Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 June 2009

Supporting Actress Smackdown 1983

Please visit Stinkylulu's blog for The Supporting Actress Smackdown for 1983. I won't tell you who won, but my favorite performance in the field was Glenn Close in The Big Chill.

It's a rather queer field, really. Cher plays a lesbian, Glenn Close plays a cheating wife who asks her husband to sleep with her best friend so that she can have a baby, Alfre Woodard plays a devoted servant-pseudo-lesbian type (who isn't a lesbian, but still), Amy Madigan plays a woman who is married to Barbra Streisand (dressed as a man). Linda Hunt goes all the way and plays a Chinese man.

23 June 2009

The Big Chill, Revisited

I first saw The Big Chill in 2004 but I watched it again today in preparation for the Supporting Actress Smackdown on Sunday. Some impressions:

It has been five years but I always had the impression that all the characters were around thirty years old. Now that I am almost thirty, I don't think these guys look thirty at all. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close each look about thirty-five. The others too. Goldblum looks younger, but that could be because he is an idiot in this film. This may sound weird, but I think this perspective is because I felt like I had more in common with the people in this film five years ago than I do now. It's strange. I would think it would be just the reverse.

I am a big fan of Mary Kay Place still.

I always thought that Jeff Goldblum was really stupid in this movie, and I could never figure out why the other people in the movie had this idiot joker as their friend. This still makes no sense to me, but this time around I found myself really irritated in addition by Kevin Kline. I think the four women, Tom Berenger and William Hurt are fascinating in this movie, but Kline and Goldblum are, to me, almost completely lacking in interest.

William Hurt gives a brilliant performance in The Big Chill. Like, he is truly excellent in this picture. He would win an Oscar in '86 (three years later) for his flamboyant performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, but his work in The Big Chill is subtle and nuanced and interesting.

This film is not about suicide.

...But I actually think there is something in the work that William Hurt does in the film that goes toward explaining their friend's suicide.

And I know everyone says this, but the soundtrack is still amazingly good. And the moment when JoBeth Williams plays the Rolling Stones on the organ is fabulous.

22 June 2009


Last week a group of really great students and I opened and closed our production of Sarah Kane’s Crave. The production was organized mainly as an educational venture: a fun little project for the actors and the designer and me to work on at the beginning of the summer.

The play is only about a 45-minute piece, but the writing is so complicated and difficult that the actors were fairly panicked from day one. Still, we spent the first week and a half of rehearsals without blocking, working instead on listening to the play's rhythms and doing movement experiments with pieces of text. Here is a brief example of Cane's writing in Crave from the middle of the play. The characters are C, M, B, and A:
C: I see no good in anyone any more.
B: Okay, I was, okay, I was, okay okay. I was, okay, two people, right?
A: Okay.
B: One of these days,
C: Soon very soon,
M: Now.
A: But looks aren't everything.
B: It's just not me.
At first glance the text could be the thoughts of one person, which are spoken by four people. It could also be two separate conversations. A's line "Okay" could be a response to B's "Okay, two people, right?" Similarly, A's line "But looks aren't everything" seems to me a response to C's "I see no good in anyone any more." The conversations, if they exist fold in and back on one another, never staying completely discrete. Characters intervene in other characters thoughts; occasionally there are very clear conversations; at other times, the characters seem to work together to produce streams of words that cohere. In short, the script is very difficult.
Above is a shot of the layout of the space we used for performance. I placed the audience on the stage of the theatre itself, so that we used what is essentially a proscenium theatre as though it were a black-box studio. The seats, you can see, function as an arena (theatre in the round) but there are two rows of seats, so that the actors perform in the center circle, but also between the first row and the second row—that is behind the audience in the first row—and also outside of the larger circle (behind everyone). As you can imagine, where you sat changed your perspective of the show: sometimes actors would be behind you for scenes; at other times they would be only a few feet in front of you; at others you would have a long-view perspective of a scene. The actors moved in out of this space constantly in any number of different (but, of course, carefully choreographed) configurations.The topic of the show is depression and madness, with those, Kane also deals heavily with rape, seduction, cheating, and love. The characters themselves, who are given only letters as monikers, constantly shift. So M is the mother but she is also the doctor, also the lover, also the daughter. B is a little boy, but also an addict, lover, friend, and eventually C herself. Crave, more than anything else though, is fundamentally a show about suicide, and the play ends with the woman killing herself.

