In 10 Words or Less
A look at what makes a real man's man
Loves: Good documentaries
Likes: Kevin Smith, the bear concept
Dislikes: "Travelogue" documentaries
If I was gay, there's no doubt I would be considered a "bear," Though my predilection for flannel died in the late '90s, I've long maintained the facial hair and bulk that would mark me as part of the LGBT sub-culture dedicated to large, hairy manly men (though admittedly whether I'm a "manly man" is certainly up for debate.) Though it's come to be positioned as something of a fetish, where guys have a taste for a cuddly teddy-bear of a man, the bear scene is far more than an physical thing, as it's wrapped in a big pile of politics and issues that's unique to any minority inside of a minority.
After starting out with an old silent film about literal bear hunters (appearances by ursine bears in popular culture (and old media in general) serve as a useful transition tool early on) and lots of talking-heads with bears and "chasers" (guys into bears), Bear Nation sets out to meet tons of guys who either identify as bears or who are attracted to bears, in a variety of cities, including a big Bear Pride event in Chicago (and a quick jaunt to Europe.) Though there are a lot of interesting topics to broach in this area, the key one is acceptance, which is important for the gay community, but even moreso for the bears, who struggle to find that peace with their own people. The most effective interviews get right to the heart of this concern.
Through the many interviews, director Malcolm Ingram (Small Town Gay Bar) lays out the conflict between the self-explanatory "chub bears" and "muscle bears," the problems faced due to with society's view of fat people and the push-back against the mainstream stereotype of the "twink"-y, effeminate gay man. There are no overarching stories to the documentary, as we pop in and out of the bears' and chasers' lives, which keeps things moving quickly, but it also keeps the bear world at a bit of an arm's length. Only when we get to spend some time at the Bear Pride convention and see the socialization and fun they enjoy when they get the chance to get together, do we get to know the bears a bit better, putting a true human face on the scene.
Ingram does a nice job of getting people to share their lives and experiences in bear-dom on camera, but his technique could use a bit of work. His sit-down interviews are sometimes shot in an odd profile angle that is awkward for a talking-head, and there tends to be a bit too much consecutive talking, without taking a breath to show the setting or action (and then when he does let the camera roll, like on a bus ride through Chicago, it doesn't accomplish much of anything.) There's also a bit of a narrow focus, where some topics, like the fetishistic way some smaller guys exclusively go for the chub bears, the world of leather daddies (who can be seen here and there) or the question of why one should celebrate the results of an unhealthy lifestyle, barely get lip service. At just 75 minutes, there's certainly room to do some exploring.
Meanwhile, after spending most of the movie illustrating and insisting that the bear community is diverse, Ingram puts his pal (and the film's executive producer) Kevin Smith on camera to talk exclusively about how the bear world loves fat guys, namely him. While Smith is his usual entertaining self, his presence, as well as the extremely brief appearance of Tracey Morgan (obviously shot on the set of Cop Out), seem out of place, unlike that of Bob Mould (Husker Du) an actual gay man and bear, who offers some genuine insight along with his celebrity.
The 75-minute film arrives on one DVD, in a standard-width keepcase. The disc has a mildly animated, anamorphic widescreen menu with options to play the film, select scenes and check out the extras. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks good, with the staged interviews looking sharper and more detailed than the on-the-street footage (natch), which also can come off a bit washed-out (at least during the day scenes.) Though darker on-the-scene footage can suffer from a good deal of noise, there were no real noticeable issues with digital artifacts to be noticed and the colors and black levels were solid. Fine detail isn't extremely high (due to the source material likely), but it's not tremendously soft either.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is fine for the presentation, delivering the voices of the interviewees with clarity, while not suffering from distortion during the louder party scenes. There's nothing dynamic about the mix, as everything comes at you right down the middle.
Did I mention Kevin Smith's involvement? He's back in the extras, as you get to see what looks to be the bulk of the interview from which his scenes in the film are culled, giving you over a half-hour of time with the gab-master. Though I still feel that his point of view doesn't quite jive with the movie's, as he talks about being the "hot girl" in the bear scene and defines the bear idea as being just about fat guys, but he is a gifted conversationalist. Of course, being best buddies with his interviewer doesn't hurt the ease in which he talks about being fat and how important that's been to his life.
Tracy Morgan, an odd inclusion considering his status in the gay community in recent years, is barely in the documentary, and the entire interview with him is just as brief, lasting less than a minute. Not to spoil anything, but he never even talks about anything even remotely gay. The chat with Bob Mould is far more interesting and extensive, as the Sugar frontman spends 21 minutes talking about his own experiences as a gay guy and his thoughts on bear-dom.
The Bottom Line
I fully admit that the key draw to this documentary for me was Kevin Smith, but as a guy who considers himself gay-friendly, I thought it would be an interesting look into a world I didn't previously know. Unfortunately, because we don't get to really spend time with anyone, I still don't know that much, outside of the conflict between the fit and the husky elements of the scene. The DVD looks and sounds fine, and if you enjoy Smith (and/or Husker Du) the time spent with the celebrities is enough to make the disc worth a look, but you probably would have a better time with the Matt Hinrichs-recommended Kink Crusaders, about yet another subset of bears.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.