15 December, 2008

Movie Review: Milk (2008)

A couple of months ago, I expressed an optimistic excitement for the Harvey Milk biopic that recently came out. Having now seen the movie, I thought I'd clarify my disappointment.

Milk isn't a terrible movie--it's not even a bad movie--but it's nowhere near the level of gay masterpiece I hoped it would be. It's a conventional, unambiguous rallying cry with no real impact.

Gus Van Sant has done some very original, highly stylized, downright weird films in the past decade. My Own Private Idaho was Shakespeare's world populated by gay prostitutes, with still life sex scenes and split screens and over-the-top dialogue; Psycho was a more surreal (and more scandalous) shot-for-shot replay of the Hitchcock original; Elephant was a hyper-realistic photograph of teenage violence starring no-name high school actors; and so on. His most conventional film was Good Will Hunting, but that at least was moving and had momentum, as well as a terrific soundtrack. Milk is just plain standard. Each character--though based on real people--can be summed up in a simple sentence, such as Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones, the tenacious queer who... well, I don't even need a full sentence. That's about it.

Sean Penn is convincing and sweet as the 40-year-old New York insurance man who realizes how boring his life is and decides to head west and make an impact. He seems to settle on a life of gay political activism simply because it's the most convenient; the attention, the theatrics, and the social bonding seem almost as important--if not more so--than the actual revolution.

Which is an interesting idea, but not one that the movie really allows you to dwell on. Milk, with its fast-paced biopic structure (here's one important event... then here's another one a year later... then a close friend dies... and then there's a small triumph... and then...) and its attention to political activism, wants to be a cry for equality, not a complex, ambiguous character study. Harvey is reduced to the role of hero, champion, martyr. You're not allowed to be skeptical of his background, his relationships, his motivation, his manipulative methods. You know he's the good guy because he's on the side of equality--the ends justify the means and all that--and so you have to root for him, and that's that.

But I don't enjoy that. I like rooting for villains. I like feeling sorry for the assholes. I like believing, even for just one turbulent moment, that what the psycho killer is saying makes perfect sense. And I can't stand a flawless hero. I can't stand being forced to side with someone.

And as for Harvey Milk as portrayed in this film--well, he just wasn't that inspirational. Look, I'm queer and I'm liberal and all of that. It's a subject that's very close to me. Plus, I'm a sucker for inspiration, and I cry several times a year in movie theaters. But his speeches and his rallies never made me feel anything other than mildly interested on an intellectual level. The bad direction is part of that--the cinematography choices were dreadful, with very little camerawork standing out as exceptional. With each march and protest, a still camera looks head-on at the faces of the few stars as they march forward. Why? If we're supposed to be immersed in the riot, to feel like we're a part of it, why would be facing the rioters? Why would we be so still? Why not throw the camera into the action, shakily following behind the other marchers? But there's none of that.

Maybe Van Sant was trying to prove that gay people are just as normal and boring as straight people, that their inspirational biopics can be just as color-by-numbers and boring as straight biopics. But who wants to see that? Harvey was loud--"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!"--Harvey was theatrical. The gay movement at that time loved to shout out loud. So why such a stifling story?

There's only one aspect of the film that's interesting, and that's the relationship between Harvey Milk and Dan White (Josh Brolin, in a fine performance), the straight-laced police officer and political rival. Their awkward dance is compelling--Dan "the man" tries to please and work with, however distantly, his minority colleague, while Harvey desires only to destroy the competitor who represents everything he detests and opposes. Dan keeps promises that Harvey breaks. Dan drunkenly stumbles in the shadows of his fading conservative beliefs--beliefs he doesn't even necessarily understand or trust anymore--while Harvey milks up the limelight. It's a sad and scary battle of wits, and one that paints a dark, political tinge on the otherwise spotless Harvey, but the theme is confined to a few short scenes and left largely unexplored.

As a movie focusing strictly on Dan vs. Harvey, this could have been a good film, but by expanding this into an eight-year-long historical examination of how great San Francisco is and how wonderful and downtrodden gay people always are, the movie strays into the realm of simple, sweeping statements. I'm disappointed by how much critical acclaim this film is getting; aside from Penn and Brolin it's rather lackluster.

d: Gus Van Sant w: Dustin Lance Black
(Sean Penn, Josh Brolin)

12 December, 2008

In which I complain about US Airways

I made plans over three months ago to go camping under the stars at Death Valley National Park, the darkest, deepest, driest, hottest place in the country (or is it the world?). The night sky is so unpolluted by light and clouds that you can see pretty much any star you'll ever be able to see with the naked eye, plus the Milky Way galaxy on its side, stretching across the horizon.

I was excited. I very much have a romantic attachment to stargazing, as well as campfires and uncomfortable tent sleep. I eagerly anticipated abandoned mines, paleolithic artifacts, coyotes, and seventy degree sunshine in December. I also cautiously anticipated a thirty-nine degree night by packing a suitcase full of blankets, sleeping bags, sweatshirts, insulated jeans, a tent, and some pillows. A bag so heavy and big that I had to check it while my carry-on contained little more than a book (I'm working on Middlemarch by George Eliot now, and it's not very compelling three hundred pages in, but it's okay).

Paul, who's staying with his family in Las Vegas this week--Las Vegas, a city I despise, full of hungover, miserable tourists who have been drinking and gambling and eating at buffets for thirty-four hours straight, miserable tourism industry employees who have to deal with said tourists, no notable cuisine, no common fashion sense, giant blinking billboards of Bette Midler's airbrushed legs, overpriced everything, immigrants thrusting out litter describing women with stars on their nipples, people convinced you really can get something for nothing, hundreds of obese people in cowboy hats, and for some reason my sister and her daughter whom I miss--and I had made all the plans, reserving the rental car, getting the directions, figuring out the campsite, packing the bags, and timing everything so that I could arrive Tuesday evening, we could camp Tuesday night, hike Wednesday morning and afternoon, and hang out with my sister Wednesday night all before I had to fly back Thursday morning (a total of eleven hours of travel, plus the time zone differential) to return to work today.

Fifteen dollars to check the bag each way on an airplane that didn't even offer complimentary water or in-flight entertainment of any kind. (Not even headphones? Come on!). I arrived in Las Vegas. My baggage did not. Not until six hours later, when it was too late to do anything involving a national park. So I spent two nights in Vegas. Two nights in motherfucking Vegas, and I barely got to see my sister. All this money I spent... for two nights in Vegas.

And the woman in the baggage claim office says, "No, there's no refund. The baggage claim only guarantees the transportation, not the time." Are you fucking kidding? What does that even mean? What kind of customer service is that, US Airways? You ruined my goddamn vacation.

I shall seek retribution soon.

Of course she never has breakfast at Tiffany's!

I remember seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's in my "film studies" elective class in seventh grade, though I don't really remember much of it other than daffy, romantic banter, a cutesy moment centered on a Cracker Jack box, talk of a guy in Sing Sing, and a bespectacled Mickey Rooney screaming down a flight of stairs. I also distinctly remember having no idea what the title meant and deciding that it was an intentional non sequitur serving only to confuse. She never has breakfast at Tiffany's! How could she? It's a jewelry store.

So when I decided to read the novella a few days ago, I actually didn't expect much insight. In fact, when gabby, beautiful Holly Golightly--to a certain extent a New York City escort, to another extent a social butterfly and starlet, but quite possibly none of the above--first drops the titular line, it is indeed a non sequitur. She confesses:
I don't mean I'd mind being rich and famous. That's very much on my schedule, and someday I'll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I'd like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany's.

At that point it's not even clear if she's talking about the store or some friend's house, though other than her big dumb lovable brother Fred--long estranged by the trials of adulthood--she doesn't seem to have any real friends she thinks of by name and would make such plans involving. But soon after, hugging the cat that lives in her transient apartment, she clarifies:

Poor slob... poor slob without a name. It's a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven't right to give him one: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don't belong to each other: he's an independent, and so am I. I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together. I'm not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it's like.... It's like Tiffany's.... Not that I give a damn about jewelry.... It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

Tiffany's is home, and as revealed throughout the book through the eyes of a nameless neighbor narrator she lovingly calls Fred (for a while), Holly spends her whole life looking for it, abandoning her abusive childhood, slipping away from an empty teen marriage, escaping all ties and titles (her business card simply states, "Holly Golightly, traveling"), and eventually fleeing the country to South America and then onward to third-world Africa.

Holly and the narrator are cursed by their excessive talent and their overwhelming ambition. In a world populated by pudgy-faced millionaires with baby complexes, huge, flat-chested women who seductively accentuate their speech impediments, and other such absurdities, they are two smart, young souls bursting with life and ability and unwilling to be imprisoned by anything less than their desert. The narrator, it's assumed, succeeds because he's able to focus his energy on the singular goal of being a published writer, but Holly is unable to align her broad array of exceptional talents and gifts, which brought her from an impoverished life in the deep south to the upper echelons of fashionable New York society.

She despises zoos for their cages, lives out of a few hastily packed cardboard boxes, never seems to sleep, and talks several interesting pages at a time. Breakfast at Tiffany's is hilarious, scandalous (I'm curious to see how the G-rated Audrey Hepburn movie was even made, now that I know about the drugs, sex, and language that proliferate the source material), and rich with modern absurdities, but Capote treats his shy, nameless narrator and his wayward star with a heartfelt tenderness. Their relationship is sweet though not quite romantic, and their peaceful success is yearned for by the reader.

In the end, as Holly prepares a hasty departure, she unleashes her moniker-less feline friend (the cat is like the narrator, who she first calls Fred and then calls Buddy, never bothering to learn the real name because she knows she's destined to lose him in short time), who runs off to find his own Tiffany's while she, perhaps tragically, continues her quest for a sense of belonging and a chance to stop and breathe.