The lighting designer's work on this part of the show was absolutely heartbreaking. In the scene the characters are talking about the warmth of the bright white light: moving towards the light. The designer had the stage grow slowly brighter and brighter until all the lights onstage were at full. In the show's final moments, as the woman commits suicide, the characters alternate, but the lines are "Happy. / So happy. / Happy and free." As C said the play's final line, our designer cut the lights in the show's only hard blackout. The effect was chilling and deeply moving. For the company and I the show had very little hope in it, some perhaps, but not very much. The idea behind the hard blackout at the show's end is that the woman kills herself, and she may feel happy, but she does so, there is nothing left, only the memories of the audience. There was no curtain call. We could in no way justify applause after the kind of show we had done, and the actors couldn't really manage to walk back onstage and smile and take a bow.

The responses to all this were very intriguing. At some performances, the mood of the audience was one of confused intrigue, not really understanding the show but respecting it. Sometimes there was no applause and the audience sat silent (at the first performance I swear we sat in silence for thirty seconds before anyone even moved.) At every performance, though, people came up to me—mainly students—to tell me how much they loved it, how much it moved them. I think the company and I are most proud that people came back to see the show more than once. Many people did this, and some came back to see the show a third time! The show definitely struck a chord.
I know the company and I are all very proud of the work we did with this show. It was certainly a labor of love on all of our parts. I don't know when I've been prouder of a show or of a group of actors. And it may seem odd, but we had a hilariously fun rehearsal process. The show is so intense, I think, that whenever we weren't working we spent our down-time laughing as much as possible. At any rate, I am not sure when I will direct again, but I wanted to share this very cool experience. Enjoy the photos!

21 June 2009

My Friend

I cannot attend Andrew's memorial gathering today, but I wanted to post some texts that always remind me of him whenever I read them. The first is from Shakespeare's Richard II. The monologue below is from Act 5, Scene 5. Make of it what you will; to me it describes Andrew so well I can hardly stand it. It is very clear to me why he loved this piece so much and why it spoke to him as it did.

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
And, for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world;
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermixed
With scruples, and do set the world itself
Against the word.
As thus: "Come, little ones"; and then again;
"It is as hard to come as for a camel
"To thread the postern of a small needle's eye".
Thoughts tending to ambition they do plot
Unlikely wonders: how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage thorough the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls;
And for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last—like silly beggars
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortune on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king,
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke
And straight am nothing. But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, 'til he be eased
With being nothing.

Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time—how sour sweet music is.
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disordered string;
But for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke:
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numb'ring clock;
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell—so sighs, and tears, and groans,
Show minutes, times, and hours. But my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack of the clock.
This music made me. Let it sound no more;
For though it have holp mad men to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me,
For 'tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.

The other piece that always makes me think of him is one of Oscar Wilde's prose poems entitled "The House of Judgement." It is the text Moisés Kaufman uses to end Gross Indecency, so Andrew and the rest of the company used to recite the poem together every night:

And there was silence in the House of Judgement, and the Man came naked before God.

And God opened the Book of the Life of the Man.

And God said to the Man, 'Thy life hath been evil, and thou hast shown cruelty to those who were in need of succour, and to those who lacked help thou hast been bitter and hard of heart. The poor called to thee and thou didst not hearken, and thine ears were closed to the cry of My afflicted. The inheritance of the fatherless thou didst take unto thyself, and thou didst send the foxes into the vineyard of thy neighbour's field. Thou didst take the bread of the children and give it to the dogs to eat, and My lepers who lived in the marshes, and were at peace and praised Me, thou didst drive forth on to the highways, and on Mine earth out of which I made thee thou didst spill innocent blood'.

And the Man made answer and said, 'Even so did I'.

And again God opened the Book of the Life of the Man.

And God said to the Man, 'Thy life hath been evil, and the Beauty I have shown thou hast sought for, and the Good I have hidden thou didst pass by. The walls of thy chamber were painted with images, and from the bed of thine abominations thou didst rise up to the sound of flutes. Thou didst build seven altars to the sins I have suffered, and didst eat of the thing that may not be eaten, and the purple of thy raiment was broidered with the three signs of shame. Thine idols were neither of gold nor of silver that endure, but of flesh that dieth. Thou didst stain their hair with perfumes and put pomegranates in their hands. Thou didst stain their feet with saffron and spread carpets before them. With antimony thou didst stain their eyelids and their bodies thou didst smear with myrrh. Thou didst bow thyself to the ground before them, and the thrones of thine idols were set in the sun. Thou didst show to the sun thy shame and to the moon thy madness'.

And the Man made answer and said, 'Even so did I'.

And a third time God opened the Book of the Life of the Man.

And God said to the Man, 'Evil hath been thy life, and with evil didst thou requite good, and with wrongdoing kindness. The hands that fed thee thou didst wound, and the breasts that gave thee suck thou didst despise. He who came to thee with water went away thirsting, and the outlawed men who hid thee in their tents at night thou didst betray before dawn. Thine enemy who spared thee thou didst snare in an ambush, and the friend who walked with thee thou didst sell for a price, and to those who brought thee Love thou didst ever give Lust in thy turn'.

And the Man made answer and said, 'Even so did I'.

And God closed the Book of the Life of the Man, and said, 'Surely I will send thee into Hell. Even into Hell will I send thee'.

And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not'.

And God said to the Man, 'Wherefore can I not send thee to Hell, and for what reason?'

'Because in Hell have I always lived', answered the Man.

And there was silence in the House of Judgement.

And after a space God spake, and said to the Man, 'Seeing that I may not send thee into Hell, surely I will send thee unto Heaven. Even unto Heaven will I send thee'.

And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not'.

And God said to the Man, 'Wherefore can I not send thee unto Heaven, and for what reason?'

'Because never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it', answered the Man.

And there was silence in the House of Judgement.

20 June 2009

Seen Around Talla-classy #5

This is not a proper "Seen in Talla-classy" entry, but as I was walking around the mall in Tallahassee today, I was truly horrified by some of the ensembles people feel free to leave the house wearing. Which reminded me that I wanted to post a random Tallahassee memento.

I noticed something absurdly hilarious as I was watching Beautiful Thing this week. Near the very end of the film, Ste's abusive, homophobic father is getting dressed. Ste is waiting for him to leave so that he can iron his shirt and go the neighborhood gay bar with his boyfriend. Ste's dad puts on a hideous green/denim jacket monstrosity and then, on his head (click to enlarge):

A Florida State Seminoles hat. FSU represent! Aside from being completely out of place with that jacket (what wouldn't be out of place with that jacket?) this is a film about Londoners, and this man is going to a boxing match. It is a fashion statement truly worthy of Tallahassee.

18 June 2009

Neither Paris nor London Is Burning

I cannot for the life of me figure out why René Clément made Is Paris Burning? when Darryl F. Zanuck had already made The Longest Day. Particularly when Zanuck does everything right that Clément does wrong.

Some film scholar, I am sure, will fight with me on this, but I don't see how anyone can. The Longest Day is shown from the French, German, British, and USAmerican points of view, with original languages intact and no dubbing (unlike Paris Brûle-t-il?). And Longest Day is good movie-making: tiny stories comprising a larger narrative, most all of which are interesting. Longest Day is far too weighted in the USAmericans' favor, and it treats the Germans a bit too much like buffoons, but (and this is key) it is never boring—even though its running time is nearly three hours.

I should also say that Longest Day's stars are well utilized. We get plenty of face time from Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Red Buttons, John Wayne, Richard Burton. Two hours in there is even a surprise appearance from Robert Wagner. (I was excited.)

Yesterday, I finally watched the film of Jonathan Harvey's play Beautiful Thing. I loved it. For years I avoided this movie because I had a moratorium out on gay movies that didn't end happily. Turns out (and I am about to give away the ending) Beautiful Thing ends happily. I was so pleased with this. It's a cute little gay coming-of-age story set in London in the 1990s among the working classes. It's delightful. A little Maurice-y in terms of its ending, but still well worth its ninety-minute running time.

