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. ■