There are three additional short stories compiled with Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of them very diverse: "House of Flowers," a fable about Haitian prostitutes and Carnivale that reminded me of Black Orpheus; "A Diamond Guitar," a precursor to The Shawshank Redemption; and "A Christmas Memory," a beautiful recollection of a perfect friendship.

Of the three, the last is by far my favorite. Capote writes of two friends and distant cousins, one a septuagenarian and the other a seven-year-old, the former as youthful as the latter is wise, preparing for an advancing Southern Christmas by baking fruitcakes for distant acquaintances (motorists who once broke down at the driveway, the bus driver, the President of the United States) and crafting gifts and decorations. Capote's images are precise, as in this scene where the two misfits, neither with any source of traditional income, dig out their savings to prepare for grocery shopping:

Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man's eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies.

The pair enjoy Christmas richly without material goods, savoring the smells of good cooking, the warmth of companionship, and the taste of adventure. Yet for all its tenderness and tranquility, in spite of its familiar theme and message, the story never comes off as schmaltzy, moralistic, or falsely nostalgic. It's a terrific snapshot of a sweet spot from childhood, and it deserves to be a Christmas classic by now, though unfortunately I'd never heard of it before.

19 November, 2008

Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi

I was going to write about Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi, which I just finished yesterday (a very quick, 178 page read), but it turns out that all of my thoughts about the book have already been eloquently stated in this New York Times article that's a month older than I am.

Essentially, though trying to be a timely allegory, the novel doesn't exist outside of its own pages, and hardly within them. Emecheta, a woman from Lagos, Nigeria, who had previously written a couple autobiographical works, sets her fable in the fictional, hardscrabble village of Shavi, somewhere on the lakes of Ogene in the southern Sahara. Emecheta can't quite decide whether the Shavians are heroic, idyllic primitives or warmongering imperialists just waiting to explode out of the past; one things for certain: they're not complex, well-rounded human beings, since no character is afforded more than a few pat summarizations and philosophical objectives.

Some offensive because they're supposed to be offensive liberal white intellectuals crash-land a flaming bird--birds being an oracular animal to the Shavians--into the Shavian wilderness, and the two groups spend a couple years teaching their moral flaws to each other. Their being there is somewhat nonsensical; they've fled Europe in a supposedly indestructible plane because they were certain that the civilized world was on the brink of nuclear holocaust. I'm not sure how people that paranoid and jumpy could be smart enough to build an indestructible plane, but what's more surprising is that when they land said indestructible plane and meet the locals, they can't even figure out where they are. It takes several chapters for them to deduce they're in Africa, and then only because a modified version of a certain African instrument is used in a celebration. Come on, guys? Weren't you looking out the window? Wasn't there any navigational gear? Can't you freaking tell when you're in the Sahara surrounded by a stereotypical African tribe?

The thoughtful, slow-moving Shavians--themselves refugee slaves from five hundred years ago--distrust the leprous, albino monkeys at first, many assuming that they're not human, but eventually they become convinced that, because of the flaming bird they arrived in, they are angels from Heaven sent to test their hospitality as well as deliver gifts that will free them from starvation and drought. This is a key distinction between the Europeans and the Shavians, perhaps the difference that's supposed to be most important. When the plane is fixed, a Shavian returns with the surviving Europeans to England. This man wrapped in goat skins who crash-lands into England in a strange, unregistered plane with five people who have been missing for over a year is detained by immigration officials for a couple of days before being released and embraced by society, which quickly corrupts him with its Western ways. Whereas the Shavians bestow great honors upon the visiting Europeans, the Europeans temporarily detain the visiting Shavian.

But here's the essential difference that's ignored by Emecheta: none of the Europeans think that the Shavian is an angel from God, which he proves by quickly adopting only the worst of Western habits (and there are no good Western values in this book; we're a bunch of jumpy, arrogant baby-killers with no respect for the simpler things in life). Likewise, no European suspects the Shavian is a contagious leper or a beast. It makes sense that the Shavians would pay special attention to visitors from the sky when a) they've never seen airplanes or white people and b) they never receive visitors. It's a little silly to expect one of hundreds of daily immigrants to be treated like royalty, yet Emecheta condemns the British for not giving the man a plush suite at Buckingham Palace.

One of the white people, a female doctor, is cut down a notch for attempting to impose her arrogant Western medicine on the Shavians. Watching a breach birth in progress, she attempts to provide her assistance in possibly performing a Caesarian section and saving the infant's life. She is shooed away, the birth is performed naturally in a squatting position, and everything ends up okay. Later she beats herself up for having fooled herself into thinking that her medical expertise would be superior to tradition (a tradition which, keep in mind, believes that female clitorisation is necessary for a woman to have sex--an act that is brought up but never really explored, a mutilation that is treated as a normal operation). I guess I'm biased, but I like to think that Western medicine and medical procedures have probably saved a few lives. There's something to be said for doing things naturally and holistically--but, uh, the outcome isn't always as peachy.

The Shavians don't exist in the real world, but they seem more realistic than the one-dimensional Europeans in the novel--Europeans that actually do exist and that Emecheta would've known. Lagos with its population of 8 million isn't exactly isolated Shavi. It's difficult pinpointing a reality in this book (the valuable, "hard" stones that proliferate the Shavian land and aren't quite diamonds add an extra dimension of implausibility), which makes the hamfisted statements and talking-head dialogue all the more difficult.

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Fairy tales have always been pretty bleak, I think because you need a grim landscape from which the goodness can emerge. Morality and virtue aren't that interesting if there's no evil to oppose them. Hence the cackling wicked witch and her winged monkeys, who made dusty Auntie Em and her crumbling wooden home seem all the more comforting. Or Bluebeard's bloody wife corpses hanging in his private chamber--maybe we shouldn't be spying on our loved ones, maybe ignorance is bliss, or whatever the point of that story is.

Charles Dickens, writing from the poorhouse in industrial England, loved depicting the humanity that feel somewhere in the cracks between the Victorian stuffed shirts and the grubby-fingered lowest common denominators. Oliver Twist, used and abused by both the bumbling bleeding hearts and the miserly pickpocket masterminds, did the best with his meager resources and scrappy courage, and in the end his basic goodness mingled with guiding providence and he triumphed over prostitution and poverty.

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, is a Dickensian fable where a huge portion of predestined luck, an underdog commitment to always doing right, and an ability to suffer the system and make it work allows impoverished orphan Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel) to rise above his brutal, oppressive surroundings. More so than ever in Dickens, however, these surroundings are gritty, stark, and disturbing, with none of the comic caricature that surrounded the Scrooges and Fagins his work.

Of course, Boyle's no stranger to horrific morality tales--recall the eye-gougings and blood splatterings in 28 Days Later or the blue baby in Trainspotting. Nor is he unfamiliar with warmhearted family films, as Millions proved. Slumdog Millionaire mixes both, opening with the film's skinny, teenaged protagonist hanging by his wrists, soaked in sweat, about to be electrocuted by two spittle-spewing interrogators.

Irfan Khan, as the head police inspector, is convinced that Jamal, an assistant at a call center whose primary job responsibility consists of serving out cups of chai, an orphan with no education, no fixed address, and no recorded background, has been cheating during the smash-hit game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (the Indian version). Jealousy is a strong motivator; how could a poor urchin who's done nothing with his brain all his life be so close to earning so much money when doctors and lawyers and educated, wealthy people have all failed short? How could an Indian boy who doesn't know that Gandhi's face is on the 100 rupee bank note know that Benjamin Franklin is on an American 100 dollar bill?

The bulk of the movie, of course, consists of flashbacks that reveal the twists of fate and important moments that have guided Jamal's tortuous, torturous life--rising literally from a shit hole, escaping with his brother and a pretty girl named Latika from a race riot that kills his mother, living in vast garbage heaps, panhandling on trains, perfecting con games, and falling prey to trustworthy, smooth-talking adults out to destroy their wards. India may be post-caste by the time of the film (in the late 90s through 2006), yet society seems bent on keeping the downcast down: Hindu racists storm Muslim slums, police target poor suspects, and an angel-faced savior toting ice cold Coca Cola recruits an army of ruthless eight-year-olds to serve as deformed panhandlers on tourist-busy boulevards. Some of the handicaps are easily faked; others he inflicts himself, since in this world "blind singers earn double." Money costs and you have to earn your pay, even arbitrarily. No boy singer gets money just for a beautiful voice; the eyes have to be taken first. Jamal can't just answer game show questions correctly. First his head must be violently ducked in a bucket of water.

So when one of the giveaway first questions ponders India's national motto--"Truth alone triumphs"--Jamal falters. Lies and cons have saved him more than honesty, and having seen what he's seen he knows the reality behind "Money alone triumphs." He uses a lifeline and asks the audience, which overwhelmingly knows the answer despite his ignorance. Jamal's success depends on luck and true life experience, not anything he's read. His success is also independently won; when a trustworthy source offers him an opportunity to actually cheat, he struggles with his options, having learned long ago that in his India there are no trustworthy strangers.

More interesting than the theme behind his rise on the show--that experience fosters a more worthwhile, meaningful, and memorable intelligence than a memorized education--is his reason for being on the show. Having never known the benefits of money yet having witnessed its destructive power in the life of his ladder-climbing gangster brother, Jamal doesn't particularly want the twenty million rupees he stands to win, probably doesn't even know what he'd do with it. What he desires is more human and more valuable--a chance to be seen by the love of his life, Latika, on the most-watched show in India. Fate has brought them together and torn them apart many times. Crime and money have cursed and fooled and abandoned both of them. With his shy face on the small screen long enough, he might just be able to reconnect with the only person he's always trusted, loved, and been able to depend on, the most beautiful girl he's ever seen, something her billionaire thug husband can acquire but never own, something unsullied by the filth and money surrounding everything.