17 June 2009

Silence the Pianos: an Elegy for a Friend

I am finding writing about my friend Andrew very difficult to do. Andrew (who had just turned twenty-eight) was an actor in Los Angeles. We went to college together from 2000 to 2003.

Andrew was my yoga partner. He was the third in the Ayana/Andrew/Aaron triangle. He was my drinking buddy. He was the Guildenstern to my Rosencrantz (literally—in the second production of Hamlet we did together—but offstage, too).

Funny about Andrew: he was always competing. With me, with the other actors we went to school with, with his directors, with his teachers, with other actors we worked with, with David Suchet and Ian Richardson, with himself. I admired this about him even as it frustrated the hell out of me. He demanded excellence of everyone, including and especially himself. We used to joke that we could even make a contest out of doing yoga: here we are supposed to be having a spiritual experience and getting in touch with our breath and the two of us would be trying to outdo one another at proud warrior.

We met in 2000 working on a production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia directed by Bob Gilbert. He was a freshman in the theatre department and I was toying with the idea of joining the theatre department at Cal Poly Pomona. Andrew played Captain Brice and I played Mr. Noakes—we were freshmen, so we were cast as the supporting players but we felt privileged to be onstage at all. (I will never forget A. Cohen who played Septimus hilariously telling me to go fuck myself in a British dialect and sending me up in the middle of a run.) Andrew told me later that from the moment we met he knew that when we were seniors we would be competing for all the roles at school. He was wrong, but that competitiveness was typical.

I loved acting with Andrew. We would compete at this too, even when we were onstage together. He was superb at taking focus and giving it back if he felt like giving it back. He knew the stage so well that if he felt like taking the stage, he would devise a cross or a small gesture and just take it. In 2003, we were working on a production of Hamlet. The actor playing Horatio got another gig and they moved Andrew from playing Guildenstern into the Horatio role. As he went through his old Guildenstern blocking for the new Guildenstern, he told the new guy: "and this moment is when I try to take stage from Aaron." I scoffed. And told him I let him take stage. We just grinned at one another.

I loved directing him, too. Back in college—it must have been our senior year—Andrew had gotten himself suspended from department shows. I forget now what he had done. I didn't think much of it then: none of us did. Marcos, Allan, Carlos, Justin and I devised a production of Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde for Andrew to star in. Andrew played Wilde. (Carlos was particularly brilliant in the show, too.) The last time I talked to Andrew he brought up the show. "You told me to act like Christ," he reminded me. "And you will never let me forget it," I told him. "It's alright, actually," he said. "I knew what you meant."
I think he was misremembering. It was really awful direction. I still use it as an example of things a director shouldn't say.

Actually, it's odd of him to misremember: Andrew never forgot anything. It used to drive me crazy. I would make some offhanded comment and six months later he would bring it up. "I love Al Pacino," I would say. "Really?" he would say, and his tone would level because he sensed victory. "You said you thought he was a ham." "I did?" I would ask, knowing that I probably had said exactly that, but not remembering it at all. Leave it to Andrew to remember every rude thing I ever said about anyone. Not that his memory wasn't occasionally useful. This one time at 6:00 in the morning in the Studio at Cal Poly, the VCR wouldn't work for a yoga session with Andrew, Jen Carr and me, and Andrew recited the entire Bryan Kest routine from memory.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offstage, too: This used to happen to both of us all the time. Someone would be talking about him to me and call him Aaron or someone would refer to me as Andrew. The names are similar, after all. This annoyed both of us occasionally and amused us at other times. It still happens. I was talking to my friend Linda about Andrew just yesterday and she did both: she called me Andrew and then five or ten minutes later she called him Aaron. He and I influenced each other so much that I always thought—even when it was annoying—that the mistake always made a sort of sense.

Andrew and I could exchange a look across a room of people and we would know what each other was thinking. I loved that.

