Norman: By His Own Design" (10 tonight on KCET), which is full of lovely things. It is not a film about homosexuality as such -- it's a portrait of a now-90-year-old Northern California artist and designer -- but its greater theme is making room in the world for the life you need to lead. For Norman that was, in part, a life as a gay man in a time when the love that dared not speak its name still dared not speak its name. He had to go to the wilds of then-bohemian Big Sur to do it, setting up house there with 30-year partner Brooks Clement -- neighbors called the pair "Clemile" -- but it worked out for him.

Norman met Clement when Clement came to fix his radio; Clement stayed to manage Norman's career. (Clement, who died in 1973, told Norman that wherever he was headed in the afterlife, "I'll get you a job in the art department.") Although his fame is relatively limited and essentially regional -- his best-known work is the "endomosaic" mural, made of crushed glass, sea shells and other elements suspended between clear sheets of plastic, that adorns the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco -- his career as recounted here is a testament to finding one's own way. Norman's first work of art was a face he carved from a riverside rock at age 11; that he still has it suggests an early sense of destiny. And as he went on, he invented his own tools and materials to realize the images in his head.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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