Jamal escapes his interrogation when the inspector realizes, "You can't be a liar. You're too truthful." Latika escapes her sexual hostage situation when an important friend realizes that more is at stake than sex and money. And in the end a Dickensian happy ending is earned. It's not one that's incredibly deep--all in all, Jamal and Latika hardly know each other beyond their faces--but its purity shines amongst all the grit.

The final question is predictable to anyone paying attention to the details. What happens after the question is a touching surprise.

Boyle has earned another success with a fast-paced, pleasurable, and meaningful story. Dev Patel's acting is solid as the skinny, cute underdog, always prepared for the attack but never quite knowing how to prevent it, staring at a bright world at once swathed in color and grime, soaked in a sun that illuminated while it swelters and blisters. The music by M.I.A. also adds a nice touch, with her songs that are simultaneously fun and serious.

Slumdog Millionaire is a fable with messages and outcomes that are a little too good to be true and a little too sweet for the most cynical of us, but vivid, on-location shooting and top-notch direction add just the punch to make it rise above.

Slumdog Millionaire
d: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan w: Simon Beaufoy
(Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor)

05 November, 2008

Thomas Mann and the Artist Other

Vintage International's Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories

The creative mind is an alienating and lonely place in the short stories of German Nobelist Thomas Mann, a shadowy, self-sufficient cell in which the creative person hides and stews, occasionally peeking out at the simpler world beyond.

Art is effervescent, a resident of the mental aether, fueled only by other mental sustenance--its own creative momentum, the growing breadth of knowledge and understanding, other creations and works of art. The artistic mind needs artistic fodder, and no external incentive can truly satiate it, if the urge to create can ever truly said to be satiated. Fame and money, honor and sexual favors, privilege and notoriety, all can benefit the person encasing the artistic mind, but the mind itself becomes encumbered. In the work of Mann is a fatal dichotomy between the internal and the external: the outside man with his belongings, his social relationships, his loves, his physical appearance and surroundings, and the inside man with his private thoughts, his emotions, his intelligence, and his need to procreate his knowledge. Rarely do the two coexist happily and fully empowered; the benefit of one tends to destroy the other.

In "Death in Venice," published in 1912, the acclaimed author Gustav Aschenbach has steadily and quietly acquired the trappings of literary fame, culminating in the addition of the surname prefix "von," a preposition denoting nobility. Aschenbach has grown tired and lonely, distracted from his art by the clutches of aristocracy. He undergoes a standard upper class treatment to deal with his writer's block, an exotic vacation on the sunny shores of foreign Venice, itself now an old and tired resort, humid, filthy, and gray. The vacation will presumably calm and enrich his mind, but of course the more realistic outcome is one of softening distraction, a thoughtless immersion in sunshine, rich food, and other sensual pleasantries.

On the boat ride, Aschenbach experiences a revulsion at the sight of a superficial old man, a disgusting, flamboyant clown in adolescent attire, with a youthful but clearly artificial wig, a thick smearing of rosy makeup, false teeth, and a nauseating exuberant attitude, eagerly pursuing young sailors as though they are fooled by his costume. The old man is a fake, obsessed with an external, physical youth he can never again possess, living backward, unable to accept his own reality. With age comes maturity, wisdom, a strengthening of the artistic abilities, but the old man shuns these hard-fought skills, instead chasing after the easy gifts of youthful vigor and beauty.

Filled with contempt, Aschenbach arrives at Venice committed to his ideals, eager to embrace the mind he has spent decades shaping and honing, willing to shed his long-gone youth. His sojourn soon weakens his commitment, however, as a full belly and mindless trips to the sandy shore allow his thoughts to prattle and his eyes to fall on a blonde, Polish adolescent, a pubescent Adonis with flawless features, traveling with his wealthy Eastern European family. Despite being a widowed father, a surprise sexual obsession creeps in, at first explained away with pederastic allusions to Roman and Greek mythology but eventually acknowledged as outright infatuation. The unblemished youth, the overwhelming self-confidence, the full future ahead--Aschenbach becomes enamored of all these features of his young Tadzio, a boy he fearfully and lustfully pursues without ever speaking to or interacting with, beyond an unheard, whispered "I love you."

Lust, regret, and unjustified optimism flood into the recesses of his mind, preoccupying his thoughts and commanding his actions. Artistic creation, intellectual stimulation, moral ideals, and even concern for physical well-being slip away as Aschenbach pursues his unconquerable tease. With obvious threats of an intense cholera epidemic sweeping Venice and with his health beginning to falter, Aschenbach forgets his original salubrious intentions, seeking every opportunity to prolong his stay in this false paradise. In the end, he becomes the elderly clown he once scorned: dying his hair, rouging his cheeks, and expending much money on foppish attire. As he dies in his beach chair, completely hypnotized by the illusion of paradisaical youth that surrounds him, he witnesses a boyish opponent trample his perfect boy hero into the sand, revealing a crying, weak, and selfish boy beneath the godlike physical perfection. Nostalgia and regret may make childhood seem perfect, but childhood is a time of powerlessness, egocentrism, and emotional volatility.


In "Tonio Kröger," published in 1902, the inverse occurs with equally regretful though not quite as tragic results. Tonio, an introspective, wealthy schoolboy ostracized for his foreign name, exotic Italian mother, and effeminate disposition but tolerated due to his family's social standing, admires his equally upstanding buddy Hans Hansen, an Aryan ideal with blonde hair, blue eyes, an outgoing personality, and boyish attributes. Tonio admires Hans, who--in appearance, at least--remains unsullied by self-doubt, emotional conflict, and troubling thoughts. Hans is friendly and blameless, thoughtlessly acting according to societal standards, and the only books he reads are about horse racing. Tonio respects Hans's bourgeois simplicity while belittling his own commitment to literary novels and poetic thoughts, and when he realizes that the only way they could ever closely connect would be for Hans to muddy his charm or for Hans to turn off his brain, Hans decides to preserve Hans's mindless posterboy ideal by retreating from their tenuous friendship. Similarly at the age of sixteen he departs from Ingeborg Holm, his beautiful, spoiled dancing partner who detects Tonio's complicated differentness.

By adulthood, his family prestige having vanished, Tonio becomes a famous writer in exchange for abandoning interaction with the real world. In Tonio's mind, a person on the verge of artistry must choose between being vibrant and devoting oneself to art. To pursue art is to kill the external self, to destroy any enjoyment of physical reality or personal relationships. The artistic temperament makes pleasantries too complex to be truly enjoyed, and hedonistic pleasures distract too much from mental fulfillment. Tonio consciously chooses death, in his mind sacrificing himself so that other, more simple, more beautiful people can more easily enjoy the outside world.

Tonio Kröger is a socially awkward, sexually confused pariah, demeaning the people he admires most to protect his fragile ego from rejection. His dichotomy of dead artist versus living simpleton is unfounded and fatalistic, and his painter friend Lisabeta seems to realize this as she quietly dismisses his diatribe on the subject. In the end, he journey north to Denmark, home of the loner intellectual Hamlet, passing through his hometown--all the more transformed due to his own transformation--on a quest to gain some refuge from his alienation. He confesses his love for humanity but remains too trapped in his fears and preconceptions to become a part of it.


Detlev Spinell, the unsuccessful, pretentious, and cowardly novelist from "Tristan," published in 1902, also suffers from his own feelings of martyrdom and condescension toward the easy-living, non-artistic simpleton. His one claim to fame is a short, substanceless novel bogged down with florid descriptions of furniture and scenery. All the same, he parades this novel around the sanatorium in which he resides, frequently rereading it and pushing it off on any interested potential admirer. He acknowledges that his profound intelligence has made him physically weak, but his praise toward normal, hardworking humans with their flabby ideas, coarse tastes, and strong wills is backhanded and insulting. His love for his alien distinction blinds him from how others more realistically perceive him and prevent him from having valuable interactions. His writing his hyperbolic, absurd, and clumsy, and his perceptions of his fellow men and women are offensive. Rather than loving the totality of a woman--her unique shortcomings, her attractive qualities, her human flaws--Spinell prefers to see women only briefly from the corner of his eye, never tarnishing his perfect first impression with unsightly realities.

When a philandering, foreign merchant's wife, the sensitive, piano-playing daughter of a dying German dynasty, enters the sanatorium with respiration problems following the birth of her healthy baby boy, Spinell chooses to fall in love with his illusion of the heroine--a fragile piano prodigy possessing the greatest thoughts and talents. Flaws such as a garish, bulging vein on her forehead irk him, but he loves his image of her all the same, criminalizing her pragmatic, normal husband while urging the woman to exert herself through music, an exhausting activity that, as warned by her doctors, kills her. According to Spinell, artists have a duty to succumb to their art, to sacrifice themselves to their ideals, that each minute spent living in the real world is one step farther from true divinity. Spinell is, of course, sociopathic, and his confrontation with the husband, who reveals to Spinell a more mundane portrait of his wife, is tense and charged.


Aristocratic pretension and the tension between nobility/wealth and art emerge again in "The Blood of the Walsungs," a disturbing tale from 1905 in which two incredibly privileged twins, their thoughts bogged down with their own superiority, fashion, wealth, and societal conventions, look down upon inferior outsiders so hatefully that their quest for companionship leads to incest. Siegmund longs to be an artist and to have interesting, imaginative thoughts, but his preoccupations with customs, fashions, and money oppress his ideas.


