December 30, 2010

Random Musing: Second Response to John Nolte

I probably should not even bother, but I since I feel implicated, I suppose I should respond. To this morning's random musing, BIG HOLLYWOOD Editor-in-Chief John Nolte has offered these "gems":

Hey @bengrimwood, what else is on your NEW PRODUCTION CODE? What else aren't movies allowed to do? Do offenders go on a BLACKLIST?

@rejectnation & @Bengrimwood have a NEW HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION CODE for us. What movies can & can't do. Its not fascism its sensitivity!

Remember folks, when @bengrimwood & @rejectnation tell u what u can't say, it's not fascism when it's FOR THE CHILDREN. #OrwellSmiles

I feel grossly misrepresented, especially because I am not at all recommending some "Production Code." (I doubt @rejectnation, also known as FILM SCHOOL REJECTS, recommends the same.) Nolte seems like an educated man, so he should be aware that, for decades, "homosexuals" could not be portrayed at all on film due to Hollywood's self-censorship system, the Hays Code (adopted in 1930, abandoned in 1968). Occasionally, films of the time period — especially those of Alfred Hitchcock, including "Rebecca" (1940) and "Rope" (1948) — toyed with these regulations and tenuously bent the symbolic order to the point of breaking before returning hastily to a normative (i.e. "moral") conclusion. When the Hays Code was greatly enervated by the late 1950s, the first gay character debuted on film: the character Sebastian (whose face one never sees) in the film "Suddenly, Last Summer" (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959). Gay people enjoyed their first representation on film... and they never saw him. Just like in real life, gay people were still marginalized — finally "inside," but nonetheless "outside" the film frame. It has taken years for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters not to be popularly represented as victims, monsters, killers, deviants, minstrels, "screaming queens," and/or menaces to society. In 2010, "The Kids Are All Right" was released to much acclaim for its kind portrayal of contemporary lesbian motherhood. A recent survey found that 0% — yes, zero out of one-hundred — of children were "unhappy" in a home with gay or lesbian parents. Seems telling enough to me.

I say all of this to provide some historical evidence for why — let us make no mistake — I am opposed to the practice of censorship in Hollywood film. My representations as a white gay man have much at stake. I fully support the (we will call it) "cinematic liberty" of filmmakers to cull what they want from life itself — no matter how bold or offensive — and to represent that in the film medium (Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" comes to mind). I recommend that filmmakers represent whatever they would like and not worry about another person telling them what they cannot do. You will notice that the single thing that Landon Palmer and I rebuke is one "gay = stupid" joke. One instance does not widespread "censorship" make. "Gay = stupid" has heretofore been dominant, mainstream, and condoned, whereas, in some circles, gay people themselves are still not. All Palmer was doing in the first place was commenting on how fascinating it was that now, in 2010, people are suddenly talking about how "gay = stupid" is no longer okay. What I, as a maligned citizen, propose is that filmmakers simply be more considerate to people of identities that are still crushed in the wheels of society.

I should mention that I will not stop watching films by Ron Howard or Vince Vaughn. They have the right to imply "gay = stupid," even if it offends me. For that matter, I shudder at the idea of composing any "blacklist" because Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red "witchhunt" of the late 1940s/early 1950s destroyed the lives of some of Hollywood's best and brightest actors, producers, directors, screenwriters, etc., even causing the early death (by heart attack) of actor John Garfield (may he rest in peace). If anyone is/was a "fascist," it is/was McCarthy.

If I find anything else offensive, it is that straight John Nolte sits in his cozy arm chair in his white bourgeois lifestyle, comfortably typing up vitriol on his classy home computer. What does he know about gay people or the enormous pressure under which we live? I am certainly one of the more radical members of our community. My scholarly research interests comprise LGBTQ film and media studies, queer theory and film, non-normative sexual practices in the cinema, pleasure, desire, and film spectatorship (especially "cinesexuality"), and LGBTQ discourse. Does that sound like a "fascist" to you, especially since, during World War II, the prototypical fascist, Hitler, sent homosexuals like me to death camps with the Jews and other "undesirables"? Do I sound interested in censorship especially if I enjoy researching "non-normative sexual practices in the cinema"? If John Nolte needs anything "straight," it is his facts.

I am not a "neo-fascist."
I do not support a new Hollywood "production code."
I do not support a new Hollywood "blacklist."

Their historical counterparts have already done too much damage to our world, and I refuse to be complicit in that just because I continue to defend Palmer's right to say that (and the general use of) "gay = stupid" in Hollywood film is indeed no longer okay.


Random Musing: Response to John Nolte, in Defense of Landon Palmer

One of the most culturally reflective (and divisive) cinematic conversations of 2010 surrounded a film that won’t be released until 2011. While the nation pondered its dense history of homophobic bullying after a string of gay youth suicides starting popping up on the front pages, the trailer for the Ron Howard “comedy” The Dilemma was released with a “gay = stupid” joke as its lead. What would otherwise pass by as an unexamined passive slam against an already-maligned group became no longer acceptable.

The line was unintelligibly defended by Howard, Vince Vaughn, and numerous web commentators who think that a joke too lazy and immature for anybody over 13 to find funny is the same thing as South Park-style take-no-prisoners satire. It’s lazy comedy, and the reaction to it is further evidence that we as a culture have shifted from our Eddie Murphy Delirious days: homophobes, not homosexuals, are now the subject of derisive humor. As The Kids Are All Right and Modern Family have shown, you can have great comedy about homosexuals without making fun of homosexuality.

