Friday, January 29, 2010

The Horror....The HORROR!

The first video store in town is shutting its doors, and today they're selling off their stock. Unfortunately they didn't include their DVDs, just VHS and a lot of decorations. I'm a purist with my movie-watching, in that I insist whenever possible on watching in widescreen. Here's a nice primer on why I do so:

Given that all(?) VHS movies are full-screen, I had little interest in picking up my favorites. But that doesn't mean I had no interest in buying some movies! Lord no! For I am plotting out a slasher script, and need to school myself in the genre. And since most of those films are trash, I don't care about watching them in full-screen. Thus I end up buying the likes of:

- the Scream films
- two Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels
- the original Friday the 13th
- Halloween H20 and The Curse of Michael Myers

plus Maximum Overdrive and Plan 9 From Outer Space for bad measure, and Orson Welles' Macbeth for something of redeemable value to society. I also got a book on 60 years of Hollywood, plus some postcards, and a couple neat signs.

It's sad to see Movie Source go the way of the dinosaur, but it's hard to see how it could have survived the onslaught of Netflix and its own aging DVD stock.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Funny, I Forget You're Straight All the Time

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great response to Chris Matthews' "I forgot Obama was black" gaffe gush, that however sincere and good his intent, it reveals a mindset with a limited idea of 'blackness.' That idea doesn't include things like leadership and so when Obama exhibits such a quality, that Matthews 'forgot he was black' reveals his own narrow expectations.

This may be a misreading (one of the discussions in the comments section is about whether Matthews meant to say that Obama is such a natural leader that we don't pay attention to his race, that we now just think of him as 'the president' as opposed to 'the first black president'), but it reminds me of experiences I've had as a gay man living amongst 'normal' folk.

I was in a strange closet limbo for much of high school and my first few years of college. My second year of community college I came out to a few close friends and then opened it up further after my third year. The thing is, hardly any adjustments were made by either me or my friends. My personality is what some would call "straight-acting," in that I don't have any femme qualities, I don't talk in a lisp, etc. etc. Even after coming out, about the only thing that would clue outsiders in besides a double male symbol pin I wear to easily communicate my orientation is that I make a lot of really raunchy gay sex jokes. And whenever I would come out to somebody, the typical reaction was of the "Oh wow, really, I never would have guessed!" variety.

I always took some pride in this 'hiding in plain sight,' that I didn't fit the typical gay mold, and even considered myself in some ways superior to the queen bitch types in not letting my gayness define my identity (an attitude whose dissection is worthy of its own post). But occasionally I would hear something to the effect of, 'you're the coolest gay person I know,' a statement which needs some unpacking: whoever it was that said this to me almost certainly grew up and lived in rural Idaho, and so his experiences with gays, period, was extremely limited, probably as much as Chris Matthews with black people.

One of his readers cites a similar experience:

I remember (and I realize the vast difference between this and what African Americans experience, but it's the closest I can get) when I lived in Israel and people would rail at me about Americans and I would finally say "But, I'm American," and they would say "Oh, you're not really like an American!" and mean it as a compliment. Dude, don't tell me that your ability to get over yourself with regard to who I am reflects well on me.

Everyone has a pre-conceived notion of what constitutes gays, blacks, Americans, gay black Americans, what-have-you. These stereotypes are a product of both unfortunate reality (lots of gays are twinky queens, poverty and crime are a constant presence in black America, and Americans and American foreign policy can be really belligerent and obnoxious), and a blinkered perception--in part supported by a lazy media--that accepts these, the most visible examples of a given group, as the norm, if there even is such a thing, and in the process reduces anyone we come across who doesn't fit our 'normal' template to an easily-pigeonholed 'other' with a stock set of expected characteristics. These traits may prove false or irrelevent the more one gets to know him. Put more simply, a rural Idahoan will meet a flamboyant gay man and see him as a flamboyant gay man, with whatever baggage is implied, before the sees him as a person. My own temperament allowed me, when I was still in the closet, to bypass that prejudicial wall, as a sort of Trojan Horse, after which the person may be forced to reevaluate his notions of what a gay man was (perhaps this is how I justified my air of superiority).