A depressive longing for youth and nostalgia emerges again in "Disorder and Early Sorrow," from 1925, wherein a history professor with a one-track mind dedicated to the fully explainable events of several centuries ago (and how they sometimes relate to the modern topics at hand) stresses over the atraditional behaviors of his rebellious children and their new styles of culture, dress, dance, and politics. Like "Death in Venice," the story's obsession with resisting progress borders on the pedophiliac, as the professor bestows all of his faith and love (approaching sexually deviant expectations) on his youngest daughter, a girl as yet untarnished by the revolutions and odd styles of the times.


And in "Mario and the Magician," from 1929 on the eve of European fascism, the artist becomes a complete dictator, a fully committed mastermind who expends all his energy, health, thoughts, and life on exerting power over and for the benefit of the common man. The magician Cipolla, whose advertising sways an entire Italian town to attend his performance, is a hunched, chain-smoking, alcohol-swilling hypnotist who bends both the willing and unwilling to do what he desires. The people dance frantic jigs and become erect as boards so that the sneering, condescending man can use them as chairs. The audience delights at the mystery yet allows a smidgen of concern for the hypnotized, to which Cipolla responds that it is he who should be pitied, it is he who does all the work, who must supervise the slaves, who must constantly exude totalitarian control.

"Mario and the Magician" is fascism in a microcosm. It details a people's ability to be persuaded by the smooth talking and originality of a dictator. It showcases the slow succumbing to undesirable events; the first-person-plural narrator ("we," this is all of Italy and Germany, all of humanity perhaps, not just the stereotypical family in the narrative) at one point longs to leave the performance with his kids, but allows himself to remain locked in with everyone else, choosing to further examine the spectacles rather than raise the energy to break out. The somewhat admirable fascist seeks pity while degrading his subjects, going so far as to expose the deepest, most cherished secrets in the mind of Mario, a docile, easygoing, reticent, handsome waiter (already a servant, already subjected to daily degradation). Mario is an everyman--a quiet, unheroic working man who embraces his hope of marrying his dream girl. When the magician dashes that dream, fooling Mario into kissing Cipolla's elderly, distorted, leering face.

"Mario and the Magician" ends on a hopeful, though violent, note. With Mario's deepest, holiest thoughts having been trampled upon, he incites revolution, producing a revolver and murdering Cipolla. The spell breaks and the people resume their normal lives, free of the autocrat's chains.

Art, intelligence, and thinking are powerful forces that can take on almost viral qualities, infecting the brain and destroying chances at happiness, love, social interaction, and physical fitness. On the other hand, too much happiness, too much social interaction, and too much wealth can also be toxins, poisoning one's ability to think originally and creatively, to pursue ideals. There are not many examples of people who are both intelligent and happy, artistic and popular in the works of Thomas Mann, though clearly Mann places higher emphasis on loving others, on working hard, and on not becoming self-indulgent, self-centered, and condescending.

Mann paints fascinating portrayals of artistry, of sexual abnormality, and of alienation, and I gladly look forward to reading more from him (The Magic Mountain, Budenbrooks).


There's one other story in the collection I read: "A Man and His Dog" from 1918. This is a beautifully written, novella-length snapshot of a perfect love affair between a quiet man and his energetic dog. It's probably autobiographical, it doesn't explore any profound themes, it has nothing to do with martyred artists, and it is entirely straightforward with no allegorical symbolism. It's also the happiest story in the book, with perfect, precise details about the dog Bashan's behaviors, appearance, etc. Any dog lover and any admirer of beautiful prose just for beauty's sake would certainly enjoy this story, even if I couldn't work it in to the rest of this analysis.

04 November, 2008

Music Review: Humans, Nature, and Human Nature by the Loomis Fargo Band

My buddy Pilly is one of the most outgoing, hardworking creative talents I know. In conversations with him, I have always noticed his constant concern with imagination and creation; he always has a well thought-out idea for a film or a song or a comic book--and not just ideas, either. Since I met him in the ninth grade, I've seen notebook doodles grow into vast, sprawling collages of epic ink artwork; I've seen live musical performances in cozy homes with guitars, keyboards, chimes, and triangles. He's always writing, always devouring culture and exploding out new creations, always using his artistic inertia to propel his cynical humor and catchy, memorable ideas. I wish I had his enthusiasm, and I'm very satisfied to see that his latest effort has, so to speak, made it big.

Humans, Nature, and Human Nature is a quiet yet melodic album that falls somewhere on the spectrum between alt-country and folk rock, at times evoking Andrew Bird and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The lyrics are dryly ironic, looking backwards on lost loves that were never that beloved, looking outward on a world transforming at a different pace than the viewer, until the world, the viewer, and the viewer's ideas of himself are all strangers.

In "You Used To Be A Tree" transcendence is subjected to apathy; breezy stars explode in the opening seconds as a whispering voice croons, "You used to be so green." The you is an expired lover perhaps, or even an abandoned childhood--a sprawling, vibrant, mysterious foundation on which the childlike speaker climbs, begs, touches, and explores. It could be sexual adventure, or it could just be adventure itself. What's important is that it's long past, faded into a pile of dead leaves, and that the separation is so advanced that the speaker observes the loss no longer with mourning or anger but with yielding detachment.

There's a lot of resistance to the cyclical nature of life in Human Nature, an ability to see progress amongst changes that come and go through ups, downs, and repetitions. Summers and lovers flee, taking with them their sunny thoughts and dispositions. The past becomes a psychedelic trip, an oasis of foreign memories, as in the musically-tripping "I Miss You," where the perceived loss of games like hide and seek--itself a strange play on war, refuge, escape--is an emphatic reminder that the good days are gone. When the thoughts, places, people, and events you cling to, the ones that made you you, slip away, what becomes of you, lost in an unfamiliar wastescape, trying to find something to belong to, with which to connect?

Sometimes defeatist, sometimes courageous, always just slightly bordering on bleak, the lyrics never slip into the emotive realm of self-pity or nostalgic sentimentalism. A cynical humor pervades, a wit that is accepting of its metaphysical angst, willing to walk around in it and try it for all its worth. "I spend my nights like the day / Dreaming my whole life away," is a key line in "I Sleep 'Til Noon." The music, too, is usually chipper, with trilling pianos and soft, strumming guitars, upbeat church organs and spacy feedback, accented by singer Michael Boswell's daydreaming Virginia twang.

If there's one criticism it's that Humans, Nature, and Human Nature sticks to the game of playing it safe that many debut albums adhere to; it's all perhaps too polished, professional, and clean, and I personally would love to hear some crazy experimentals, some epic lyrical quests into darker realms, some occasional violent leaps out of genre, in addition to the tried and true. I know its there waiting to explode out, and I'd like a taste of it in the next record.

Humans, Nature, and Human Nature by The Loomis Fargo Gang is available for purchase in an edition beautifully illustrated by Michael Pilapil, emphasizing the mathematical constant that guides the seemingly divine, random beauty of sunflowers: "Each seed settles into a location that turns out to have a specific constant angle of rotation relative to the previous seed." Summer turns to winter, children grow up, and flowers age and die. The momentum is unstoppable and the progress is predictably fatalistic, but in that progress is all the beauty of the world.

Whether that's fuel for wonderment or sarcasm is a question the Loomis Fargo Band lets the listener decide.

Humans, Nature, and Human Nature
The Loomis Fargo Gang
(Michael Bosler, Tyler Nash, Michael Pilapil)
15 Apr 2008

31 October, 2008

I got a rock.

My nose is stained red from my blood-filled prosthesis. I was a zombie again this year; woke up early, put on the makeup and shredded, bloody clothes, went to work. I especially love the Midwestern tourists who were completely unfazed by my rapidly decaying flesh--who ordered their skim lattes as if everything were perfectly normal. "Well, so far I've seen black people, homeless vagrants, and homos holding hands. Might as well just accept this."

23 October, 2008

Movie Review: The Killer Shrews (1959)

In 1959, special effects artist Ray Kellogg (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The King and I) was given the resources to direct two back-to-back creature features: The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews. I haven't seen the former, but the latter is a horrifying adaptation of the classic 1957 World Book Encyclopedia entry on the fascinating red-toothed soricinae soricini, a mouse-sized, 100 gram, land-dwelling insectivore and nuteater with a quick gestation time, a high metabolism, poor eyesight, and the need to eat up to 80 per cent of its mass each day simply to survive (that's 80 grams!!!!). What better source of horror and suspense than the shrew, a creature already so abundant, loathsome, and fearful, a being so ingrained in our evolutionary psyche, our cultural mythology, our frightened collective subconsciousness?

Okay, it's just a shrew. But what if it were giant--like, the size of a small dog! And what if there were, like, a couple dozen of them? Apparently that wasn't quite enough, so midway through the film they decide to make them poisonous, too. One scratch from their venomous, giant teeth merits instant death! Terrifying!

Strom Thurmond--wait, Thorne Sherman (James Best)--wait, really? Thorne Sherman?--is the typical, B-movie leading man: pragmatic, condescending, white, male, racist, middle aged, emotionally vacant, not very handsome but not disfigured either. He and his first mate, who being black dies as soon as we can dismiss him as a fearful, dixieland jazz playing goofball, are delivering resources to the formidably named Dr. Marlowe Sturgis (Baruch Lumet, director Sidney Lumet's father), the exotically accented scientist who's like Dr. Moreau minus the genius, obsession, controversy, and god-complex. Instead of fleeing civilization to conduct blasphemous splicings of animals into men on a remote, tropical island, Dr. Sturgis has relocated to the island simply because it provides a good control environment for the isolation of shrew genes during his research on overpopulation. Almost as villainous, almost as fascinating.

