1.29.2006

Happy Chinese New Year!

I am not into astrology. Generally speaking, I'm a cynic. Most likely because I am a control freak and I don't like feeling fated. Also because I have deep issues (personal and political) with romanticism (though I do fall prey to it on a semi-regular basis -- but don't tell anyone!). I'm a combination of agnostic, athiest, and kinda-sorta pantheist (everything on earth as "divine," a.k.a. worthy of respect). Astrology falls into the romantic, fated category for me, and often seems a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, and I have noted casually with friends that the more an individual believes in it, the more the descriptions ring true. Chad is an even bigger cynic than I am, for example, and we've never read a single astrological profile that fits him more than 50%. I'm a cynic with a hidden inner core of romantic mush, and well-written astrological profiles (not astrological advice in newspaper columns and magazines, which, a friend who worked for USA Today once told me, are written randomly by staff and often contain hidden jokes about other staff members) often fit me about 70%.

Anyhow, I do like this description of my animal, the Tiger:

"The Tiger is the restless, adventurous, and always courageous risk-taker of the Chinese zodiac. With a sense of "empowered entitlement," nobility and humanitarian causes appeal to the generous Tiger. These souls are tenderhearted, and affectionate with their friends and family, yet self-reliant and fiercely independent. This is the most unpredictable of the 12 signs, blessed with charm, nerve and grand ideas. Tigers flash brilliantly through life sometimes without caution for their own security. Fearless, enthusiastic, and optimistic, the passionate Tiger is an unconventional, yet most humanitarian soul. The noble Tiger needs a sexy, exciting partner who forever remains a challenge, and gather their legendary strength during the pre-dawn hours they rule, between 3:00am - 5:00am."

Now, I do NOT like the hours 3-5am. I can say I am sometimes, when under stress, awake and miserable during those hours, wishing I were asleep. But I don't have "legendary strength" then, as far as I know.

I am tenderhearted, enthusiastic, and independent of mind. I like to think of myself as charming, nervy, and full of grand ideas. And how marvelous to be described as having a sense of "empowered entitlement"! Makes me laugh out loud with pleasure.

Definitely, I need a sexy, exciting partner, and I love a good challenge.

Check out your Chinese Astrological sign here and let me know if yours rings true.

1.28.2006

More Masculinity: The 40 Year Old Virgin

Films about masculinity seem to be dominating my blog landscape as much as queerness lately. We finally rented The 40 Year Old Virgin (shouldn't there be a hyphen between "year" and "old"?) based on all the hype and friends telling me to see it and a longtime love of The Daily Show. The film definitely surprised me several times and it was, at moments, laugh-out-loud funny. Sadly, my favorite joke in the film was only visible in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. It's the ad lib scene talking about first experiences, where Paul Rudd’s character David says his first climax came so quickly it took a “negative” amount of time. I can only paraphrase, but he said something about knowing time actually moved backwards because when he was done, Lincoln had just been shot.

As far as overall portraits of masculinity, I was most drawn to the way in which the guys became friends. Incredibly implausible, even as you watch it happen, but so endearing. You start to see all the men’s insecurities and enjoy their ridiculously sexist means of trying to bolster each other’s egos and/or snap each other out of embarrassing behavior.

I also loved several of the film’s women, including the incomparable Jane Lynch (a delight in both A Mighty Wind and, especially, Best in Show -- the latter of which being one of my all-time favorite, most repeat-watchable films). Her “seduction” scene of Carell’s Andy was priceless in its inanity. Catherine Keener (Trish) was also stupendous, with her incredibly infectious laugh, stunning smile, and … I confess it was only a visit to IMDB that let me know she was the woman from Living in Oblivion, another film I really enjoyed (the “dwarf scene” is a must-see).

I didn’t like the character of Jay (Romany Malco), I must say. By the end (and in some deleted scenes), he reached the giddy, over-the-top masculine embarrassment factor of his fellow buffoons. But he really felt written by white boys to me, showing more homeboy player machismo than necessary (though we do learn much of it is false bravado…still, it felt like “this is what the Black guy should be like” than a more quirky misfit like Andy, Cal, or David.

Because boss Paula and girlfriend Trish were definitely quirky, I could enjoy a few moments of freedom from women getting worse treatment than men in the film, though the bookstore slut and the drunk chick made up for any equal treatment the film might have wanted to offer.

But sexism is not a major concern for me in the film. First, because both genders come across as neurotic yet well meaning, for the most part. Second, because racism and ageism so overshadow them.

Because the scene was improvised, Carell allegedly really did let his chest be waxed, and the waxer was not scared by his abusive language but laughing at him, I can try to keep a lid on my reaction to any scene with Asian women in massage parlor type spaces. But the film also had other Asian and Arab characters…

I can just imagine the scene where the whiteboy writers/directors/producers/actors all sat down together and decided some funny Indian and Arab guys at the store (Mooj, Haziz) would be hilarious, as would old people talking dirty ( Mooj, the elderly Black couple living upstairs from Andy). I can’t say Gerry Bednob wasn’t fabulous, delivering his grouchy, foul-mouthed old coot performance with delightful gusto -- and we’re not talking evil Arab terrorist characters at least. Moreover, his friendship with Jay was an unexpected twist to a possible antagonism between men of color. But in a film that is about breaking down the stereotype of the nerd, the sensitive guy, the flunky, and the player, why add wacky old farts quipping lines straight out of bad denture and candy bar commercials?

There’s also the Black drag queen, but I haven’t much to say about her. The scene was cropped into a momentary spectacle, though it had the predictable transphobic moment. That Jay may have had some relationship with her keeps it from being just an offensive throwaway.