I have culled this quote from my colleague Landon Palmer's most recent submission to FILM SCHOOL REJECTS, called "Year in Review: Top 10 Topics, Trends, and Events of 2010 That Have Nothing to Do With the 3D Debate." The debate over homophobic language in film comprises one of Palmer's "10 Topics." The following should be taken as axiomatic: The use of "gay" as "stupid" is ideological homophobia, whether the speaker intends to be explicitly homophobic or not. Palmer reflects astutely (as a third-person cultural observer) on how fascinating it is that our society — which is quite conservative, overall — actually talked about one use of "gay" as "stupid" in a movie trailer. If my own upbringing in rural middle Tennessee indicates anything, many people continue to conflate "gay" with "stupid" casually and inconsiderately (members of my own family did so as recently as this past Christmas holiday). Palmer is right that director Ron Howard and actor Vince Vaughn unintelligibly defended the use of "gay" as "stupid" in "The Dilemma." I definitely heard no persuasive argument aside from the middling "Well, that's just how a homophobe speaks, and the film tries faithfully to present that." I suppose I can accept that, and I suppose that this is also the conclusion to which Palmer comes. However, his simple rejoinder is that "comedy" does not have to pick on anyone to be funny and that films should practice more empathy in representing people of various identities.

In response, John Nolte, Editor-in-Chief of the blog BIG HOLLYWOOD, has mocked Palmer's reflection as "just neo-fascism and outright anti-intellectual nonsense." "Neo-fascism"? Is he misusing "fascism" as many contemporary conservatives do, conflating it with "communism" and any abominable anti-Western, non-capitalist, and non-democratic political system one can muster? "Fascism" is any right-wing nationalist ideology or movement with an authoritarian and hierarchical structure that is fundamentally opposed to democracy and liberalism. I strongly disagree that Palmer is "fundamentally opposed to democracy and liberalism." In fact, I would say that Palmer attempts to enrich democracy by commenting on modern discourses around homophobic rhetoric and by suggesting that we be more considerate to the "already-maligned" group of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) people. Is that so wrong? By characterizing Palmer as "neo-fascist," Nolte grossly misinterprets Palmer's empathy toward LGBTQ people as "authoritarian" and bigoted when it is quite to the contrary. One should be more careful with his word use when he sprays God-like ideological key words like urine all over another's work.

Palmer, "anti-intellectual"? Quite the opposite. Palmer is one of the smartest people I know, and his cultural commentary is certainly not "nonsense." If we take his work from a rhetorical perspective, all of the sentences of the two paragraphs I quoted flow coherently. No syntactical errors exist, and he misuses no words. If one cannot read through Palmer's jargon-free (though reference-laden) prose, then one should ask for reading assistance instead of letting fly his unhelpful, vitriolic venom.

This may be unnecessary to point out — though I believe it to be significant — but Palmer does not defend homosexuals because he has a strong political investment as a gay man who has prevailing implications in his own representations. Instead, Palmer is straight and has taken a stand with gay people — regardless of the charges made against him — which ought to be admired. Palmer empathizes with the gay community as human beings. If anyone does not stand with the gay community, it is Nolte. He claims that "this whole bullying meme" provides the urgency of false charity from groups such as FILM SCHOOL REJECTS, who advocate homosexuals as the subject — and not as the object — of comedy. "This whole bullying meme" is serious business. Is he to say that Ke$ha's, Katy Perry's, and P!nk's recent hit singles — "We R Who We R," "Firework," and "Raise Your Glass," respectively — also constitute fascism from the top down? Since all have hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, then it is obviously good oppression for them — and, obviously, the majority of unique individuals in America (who sent it to #1 through radio requests, purchases on iTunes, etc.) enjoy it.

Nolte reflects dismissively: "What attracts bullies is and always will be one thing: weakness. And if you want to prove you’re weak, a good way to start is with the whine of, don’t make fun of me." This statement angers me greatly. "The Dilemma" is probably the couple-hundredth Hollywood film to make fun of gay people (Vito Russo faithfully tallies up most of the pre-1987 ones in his seminal "Celluloid Closet"). It starts using "fag" rhetoric, and I, as a gay man who has endured my own share of such rhetoric, am supposed to suck it up and take it "like a man!?" That is a really unfair statement. Bullying transpires because of the play of ideological forces that teaches children from a young age that some people are better than others. By telling gay people to quit whining "Don't make fun of me" infuriates me. The most you could do is to take into account the ideological systems that have produced your own beliefs. I think Nolte's careful word choice — about his "gay friends" — is absurd because his other claims around it provide evidence that they are not really such.

Nolte says this PC (i.e. politically correct) whining should not be wasted on gays, who can stand up for themselves. Correct me if I am wrong, but would the gay suicide rate be so much higher than heterosexuals' if they felt like they could? Gay teens are 2-3 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. "This whole bullying meme" is not an excuse; it is a source of urgency and it must be addressed. Bravo to the humans who stand up together to change it for the better.

If one of Nolte's statements offers some truth (and productiveness), it would be: "Sorry, but you can’t inoculate a particular thing or person or group from satire and/or ridicule unless you’re in favor of inoculating everyone under the same premise." I would agree with this notion. Steps have already been taken to alleviate the damage of some representations of black people onscreen. While some black films of the new millennium have attempted honest representations of social hardship ("Hustle & Flow"; "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"), you will notice that Hollywood films no longer present white characters in blackface.... However, his further contention that "The only people I would inoculate from ridicule are those who are unable to fight back" is, ironically, indefensible. Nolte suggests that "inoculating" certain minority groups from ridicule would be unfair to "Christians," "Conservatives," "Southerners," "Caucasians," "Dads," and "Fundamentalists," a ridiculous statement since few of these subject positions (especially "Caucasians" and "Dads") would ever face public scrutiny and/or derision. If I were to be called "cracker," it would roll off me easily; however, if I called someone the "n-word," I would hope to be assailed relentlessly. No place exists anymore for such egregious racial epithets. The person who uses a word such as the "n-word" is, indeed, the "neo-fascist."

I demand that John Nolte reflect to a considerable extent and to revise his opinion out of humility. One cannot erase the past (i.e. "Blazing Saddles," "The Birdcage" — comedies Nolte carefully selects for their hyperbolic portrayals of gays and other minorities), but one can intervene for a better future. If gays are Nolte's "friends," as he (politically correctly) calls them, he should treat them as such instead of telling them to suck it up and instead of telling FILM SCHOOL REJECTS and my colleague Landon Palmer to back off and quit "oppressing" them.