Accompanying him is Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon), the fat-cheeked, bespectacled research assistant who speaks entirely in scientific-sounding gibberish and fittingly dies at the hand of his own mad science; Mario (Alfred DeSoto), a fat, skittish Mexican who dies because he's not white; Ann Craigis (Ingrid Goude), the doctor's flustered sex object, err, adult daughter, who accompanies her father because there needs to be someone on the island who doesn't have a penis; and Jerry (Ken Curtis), Ann's fiancee, a jealous alcoholic who shouts a lot and generally fucks things up. He's there because Thorne needs someone to get in a fist fight with, and he can't very well give a black eye to a shrew or a scientist.

A hurricane has trapped them all on the island, and the voracious, dog-sized shrews, having inexplicably exhausted their food supply, have turned on the humans as prey. The research facility is made of rotting, chalk-thin adobe (easily gnawed through), and there apparently aren't enough weapons (like, say, a sturdy shovel) to fend off the dozen rodents. Verminous nuisance ensues, with numerous extreme closeups of squirrelly eyes and buckteeth chewing at knotholes in fence posts.

Thorne gets the job done, translating Dr. Baines's raw, inhuman data into a practical solution that involves tying steel drums into an armored tank with peepholes and in the process stealing Ann from her no-good lover. What's most interesting about The Killer Shrews is its self-referential mockery of the 1950s hero trope, the overgrown adolescent who is condescending to his companions, gains the powerless female without any romance or effort, never loses his cool except when it's time to throw punches at lesser humans, speaks in a hokey patter that sounds nothing like human speech, and in general seems more like a problem solving robot then someone you'd actually want to be saved by. When Thorne discovers the scrap of clothing that is the only remaining artifact of his jazz-playing companion, he apathetically dismisses it with neither fear or sadness: "They don't leave much do they?" His unnecessary foreign love interest criticizes him while mocking herself: "I've never met anyone like you. You seem disinterested in everything. Aren't you the least bit curious? Aren't you interested in the unusual things around here? The guns, the fence, the shuttered windows... my accent?"

A delightful bit of post-modern irony in a delightfully bad film.

The Killer Shrews (1959)
d: Ray Kellogg w: Jay Simms
(James Best, Ingrid Goude, Baruch Lumet)

Movie Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh's last, highly acclaimed film, 2004) was about a doddering, naive granny who bustled around, eternally smiling, boiling water for tea while performing crude abortions in post-war England. The war had left a destructive wake and culture was in the shitter, but Vera bumbled from door to door, doing her small bit to help others, seemingly oblivious to the misery around her and her sometime role in causing it.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a twenty-first century take on the same character, with all the drab melancholia and blubbering replaced by bright costumes, improvisational comedy, and giddy laughter. Sally Hawkins is Poppy, a vivacious primary school teacher who wears vibrant blouses and high heeled boots. She maintains close relationships with coworkers, siblings, and old friends (such as roommate Zoe, played by promising newcomer Alexis Zegerman), and amiably chats up anyone who happens to make eye contact with her--something not always welcomed by the strangers she passes. The intrusive loquaciousness is grating at first, and one can easily identify with the stolid book store clerk who ignores her offhand jokes and small compliments until she asks if he's having a bad day and he blusteringly denies it. Why behave so miserably and coldly without any reason?

When her bike is stolen early on, she doesn't mope or swear or fling her belongings violently against the sidewalk. She's peeved, yes, but she also smiles with doggonnit consolation, remarking, "I didn't even get to say goodbye." It's an acceptance of misfortune that's not self-blinding or obnoxious. She doesn't paint it up in wallpaper and pretend that it's some mysterious, positive turn of events; God isn't slamming a door and opening a window, in other words. Instead, it's just something that happens and she moves on cheerfully, refusing to let it bring her down. Why add insult to injury?

Happy-Go-Lucky is a two-hour snapshot of various people dealing with daily miseries, an exploration of how various people navigate quotidian ups and downs. Variations on the Theme of Happiness, it could be called. With her school principal Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel) she attends a fitness workshop on flamenco dancing where the vibrant, Castilian instructor explains gypsy opposition to oppression through assertive movements, bold statements, and personal space. An overweight dancer in the background stamps, claps, and smiles; she seems positively empowered. Throughout the film, Poppy utilizes the tools at her disposal to make the best of shaky situations. She drinks but has no drinking problem. She longs for sexual companionship but doesn't mourn its absence. When she catches one of her students bullying another, she doesn't jump to punish the offender but instead takes steps to solve the underlying problems, seeing violence within its cycle instead of within a vacuum, recruiting a pleasant social worker to investigate.

Maybe it's all a little simple sometimes--sometimes kids, and people, are just bullies and jerks for extremely complicated reasons or no reason at all, and no amount of investigation into their background could perhaps change that--as in the case of Scott, the foul-teethed, earringed driving instructor that Poppy hires when her bike is stolen, figuring there's no better time to finally get a license. He's a complicated mess--racist, committed, principled, uptight, and paranoid--and when Poppy tries to pry out details of his childhood in order to better understand him--"Were you bullied, Scott?"--it all seems incredibly naive. The man spouts out declarations about demon mythology, mixes spittle with racist invective while fuming about multiculturalism, and cites the dimensions of the Washington Monument as proof of a global conspiracy. No revelations about abusive dads or schoolyard bullies could possibly defuse the thirty years of septic contaminants that have fueled his life and worldview.

But here's the point: Poppy is no expert of human behavior; she's only a champion of her own. When the situation with Scott reaches a violent breaking point, she moves swiftly and assertively to protect herself. Unlike Vera Drake, she isn't a blind lamb whistling her way to the slaughterhouse. With crisis averted she concerns herself less with revenge and punishment (calling the police certainly wouldn't solve anything, she explains) and more with increasing the peace. Merely by retaining her calm demeanor and happy outlook she has won.

Other characters and scenes flesh out other aspects of the happiness problem. A mammoth, tranquil chiropractor soothes away physical discomfort. A younger sister admittedly takes the easy path--suburbs, garden, house, husband, baby, retirement package--while jealously fearing that her wayward older sis might actually be happier. But much of the film is essentially aimless and irrelevant. Leigh's films don't utilize screenplays; his (always fantastic, often Oscar-nominated) actors improvise several versions of intended scenes and he splices together the best bits. So while the banter is always clever, spontaneous, and realistic, it isn't always focused or philosophically meaningful.

Happy-Go-Lucky is much lighter fare than Mike Leigh usually serves up, which is perhaps why it's more successful than the last few films. It offers a palatable and positive, light-handed message, that happiness can be a powerful agent, explosive, self-fueling, contagious, and of limitless supply, that it needn't be the weak, fragile substance we're so often willing to make it seem.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
d/w: Mike Leigh
(Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan)

20 October, 2008

Mangum singing "Engine"

Here's Jeff Mangum singing "Engine" in Columbus, OH, during the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour, which--for whatever shitty reason--is passing nowhere near DC. It's the second time in ten years that he's publicly performed one of his own songs (as far as I know). The first time was in Pittsburgh the night before, but I won't bother posting that video since the assholes in the audience committed the great sin of chattering during his song. (I mean, seriously.)

I love this man. For real love.

18 October, 2008

I have completed Gravity's Rainbow. Where's my paycheck?

So on Tuesday night, at the tail end of a feverish throat infection, I finally finished the 887 tiny-print pages of Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel--the one that the Pulitzer Prize committee refused to award (despite its nomination) for being "unreadable, turgid, overwritten, and obscene." I began the book way back in April, at the beginning of my last serious, feverish illness, and it's taken me this long to slug my way through it. To be fair, I wasn't reading it from June until the beginning of September because I was reading other books for class and because I was on vacation, but to be honest, just because I was reading other books and just because I was on vacation shouldn't have stopped me from being able to continue with Gravity's Rainbow. The fact that it did is only proof of how difficult the novel is; it was impossible, at least for me, to commit my mind to anything else while struggling through Pynchon's world.

I'll attempt a plot synopsis here. American private first-class Tyrone Slothrop is doing military research and engaging in sexual hijinx while in England during the second World War (which is in its final year). As an infant he was sold by his parents to controversial behaviorist Dr. Jamf (think Pavlov and his dogs) for erectile conditioning experiments in exchange for financial security. The bizarre experiments became a humorous national news anecdote due to the intended response (infantile erection), though the stimuli were never made public. Two or three decades later, the various paranoid British and American coconspirators who have been recruited to spy on Slothrop's mysterious (yet extremely mundane) whereabouts begin to realize that his supposed sexual frolics correspond directly to German rocket blasts that strike London several days after his trysts, falling into a perfect graph of a classic Poisson distribution. I don't even know what that means exactly, but eventually through various mishaps Slothrop ends up as a spy in Germany investigating the history behind an advanced, enigmatic super-rocket developed by lonely geniuses from an exterminated South African-German tribe. While spying, he becomes a flamboyant drug mule who dresses like an astronaut/superhero and goes by the moniker Rocket Man. Shit hits the fan, and the world descends into madness as he escapes across the German countryside with a sow companion at the very end of the war.

I hope that makes sense to you because that's the best I can do. With something like 400 characters, most of them only vaguely, tangentially connected to Slothrop, engaging in detailed, directionless subplots while digressing into lengthy, rambling soliloquies, the novel frequently made no sense to me at all. While each one of the 500+ individual scenes/rants/images/routines/conversations/insights were interesting/clever/beautiful/comic/well-crafted/insightful, the sum of these multivarious parts was incoherent and dull. I won't even attempt to deny that Pynchon is an absolute genius and an extremely talented writer--his grasp of vocabulary, linguistics, history, rocket science, wordplay, geography, human behavior, and every single thing in between is mindblowing--but I have no shame in or trouble admitting that I have no idea what the point of Gravity's Rainbow was or what idea or affect I was supposed to take away from it. Is it pacifist? Yes. Is it paranoid? Yes. Is it self-mocking? Yes. Is it relevant? I'm not sure. Despite thousands of brilliant ideas and moments, the overall book itself is surprisingly forgettable, rarely if ever reaching the reader (well, me at least) on a personal, meaningful, or life-changing level.

