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

26 April 2013

Seniors on Gay Sex

What a lovely little video.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

It's Dangerous Liaisons set in 1930s Shanghai!

What this means first of all is beautiful, expensive costumes (by Miggy Cheng). The production design, the dresses, the suits, a sumptuous scene at the Chinese opera: these are all exquisitely rendered.

The acting, too, is uniformly excellent, with a fun and humane lead performance by the Korean actor Jang Dong-gun (The Promise, The Coast Guard, Tae Guk Gi) and really superb performance by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hero, 2046, House of Flying Daggers). I have not always loved her work (Memoirs of a Geisha is a particular stain on my memory), but here she is just so good! She plays the Michelle Pfeiffer role – the respectable woman who is seduced by the lothario and ends up falling for him. The director, Hur Jin-ho, makes this role much bigger than it is in the Stephen Frears version, and one can understand why with this beautiful performance at the film's center.

Zhang Ziyi is fascinating in this.
The camerawork and direction in this Dangerous Liaisions are much less impressive, and the CGI which recreates the 1930s city, skyline, and port is nowhere near as successful as the beautiful costumes and production design are. Hur Jin-ho, too, focuses on the morality of the Dangerous Liaisons tale, aligning the moral positions he dislikes with conspicuous wealth and the moral positions with which he identifies as either impoverished or showing great sympathy to the poor. I find this kind of easy moralizing Manichaeistic and therefore unimaginative (i.e. boring).

But, then, the truth is that I wind up disappointed at every version of Dangerous Liaisons I've ever seen. Because I want the story to end differently, but no one ever rewrites the thing the way I want to see it. This is my fault, of course, and not the fault of the original novel's author (Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). He was writing in the 18th century and all. I get that. But I detest the novel's moral point of view. I find it facile and (actually) a little idiotic, and it surprises me that no one has thought to revise the novel's ending completely when adapting it for the screen.

The story (if you haven't seen Cruel Intentions) is that two experienced cynics make a bet that involves ruining a respectable lady as well as thwarting the love-plans of two young people (who are basically pawns in the game, though they have no idea). At the end, the male protagonist is killed by the female protagonist, and then she (usually) weeps or is in some way shown to be sad about what she has done. In some versions (Cruel Intentions and the 1988 Liaisons), the female protagonist also gets some kind of comeuppance.

Jang Dong-gun wears a suit like this in every scene. And wears it well.
Why must the protagonist die? I don't mind so much that he falls in love, that he abandons his principles, that he loses the bet. But when he decides at the end that he will destroy his rival, he isn't even given a chance to do that. She is so much more powerful than he and always was, and he was always just her tool. But why hasn't anyone any pity for him?

We're supposed to have pity for the two young people (who are both outrageously stupid in every version I've ever seen); we're supposed to want them to be together even though they both do things just as "bad" as the protagonists. Why should we pity them and not the protagonists? The answer, I think, is because the young people are stupid. Because they don't know any better, because they are immature, because they act out of love and hurt instead of out of cynicism and calculation.

But I say that that is ridiculous. I have pity on the cynics, too. And even more, I admire the bet itself and the skill with which it is accomplished. I envision a version of Les Liaisons where the protagonists get what they want. Where they form a union (tenuous, perhaps, but isn't that interesting too?) or have a brief affair and then grow bored of one another. Or even where they agree to go their separate ways. I'd be equally happy with, say, a version where the male protagonist actually gets to live with his respectable girlfriend and make some kind of life without being killed. Something. Anything. I've been watching versions of this story for years and they always end the same.

Have pity, I say, on the villains.

23 April 2013


Trance really is not that great.

But honestly that does not matter one bit.

Because the awesome thing about Trance is that it is so drunk on itself, so in love with its three hopelessly fascinating and attractive (and I mean that word in every sense possible) leads, so giddy with its own excesses and narrative folds, that it convinced me that it was excellent for almost every single minute of its running time.

The first twenty minutes of Trance are a heist movie – a complicated theft of a very expensive (£26,000,000) Goya. The perpetrators of the heist are James McAvoy (I love that guy) and the always-brilliant Vincent Cassel.

But, then, the painting is gone. And only James McAvoy knows where it is, except that he's forgotten and so what he needs to do is remember. Various tortures don't help McAvoy remember, so Cassel forces him to undergo hypnotherapy, which will tell us all where the painting is.

Not so fast. The hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson, looking as gorgeous as ever) gets herself involved in the problem. She figures out instantly that this guy is lying to her and she immediately proceeds to insinuate herself into the gang, demanding an equal share of the profits and wrapping everyone around her finger.

Things get complicated from here. He can't remember. She needs to hypnotize everyone in the gang. She starts to manipulate their minds. She's implanting post-hypnotic suggestions. She starts having an affair with one of them. And where the hell is this painting? Did he even steal the damn thing?