December 23, 2010

Random Musing: I Am Cinesexual (and So Can You!) — Inspired by 'Lola Montès'

Forget gaze theory. No wonder everyone's always loved the movies. You're about to find out why!

I have always had quite a penchant for big, gorgeous epic films such as "Gone with the Wind" and "Titanic." In the case of "Gone with the Wind," I have always chalked it up to my love of the rich colors in the mise-en-scène and to the lush arrangement of Max Steiner's score. In the case of "Titanic," I have long admired the grandeur of the ship's design, James Horner's "busy" score, and the sheer power of the sound, especially during the ship's sinking. Recently, I succumbed to Barnes & Noble's biannual 50%-off sale on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays. I was completely ashamed of my wretched DVD copy of Max Ophül's swan song, "Lola Montès" (1955), and so I decided I required this film on Blu-ray simply because of its radiant color scheme. I was not wrong to make this purchase, as I have come to glean from having screened the film in Blu-ray high-definition. The big move I had to make was to realize that I did not want the film simply because it was colorful and deserved to be presented in high-definition; rather, I enjoy that it is colorful, thereby necessitating high definition to amplify it as much as possible. I may have "cinesexuality" on the brain.

"Cinesexuality" is a term coined by scholar Patricia MacCormack to describe the desire to experience the cinematic event sensually before we make meaning of it. By "cinematic event," she means to imply the spatiotemporally fixed confrontation between spectators and the film screen. Influenced especially by French philosopher Félix Guattari, MacCormack uses his theories on "expression" (i.e. abstraction, pre-meaning) and asemiotics to explain how spectators gain pleasure from the film event regardless of their identities and in excess of the meaning of the images. MacCormack puts it, "Cinema is a nexus of reality/fantasy, offering planes of pleasurable intensity of colour, framing, celerity and sound: what Guattari calls cinema's a-signifying elements" (341). Guattari also cites "linkages, internal movements of visual images, ... rhythms, gestures, speech, etc." as conducive to "cinesexual" desire (342). Since this kind of pleasure derived from cinema does not correlate with pre-existing sexualities such as heterosexuality and homosexuality, MacCormack suggests "cinesexuality" — not a sexuality per se, so much as it provides a working expression to qualify spectators' unique desire for the a-signifying elements. The spectator and screen form a symbiotic bond whereby no distinction exists between the two during the presentation of the cinematic event, thereby facilitating the cinesexual expression.

When I say that you can be "cinesexual," too — well, you already are. MacCormack proposes that one must be a "cinemasochist" — one who enjoys pleasure from cinema's punishment — to engage "cinesexuality." What she means to say is that the giant film screen that looms over you in the movie theater dominates you and that you must submit. She calls it "passivity to the possibilities of the affects of the image" (352). This way, the explosion of light, color, sound, movement, etc. flows immediately into you, pleasing you before you make meaning of the images themselves. You enjoy the masochism because you "lose yourself" in the abstraction of the image(s) before you. "Submission to a-signification is a step rather than the taking up of a marginal position," she writes (353). Remember: You "forget" your identity in this process. "Cinesexuality is a form of sexuality enjoyed by all bodies," she concludes (353).

Maybe I am not actually digging Max Steiner's score from 'Gone with the Wind' per se. Instead, I am digging some quality of the horn or of the violins — the pitch, the dynamics, or a particular turn-of-phrase. I have always felt as though the leap between the first two notes of the most famous motif from "Tara's Theme" sweeps me. I usually aggrandize his entire score as "sweeping," although I usually refer only to "Tara's Theme." Meanwhile, I revel in the opulent colors of 'Gone with the Wind' purely for the scopic experience. This engagement with the cinema is not of a readily available sexuality. I seek and derive pleasure for my eyes from the potential for luxuriant color.

This reminds me of why I bought "Lola Montès" in the first place.... When I stare at my 47" HDTV, I lose myself in the scheme of sumptuous colors and florid movement in the "Lola Montès" circus show. My subjectivity is unfixed and fluid among the transposition of color, sound, light, and movement. I desire it and take pleasure from it. I am not sure what your opinion is — if you prefer big, showy films, that is — but if something about their bombastic play of color, sound, light, etc. moves you, you ought to consider your own "cinesexuality" and bask in it, like me. ■

For further reading on "cinesexuality," check out:
MacCormack, Patricia. "A Cinema of Desire: Cinesexuality and Guattari’s A-signifying Cinema."
Women: A Cultural Review 16.3 (2005): 340-55. Print.
MacCormack, Patricia. Cinesexuality. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Note: Citations in this blog posting come from the article and not from the book itself.


December 19, 2010

Random Posting: Update/Official Announcement

The announcement first: WE HAVE THE STARS ★★★★ is BACK.

I have missed all of my dear readers the half-a-year I have been gone. Half-a-year is too much time to waste.

2010 has been a year of great upheaval for me — more so than I thought. When I decided to go on hiatus in June, I was burnt out after two weeks of torturous finals in late April/early May and was not feeling much for film criticism. The prospect of a busy semester in graduate school (and it was indeed busy) further substantiated my decision to go on hiatus. I figured it was time to wipe the slate clean — to start afresh, anew. I think I was wrong.

Not in a long time have I felt so disconnected from people. It really is a difficult thing to uproot from a place you feel so comfortable and to re-settle elsewhere. I suppose I thought I could replace the best of Nashville with what I have here in Bloomington, but I have come to realize that things will never be the same. At the beginning of this semester, I compared my courses and my friends to "Vandy, Part Two." Now, it has become its own alien entity. I feel like a stranger in a strange land. I also now realize that it was hasty to cut off everything I was doing to throw myself into my new surroundings. This is why I have returned to this blog. I need an outlet for my thoughts, ideas, and provocations. I, indeed, temporarily lost interest, but I think it was more for the sake of starting my new studies. I felt like WE HAVE THE STARS ★★★★ was a younger Ben, more (appropriately) starry-eyed and determined to succeed in film studies after college. I now realize it can still be that way.

I have at least two people to thank for this turn-of-events, Misters Landon Palmer and Matthew F. Moore. Landon Palmer is a fellow graduate student at Indiana University and a contributor to FILM SCHOOL REJECTS. I have been completely awed by his capacity to keep up with graduate studies and to contribute regularly to FILM SCHOOL REJECTS this semester. Even with his new responsibilities, he proves that you do not have to let go of something you enjoy, despite the graduate work load. Maintaining his online output has been something of an inspiration for me to return to this blog, and for that, I thank him.

Matthew F. Moore is a dear friend of mine, an up-and-coming screenwriter in Brooklyn, New York. When Matt came to visit me in November, he and I had many long talks where I routinely divulged my anxieties about graduate school. At the same time, I was fascinated with his focus — his determination to do things for himself. He spends hours every day in the zone, pumping out his screenplay(s). Graduate school is where I must start getting published, and I had too easily forgotten that by approaching my studies in the day-to-day. Over this winter "break," in fact, I must try to complete a draft of an essay I hope to publish in the spring.

In the last couple of years, I have learned a lot about my writing style and film criticism. Two years ago, an adviser of mine, Rex Roberts of FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL, told me, after reading one of my blogs, that "no one wants to hear you speaking." He was referring to how, in the course of the review, I had disclosed my initial impressions about a film, which I used as a foil to explain how all the impressions were dashed. Five semesters' experience later, I have decided kindly to disagree with his opinion. I think the reviewer's voice is as important to a film review as any other contribution. I do not believe in a "totalized" audience or that any one person may have the same opinion about a film that I do.

Granted, to be considered a worthy film critic, one must eliminate that notion and must subsume their own interests for everyone's interests. If you review a film purely to seek your own pleasure, that would be less "seemly" than operating as a critic shrouded in "objectivity," speaking as an expert for the masses. It would also be hard to get paid, and I think that is why Rex suggested any of this to me in the first place (I do appreciate that). Since I do not seek to be paid for my thoughts, I suppose I can maintain my voice in my reviews.

For that matter, I think subsuming one's voice in a film review is a bourgeois practice aiming toward a white, upper/middle-class audience. I adore "Gone with the Wind," as you all know, for its lush art/set direction, gorgeous cinematography, sweeping Max Steiner score, and the tour-de-force performance of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Conversely, I have heard many black people say "I hate 'Gone with the Wind'" or "It's so problematic...." Am I to assume that just because I like it and that the AFI thinks it's the sixth best American film of all-time that it speaks similarly to all film-goers? While I may take pleasure in the film's a-signified (i.e. pre-meaningful) elements (color, framing, sound, etc.) and its resonance with my penchant for the South, black people have more at stake in seeing their representations. Granted, "Gone with the Wind" could be seen as a triumph for the black community because Hattie McDaniel's performance garnered the first Oscar for an African-American. On the other hand, she portrayed an infamous "Mammy" role....

For that matter, "Gone with the Wind" is not the only film for which I have revised my opinion. Remember my diatribe on "Avatar" when this blog went on hiatus? I may have revised my opinion on that, too. (More on that later?)

In the end, all I know is that I love the movies. I may have been too hasty to say my "critic's eye" had dulled because I still know a good film from a bad one. At the same time, I can still enjoy all films for the meaning of their form and content. Nonetheless, I can no longer say that I speak for everyone. I am just one rabid cinéphile, aiming to get happy again through a medium I adore so much that my life centers on it. I hope you will again take this journey with me. A mentor of mine, Irina Makoveeva, once said that "there is no story that the cinema has not already told." I, on the other hand, have much left to tell. ■


June 9, 2010

Random Musing: Avatar and the Death of Cinema

“Hey, what is this stuff?”
“What? Oh, it’s a bunch of s*** I’m using for this article I’m writing on the death of cinema.”
- Mike Dytri as Luke and Craig Gilmore as Jon in THE LIVING END (Gregg Araki, 1992)

Author’s note: I owe the inspiration for the subject of this column to Jon’s statement from “The Living End.” Because of that film, I always wondered what “the death of cinema” would look like. I think I now know.

Do not get me wrong: I loved “Avatar” (James Cameron, 2009). I enjoy filmmakers with vivid imaginations, which is probably why I enjoy the films of Tim Burton so much. However, “Avatar” signals a concomitantly dangerous and naïve trend in modern cinema: the return of 3-D.

Watching part of a documentary on the making of “Avatar” on Fox Movie Channel, I felt a little part of my soul die when producer Jon Landau asserted, “3-D is the best way to engage with audiences.” Is it really now, Mr. Landau? In the 115 years of the cinema, 3-D has been shown to be little more than an ephemeral fad used to make films more appealing when box office returns are down. It was used in the 1950s in such films as “House of Wax,” “It Came from Outer Space,” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” when the studios were desperate to reclaim the audiences who were tuning in to television. After enjoying brief popularity, other ways to experience a film sensually were introduced, including Aroma-rama, Smell-O-Vision, and tiny electrical currents rigged to theater seats; needless to say, these extreme trends precipitated the downfall of a heightened film experience. In the 1980s, 3-D made a brief comeback through horror films such as “Jaws 3-D,” “Amityville 3-D,” and “Friday the 13th, Part III.” It was put out of its misery soon afterward, especially because 3-D was unable to be translated to home video, which was booming at the time.

The simple fact of the matter is that the film medium, in its inchoate state and as we know it today, is an art that occupies two dimensions. If the cinema is to be exploited for its specific properties, it should be done with a working knowledge of them. The world over cites ubiquitously the film “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) as the “greatest film of all-time,” and it is usually because they recognize with awe the incredible depth cues developed in that film. As a result, an implied “third dimension” is created because deep space makes objects in the foreground appear bigger and objects in the middle- and backgrounds gradually recess into the background.

Am I being conservative, in that I resist “the next step in the evolution of cinema”? Perhaps I am subconsciously protective of the 1200+ DVDs that I own and hope to not have to replace when the digital age brings about the release of computer-engineered 3-D titles such as “Citizen Kane” (to be released on Blu-Ray next year). I do not know if the re-engineering of older, 2-D films is already in the works or not, but I would not be surprised. Orson Welles already did backflips when “Touch of Evil” (1958) was originally hacked to pieces and distributed to theaters by Universal, so why should he have to roll over in his grave because his masterpiece – the only film of his that a studio never bothered – should be 3-D-ed?

I should note that it is not new home video formats that I resist, as I have crossed over successfully into the world of Blu-Ray. Rather, it is simply the precocious defense on the part of studios that viewers desperately want 3-D films. Frankly, sir – and this is for you especially, Mr. Landau – I do not. 3-D will always remain a novelty. I can engage with 2-D films very well, thank you.

I must confess that, because Cameron intended his viewers to see “Avatar” in 3-D, I have not purchased the 2-D version of the film on Blu-Ray, as of yet. Recently, I learned that the film will be released in 3-D at the end of the year… and only if you purchase one brand of HD 3-D TV. Unfortunately, perhaps this 3-D travesty will not be going away anytime soon…

Is the cinema, as we have always known it, in its final days of life before being replaced permanently by a bombastic new format with an “extra” dimension? Is this the death of “cinema”? Only time (the fourth dimension, coincidentally enough) shall tell…


Random Musing: Update/Official Announcement

The announcement first: We Have the Stars ★★★★ is going on hiatus.

This may come as a surprise to many of you, my loyal readers, but at this point in time, I think it is only fair to inform you of this weighty decision. I could excuse myself by saying I have been busy (fairly cliché, though not altogether untrue - more on that later), but I would be more genuine in saying that my heart is not completely in this project right now.

To catch you up on the details of my life, I shall indulge you with the major events of the past year. After last summer, I took the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and began applying to graduate schools, such as U.C.-Berkeley, University of Wisconsin-Madison (Bordwell-Thompson Land!), University of Chicago, Indiana University, and the University of Iowa. I decided after the Spring of 2009 that I wanted to pursue film studies in an academic setting (as opposed to a mundane setting), and so to gain entrance into one of these prestigious universities would set me on the course to scholarly success. In late January, I learned that my #1 school, Indiana, had almost immediately accepted me (or so it felt), so my path was set. All I had to do was graduate from college, which transpired this past May, as I obtained my B.A. from Vanderbilt.

In the meantime, I continued writing for "Out & About Newspaper" in Nashville, a rewarding experience that permitted me to luxuriate in the critical reviewing of LGBTQ films. However, I must confess that the Spring of 2010 awakened me to an existential crisis, one of whose ramifications I have still not felt the full weight. After enjoying films such as "Showgirls" and the John Waters' trash entries "Female Trouble" and "Pink Flamingos," I realized that my critic's eye has dulled. I was surrounded by friends during these film screenings and realized afterward that I was the only one who enjoyed them. What did this say about my own tastes? Granted, I was never a film critic like Pauline Kael - who notoriously lambasted more films than the measly amount she actually enjoyed - but I liked to think that my interests could account for and speak for the taste of film-going America.

As a result, I realized that my own film studies heads in the direction of film analysis rather than criticism. I can still critique a film like anyone else (like when I watched "Who's That Girl" a few weeks ago - woof!), but I find myself preferring a film for the ways it makes meaning rather than for the value of its content. In this way, I probably am ready for graduate studies. I knew that to switch gears from being a film critic for a living to being a career film scholar and professor would entail its consequences, but I did not realize in what ways. (By the way, I should note that I also have recently tendered my resignation from "Out & About," an amicable separation as I go to grad school and pursue different interests. Hence, I will no longer be "Queer Movie Tutor"-ing for them.)

In closing, I want to ensure you, my dear, dear readers, that this is not the end. (Cue the introduction to "Apocalypse Now," featuring superimpositions, nauseating colors, and The Doors' "The End." Just kidding.) My film studies, like Céline Dion's heart in "Titanic," will go on - but more likely in an academic setting. My blog postings will likely be infrequent, though, as they have been for the past few months, something for which I wish to apologize. In fact, my hiatus is, in its own way, a formal apology to you and a formal acknowledgment of my absence from the site. Nevertheless, I will continue to post in the future, so have no fear! I had a posting about "the death of cinema" (à la Gregg Araki's "The Living End") lined up, so hopefully you will at least see that one before the end of the summer.

Post-script: In my absence, I did not formally recognize the passings of Gary Coleman, Rue McClanahan, or film legend Dennis Hopper. Rest in peace.


April 1, 2010

Interview: Ky Dickens (Fish out of Water)

(Photo Credit: Adam Bouska, NO H8 Campaign)

“‘Lesbians are okay in the South!’ So I went to Vanderbilt,” documentary filmmaker Ky Dickens giggles over a glass of red wine in the lounge at the Vanderbilt Marriott Hotel. Through the laughter, the Chicago native describes to me one motivating factor for coming to Vanderbilt University as an undergraduate: the homoerotic, Southern female protagonists of the film, “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991). I mean, if Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker could make food fights so sexy and if everyone in the film seemed okay with them, why would lesbians not be okay in the South? Alas, before graduation day in 2000, Dickens, who graduated magna cum laude with majors in Human and Organizational Development (HOD) and Sociology, obviously discovered the flaws in that logic. After all, Dickens’ debut film, “Fish out of Water” (2009), reviewed for this publication by yours truly, was inspired by the opposition she faced when coming out as a lesbian to her sorority sisters during her senior year at Vanderbilt, a decision which Dickens reveals was provoked by a moving screening of Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999).

