“Audiences in this country really haven’t seen films in which two men fall in love, just as heterosexual couples do,” says Mark Bessenger, who recently finished shooting Rhapsody, a locally produced independent feature about a gay romance. “In Rhapsody we take the relationship at face value. These are regular guys with normal emotional dilemmas. I believe America is ready for a more realistic take, not only the angry shockers from the new queer cinema.”

When Bessenger wrote the script back in ’86, he didn’t expect it ever to be made. “We were still in the dark ages,” he says.

Bessenger grew up in a religious, conservative home in southern Indiana. “Naturally I was repressed and tried to date girls,” he explains with a soft chuckle. One of his obsessions was–and still is–monster movies. He started making Super-8 shorts when he was 12. “Perhaps you can say I identified with those creatures rejected by society.”

He came to Chicago in 1985 to pursue an MFA in filmmaking at Columbia College. Four years ago, with enough practical film production experience under his belt and about $25,000 raised from family and friends, Bessenger made his first feature, “a horror-action-martial-arts movie” in Super-8 called Ninja Zombie. It went straight to video.

After such films as Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, Go Fish, and The Living End paved the way for box-office acceptance of movies with gay themes, he sensed the timing was right to dust off his old script.

“What we need is to show the varieties of same-sex relationships,” he says. “Most gay-male films tend to be about AIDS or drugs, which push the envelope of convention further in one direction. Or the drag-queen type that deals with an exotic subculture. Only in lesbian films do we see genuine relationships.” Bessenger says Rhapsody is an old-fashioned romance in the tradition of Hollywood classics. “In a lot of ways it’s similar to a wholesome Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle, with its share of uplifting piano music and heartbreaks.”

About a year and a half ago Bessenger raised enough money from the local gay community and his family (his parents still don’t know the subject of the film or that Bessenger is gay) to launch Rhapsody into production. He recruited local actors Nic Arnzen, who’s gay, and Dan Paxson, who isn’t, as the lead characters. “I had wanted someone more macho for Paxson’s role,” says Bessenger, “but he turned out just fine. He gave the lines a lighthearted feel. And he didn’t have qualms about the love scenes. He was only concerned with frontal nudity.”

Two weeks into the shoot, Bessenger found himself overextended, and he shut down the production. He then approached Josef Steiff about being the film’s coproducer. The two knew each other from Columbia, where Steiff has taught script writing since ’88. Steiff, who’s also gay, says films like Rhapsody are “necessary to desensitize audiences. In the 40s and 50s Hollywood movies showed couples sleeping in separate beds. Now couples are seen having graphic sex. The same should hold for R-rated, gay-themed movies.” Steiff eagerly joined the crew, and last March the camera started rolling again.

With expenses at $65,000 and editing costs still to come, Bessenger trekked to Hollywood in July with hat in hand. “There are plenty of gay executives out there who are friendly to the project,” he says, “but I got the standard answer that any independent producer would get: “We can’t help you finish it, but bring it to us when you’re done.”‘

As part of the 15th annual Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival, Bessenger and Steiff will show clips from Rhapsody and talk about making the film in a panel discussion at 12:30 PM Sunday at the Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Admission is free. For more info call 384-0772.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.