Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Sound of Queer Music 2014, Vol. 4

In this four-part, end-of-the-year series, I'm featuring sixteen queer artists or bands that fucked with the heteronormative cultural bias in 2014.

Volume 4 is probably, mostly and sometimes totally NSFW (Not Safe For Work). Seriously.

Dominic Fournier (AKA Abeardedboy)
He's featured in Holopaw's video for "Dirty Boots" (below)

Queen Mimosa 3. That's the pseudonym chosen by French photographer and musician Jonathan Icher. No, I couldn't find an explanation for the number 3.  Beyond describing his gender as "neutral" on his Facebook page, there's not much information about him out there at all -- even though this persona has been around since 2009 (his first album, So Sexy, includes a song called "You Fuck Like a Dog"). However, if you speak/read French you can probably learn a little more from the handful of interviews he's given. If you'd like to see his amazing photography, go here. Nothing about this guy will leave you indifferent. Trust me.

Queen Mimosa 3 (photo: Jonathan Icher)
Song & Video: "Petit Chat." The name translates in English to small cat or kitten. It's a burst of electropop insanity -- sung in French. Lyrically, it appears to have something to do with how much easier it is to be feline. Directed by Icher himself, the video is a boisterous, demented parody of stuff that generates buzz on the net -- you know, cats or sexy men and women dancing. Lots of half-naked folks here, great beards, crazy costumes, some cats and -- trigger alert! -- a couple of big spiders. And twerking. Also, the lyrics are translated into Japanese at the bottom of the screen.

Cazwell. Real name: Luke Caswell. He's been making music since the late '90s, but probably made his first big impression about a decade ago with an explicit dance release entitled "All Over Your Face." A mashup of hip-hop, dance and electropop, some people have described what he does as "homo hop." Whatever it is, Cazwell does it with irreverence, defiant vulgarity and a wicked sense of humor. Visit his website here. His Facebook page is here.

Cazwell (photo: Athena Maroulis)
Song & Video: "Hot Homo" featuring Big Dipper (A Freestyle Parody of Bobby Shmurda's "Hot N*gga"). A little background: In 2014, rapper Bobby Shmurda released a popular debut single called "Hot Nigga." It's one of those aggressive rap songs about guns and drugs and murder that scares the shit out of white people... for some reason that's never been clear to me. Enter Cazwell and queer bear rapper Big Dipper. They've created a freestyle (and dirty) rap parody that hilariously subverts Shmurda's swagger. (If you want to see the inspiration for this parody, here's the video. Yeah, it's seriously not safe for work either.)

Adore Delano. That's the drag persona created by Danny Noriega, an American Idol semi-finalist (2008) and season 6 contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race. According to a recent Facebook post, she personally regards herself as "a musician in drag." Post Drag Race, she released an album, Till Death Do Us Party -- it peaked at number one on the Billboard Dance/Electronic music chart. So yeah, that musician-in-drag thing is working out pretty good for her so far.

Adore Delano (photo: Magnus Hastings)
Song & Video: "DTF." Just so you know, DTF Stands for "down to fuck. Here's what Delano told The Huffington Post upon the song's release last summer: "I always wanted to create a hoodrat raunchy song. 'DTF' is grimy, pop, hood shit. I'm really excited because the sound is unlike anything else out there." Well, okay. All I know is that it's hard to resist a song with lyrics like, "Everybody get some cherry candy yum yum." Simultaneously silly and provocative, the video is a gloriously garish and terrifically photographed blast. (BTW, the sweaty guy prominently featured here is model Max Emerson. You can follow him on Instagram here. You're welcome.)

Holopaw. Despite having been around since 1997, this is the year I finally (and thankfully) discovered this indie band from Gainesville, Florida. It's fronted by openly queer vocalist John Orth, the lineup has fluctuated over the years but currently consists of Orth, twin brothers Patrick and Ryan Quinney, Jeff McCullen and Matt Radick. Orth's sometimes tremulous voice and his unique approach to songwriting create a sound that doesn't fit easily into any musical category. It's genteel, but sometimes eerie... evocative, but also a little off-kilter. Holopaw's latest release -- Academy Songs, Part 1 -- is available on Amazon; their previous albums are on iTunes.

John Orth (via tumblr)

Song & Video: "Dirty Boots." Really, you should just read the lyrics yourself...

He don't hang around no more
He don't wear those dirty old black boots no more
He don't
He don't switchblade like he did before
He don't drift like the virgin snow
If I could be anything in this world that shines
I would be a switchblade pressed hotly against your thigh
At the top of the stairs like a pink kimono hanging over the rails
He didn't notice
He was taking in the smoke like a French inhaler with his headphones on
He had a beautiful tiger painted on his arm but he can't remember where it came from
No, he can't quite recall the other marks on his body, how they got there either
There were daggers drawn on his skin with a magic marking pen
Lines were bruisy, stance was woozy and his head hung low

Holopaw hired Brooklyn-based filmmaker Adam Baran to create a video. It opens with a short narration by legendary (and semi-reclusive) '70s gay porn star Peter Berlin (Nights in Black Leather), and it stars tumblr sensation Abeardedboy. According to director Baran, "the video follows a sexually-charged day in the life a a gay biker gang in Brooklyn. They awake in a tangle of leather, then suit up and ride to an underground sex club to initiate new members. Boundaries are pushed, but the boys find love, family and the unexpected." So, it's like the most adult Disney move ever made. (Let me remind you again: This is not safe for work or your conservative relatives that watch Fox News.)


