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

27 November 2012

Dans Paris

In Paris, the film I see advertised the most is Populaire. I have seen the ad so many times that I am starting to want to see the movie. Also, I love Romain Duris. I have no idea what this movie is about, but the poster makes it look charming.

Another film advertised in Paris right now is Une Nouvelle Chance (A New Chance/Opportunity/Possibility), which doesn't even attempt to translate the USAmerican title Trouble with the Curve. One assumes there is no real translation for the curveball metaphor we have in American English.

There's also L'Odyssée de Pi, probably a slightly better title than its English counterpart Life of Pi (which is a title that pops but doesn't quite make sense). I have to be honest: the more I see this movie advertised, the less I want to see it. The book (which I recently finished) left me sort of cold. It isn't only that I didn't care for the (much discussed) ending section of the book, but the entire way through it just reminded me of those old epics Robinson Crusoe and (especially) The Swiss Family Robinson. It was nice to be reminded of those books – I liked them when I was a kid – but Life of Pi finally reads like a kids' book, actually, and though it purports to be about religion or spirituality in some kind of way, I didn't really get it. Life of Pi has this theory that Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism are all essentially the same thing, but once the boy is sharing a boat with an enormous Bengal Tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the book stops being about religion completely. The movie looks like it's going to be a CGI-fest: not necessarily bad in and of itself, but part of the plot of the novel is about whether or not the young man's story is believable. Do we believe him or do we not? If we do not believe the images on the screen, it seems to me the decision is probably already made for us. I'll stop talking about the film now, because I haven't seen it, and my analysis is, therefore, obviously precipitate.

Après Mai, a new film by Olivier Assayas looks hipster-ish and depressing, but it's Olivier Assayas, so I want to see it anyway. Even if that boy's hair clearly needs a trim.

Even more exciting to me is Mads Mikkelsen in Thomas Vinterberg's La Chasse or The Hunt. I loved Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair and that and The Hunt will both be out at the same time in Paris – not sure when either is coming to the U.S.

This is not all I have to say about Paris, obviously. I love it here. And I don't speak enough French to actually go to the movies, but I can stare at the posters and grin, anyway...

19 November 2012

This Should Not Remind Anyone of John Mayer

As usual, my friend Gregory Sherl is busy writing good poems. This has been out on the internet for a couple of months, but I am revisiting it today. Queer poetry from my (mostly) heterosexual friend. I love this poem.


The lock goes on the outside. The window doesn’t exist.
Boys are some motherfuckers. Teach her the subtleness
of never leaving the house, the necessity of cats.
How do we tell her that boys don’t purr
without a pointing cock without saying Boys don’t purr
without a pointing cock
? Pick out every boy worth fucking
& tell her what pulses inside them. Open a broken oven,
say This this this is what pulses inside them.
Plug the oven in & have her watch it still not work.
If she falls in love with a girl, throw a party. All of our hairs
can be short,
our heritages secured in ourselves.
If I’m not around when she gets that look, make sure hers
isn’t for one who breathes over the page instead of into the bed.

What a waste. Tell her that jellyfish are everywhere & that whales
have legs. It’s okay that sometimes only sleeping makes sense.
She should know that sharks never think about us.
Tell her every John Cusack movie is based on a true story.

Highlight the lips of those who said I was the bravest man scared
of the dark. Tell her how I kept my masculinity
in a crowded basement.

18 November 2012


Speaking of Tony Kushner, the school that currently employs me as a visiting lecturer recently did a production of Kushner's epic Pulitzer prize-winning 1992 play Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Part 1 - Millennium Approaches. This was a couple of weeks ago and I've been trying to think for a while about how to talk about my experience while watching this production.

The production was beautifully designed, but (to be frank about things) it didn't work. I was watching these lovely kids up there laboring with difficulty to make the play make sense, but... it was clear that they didn't get it.

And the director probably didn't either.

It was also really clear just how straight the audience was when I found myself the only one laughing as Prior said Come back, little Sheba!

But I had an even stronger reaction to this as the play continued. This isn't theirs, I thought. There is something actually wrong about watching these kids do this play. They don't understand it because it isn't for them, or rather, it isn't about them. This is not theirs.

The implication here is, of course, that Angels in America is somehow mine, and that I have more entrée into the play than undergraduates who will be taking their degrees between 2013 and 2016. And the more I think about it, the more true I think that is – as laughable as that sounds.

