Growing up in League City, back when the town was considered little more than the place people stopped to get ice on their way from Houston to Galveston, Kyle Henry would stay up late at night to get a glimpse of the outside world.
His connection to that world came from watching movies after midnight on TV. Movies of the 1960s and ’70s, such as "Midnight Cowboy," helped expand the future filmmaker’s worldview and introduced him to ideas of sexuality outside of his bubble.
"I think that was my first intimation that the world was much more complicated than I was being led to believe in my suburban cocoon, pre-Internet," Henry said recently over coffee in Austin. "And it stuck with me that a lot of the work from the ’70s — I also love ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ from John Schlesinger — deal with sex in a way that’s integrated to the rest of the lives of characters and is integral to the story."
Memories of those films and their honesty inspired Henry and his collaborators, writers Carlos Treviño and Jessica Hedrick, to create "Fourplay," a film of four extended vignettes that explore the nuanced vulnerabilities and desires entwined within human sexuality.
Henry, who received a graduate degree from the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas in 1999, thinks that mainstream cinema treats sexuality as a commodity and saps the human element from it. Instead of offering personal stories revealing raw emotion and the power of intimacy, mainstream Hollywood movies use sex as a diversion or a chance for audiences to catch a brief shot of a celebrity’s breast.
The stories in "Fourplay" are less interested in revealing body parts than revealing fears and longings. The quartet of films, set in four different cities, includes a woman with an interest in bestiality, a homosexual sex farce played out in a shopping mall bathroom, a straight couple struggling with the idea of parenthood and a transvestite and disabled man sharing a powerful but fleeting connection.
"I knew I wanted four short films that dealt with extreme sexual situations that were life-changing," Henry said. "I wanted to have stories that felt like they came from a much broader spectrum than what I was seeing."
The movie has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, leaving Henry to book the film at theaters across the country on his own. He eschewed the stigmatizing NC-17 rating, as it keeps films from being able to appear on certain platforms such as iTunes. While the NC-17 rating is established to keep kids from viewing mature content, Henry says the fact that the label is almost always applied to sex is a telling commentary.
"It’s very clear what the morality is that’s being policed," Henry said. "You can have as many disembowelments, tortures, slaughters and desensitizing acts of violence in a film. … I can’t even imagine now in my mind what film in America could get an NC-17 rating for violence. I think we have to ask to ask ourselves as a culture what does it mean that we have no real censorship of violence but we still have the very real censorship bureau for expression of sex. What does it mean that we can murder each other but we can’t love and touch each other in our films: What does it say about us as Americans? And what does it say about the problems that our culture is facing?
"There’s only one NC-17 film on iTunes, and it’s called ‘Shame.’ What does that say? Maybe we can only deal with sex in films if you’re punished for it."
Despite the over-the-top sexual scenarios played out in "Fourplay," the stories are less about what the audience can see than what is happening inside the character’s mind, a fact that Henry sees as representative of the sexual experience.
"I was as much or more interested in what’s going on in the heads of these people while they’re having these experiences and not looking at their bodies and turning their bodies into products for somebody to get off to," Henry said.
"Fourplay" entered the world piecemeal, with the vulgar (and funny) Tampa mall segment screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. The film bowed in its entirety for the first time in June 2012. The compilation-style film worked well for Henry’s busy schedule as a film editor and film production teacher at Northwestern University. And, though the films all speak to human sexuality, Henry wanted to avoid a forced through-line or leitmotif that would tie the piece together. Instead, the filmmaker, a fan of Eudora Welty and Willa Cather, approached the film like a short story collection.
"I like those great short story compilations where the writer’s worldview is encapsulated in the sum total of experiencing these varied stories," Henry said. "So for me, it was important to have variety because that variety expresses what I think about sex and sexuality."
Though he believes the film offers audiences willing to go along for the ride a good time, Henry realizes that his film won’t appeal to everyone. But Henry says he doesn’t care if "Fourplay" touches everybody (such as the man who got up at a screening in Utah and yelled for the projectionist to "make it stop"). He just wants to be as honest as he can. When you do that as a filmmaker, Henry says, you will always find people who appreciate it and connect.
After one screening, a man approached Henry with tears in his eyes and told the filmmaker that his boyfriend is a paraplegic. The audience member told Henry, "I’ve never seen a film that gave disabled people sexual agency. They think about sex. They have sex lives. And you did it in a way that felt very real, very honest and not preachy, and I just want to thank you for doing that."
Responses like that are why Henry makes the films that he makes.
"All of us want to see aspects of our lives represented so that we know we’re here, so that we know that we’re alive and we know we’re not alone," Henry said.