Something sweet, sexy and sensual from Matt Alber... "Handsome Man." 

Matt Alber (left) and his beau
This cut from his 2014 release, Wind Sand Stars, is a gentle love song to an adored partner. Alber finds the right romantic notes and wears his gay heart on his sleeve here. The video: two men wake up together and spend their morning in a bubble of profound affection. It's photographed with a surprising intimacy that almost makes you feel like you're eavesdropping.

Wanna see the first three blogs in this series? Volume 1 is here, Volume 2 is here and Volume 3 is here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Sound of Queer Music 2014, Vol. 3

In this four-part, end-of-the-year series, I'm featuring sixteen queer artists or bands that fucked with the heteronormative cultural bias in 2014.

Wiz Kilo, one of the queer artists that flourished in 2014 (photo: Tristan Harris)
The first four appear in Volume 1 -- here; Volume 2 is here. These four made the cut for Volume 3...

Wiz Kilo. This singer/songwriter/producer/dancer was born in Syria. His family immigrated to Canada when he was 5 years old. By 18 he was part of a Canadian boy band called 2Much, where he was given the name "Wiz" -- his real name is Wissam. Kilo released a couple of solo EPs, but his first full-length album didn't arrive until 2014. Jungle Disco is an excellent electro/hip hop/R&B recording that he wrote, recorded, engineered and mixed himself. Visit his website here.

Wiz Kilo (photo: Tristan Harris)
Song & Video: "Warmbody." It's a sinuous electro groove about yearning, desire, sex... and the reality that sometimes we just need a warm body. The song itself is actually over 7 minutes (it's available on iTunes and Amazon), but Kilo serves up an abbreviated version for this video, a minimalist affair in which he expertly (and half-nakedly) grooms his beard and buzzes his head. It's  sort of an inexplicably erotic tutorial. Doesn't hurt that Kilo is a cute, sexy fella.

Stereogamous. This Australian duo, DJs Paul McDermott and Jonny Seymour (AKA Paul Mac and Seymour Butz) have remixed or collaborated with a long list of artists -- Kylie Minogue, George Michael, Sia, The Presets and LCD Soundsystem, to name a few. According to their Facebook page, their particular genre of music is "bath house." It's also been described as "music for making out" and "horizontal dance music." I'm especially fond of Jonny Seymour's philosophy: "Age should be no barrier to the pleasures of dance music. The sense of freedom it brings shouldn't be limited to the young." You can find a stream of their mixes and collaborations here.

Left to right: Paul McDermott, Shaun J Wright (a recent collaborator) & Jonny Seymour
Song & Video: "Sweat," featuring Shaun J Wright. The song, a collaboration with Shaun J Wright, is kind of sleazy and provocative. There's some disco-tech erotica up in the house. Uh huh. The video? Shaun J Wright (he doesn't use a period after that middle initial) and a big ole bearded glitterbear will entertain you. They don't call Stereogamous super gay for nothing.

Bright Light Bright Light. That's Welsh, London-based electropop artist Rod Thomas. The Guardian summed up his 2014 album, Life is Easy, like this: "... combines euphoric melodies, lavish electronics and unabashed pop in a way that showcases his songwriting skills." He's not particularly cool, but he's hard to resist.

Bright Light Bright Light, AKA Rod Thomas (photo: Adrian Tuazon McCheyne)
Song & Video: "Everything I Ever Wanted," featuring The Pink Singers. This is a fresh take of a song featured on his Life is Easy album. He re-recorded it with London's longest-running LGBT choir, The Pink Singers, for 2014 World AIDS Day. A percentage of the sales go to The Elton John AIDS Foundation. It was already a great song; the background choir and effusive arrangement give it a spiritual quality. The lovely video is about the simple joys of childhood friendship.

Against Me! This rousing punk band's been around since 1997, fronted by vocalist/guitarist Tom Gabel. Having dealt with gender dysphoria (feeling strongly that you are not the gender you physically appear to be) since childhood, Gabel came out as transgender in 2012, then transitioned to Laura Jane Grace. Against Me! released their first album with Grace as lead singer in January 2014. Entitled Transgender Dysphoria Blues, many critics hailed it as one of the year's best. It kicks ass.

Left to right: Inge Johansson, James Bowman, Laura Jane Grace & Atom Willard
Song & Video: "Black Me Out." It's intense, brutal and vitriolic for sure. Laura Jane Grace sounds like she had a few things to get off her chest when she wrote it. In the chorus, Grace sings, "I want to piss on the walls of your house." Well, come on, haven't we all felt that way a time or two? Stark and straightforward, this is a gritty video that gets the job done. (Note: Some lyrics are not safe for work.)

If you'd care to see an earlier incarnation of Against Me! with Tom Gabel, go here.

Check out Volume 1 in this series here -- it features Magic Mouth, The 2 Bears, Conchita Wurst and Mary Lambert.

Volume 2 is here, featuring Hercules & Love Affair with John Grant, Angel Haze, MRF (Mike Flanagan) and Logan Lynn.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sound of Queer Music 2014, Vol. 2

In this four-part, end-of-the-year series, I'm featuring sixteen queer artists or bands that fucked with the heteronormative cultural bias in 2014. The first four appear in Volume 1 -- find that blog here. These four made the cut for Volume 2...

Hercules & Love Affair featuring John Grant.  Formed in 2004, Hercules & Love Affair is a collaborative disco-house project from DJ Andy Butler that features a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists. Yup, there's disco in Butler's DNA, but the sound is a unique and ambitious revival. For his 2014 album -- The Feast of the Broken Heart -- Butler collaborated with gay singer/songwriter John Grant, inviting him to write some lyrics.

John Grant (left) & Andy Butler (photo: Linda Nylind of The Guardian)

Song & Video: "I Try to Talk to You." Butler recalls of Grant: "He tackled the story of becoming HIV+, and while I mentioned to him that he did not need to go there if he was not comfortable, in that beautifully punky, spirited and courageous way he has about him, he told me that was what the song was going to be about. What came of it is an elegant song featuring John singing and playing his heart out." Serious and haunting, yes, but also a shimmering dance track. The evocative video depicts two men engaged in a lover's quarrel -- all done through an enthralling interpretive dance.

Angel Haze. One of the emerging stars of contemporary rap, she's outspoken and brutally honest about a past that includes childhood sexual abuse and growing up in a cult-like family. Haze describes herself as pansexual and adds, "Love isn't defined by gender." Not even 25 yet, she's kind of amazing for someone who wasn't even allowed to listen to secular music as a kid. Her debut album, Dirty Gold, is flawed but filled with some brilliant moments.

Angel Haze (AKA Raeen Roes Wilson)

Song & Video: "Battle Cry." One of Dirty Gold's strongest tracks, the song is about overcoming a painful past, more specifically her own. The verses are personal, the chorus is killer. The video -- beautifully shot and punctuated by some unsettling imagery -- portrays a highly stylized version of events from her own life. (Heads up: It could be a trigger for folks that have experienced childhood sexual abuse or mistreatment in the name of religion.)

MRF. That's jazz musician Mike Flanagan. He's worked with a diverse range of artists, including Grammy winner Esperanza Spaulding. He first came to my attention in 2013 with the release of an empowering anthem called "Be Strong (LGBT Youth)." In 2014 he independently released his second album -- Mob Music -- and it became the highest-selling jazz album in the country on iTunes within 24 hours. Flanagan, who plays multiple instruments, describes his sound as a hybrid of R&B and jazz. His official website is here.

MRF himself, Mr. Mike Flanagan (photo by Patrick Lentz)

Song & Video: "Trying" featuring Lisa Bello, Justin Waithe & Yasko Kubota. Flanagan humbly calls the song a "radio single." It's really a satisfying and relatable jazz pop groove -- and his trio of vocalists are flawless. Flanagan had this to say about the video (which features himself and another musclebear): "My goal for the narrative of this video was to depict the beauty, as well as the normalcy in love and love-lost as represented by two men." Fans of fur and beefcake will surely find it irresistible.

Logan Lynn. On his Facebook page a few years back, Lynn listed "Sex & Guilt, mostly" as his musical influences. More recently, he's added this: "Whatever. Let's dance." Those things make him sound a lot less serious than he really is. This guy is is a writer, composer, singer, producer, LGBTQ activist and TV personality. Based in Portland, Oregon, Lynn has released seven albums, six EPs and over a dozen music videos. And to me, his voice has has an unpolished, endearing, knowing quality that sounds refreshingly real. His official website is here.

Logan Lynn (photo via his Facebook page)

Song & Video: "We Will Overcome." With this song (to be included on a 2015 album) Lynn departs from his so-called "emotronic" sound, adding fuller instrumentation and bit of country-gospel inflection. In a September interview with Vortex magazine, Lynn (the son of preacher) had to this about the lyrics:

“I wrote ‘We Will Overcome’ as my relationship was ending. I had my heart broken earlier this year, and it felt like these dreams I had for a life and family with this person were just ripped from me. (Dramatic sounding, I know—but it really did feel that way.) I started thinking about how this feeling was something of a pattern in my life and began tracing it back to its beginning, which is my experience in the church as a child. I think the song is about letting go, surviving—living through things that, at times, feel impossible to surmount. Love is a hard thing to lose, and in some ways, you never get over it. I have been grieving that loss, and this song is a mantra for me, both in my personal life and in my experience as someone who is part of a marginalized community. I really do believe that I, that we, will win this battle… whatever it is.”  

This fascinating video, directed by Andrew Carreon and superbly edited, features footage of Lynn as a kind of cowboy preacher intercut with grainy old family film footage (provided by relatives) that offers a glimpse of his pentecostal roots.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Sound of Queer Music 2014, Vol. 1

In this four-part, end-of-the-year series, I'm featuring sixteen queer artists or bands that fucked with the heteronormative cultural bias in 2014.

The first four...

Magic Mouth. According to their website and Facebook page, "Magic Mouth is Church. Is Funk. Is Soul. Is pure Rock 'n' Roll." Their late 2013 debut EP, Devil May Care, supports that statement. Members Chanticleer (vocals), Ana Briselo (drums), Peter Condra (guitar) and Brendan Scott (bass) offer up an incredibly diverse collection of songs with stunning confidence.

Magic Mouth, left to right:
Peter Condra, Chanticleer, Ana Briselo & Brendan Scott
Song & Video: "Mother Lode." It's a soulful, bittersweet, epic ballad -- and a perfect showcase for vocalist Chanticleer. The gorgeous black and white video was shot at Embers, the oldest downtown gay/drag/dance bar in Portland, Oregon. Video co-director Michael Palmieri has since joked. "We sincerely hope that people remember Magic Mouth as the band that made glitter sad."

The 2 Bears. They're two chunky, hairy gentleman (Joe Goddard and Raf Rundell) who don't identify as gay but named themselves after a particular segment of gay subculture anyway. Their musical niche? Updating and celebrating the kind of house music originally popularized in gay clubs. They specialize in emotionally weighty or tongue-in-cheek dancefloor tracks. Can straight guys make queer music? These two bears are your answer.

The 2 Bears: Joe Goddard (left) & Raf Rundell (right)
Song & Video: "Not This Time." I might argue that the song is a modern male variant of Gloria Gaynor's disco kiss-off "I Will Survive" -- the lyrics are just as gender-neutral as Gaynor's signature tune. Rundell (also known as Raf Daddy) takes the lead here, with a voice that sounds like a satisfying pint at your favorite pub. The video features members of London's drag collective Sink the Pink.

Conchita Wurst. In 2011, Austrian-born Tom Neuwirth created a public alter ego, Conchita Wurst. Some would call this a drag persona. With a beard. And then Austria chose Wurst to represent them in 2014's annual Eurovision Song Contest. Protests and homophobic attacks from a handful of countries, like Russia and Belarus, failed to make any difference. In the end, European voters and juries embraced Conchita Wurst and "Rise Like a Phoenix." In scoring, she was way ahead of her closest competition, Netherlands and Sweden. Accepting the win, Wurst declared, "This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom -- you know who you are. We are unity. And we are unstoppable." Amen, sister.

Conchita Wurst
Song & Video: "Rise Like a Phoenix." The song sounds like a delicious, old-fashioned James Bond movie theme, circa 1964. Ms. Wurst kinda knocks it out of the park. And this video is a hoot. Edelweiss!

Mary Lambert. On her Facebook page, Lambert describes herself like this: "Singer-songwriter, poet, comfy-bed enthusiast, hella gay. I've got my heart on my sleeve." You may not know her face, but she was the guest vocalist on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Grammy-nominated same-sex marriage anthem, "Same Love." Her first full-length CD was released in October 2014. Lambert writes all her own songs, inspired by early childhood traumas and struggles with her body image, bipolar disorder and sexuality. Sure, that sounds like she's going to take you to some pretty dark places, but Lambert transcends angst and grief. Her music is more about empowerment and self-acceptance.

Mary Lambert, courtesy of her Facebook page
Song & Video: "Secrets." The song is a confessional about the kinds of stuff she lives with everyday -- like being overweight, her bipolar disorder and, um, and analog clock. But it's a decidedly upbeat --a remix even peaked at #1 on the Billboard Dance Club chart. Yup. The video is an irresistibly goofy, joyful romp that celebrates Lambert's full-figured life.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Holiday Music Sampler 2014

So this is a thing you can buy. It's called the Santa Beardo Beard Hat Set.

Can't locate your holiday spirit? Here's a gaggle of new holiday tunes. Maybe one will get you there.

Rend Collective. They're a Christian folk rock combo from Bangor, Northern Ireland. I'd never heard of them until their holiday album, Campfire Christmas, was released. There's a kind of irresistible goofball hipster gusto about the way they love the Lord. All their music is available on iTunes. Website is here.

Song & Video: "Joy to the World (You Are My Joy)." This arrangement of the old holiday classic is genuinely fresh, fun and stirring -- it's also my favorite song of the season. Full of deliberately hideous Christmas sweaters, bicycles, angel wings and a singing nutcracker, the video reminds you that some Christians still have a sense of humor.

Idina Menzel & Michael Buble

Song & Video: "Baby, It's Cold Outside." What is there to say? Two great voices breathe new life into a song that's been done to death. The video is cute -- though some may find it dangerously close to cloying because of the kids involved. And if you don't like this, go listen to a dance remix of Menzel's megahit "Let It Go." If that doesn't charm your inner Grinch, nothing will.

Crofts Family. Picture it: Idaho, 1995. Professional musician Vincent Crofts encouraged his daughters to start their own musical journey. They made a tape of Christmas songs for an older brother who was serving a Mormon mission in Brazil. When he returned, the whole family started making music together, but middle daughter Callie went on to a professional music career as an adult. She rallied the family (and her drummer boyfriend) for a 2014 Christmas album, Sparrow in the Birch. It's available on iTunes or downloadable here.

Song & Video: "Sparrow in the Birch." It's an original tune (by Callie Crofts), stunningly arranged and performed -- the harmonizing is crazy good.  Staged on a simple set, the video emphasizes the family, and doesn't get in the way of what they can do.