Overall, I did enjoy the film and found it more creative than I had anticipated (and more creative than originally scripted, if the commentary track is true and the plan was to make the guys the typical nerd-baiters instead of eventual friends). From the male anxiety and unexpected bonding to the wise decision to cast Carell’s love interest as of appropriate age and type, I’ll try to retain fond memories and repress my recollection of the old woman remarking to her husband that Andy needed to get some action or whatever “witty” way she unconvincingly put it.

1.22.2006

Hoodwinked and the Return of the Sissy

[I hate that I have to give a spoiler warning -- can I just assume my readers (all 4 of them) will know my reviews will be spoil-rich?]

It seems that queerness is continuing to need center stage in my blog.

I really enjoyed Hoodwinked. The plot is thin but cleverly structured, Patrick Warburton’s voice is always a pleasure, and it didn’t feel like a Pixar ripoff (though the squirrel was Scrat-like -- see 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age). Ok, Granny was predictable and ageist even as the writers were no doubt patting themselves on the back for their presumed anti-ageism in making her look like a fat, fluff-headed old grandma who is actually “GGG” the X-treme sports enthusiast.

But you could have knocked me down with a feather (boa), however, as Boingo the sissy bunny (complete with lisp) hopped his way through the movie and emerged in the end as the predictable-in-his-apparent-harmlessness villain. (Andy Dick’s voice made me think of Big Gay Al of South Park fame.)

If you know Hollywood history, you know of the Sissy, that staple of light, early film fare, including multiple characters played by Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and the like. Whether he was the desexualized, ineffectual sidekick, the skittish, squeamish waiter, or the swishy, fussy clothing designer (or just a Cowardly Lion), the Sissy was a flat, stock character at/with whom we were meant to laugh. We easily read him as gay despite his lack of any sign of adult sexual drive because common “wisdom” held/holds that effeminate men are gay. Dandified and harmless, we could laugh safely at but not hate him. And while he might have made gay viewers feel less alone, it was not a positive reflection this Hollywood mirror offers.

Later, the Sissy would become evil, such as Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon and, perhaps, The Lion King’s Scar, showing a change from early film tolerance (if you want to call it that) to a more virulent form of homophobia. Of course, representations don’t change in linear fashion. There are cycles and trends, exceptions and breakthroughs. From Don Knotts and Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde to Nathan Lane and Mr. Garrison and the Queer Eye guys, Hollywood has produced harmless Sissy men from the silent films to present-day television. The Sissy has even been given an empowered makeover, thanks to Harvey Fierstein and his Sissy Duckling (book and made-for-TV film). (And, while we're at it, I like Tomie DePaola's book Oliver Button is a Sissy, too.)

So that’s why it really freaked me out to see Boingo in Hoodwinked: why is the Sissy-cum-villain” back? Because Andy Dick’s fag voice is hip? Because it’s so incredibly clever that the seemingly feeble Sissy bunny is the criminal mastermind? Because it’s so incredibly clever that the seemingly feeble Sissy bunny is the criminal but no mastermind and is easily brought down, in need of Schwarzeneggerian muscled back-up, and even self-loathing enough to ridicule one of his henchmen, Keith, for his not-masculine-enough name?

Just what are we meant to be laughing at, and why? I had hoped to agree with the "A" Owen Glieberman gave the film in Entertainment Weekly -- and, dammit, I did enjoy the film. Moreover, I had hoped to have an afternoon off of blogging about homophobia. Is nowhere safe?

1.18.2006

Breaking Brokeback Mountain

(spoiler warning)

I get this gut ache – deep and low – every time I hear the quick rising then slow descending of notes in the main motif of the theme song from Brokeback Mountain. That I saw the film during my period and while going through a complex re-negotiation of an important friendship is likely part of the ache. Driving to work on an early, rainy Tuesday morning and listening to NPR as they discuss the Golden Globes, the theme from this intense film for an intense era playing in the background, my stomach tightens; I feel like crying.

What is not about a monthly biochemical dance or anguish over interpersonal miscommunication is the melodramatic core of Brokeback Mountain. I don’t mean the word “melodrama” to be an insult here, if we define the term as a (film) genre featuring exaggerated emotions and intense interpersonal conflicts (much like my life the day I saw it). When I told those with whom I saw the film that I had concerns about the implications of Jack Twist having to die to move the narrative to its conclusion, one said that, as a writer, she understood a need to heighten the drama. The other said that the film called it like it is: gay men are brutally murdered for being gay; people do waste their lives away because of social and psychological constraints and norms. I noted the obvious Matthew Shepard reference (no missing the Wyoming setting) that actively linked fictional text about homophobia and hate violence to its lived counterpart.

I am deeply moved by the tortured sadness of the film, the bleakness of lives that might have been filled with that most blissful of havens in a difficult world: intimacy, passion, love. That misguided torturer CBN is absolutely correct that Brokeback Mountain is “the biggest, boldest attempt yet by Hollywood to gain sympathy, if not outright support, for those practicing the homosexual lifestyle.” Screw their rhetorical choice of the words “practicing” and “lifestyle,” but we might not disagree that, as David Kupelian (author of the charmingly subtitled The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom), cited in CBN’s “review” of Brokeback Mountain, argues, “[T]he entire purpose of the movie is to make homosexuality seem like something good and appealing, and to make people who are opposed to homosexuality bigots and homophobes.” To the degree this is so, bless the magnificent hearts of every single person involved in the film and let me never say a word against it. Of course, I will share my concerns about the film presently, but let me pause to say that Mr. Kupelian, darling of diverse reactionary mean mouths (from Dr. Laura to Fox News’s Michelle Malkin), shortchanges the film when he simply dismisses it as “very, very propagandistic.” There’s more here, heart-wrenching and problematic, gorgeous and garish, to consider.

What most concerns me about the death of Jack is what concerns me with the predictable depiction of violence as part of the Ennis-Jack relationship (especially their entrance into sexual intimacy) not to mention the theme of self-loathing. I thought mainstream America was further along. From a liberal perspective, certainly, this film is groundbreaking. It took me some time to reflect on the fact that I have seen a number of films that feature gay intimacy and love at their center (e.g. Torch Song Trilogy, Frears/Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, or Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, to take a few random examples) or periphery (De Lovely and Kinsey, in recent memory). But none of these films is a major Hollywood studio blockbuster. One that is, by contrast, is Demme’s Philadelphia, which tidily kills off our protagonist, and a tragic dying guy is so much easier to take than a living, thriving queer. And this is central to my mixed feelings about Brokeback Mountain as a cultural document at the beginning of the second half of the first decade of the new century, as a state of the art and politics as my son begins his second semester of first grade and stops calling himself a “birl” (part girl/part boy – so he can play with “all the toys”) and buys two sets of Valentine’s because girls will want “Bratz” while boys will want “Star Wars” or “Power Rangers”: I thought we were further along.

If, as The Celluloid Closet and other histories of LBG representation argue, U.S. cinema went from offering us desexualized “sissies” to menacing/evil fag and dyke stereotypes to sympathetic AIDS victims but not beyond, why aren’t we ready now for LGBT narratives that aren’t about anguish and misery? Why is a pre-Stonewall-era narrative what we most need? Why are we stuck at demystifying the cowboy movie instead of telling of present-day, everyday struggles and triumphs?

This said, I don’t want to be mistaken for arguing that what the film does show us is not important. The film is a glorious antidote to my depression over all the anti-gay marriage crap that clutters my atmosphere and the minds of so many of my students. The wide-open vistas of 1960s Wyoming are, however illusory, a delicious escape from the strangling atmosphere of pollution, corporate greed, and warmongering we live with in America today. It’s just that…dammit…I want to be living in a culture that doesn’t need to rewire homophobia through anguish, torture, and death. I don't want a conflict-free, giddy queer romp (though that's nice too), but I want the characters to live, to keep struggling and working things through despite everything against their happiness. I want this world to be a beyond-Brokeback Mountain world, though I know we’re not.

So, as I struggle with tears at the levels of narrative (why is there nowhere for these two men together? so much self-loathing is so hard to watch), setting (so much space and beauty around their tortured selves), image (tight-lipped Ennis in his wretched trailer, fingering Jack’s shirt), and melancholy theme music, let me turn my critical eye to the film itself and let rhetorical acumen ease the impact of narrative subjection.

The eroticized gaze was fascinating in the movie, for example. Very obvious shots juxtaposing beautiful landscape with glorious blue skies and Jake Gyllenhaal’s glorious blue eyes had me thinking about the sexual objectification/adoration of (white, young, handsome) men in film. If this film is about homosexuality and homophobia, it’s also about the beauty of men. And the linking of male beauty with nature is not something I’ve seen explored much in film. It’s a compelling reversal of links often drawn between women and nature (vs. men and culture). I did find the actual cinematography to be hit-you-over-the-head obvious in this pairing, but I confess I’m also concerned with the possibility of reading the men = nature equation as implicitly saying women = cultural constraint. A reversal, in other words, does not get us past the opposition itself.

Women in the film are kept entirely from nature, and this jives with the way the men’s lies about going fishing resonate in the text. Fishing as a “men’s sport” (not to mention wrangling, rodeo, and other physical and outdoor labor in the film), the idea that the wide outdoors are, generally, for men leave women to bear the burden of being stuck indoors and as representatives of the constraints of normative, life-strangling culture (as well as being baby machines, where children themselves are also stifling burdens men need to be free of). I know Lureen is at first a rodeo rider -- far better than Jack -- but this quickly desolves in the film to her being primarily a seductress (like Ennis's last girlfriend) then attached at the hip to her adding machine.

On a larger level, I did wonder why women could not be part of the liberatory aspects of the film, like male friendships/intimacy and nature. I’m not saying nature wasn’t compromised (the domestic sheep, Randy Quaid’s horrible boss character, the murdered/mutilated body in the field that Ennis was forced to view as a child) nor that we did not see the pain of the female characters, especially Jack’s mother. But I kept thinking that the narrative could have done more to signal something more “alive” about the women, more struggle than pathos (Alma), more self-awareness than self-absorption (Lureen). Instead, did the film fall into the gay = anti-women/children trap?

This brought me to ponder why a story by a woman writer, E. Annie Proulx, was chosen for Hollywood’s breakout gay movie. I have not read the story yet but plan to in the near future. My cynical eye says this may be a case of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author building a hip text from melodramatic and clich├ęd bits of cultural repression, angst, and kitsch. I may wrong her, and the story, and the film, with this reductive perspective. But I can’t help but thinking about the episode of South Park when Sundance comes to town and Eric Cartman laments that all the films are about “gay cowboys eating pudding.” The appeal of such a story (with elk meat instead of pudding) is just too tempting to pass up for Hollywood.

But I can’t end there. I have to end optimistically. For one, the film has stuck with me and made me think—about film imagery, about gender representation, and about our culture and what we are or are not ready for. I'm still wallowing in the pathos, though I'd rather not be. In the end, I confess I am glad for any film that pisses off the wrongful religious right and happy we’re ready for Brokeback Mountain, however fatalistic and flawed it may necessarily be.

1.14.2006

Contemplating Cuteness

I’ve long known the cuteness factor accounts for much in this life. Of our three cats, the cutest one (heck, his name is T.C., which actually stands for “Totally Cute”) is also the one most likely to claw up the furniture—and you still want to hug and hold him. My husband Chad has told me about various psychological studies of what determines attractiveness in humans (such as symmetry) and how a person can identify one face as handsome and another as dangerous depending on the sharpness of the features. I also remember an article in a college composition reader that talked about the evolution of Mickey Mouse to maximum cuteness by enlarging his ears and eyes, flattening his face, and other forms of infantilization.

Then, recently, an internet pal (a guy I usually talk to about politics but who has a definite pet fetish) recommended I go visit Cute Overload, the blog that “scour[s] the Web for only the finest in Cute Imagery™. Imagery that is Worth Your Internet Browsing Time. We offer an overwhelming amount of cuteness to fill your daily visual allowance. Drink it in!” The internet pal asked me if I’d visited, excited to know if I’d seen “the Chihuahua hugging the kitten” and other works of art. (He is also excited about kittenwar.com, a site where you can vote on your favorite kittens.)

I swallowed about 3 pictures worth (a kitten in a cup, a german shepherd in a donut salesman costume, and a snail slowly stretching across the slats in a picnic table) and I felt positively bloated with cuteness. I guess that about meets my “daily visual allowance,” which I didn’t even know I had. (Actually, the snail pics were pretty cool; they’re very stretchy little creatures).

My son, by contrast, wanted to go through all recent posts, then spend a while at the kitten and dog pages. Most pictures (wet cat in rain, close-up of puppy nose, wee mousie in hand, baby seal in snow) were met by gushed “Awwwwwwwwwwwww’s” and sweet “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh’s” from my son. Meanwhile, I found myself distinguishing between the “truly cute” and the “supposed to be cute but isn’t making it.”

A few days after our little cuteness binge, Chad told me about a New York Times article on The Cute Factor. It seems “Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.” These “cute cues” “indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.”

This is not news to me. Having had a baby and enjoyed the bliss that is 19 hours of labor, a parineal tear, bruised nipples, post-partum depression, insomnia, and many other joys of early motherhood, I know damn well we’re wired to nurture “cuteness.” If we weren’t, the human race would be extinct.

Furthermore, though we consider ourselves a sophisticated species, we ain't all that. Says the NYT article, “The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof.”

The article goes on to discuss the distinction between cuteness and beauty and to remark upon Floridians’ obsession with manatees (though it does not assert that cuteness may explain the popularity of Jeb Bush).
What really interested me (enhancing my contemplation of my son’s goggling over “teeny froggie on fingertip”), however, is this: “New studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

Cute Overload, Animal Planet, pet stores, Look Who’s Talking: all plots to get us so hopped up on cuteness we won’t notice what’s really going on in the world.

Or wait, no: cuteness research is part of the Just Say No to Drugs crap my son is getting in elementary school. “Cuteness Not Crack” will make a great commercial. And the anti-sex crusaders can join in too: “Cuteness Ever, Coitus Never.”

But wait (again). Best idea yet: the Democrats can take back the Whitehouse by running someone who looks like a puppy.

That won’t work, argues Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Apparently, “The rapidity and promiscuity of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived.” Says Dr. Dutton in the same NYT article, “Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, Let's not worry about complexities, just love me. That's where the sense of cheapness can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow.”

Well, I’d argue you can be entirely not-cute and still want people to ignore meaning and complexity and swallow the evil b.s. whole…
“Awww, Mommy, look at the manatee—Hey, how come he isn’t cute like the others?”

1.13.2006

Queer or Bisexual?

Now that I’m all queered up from writing about Fight Club, I want to explore the uses of and distinctions between “queer” and “bisexual” a bit. I have no problem saying Fight Club is more (repressed) gay (narrator and/with Tyler) or queer (Bob, narrator’s relationship with Bob) than bisexual, even though bisexual is not inaccurate in terms of the desires (gay/queer) and actions (straight-ish) shown in the film. What makes me want to use one term over another?

Like Alexander Doty, whose work I thoroughly enjoy, I like the term “queer” to “describe non-straight things that are not clearly marked as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, or transgendered” (Doty, “Introduction” to Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon, p.7). As the narrator of Fight Club – to stay with this example a little longer since it’s handy – dates the significant change in his life (his psychotic split, which queers him, arguably) to being pressed into Bob’s maternal male breasts (though he immediately decides to re-date and change his flashback, addressing well his anxiety and need to repress and re-repress his “non-straight” attractions), I see queerness as taking up central space in the narrative. Bob is neither straight, gay, bi, or trans. He’s a castrated male (not his choice) with cock and hormone-induced breasts, macho past, anxiety about the change to queerness, and tendency to tears. (Casting Meat Loaf adds to the queerness, of course.) The more the narrator is drawn to Bob – culminating in his breakdown over Bob’s dead body in his paper house/compound – the more he breaks from easy categorization. To me, the easier the categorization, the less queer.