This all comes back to the problem of 'the norm.' Everybody's is different. A native-born Kenyan is born into homogeneity, a middle-class black may not be, and an inner-city black will be born into a homogeneous environment that is still outside that. Though the demographics are changing, there still is a heterosexual WASP majority in this country, and this is reflected in the makeup of our politics and our media, often to an extreme extent, to the exclusion of minority representation. I can only speak for myself, but when I see any number of advertisements with a white, straight couple, it's just background noise. The norm. If, say, a beachside hotel ad featured a gay couple instead, it would stand out precisely because it's out of the ordinary. I came of age with no "gay community" support, and as a result I still socialize almost exclusively with straight people--the gays I meet I are usually incidental, through Theatre or some other mutual interest. So removed am I from the gay community that I actually view the idea with some antipathy, that gays should make more efforts to integrate into mainstream society instead of insulating themselves in clubbing ghettos. That's awfully harsh, but it's my perception, shaped by my limited 24 years of life experience in Idaho. I try to keep that contingency in mind, as I think Chris Matthews did, trying to articulate what Obama means to a white man of his generation.

The takeaway question, I suppose, is: are we ever, especially in a country as geographically and demographically large as ours, going to settle into a more nuanced idea of the mainstream, or are we going to be constantly having to renegotiate our own conceptions and blind spots?

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Dawn of the Dead (the Original)

Not a review, really; I have to go soon and can't really organize my thoughts. Anyway:

- A deceptively simple and effective opening credits sequence. It boils down to a lot of arguing in a news studio about the deteriorating zombie situation, but simply showing the impact the zombies have had on society is far more unsettling than showing the zombies themselves.
- I was surprised, given the movie's reputation, at how...tame... it was. Perhaps that's not the right word, but I went in expecting a gung-ho bloodbath, like, say, Aliens, but with the undead, but the majority of the film that takes place at the mall is devoted to what boils down to housekeeping--practical solutions for fortifying their location like blocking the entrances with semis, storing bodies in freezers--and other day-in-the-life activities (a dinner date, the furnishing of the safe room with a bed and lamps).
- This is much more interesting than simply lots of zombie cannon fodder shots and is why the movie is as well-regarded as it is. That said, the very late introduction of the biker gang seems like a last-minute attempt to resolve the "plot" as opposed to just letting the characters settle into the day-to-day.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cult Movie Theology

A particular paragraph from this piece, one of the first to observe The Big Lebowski's cult status, caught my eye:

"The typical Hollywood product has little potential for becoming a cult favorite because it is perceived by everyone in basically the same way. ... Although Gone With the Wind and Star Wars have fanatical followings, I have not included them, because they are still distributed with the intention of attracting the masses rather than devotees on the fringe of the mass audience; the word cult implies a minority,, and the studios are well aware that Gone With the Wind and Star Wars still attract the majority of the movie audience."

What happened over the next two decades, however, is that cult movies became so cool (and such potential cash cows in the profit-recycling world of home video) that every studio wanted one--and was willing to spend millions to get it.

Meanwhile, mainstream audiences became so hypersavvy that offbeat movies like David Fincher's Se7en or The Blair Witch Project, which once would have been relegated to cultdom, became massive, overhyped hits.

This seems to imply a double-standard by which cult films are judged. Plan 9 From Outer Space, really is an awful film, so much so that its badness becomes a perverse virtue. Ditto Rocky Horror (except the songs really are pretty fun, and Tim Curry's Frank n' Furter is to die for). This, of course, is how we arrive at the "camp" aesthetic, in which we enjoy something for its spectacular failure. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, I pity anyone who doesn't allow themselves to enjoy this sort of filmic junk food once in awhile.

But why fault Se7en and Blair Witch for their wild mainstream success when they would have found an even more fervent following if they had stayed underground? These films are overexposed, of course, but I fail to see how that is any better than the multitude of cult films which are just mediocre in their brand of shittiness and not worth the devotion they receive (I'm looking at you, Napoleon Dynamite and Boondock Saints).

The Big Lebowski, as it happens, is a terrific film that, as the author notes, was just too weird for mainstream America when it came out. That's a far cry from the hilariously awful cult classics of yesteryear, which require a great deal of distancing irony in order to be enjoyed. I suppose they both reflect their creators' idiosyncratic visions, perhaps that's the unifying factor in their cultness.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. In essence, I think bitching about a would-be cult flick that goes big is a product of reverse-snobbery, the indie type that declares itself too good for the masses. At this point the quality of the movie becomes irrelevant, it just becomes a matter of (counter)popularity. Instead of judging the movie on its own terms, it becomes just another feather in one's cap as evidence of his own superiority.

The Big Lebowski and Fargo are good, Rocky Horror is so bad it's good, The Boondock Saints and Michael Bay movies are just bad. The size of their audience should be immaterial to these judgments, but apparently some think otherwise.

A Gore-Us Line

I had been meaning to see Stage Fright for awhile. I first read about it months ago as I scoured Google for any movie that might bear a resemblance to the idea I had for my script. As it was one that came awfully close, I wanted to check it out to see how a slasher (though an Italian work, the fact that there is no mystery to the killer’s identity would seem to disqualify it from being a giallo) set in a theater might operate. It does so surprisingly well, stunningly in some places.