Band Aid 30. Thirty years ago, a bunch of the UK's biggest musicians formed a supergroup called Band Aid and recorded a charity single to raise money for anti-poverty efforts and famine relief in Ethiopia. The song -- "Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- was successful worldwide, raising about $24 million on its initial release. With its cringe-y lyrics and the occasional sound of someone straining hard to hit a note (seriously, it's the "Star Spangled Banner" of pop singles), this is one of those songs you secretly like even though you know it's not very good.  This new version -- featuring One Direction, Bono, Elbow, Sam Smith, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Seal, Ed Sheeran, Jessie Ware, Ellie Goulding and (kind of surprisingly) Sinead O'Connor -- got a bit of a lyrical makeover (it barely helps), but the voices are stronger and the production is an improvement over the original. This time around they're raising money for the Ebola virus epidemic in Western Africa. (Side note: my absolute favorite thing about this new version is that openly gay Sam Smith sings the lyric that coy-about-his-sexuality-back-then Boy George delivered in the original. Nice choice.)

Sam Smith. He became a household name in 2014 thanks a smash debut single, "Stay With Me" and a chart-topping debut album, In the Lonely Hour. Week's prior to the album's release, Smith opened up about his sexuality: he's gay "...and it's as normal as my right arm."

Song & Video: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Smith's interpretation of the classic, originally sung by by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, is beautiful, jazzy and tinted with the melancholy of Garland's original recording. It's a beautiful thing --  he's accompanied solely be piano and that velvety voice just fits the song. It's a lower case kind of video -- Smith and his pianist carry it all.

Pentatonix. One of the true musical success stories of the decade, Pentatonix won the third season of NBC's The Sing-Off and created a YouTube page for their homemade videos. The clips went viral fast, a recording contract followed and they just released their second holiday album -- which has the distinction of being the highest-charting Christmas album by a group since 1962. (And two of its members -- Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying -- are openly gay.)

Song & Video: "Mary, Did You Know?" Written in 1984, the tune has become a perennial, recorded by everyone from Clay Aiken and Reba McEntire to Cee Lo Green and Mary J. Blige. Pentatonix's a cappella/beatbox version is sincere and lovely, with moments that really soar. The video is all faces, candlelight and lens flare. Thankfully, they skipped the fake snow.

Mac Lethal. And now for something completely different -- and not safe for work. He's from Kansas City, Missouri. He's from the hip hop underground. Yes, there's a hip hop underground. His music has charted on the Billboard Top 100 and he posts videos to a wildly popular YouTube channel (full of "therapy, fast raps and drunken rants"). He's smart, cheerfully vulgar and adorable. That's a rare combination, people.

Mac Lethal, AKA David Sheldon
Song & Video: I'm not sure this has a title, exactly, but it's called "Santa Raps SO Fast!!!" on his YouTube channel. Donning a Santa cap, Lethal does in fact rap really, really fast. (Fortunately, he provides subtitles.) And the rapping is not exactly safe for work. You've been warned. Oh, and he may have set some kind of fast-rapping record.

Have a cozy, peaceful holiday season. Or enjoy the madness. Your choice. Carry on.

Peace out,

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #33: Trog

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Trog (released October 1970)

Trog (Joe Cornelius) covets Dr. Brockton's (Joan Crawford) pink silk scarf.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Trog is a low-budget British sci-fi monster horror melodrama about the discovery of a prehistoric man -- also known as a troglodyte. If it starred anyone besides legendary Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford, it probably would have been forgotten decades ago. Widowed, financially strapped, a functioning alcoholic and still driven to work after five decades in movies, sixty-five-year-old Crawford took a part that required her to declare emphatically and with dignity, "It's my firm belief that Trog is the missing link." When you make 92 feature films, some of them are just not going to be very good. It's inevitable. If you're lucky, however, you might make at least one that's so bad it's good. Trog is Miss Crawford's bad masterpiece. She gets to speak science, like this:

"Conceivably, Trog was frozen solid during the long, long glacial age. A state similar to cryogenic suspension. Then as the underground streams and currents brought more and more warmth to the frozen atmosphere, his body thawed out. We now know that human sperm, red blood cells, bone marrow cells, even skin can be brought back to life after freezing."

And she sells that like only Crawford can. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In the English countryside, a freelance expedition of three young British explorers -- Bill, Cliff and Malcolm -- stumble upon the entrance to a cave that's not on their map. Uh oh. Deep inside this impossibly well-lit, paper mache and fiberglass formation they find an underground stream with water "like ice." Malcolm concludes that "it's probably fed by subterranean glacial waters." Hearing that, Bill and Cliff immediately strip down to their adorable boxer shorts and dive right in because they don't want the "sub-aqua boys" to go first and take credit for whatever they discover on the other side of the stream. What they discover is an inhospitable troglodyte who's so peeved by guests dropping by in their underwear that he kills Bill and scares the shit out of Cliff. Malcolm rescues Cliff and takes him directly to a research institute conveniently located on the outskirts of a generic English village near the cave -- and, coincidentally, it's run by world famous anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Suffering from a serious case of bad-actor-in-shock syndrome, Cliff babbles about something "monstrous, like nothing I've ever seen before." Then Cliff disappears from the film entirely... which is unfortunate primarily because he looks quite good in boxers. Anyway, Dr. Brockton convinces Malcolm to take her to the cave because, "This could be the one chance in a lifetime. Who knows? An opportunity to lift the veil from the past." Dr. Brockton photographs the troglodyte and presents her evidence to the local police inspector along with a science lesson. "Half ape, half man -- trog -- a primitive cave dweller," she declares.