So perhaps that’s where I’m at presently: queer is harder to categorize than bisexuality. This does not mean bisexuality is simple. Doty, in an analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the uber-bisexual musical, cites critic Chris Cagle as distinguishing between “straight-identified bisexuals” and “queer-identified bisexuals.” Straight-identifiers are those who maintain primary relationships with partners of the opposite sex and enjoy shorter-term or “on the side” relationships with same-sex partners. These bisexuals, argues Cagle, can then “enjoy the protection of straight privilege” (Doty, Flaming Classics, p.149). This distinction may be too binary for some, and it does not help me define queerness. Why “queer-identified” bisexual rather than “lesbian/gay-identified” bisexual?

Is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight about how you partner up and queer how you may choose to identify beyond partners/relationships?

To take another tack, what is the opposite of queer? At the moment, I’d argue there is no opposite, and that this is the attraction of queerness.

I’ve recently begun working on a manuscript that explores relationship triangles in three romantic comedies directed by out-gay Hollywood studio director George Cukor. In all three films, Katharine Hepburn is at the center, playing a character who breaks from traditional femininity. Cary Grant is at her side, part of the triangle. The third member is a more orientationally ambiguous male that brings queerness into the romance (or makes the queerness more overt). In Sylvia Scarlett, it’s Brian Aherne’s Michael Fane, an artist and bohemian who comes to love Hepburn’s character best when she’s dressed as a boy. In Holiday, it’s Hepburn’s brother, the perhaps-gay alcoholic brother who is forced to tow the family line as the only son of a wealthy, tyrannical father. In The Philadelphia Story it’s Jimmy Stewart’s marriage-resistant Macaulay Conner, the reporter who falls for Hepburn’s Tracy Lord only because, I’d argue, she’s beloved of Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven – the real figure of mystery and intrigue for Conner.

(I cannot tell you why Hepburn looks like a curly-headed lesbian priest in this picture. But isn't his cravat delightful?)

Regardless of whether you find my angle compelling here or not, what I’m puzzling over at the moment is whether I’m writing about bisexuality or queerness. I’d argue everything in Sylvia Scarlett points to queerness, including Aherne’s immortal line, “There’s something queer when I look at you” as he gazes at Hepburn in drag as the youth Sylvester Scarlett. Yet Doty, in a footnote in his Gentlemen Prefer Blondes chapter, calls Fane "bisexual." As I wrestle with why Fane is bisexual not queer or bisexual and queer or queer not bisexual, I find myself concocting definitions by the score. Fane is clearly attracted to women, never actively attracted to men other than Sylvia/Sylvester, yet ends the film happiest when with Sylvia fully disguised as Sylvester (ostensibly in disguise as part of their effort to find Fane’s ex-girlfriend who has run off with Grant’s con artist Jimmy Monkley). Now, that complex kind of attraction could be described as bisexual, though Fane is in such a case closeted/repressed about his own homosexual desires. But if it’s a woman in drag he’s most drawn to, then to me that’s more queer. More easily labeled bisexual is probably Grant’s Monkley, who, when thinking Hepburn’s character is definitely male, suggests he’d make a “proper little hot water bottle” to sleep beside when they’re on the road.

To be sure, my angle on these three films is in seeking out queerness, romantic triangles that break with conventional sexualities, even straight/bi/gay distinctions. So I’m looking at/for queerness rather than bi or gay “subtext” in the films. I think.

When, mid-footnote, Doty uses the phrase “gender queerness and bisexuality” as at the heart of Sylvia Scarlett’s romantic conclusion (p.153), I’m pondering again. Here queerness is about gender and bisexuality is about orientation. I guess this works, but it’s still another binary that doesn’t fully get to Fane falling in love not with a young man or even a woman in drag: he’s falling for genderfuck, I think. But that’s yet another term to ponder....


Work Cited

Doty, Alexander. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. NY: Routledge, 2000.

1.07.2006

A Long, Hard Review of Fight Club

Ok, so it took me six years to get up the gumption to put myself through the film Fight Club. I knew it would mess with my adrenalin and energy for the day, and it definitely did. It’s a long film (even longer on DVD), and it definitely needed an editor to trim some of the excess. But that’s about the only negative thing I have to say about it.

Here's what I most loved about it:

(1) Critique of corporate capitalism. The film is all about how it crushes the soul and drives white, middle-class men insane. Oddly, it actually brought The Incredibles to mind for me, with its much-lauded critique of the life of (white, middle-class) men in cubicles. But where The Incredibles argued that there’s a superhero waiting to burst forth from that petty insurance job, Fight Club argues there’s a vulnerable, insecure man, suppressing his desire to do the right thing, wrestling with the contradiction that what is supporting his existence (and encouraging him to buy in at a deeper and deeper level – Ikea!) is what is psychically numbing him and driving him mad.

(2) Masculinity. I have seen few recent films that do white, middle-class heterosexual masculinity this well. From the inability to express emotion without absurdly potent encouragement (testicular cancer group, anyone?) to the need to beat each other up to process said emotions, it's right there. I will also give the film credit for having our increasingly psychotic protagonist encourage men to take it out on each other rather than their wives/girlfriends, but that leads me to several other points…

(3) Freud! This film was such a great exemplification of Freud’s “Latency Period,” where boys hang with boys in “No Girls Allowed’ clubs (perfect that our hero called it “Fight Club,” which was so geeky and pre-teen, even if he later “grew up” to form his “army”) and are far less concerned with sex than camaraderie. (That the protagonist wanted to beat up William Shatner was so perfect: the original Star Trek series can be read beautifully as a Freudian latency narrative—see Ilsa Bick’s chapter in Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek (a collection I co-edited in 1996).) It is latency that explains why there is no killing in the film (by the narrator or his "army"). This was a truly surprising element of the film and inexplicable to me without this helpful Freudian framework.