The opening lets us know the proceedings are going to be a little bent. A dance number in a musical (strangely devoid of any lyrics) about a serial killer, with synthesized musical instrumentation that is quite 80s-licious. The next half hour or so is a pretty by-the-numbers set up for what’s going to happen: we meet our Final Girl and meet the meat, mostly actors, plus the director and a makeup girl, the killer escapes from a mental institution, and after a pretty neat first kill (a pickaxe in the mouth, it looks like) the cast is locked in the theater with him. It’s amusing, and certainly not painfully obnoxious, as can be the case in these kinds of flicks. It even distinguishes itself by 1) introducing a black character and not killing him off right off the bat and 2) having a gay character, a relative rarity even in today’s horror flicks, and a good sign that the movie’s setting—the theater, which has long been a queer stomping ground—is not just window dressing for the usual genre tropes. Too bad he’s the usual bitchy queen stereotype, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Things get going when the killer shows up, dressed in the serial killer’s owl-head costume from the play, and kills an actress onstage, just as the killer in the play is supposed to “kill” the actress. Right away there’s more going on here than usual: there’s some nice irony employed in the real kill taking the place of the stage kill, with the director even shouting, “Kill her!” (This particular reflexivity is hardly original, however. The idea goes back at least as far as the 1580s with the climax of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy) The deconstruction of violence-as-entertainment pops up again in a later kill, when a bottle of stage blood falls to the floor and shatters just before another character is bloodily dispatched, with the real blood indistinguishable from the fake. This theme is never developed beyond these little devices, but it doesn’t need to. We don’t watch these films to be lectured with subtext, after all.

Anyway. The middle section has some great details—including the use of melodramatic music during that aforementioned fake blood kill—and the characters, for the most part, avoid the usual stupid slasher clichés. For all of that, though, there isn’t anything terribly suspenseful in all of it. The mood is one more of detached entertainment than any real fear. Not so with the third act. Once our Final Girl wakes up to find herself for all intents and purposes the last one standing, the movie vaults from above average to pretty damned amazing. There’s a walk through a narrow hallway that’s just downright spooky, a shower kill that actually adds a pretty good twist to what we normally expect….And then there’s the climax: absolutely crazy, a visual treat, and it’s actually intense and suspenseful. Quentin Tarantino should have swiped it by now. I’m avoiding specifics in all this because anybody who might be reading this really owes it to himself to track the movie down and check it out, it’s just that great (Netflix doesn’t carry it, so I actually had to buy it cheap from Amazon. If you and I actually interact in the real world, I’ll be glad to lend it out). Unfortunately the film inherits from its slasher forefathers a logic-defying twist ending, two, actually, but that’s still not enough to ruin it.

Honestly, check it out, even if you normally think yourself too good for these kinds of movies. The Final Girl sequence is one for the ages, and the aesthetic of the whole thing (including a schizoid soundtrack that veers between operatic melodrama, heavy metal, and synth that doesn’t jar as badly as Opera) makes it a real standout

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Last night's post was rather intemperate, so I'll just summarize my slightly cooler feelings thus:

If a Democratic supermajority can't get legislation through, what hope does a supermajority-minus-one? We shouldn't be in this situation in the first place.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Adventures in Wonderland

The Republicans now have enough Senate presence to stage a filibuster on any legislation that they don't like, which narrows down to virtually everything the Democrats put forward. And make no mistake, short of Democrats conceding to their every whim, that is most assuredly what will happen. They have already decided that rather than proposing any sort of functional policies--they had eight years and failed miserably, lest we forget, and after months of health care negotiations and concessions they still opposed the bill uniformly--they are simply going to make governing impossible in order to weaken Obama and the Democrats. And with Scott Brown they now have the means.

It bears repeating: The MINORITY PARTY now has a de facto veto on any legislation that doesn't meet their impossible standards. What bizarro universe are we living in?

The Democrats played a role in this travesty, of course, with their complacence and nominating a candidate that typified the East Coast Elite tag constantly slung their way. Lieberman should have been punished a year ago for attacking Obama during the campaign. The Democrats have a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat. And so on, and so forth.

What makes this all possible is the filibuster, a relatively recent introduction to the Senate which was intended for emergency use only and has instead resulted in restructuring the legislative process so that bills under consideration need 60 votes instead of a simple majority in order to pass. This is bad enough on its own, but when the minority party uses it as a bludgeon for getting its way, it perverts and undermines the very idea of majority rule. There are too many important problems that need attention to have to worry about placating this absurdity. And so on, and so forth.