And I was expecting something like that by the end. Some heart-shattering moment of clarity--maybe even just a page or two--in the climactic final chapters. But that moment never came, nor did a climax.

I know this isn't much of a review, but in my opinion it's as scatterbrained as the book itself. Do I regret spending so much time trudging through this? Not at all; at times I had very much fun with it. Would I recommend it to anyone else? Not without the aid of a comprehensive reader's guide (and they do exist). And perhaps not even then.

10 October, 2008

Love is All, Of Montreal @ 9:30 Club, 9 Oct 2008

I caught a sold-out performance with Paul last night, the third night of Of Montreal's new American tour. The Athens, Ga., band, originally formed as part of the Elephant 6 Collective in 1997, has been in my listening library for six years now, and in that period I've seen them six times, each time with a zanier performance and a larger audience. In 2003 I caught them at the Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg, Va., a small movie theater. My friends and I sat in the front row and were wowed by an exuberant performance of "Penelope," by an impromptu juggling act, by masks and confetti, by our first listen to the harmonizing in "Lysergic Bliss," and by an over-the-top encore performance of Boston's "More Than a Feeling." In September 2005 a packed, unconditioned dance floor in Charlottesville, Va., left me the second-most sweatiest I've ever been, and in the spring of 2006, I hiked across the state with good friends to see them in a brightly lit auditorium on the campus of William and Mary, whose students my kudos go out to for being one of the most happy-go-lucky audiences I've ever encountered.

Last night I saw how far they've come in the past ten years, a fame that has occurred entirely under the radar. Except for Outback Steakhouse's reuse of one of their songs as a very strange jingle ("Let's go Outback tonight..."), you won't hear them on any mainstream radio station. They're well-liked by Pitchfork Media, and this week they're featured in a Rolling Stones interview, but their success has never reached the media explosion level--they've never skyrocketed and then fizzled out in a shitdrizzle of high schooler adoration like Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, or Bright Eyes. They're well-liked professionals, constantly improving their creative energy, and so they've garnered a huge, committed following largely free of pretentious assholes and trendy hangers-on. So, thankfully, the audience last night was one of those rare sold-out 9:30 Club audiences that wasn't full of obnoxious people. The crowd was young and considerably queer, willing to dance and able to sport goofy attire.

The only opening band was Love is All, a five-piece from Gothenburg, Sweden, whose debut Nine Times That Same Song was named one of Pitchfork's best albums of 2005. Humble and enthusiastic, they looked like the AV club had gotten together to form an extracurricular garage band: a gangly, pasty saxophonist with his hair parted down the middle, the slightly oversized, effeminate guitarist with the scarf, the tiny tomboy doing vocals, and the too-cute, too-smart, too-nice to be anything but a nerd drummer (who was fucking adorable, let me just throw that out there). As for the bassist... well, he just looked like a normal rock band bassist, with a tee-shirt, jeans, and a beard. Maybe he's dating the singer's older sister and doing it as a favor?

I don't mean to sound insulting; hell, I've been involved in far nerdier and not nearly as good looking groups myself. It's the awkward but interesting geeks who change the world. They played a great set with plenty of friendly chemistry and danceable beats. I'm not sure why Swedish pop bands always sing in English, but it's nice to understand their smile-inducing, uplifting lyrics, which mesh well with the giddy melodies and the lead singer's unique, excited voice. They played a good set, and the songs from their upcoming album were very promising.

During intermission, crew in Day of the Dead skull masks assembled various instruments and construction on the set. Two drum sets elevated to ten feet flanked either side upstage, and a triptych of movie screens hung over everything. A changing screen at center stage hid a large area behind it, while microphones, guitar and bass setups, and a keyboard setup lined the downstage area. The lights dimmed, the five musicians took their places dressed in attire ranging from disco caveman to 80s hairband superstar to glittering chanteuse, with wild hairdos to match, and the three screens filled with a cartoon panorama view of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire with all its golden pyramids. Colorful lights spun, flashed, and strobed, and the changing screen rotated to reveal four giant, gilded Olmec deities, who carried a veiled palanquin downstage, from which emerged Kevin Barnes, the joyfully effeminate (but married to the keyboardist), almost skeletally thin frontman/diva, dressed in an elaborate Mariachi outfit with a giant sombrero hanging down his back. On his cue, the rotund Olmec deities jived and grooved, and on another cue they pulled off their golden exteriors and transformed into black-clad ninjas with expressionless, silver faces, who proceeded to quietly slip through the audience.

The theater continued unended and uninterrupted for over an hour and half, with a constant barrage of pantomimed skits, elaborate costumes, surreal and comic videos, trippy visual displays, and complex rhythms and sound experiments. A fifth improv actor joined the ninjas, and soon they became Wild West cowboys gambling and skirmishing at a saloon, complete with a ragtime pianist and animated deer heads nodding to the beat from their mounted positions on the walls. They spent one entire song posed as middle class, college partiers frozen in a photograph, only to be later rearranged by the band members into compromising positions. They became glitter-splattered special ops and beachgoing nudists strutting their muscles. They fused together to become a massive George Washington golem, waving his tree-limbs to the beat. Genders swapped, alliances changed, good and evil was never quite clear, but the absurdist visuals always struck a chord.

At one point Barnes sang from offstage of being tired of sucking dick. The changing screen rotated to reveal him swimming in blood-red cardinal robes, lazily languoring in an oversized throne. A bubble-shaped Mexican demon of death seduces him with skull-lined swords, but the cardinal dismisses him. A steamy nun languishes at his feet, but he ignores her. A cockatoo and a pig dressed in the red uniforms of the eighteenth-century British army drag a feminine tiger onto the stage, and the bishop gives a thumbs down in favor of execution. The images were comical and yet haunting, charged with the idea of meaning though any number of meanings could exist. It was fascinating.

Meanwhile, Barnes descended into near-nudity (he's performed naked before), sporting Rocky Horror style golden lamé briefs and a fur-covered guitar strap before donning a turquoise-sequined coat and an enormous, pink fanny pack embroidered with his initials in gemstones, from which he threw condoms into the audience. Fusing with one of the actors, he became a four-legged, sad centaur, accusing renaissance dames of only being interested in sex appeal while a randy satyr upstages him with a juice-drenched, fruit-devouring orgy.

The visuals were endless, and I've only recounted a portion of them. It was toward the end that a sort of plotline developed, with a sassy, introspective Barnes in a pink bathrobe being seduced into suicide by four ghoulish poltergeists with grinning, silver John McCain faces. They hand him knives, prescription pills, a pistol, encourage him to end it all. Finally, he hangs himself from a gallows. They cut him down and initiate him into the afterlife, baptizing him in blood from wooden bowls and giving him a shaman mask. The afterworld is dark and violent, but Barnes find solace by donning a child's superhero outfit--a suit made of bedsheets. Holding his cape up triumphantly, he ushers in his reawakening, and during an absence with pounding music and spastic strobe lights, he is carried back onto stage in an earthy casket by an Olmec deity and four of the McCain poltergeists, who have now become agents of good, still wearing the grinning masks but now dressed in glittery spandex instead of black tatters. They resurrect him, mummified in snow-white papier mache, and as downy feathers fall from the ceiling, showering the audience, the music swells, and the show ends on a happy, transcendent note.

In short, it was an extremely entertaining show--a performance art piece and a musical act all in one. Of Montreal may lack the spontaneity, audience participation, and engaging friendliness that make shows by bands like The Decemberists so good, but they more than make up for it by the enormous amount of time, energy, and money that went into their production. This was the most well executed, well designed, well rehearsed, and smoothest running concert I've ever seen. Of Montreal is one of the most original, fun, and musically talented pop bands in America right now, and the obvious amount of money and energy that went into this (very inexpensive) show is proof that they're more interested in making art and pleasing fans than turning a buck.

And the dancing was wonderful, too.

So thank you, Of Montreal, and thank you, Love is All. That was one of the best shows I've ever been to. Anyone who still has a chance to see them between now and the end of November should do everything in their power to achieve that. Regrets are impossible.

09 October, 2008

Nobel Prize in Literature

So now I have to add another name to the list of authors I know nothing about with whom I need to acquaint myself. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, a novelist who divides his time between France, Mauritius, the United States, Panama, Mexico, Great Britain, and South Korea (seriously), just won the Nobel Prize.

I've never heard his name in my life.

I was thinking Nuruddin Farah would win.

03 October, 2008

Movie Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

The new Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading, is a hilarious crime caper that skewers intelligence and surveillance with nonstop ridicule.

An omnipresent surveillance satelite zooms in on Osbourne Cox (a very bald, very pasty John Malkovich), who is an operative in the pristine, labyrinthine corridors of the Central Intelligence Agency until he loses his job because of a "drinking problem" he vehemently denies. He spends the film pouring himself hard drinks--on one occasion holding back by pouring only three-quarters of a jigger into the glass because it's time to get serious--and stoking the smoldering flames of his own dim merits. We know he went to Yale, we know he once had virtues of some sort that were never quite fulfilled, and we know he's done something of a diplomatic sort in Belgrade, but the details of his former job are left unmentioned--not shadowy and elusive as he might like to imagine, just too unimportant to bother examining.

With his position in the world thrown into a tailspin, he decides to start penning his memoir (which he pronounces with all the French nasalization and silent letters), something his nurse wife, a "cold, stuck-up bitch" played by Tilda Swinton, dismisses as unnecessary. Osbourne Cox is a low-level nobody dismissed merely because of a drinking problem; who'd really care about his life? All the same, he lies erect in a divan, clothed in a bathing robe, and mutters vague statements drowning in ellipses into a handheld memo recorder, which he then transcribes to his computer in an encoded file--because he is, after all, a spy. And his life work is, of course, too important to not be veiled in mystery, too sensitive to be seen by just anyone's eyes.