Andrew was obsessed with Shakespeare. Totally, completely obsessed. He would become enamored with British Shakespearean actors: Roger Rees and Simon Russell Beale and Antony Sher. (He did this fantastic impression of Patrick Magee from A Clockwork Orange: "More wine?" It was hilarious.) He rented DVDs of old productions of the Bard's plays done for the BBC and at the National. He would read up on different ways that actors approached parts—and knew all of this trivia. So and so played Caliban as a dog; this actor played him as a fish; this actor—I have forgotten all their names—played him as though there was nothing abnormal about him at all (the way, of course, that Andrew played the part when he finally did The Tempest.) He would memorize lengthy speeches, working for hours by himself on nuances in a monologue from Richard II (he was always partial to RII). He brought it up the last time we spoke:

"I wasted time and now doth time waste me"
He told me he learned the speech in college but nowadays he felt like he knew what it meant.

Andrew would probably scoff at me if he read this: tell me I was getting sentimental in my old age.

Andrew was my best friend for a long time, and we remained close, as far apart geographically as we were. He would still call me whenever he saw a piece of theatre that really inspired him. I loved him very, very much. I told him this all the time, so I have no fears or regrets about him not knowing.

Andrew and I used to talk all the time about what we called "the place of creation." I had forgotten about this, but he (typically) reminded me about it recently. The place of creation was a space of beginning, a space in the body. The place of creation, though, is not a location so much as it is an activity. As actors we would try to get to this place: by stripping away the tensions, lies, preoccupations, memories that held us back. We would try to be free of memory, free of falsehoods, free of pretensions. Our goal was the place of creation: from which, allegedly, real art was supposed to spring. I am skeptical now—cynical, stuffy academic that I am—but Andrew hadn't given up on the place of creation.

I was recently writing about a few of the Dadas—the bold, uncompromising ones who disappeared or committed suicide—Jacques Rigaut and Arthur Cravan and Julien Torma. Their suicides were political and artistic statements. They refused to take part in what they saw as the fraud of Western History and Culture; they refused to live in a society that allowed and condoned World War I. They also wanted to create art, but only art that would disappear as soon as it was created. Some burned their own work as soon as it was written.
The Dadas who disappeared fascinate me the most. They wanted to kill themselves—they saw it as the only ethical act—but they disappeared from society instead, vanishing and leaving only traces, which those remaining mostly unsuccessfully would attempt to piece together. It occurred to me that those Dadas who disappeared managed the perfect act: to kill oneself without dying. This is, perhaps, another way of phrasing our "place of creation": an artistic stripping, a killing of the self, that does not cause death, but is, instead, generative.

Andrew's own memories will not haunt him any more. He killed the past, stripped memory of its power, unfastened desire's chokehold on his life and work. The traces, fragments, and memories above are some of what remains. But I also believe that killing memory and wresting free of desire can be generative, creative. I am heartbroken that I have lost my friend, but I also believed in him, trusted him, loved him. And though he himself is free of memory, I know I will never forget him.

15 June 2009

Three Movies

...and a fucked up weekend. I received some terrible, terrible news on Saturday, and I will probably write about it on this blog in a day or two. Right now I am in denial and I don't feel like writing about it. So: movies.

Watched Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time Redux yesterday. I am not sure what Wong re-did with this movie, because I never saw the original—the DVD quality of the original Ashes of Time has always been super sketchy. I know that the new version has a new score with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, but that is all I really know. A couple thoughts about this movie. It took me a little while to get interested in it. This is partly because the movie is set in a kind of rural, medieval netherworld of a desert in China. This is beautiful, but completely unhinged from reality even though it maintains a premise of realism for a while.

Ashes of Time is beautiful to look at, though, and by the end of it, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I have one more complaint, though, which is that the swordfighting and action sequences are not interesting at all. They are often in slow-motion and they lack tension, as well as a rooting factor.

I did not care for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle. It's famous gay cinema, but its charms were lost on me almost completely. It's sexy, that's for sure, but it never really works. This may be because it is not really clear about what it is trying to do. It may be because Fassbinder is attempting to re-create the feel of Genet's book on film. I am not sure what he is trying to do, though, because whatever he was trying most certainly did not work. Frank Episale, a colleague of mine, has written an interesting essay about Fassbinder's film, which I, quite frankly, found more interesting than Querelle itself. Querelle is definitely no Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

It's a disaster!! I really liked Earthquake. I am a big fan of seventies disaster movies anyway, but I think Earthquake has to be one of the best. Great special effects, interesting (and sometimes very weird) characters, and an uncompromising, very cool ending. I also loved Earthquake's photography. The editing and camerawork build tension very well and the ends without dragging on the story for too long, and—perhaps more importantly—without tying up the loose ends of the disaster the way most disaster films do. A little less all-star than, say, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake stars Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Geneviève Bujold and George Kennedy (is he in every disaster movie?). I am not a Charlton Heston fan, but Bujold is delightful. Definitely worth the rent.