Next thing you know, curious villagers, police officials, the fire department, a TV news crew and somebody with a refreshment stand are all outside the cave waiting for the the sub-aqua boys -- Is this really what they call frogmen in England? -- to capture this primitive cave dweller so Dr. Brockton can look under its loincloth. Emerging from the crowd is Mr. Murdoch (Michael Gough), the sourpuss village idiot who has ferocious animosity toward Dr. Brockton. He's so bitter and acrimonious that you immediately suspect he's a rival anthropologist or spurned former lover from her past. No, not in this movie. His sole motivation for being a raging asshole is that he thinks her research is "taxpayer's money down the drain!" Really, he's like one of those insufferable Tea Party people, but with a British accent. So Murdoch thinks the whole thing's a hoax until the troglodyte unceremoniously bursts out of the cave, tosses a styrofoam rock at a TV cameraman and sends everyone scurrying away in fear. Except Dr. Brockton, of course. She came prepared with a tranquilizer dart gun that sounds like a shotgun.  

Back at the research institute, Dr. Brockton and her sweet blonde scientist daughter, Anne, feed Trog a rubber lizard. "For a senior citizen he certainly has a marvelous appetite!" Anne exclaims. They give him -- I guess it's a him; no one ever checks -- a doll and a train. He likes both. Gender-neutral parenting -- this movie was way ahead of it's time! And he likes Dr. Brockton's pink scarf so much that he puts it around his own neck, an obvious sign that he has a future in missy fashion design. They discover that Trog prefers classical music over rock and roll, meaning that he's going to be unbearable at dinner parties. But when they take him outside to play ball, he promptly strangles a German Shepherd to death. The town is suddenly outraged and there's an inquiry. This must have been a really beloved dog because there was no inquiry when Trog bludgeoned poor Bill to death in that cave. Dr. Brockton compares Trog to a "retarded child" that can't be held responsible for his actions. But Murdoch disrupts the inquiry, naturally, calling Brockton a heathen and sharing his two-point plan for handling Trog: "Kill it first, then study it's hide!" That retarded business aside, Dr. Brockton makes an impassioned speech on behalf of Trog and, to Murdoch's hammy dismay, gets to continue her research. Side note: As the odious Murdoch, Michael Gough is so over the top that it's amazing his career lasted long enough for him to portray the butler in every single 1990s entry in the Batman franchise.

Dr. Brockton recruits an American surgeon to implant a "micro-trans" in Trog and then he's hooked up to a TV that shows us his memories. Trog's memories -- stop-motion dinosaur battles, erupting volcanoes and glaciers that led to his "icy hibernation" -- look suspiciously like four minutes of garishly tinted footage from a 1956 Irwin Allen (yeah, the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno guy) documentary called The Animal World. Oh, and the "micro-trans" thingy also gives Trog the gift of speech, which he uses to compliment sweet blonde scientist daughter Anne's blue dress. All this makes Dr. Brockton cry, leading you to wonder if that was in the script or if Crawford is weeping, understandably, for the mortifying demise of her once illustrious career.

Before Trog can reveal "the baffling secrets of evolution," there's yet another inquiry and more of Murdoch howling about this "murdering monster." To prove his point that Trog is a murdering monster, Murdoch breaks into the research center and frees Trog so that he can, presumably, choke more dogs, frighten everyone in the generic English village next door and kill somebody else. Not surprisingly, Murdoch The Village Idiot did not think his plan through; he's expeditiously beaten to death by Trog the Murdering Monster. Finally, Trog runs amok because, well, it's not like you would expect him to skip back to the lab, tie Dr. Brockton's pink scarf around his neck and arrange a tea party for that guy who implanted a "micro-trans" under his skin. No, this movie needs a suitable climax -- roughly fifteen laugh-out-loud minutes of Trog being naughty. He flips a car, murders some shopkeepers, terrorizes a playground and kidnaps a blonde girl. And you know what happens to people -- or troglodyes -- that kidnap little blonde girls. Spoiler Alert (but not so much): "It's got to be destroyed!"

Trog is the kind of movie that deserves an exclamation point in the title, just because. Alas, that must not have occurred to the three men responsible for the screenplay -- Peter Bryan, John Gilling and Aben Kandel. It also didn't occur to them to give Dr. Brockton a first name, or explain why her own daughter has an English accent and she does not. But, holy hell, they sure did concoct a heinous mashup of The Miracle Worker and Frankenstein, with a pinch of King Kong. No director could have saved Trog, but Freddie Francis stages everything so ineptly that it's mind-boggling to find out he'd actually directed eighteen other movies first. Incredibly, Francis went on to become a respected cinematographer who's worked for Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.

The credits tell us that Trog was designed by Charles Parker, a makeup artist who worked in movies from the early 1940s until his death in 1977 (his last film was Star Wars). He also worked on Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you've seen it, you'll probably remember that it begins with a sequence commonly known as "The Dawn of Man," wherein about a dozen Paleolithic man-apes figure out how to use a bone as a weapon. Only one of the man-apes is ever shown in a medium closeup, but watch carefully and you'll see a distinct resemblance to Trog. Looks like Parker recycled the worst of those masks for this film and just attached some hair.  It looks unfinished; somewhat better than a Halloween mask, but nowhere near as convincing as the state-of-the-art makeup Hollywood used two years earlier for Planet of the Apes (1968). Trog is just a goofy creation in a bad rubber mask, a silly loincloth (really, when did he decide to cover up his junk?) and a pair of big furry house slippers. You can't take him seriously as either missing link or monster. However, the chunky man under the mask (Joe Cornelius) appears to be having a blast.

