Brian Jordan Alvarez might just be one of the most important creators of gay/LGBT media content working right now.
That sounds like a big statement. Who is this guy? You’ve probably never heard of him. Few people have, unless you lurk on tumblr or are one of my friends and I have made you watch it(!). But his YouTube channel, curated over the last 4 or so years, is a goldmine of content. Many of his videos are short comedy sketches. Others, such as The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, are made-for-YouTube miniseries whose endlessly quotable moments have been turned into gifs. Some, such as Everything Is Free, are feature films uploaded by Alvarez examining modern (gay) life in California and Hollywood.
Alvarez doesn’t announce his projects. I don’t know his process, or where the money comes from to finance his work. Perhaps once a month, while scrolling through interminable videos on Google’s video streaming service, he’ll have uploaded something new. It’s a game of pot luck, and every time Alvarez seems to deliver extraordinary content.
Take his most recent work, for example: How to be a Slut in America. This feature film, presented in three parts, is far more serious than much of Alvarez’s other work. It’s also far more personal: Alvarez, who appears in all his films, is playing himself. Or a version of himself – we’re never really sure.
As its title would suggest, How to be a Slut in America is about relationships, sex and commitment. Alvarez feels he cannot, and does not want to, commit to monogamy. He wants to enjoy sex, and enjoy it openly, where sleeping with many people “keeps opening out into being okay again”. The film is an exploration of the ethical and practical dilemmas of such a life, where the complexity of personal relationships is a great maze that needs to be navigated.
Released in three parts (parts two and three, confusingly, are one video), part one begins by setting the scene. Stylistically, it follows the conventions of film and TV; with scenes and dialogue that, whilst feeling very natural (one of his great strengths as a writer) remains pointed toward the final act. It buys into the conceit of narrative works, but in an engaging way. Nonetheless, it feels like a movie. A work of fiction. Something crafted together and turned into one cohesive piece of media.
Parts two and three slowly unravel what the first 36 minutes have so carefully created. Narratively, it continues the thread where it was left off: with Alvarez and his two lovers trying to healthily navigate a polyamorous situation. Does having two lovers make him greedy? A slut? What about jealousy? And how should they relate to each other, in his absence? These are some of the questions that all three parts try to answer.
Part two sees the introduction of a new theme: that of completion. Art is, he says, mostly about “just drag[ing] yourself to the finish line […] people don’t finish things because they’re like, ‘I gotta finish it, but not only that, I gotta do it well’ but no: all you have to do is finish it”. This idea becomes emblematic of the final two parts. If part one was structured in typical narrative conventions, parts two and three slowly begin to untangle and unwind.Carefully crafted filmic narrative forms start to disintegrate into moments of perplexing, silent scenes. Dialogue begins to fade away and a playfulness is explored. The footage loses the vivid saturation of previous shots and the camera begins to be operated by Alvarez himself in scenes that appear to transition from film to vlog. The fourth wall isn’t just broken; it’s completely torn down, depicting Alvarez and his friends not as components of a story but as living, breathing people.
It’s a twist you couldn’t have predicted in Part One. And, in many ways, I don’t think Alvarez predicted it himself. The final two parts appear to speak to his own artistic method in the most post-structuralist, post-modern way possible. And as with all great art, there are moments where you wonder if he as completely lost the plot, if How to Be a Slut in America is the needle in the haystack or the haystack itself. Yet I can’t stop admiring Alvarez’s courage to merely complete the project; not to complete it well, or adequately. Merely to finish it, and to openly present the mechanical workings of his own artistic endeavours. There’s an honesty and vulnerability to demystifying the creation of art.
Alvarez’s work is unexpected, profound and continuously surprising. If that doesn’t make him an important creator, I don’t know what will.
The image is a photograph by Zack Dozen of the cast of The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo.