Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Ken: Jim, congratulations are in order! I understand that you and your longtime girlfriend have a plan set to tie the knot. I couldn’t think of any better way to commemorate this occasion than to seek out a movie that frankly deals with the difficulties of marriage with competent staging, naturalistic acting, and professional-grade lighting and sound. But then I remembered what our friendship is actually like, and here we are talking about Ben & Arthur. Jim, where on Earth did you find this thing? What hath God wrought?
Jim: First of all, I thank you for the congratulations on my upcoming nuptials. Secondly, I apologize about Ben & Arthur. This is one of those bad movies I’ve been hearing about and reading about ever since I first got interested in exploring the depths of shitty cinema, close to a decade ago. I’ve always known about it, and always knew I would end up watching it one day, if only because so many writers always referred to it as “the gay version of The Room.” Now I understand what they meant. Tonally, and in terms of melodramatic bluster, it totally fits The Room comparison. But on a purely technical level, it’s so very much worse. Visually, it looks like exactly the film you’d end up with if you told a high school class with no filming experience to produce a feature-length drama.
Ken: I must admit that as this terrible, terrible film opened, I was apprehensive about us piling onto it. Ben & Arthur is the story of the eponymous gay men as they fight to get married and deal with homophobia. Because my late father was gay, and because I’ve pretty much exclusively worked for government officials who avowedly support gay marriage, and because I’m, you know, not a callous asshole, I obviously don’t ever mean to belittle same-sex marriage. But, dear readers, we want to assure you that this is a bizarre, paranoid, and ridiculous movie, even set against the unbearable contemporary politics of 2002 when the film came out—this is really something. It’s one of the bad movies we’ve done for this feature that I’m not even comfortable recommending to people, but at the same time feel they must know about.
Jim: Subject matter entirely put aside, it has got to be a strong contender for the least technically competent film we’ve ever done. But that lack of polish does have an odd way of making it charmingly hilarious. Like, the first shot of the film is simply the director-writer-producer-composer-star, splayed out on his bed, looking like he hasn’t moved from that spot in three days. He’s not in a depression spiral or anything, but you absolutely would assume the character was, from the way they framed this shot. It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a film present its title character as a schlub.
Jim: Which is extra funny, considering that Ben & Arthur is 100 percent a vanity project for this specific guy.
Ken: Oh, before we even get to the first scene I wanted to point out the credits, which repeatedly list writer/director/star/2nd 2nd Assistant Director Sam Mraovich for nearly every single one.
Jim: Yes, he’s all over it. There isn’t a job on this film that Mraovich can’t receive some kind of credit for. That made me feel comfortable that this would ultimately be an entertainingly bad film, because directorial passion projects/vanity projects might be my favorite bad movie subset. You know that when one guy is starring, directing, writing, composing and editing, you’re going to end up with gold.
Ken: One man’s bad movie trash is certainly another man’s gold, and you are that other man, sir. The film opens with Ben (Jamie Brett Gabel) and Arthur (Mraovich) in a committed relationship. They plan on getting married but are facing mundane pressures on it, including the true-to-life-at-the-time fact that the only place they can legally enter into any kind of civil union is Vermont. Even though it really, really looks like the two are cohabiting and otherwise living their lives together, Ben apparently has been married to a woman named Tammy for five years and has to break up with her, and Arthur did not know this.
Jim: It’s all extremely confusing, and I love the way the Wikipedia description of the plot describes this: “Ben takes advantage of the delay to inform Arthur that he is actually already married to a woman named Tammy.” Like it’s “Ah, we’ll be waiting for this bus for a while, so I might as well mention that I’ve been married this whole time.”
Then Ben goes to see Tammy, and it’s really not clear if the scene is happening in the same timeline, or is a flashback, because she apparently knew nothing about him being gay. Why did she think she was separated from her husband for the past three years, exactly? And why did he never bother asking for a divorce?
Ken: Wait, they were separated?? Did I completely miss that detail?? So many parts of this movie are extremely hard to follow, not just due to inept plotting and scripting, but because of clumsy editing.
Jim: Yeah, Ben says he’s been married for five years, but that they’ve been separated for the last three years, which is the whole time Ben and Arthur have been together. It’s not like he’s living some double life or something. That would be ridiculous, Ken. In terms of The Room terminology, by the way, Ben is clearly the Mark/Greg Sestero of this movie: The younger looking, much more attractive best friend/romantic interest who is meant to make the writer-director look more attractive when he stands next to him. See: Every vanity project ever.
Ken: Oh, absolutely. Ben is a chiseled hunk of meat in comparison to Mraovich and it’s pretty clear that some of this is wish fulfillment. Ben & Arthur is almost, almost as self-indulgent a feature as your run-of-the-mill Woody Allen flick. Now, to get back to the plot: Ben has his unhinged wife, but Arthur has his ridiculous brother. Jim, tell us about Victor, and the man who plays him.
Jim: Victor is an incredible cinematic character, and this story is almost as much his as it is Mraovich’s. He’s an ultra right-wing, evangelical Christian who hasn’t spoken to Arthur in around seven years because he doesn’t approve of his lifestyle, but he’s drawn back into his brother’s life when Arthur literally just shows up on his doorstep to ask for money, because he wants to “open up my own little porno shop,” which is an actual aspiration that Arthur has. So Victor invites his brother inside, and he leads off with this line: “So Arthur, have you finally accepted and found the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior, and finally freed yourself from these demons?”
Jim: That’s his opening line, after not seeing his brother for seven years. This script just skips all of the normal human establishing dialog in every scene and goes straight for the throat. Also, Victor has cats, so he’s clearly the villain here.
Ken: Don’t forget the fact that he at first doesn’t even recognize Arthur at his door. I haven’t ever been estranged from an immediate family member for that length of time, but Jim, would you under any circumstances ever forget your own brother’s face?
Jim: The brother you hate with a zealot’s passion? Probably not.
Ken: I think we also need to acknowledge one more elephant in the room, and that is that the actor really seems like he’s also gay. I was waiting the entire movie for it to be suddenly revealed that this was coming from a place of self-loathing, but no. Victor’s character is played literally and figuratively straight.
Jim: I think that his status as a self-loathing, repressed gay man is revealed enough in the conclusion that we can make this assumption, and I actually think that the characterization of Victor this way is one of the few things that Ben & Arthur does with remote competence. It certainly makes him more of a tragic figure than he would be otherwise. I feel like this was fully intended by Mraovich, to show how even those who carry out campaigns of hate against the LGBTQ community are often manipulated by greater forces. In the case of Ben & Arthur, the societal force it seems to hate most is the church.
Ken: And oh man, does it. The plot ambles along for the first half hour or so, as Ben and Arthur get married. But once Victor enters the story, his priest kicks him out of his congregation because his brother is gay—which, were it a thing that ever happened, would ensure zero church membership. Victor responds to this in a perfectly sensible way by taking a gun, ambushing Ben and Arthur’s civil rights lawyer in a parking garage, and murdering her.
Jim: My notes are filled with exclamation points when this happens.
Ken: I have to say, Jim, that my favorite bad movies are the ones I’m convinced are going to be boring, and then all of a sudden make an utterly insane tonal shift.
Jim: This film has an incredible way of randomly spiking up the intensity every once in a while without ever giving the viewer an understanding of what is about to happen. When Victor shows up at this building where he kills the lawyer, we have no idea of why he’s there or what he’s about to do. Stuff just happens in Ben & Arthur. It’s the same way when, a few minutes later, Tammy randomly shows up at Ben and Arthur’s apartment, also wielding a gun, and has a psychotic meltdown while holding Ben at gunpoint.
Ken: I many times equate liking a movie to sampling a burrito: You usually know what you’re getting in the first few bites and can safely give your opinion on whether or not you want to finish it. But this is like getting a third of the way through a Chipotle bowl and finding a rat carcass that’s been painted bright pink.
Jim: And then the rat carcass starts saying lines like this one, which Tammy says during her rant: “I don’t make sense; you don’t make sense; I make sense; that’s who makes sense!”
Ken: That was one of the most painful bits of writing in a film full of them, yes. I also want to point out that for the first two thirds of the film, they’re clearly using the same plastic prop gun, but it eventually must have gotten misplaced by somebody’s misbehaved nephew and they switch to one that is pretty clearly a toy airbrushed to be black, shaped like a ray gun.
Jim: Oh my lord, Ken. I almost didn’t catch this until the end, and then I started rewinding just to make sure. It’s either a squirt gun or some kind of Flash Gordon ray gun, painted black. Literal high school filmmakers would scrounge up more professional-looking props than this.
Ken: The middle portion of the movie, as you point out, basically becomes Victor’s obsessive quest to get Arthur to be straight or to kill him in the attempt. If this sounds like we shouldn’t be making fun of an artistic impulse that stems from real victimization in the real world, readers, I get your concerns, but trust us on this: This is some bonkers nonsense. At one point, Victor and a friend follow a recipe to make a holy water gayness cure and Victor just tapes a bottle of it to Arthur’s door without a note or anything. It’s not a trap or an ambush; he just wordlessly puts it there trusting that his brother will drink it and not be gay.
Jim: This is my favorite thing in the movie because it’s just so out-and-out ludicrous. First, we’re shown that Victor and his friend are “cooking” up some HOLY WATER in a freaking POT ON THE STOVE, like they’re following a Betty Crocker recipe. Then, Victor makes the assumption that if he tapes a bottle of holy water to the front door, his brother’s first act upon seeing it will be to drink the mystery liquid he just found. The movie takes this so seriously that we’re even shown Victor being dismayed and upset that “the potion didn’t work!”
Ken: Gay men were the inspiration for the guards in Metal Gear and Tenchu, willing to just unquestioningly ingest any consumable they happen upon lying on the floor.
Jim: I realize that to the people reading this, it almost certainly sounds like these scenes were supposed to be comedy. I assure you, they are not. Ben & Arthur, like The Room, is meant to play as a serious melodrama with an important social message.
Ken: Yes, the pure, painful earnestness of the proceedings here is the most baffling part. What if you’d handed this script to John Waters, Jim?
Jim: Some of the stuff in this movie would make a whole lot more sense coming from John Waters, even if you changed nothing. Like … the priest. Tell us about the priest who casts Victor out of his church.
Ken: First off, I am just digging his interior decorating sensibilities at his “church.” Do you think those stained glass windows were grease paint or Tempra?
Jim: Church, or garden shed? You be the judge.
Ken: I will say that he probably had the least trouble with his lines of anybody. His entire character motivation is just that he’s throwing Victor out of the church because his brother is gay. This guy can’t even have you be tangentially connected to anything sinful. Of course, he’s there to be a straw man stand-in for all religious persecution. If I reveal his fate we’d be getting ahead of ourselves, though, because at this point the film escalates its random craziness.
Jim: The priest’s exact words, at one point, are, “The congregation is concerned that your brother’s homosexuality may rub off on the children and send them straight to hell.” That’s an actual line. Arthur doesn’t even attend this church, nor has anyone there ever met him before.
Despite this, Victor is so desperate to get back in the church’s good graces that he approaches the pastor with an offer to martyr himself by murdering Ben and Arthur, and the priest … is okay with it! It’s one of the moments where you’re waiting for the film to make a decision on just how insane it’s ready to be. Will the priest tell him, “Whoa whoa whoa, being gay is a sin, but we don’t go around murdering people?” No, instead he’s like, “Ah, murder’s the game, eh? Well I’ve got a guy.”
Ken: It really makes you wonder how many murders he’s tacitly approved of before. Teenage son going through hand lotion suspiciously fast? Kill ’im. Sister-in-law a little stingy with that tithe? Bump her off. Lord’s name in vain? Oh, I’ve got people.
Jim: Assuming they’re also taking all the cash from those they kill, you’d think they could afford a better church, and not one where this painting deserves a goddamn close-up shot.