End rant.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Facebook and Friendship

I can’t say I agree with everything in this piece about friendship and its coarsening by Facebook, but many of the points are undeniably true. There is something terribly reductive about reducing meaningful conversation and interaction to self-conscious, bite-sized wall posts sprinkled about for the consumption of our “friends.” Likewise the enormity of people’s friends lists and the reality that they do not interact with the majority of the people on them on an even semi-regular basis.

Yet I am loath to cede an argument to doomsayers, mostly because doomsayers have been criticizing the zeitgeist since time immemorial. I’m sure many bemoaned the death of meaningful communication with the invention of the telegraph and the development of the "Victorian Internet". Most such nattering nabobs will paint today as a debasement of the past without acknowledging how selective our memories can be. Deresiewicz sidesteps this by acknowledging Facebook’s definite plusses, namely that one can get in touch with people they haven’t seen or spoken to in years, but holds his ground, insisting that the lack of real facetime diminishes such contact to passive absorption of contextless content.

Fair enough, but the problem with the argument is the standard to which Deresiewicz holds modern friendships. He starts in classical times with mythological and biblical figures, not even real people whom we can hope to emulate. He then mentions Cicero and Aristotle, and moves on to the Renaissance and writers like Montaigne and on up through Emmerson and Thoreau and the like. The problem with this approach is one of apples and oranges. Cicero and Montaigne and Thoreau spent great deals of time reflecting on the subject of friendship, and many others besides; the laymen of their respective times, not so much. It is those everyman to whom we ought compare. Deresiewicz mentions the economic nature of friendship in pre-capitalist times, but outside of literature and men of letters, there’s not much in the way of specifics. I find it very hard to believe that people of any caste then would not find occasion to bond with their peers and particularly closely with a select few, as is the case now.

I treasure the time I get to spend with friends, especially because—ever since graduation—I see them irregularly and have to travel some distance to do so. I have long conversations with a select handful when I can, sometimes over the phone, sometimes even by way of Facebook’s chat apparatus. My relationship with many/most Facebook friends is peripheral, but how is this any different from real life? We have friends we talk to and spend with time everyday, and there are acquaintances and associates we’ll greet with a nod but otherwise have little interaction with. If we wanted to be accurate about friends and associates we would break that unwieldy list down into a hierarchy of relationships, but the relentlessly upbeat (no dislike button) nature of Facebook discourages such value judgments . There is, I believe, some kind of “Best Friends” app that weighs the intensity of your friendships based on who you exchange posts with the most, but I’m not sure whether such metrics would prove or disprove Deresiewicz’ thesis.

I guess my point in all this rambling is that while some of the “exhibitionism” and mindless posts on Facebook are regrettable, a lot of them I don’t see as being much different than waving to somebody as you pass them in the car. My own experience is that Facebook adds another way of interacting with the people you know, particularly the ones you can’t see on an everyday basis. My day-to-day interactions, physical distance aside, remain unchanged. Whether the next generation, which has had access to this technology for most of their short conscious lives, will be as dependent on it as Deresiewicz fears is a real concern, but for now I think most of us are fine, and the people who broadcast their every interaction across the internet would probably have done it in real life anyway. Give me an online spectacle over one in real life; at least I have the option of ignoring the former.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Zoo Story Photos

And here now are
the photos taken for the first production I've directed, The Zoo Story. I took a few for the newspaper, Maggie Rosenthal shot some during the first performance, and Gary Ertter graciously came in after a show for some specific shots.

New York Photos

Alright, I've finally got every single one of them up. To all who aren't following this on Facebook and still care:

Day 1
Day 2, Part 1
Day 2, Part 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6, Part 1
Day 6, Part 2
Day 7, Part 1
Day 7, Part 2 and Day 8

The Simpsons is Now Twenty.

It's been shitty for at least ten, which is why I didn't bother watching the celebratory episode this weekend. Jonathan Chait and his readers discuss their favorite episodes. Mine is the Treehouse of Horror VII segment, "Citizen Kang," which has disappeared from YouTube and centers on Bill Clinton and Bob Dole being impersonated by monotone aliens with no one able to tell the difference.

"My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but
tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward,
and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom."
- campaign speech by Kodos as Bill Clinton

What is your favorite episode? And is anyone willing to defend the last decade or so of output (not counting the movie, which was a refreshing last gasp for air)?

It's Been Such a Long Time...

...since I've posted anything of substance, even after I said I would. And I gained a follower in the process. Go figure. I'll do what I can, but no promises.

...Maintaining a blog is HARD!