His wife Katie, of course, is pissed at his loss of employment; it is the straw that breaks their marriage's back. She's been having a strictly sexual relationship with a gun-toting marshall for the US Treasury, Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney). He's never fired his gun in twenty years though he claims the instinct to kill will be their in his muscle memory as soon as it's needed, and so the pent-up energy releases itself through jittery facial spasms, fast-talking, enormous sex libido, and marathon exercise sessions. His relationship with Katie is meaningless to him--just another means of curbing his insatiable appetite--but she sees the recent turn of events in her husband's life as an opportunity for them to get serious, and on the advice of her divorce lawyer, she raids Osbourne's computer for his financial information, which she saves to a disc, changes the locks to their Georgetown apartment, and leaves Osbourne further in the lurch.

Behind the scenes, the precious disc travels in the lawyer's secretary's gym bag, where it's accidentally discarded in the locker room before passing from gym janitor Manolo's hands to the hands of wannabe spy/personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (a goofy, one-note Brad Pitt), who with a flair for DC political thrills interprets the coded memoir and the tax charts as highly classified, crucial information. Goaded by co-worker Linda Litzke (a convincingly narrowminded Frances McDormand, in a notable performance), they track down Osbourne (who they convince themselves must be important, though they've never heard of him) and extort him for thousands of dollars. Linda needs money for four surgeries recommended by her bluntly jabbing plastic surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn, who's always nice to see). They're completely unnecessary--for a middle-aged woman, she's in great shape and quite beautiful; the only cutting she needs is her bangs--but she insists upon them despite lacking the funds. She's gotten as far as she can in her current body, she insists, and she's not having much luck in the Internet romance department either, though she overlooks the quiet affections of her boss Ted (a quiet, troubled, somewhat panicky Richard Jenkins).

The plan to blackmail Osbourne is absurd. He certainly doesn't need the disc copy, nor is the rough draft of an exceedingly sensitive quality, but the threats bite his offensive ego and, fueled by an overinflated sense of importance, he fights back with excessive force, at one point punching Chad in the face. Desperate for money and now convinced that the disc must really be as important as they assumed, they play into the political thriller expectations and chase Osbourne in his car, rearending it before zipping off.

They take the action to the next most plausible stage, where any high-treason espionage suspense story would escalate to: the Russian embassy, where a cultural attache hesitatingly accepts the disc to see if it's of any value to the Russian cause.

Eventually stakes raise, relationships become entangled, and people get killed. Operating always behind the scenes, the CIA (run by J.K. Simmons playing the hardnosed asshole he always plays) keeps tabs as the events untangle. When Osbourne's house is broken into by Chad, who is spontaneously gunned-down by Harry (remember that muscle memory!), the CIA is the first to know. When Harry flees to Venezuela, the CIA is able to intercept his plane and then allow him to continue on his escape. When Linda confronts the Russian ambassador, the CIA knows the details of her proposal. When Osbourne is shot down by secret operatives while hacking Ted to death with an ax on a Georgetown sidewalk (yes, the plot gets this thick), the CIA keeps vital tabs on all the bodies.

The CIA, the most powerful fact-finding and surveillance organization in the world, has the details on everything, everything, as it happens. They're always one step ahead, following and orchestrating events from the shadows.

The whys, however, they fail to grasp. Who the hell is Chad? What does Harry have to do with Katie? Why the hell would Linda go to the Russian embassy, of all places? The complexities of human behavior, the nonsense that motivates us, binds us together, and rips us apart, the physical non sequiturs that we enact everyday in our lives: none of it has any place in the cold calculations of the CIA files, the type-written, redacted memos and black-and-white, long-distance photography. When Linda, one of the few survivors of the screwup, agrees to oblige to a cover-up in exchange for full payment of her unnecessary cosmetic surgeries, the CIA agents can't figure her out (why would she need lipo? why does she think she needs a facelift? it's unnecessary and absurd!), but they sign off on it anyway.

All the people she's closest to lose their lives, but Linda happily succeeds in improving her body through the miracles of modern science. Absurdism triumphs.

The Coens' new film is a triumph, one of the funniest films I've seen in a while.

Burn After Reading (2008)
d/w: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
(Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich)

02 October, 2008

Real Men Die of Heart Disease

In a recent Hungry Man advertisement, three overweight construction workers realize that their snacks of choice--a large, pink Slurpee-type beverage, what appears to be a a large orange juice in a plastic container, and a yogurt (or perhaps ice cream? or gelato?)--have turned them into socializing, sentimental women:

The solution to restoring manhood? Swanson's Hungry Man frozen dinners, which get you full like a real man by packing you with, in the case of the "Country Fried Beef Patties," 45 g of fat (69% 2000 cal RDA), 50 mg of cholesterol (17%), 2160 mg of sodium (90%), and 24 g of sugar.

Or the "Hearty Breakfast": 1170 calories, 21 g of saturated fat (105%), 255 mg of cholesterol (85%), 74% of sodium, and 42% of daily recommended carbohydrates. All this for breakfast, mind you, with a beverage and at least two more meals around the corner.

Or, just for fun's sake, the XXL Roasted Carved Turkey (turkey's lean and healthy, right?): 225% sodium, 130% saturated fat, 89% total fat, 55% cholesterol, 58% carbohydrates, 1450 calories.

So to sum up: men must reject the immunity-building active cultures of low fat yogurt and Vitamin C of orange juice (the country's most popular breakfast juice), the temptation to use straws or spoons, and even the desire to imbibe unhealthy, sugar-saturated beverages (a medium Slurpee has 95 grams of sugar), especially those that fall within certain ranges of the color spectrum, in favor of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cruelty to animals. Because to be a man is to show reckless disregard for oneself while consuming and destroying everything in one's path. And to be a woman is--this is true--to have a longer average life span.

Otherwise you might as well hold your buddy's dick at the urinal.

Yes, what we sustain our bodies with is this important. Important enough to blur the essential mental distinctions between silly broads and actual people. On a similar note, vegans, eating tofu is making you homo. Just listen to this faggot.

Silly CNN

Apparently the monosyllabic "veep" is a way to quickly utter "vice president" for people too bogged down by the pressures of modern civilization to pronounce actual words. Whatever. I'm fine with people abbreviating words in informal writing--it does take a while to write out "vice president." I don't see a point in abbreviating spoken words--how much time and effort is really being saved in minimizing a few mouth motions at the expense of clarity? But I won't waste valuable finger taps ranting about that either.

Here's what blows my mind: the headline banners running across CNN this morning kept using the word "VEEP." Which clearly requires more effort than typing "VP." Even "V.P." would take just as much time. But CNN instead opted to be less efficient AND less coherent all at once! Just like a news outlet should be! I love the goddamn media!

29 September, 2008

Anticipating MILK

Gus Van Sant, the openly gay auteur behind My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, and Good Will Hunting is releasing a biopic in the next few months about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official from San Francisco who was assassinated in 1978. Sean Penn's playing the title role, and I'm really excited about the trailer and the film, which also stars Emile Hersch, Diego Luna, and Josh Brolin.

Anyway, the trailer has gotten me thinking about gay films and how there really aren't many good gay films for us, by us, and about us. In fact, this might be the first masterpiece, assuming it's as good as the preview suggests. Queer people have always ruled literature, theater, art, fashion, and cuisine, and we've had some occasional breaks in television and music (I'm talking Elton John, not techno), but in the cinematic world we've always been left far behind, with lots of offensive, inaccurate, and just plain badly made portrayals. See my review of Dressed to Kill, where transsexuals are psychotic schizophrenics (see also Psycho, Silence of the Lambs...), or In & Out, where a man just suddenly (and comedically!) discovers that because he's effeminate he's also gay (much to the chagrin of the poor, helpless straight fiancee caught in the middle, who's just trying to find a nice man who doesn't take it up the ass). Or Philadelphia, with a straight director and a straight cast convincing a straight audience that gay people can be interesting when they're suffering to death from headline-grabbing illnesses. I won't even go into the insipid genre of gay-targeted movies, the kind you find in the showcase window of Lambda Rising, where there's always a shirtless twink on the cover, if not several, all abs and pectoral muscles and bedroom eyes, as if a film can't possibly be interesting if there's not a serious fuck factor. Another Gay Sequel, The Fluffer, Edge of Seventeen. God knows, most gay-themed films are as interesting as most teen sex comedies. How unique can the story of discovering you're attracted to boys, much to the possible disagreement of your mother, possibly be? Either that or you make it controversial, throwing in AIDS and prostitution, as if that's an integral part in every queer person's life.

Anyway, I thought I'd examine the few good gay movies that we have been offered in the past....

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001): There may be very few good queer films, but at least one of them is flawless. This rock musical by and starring John Cameron Mitchell is about a confused, young, effeminate East Berlin boy who sees an out from the bland, communist world of oppressive mothers and colorless Gummi Bears by marrying an older American Marine. One catch, though: in order to get the proper marriage certificate and visa he has to become a woman, undergoing a brutal surgery that leaves him with one angry, bleeding inch of mutilated crotch. Abandoned in a Kansas City trailer park (the center of the country, a character who's in the center of a lot of dichotomies...), having become a woman without really wanting or needing to be one, Hedwig launches a quest of self-discovery that involves fucking a spineless, Bible thumping teenager (Michael Pitt) and starting a failed rock band. In the end, the film's about loving yourself--discovering who you are inside and learning to accept it, and how loving oneself is essential to loving and accepting everyone else. Forgiveness, wholeness within self-identity, sexual freedom... it's all embraced within a flawless film that's rounded out by great rock music, artful cinematography, a hilarious script, and powerful, convincing acting.