While Dickens quenches my curiosity, I cannot help but be stunned by her fabulous fashion sense. Actually, Dickens looks a little like her hero, Idgie Threadgoode [Mary Stuart Masterson in “Fried Green Tomatoes”], except with the femininity of Ruth Jamison [Mary Louise Parker in “Fried Green Tomatoes”]. Dickens’ blonde hair is cropped short and gives the impression of “orderly disorder.” She is wearing a black blazer over a vintage baby-doll tee-shirt, gray slacks, and gorgeous gray and black heels. Her wrists are drowned in a sea of bangles, which all seem to have mantras on them. Her neck is adorned with a thick silver chain with a substantial block in the center. And not only is she gorgeous – even after a long day of bustling about Nashville for her film’s premiere and for an interview with Chuck Long – but she is also incredibly down-to-earth, especially for someone so bright and so eloquent.

Dickens is a fascinating conversationalist. She edifies me with examples of her favorite filmmakers and films, which, besides “Fried Green Tomatoes”, include the films of Todd Haynes, the films of Werner Herzog (which she describes too accurately as “crazy”), Michael Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También”. She also shares with me her great admiration for Oscar winner, Paul Haggis (“Crash”), who even read a draft of her film’s screenplay. His daughter, Katy Haggis, is a producer for “Fish out of Water”, and Dickens got to know her father’s work, as a result.

I met with Ky Dickens in order to talk about “Fish out of Water” after its debut screening on Vanderbilt campus on March 22nd, a screening which she calls “cathartic.” “Fish out of Water” was the first event in the Vanderbilt Lambda Association’s Rainbow ReVU week. The film will also be screened at the Nashville Film Festival in April.

The following outlines the specific questions I had for Dickens regarding the film:

O&A: Can you tell me what influenced you to make yourself an animated character in your documentary?
Dickens: Yeah. Um, well, I did not want to be in the film at all because I was very intent on this movie not being about me, and I’m very camera shy and shy, in general. And so the first draft of the film had a bird narrator. It was a little yellow bird, and there’s a whole beginning story about how a fish flips out of water and turns into a bird. It was very far-fetched. And I did a screening party to raise money and the funds to finish the film, and we showed a thirty minute clip of the film and then had a Q & A. And after the Q & A, people were coming up to me, saying, “The bird thing confused me.” That was usually their first comment. And their second comment was: “The story about your friend and Vanderbilt and the letter was so awesome and inspiring. Why aren’t you telling this from your perspective? The film would be so much easier to understand and more relate-able if you put yourself in it.” And I fought against it and fought against it and did not want to do it. And we had a big team meeting one night and that’s when it was decided, hey, let’s just make an animated character of me, and that way, it would go with the animation and we wouldn’t have to go back and re-shoot anything. It was kind of a very late-in-the-game choice to bring everything together after – almost like focus groups and showing the screenings and stuff.

O&A: How familiar were you with websites such as before you made “Fish out of Water”? For the record, Soulforce has a similar mission to demystify passages of the Bible used by Christians to try to condemn homosexuality.
Dickens: Well, I’d heard of Soulforce, and they were just getting started around this time [“Fish out of Water” was made]. What’s funny is the Web wasn’t as connected as it is now. You know, I don’t even know if they had a website at that point. […] I’m not sure where [they were getting started], but they were just getting off the ground. I’d heard about a lot of their missions, and a lot of their ministries were in line with what we were doing. Um, the difference is I wanted to make it easy for people to get all the information in one fell swoop that would be, you know, non-threatening, quick, and entertaining. And instead of having people have to read it for themselves or pick through websites or go to seminars or that type of thing, which is all valuable and important, you know, for our community, but I thought it needed to be in film format, so I think that’s, um, kind of why I went my route. But yeah, I was aware of Soulforce’s… their wonderful work.

O&A: Has “Fish out of Water” been picked up by a distributor yet?
Dickens: It has. It’s been picked up by First Run Features, and that’s who distributed “For the Bible Tells Me So” and “A Jihad for Love”, so a lot of films that deal with the religious gay issue. Um, and yeah, we are being released [on DVD] April 20th.

O&A: How long did it take you to make this film?
Dickens: It took about three-and-a-half years, but the idea for it came ten years ago at Vanderbilt. But it took me some time to gain confidence both in the queer community and in the film community before I wanted to undertake the feature. And it kind of paid off because just making the networking with editorial houses, color correction houses, equipment houses, [and] that sort of thing in Chicago helped making the film financially in ways that I could never have done without, you know, kinda getting established a bit before diving right in.

O&A: Is “Fish out of Water” a one-off film, or do you intend to make another film? What is your next film project?
Dickens: I had a film I wanted to jump right into, but once this [“Fish out of Water”] started going around the festival circuit and then screening in churches and schools and that sort of thing, I realized that it would be doing a disservice to this project if I just kind of abandoned it right now and went on to the next thing. Um, so I feel it’s gonna take maybe another six months, maybe another year. The country will kind of tell me, I think, when it’s time to move on, and not vice versa. I feel like another choice of action, I would feel irresponsible doing it just because I want to make sure the film and its message reaches as many people as possible, and that’s gonna take just more work and continuous e-mails and networking and bringing, you know, being a shepherd for the film for a while longer. But hopefully by 2011, I’ll be starting on another film.

O&A: Alright! And can you give us any ideas about what it might be about?
Dickens: It won’t be socially heavy. It’s gonna be a little bit lighter. Um, but yeah, I don’t want to say anything right yet because you’re always scared your documentary ideas, you know, coming out so quick, they could change or who knows what. So I definitely look forward to doing something a little less socially polarizing.

O&A: I noticed that “Fish out of Water” is structured rather like an essay, punctuated by animated you delineating your narration with lots of “first”-s and “next”-s. This narrative style stands out to me because I have never seen anything like it. Did your training at Vanderbilt, with its emphasis on strong writing practices, have an influence on this structure?
Dickens: Um, well, I think writing style did come into it, and I learned that more from my father than probably, you know, Vanderbilt. By the time you come to college, your writing style’s kind of been chiseled out a little bit, um, or mostly. But it was a very deliberate style that was tailored to this film specifically, and that’s because the Bible, as you know, it’s so, well, there’s so much information, and it’s so polarizing that I felt like it had to be watered down and put into basic sentences and [to] really take audiences by the hand and walk through it point by point by point, so it would be, um, easy to understand, very accessible, and people wouldn’t get lost. It’s so easy to just drift off when talking about the Bible or something so old and threatening as the Bible. So by taking people, you know, almost, from a 3-year-old’s point-of-view, really step-by-step, I think it makes it easier to follow, and yeah, so it was a specific choice for this film. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the need to make a film like that again in this format, but I think it works for “Fish out of Water”.

O&A: What influenced you to use Fred Phelps as a talking head for your interviews of theologians and religious figures, especially in a film trying to justify GLBTQ people to God and his people?
Dickens: Okay, well, two reasons. One is, you know, Fred Phelps is very extreme in how he carries out things. There are a lot of people out there who really agree with him. And by using Fred Phelps, who is, really, he’s laughable in the film because he’s this frothing maniac, and people laugh at him. He was used as this comic relief, and when people can laugh at something, it empowers them, and it disarms their words. And by taking, by having Fred Phelps say these words that people hear coming from their own fathers and brothers and mothers, suddenly, those words become invalidated, and you’re able to laugh at them. And then secondly, you know, within the process of making the film, I really realized that there’s no middle ground: It’s either hate or love or intolerance or acceptance, and there’s no polite intolerance or “Love the sinner, hate the sin” type of thing. And to have a very, you know, “polite hateful” talking head in there is making it seem like that’s an okay point-of-view to have, that it’s an acceptable point-of-view, and in my opinion, it’s not. You’re dis-loving and un-accepting of gay people, [so] you’re in a category by itself. And I think people need to kind of start wrapping their head around that. Until we kind of force that task upon people, nothing’s going to change.

O&A: In what way do you see “Fish out of Water” as being indebted to the independent gay and lesbian films of the ‘90s and 2000s that preceded it?
Dickens: Well, I think every gay film that has come before any other film opens the door or finds a new audience or secures its place at a festival that will help, you know, secure your place later. Because everything is related to audience, as well as money as well as impact, it all affects everything else. And “For the Bible Tells Me So” is the most striking example, and it’s been the most personal because, specifically, the distributor that picked us up said, “Hey, ‘For the Bible’ did great for us, so we wanna give ‘Fish out of Water’ a try, too, and bring you on.” And I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t for For the Bible”. And, you know, when For the Bible was going out there, I don’t think anyone who would have watched a film about religion and gays thought it would work. Um, you know, any film about religion and gays at some point felt dry and boring, and you know, someone did it right and someone did it well, and then there’s something that’s done great and well [“For the Bible Tells Me So”], and then we came along and we’re kind of given our fair shake. You know, everything is a big domino effect, in terms of filmmakers coming before me, even in terms of raising money, even in terms of a movie getting made. There’s no way to know how much influence.

O&A: The funny thing is that, especially in the gay and lesbian films that hit the independent circuit in the early ‘90s, they were all about doing away with trying to make gay images more “squeaky clean,” so then you get films like “Poison” and “The Living End” and such. It’s like, “We’re here, we’re queer,” and, as B. Ruby Rich said [in her seminal 1992 essay, “New Queer Cinema”], “Get hip to [us].” In what way do you see a different trend sort of coming in specifically gay and lesbian independent films making the rounds that now get to be more about educating than about being outright “Here we are.”
Dickens: There’s kind of two movements that have sprung up. The first one in queer cinema was the idea that our characters and our representations have never been seen before. People were writing characters that were extreme: you know, very flamboyant men that were easy to laugh at, you know, kind of the jester, or butchy women. There was kind of stereotyping of our roles, and there was almost no apologizing for the “Hey, this is who we are. You’re gonna accept us exactly for our differences and celebrate those differences.” And now since the “post-gay gayness” of wanting to really fit in, and we’re kind of this big queer community, there’s kind of this idea of not necessarily wanting to celebrate our differences but wanting to celebrate our similarities and our likenesses, so our characters are like this and this and this and “Oh, I also happen to be gay.” And I think that’s great, too, but it’s gonna take both because we don’t want to get rid of the sweet, flamboyant guy and the super bull dyke or whatever because then we’re missing those important factors in our community, as well. You know, but there is a difference happening, I think, in queer cinema between celebrating our differences and celebrating our similarities. It’s interesting.

*Originally submitted for the "Out & About" newspaper website. To access it, click here.*


March 28, 2010

Fish out of Water

*** out of ****

If someone were to ask you where in the Bible is a reference to homosexuality, could you tell him or her? If someone were to attempt to persuade you the Bible claims outright that homosexuality is wrong, could you defend yourself?

Ky Dickens’ didactic “Fish out of Water” (2009) is an engaging resource for those that cannot defend themselves against those who take it upon themselves to be “Biblical spokespeople.” The part-2D animated film, part-documentary delineates the “grossly misinterpreted” Biblical passages used ritually to condemn those who identify as GLBTQ, including the stories of Adam and Eve and Sodom and Gomorrah, the passages of Leviticus, and the writings of Paul in Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy.

Although it plays like a History Channel program, with its assemblage of found footage, including photographs, statistics, newspaper headlines, instructional videos, amateur footage, old films, and art, “Fish out of Water” uses these tools to its advantage in involving the spectator, who probably identifies as GLBTQ. Hopefully eventually, this adorable film can find its rightful audience in the mainstream, which seems to be Dickens’ intention all along – to communicate this information through the widely disseminated medium of film.

Dickens claims rightfully that religious conviction plays a huge role in modern discrimination against gay marriage rights, including the institution of Prop 8 in California. Moreover, Dickens asserts rightfully (again) that many of these religious beliefs are often personally un-researched and founded in hearsay. Her film’s goals, then, are threefold: 1.) To “out,” so to speak, these popular convictions based on hearsay; 2.) To prove how the Bible – being a book – cannot be interpreted without its cultural, social, and linguistic contexts; and 3.) To change people’s minds by informing the mainstream why they have been wrong to discriminate against GLBTQ people.