It is because these kids aren't gay. They're up there on the stage playing gay characters, which is (I am sure they think) very admirable and brave and all, but the more I watched the more wrong the whole thing felt. A friend of mine said to me after the show that she imagined it must've been like watching actors in brownface or blackface, and I think she's right. It did feel like that.

The thing is, this happens all of the time on television and in the movies. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play gay and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays gay and I don't give it a second thought. But most of the films and television programs where gay characters are played by straight actors are written by straight writers and helmed by straight directors. These representations don't feel as though they belong to my culture in any serious way. (Brokeback Mountain isn't a gay film in my mind. It's a film for straight people made by straight people. I would call Noah's Arc or Gayby or Elephant or Weekend gay cultural productions: representations made by gay people for gay people.) And so it doesn't usually offend me to see a straight actor playing a gay character on Will & Grace or The Wire or whatever. We have our own images; it doesn't matter much if they also want to create images of us. (Transamerica is a notable, offensive, exception.)

But Angels in America is different. This was the great gay epic of the early 1990s. The play's characters are gay, their humor is gay – even the straight female character's humor is campily queer – and it is about the actual history of gay men, including legendary homophobe and homophile Roy Marcus Cohn. And I understand this is an androcentric post; it is so necessarily. And I am sure that I am not taking many other important things into consideration here. I am equally sure that I have no interest in articulating a program for some kind of "correct" representation of gay men.

All I am saying is that watching these straight boys up on stage going through their gay paces felt sacrilegious to me. I've never felt this way before, but I expect that this will not be the last time.

Fifty Shades of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, as you probably know, is the second Abraham Lincoln movie to come out in 2012, and while I suspect that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will garner a lot less awards-buzz this season, it remains in my heart. I want to note in passing, as well, that there were some truly awesome things in AL:VH.
  1. Harriet Tubman is in the movie for no apparent reason, but it got a huge laugh in the theatre when I saw it.
  2. Zombies and vampires are apparently interchangeable for Timur Bekmambetov.
  3. The USAmerican Civil War was a fight between the living and the undead where the entire Confederate Army was made up of legions of vampires.
  4. My main problem with AL:VH was that the vampires were so gross and awful. The truth is, that for me (and given the widespread Twilight obsession I suspect I am not alone) vampires are kind of fabulous. They live forever; they kill people in the most intimate and erotic of ways; they're creatures of the night; and they're usually dressed very well. So why would you want someone (even Abraham Lincoln) out there hunting them
  5. Dominic Cooper is still really really hot.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can talk about Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's new movie Lincoln. I suspect you have probably already seen it. And unlike their last collaboration, I really loved Lincoln. It's just really well done. Great acting – the juicy roles are played by Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field: look for them all at Awards time. But the smaller roles are beautifully played as well. It's an excellent company including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill (how I love that man), Gloria Rueben, Lee Pace, David Costabile, S. Epatha Merkerson, Adam Driver, Julie White, and so many more.

The standout here, however, is Kushner himself. The writing is just gorgeous. The film is filled with exquisite turns of phrase and superb verbal flourishes. It captures the time period beautifully, while feeling familiar and intimate, treading the fine line of ironic hindsight while allowing us the pleasure of re-living a drama the filmmakers know that we all probably know very well. As beautiful as the performances are, it is Kushner's writing that made me love this movie. And (unlike other filmmakers with recent films about USAmerican history *cough* J. Edgar *cough*) Kushner's writing doesn't feel bloated or stagey; the script never grandstands.

I have my gripes, of course: mostly with Spielberg. Lincoln has three endings; Spielberg can't handle ending a film only once. He has to end it repeatedly. When Lincoln said "It seems it's time to go, though I'd much rather stay" (or something like that) and walked down that hallway in one of Janusz Kaminski's rich shots, I thought (as I inevitably always do in a Spielberg movie) end it here; end it here. But I knew he wouldn't. I knew that was only Ending #1. The man is good at endings, I admit, but we really don't need them all. The first ending is almost always the best ending.

In truth, the whole film is a kind of exercise in Spielbergian dramaturgy. I mean, we know from the get-go that the Thirteenth Amendment is going to pass and that the Civil War is going to end (Rebecca Schneider's book notwithstanding). And so the entirety of Lincoln – if we remain on the level of plot – is a kind of buildup to something terrible that ends up being benign after all, just like Embeth Davitz's shower in Schindler's List that really was water after all.