This is also where Marla (Helena Bonham Carter’s character) becomes necessary: she is woman and disrupts the illusion of idyllic boyhood (a la Peter Pan). She forces him to see the pleasures of adult malehood that war with the narrator bond with his “imaginary friend” Tyler Durden and their boyish games. (And the narrator does say something about being a 30-year-old boy or the like, I believe.)

Furthermore, Tyler Durden is phallus personified, and there are all the guns (especially in the narrator’s mouth) as well as the constant castration issues (no coincidence that the threat to the city official is to cut off his balls, nor that if the narrator/Tyler tries to back out of his plan that his army has been commanded to castrate him). Which leads me to…

(4) The Gaze. Fight Club is amazing as it engages with Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze” in film. Using Freud, Mulvey argues that mainstream films are driven by a libidinal/political economy of constant castration anxiety. Basically, we see the film’s through the male director and male protagonists’ eyes, and these eyes are full of fear of castration (seeing woman-as-difference, he sees that she hasn’t got a dick/balls and realizes his could be taken!). Though castration anxiety can’t be processed consciously, unconsciously it can be resolved, says Freud, through either scopophilic pleasure (turning the threatening object, woman, into a pleasurable object in his control) or a sadistic kind of voyeurism (seeing the woman be controlled or punished, via marriage or murder, for example). And Mulvey argues this drives Hollywood film’s images of women. (To read the article in its entirety, see Mulvey). For Fight Club, the castration stuff couldn’t be any more direct. Marla, then, comes to represent the threat. She is desired object, but the narrator has trouble getting her to fit the fully objectified mold he needs to control the anxiety she brings. She appears in the guise of film noir femme fatale early in the narrative, a figure Mulvey discusses as invoking this threat through her combination of hyperfeminine appearance yet powerful sexuality (and often wielding the phallus/gun). Now, Marla is herself rather castrated, if you will, a pretty poor femme fatale. But she is strong enough to lure and threaten the narrator, who desires her yet cannot manage her. She sees through his masculine guise (showing up at all the support groups he attends) and offers cultural critique (e.g. of bridesmaid’s dresses) and has sex in ways that leave him both part of the experience (via the Tyler persona) and an alienated, impotent voyeur (as he disassociates from his Tyler persona but cannot fully escape it—staying in a nearby room, according to his delusion). In the end, he is either yelling at her to leave or instructing his army to destroy her (not sure if this means killing her or what…hard to tell given the intentionally confusing nature of the representation of his psychosis). Reading through Mulvey, what we have is a situation in which the narrator can neither make of Marla a controllable sex object or adequately punish her. At the film’s conclusion, it seems he will marry her (or at least this may be his delusion as he is dying), and this is, says Freud, one viable solution to castration anxiety.

What is even more interesting re the gaze than how the film plays it out is how it turns it around. Instead of having a narrator constantly gazing at his femme fatale or sex object (a la Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for one), Fight Club has him gaze at his hypermasculine alter ego, Tyler Durden. Both the protagonist and the camera linger over Brad Pitt and his buff bod—as well as over the many other men who must strip to the waist when they fight and the pumped up army dudes. This goes even further as the film fetishizes blood, scrapes, and bruises (and I’ll get to kinkiness presently), but first…

(4) Queerness. Where to begin? Certainly, there is the ease of reading the film’s central fight metaphor as a homophobic men’s method of displaying/repressing homosexual desire. I’m certainly not the first to read punching as intercourse or spurting blood as ejaculation, and those guys certainly did hug a lot after each bout (not to mention sharing a cigarette and a beer). Then there’s the love relationship between the narrator and Tyler (which turns out to be his alter ego, but as we watch the film for the first time, we don’t know/see that). From Brad Pitt’s arguably gay stylings throughout the film (I dare you to look through the International Male catalog and tell me that’s not where Tyler's clothes came from) to the narrator’s voiceover saying he and his imaginary pal lived like “Ozzie and Harriet” and fear of Marla getting between them, we’ve definitely got some queerness going on. (Here, Marla is the third member of a romantic triangle who is necessary to prevent the consummation of the male-male love axis).

Now, that it is Bob (fabulously played by Meat Loaf) who causes the beginning of the breakdown for the narrator of his dual selves also has good queer overtones. The hypermasculine space of his “paper house” army bunker reinforces his delusions. Nor can Marla, that representative of femininity, do more than just spur it on (see above). But Bob—as he blends masculine and feminine, male and female, in body, voice, and personality—does exemplify that there is more to the psyche than the gendered polar opposites which (in combination with oppressiveness of corporate capitalism for Mr. Average) cause his psychotic break. So when Bob dies, arguably, so does the impenetrability (to use a Freudian term) of his delusion. He no longer has a figure through which to externalize his anxieties. Queerness must be acknowledged not just as a part of Bob, but of himself. (Ok, I’m out on a limb here and trying this out as I write it, but it’s working for me.)