For me the movie goes off the rails around the 40-minute mark. But only if I spend any time thinking about it – which I did not do until the movie ended. Instead I just reveled in the intriguing shots set up by Boyle and by Anthony Dod Mantle (his usual DP). All of the usual Boyle touches are there: the beautiful colors, a slight horror-film sensibility, a constant flirtation with genre specificity, a love affair with his stars.

As I say, the whole thing is enjoyable from start to finish. It doesn't really end up making a lot of sense, but I mostly left the theatre grateful that Danny Boyle still makes films like this. The director of Slumdog Millionaire (as he is billed on the poster) has already won the Best Director Academy Award, and he could easily have stopped spending time on genre pictures in order to make higher-paying, more "important" studio pictures, but here he is making a movie about hypnosis and mind-control. For this I am grateful.

My advice: don't think about it too much and just go see it anyway.

09 April 2013


The last time someone came out to me was Friday morning.

People come out to me more often than you might think, actually. These are students, mostly: young people who are working through a lot of things. For many of them, I am the first person over thirty that they've told, and they are seeking advice or support or sympathy.

The so-called closet (I am not fond of the term) is obviously a complicated device and I am careful whenever anyone decides to tell me that he or she is coming out of it.

I have a number of contradictory thoughts on this topic, however. I don't believe that people ought to be compelled to tell me they are queer in some way, but then, last term I was teaching a course called Sex & Drama, and I had two gay – or somewhat gay – students who never told the (apparently entirely heterosexual) class that they were gay. These students never publicly identified, even for the purpose of the course and its subject material, with the gay characters in the performances we examined. I thought it all so strange!

But, of course, from what I know about social pressures at this College – they are fairly intense and rather socially conservative – I can assume these students had a good reason for their silence. And they are entitled to that silence.

In regard to celebrities announcing their queerness, I deplore the pressure put on these figures to "come out". Most of these people are out. They are carrying on relationships, have kids, their families all know, and (to put even more fine a point on it) we know. We know they are gay or queer and we don't even know them. So to whom are they "coming out"? It seems to me fairly clear that the answer to that question is "straight people". And why ought that to be important to any of us?

More to my purposes for writing this today, you will have noticed that I am hedging my bets on calling celebrities or my students "gay". I worry about a term like this because I am not entirely sure of what gay means, and I think it is important to recognize that we don't all experience identifications in the same way.

When I had the big sexuality conversation with a former student to whom I am very close, he assumed that I already knew what he was about to tell me, and so he said something like "well, I figure you know what I am gonna say, so...". And the truth is: I did and I didn't. My experience of being gay is one thing – I experienced it as a deeply ingrained piece of me that I wanted to hide from my Christian parents, and now I experience it as a way that I live my life: a public choice I make on a daily basis to celebrate my own queerness, to seek out other queer people, to consume as much queer culture as possible. But what did being gay or queer or bisexual mean to my former student? I didn't know the answer to that and knew I didn't.

I'm seventeen in this photograph. Lifetimes ago.
One of the troubles with the narrative of "coming out" is that it assumes that we all come out the same, and that once "out" we are all the same - that we've all come out of something nebulous and dark and repressive and now we're all out and proud and happy. But "coming out" is just a story. (The standard version goes more or less like this: I was born gay, I struggled with my gayness all through my adolescence and I felt very conflicted, silenced, and filled with self-hatred through most of my teenage years, but it gets better, and now I am somewhat of an adult and I can tell you that "this is who I am" and I am happy.)

When we fit our lives to the "the story", the story itself takes over. For myself: I don't believe that I was born gay, I didn't struggle with my gayness all through my adolescence, and I was very in love with a young woman when I was in high school. Oh but who can remember? The truth is that the story takes over. We can't escape it. I started high school twenty years ago, and "the story" is so much a part of our collective consciousness of what it means to be a gay person in the 21st century United States that I can no longer remember what I was thinking back then. I can only remember the story.

So now when someone tells me that she is gay, I want to hear what that is like for her, what it means to her, how she has bent her life around that concept.... Or not! There are so many of us. I know so many different queer people – and they live such different lives. The next time someone tells me he or she is gay, I want to begin to respond with something like Welcome to the family, but tell me more. I want to know how you think about queerness and how you experience that queerness.

06 April 2013

Blogging Elsewhere

I have done / am doing a set of interviews of my colleagues over at Endstation Theatre for their website. So far the interviews of Aaron Farr and Krista Franco have been posted and many more are to come.

The interviews are not really about art as such or theatre, either, but more about how we work together and why we are all spending so much time working for this company. They are pretty great, though, and I am proud of them.