In Austin's independent, DIY filmmaking scene, Kyle Henry has stood out as the "freaky uncle of the family" his words, yet impressively accurate. That family includes flourishing writer-directors PJ Raval, Bob Byington, Bryan Poyser, the Zellner brothers and Bob Ray.
Then there's Uncle Henry, who, alas, is leaving Austin's family in August to teach in Chicago. In fine Kyle fashion, his latest effort traces a tender sexual encounter between a transvestite and a quadriplegic. "Fourplay: San Francisco" is the first segment in a quartet of short films that explore variations in human sexuality with unflinching and compassionate discretion.
Each short, which will eventually make up a feature-length anthology, addresses a disparate sexual theme in a specific city — San Francisco, Austin, Tampa, Fla., and New Haven, Conn. All the films are completed except the New Haven episode, which deals with a lesbian and her adventures in bestiality.
"Fourplay: San Francisco," co-written by Henry's longtime romantic and creative partner Carlos Treviño, recently screened at the gay and lesbian film festival Outfest in, aptly enough, San Francisco. Response was roundly positive. The film sold out 600-seat and 250-seat venues.
"It was the best we could have possibly hoped for," Henry, 40, says. "The audience giggled and tittered in the same places Carlos and I do."
Though the movie has serious intentions about human connections, acceptance and healing in unlikely circumstances, it is peppered with subtle humor, including some explicit toe sucking.
"Humans are really funny when they're put under pressure," Henry says.
The movie was picked up by Indiepixfilms.com, where it can be downloaded or streamed. It will eventually be available at iTunes, Amazon and other Web outlets, before the release of a DVD featuring all four shorts. The films are meant to be viewed "on your computer screen late at night," Henry says with a laugh.
Henry's prior films — the documentaries "University Inc." and "American Cowboy," and the drama "Room," which played the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, and fetched an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Austin actress Cindy Williams — were wind-ups for "Fourplay," the University of Texas alumni's most risque outing.
"There's a dearth of adult work dealing with the full range of sexual expression. I grew up in the '70s, and I thought there would continue to be movies showing adults in all their (messed) up glory," Henry says.
"We had a pure desire to show life as we see it. The sex scenes aren't just mere digressions or titillations. They're integrated into the stories."
Each narrative presents its own direction and tone. One is a slapstick farce set in a crowded mall rest room ("Tampa"). One is a melodrama about a heterosexual couple contemplating having a baby ("Austin"). Another is about a closet lesbian who baby-sits a dog ("New Haven"). Henry calls "San Francisco" a heartfelt dramedy.
Except for exterior shots, the movies were filmed in Austin. The "New Haven" episode might be shot in Chicago, Henry's new home. Henry will teach filmmaking at Northwestern University in a tenure track post. They could be there "forever," Henry says.
His departure is a blow to the Austin film community. "Kyle's brought a lot of glory to Austin by having his work recognized around the world. He will be sorely missed in these parts," says Rebecca Campbell, executive director of the Austin Film Society.
Like his film "Room," "Fourplay" was executive-produced by R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe and his creative partner Jim McKay under their C-100 Film Corp., an outfit that gives grants to promising artists. Still, the film's budget is tight.
"If you're going to make work that's challenging now, you better make it on an extremely low budget to survive," because returns are low, Henry says. "Economic viability is not my first consideration."
Campbell describes Henry as a "true independent."
Henry's next project will attempt to "reinvent the biopic" using a three-part format focusing on famed, once-marginalized writers: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe. They were outsiders who "spoke truth as they saw it in ways that society did not want to see or deal with in their lifetimes," Henry says.
Henry relates to the artists with a passion that has made him one of the area's most interesting filmmakers.
"People always wonder what I'll be up to next," he says. "I'm in the rebellious American artist tradition, and that gives me a lot of juice and energy to keep working on material that has meaning. It's that sense of if you truly have something to say to your culture it might not be heard, but you have to say it anyway."