Finally, S/M in the film. The narrator is obviously a masochist, and though it’s not a new image (people into S/M are predominantly psychos in films), Fight Club does seem to me to suggest something more: rigid masculine norms lead to kinky fetishes. If (middle-class) men can’t display emotion (or engage in sex with each other), they can beat each other up. It’s acceptable male display, and you can always pretend it wasn’t sexually arousing (as long as you can keep your erection down). As Steve Neale argues in “Masculinity as Spectacle” (Screen 24.6, 1983, pp. 2-16), “‘male’ genres and films constantly involve sado-masochistic themes, scenes, and phantasies,” and these are “founded upon a repressed homosexual voyeurism.” Neale notes that “in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explicitly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated in some other way, its erotic component repressed.” In this light, what’s great about Fight Club is that it both illustrates the validity of this argument and shows the consequences (psychosis) for those who do not repress. Gayness and/or queerness aside, the film does more than most in reflecting kinkiness in the blending of pain-pleasure and the enjoyment of showing off of “battle scars.” Indeed, like most who share the BDSM credo of “Safe, Sane, and Consensual,” the Fight Club men in their secret society are even allowed to use safewords (the word “Red” in the BDSM community becomes “Stop” in the film) and, as in BDSM circles where people use pseudonyms (like Tyler Durden) and do not “out” others, the first rule of Fight Club is “You Do Not Talk About Fight Club.” Unlike BDSM, however, male fighting is more marginalized than socially ostracized (as in the scene where the Fight Club members are instructed to pick a fight and have trouble doing so), and so the men do not fear showing off their black eyes and stitches, while those into BDSM, especially women, are unlikely to do the same. (No one accused the narrator of being beat up by his girlfriend, for example.)

All in all, few movies I’ve seen have encouraged me to process (and blog-purge) quite so fully or satisfyingly. I found the film compelling on many levels and regret only that its cultural critique did not seem to sink very deeply into the American consciousness. For one, corporate culture is very good at co-opting critique. For another, most of the men about whom the film speaks most loudly are too busy repressing to get it. Session of Fight Club for Xbox, anyone?

- - - - -

My thanks to Chad for processing the film for hours with me as well as for his awesome insights about Freudianism, cultural co-optation, and many other points. Thanks also to Jonathan Beller’s Fight Club review. While I disagree with some of his arguments and he gets some details wrong, it was an inspiring critique.

Witty Definitions

I regret that I cannot give credit to whoever came up with these entertaining definitions, but they're just the thing for a literary nerd (not geek, not dork) like me. Enjoy.

Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having aflat stomach. [too true]

Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk. [funny if cliched]

Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp. [bizarrely clever]

Testicle (n.), a humorous question on an exam. [not quite funny but kinda cute in a little puppy with big eyes kinda way]

Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified demeanor assumedby a proctologist immediately before he examines you. [nice]

Circumvent (n.), the opening in the front of boxershorts. [oh, is that what it's called]

...and my favorite of the day:

Frisbeetarianism (n.), The belief that, when you die,your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck there. [I think I've found my new faith!]

Got any more you particularly like? (I have read more but these are my momentary faves.)

1.06.2006

As If I Needed Another Reason to Loathe Wal-Mart

One blog, however big, can't hold a complete list of all the horrors of how Wal-Mart mistreats employees, encourages sweatshop labor, and lulls greedy customers into accepting its choices of what deserves to be sold or not sold and how. So just Google "Wal-Mart" and "sweatshop labor" or "ADA violations" or "lawsuits" or "health insurance" or "American made" or whatever other qualifier you like and you'll find plenty to occupy and depress you.

Despite the fact that nothing about Wal-Mart shocks me anymore (not even that I have, in recent months, occasionally shopped there for vegetarian soymeat products or that J.C. Penney's has an even worse record for the use of sweatshop labor), I must confess I was still surprised when I learned that the Wal-Mart website sold Planet of the Apes TV series DVDs and featured recommendations for "Martin Luther King: I Have A Dream/Assassination of MLK" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.").

Thanks to blogger Blackfeminism.org who credits Crooks and Liars who credits Firedoglake for sharing this story and Wal-Mart's response. For your entertainment, here is an excerpt from the Wal-Mart "oh shit, we fucked up again" letter of apology:

"We are heartsick that this happened and are currently doing everything possible to correct the problem. The offensive combinations that have been identified will be removed from the site by 5:30 CT today. However, with thousands of movie items available, there is an almost endless number of possible combinations. Because of that, we will be shutting down our entire movie cross-selling system until the problem is resolved.

Walmart.com’s item mapping process does not work correctly and at this point is mapping seemingly random combinations of titles. [...]

We were horrified to discover that some hurtful and offensive combinations are being mapped together.

To further illustrate the bizarre nature of this technical issue, the site is also mapping movies such as Home Alone and Power Puff Girls to African American literature."

How touching that the Wal-Mart "we" (in this case almost certainly some woman making minimum wage and without health insurance) is using such powerful adjectives! It warms the soul. From "heartsick" to "horrified," how can we be so cold as to think the warm, family-like corporation that is Wal-Mart would somehow have input descriptors into their system for mapping that would link a show about sentient apes with African Americans?

Even if its true that searching for the DVD of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also produced recommendations for the MLK and Jack Johnson films, as affirmed by Wal-Mart PR folk, I have to agree with Firedoglake that Wal-Mart's "'mapping' program sure does have a low-rent cracker sense of humor."

Of course, we can have a lovely talk about why the gorillas in PotA were played by African Americans while the more powerful and rational orangutans and chimpanzees were played by white actors. We can talk about the films' and tv series' use of extrapolation or metaphor as science fictional devices, where white human characters stand for African Americans while the apes represent white slavemasters, colonizers, or other oppressive whathaveyous. But it does not surprise me that racism is part of the Wal-Mart infrastructure. Hell, it is threaded into every institution in our nation; it's just that Wal-Mart (like several other gargantuan corporations who make a few white men rich at the expense of everyone else) does it bigger and better than most.

