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

14 August 2017

State Fair

I hadn't actually realized the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair was based on an original film. Anyway, this is it. And Henry King's film is charming from start to finish. And this movie also had some pretty great shots for 1933: the roller coaster rides were a highlight.

12 August 2017

The Beguiled and Baby Driver

I was into Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled. It's a mood piece, like all of Coppola's films, and, well, it is about the same mood as all of Coppola's films. Still, it's a fun, mostly sexy piece, and I was into it. I found it troubling and interesting. 

But I find that Coppola's movies make assumptions about audience identification or comprehension that aren't always quite there yet and so The Beguiled makes unjustified moves, assuming we are following, and we eventually end up playing catch up.

The other sort of odd thing about The Beguiled is that it isn't really sure whose side it's on. This is strange. Are we supposed to identify with this soldier against the women (the film seems to think so during a long sequence in the third act in which he is allowed to articulate his grievances), or are supposed to be on their side, to take pleasure in their actions? This just isn't clear, and if Coppola knows what side she wants us to be on, she hasn't made a film that helps us do that. Again, I think Coppola's filmmaking makes assumptions about audience identification that haven't actually been achieved.

This didn't bother me too much, though. I just love me some Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. And this film uses all of them very well. (I continue to be baffled by the popularity of Elle Fanning, I must say, but to each her own.)

The best thing about The Beguiled is the costumes. They're absolutely genius. I really hope that  Stacey Battat gets her first Oscar nomination for this.

* * *
Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is better than what I am about to say, but once it occurred to me that Baby Driver is La La Land for people who hated La La Land, I couldn't forget the association. To be sure, Baby Driver has guns and explosions and the best car chases I've ever seen in my life, but it is just a little more gimmicky than I could handle.

This is a fun twenty-first-century musical, and it is definitely Wright's most accomplished, finely directed film to date. But... well so much of it just seemed so overly phony. This is not helped by Kevin Spacey's absurdly over-the-top performance and the film's ridiculous romantic plot, which even has an entire La La Land fantasy sequence near its end.

Do not mistake me, though. This is a good movie. And I enjoyed it a lot. That the film does not have enough Jon Bernthal in it is, I think, indicative of why I didn't completely love this picture. Baby Driver is more interested in sentiment and fantasy than it is in crime, violence, or really scaring its audience. Instead, everything in the film takes place in a kind of Disneyland version of criminal activity, in which it is inevitable that love will save the day.

10 August 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Five

Bernhard Wicki's The Visit did not work for me. It stars Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, as well as a wonderful Valentina Cortese, but I didn't like it, and the entire conceit fell flat for me. A woman returns to her hometown and shames them because they shamed her when she was young? This kind of revenge is not interesting to me... I think because it is emotional revenge rather than a logical, murderous revenge. Killing someone, I guess I can get. Shaming him or her: no thanks. Also, I don't think I had ever read Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play (on which this film is based) and I have to say that if the play ends the way this film ends, I don't like the play either.

The Visit had fabulous costumes (that was why it got an Oscar nomination), but its camerawork was very strange, and its sentiments left me cold.

* * *
I honestly don't think I have anything to say about Edward Dmytryk's Where Love Has Gone. This was apparently based on a true story, but it is a soap opera through and through – something Jacqueline Susann might have written. It stars Susan Hayward (who I adore) and Bette Davis (who is beyond all adoration), but... this is dumb. It wishes it were a murder mystery, but it actually never builds any tension in that direction. In other words, I never cared who committed the murder in the first place. This is a melodrama through and through, a kind of poor man's Mildred Pierce, but it never really picks a side and so the final suspenseful moments have no effect.

Where Love Has Gone was nominated for Best Original Song and, if I'm honest, I don't really dislike the tune, sung by Jack Jones. It's a big, bright, brassy sort of thing with lots of violins, rather like something Frank Sinatra would normally make into a hit.

As for the movie though, don't bother.

* * *
The Chalk Garden is another boring potboiler that was probably originally a stage play.

Ok, I went and looked it up and of course it was a play – by Enid Bagnold. the film is directed by Ronald Neame, and he tries his best to make this something other than a stagey movie, but I'm afraid there's no saving it. It's a kind of David and Lisa or Miracle Worker sort of thing, where a teacher gets ahold of a precocious young woman and somehow convinces her to be less crazy and stop causing everybody to fret so much.

Edith Evans was nominated for an Oscar for this picture, and she earned her nomination. She plays a cranky old grandmother who believes she's caring for the young woman in her house but who is actually causing rather a lot of trouble because she's being so darned indulgent and not reading this child the riot act. 

It's not a bad little thing, and it's sort of your typical mid-century USAmerican realist drama, but I've never cared for mid-century USAmerican realist drama, and I haven't gotten any kinder to it in 2017.

* * *
Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater follows a woman played by Anne Bancroft who has many children. Her husband is cheating on her (cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater), and she figures this out over the course of the film. Maggie Smith appears (in 1964!) in a tiny role as the first of her husband's lovers whom we meet. Peter Finch plays the husband, and this movie is interesting, even if it is quite strange.

The thing is, The Pumpkin Eater is a brooding, slow movie, and it is more than a little odd. I appreciated it more than I liked it. But it is about depression, and watching a movie about depression is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

Still, it gets kudos in my book for trying to get into the mind of the depressive in 1964 and not simply treating depression as something that needs to be somehow dealt with or cured. And I really love Jack Clayton's work as a director. I think his 1959 Room at the Top is near perfect, and this is gorgeously, assuredly made even if I didn't enjoy watching it, particularly. Clayton was really ahead of his time.

This concludes my 1964 viewing! Now to catch up on some 2017 movies.

31 July 2017

Cold Fission Blonde

I was pumped for Atomic Blonde; I'll be honest. Charlize Theron, as her typical icy heroine, kicking ass and shooting guns while walking around Berlin in heels at the end of the Cold War. That sounds like a good time to me.

And it is true. All of those elements are a good time. But, most of the film is actually not that. Atomic Blonde starts off slowly. Charlize looks beat to hell at the beginning of the movie, and we should immediately be skipping back to the beginning so we can see who beat her up so badly, but no, we can't do that. The director wants to make sure we have a whole bunch of plot points first. There's a watch with a list on it. Charlize apparently loved a British spy who has been killed by a Russian spy in Berlin. And then there are three mysterious men – higher-ups in the CIA and MI6 – who have to interview Charlize. This set up takes forever.

Atomic Blonde keeps on doing that. We get long establishing shots of Charlize in her apartment making phone calls, of Charlize walking the streets of Berlin talking to people we don't know, of Charlize looking through ransacked rooms for objects we wouldn't recognize even if we saw them. The director is here for the mood and the mood is bleak. No one is having any fun in this world. We're here for the chilly atmosphere.

The deal is this: Whenever Charlize kicked someone's ass, I enjoyed myself. And that happens five or six times in the movie. The rest of the movie has to do with a spy plot that no one needed and that didn't matter.

And I wouldn't have bothered about the spy plot in my own brain if the movie itself didn't keep returning to it, insisting this information is important. What's worse is that this entire plot is completely incoherent, as far as I can tell, and so I was baffled as to why the director kept emphasizing it. (Bad directing advice I often hear given to student directors involves the phrase "make sure you're telling the story". Sometimes the thing you're working on isn't about the story.)

The music in Atomic Blonde is cool. Charlize is cool. The costumes are cool. The lighting would be cool, but I have to admit to being tired of this trend where neon red illuminates one side of someone's face and neon blue light illuminates the other. The fight sequences are really cool. James McAvoy is cool. Spies are cool. The whole thing is cool. But it's also just boring.

Visions from 1964: Part Four

J. Lee Thompson's What a Way to Go! is a very strange fantasy film indeed. This is obviously a vehicle for Shirley MacLaine, and she is lovely and hilarious, so that makes perfect sense. It is also a star-studded extravaganza of nonsense. In it, MacLaine marries four different men all of whom are impossibly, insanely wealthy – Dick Van Dyke, then Paul Newman, then Dean Martin, then Gene Kelly. All of this is ridiculously silly, but charming enough. And the art direction and costumes are fittingly over the top and inventive. Extra points for Paul Newman, who appears shirtless for most of his scenes in the movie.

Here, Newman conducts his painting machines before being killed. You had to be there.

* * *
The Fall of the Roman Empire is pretty much garbage from start to finish. It is a disastrous, epic mess lasting three hours and forty minutes and not making a bit of sense. This is an Anthony Mann movie, but it is really a Samuel Bronston movie – the guy behind King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) – and so it is obsessed with grandeur and pageantry. In one of the opening sequences, we watch two dozen different kings from all over the Roman Empire come pay their respects to Marcus Aurelius, who isn't even in Rome but is in some Gothic outpost that is basically an overgrown hunting lodge. The idea is absurd and it goes on for like twenty minutes. This is whatshisname, King of Cappadocia, and now here is the ruler of Armenia, and oh here is the King of Nubia. Are you kidding me? Who cares? I guess if I want to look at a parade of horses and costumes this is worth something, but mostly not. The Fall of the Roman Empire actually has several sequences like this. Obviously in 220 minutes they have time to work in a lot of stuff, but the plot itself is excruciatingly boring. We alternate between absurd fight sequences, pageant sequences, and then scenes of quite, "very important" drama.

Sophia Loren is in this (she was, apparently, in three Oscar-nominated films in 1964), as is Stephen Boyd, who played Messala in Ben-Hur, and Christopher Plummer, who plays the Emperor Commodus. And while we are on Ben-Hur, this film wishes it were Ben-Hur, and wishes that so much that it has a chariot race sequence with Stephen Boyd! It is a total rip off of the legendary chariot race in William Wyler's film. I will say that the one thing for which this nonsense was nominated is its score, which is an amazingly gorgeous achievement by Dimitri Tiomkin. This has a great cast, but it is an epic mess in the tradition of giant epic sword-and-sandals messes like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Quo Vadis? Awful.

* * *
Larry Peerce's One Potato, Two Potato is not nearly as bad as The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it is also a very different movie. This is a story of a legal battle that doesn't know it's the story of a legal battle. The director apparently thought One Potato, Two Potato was something of a comedy, and its title seems to think so too. The movie is comedy length and staged like a romantic comedy for a good two thirds of its running time. But then stuff gets really serious.

The plot of One Potato, Two Potato is that a young white woman's husband abandons her and their small child. She asks for a divorce and he is, like, off in Brazil and never comes back. She, meanwhile, falls in love with a black man and they decide to marry (against the advice of his parents; hers are maybe dead? I forget). Things are going well, for the most part, and they have a kid and the original kid is doing great, loves her grandparents, etc. But then husband number 1 comes back and decides that he wants the kid back. Now, this is clearly a case where the father completely abandoned the kid, but the court actually is interested in hearing this man's case – get this – because the new father is black and so somehow the environment is not healthy for the kid. See what I mean? Very serious, actually. And the last five minutes of the movie are actually very powerful drama. But that emotional power is not earned and so it doesn't land. The film hasn't treated things seriously enough for this actually to work. It's a bit of a failure, though its heart is in the right place.While

* * *
And then there's Cheyenne Autumn, which is a John Ford movie about the killing of many many Native Americans. Ford tries to take the native side in this movie, after having done precisely the opposite for the previous 25 years, but this movie is an epic, bloated, self-important mess. And then there are these other complaints that I had:
  • All of the Indians are played by Latinos and Italians. Justifiable, perhaps, in 1964, but... actually no, never mind. It isn't justifiable.
  • There is this twenty minute sequence right before the intermission, in which Arthur Kennedy and Jimmy Stewart show up (even though they are not in the rest of the movie) to play a series of cartoony scenes showing how silly white people were out west when it came to Indians. This is an absurd sequence only tangentially related to the movie, and because it comes right before intermission it seems important. It isn't. But it is so typical Ford.
  • It just keeps going. This mess was 154 minutes long.
  • ...And actually it's all about the white people after all. Richard Widmark has a lot of feelings and so do Caroll Baker and Karl Malden and Patrick Wayne and Edward G. Robinson. It may be that the Indians in the film make serious decisions and struggle to make the decisions they make, but if they do, we don't really see it. It is all filtered through the white folks.
* * *
While we're being racist, there's also George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which is actually pretty hard to dislike. It's a charming little fable that I really found delightful. At the center of the film, of course, is a mysterious Chinese "doctor", played by Tony Randall in a typical yellowface costume. So there's that. But I am here to report that this movie is actually not terrible, despite the racist portrayal at its center.

Honestly, why does he need to be a mysterious Asian character in the first place? Like, since when do all mysteries need to come from the "East"? Are there no mysterious white people for Tony Randall to play? Can he not just play your typical American charlatan, coming into town to cause trouble and bring people together? The film sort of plays with this idea, I suppose. For one, Dr. Lao always pronounces his own name "Dr. Loh" (rhyming with dough), and everyone else in the movie calls him "Dr. Lao" (rhyming with cow). And then in the middle of the movie, in conversations with (the beautiful) John Ericson, Dr. Lao stops speaking with his Chinese accent and speaks in a perfect mid-Atlantic dialect like any good New York actor from the period. In other words, the film doesn't need its racist construction, so why it uses it is sort of baffling.

The rest of the film is just plain delightful. There is a silly plot about a town and having faith in the town or some such. And then Barbara Eden falls in love with John Ericson (very sensible of her, I might add). I was into it.

* * *
Are we done yet? (We're not.) Four more.

20 July 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Three

Some of these 1964 films have been weird, but some have also been brilliantly good. Here are some of the excellent ones.

Mario Monicelli's I Compagni (The Organizer) is a gorgeous movie about striking textile-factory workers in 19th century Turin. This film has been added to The Criterion Collection, and with good reason. It stars Marcello Mastroianni (also in 1964's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style) as a labor organizer who inspires the town's workers to strike against the factory owners. But the film isn't really about Mastroianni's organizer as its focus (the title in Italian translates to something more like Comrades than The Organizer); it's about the workers in the town and the actual struggle of their labor and their strike.

This film follows a strike in the 19th century, but it felt completely relevant to today, and it was easy to see how the movie would have felt relevant to Italians in 1963 and Americans in 1964. But more than that, this is also just a superbly made, beautifully acted, deeply satisfying movie.

* * *
Another movie I loved is Fate Is the Hunter by director Ralph Nelson. Fate Is the Hunter is an ensemble picture but stars Glenn Ford (for whom I fell so hard in Dear Heart). The premise of this film is a plane crash and then an investigation into that plane crash and what caused it. There seems to be no real explanation for the crash, or rather too many explanations for the crash, but our main character is determined to get to the real cause, which everyone keeps saying "must just be fate". Glenn Ford refuses to accept this explanation and keeps digging. This is a bit of a strange movie, I guess, mostly because of its time scheme. At the beginning of the movie we watch a really terrifically filmed plane crash, but then the film totally switches gears and the majority of the movie is a kind of detective story filled with flashbacks to the life of the pilot, who has died in the crash.

But Fate Is the Hunter is so compelling, the story so good, and the acting so very well done (with performances by Nancy Kwan, Rod Taylor, and an especially good turn by character actor Mark Stevens) that its quirky dramaturgy felt justified, and I thoroughly enjoyed this. The script is excellent, and especially when compared to Clint Eastwood's boring Sully, which tries to do much of what Fate Is the Hunter does with nowhere near as much success, it felt really special.

* * *
Philippe de Broca's action-adventure-tourism film L'Homme de Rio (That Man from Rio) is an absurd, delightful gem starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. The plot is this – there are these three idols which have been taken from the Brazilian rainforest and then, like, divided up between three different people (one in Paris, two in Brazil), and there is a treasure to which they hold the key. OK, honestly, I've forgotten the entirety of the completely absurd premise. The point of the movie is that Jean-Paul Belmondo is a soldier who has a week of leave in Paris ends up following his drugged girlfriend to Rio and chasing around bad guys and trying to solve a mystery. It's intended as a mockery of James Bond seriousness, approaching a typical Bond plot with a carefree attitude and a silly tone.

This is a delightful, ridiculous, completely fun movie from which many, many action-adventure movies could learn a ton. Belmondo is comic, handsome perfection (he was obviously at his sexiest in 1964), and the script is perfectly absurd with just enough hilarious twists and turns to be enjoyable without crossing over into stupidity. I loved this movie.

* * *
And then there is Bo Widerberg's Kvarteret Korpen (Raven's End). I actually had never seen anything by this Swedish director, surprisingly, and I thought this movie was perfect. Raven's End is about a young man growing up in an impoverished housing project in Sweden. His father is an alcoholic, and the family has landed on very hard times. But the young man is determined to get out of his housing project by writing. He is also a part-time political activist, and the film, for some of its length wonders about how one actually might improve one's situation by staying in the housing project and working to make it better.

But Raven's End is also a portrait of the people in the housing project, of the intriguing characters who have come to make it their home, of some who have grown up there and never gotten out, of children living in poverty, of silly pie-in-the-sky dreams. This is a masterfully told story, and the film itself looks at its characters without sentiment and puts the hard questions to them. I adored this film.

Raven's End, however, is not available on DVD in the U.S. (I got my bootleg copy with questionable subtitles through the Movie Detective.) How it is possible that this excellent movie is not widely available, I really don't know, but the Criterion Collection needs to pick this one up.

09 July 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Two

Arthur Hiller's The Americanization of Emily is an excellent movie that I absolutely loved. I guess I should've expected to love it, since it was written by Paddy Chayefsky (the writer of my favorite movie Network), but I had been stalling on seeing it, I think because Julie Andrews was in it, playing a bit of a prude, and I was concerned that it was some kind of break-down-the-woman's-stiff-upper-lip sort of thing. It is nothing like that! Instead, what The Americanization of Emily is is a brilliant anti-war satire. The Americanization of Emily aims directly at pro-war propaganda that makes dead soldiers into heroes. It makes fun of the way we praise the young men we send off to be killed in other countries, and it mocks and criticizes the fat-cat Americans who think (for example) that a goal such as preserving the distinct branches of the military is a worthy cause for sacrificing the lives of men. James Garner is the star of this film and he is at his absolute sexiest and most interesting. Even better, his romance with Andrews works nicely, even if she is a bit stiff as an actress still in 1964.

This is a funny movie that actually hits quite hard – although the hit is not an emotional one; it's an intellectual one. Garner has a monologue midway through about how he would much rather stay alive than die for his country, and anyone who doesn't think that same thing is a liar. It is an excellent scene and his costar in the sequence – Joyce Grenfell – is superb. Imagine if we didn't glorify soldiers and instead were angry about their deaths. Imagine if we treated governments that wished to send men and women to die with suspicion. The Americanization of Emily asks us to imagine precisely this.

* * *
The film about the famed madam Polly Adler, A House Is Not a Home, is out of print and not available on DVD. You can, however, watch the entire film on YouTube, which is what I did. But... A House is not a Home is nothing to write house or home about. And while I'm making puns, let's simply note that this title really hasn't a thing to do with famed New York madams writing tell-all books. But oh well.

This film is not terrible, really, but it is very moral, and it has this idea that prostitution is the absolute worst thing in the world. The film does articulate, at least briefly, the difficult economic positions of the mostly immigrant women who become prostitutes in the movie, but it spends the majority of its time showing us images of "the fast life" for our pleasure and then telling us how sinful it is. No thanks.

I will say one really positive thing about A House Is Not a Home, though. At the beginning of the movie, innocent Shelley Winters (who plays Polly) is just a Polish immigrant working in a factory. She is taken out dancing by the supervisor at the factory and then when he makes a pass and she rebuffs him, he won't take no for an answer. In a surprising scene, she gets out of the carriage and makes a run for it into a copse by the side of the road. He gets her down in the mud and violates her. The film is very clear about this. She's running and screaming; he's pursuing violently. Then she comes home to her aunt and uncle's house terrified and with her clothes messed up. Her uncle and aunt, predictably, behave abominably toward her. They say they didn't know she was that kind of girl. They tell her she can't stay in the house any longer: the sort of victim-blaming to which we have become accustomed when we hear about rape. Viewers are supposed to know what really happened but also supposed to understand what the adults think, as well. We are supposed to see this as a kind of insurmountable problem of shame in the household. But A House Is Not a Home does not fade out after presenting us with this problem. Instead, Shelley Winters says quite clearly for her foster parents and the audience to hear: "I was raped!". It is a great, defiant moment, and an honest surprise for a USAmerican movie from 1964.

* * *
Jack Arnold's The Lively Set is also out of print, and with much better reason than A House Is Not a Home. The Lively Set is a really stupid and extremely dated comedy about car-racing undergraduates in 1960s California. We mostly follow a young girl (Pamela Tiffin) who has designs on a young man (played by pop singer James Darren) who only has an interest in cars. This is an old joke and is supposed to be quite funny. She wants to make out and all he wants to do is take apart an engine and put it back together again. Ha ha ha. 

There isn't much more to this picture in all honesty. There is some plot about the invention of a car that doesn't pollute the universe, and then there is an important race where they test this new invention – this race is the eleven o'clock set-piece, of course.

But for twentysomethings in 1964, these kids are ridiculously tame. They are apparently not having sex of any kind, and barely even think about it, even though the movie is filled with revving engines and loud exhaust (an obvious if poor substitute for sex). This seemed like a kind of Hollywood version of reality that was trying to give college students the idea that normal people wait until they're married.

Still, James Darren is pretty cute, and car racing is sort of inherently high-stakes. It was hard to hate this movie even if it was outrageously silly.

* * *
A romantic comedy I really fell for, on the other hand, was Dear Heart, a film by Delbert Mann, starring Geraldine Page and Glenn Ford. Page is a postmistress from some tiny town who is attending a conference in New York City and Ford is a businessman who has decided to settle down, stop sleeping with random women, and get married to a woman he just met. (See why I think it is crazy to portray twentysomethings from Los Angeles as "waiting" for marriage in 1964?) Anyway the two meet. Page's character is a total loon – rearranging her hotel room, learning everyone's name, trying to make friends. And Ford's character is dealing with his new "son", who is actually 18 and drove down from college to see his new dad. Hilarity ensues.

But the two people fall in love and it is very sweet and both of them are compelling. I fell hard for Glenn Ford, who is the sort of perfect 1960s combination of hard-bitten and sensitive, and I've always loved Geraldine Page.

21 June 2017

Visions from 1964: Part One

I have seen rather a lot of films from 1964. The big Academy-Award-winning movies that year were My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek, Becket, and the camp classic Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But long ago when I started watching Oscar-nominated movies, I also screened Robin and the 7 Hoods (a musical with Frank Sinatra in which he sings "My Kind of Town"), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (you've heard of her, I assume), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (widely considered a classic), and the James Bond picture Goldfinger.

Other films nominated for Oscars in 1964 were Marriage Italian-Style, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, as well as the eventual winner of the Foreign Language Film, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (also with Loren and Mastroianni), the Tennessee Williams film The Night of the Iguana, a Leslie Caron–Cary Grant war-comedy called Father Goose, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, the Jacques Demy musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and the classic Japanese horror film Woman in the Dunes.

In other words, 1964 was a good year for the Academy Awards

Two weeks ago I looked at the list of forty films nominated, and I had twenty left, and I thought, well, why not watch the rest of 'em in the next month? So I started doing that. Here are the first three...

John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May is a superb political/military thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Edmond O'Brien, and Ava Gardner. This movie felt pretty extraordinary to me at just this moment in USAmerican history because it was totally about the power of the president and a plot on the part of the head of the joint chiefs of staff to – of all things – overthrow the government! The chairman (Lancaster) is a hawk who believes that the President (March) is too soft on the Russians, and because the President favors a treaty with the Russians that will involve joint disarmament, the chairman decides to kidnap the president and declare a military junta. The chairman is a popular politician as well, and so he believes that this will work. The main character of the film (Douglas) is the man who figures out the plot and goes to the president to try to stop it.

Seven Days in May is riveting stuff. And it is beautifully acted. It also stars Ava Gardner as a former lover of Lancaster's. Gardner is superb in this movie, and whenever I see one of her movies I am reminded of just how underrated of an actress she was. She is brilliant in literally everything, as far as I'm concerned.

What is most interesting, I guess, about Seven Days is the film's investment in the office of the president. Seven Days believes that disarmament is the right thing to do for the planet, but the film also acknowledges that some of us may be freaked out about the Soviets using nuclear arms against us while we become sitting ducks – or doves, as it were. But the movie, finally, believes that the people of the United States elected the president, and that it is the president's job to make these kinds of decisions. We can't have military leaders deciding that they know better than the person elected to represent the people.

Another presidential film made in 1964 is The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The Best Man's poster makes it look rather like it might be a comedy, and the first few minutes of the film do nothing to disrupt that impression, but The Best Man is quite a serious film about two men in a presidential primary. The candidates are Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Fonda plays a wise old man who quotes Marcus Aurelius, is in favor of racial equality, and has decided always to "do the right thing" (even though he is a bit of a philanderer, apparently). Robertson plays a truly odious politician who will do anything to win, is a complete racist, and seems to have not a sensitive bone in his body. The cast is rounded out by the former president (whose endorsement would crown the victor in the race) and Fonda's wife, who is a no-nonsense, lovely sort of woman who knows her husband doesn't really love her. Robertson's wife is rather an important character, too, but she is not given much of a part.

This is only a so-so sort of picture. It doesn't actually make sense that someone quite so conservative and someone quite so liberal are fighting for power in the same party – one of them could at least have been a centrist of some sort. But also the film just doesn't generate interest in its own questions. Whether or not one man will do the right thing is not really the most fascinating topic. One rather wants to see his favorite character win. Fonda's character does all the right things, but his inability to get down into the mud and do all he can to make sure that this basically evil person doesn't become president really means that he himself is not presidential. And he knows it. He is not willing to get his hands dirty, and so over the course of the picture he comes to realize that he doesn't really have what it takes to be the president. I am not sure why the film is invested in men who are willing to get their hands dirty, but The Best Man sure believes that the office of the presidency needs that.

Robertson at center, looking shifty
Where The Best Man gets really interesting is when someone in the film discovers that Cliff Robertson's character had an incident when he was in the army where he was brought before a court martial and accused of ... and I about clutched my pearls when someone said it, in 1964 no less ... homosexual activity! They talk around it for a little bit, but then someone actually says the word. I was shocked. And the film seems to believe that Robertson's character did do something back in the army... and that this makes him a particular kind of person. The Best Man's feeling about homosexuality is negative, of course, and certainly makes the man unfit to be the president, but what is perhaps more interesting is the way the film stages denial of homosexuality, accusations of homosexuality, and the code of honor that dictates that such things are not discussed in public by respectable men. Either way I found the whole thing quite surprising.

Finally, there is yet another film from 1964 about the presidency. This one is called Kisses for My President, directed by Curtis Bernhardt and starring Polly Bergen and Fred MacMurray. In this movie, the first woman is elected president of the United States and laughs ensue when her husband has to deal with being the new first lady. You'll pardon my enthusiasm, but the entire movie hinges on the idea that it is just hilarious that a man would be the first lady and would have to follow the orders of his wife, Madam President.

This is a one-joke picture. Where the joke actually works is when we get to the White House and no one – and I mean no one, including her political opponents – behaves as though it is abnormal for a woman to be the president. The only person who can't seem to quite figure it out is the president's husband.

But Kisses for My President is not a serious movie in the least, and the movie opts for an easy ending when the president becomes pregnant and decides to resign because the doctor says the stress of the presidency will be too much for the baby. I'm rolling my eyes all the way to the back of my head. Kisses for My President is invested in both the absurdity and the impossibility that a woman could be president, and it finally decides that women are unfit for such jobs because they might get pregnant and, well, shouldn't they be taking care of their families in the first place? No thanks.

15 June 2017

Closet Monster

This is a coming-of-age drama about a kid dealing with the closet and with an emotionally abusive father. Closet Monster has some interesting images, but mostly is just about teenage angst. I said this when I watched The Edge of Seventeen a couple months ago, but these teenage dramas are just not for me.

What is perhaps interesting about Closet Monster is the unique way that male/male rape is used in this movie. Rape in this case works as a figure for all violence directed toward queer bodies. In this way it works to stand in for the bodily threats experienced as fear that are felt by queer young men and boys. But... mostly this is not that interesting.

13 June 2017

Staying Vertical

Rester Vertical is on Netflix now and made rather a splash at Cannes where most people decided it was the strangest film of the festival. The movie is indeed weird and unexpected, while also completely taking place in the real world... it's just that the stuff that happens in the film keeps prompting one to question the reality of the images on screen. It's realism, but then you find yourself watching something and go – wait what??

This is a gay film, I guess, or at least the main character is mostly gay. But there are many other things to recommend this strange movie. The film, in fact, is filled with intriguing images – a man fucks an old, dying man as a kind of last request; at another point of the movie a group of transients steal every stitch of clothing off of the main character; and at one point the camera steadily and simply watches a baby come out of a vagina. (It's kind of gross, in case you've never seen this.)

Rester Vertical is not quite as good as Guiraudie's last film, L'Inconnu du Lac. I found the latter film just as strange but much more troubling, still, Rester Vertical is certainly intriguing, and I am always happy to watch something that aims to be outrageous.

08 June 2017

The Man Who Would Be King

This came very highly recommended. Someone – I forget who – told me years ago that this was his favorite film.

But I don't know. Watching two drunks (Caine and Connery) make fun of the military and the government of the British Raj was funny, but watching these same two assholes become kings in Kafiristan did not inspire affection or even, if I am perfectly frank, interest.

Plus, The Man Who Would Be King has a bit of a strange narrative frame that I didn't really understand, so when we returned to that after the main narrative, the film's ending left me totally cold.

06 June 2017

The Lost City of Zed

The Lost City of Z was an astoundingly ambitious film. I am not sure it actually works, but I was really taken aback by it, and I respected it very much. I don't think I've seen a movie like this since, like, the 1950s.

Nobody really makes big epic melodramas like this movie, and I think that is what I found so shocking about it. It felt like an old school Mark Robson picture or something: a giant epic like The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. James Gray takes his movies very seriously, and there is no hint of irony in this kind of moviemaking. I didn't think this worked at all with his last movie The Immigrant – I thought the acting was just terrible – but The Lost City of Z is much more successful, and Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, and Tom Holland do great work. Charlie Hunnam is less successful; the main part is a role made for someone like Brad Pitt, really, and Hunnam doesn't have the dynamism of a Colin Farrell or, say, Russell Crowe. He does his best, but the part just never quite jells.

To be honest, though, The Lost City of Z had other problems as well. The end is unsatisfying and not well designed: if you're going to make an old-fashioned melodrama, you need to have an old-fashioned happy ending. And the movie drags in its center, as the players search for their lost city and are bogged down by an absurd character played by Angus Macfadyen with Alfred Molina levels of absurdity.

In short, I can't really recommend this movie. I was excited to see it, and I found the whole thing rather stunning, if I'm honest. But in the vein of something like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, it turns out that the ambition and the idea behind the thing are more interesting than the picture; all that work and the movie just isn't that great.

04 June 2017

Florida Film Festival 4 of 5: Sami Blood

The thing about Sami Blood is that it wants to be a story you've never heard before. But it settles only for generic tropes. So instead it is the story you've already heard twenty times in your life... but this time we're in Sweden! Young girl leaves her indigenous roots behind in order to become her own person. She battles discrimination, poverty, and racism; she falls in love; she leaves behind her sister who adores her.
And then many, many years later when she is a very old woman, she sheds a tear and remembers that she turned her back on her roots and I guess sort of feels bad about it? No thanks. Like I said: you've seen this before.

14 May 2017

Snowtown a/k/a The Snowtown Murders

This is a grisly Australian serial-killer film. This might actually have been too fucked up even for me. Also, I was troubled by the film's gaze, which was... intrigued by its main character, a bit like Tony Kaye's point of view in American History X, a film with which Snowtown actually has much in common. The film actually agreed with the serial killer at the film's center, at least for much of its length. And I am not sure I understand or appreciate this kind of gaze. I did think the young actor at the film's center (not the serial killer), Lucas Pittaway, was interesting to watch, and I can see why filmmaker Justin Kurzel was interested in him, as well. But the film just doesn't have much to say, after all, shocking and surprising though it is.

28 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 3 of 5: The Strange Ones

Finally I saw a movie at the FFF that I loved.

Pettyfer & Freedson-Jackson
Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein's The Strange Ones is not a strange film, really, but the people in it certainly have done (and are doing) something strange. The Strange Ones is a mystery. A boy – 13 or so, I'd say – and a grown man in his late thirties are seemingly on a road trip or running from the law or something. We don't really know what is happening or what has happened, and it is unclear what the two men's relationship actually is. They keep saying that they are brothers, but it is sort of clear from the beginning of the film that they are not.

The Strange Ones is expertly crafted and rewards close watching. Its mysteriousness is captivating, and if most of the time I was wondering what was going on, I also sincerely enjoyed this bafflement. The characters in The Strange Ones are compelling and fascinating; I wanted to know what was going on with them. This has everything to do with the excellent central performances, by James Freedson-Jackson and Alex Pettyfer, as well as the superb scripting and filmmaking by Radcliff and Wolkstein, who adopt just the kind of David Gordon Green / Daniel Patrick Carbone style and pace that I love (lush, rural, humid). More than anything else, The Strange Ones is a fascinating homage to Deliverance, visually quoting the film several times and updating and modifying its themes in clever, sensitive ways.

I am not going to say anymore because I don't want to give it away, but if you're interested in puzzles, you'll be interested in The Strange Ones.

By the end of the movie I was pretty sure what had occurred, but after it was over my companion and I could not agree on what we had just seen. He was wrong and I was right, of course, but the viewer must watch very very carefully. The Strange Ones is beautiful.

27 April 2017

The Ardennes

Robin Pront's The Ardennes is not worth watching. This was advertised as somehow related thematically or cinematically to Bullhead. But Bullhead this ain't. This is just a generic Euro crime thriller with nothing else to say for itself. No thanks.

26 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 2 of 5: A Stray

There isn't much to say about Musa Syeed's A Stray, I'm afraid. It's only ok, the acting is not that great, and the film doesn't really have much to say. It settles for the modest goal of giving people a portrait of a world they might not know much about and presenting some of the struggles (very minor, according to this film) in that world. When the woman announcing the film at the Festival said "We chose this film because when I saw it I was just blown away! I didn't realize that this community existed in my world!" I already knew we were in trouble.

A Stray is a U.S. American film in English, Somali, and Arabic about an older teenager living in Minneapolis's Somali refugee community. Adan has stolen some of his mother's jewelry as well as $50 so she has kicked him out of their apartment in the projects. He could return the jewelry and be forgiven, but he doesn't want to (or something), so he goes to live on the street. Adan is hungry and tired, but a very charismatic and fun person. Played by Barkhad Abdirahman (who was the youngest of the pirates in Captain Phillips), Adan is charming and immediately lovable.

And then he finds a stray dog and gets more lovable. For someone who is mostly homeless, the dog causes even more trouble.

But... all of this trouble has been contrived by the film's writer-director Musa Syeed. A Stray feels like a manipulative narrative from the first. The director puts Adan in a series of situations that comprise the plot of A Stray, but Syeed does not explain the material conditions that put Adan and his mother in those situations, and Syeed doesn't let us into Adan's own decision-making processes enough to explain how or why he gets himself out of those situations. So, Adan is homeless and has no job and he wants to pray but can't figure out how and is being manipulated by the FBI, fine. But all it takes is a stroke of Syeed's pen and Adan can have a home, a job, and a religion again. And the FBI can go fuck themselves. No biggie. The stakes are all just so low.

A lot of this, too, has to do with the choice to tell the story of a person who is mostly a kid. The stakes really are lower for someone who is dependent on his mother for housing and food and who doesn't have to worry about feeding a family or sending money back home to Somalia or dealing in a more serious way with the violence of U.S. American law enforcement. Adan doesn't even really deal with structural U.S. American racism in A Stray. The struggles just aren't that serious. I have spoken before about my vague disinterest in stories about children and teenagers. (My recent viewing of Edge of Seventeen confirmed this yet again.) I am just less interested in stories from these simplified perspectives. For a much more interesting story of immigration and refugees, see Dheepan or Mediterranea. Both are great!

What's sort of a shame about A Stray is that I am sure the Somali refugee community in Minneapolis and in other places in the U.S. has all kinds of real crises and issues, not the least of which, I am sure, is related to being Muslim in a nation whose laws and culture are overwhelmingly biased toward Christians. But A Stray is not really interested in that. For A Stray, there is no ill in the world that can't be solved with the simple addition of an adorable puppy.

25 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 1 of 5: Pushing Dead

Last night I saw my first film from the 2017 FFF. I am excited for these movies.

The FFF is usually big on comedies. Most of the films they bring to screen are funny in some way, even movies that are potentially serious wind up being quirky or have some humorous take on the material. I tend to avoid most of these movies, I have to say – I focus instead primarily on the "International" selections.

Tom E. Brown's Pushing Dead is a self-styled "AIDS comedy", so it obviously fits the usual FFF mold – the one that I would normally avoid. But I was excited that there was going to be a movie about gay subject matter, and Danny Glover is in it. So I went. (The title, incidentally, is a play on the idea that someone could be pushing 40. In this case our protagonist is only forty or so, but he's pushing dead. This is the character's sense of humor about his own mortality – something that doesn't really translate into a movie title.)

But Pushing Dead is very, very funny. I laughed a lot, in fact. The premise is that an HIV+ poet in his early 40s, through an odd little event, gets pushed off of his insurance and needs to try to figure out how he is going to pay for his drugs. There is a bunch of other (delightful) nonsense happening, but this is the premise of the movie.

I really liked this film. It's silly and hilarious, the script is clever, and the main performances – by James Roday, Robin Weigert, Danny Glover, and Khandi Alexander – are all very funny.

The weird part for me is that Pushing Dead is just not very gay. Like, so strangely not gay. At one point early in the film I remember thinking Oh maybe the quirkiness here is that this is a straight guy living with HIV. And then I thought about it for a bit and figured out that he was actually supposed to be a gay character. But there are only three gay characters in the film, and the main character (played – of course he is – by a straight actor) has no gay friends at all. This allows for the whole thing to be "universal" or something, I guess? But it also seems to have no connection to the real world.

Object of desire Tom Riley – also not played by a gay actor
Even more than just the interactions between characters, the filmmaking is not very gay. For example: Although our main guy goes on two dates, and although we see him in flashback with a past relationship, the men never kiss. And breaking from all the rules of gay filmmaking, there is literally not one shot of a guy without a shirt. This is not actually a problem with the filmmaking, of course, I'm just noting that the film didn't feel very gay. It clearly, in other words, was not intended for a gay audience. Even worse, one of the gay characters is presented as a kind of curiosity or surprise. This isn't done in an offensive way, at least as far as I could tell, but in a film with so few queer characters, it seems an odd way to use one of its three queer folks.

Pushing Dead does have some really beautiful poignant moments, and these occur when the film (paradoxically) ventures into non-"universal" territory, like when it discusses living with HIV for a long time, or dating with HIV, or the early years of HIV in club culture, or young people like our protagonist struggling with mortality. But the film seems less interested in these things; they seem rather to be a kind of backdrop for the film's humorous antics.

Pushing Dead left me fairly cold.

19 April 2017

The Ox-Bow Incident

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a movie about lynching, by which I mean another movie about lynching from this period of time.
Of course the victims of this lynching were two white men and a Latino and not a black man from the Jim Crow south, but it seems like Hollywood did try in its oblique way to tell lynching stories.

Other lynching movies from the period, see Fury (1936) and Barbary Coast (1935).

16 April 2017

Frantz and François

I loved the new François Ozon film, Frantz. The movie stars Paula Beer and Pierre Niney and is mostly in black and white. It is a mystery of sorts. It takes place in Germany in 1919 after WWI and concerns a strange French mourner, Adrien, who has come to weep at the grave of Anna's dead fiancé.

The mourner haltingly develops a relationship with Frantz's family and Frantz's fiancé. He was Frantz's friend in Paris, he tells them. But it is clear from the very beginning that Adrien is taking Frantz's death much harder than he ought to be taking it. We will find out what their real relationship was as the film continues, but Frantz is a film consisting of a series of parallels. Images, situations, languages are doubled in the film, ghosting each other. There is always another side to every situation in the film, there is a second ghost for every one we meet. Frantz is divided neatly in half by the revelation of Frantz and Adrien's real relationship midway through the film, and from there Ozon has more surprises in store.

Frantz, it should be noted, is not an action film. It is a slow, sad, romantic film that is more about the ghosts of World War I than it is about anything else. But Ozon is doing wonderful work, and his use of color in Frantz is absolutely astounding.

The rest of this post will have spoilers. 
* * * *
What I love about Frantz is the way everything in the movie is doubled. When we're first in Germany we feel sorry for Adrien and Hans Hoffmeister as they try to talk sense to the Germans who hate the French and spit at them. Their singing and nationalism seem scary but also ignorant and stupid. How easy it is to look down on the Germans, who, after all, would start the next war. But when Anna goes to Paris she encounters precisely the same thing. The train car attendant glares at her, the French woman with her children looks at Anna in disgust. And then in the bar all the patrons stand and sing "La Marsellaise". It's actually terrifying. And we are not in a tiny German town. This isn't a little burg somewhere: this is Paris.

The French and the Germans are doubled in Frantz, certainly, as Adrien is Frantz's double, but Ozon also doubles the dead for whom we are asked to mourn. Frantz himself, whom we grow to love, even as he fades more and more persistently from the film, but then when we meet Fanny, we find that her brother, too, was killed in the war, a boy even younger than Frantz who, of course, is named François. The film is insistent that we understand World War I not as a series of aggressions in which France and Germany fought one another but as a disaster that befell a generation of men because their fathers willed it so. What is France? What is Germany? the film asks, other than the happiness of its young people?

Ozon's use of color and black-and-white is, perhaps, Frantz's most striking feature. Ozon is a theatrical director, and it is here where his film betrays his flair for excess, but in Frantz this is understated and subtle, and Ozon uses it to such perfect effect. The work here is a kind of gorgeous tribute to Douglas Sirk, and Frantz is certainly a melodrama. The very first shot of the film is in color, even though it looks like it is in black-and-white. We see pale pink flowers as we look at the image of a nearby town in a gray morning sunshine. It is a trick of the light – the kind Melville pulls in Le Samouraï. Then we meet Anna and the film is firmly in black-and-white. But the film becomes a color film when the oppression of grief lifts momentarily. As Adrien first tells the Hoffmeisters about his trip to the Louvre with Frantz, we see the boys run and cavort in the palace, and the film soars in color as we watch them. We return to the present and return to black-and-white, of course, but the next time Adrien tells a story about Frantz we are again in color as Adrien lovingly moves Frantz's hands as he teaches him violin technique.

The first time the present day switches into color took everyone in the theatre by surprise. Anna and Adrien walk through a shadowy underpass and as they emerge, we are in color. The switch is so subtly done that the people next to me only figured it out forty seconds in, at which point they gasped. It's a gorgeous sequence of events, and Anna's happiness is made beautifully evident. We've been desperate for her happiness for most of the film and we hadn't realized it. After we have found out the truth and Adrien has gone back to France, Anna walks that same path on the way to commit suicide. The shots are doubled. She covers the same area alone, paces a field, crosses through the underpass, and when we didn't switch to color this time, I couldn't help but cry. It is all black-and-white for Anna.

There are more doublings in the film – the entirety of Frantz hinges on a kind of double story of possibility: what might have happened if the war hadn't existed, if Adrien hadn't killed Frantz, if Adrien hadn't been French and Anna German, or if those things didn't matter, if Adrien had married Anna instead of Fanny. These worlds exist in the film, though, because we are told about them; all of these worlds are described beautifully to the Hoffmeisters, who believe them. But the film plays with these fantasies and allows us to project our own desires onto these characters as well. I will confess that I hoped that Frantz and Adrien had been lovers. This mysterious, beautiful man, who wept so easily, so copiously while talking about Frantz. Surely, I thought, their relationship had been sexual. In the fantasies Adrien spins for the Hoffmeisters, the first painting we see in the Louvre appears to be one of Sebastian, that patron saint of queer men. In these beautiful, colorful fantasies, Adrien looks at Frantz with such absolute love that it is heartbreaking, and after he kills him, he lays on top of the other man like a lover, caressing his face.

Le Suicide
Ozon plays with these fantasies, and we project them continually. I came to feel that our projections were the very purpose of Frantz, who is, after all a projection himself.

Adrien finally kisses Anna and it seems that, perhaps, the two might make a life together. My heart followed that fantasy, hoping it could be possible. No, Anna says, it is too late. But then she writes to the Hoffmeisters precisely the opposite. She has met Adrien in Paris, she says, and he is playing with the Orchestre de Paris, and she is accompanying him on the piano. We know it isn't true. Or do we? At the film's end, Anna returns to the Louvre; she walks toward the two Manet paintings on the wall, the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe and Le Suicide, and we see the back of a young man's head. It is Adrien, we think! They are together again. He has left Fanny, and she is meeting him at the Louvre. All will be well. It is not him, of course, and what becomes clear to me is that it is I who am living in the fantasy world, here. It is I who wish for reality not to matter, hoping the pair can find each other, dreaming that out of the pain of the war something beautiful can be created. 

Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Le Bain)
One last double. Above the Manet painting with which Frantz ends is another, more famous Manet canvas, the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. This is not the focus of Anna's happiness, apparently, but it is a double of Le Suicide. Indeed, Ozon replicates the image of the painting in his own film. Adrien – in color, although the image above is in black-and-white – comes out of the water like the woman in the back center of the painting, and he lies, as you can see above, mostly naked with one knee up, like the woman in the foreground of the image, while Anna, fully clothed and wearing a hat, sits and looks at him. Manet's painting was originally called Le Bain, and Frantz hints at this swim as an image of togetherness for Anna and Adrien, as she asks him to teach her to swim. "I was waiting for you," she says. It is an image of happiness and life that is the opposite of the suicide she chooses when she walks into the water.

But what of the ending? The Louvre is oddly empty, so perhaps we are, again, in a fantasy. Who is the weeping young man with Anna staring at Le Suicide? Is it François, a dead man slightly younger than Adrien? Or is it someone we do not know at all? Perhaps she is dead. Le Suicide, Anna says, makes her happy, and, indeed, the film switches to color again for a last look at Anna and then the painting. (Well, mostly color. The painting is framed on both sides by a gray wall. It is a color shot that is also partially a black-and-white shot, an echo of the trompe l'œil of Frantz's first frame.) If the film has moved back to color, Anna is, truly, happy, but all we have are our fantasies about what might have happened. Has Anna committed suicide – that is, after all, the painting's own title – or has she simply left behind the Hoffmeisters, Frantz, Germany, and Adrien, attempting to make a life for herself in Paris on her own? Is her letter about living in Paris and playing the piano partially true after all?

27 March 2017

Kink, Identity, and "Sexuality"

I have been thinking a lot, for the last two weeks, about kinky sex practices, domination/submission, violent or painful sexual activity, leather, and identity. This has been spurred by two different friends and their careful promptings. (I am surrounded by smart folks and, as always, I am grateful for that.) One shared this article – "Is Kink a Sexual Orientation?" by Jillian Keenan – saying, incidentally, that he thought the piece was "poorly written garbage nonsense". Another asked me what I thought about the large amount of violence in gay pornographic films. (I will post on a different day about this.)

Leatherdyke Dorothy Allison
Meanwhile, I have been reading, for the last week or so, the collection of essays called Leatherfolk, edited by Mark Thompson. Thompson's book was a groundbreaking collection in gay and lesbian studies when it was originally published. I had read essays from it before (Gayle Rubin's "The Catacombs: a Temple of the Butthole" is a classic!) it was just something I had never got around to reading from start to finish. Leatherfolk is part theory, part history, part politics, and part spirituality. I loved the first three sections and was almost completely bored by the fourth (For the record: I have nothing against people deciding to explore existential or universal truth through fisting – fist for whatever reasons you like! And in fact I have no doubt that a person can reach a higher plane through pain just as she could reach a higher plane through hallucinogens. I just find that the people who actually want to talk about this – who, incidentally, all call themselves shamans or faeries or words like that – speak in a language that doesn't connect with me. Get your spirituality however you like, but I've come to understand that this is not for me.)

And this weekend, for a course I'm teaching, I reread Rubin's "Thinking Sex", that game-changing essay that articulated new theories of sex-positivity and benign sexual variation during the culture wars of the 1980s.

* * *
Is kink a sexual orientation? The answer is obviously. What is orientation except the direction in which one is oriented? I don't understand why Keenan has chosen this term to begin her inquiry. It seems to me that her real question is Is kink a sexuality? In other words, should kink be given the same status in our culture as homosexuality and heterosexuality – a status now in some ways protected by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges?

Keenan cites Dan Savage as one person who mostly disagrees with the idea that kink might be a sexuality. She quotes him as saying, "While some kinksters identify strongly with their kinks and are open about their sexual interests, being into baby bonnets or bondage isn't about who you love, it's about how you love."

I find this line of reasoning completely incoherent. Frankly, I do not define sexuality as having any relationship to love. Let me make a change that I hope will be helping Savage out: If we rephrase him so that he's saying "[kink] isn't about who you fuck, it's about how you fuck", then we get closer to the heart of the matter, and we get to the stakes of this question that is, in fact, central to mainstream LGBT politics.

The LGBT movement has carved itself a niche whereby it claims ownership of something called "sexuality", and this movement claims that a person's sexuality is only a small part of who one is. (Sometimes this part is considered the most important component of who someone is – as when they call on an actor to come out of the closet – and sometimes this part is referred to as an almost totally inconsequential attribute – as when they say that someone, usually an athlete, "just happens to be gay".) In any case, for the mainstream LGBT movement, sexuality (homo or hetero) is something essential, unchanging, and biologically given; it is also something that is deeply oneself, in many cases explaining the self.

And no matter how many people stand up and say "no that isn't how sexual desire works for me", no matter how many people say they have chosen their homosexuality, no matter how many people identify as bisexual or pansexual or asexual, no matter that historians have shown that across time sexualities have differed widely, and no matter how many straight people have occasional sex with same-gender partners, the LGBT movement tells us: no, actually, we are all born this way. And you are either born this way or born that way.

In other words, the movement has opted for this unchanging, biologically given version of sexuality instead of one more closely linked to reality. I guess this essentialist version of sexuality makes more sense to some people (the police, non-denominational ministers, your parents). More importantly, the movement has done this because they assumed it would be easier to get acknowledgement and concessions from the conservative state this way. And they have succeeded. This has been a way to get recognition from the state. That is all good and well. But most queer people (and lots and lots of straight people) know that this essentialist tale is simply not true. (Anyone who has ever experimented with a sexuality other than his or her own ought to be able to attest to that.) But as they propagated this essentialist story, they also shored up the gender binary and (worse yet) lied about how desire actually works in human bodies. Jillian Keenan's own bisexuality and kinky queerness point up the lie in this LGBT position.

We have a political term for this, of course. It is called strategic essentialism. Those who opt for strategic essentialism know that we are not all essentially one certain way, but we opt for this story in order to achieve political change. But it seems to me that many in the LGBT movement actually believe the essentialist story that we thought we were using strategically. And if we believe this lie, and teach it as orthodoxy, it will become essentialism itself. In fact, if the U.S. Supreme Court is saying it, it seems to me that essentialism has arrived.

I don't know who these people are, but they seem fine.
You may actually see your sexuality as something with which you were born. That is fine for you. But it is absurd to look at someone who says she wasn't born gay and tell her that oh yes of course you were. While there may not be as many sexualities as there are queer people. It is important to remember – as Eve Sedgwick reminds us in Epistemology of the Closet – that we are all very different from one another. We see our sexualities in different ways, we explain the origins of our sexualities in different ways, and we engage in all sorts of sexual practices that differ from one another. In fact, I'm willing to bet that you have done one or two things with one of your sexual partners that you never did and never would do with one or other of your partners. Any identity we claim with one another is bound to be strategic, contingent, temporary – certainly the identity claimed between gay men and lesbians must be!

So: Is kink a sexuality? Yes. Certainly as much as heterosexuality and homosexuality are sexualities. Kink is a mostly inexplicable, possibly acquired, orientation toward particular erotic behaviors. I fail to see how being erotically interested in leather or tennis shoes or denim is any different from being interested in penises or vaginas or breasts. (Incidentally, most of us have asses and mouths and fingers, not to mention ears and eyes and armpits.) Still, the truth as I see it, is that there really is no such thing as either homosexuality or heterosexuality except as practices. What the question underlines is that the frame of sexuality is a weak one for explaining actual human behavior.

Dan Savage and others, the judicious keepers of the LGBT movement, can't grant "sexuality" status to other modes of queerness because this would undermine the essentialist position. Was a kinkster born this way? That is how the movement understands what sexuality is, so that is what they would have to argue. (The idea is absurd. Even if I was born liking, say, racially mixed guys with hairy chests of a certain age, society expects me – since it values marriage – to change my orientation over time to racially mixed guys with hairy chests of a different age.) As Keenan notes in her essay: "Some friends have told me that kink should not be considered an orientation since that could open the door for any deeply felt sexual identity to claim that status. Is sexual orientation a slippery slope? Are we two clicks away from a strong preference for nerdy-Jewish-tech-guys-with-dark-hair-and-an-athletic-streak being called an 'orientation'?" But arguing that these sexualities are essential opens up a whole other can of worms; it leaves open the possibility that someone might want to categorize rape-fantasy as a sexuality and someone else might want to categorize cross-generational attraction as a sexuality. Who knows what proliferation of unspeakable sexualities we might unearth? Who knows what protections we might have to ask the government to grant. My two examples are designed to point up just how much the LGBT movement's position is actually wedded to the same old hierarchy of sexuality that was in place long before its own arrival. The LGBT movement still wants to be able to discriminate between bad sexualities and good sexualities, proper sexualities and improper sexualities. They can't help judging, and they most assuredly haven't heeded Gayle Rubin's thirty-year-old call for a theory of benign sexual variation. The granting of "sexuality" status to kinksters would undermine the main thrust of the LGBT movement's position, to wit: that white gays are well behaved citizen-subjects who want to vote and get married and purchase sofas and time-shares and lawn mowers just like everyone else.

Fakir Musafar
There must be other paths to increased sexual liberty. The essentialist one has (apparently) been the easiest one, although obviously it has not been easy! But it is also a path that has re-confirmed the power of the state/church. It is a path that grants government more power, a path that asks for the government to recognize us and not to recognize others. This request for recognition, in addition to excluding explicitly those whom we have decided we do not wish to be recognized, also has the effect of giving the state itself more power. Why are we arguing that the state that has the authority to recognize what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior? Why have we decided that what we all want is the government to grant us our humanity? Not only is this a terrible political practice for anyone who believes in liberty, but it is also a terrible politics for anyone who believes in sexual freedom. And if we pin our hopes to government recognition of humanity, we are bound to be disappointed when the government changes and other, more hostile rulers, take the place of the benign ones we believe we've convinced. We are granting the government more power because we believe that it will do the right thing. But governments do not do the right thing, they do what is politically expedient. And even if they do the thing that you think is right for a little while, that doesn't mean that they'll do it indefinitely, and the voting public can always change its mind, stirred to action by the next ridiculous politician in a baseball hat.

The folks from Fifty Shades Darker
It is worth asking why Jillian Keenan wants kink to be granted sexuality status. The benefits that have, in the United States, accrued to essentialist sexuality have been great indeed... for a select few. But serious leatherfolk were already complaining 25 years ago that S/M practices had gotten too soft, too bourgeois, too respectable. When Keenan answers Savages comment that "[kink] isn't about who you love, it's about how you love" with the retort that "kink is how I love my husband", I have to admit to shaking my head at the absurdity of the claim. Perhaps there are leatherfolk who could read such a sentence without laughing, but I assume that any domina worth her salt would feel her gorge rise or burst out laughing or both. Love? Husband? This is radical sex? It sounds a lot like Leave It to Beaver. 

I propose that we begin actually to believe that sexual variation is benign. I propose that we make it a project to convince people not that we are all the same but that we are all different and that that is ok. I propose that we begin to believe that people should be free to make their own sexual choices – and that people actually make those choices and not that they are driven, through some genetic or chromosomal compulsion, to do those things. 

This would mean taking ownership of our desires and pleasures.
It would mean that we stopped asking whether this or that sexual practice was good for society.
It would mean that we stopped worrying about why someone was into a particular sexual practice and worried instead about how to make it better for her and the sexual partner or partners involved. 
I am no utopian, as you probably know if you know me, but it seems to me that these ought to be the terms of any fight for sexual equality. Trying to convince congressional republicans and our sexagenarian aunts and uncles that the kinky sex we're into or the non-committed, non-monogamous sex we're into, or the porn we like, or the particular ways we like to be touched, choked, stroked are just like the sex grandma and grandpa used to have is a battle that we will lose even if we win. We'll only wind up using kink "to love our husbands more". And in order to keep our positions in society, we'll find ourselves in the reprehensible position of needing to judge the "weirdos" whose sex isn't as respectable as ours.