11 June 2009

Holocaust Double Feature

Two Holocaust movies in the last couple of days. This was a coincidence, but it happened nonetheless. And... I didn't like either of them.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's film Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) actually won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film last year, and I have to say that I have no idea why other than that it is a film about World War II. The Counterfeiters isn't even a good movie. In fact, I found it rather irritating. The movie is about a Jewish counterfeiter who gets caught and sent to prison. When the Nazis begin sending Jews to concentration camps, they set up an operation in one of them where they force all of the Jewish men they can find who have experience in printing or forgery or banking to work at forging the British pound (and other jobs too, of course). The film is about how these men survive, and it is also sort of about the moral questions these men live with—they are treated really well by the Nazis but their fellow Jews are tortured and killed. Also, they save their own lives by forging the British Pound, but they are prolonging the German war effort.

The thing is, the film doesn't really have anything to say about these moral questions, and in any case the Allies come before anyone really has to make any serious decisions. And the ending of the film makes no sense at all, emotionally or narratively. Oh yeah, it's also shot in this bizarre documentary style with jump close-ups and an intrusive camera. None of these formal devices work for the movie; instead, they continually remind the viewer of the artificiality of the film, an artificiality which the viewer wouldn't be able to forget in any case given the tropes of Holocaust drama, with which we are all, by now, quite familiar.

Holocaust movie #2 was Edward Zwick's Defiance. Now, I have not been a fan of Ed Zwick for some time, and this film illustrates (once again) exactly why.

There actually isn't much to say about this movie. It's ridiculously sentimental. A melodrama from start to finish, it follows four brothers as they hide out in the forest from the Nazis. They also take care of some hundred or so (maybe there were more; I'm not quite sure because the film is really bad about keeping track of this information: sometimes you look at all the people and there seem to be two hundred, but at other times there are only about seventy-five). The stars of the film are compelling: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and (the totally smoking hot) Mark Feuerstein, but the film is really boring. I saw every plot "twist" ten minutes before it showed up on screen. This includes all emotional twists. They were all obvious from the very beginning.

Defiance's politics are totally absurd, too. There is all of this debate about being "better than the Nazis" and "staying alive is our revenge." But all of this is bunkum. In typical Hollywood fashion, the film allows the men to debate about violence and decide against it, but when push comes to shove even the men in the nonviolence camp pick up their rifles and kill the bad guys.

I know we are not done watching Holocaust movies. I assume there will be another three or four every year, but I think I might be getting a little tired of them...

09 June 2009

Family Values

This post is not about family values.

I have been reading Richard Dyer's fantastic book White. (Although, I have to admit I am not really sure why I decided to revisit this book this summer.) At any rate, the book is about white people and how they are constructed as white: the ways that photography, news reportage, etc. construct whiteness as "normal" and invisible. The book is also about how white people are associated with light. Dyer's analysis is also sensitive to the ways in which heterosexuality is constantly invoked in the service of racial purity (i.e. white racial purity).

And so on my way home when I saw the "Family Values" license plate above, I immediately thought of the book I am reading. Now, obviously, the Family Values plate is intended to combat an invisible enemy. The very notion of "family values" is invoked against the group of people who are anti-family values, that is queers. The father and mother as well as the son and daughter in the central image all look away from the viewer. The family values toward which they point are in the mother herself (on the left side of the image) and at the image's vanishing point (on the right side of the image). That is to say, family values are not in the viewer, but away from the viewer, in her future, or in the image of the white woman inside the image.

Since I have been reading Dyer, though, what struck me the most about this image was not its obvious homophobia—the phrase itself is constantly used by anti-gay groups and so the homophobia in the phrase has become explicit and ubiquitous—but the pervasive whiteness of the central image. This is interesting not only because (obviously) queer people have both families and family values, but that indeed people of color also have both families and family values. What is made explicit in the central graphic of this Florida license plate is that both queers and people of color are excluded in the vision of heterosexual family values espoused by this car's driver.