(Let me conclude with a delightful related anecdote: Though I never got a nice emotional letter of apology--or any other response for that matter--I did once write to The Music Stand and ask them to remove the musical ape from the toys they sold in their catalog based on its racist connotations, and...only a few short years later... it was gone. Imagine that.)

1.02.2006

Am I Janeane Garofalo?

Until Janeane Garofolo made it big, no one ever told me I reminded them of anyone, famous or otherwise. I was just me, in all my outspoken, opinionated, gorgeous glory. But now I'm "Hey, you remind me of Janeane Garofolo" in all my outspoken, opinionated, gorgeous glory.

Certainly, she's not a bad person to be compared to. We look somewhat alike (dark hair, full lips, not thin). We're both loud. She's close to my age -- 2 yrs. and 9 months younger (actually only two days younger than my brother Reid), so in reality people should be telling Janeane that she reminds them of me.

We generally share political perspectives (why don't I have my own show on Air America?). Those who know me know I certainly could have said either of the following:

"Iraq is a manufactured conflict for the sake of geopolitical dominance in the area."

"I guess I just prefer to see the dark side of things. The glass is always half empty. And cracked. And I just cut my lip on it. And chipped a tooth."

Given all of this, how can you tell us apart?

1. Salaries: she wins.
2. Fame: she wins.
3. Height: I win.
4. Bust size: I win.
5. Overall hotness: Well, I'm a bigger babe, but she can get you into the best clubs and pay for your lobster. You choose.

1.01.2006

Being One-Upped by the Praying Type

I’m really sick of not having something fabulous to say when someone emails about a sick relative, a personal loss, or other intensely stressful life challenge. So many people simply pick a quip from their religious bag of tricks:

“I will be praying for you.”
“God/Goddess will provide.”
“I am sending healing energy.”

What if you’re agnostic at best and don’t have a pile of pithy sayings at hand? What if you don’t pray, don’t believe in God/s or Goddess/es, and don’t channel “energy”?

“You have my sympathies” or “I wish you well” sounds too much like “Good luck and good riddance.” And “You are in my thoughts” is a pale imitator of “You are in my prayers.”

Please, dear friends, help me with this crisis of verbiage and perspective. Send recommendations. (Do not, by contrast, send energy or pray for me.)

My Visit to Narnia

I expected the following two things when I went to see Narnia:

(1) Heavy-handed Christianity would slap me in the face.
(2) Special effects would wow me.

What I got was neither of those. But before I discuss my response to religion and f/x, I’ll respond to other aspects. First, the film, overall, was just...ok. The plot was a bit thin, the world of Narnia underexplored and underexplained. But I found that true of the book, too (which I never finished because I found it boring). It really is a book for kids not adults, and the movie made that plain. That is interesting to me, come to think of it, because I did enjoy all the Harry Potter books (though I do not find them particularly original; still at least they have some character development, largely because they are low fantasy not high--see below).

Now, the acting was good. I liked all the kids, despite their smarmy whitebreadiness. Tilda Swinton was perfect for the White Witch. I’ve loved her since Orlando, which was a far better fantasy spectacle. Her costumes were a bit on the football player plasterboard side, but still she was a delight to watch. Liam Neeson’s voice as Aslan was deliciously warm and rich; you could fall right into it.

The special effects, meanwhile, really disappointed. I know we’ve reached a positive obsession with perfect use of CGI and blue screen and forced perspective and such since Lord of the Rings, but, dammit, the budget on this film was plenty enough for better than the many obvious bits of mediocrity I witnessed.

Still, that’s a petty critique, and certainly my son didn’t notice any of that. Nor did he pick up a wallop of Christian dogmatism, as far as I can tell. Certainly, Aslan is a Christ figure, but there is, in my opinion, plenty of paganism to go around in the film. The whole explanation of Aslan’s resurrection makes quite plain that it isn’t his power (or the Judeo-Christian God's) that did it but the nature of the “deep magic” about which the White Witch, being but an overambitious woman, failed to read the small print. ("Deep Magic" was nicely ambiguous in terms of its spiritial/religious significance. Is it Christian? Is it Pagan? You be the judge. In this, it reminded me of the "Force" of the Star Wars movies--and I'm sure Lucas, like Rowling, found ample source inspiration in both Lewis and Tolkien.)

Sexism was ringing merrily in the film, as might be expected. Adult women are evil and female children can go on adventures but it is boys who shall lead and take care of business. I was particularly disappointed that Susan only got to shoot Ginarrbrik, who was more annoying than menacing, and was labeled queen of Gentleness. Not that women wielding weapons is the pinnacle of existence, but in this film there's not much else to do, apart from galavanting through the countryside on sentient horses. (And I did find the rule about what could be sentient and what could not rather difficult to assertain...reminded me of the Goofy/Pluto connundrum.)

Which brings me to race. The whole concept/genre of High Fantasy, with the forces of Good pitted against and winning out over Evil, seems always to rely upon colonial fantasies of civilized vs. savage that bring race to mind. Now Narnia does reverse the binary by having the White Witch be white/light and not black/dark (it’s usually light/good vs. dark/evil in these type of texts, again see Lucas’s “Force” for a good example), but that’s just a simplistic reversal rather than any real complication of the paradigm.

In the end, I did find the film tolerable as an afternoon’s diversion, but I can’t say it was particularly compelling or that it approached the excellence in filmmaking that is the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Heck, those films deflected my objections to sexism and racism by just being such glorious spectacles. Narnia, by contrast left me with a shrug. I honestly found the most exciting moment to be the preview for Pirates of the Caribbean 2! Yo ho! Ahoy there, Mr. Depp!