Ken: I guess the Monkey Jesus Restoration lady was operating in 2002?
Jim: You got your Monkey Jesus joke out before I could manage it. Bravo.
Ken: Jim, this is all just to illustrate to folks that you could go on this sort of tangent about any aspect of this production. Consider the perfect specimens of Vermont palm trees that Ben and Arthur get married under, for instance.
Jim: I also love their room, which also has these bizarre, stained glass-looking art pieces.
Jim: What even are those things?
Ken: Expressions of deep inner turmoil, Jim. Just like this movie.
Anyway, things go off the rails in a hurry. At one point Victor just straight-up has Ben assaulted, though it was very confusingly edited. It shows Victor getting into a car—with his one homophobic, anti-gay-potion friend, am I remembering it right?—and then the next scene is just Ben on the floor bleeding.
Jim: I’m pretty sure that guy isn’t the potion-making friend, but the rent-a-hitman recommended to him by the pastor. Regardless, they then break into the apartment and gay-bash Ben, which for all intents and purposes really looks like he’s dead. But instead he turns out to be fine, and in the hospital. It’s not clear how this would lead to Arthur no longer being a gay man. It’s like they just wanted to get Ben out of the movie for about 20 minutes.
Ken: Victor is a real smooth operator, too. A police detective comes by to question him about Ben and Victor just goes “Oh, he’s dead.” Jim, there is no law enforcement official anywhere in the history of the world who would not immediately take that reflexive statement as a red flag. Yet somehow, Victor walks free after this and continues to torment his brother.
Jim: The police plot goes literally nowhere, just like the Tammy plot—he appears one more time and then disappears from the film, exactly as she did. Another hallmark of directorial vanity projects: characters who enter and exit the film without any kind of logic or conclusiveness.
Ken: At one point though, Arthur finally gets fed up and starts fighting back. Jim, the scene where he meets Victor’s priest is really something. I will begin by explaining to our readers that it starts with some glorious ineptitude, as a shadowy figure whose face is obscured by the camera greets the priest and compliments him on his sermon. This shadowy figure’s voice sounds exactly like Arthur, strangely enough. And then he enters the frame and we find out that oh, it is Arthur. So surprising. He wheedles the priest for some information on Victor’s accomplice, whose identity I’m unsure how he could have known unless I again missed something. And then, Jim, tell us what happens.
Jim: Well, having learned what he came to learn, Arthur rises, thanks the priest, then sneaks behind him and knocks him out with a chloroform-soaked rag, as you do when a man of the cloth has lost his way. And then he returns to his car, fetches a can of gasoline and BURNS DOWN THE CHURCH WITH THE PRIEST ALIVE INSIDE IT, although Ben & Arthur is so cheap that we don’t actually see a single flame. I assume there was no budget for fire.
Jim: Ken, this is the point when I’m really not even sure what kind of morality to ascribe to the characters. I genuinely don’t know if Mraovich is trying to say that Arthur has crossed over to the dark side by embracing brutality to combat the discrimination and violence he faces in his life, or if I’m supposed to cheer for Arthur as he burns an (admittedly corrupt) priest to death. Either interpretation seems equally likely to me.
Ken: You’d think his next move, by the way, would be putting together a go bag and getting the eff out of Dodge, but we discover instead that he comes home to the injured Ben and just takes a shower. It’s at this point that Victor comes by and straight-up executes Ben, who casually opens the front door as if he hasn’t literally just gotten done being randomly beaten by trespassers.
Jim: The sheer number of times that someone opens a door in this film, only to find a gun being aimed at them, is impressive.
Ken: I mean, it is set in America. I’ve had four or five guns pointed at me this morning, though in fairness I took the long way to work.
Jim: How would you describe the visual effect that is happening on screen while Ben is being shot and Arthur is reacting to his bullet-riddled corpse?
Ken: Firstly, one gets the impression this was shot on VHS. So any kind of effect seems pretty grainy. But this is happening in a kind of stuttering, slow-motion after-image effect.