It seems obvious to me that everyone in the future toward which the father in the image is pointing is white. The future toward which he points is both free of queers and free of people of color. (We should note also that the white people in the central image are actually standing inside the sun. As Dyer points out, white people are constantly associated with light (that is, with both knowledge/enlightenment/brightness and fairness/paleness) which is, in turn, constantly associated with the divine: a construction which serves to bolster whiteness and associate it with goodness/godliness and intelligence/wisdom.)

One of the particular anxieties about homosexuality is that "well, if we were all homosexual, who would populate the planet? We would all die out?" (This is discussed intelligently and thoroughly by Lee Edelman in No Future.) The notion of everyone becoming homosexual seems rather ridiculous, of course, but what this fear really points to is an anxiety not about human beings as a species dying out, but about white people becoming extinct or (and this is actually a much likelier prospect) becoming a racial minority in the West.

What this license plate so clearly states is that this ubiquitous coded phrase "family values" not only represents and advocates heterosexual family values but white family values. The racial constitution of the family in the license plate's central image is just as important as the genders of that family. And make no mistake, the families with which the driver of this car wants to populate the future are not gay and they are not lesbian, but neither are they Latino; they are not black; they are not Asian; they are not Native American; and even more importantly, they are not interracial.

It seems to me that while the future envisioned by this license plate may be one filled with light and one shined-0n by the sun, it is a future that is grim indeed.

04 June 2009

Philip Glass

As you probably know if you know me, I love Philip Glass. So I was delighted to finally sit down and watch Scott Hicks's documentary on the legendary composer.

It's not a very ambitious film, and it is, in a lot of ways, a kind of puff-piece—a movie a director would make about his good friend.

Still, because of my love for Glass, I found the film fascinating. I loved learning about him, his collaborators, his family life, his way of working, his spirituality, etc.

I even found the whole thing rather inspiring. And it, of course, made me want to run out and buy some more Philip Glass music.

Also, look for a cameo from The Reader composer Nico Muhly, who is my age (!) and who used to work for Glass; I might be a little in love with him. There are also appearances from Dennis Russell Davies, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Chuck Close, JoAnne Akalaitis, Errol Morris, and others.

02 June 2009

Kids' Movies

I saw two kids' movies in the span of a couple of days. That is, I saw two animated movies in the span of a couple of days. One is definitely a kids' movie; the other is too, but it is also, definitely, something else...

Pete Docter's Up is charming and frequently funny and always sentimental. I liked it a lot because it has the same Pixar magic we've gotten used to with delightful features like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. Up is not as good as either of those two pictures, but it has some delightful, magical moments all the same.

Up is the story of an old white man who, in order to keep a promise to his deceased wife, transports their old family home from the middle of the city by tying thousands of balloons to the grate in the fireplace and floating it to South America. This is the stuff of movie magic: a rainbow of translucent balloons sailing by the windows of city-folk, busying themselves about their days. The rest of the film is much more conventional. In fact, the rest of the film is essentially one of the oldest movie narratives there is; to wit, a curmudgeonly, misanthropic old man meets a young kid who depends on him completely, and so the old man shows his true colors—invariably the feelings owned by a heart of gold—which had (but you knew this) been there all along, they just needed someone to love.

Conventional though it is, Up is at times breathtaking, frequently very funny, and nearly always visually (if not narratively) imaginative.

Henry Selick's Coraline, on the other hand, is totally completely brilliant from start to finish. The look of the film is stunning (it will remind you, immediately, of Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas); the visuals consistently intrigue, even when the plot is interesting enough that they don't need to. The voice talent—Keith David, in particular—is stellar.

The story... is the story of a horror movie, basically. Coraline is never disturbing enough that it would be inappropriate for children, but it is incredibly unnerving almost at all times, and visually... visually the movie is just wonderful. Again and again and again my jaw dropped in disbelief at the things that Coraline puts on the screen. It's a beautiful movie, well worth your time. Compared to Up, Coraline knocks it out of the water.