But this is a film about politics and not a film about surprises or cliffhangers. Spielberg can do this, too, of course, and indeed his considerable skill at suspense makes a film about passing a piece of legislation into a true nail-biter, even though we already know it is going to pass. In a way, what I am talking about is truly genius-level filmmaking.

Of course, a part of what Kushner & Spielberg are doing here is making another film about Lincoln within a cinematic history of Lincoln. On the Colbert Report this week Kushner said that the last important film about Lincoln was John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda. That is clearly false (I'm not actually sure why he would say such a thing) because John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois starring Raymond Massey (who is absolutely amazing as Lincoln) was released some 8 months after Ford's film.

I am not trying to chart a history of representations of Abe Lincoln in cinema, but I think it is significant that each of these films attempts to do a different thing with Lincoln. For starters, each of these films chooses a specific plotline to follow: a small section of Lincoln's life. Only Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter attempts to tell the whole story of Abraham Lincoln; the others choose a small aspect of the Lincoln story and focus in on it. Young Mr. Lincoln follows a court case in which Lincoln is basically a kind of down-home criminal lawyer, solving a case in order to free two young men falsely charge of murder. Fonda plays Lincoln like a young Matlock, solving crimes and reminiscing about his mother in down-home drawl. Abe Lincoln in Illinois follows Lincoln's love affair (and tempestuous rows) with Mary Todd, as well as his rise to power in the United States government and his election as president. Abe is a film about Lincoln's anti-slavery politics.

All of these films – including the one about the vampires – are hagiographic.

I want to say a bit more about politics, because to me Lincoln is a movie about Barack Obama. Here Dr. Schneider's book again deserves mention because although Lincoln's Abraham Lincoln is clearly not Obama, he's not not Obama.

2012's Lincoln focuses on Lincoln the politician – as he tries to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed through the U.S. House of Representatives. But instead of working to establish Lincoln as a saint, Kushner and Spielberg take his sainthood for granted, expecting his sainthood to confer its good will onto the political process itself. There is an entire section of the film in which Lincoln attempts to convince Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens to be less radical, to rein it in in order to get this legislation passed. The film argues that we need to be concerned about the present just a bit more than we ought to be concerned for our idealistic principles. In other words, politics – which is, for Kushner, the way we get (good) things done in this world – are infinitely more important than being right about what it is that we believe.

In the old saying "He'd rather be right than president", Kushner (I think correctly) thinks it is better to be president. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, but Lincoln read to me like an apology for the conservatism of Barack Obama's first four years as the U.S. President. Lincoln says that in order to get things done, blood must be shed. Lincoln doesn't really believe in revolution but rather in slow progress, gradual inevitable change made possible by great men and women who sacrifice their own lives (literally) in order to open up spaces for such change. And Lincoln believes in this change with all of its heart. It is a film filled with hope, filled with the articulation of such possibilities. Lincoln is an excellent film because – like all of Kushner's texts – it is profoundly ambivalent about the principles in which it believes. Further (and thankfully), Lincoln is not particularly interested in convincing me that its own point of view is the correct one, but it is interested rather in asking me to imagine the same possibilities imagined by its protagonists.

Lincoln is, after all, a film about having faith in democracy and in the people themselves. It is a profoundly hopeful film that wants to believe that giving people the freedom to make decisions about their own lives is the best and only ethical way to govern.

13 November 2012

Flying High

Robert Zemeckis's new film is an unapologetic star vehicle for the great Denzel Washington. Zemeckis excels at star vehicles, as we all know, and Flight is no exception.

Flight is a film about a drunk, but it isn't a film about alcoholism for its first half. In fact, the movie is split between a truly exciting action/disaster movie in its first act and a second and third act that are about a man coming to terms with his addiction to alcohol.

The movie's first act is its best part, and Zemeckis deftly handles these tense moments, building suspense beautifully as the plane crash – which we all know is going to happen – is avoided and then avoided again as the protagonist gets control of the aircraft. This entire first section of the film is exciting and nerve-wracking. I was on the edge of my seat.