Jim: It’s a bit like watching the film at something like five frames per second.
Ken: This is the point at which things take a turn I can barely articulate, Jim, but I’ll try my best. A crazed Victor force-feeds Arthur the de-gayification potion, yells at him and knocks him out. And a bath-robed Arthur wakes up, grabs the gun and stumbles into Victor’s room. At which point Mraovich begins directly copying the ending of Scarface. Folks, this clip is not safe for work.
Jim: Really disappointing, to see Ben & Arthur borrowing from another movie for its big, dramatic conclusion, as if its own efforts weren’t good enough.
Ken: As you mentioned before Jim, your interpretation of this was that it makes explicit some simmering subtext. I’m afraid that wasn’t at all my takeaway. I just think Mraovich liked Scarface and had a gay actor friend who shared his worldview enough to play the villain.
Jim: Well regardless, the stand-off ends with them both blowing each other away, like the conclusion of a gangster film—or like the conclusion of The Room, let’s not forget. The similarities really start to pile up throughout. Both films were shooting in California around the same time. Both are vanity projects. Both times, the director believes it’s important for the camera to see his ass. Both pair up their star with a hotter, younger lover. Both have a cheesy romantic scene with flowers adorning the marriage bed. And both go straight from the protagonist’s death, right into the credits, for maximum tragic impact.
Ken: It’s rather striking. One more of these and we’d have a trend piece on our hands.
Jim: The Room was lacking a gay potion scene, I must concede that. The dialog is almost equally alien throughout, though. One of my favorite bits I forgot to mention was Arthur writing in his diary. His voiceover says the following: “Dear diary. I can’t believe Ben. He’s married to some bitch named Tammy. I told him to get his stupid wife over soon and get the divorce papers signed.”
It’s sort of shocking to see a gay character portrayed as such an oafish, almost jockish douche, when the Hollywood stereotype for so many years was gay characters as clever, sarcastic quip machines.
Ken: We didn’t even mention that at one point Ben just slugs Arthur right in the face, straight-up knocking his ass out because Ben is despairing about having to come out to the world, if I’m recalling right. This is the oppressed hero who was too innocent for this world, folks.
Jim: I completely forgot about that bit. Ben knocks him out cold and then daintily helps him wipe up the blood after he comes to, with no hard feelings.The film is absolutely full of sequences that don’t even have to be there, like the pair going on their honeymoon and then having to come back immediately because Ben’s workplace needs him. None of it has any impact on the story—like this out of nowhere sexual harassment joke that pops up when Arthur is job hunting.
Ken: My girlfriend—with whom I’ve recently moved in, I should mention, as long as we’re celebrating our relationship milestones—caught a little bit of this feature and couldn’t fathom how sloppy the writing was in just the first 15 minutes. You and I have written many things, Jim, and I’d wager you know the feeling of getting deep into a multipart project and losing the thread of what setups and payoffs have been fully assembled. I think that Mraovich found himself in a similar situation, with the added snag that once he’d filmed things, that was basically it. His handgun might become a squirt gun, and he just had to soldier on and hope nobody noticed.
Jim: I would suppose that nobody noticing the flaws would be one of the upsides of nobody seeing your film in the first place. Until it becomes a camp classic, that is.
Ken: I guess that leads me to my final question on this, as I have no prior knowledge of Ben & Arthur. Did this ever screen at an actual theater?
Jim: I can’t say for sure, but I can’t even imagine what the reaction would have been to scenes like the anti-gay potion taped to Ben and Arthur’s doorway. I would have been rolling in the aisles.
Ken: I guess there you have it, folks. Kids born the year this came out are almost old enough to vote, and they’ve lived in a world where gay marriage has been legal and pretty much no longer controversial during their formative years. Is this a cultural artifact of a different time? I can’t really say. You’ve broadened my horizons either way, Jim.
Jim: Next month, I’ll try to have us branch out more, to something that can be described as “Like The Room, but with a shark,” or “Like The Room, but aboard an inter-dimensional starship.”
Ken: I’ll be sure to save the date, sir.