Trog, a face that only People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) could love.

Stray Gay Observations: Trog has sexy legs, nice arms and a cute little belly, making him somewhat more attractive to me than Bigfoot. After a couple of margaritas I'd probably fuck him.

Crawford's wardrobe is regrettable. Only Trog looks worse. I wanted to blame it on the costume department, but my research turned up an interesting fact: the budget was so tight, Crawford wore some of her own clothes. I know she's supposed to be an anthropologist and all that, but yikes, there are some unflattering outfits here -- even for 1970.

Crawford worked steadily for nearly five decades, starting in silent films with 1925's Pretty Ladies. Along the way she made some really entertaining movies, including: Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Johnny Guitar (1954) and (arguably her last great film) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The success of Baby Jane should have led to other good parts. It didn't. Left nearly broke from her last marriage, Crawford took the roles she was offered -- lurid, low-budget thrillers like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1964) and Berserk! (1967). By her own admission she hated Trog; it became her final feature film performance. But as awful an experience as it might have been for her to make Trog, Crawford commits to the damn thing with a shocking degree of sincerity for someone who's required to act with one of the most unconvincing beasts in celluloid history. Bad as Trog is -- and it's shockingly bad --  Crawford somehow manages to give the whole thing an endearing quality.

The remarkable career of Joan Crawford (1906-1977) has been somewhat eclipsed by the publication of adopted daughter Christina Crawford's harsh 1978 tell-all screed, Mommie Dearest, and its subsequent screen adaptation starring Faye Dunaway ("What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers... EVER!"). Here's how I feel about Mommie Dearest: I think the book is probably exaggerated BS from a disgruntled kid, but I regularly regard the film as the best worst movie ever made.

Sorry, I just couldn't resist...

"What's a troglodyte doing in this cave when I told you no troglodytes... EVER!" 

Should You See It? Absolutely. Here are three reasons: (1) this is an unbelievably cheesy, profoundly absurd movie; (2) it's an infamous camp classic that has to be seen to be believed; and (3) Joan Fucking Crawford. 

PS. I would also like to argue (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, sort of) that Trog is a prescient motion picture of significant importance. The Murdoch character -- an intolerant, blustering, overprivileged white male with unwavering contempt for science -- gives us an uncanny glimpse into America's future.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #32: Shakespeare in Love

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Shakespeare in Love
 (released December 1998)

Shakespeare in Love
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps 

Here's the most recent VOD trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It's London, circa 1593 -- the glory days of Elizabethan theatre. Young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling to write his latest play, a comedy he intends to call Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. The words aren't coming. "I have lost my gift," he acknowledges with exactly the kind of grandiose woe befitting a self-absorbed writer. He seeks inspiration. The solution, he ascertains, is to find a muse. Preferably one he can take to bed. With actors and theatre owners clamoring for his latest work, Will appeases everyone by promising them a play he's barely begun to write and starts auditioning players. Enter Viola de Lessups (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who loves Shakespeare's poetry and despises the fact that women are banned from performing on stage (yes, that's historically accurate). To circumvent that exclusion, Viola disguises herself as Thomas Kent and auditions for the part of Romeo by performing a bit from Will's earlier works. Convinced he's found his Romeo, Will casts Viola/Kent.

As the play takes shape, Will discovers Viola's ruse, a passionate love affair begins and Shakespeare's comedy morphs into his most famous romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In other words, he finds his muse. There are, of course, a series of major and minor complications, misunderstandings and revelations for Will and Viola to navigate. For instance, Viola's father has arranged her marriage to the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a nobleman who only wants an obedient, grateful and fertile wife with no qualms about relocating to Virginia (which actually did exist in 1593, but did not become a permanent English settlement until 1607... in case you were wondering).

As Shakespeare and Viola, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are perfectly cast. Fiennes is a bundle of disconsolation, obsession and verve -- he makes the historically enigmatic Shakespeare amusingly cocky, a bit of a rascal and ultimately affecting. Paltrow seizes the opportunity to play her first fully realized character, a burgeoning young woman who becomes a thoroughly plausible playwright's muse -- she's radiant, ardent and feisty. (Her impeccable English accent never wavers, either.) The supporting cast is a sensational assembly of stalwart Brits: Tom Wilkinson (a stagestruck financier), Rupert Everett (rival playwright Christopher Marlowe), Imelda Staunton (Viola's nurse), Geoffrey Rush (a perpetually harried theatre owner) and the superb Judi Dench (as Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch with vinegar coursing through her veins). Finally, Ben Affleck goes full peacock, spoofing the eternal vanity of self-important stars who covet the largest parts; his comic timing is surprising and impressive.

Screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have created a sublime pastiche, mimicking the structure and beats of the Elizabethan plays perfected by Shakespeare. They juggle history, fiction, comedy and drama, striking a rare pitch of fervent romance, bawdy fun and marvelous wordplay (that doesn't sound discordant or anachronistic). Early on, they're cribbing of Shakespeare is witty and playful. There's a cheeky irreverence in their characterization of the man, too. But by the end you can feel their admiration for Shakespeare and what he accomplished. It's a smart script, laced with clever literary inside jokes for those who were paying attention in school, but it's most definitely -- and thankfully -- not a pretentious history lesson. It does, however, give you a true sense of the role theatre played in English life at the time -- seriously, not even plague could shut down the playhouses.