Although Dickens’ film is multifaceted and multifarious in its uses of the film medium (documentary, animation, etc.), I see something in her film that is rare in others: It is structured like an essay. This aspect is important because it assigns her narration a level of intelligence that makes her statements hard to brush off (not to mention the intelligence of the educated theologians she calls on to teach these commonly misinterpreted Biblical passages to viewers.) Dickens delineates her film with theses, “first”-s, “next”-s, etc. A Vanderbilt alumnus, indeed, as Dickens notes in the exposition of her film.

Besides theologians, Dickens films interviews with staunch opponents of GLBTQ rights, such as Fred Phelps, famously of the Westboro Baptist Church (a.k.a. God Hates Fags). Although he speaks his mind, often conflating members of the groups he opposes, including Jews and gays, Phelps’ outrageous statements end up being completely laughable, surrounded as they are among a sea of educated responses. Oddly enough, they might be the (very ironic) comic relief of the film.

Dickens is only a first-time filmmaker, but her work is compelling and likable. Many who identify as GLBTQ – myself included – would have begged for a resource such as this one prior to this film’s creation. Well, here it is: cute on the outside, subversive on the inside. Dickens might have felt like a “fish out of water,” referring to the film’s title, but she brings everyone in right with her.

*As seen in the April 2010 issue of "Out & About" newspaper. To access it, click here.*


March 26, 2010

Random Musing: Happy Two Year Anniversary!

Happy birthday to my blog, which turns 2 years old today! Wow, it has been a great 2 years. On these nostalgic occasions, it is of course always fitting to reflect on both the highlights of the blog and the statistics it has racked up:

  • Last year, I officially changed the title of the blog to "We Have the Stars ★★★★."
  • Since that time, I have been contacted personally by the webmaster for singer/songwriter Bird York and by Beverley Nero.
  • Since 2008, I have apparently scored 3,377 visitors from 91 countries and territories (and 1,757 visitors since this time last year, an increase of 108.5%).
  • My average daily visits are up 200% from a year - or even six months - ago.
  • My most popular film review has been the one for Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995) (but in the last year, the most popular has been Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata" (1978)).
  • In a related vein, I made my first appearance on television as a talking head for the local program, "Out & About Today" in their episode on this year's Oscar predictions. The episode is linked to my blog - hence, its connection to these reflections.

Coming soon is a first for this blog: a full-length interview! In the next few days will come the addition of a review for the film, "Fish out of Water" (2009), and an interview with filmmaker Ky Dickens, director/producer of the film.

Also, I have been disappointed with my output for the last year, although a lot of it has been beyond my control. In applying to graduate school and trying to finish my senior year at Vanderbilt, I simply have had no time to dedicate to the generation of content for my blog. Hopefully, that shall change soon! In fact, I challenge myself this coming year to best this past year's output.

Cheers to another year!

*No need to press "Read More". Thank you.*


March 1, 2010


** ½ out of ****

A professor of mine once described Warhol protégé Paul Morrissey’s 1970 film, “Trash” (officially titled “Andy Warhol’s “Trash”), as “very, well, trashy.” No description more succinct and more appropriate has ever been uttered.

The first image of “Trash” is Warhol Superstar Geri Miller performing fellatio on the protagonist, Joe Dallesandro, a physically jacked heroin junkie with a lusciously curved ass on which Morrissey’s camera idles. “Trash” is not really pornography, though, despite the brief rise of pornography in mainstream cinema around that time. Instead, “Trash” centers on the mundane activities of Joe as he feeds his habit and, as a result, has a bad habit of being impotent.

Of note, Morrissey’s grainy footage and penchant for close-ups can be misleading. Although it contributes a documentary-like sensibility to “Trash” – and, hence, a more “real” aesthetic – I do not think Morrissey’s purpose is to follow Joe around like in a modern reality television show. Instead, Morrissey was interested in depicting the consequences of too much sloth and decadence. (In fact, the title of the film was originally to be the obviously self-conscious “Drug Trash.”) As a result, it becomes purposefully difficult (on the film’s part) to permit spectators to identify with Joe’s stiff, nebulous performance and perpetual stupor (despite his evident sex appeal).

But how is this film queer, you ask? Enter Holly Woodlawn, transsexual Warhol Superstar and Joe’s on-screen girlfriend and landlady, Holly. She hilariously derides Joe for his habits and histrionically and enthrallingly steals every scene in which she appears. Her presence in the film, though, activates the film’s queer element, unlocking copious amounts of (pan)sexualities.

In one scene where Jane (played by Warhol Superstar Jane Forth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves in “Boogie Nights” (1997)) sits with Joe while he bathes, she coyly asks, “Are you one of those bisexual people?” He ambivalently responds, “Naw.” However, by way of the plot, viewers learn that Joe does have sex with men and women (supposedly when he can “get it up”). The typical assumption would be to say that Joe is actually bisexual, as a result. However, how do you describe his sexual relations with Holly, who is transsexual? He is a queer character because his sexuality exists on an unfixed continuum that incorporates Holly.

But what does this queer ubiquity say about “Trash”? It could be argued that, to Morrissey, it becomes another factor in the film’s repulsive debauchery. On the other hand, the optimistic perspective would emphasize the positive response to the film, especially from audiences that included (the) most famously gay director of Classical Hollywood cinema, George Cukor. “Trash” is “very, well, trashy,” and it is indulgently enjoyable (and embarrassing, depending on with whom you screen it), but its place in queer cinema history is certain. Even if Morrissey was trying to depict depravity in order to criticize it, he still donated an important film to our canon.

(Coincidentally, I discovered a book on this subject after having written this review. This book is (appropriately) called Trash: A Queer Film Classic (Queer Film Classics).)

*As seen in the March 2010 issue of "Out & About" newspaper. To access it, click here.*