Queer as Folk (UK, 1999): Technically this was a television series, but its production, content, and running time suggest more of a very long, episodic film to American audiences. A not very physically attractive yet confident and personality-rich gay sex machine (Stuart) fuels his ego by constantly alluring his best friend of over a decade, an insecure and nerdy yet lovable gay man who loves science fiction and is actually more attractive but doesn't seem so because of his confidence issues (Vince). They get drunk, go to drug-drenched clubs, and hook up with strangers while dealing with judgmental parents, friends who die of drug overdoses, lesbian parent friends, and societal oppression. But, unlike the horrible American remake (which replaced hot scenes of pornography for actual content), it never came off as silly, pointless, forced, or sensational. Meanwhile, Vince stares longingly at Stuart and longs for the unrequited love affair that can never really happen, the tug-and-pull that enriches them both because of its inchoate quality. A break occurs when Vince meets a flawed Australian who actually gives him reciprocated love and attention (but, self-deriding Vince thinks, how genuine can that love and attention be if it's directed toward me?), the friendship dissolves when Stuart becomes jealous and Vince finally gives up on his impossible teases, and they end up in a cafe trying to speak truthfully to each other for the first time since meeting at age fourteen: "You can't [love him]. You can't even respect him. He loves Vince Tyler, so that makes him stupid. The moment he said it, it all just died.... You've done nothing, Vince. You go to work. You have a drink. You sit and watch cheap science fiction. Small world. What's there that's so impressive about that? What is there to love?" At which point depressed but knowing Vince shies off and agrees, "Yeah..." only to be rebutted by a dead-certain Stuart: "It was good enough for me." No consummation, no swelling score, no steamy sex, just one sad, reflective homo admitting that love is more than methamphetamines and techno music, political anarchy and taut abs. An emotional and realistic scene in an evocative and compelling series, and one that the American show comes nowhere close to.

Elephant (2003): This low-budget Gus Van Sant film, full of amateur high school actors (some of them quite bad), is loosely about the Columbine massacre. It's a strangely paced film that a few people adore and a lot of people hate, and I think its one of the most misunderstood movies of recent history. It's smart because it doesn't follow Hollywood formulae. Case in point: toward the end of the film, after the bloodshed begins, an intimidating-looking black character is introduced (Benny, with a title screen and everything) who looks prepared to save the day. He walks tall and strong toward the gunner, only to be as quickly and mercilessly shot down as everyone else who gets in the way. What the movie's really about, though, is gay alienation and how the current gay culture is failing gay children. What is The Fluffer really doing to advance self-esteem and gay rights? One point early on we witness a meeting of a gay-straight alliance, where the hip, well-adjusted students in attendance are discussing fashion and other frivolous topics. Meanwhile, the gay students who end up becoming the gunmen are having awkward sexual encounters, denying their deep-rooted feelings, and plotting acts of violence while enduring bullying for reasons they can't understand. Being gay might be fashionable these days for those who have the cajones to embrace it, but we're still a long way from teaching people not to hate themselves for being unable to understand their feelings of sexual attraction.

Capote (2005): A movie about an openly gay historical figure who's neither a tragic martyr nor a schizophrenic villain... a complex person grappling with issues of self-importance, deception, insecurity, fame... a complex person who also happens to be gay... just like many complex people in reality!

Angels in America (2003): An HBO original film based on Tony Kushner's Pullitzer Prize winning play about the AIDS epidemic: arch-conservative Ray Cohn (Al Pacino), despite getting AIDS from bareback fucking gay prostitutes, denies being a faggot because faggots are weak, unorganized, and pitiful, whereas he is strong, well-organized, and powerful. It's a statement on the origins of the AIDS epidemic, when Reagan refused to do anything to prevent it because it only affected drug addicts and homosexuals, that the rich conservative is able to dismiss his Kaposi sarcoma as liver disease and help fight it with the most expensive drug treatments while sincere, hardworking homosexuals with the same illness shit and bleed themselves to death because they're actual "faggots." This play/film is very "issue-oriented"--AIDS, Mormonism, etc.--but it works because of the poetic writing, the fantastic acting, the emotive direction. Jeffrey Wright as Belize (a country midway between north and south), Roy's genuine nurse who operates somewhere between male and female, black and white, bitter and compassionate, past and present, is the epitome of progress away from oppression, and is description of Heaven to a dying, frightened Cohn is one of the most beautiful passages of prose-poetry: "Bit city, overgrown with weeds. But flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty-corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like teeth, gritty wind, and a gray, high sky full of ravens. Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste, and history finally overcome. And you ain't there."

The Laramie Project (2002): Another HBO original film, this one about the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's homophobic murder in Laramie, Wyoming, based on a Broadway play based on interviews with actual citizens from Laramie following the murder and trial. Matthew's lesbian best friend (Christina Ricci) reflects on his angelic qualities and her coping with his death. His sometime chaffeur (Steve Buscemi) muses that instead of dying in the pitch black barrenness that is rural Wyoming at night, he may have found solace in the shining stars and the flickering city lights in the distance. A closeted gay man with a broken leg watches the memorial march seen from the window on one side of his apartment expand to a massive movement by the time he limps to the window on the other side. And numerous other people, all completely real, struggle through the anger, sadness, and confusion of a despicable crime.

Happy Birthday (2002): I can't in good faith call this a "good" film, but I do have a strong soft-spot for it. This unheard-of feature debut from gay, Malaysian director Yen Tan is a ponderous, black-and-white, ensemble piece held together by the unnecessary fact that all of the main characters (half a dozen or so) happen to be celebrating birthdays on the date when most of the action falls. The budget was nonexistent, some of the actors seem to have been pulled from the street, a few of the subplots are distracting, and the birthday gimmick that ties it together is strange, but a few notable strengths stand out: some courageous new themes, some very talented unknown faces, and dialogue that, overall, is sharp and moving. Benjamin Patrick (who, according to IMDb, hasn't been in anything else--which is very unfortunate) plays an Overeater Anonymous who sells diet pills over the phone and yearns to not be ashamed of himself. Devashish Saxena plays a gay, Pakistani refugee who finds peace and love in the United States only to be deported by an INS that doesn't consider constant homophobic assaults from family and neighbors to be a justified foundation for refugee status. Ethel Lung portrays a young, Asian lesbian trying to conceal all the minutiae of her queer life from her visiting, conservative mother. The stories are humane, intimate, and unique, and the multilingual, ensemble direction is fascinating. With some hard script-editing and a larger budget, Tan could turn this noble first draft into a mesmerizing film. Unfortunately, I don't think that'll happen. Of the mere 47 people who have voted for it on IMDb, the average is only 5.6 stars; even Paul didn't bother to sit past the first few minutes. I guess it's too hard to overlook a ten-dollar budget.

My Own Private Idaho (1991): In this eccentric update of Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, Keanu Reeves plays a confident, wealthy sex idol who slums it up in the gay, urban underground, fucking around with the affections of a hustling, destitute River Phoenix (in a career-defining, Oscar-worthy role). When his magnate father suddenly passes, though, he must reject his silly faggot nonsense and embrace the straight, conservative, whitebread lifestyle, abandoning all of the loves and friends he's known in the past. It's the Shakespearian equivalent of Roy Cohn's "Republicans don't get AIDS." An emotional, humorous, and highly stylistic film, worthy of several viewings.

The Birdcage (1996): Surprisingly, I'm not a fan of the French original (La Cage aux folles, 1978), but the Americanized remake with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams is hysterical screwball comedy with a queer twist. Williams and Lane play a long-term gay couple on the outs who live above the night club (The Birdcage) they own. Williams has a grown son from a former straight relationship (one treated with the proper complexities of love), and the son intends to marry the daughter of a conservative politician up for election, who insists on meeting the groom-to-be's lovely parents. When the real mother gets caught in traffic, the drag-dressing Lane--having been unfairly cut out of the picture to conceal the homo element--steps in (cognito) to assume the maternal role, in a dawdling, traditional, Barbara Bush style. Things unravel, hijinx ensue. It's a mainstream comedy with serious hetero-input, aimed at a broad crowd (my ex-stepfather saw it and loved it, for example), but unlike I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or Boat Trip, it manages to avoid condescension and spite. In the end, it's Williams and Lane who are loving, clever, and likable, and Gene Hackman as the uptight father-in-law-to-be must rectify himself.

Boys Don't Cry (1999): It's hard to express an enjoyment for this film when it's as bleak as it is, but this true story of a female-to-male transsexual's love affair and subsequent arrest, rape, and murder in 1993 Lincoln, Nebraska, is powerful, important, emotionally-wrought, and unforgettable. Hilary Swank won a deserved Oscar as the skinny, shy boy just trying to live his life as innocently, compassionately, and inoffensively as possible, and Chloe Sevigny gives a fine performance as his confused but loving girlfriend. The movie is disturbing, but sometimes that's how our lives are.

Nico and Dani (2000, Krampack): A simple, coming-of-age gay tale from Spain that manages to add a little bit more than the typical genre film. High schooler Dani (Fernando Ramallo) has the hots for his skinny, cool friend Nico (Jordi Vilches), an ambiguous tease who desperately wants to bang as many chicks as possible while on vacation at the beach. Dani's unrequited infatuation reaches a breaking point, throwing the friendship into confusion and drama. It's a standard film (with beautiful settings, actors, and cinematography) with a plot that every gay boy has undergone, but a few touching scenes rise it above the rest.

Some Honorable Mentions that don't quite count: American Beauty, Dog Day Afternoon, Mysterious Skin, Monster, Todo sobre mi madre, Gods and Monsters (which, to be fair, I haven't seen in a long time, so I can't really comment on)