The film's second section slows down considerably, but maintains the suspense of not quite knowing what will happen. Washington plays his character as someone who might do anything at any point. I wanted this character to succeed badly, and I even made excuses at various points for his drinking. The movie, too, takes pleasure in drug use and heavy drinking, including a boozing, cocaine-loving John Goodman for three scenes filled with humor and vicarious substance-enjoying pleasure. (Flight's humor is odd. In addition to Goodman's character, there is also a very strange and sickeningly funny sequence in a hospital room where two young crazy people keep talking about Jesus and his plan for everyone's life. It is played for laughs and I laughed, but I also felt a little gross.)

For all of the pleasure it takes in drinking and cocaine-use, however, sobriety (and sentimentality) win out after all in Zemeckis's movie. Flight's protagonist and its audience are supposed to learn that we ought to have some principles, even if we don't care about our own lives. And we are also supposed to believe that there is a god and that it does indeed have a plan for our lives, even if the first sequence that states this explicitly is directed in a spirit of ridicule.

Flight, in the end, truly is about acts of god, and this is a movie in which everyone is given a second and third chance to straighten up and, you will pardon the expression, fly right.

Oscar postscript: It looks to me like Denzel Washington is pretty much a lock for a Best Actor nomination. He is a huge star and the performance is absolutely superb. It is difficult to be a huge star and give a great performance, of course: our stars carry lots of baggage with them. But, like I said, this is a star vehicle, and the film seems veritably designed to get Washington a well-deserved sixth Oscar nomination. As for John Goodman or Don Cheadle's Oscar chances, don't listen to the hype. I don't see either role as quite big enough to merit notice at year's end. This film only has eyes for Mr. Washington himself. Bruce Greenwood, I should note, once again does excellent work on a film's sidelines. His role is neither flashy nor conspicuous, but as usual, Mr. Greenwood delivers. He is a dependable and reassuring presence in a film, and I am always happy to see him onscreen.

11 November 2012

Nicholas Sparks & Zac Efron

I have, until last night, been able completely to avoid films based on Nicholas Sparks novels. This has become a miniature point of pride for me. Girls I know look at me aghast. You haven't seen The Notebook??? they yell, indignant. How is it possible that you haven't seen The Notebook? Well, I haven't. I have also skipped Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe, A Walk to Remember, The Last Song, and Dear John. I say No Thanks to Mr. Sparks' particular brand of heteronormative schmaltz and his refusal to call the books he writes "romance novels". Mr. Sparks writes what he calls "fiction", and we are allegedly fools for placing his work within so debased a genre as the romance novel, even though his books are just as formulaic as Jackie Collins'. In a much-quoted and ludicrous interview in USA Today he compared himself to Shakespeare, Austen, and Hemingway, and then called Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian "the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written".


On the other hand...

I like Zac Efron. There. I said it. And I try to see all of his movies. Now, I mostly think these movies are awful, but I always like Zac in them. There is something unapologetically earnest about his work, the way he truly works at his acting without ever phoning it in (like, say, Orlando Bloom or Ashton Kutcher sometimes do). Aside from all this, I honestly think Zac is pretty good. He gets at something – a kind of bro-truth, perhaps – for which I think our society often aims. So far I've been charmed by Zac in High School Musical (1, 2 and 3), found him adorable in Hairspray, thought he acquitted himself well in Me and Orson Welles, and watched both of his Burr Steers movies (17 Again was cute and clever; Charlie St. Cloud was absurd and overly sentimental). I admit that I probably shouldn't have seen Charlie St. Cloud in the theatre, but, well, Zac is just so pretty. I know that's not really an excuse but it's all I've got. The boy is not my type at all, but he's beautiful.

Which leads me to the point where I rent The Lucky One, the new film by Scott Hicks (who you might remember made the Oscar-nominated Shine in 1996), which stars Zac Efron and is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks.

And it is every single thing you think it is going to be. The Lucky One is exhaustingly formulaic, unabashedly heteronormative, filled with inane dialogue, excruciatingly white, and cloyingly sentimental.

And I sort of liked it. Zac is very good, as usual. The beautiful female lead, Taylor Schilling, is actually delightful and gives a fine performance. There's also Blythe Danner, who wears a knowing, clever smirk throughout the whole film. The actors are honestly doing good work.

That's all I can say for The Lucky One, though. The movie wants you to have feeling after feeling, and for some reason, it treats its audience as though we haven't seen this movie before. The Lucky One is a rehash of every romantic drama you've ever seen that behaves as though it's telling this story for the very first time.

True love. Meant to be. Fate. Blah blah blah. And mostly I just sat there, drank my gin and tonic, and bought it.