Stray Gay Observations. Although there is historical evidence that Shakespeare married early (age 18) and fathered three children, there has been a lot of speculation about his sexuality -- fueled primarily by the fact that a significant number of his sonnets are written about and dedicated to a young man. Some scholars like to refute the possibility that William Shakespeare could have been anything but heterosexual, as if bisexuality is unfathomable. In Shakespeare in Love, the script deliberately flirts with the idea that Will is first drawn to Viola when she is dressed as a young man. Later, when she's still dressed as a man and before Will discovers her scheme, Viola kisses him passionately and he returns the kiss, not pulling away in disgust. When she abruptly departs, Will looks startled and confused by what's just transpired, but not repulsed. It's an interesting choice on the part of the writers and a rather lovely bit of acting by Fiennes.

Shakespeare in Love won seven Academy Awards (Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress and Best Picture). Winning that many Oscars almost guarantees a backlash. Shakespeare in Love beat Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Some people consider this a grievous, unforgivably tragic Oscar upset. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong... really, really wrong -- Forrest GumpCrash and The Artist, for instance. And sometimes the Academy has to choose between great films. Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan are great films, for wildly different reasons. Spielberg got a well-deserved Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan, a film that breaks new ground in depicting war and arguably transcends a genre. But I can also argue that Shakespeare in Love transcends the romantic comedy genre, excelling at making something a lot of people dread -- romcoms and Shakespeare! -- into rollicking, accessible-but-not-insulting, bittersweet entertainment. If you want to contend that Saving Private Ryan is a work of greater significance because it's about war, go ahead, but I think that's a specious argument. And you can easily convince me that Ryan triumphs over Shakespeare when it comes to sheer technical virtuosity. But, Ryan is a film I admire (or uneasily appreciate) primarily for its astonishing, brutal and indelible battle sequences -- its epilogue and prologue are unnecessary and the middle section is uneven. I just don't ever want to watch it again because it spends nearly three hours convincing us of something we should already know: war is literally hell on Earth. Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, has unfettered panache, winking erudition and surprising emotional depth. It's exemplary filmmaking -- an absorbing love story, yes, but also a movie that ultimately becomes an ingenious paean to the art of theatre. If you love this film, there's no reason whatsoever to apologize for it. Shakespeare in Love earned its Best Picture Oscar.

Throughout Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-winning costumes (by Sandy Powell) are splendid.

For instance...

Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I

Judi Dench won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. Screen time: roughly eight minutes. Scoffing at the brevity of her role, some people don't believe Dench deserved the statue for this performance.  Broken down, Queen Elizabeth functions as a kind of deus ex machina -- and that could have been a major problem. However, Dame Judi's take on the monarch is droll, wicked and show-stopping. She steals those eight minutes. It's not really about the actual length of time she appears in the film. The question should be: How impactful was her work?

For some reason that escapes me entirely, there's a peculiar amount of irrational hatred for Gwyneth Paltrow out there. I don't understand this because, as celebrities go, Paltrow is pretty benign. She's an attractive, talented woman with solid fashion sense who seems to irk people primarily for looking good, winning an Oscar at 26 and having the the nerve to create a curated upscale lifestyle website, Goop, that delivers all kinds of healthy recipes, travel ideas, fashion advice, wellness tips and cultural musings.... that you can totally choose to ignore. It's not like she's ever held anyone hostage and forced them to eat macrobiotic food. Here's the real problem: Americans like their blondes dumb (Anna Nicole Smith), ornate (porn stars, cheerleaders, 97% of all female Fox News anchors), or tragic (Marilyn Monroe). That really doesn't describe Paltrow. The world is filled with awful, awful people that are out there ruining everything. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't one of them.

Originally, they were trying to cast Daniel Day Lewis and Julia Roberts. Him, sure. Julia Roberts? Just no. No. No. NO.

The Lust Factor. According to historians, there's no real evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait of himself and there's no written description of his physical appearance. But here's a trio of portraits that reputedly represent him:

Left to right: 
The Cobbe Portrait (1610), The Chandos Portrait (early 1600s) & the Droeshout Portrait (1622) 

So, if you're going to cast someone as William Shakespeare and you want me to take him seriously as a romantic lead, then do this:

Joseph Fiennes

Should You See It? Like some of the best Shakespearean works, Shakespeare in Love is brimming with love, sex, despair, treachery, tragedy, tears, villainy, sword fights, wisecracks, ribald humor and cross-dressing. It's an enormously clever take on the historical figure widely acknowledged as the greatest English language dramatist in the world. Frankly, if you don't like this movie, there's a pretty good chance that you are, (A) averse to Shakespeare, (B) just being contrary, or (c) one of those people who thinks the Transformers franchise is awesome.

Next Time: Trog (1970)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #31: Blue Velvet

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Blue Velvet
(released September 1986)

Dennis Hopper (as Frank Booth) & Isabella Rossellini (as Dorothy Vallens) in Blue Velvet

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The opening sequence of Blue Velvet tweaks an all-too-familiar Hollywood version of cozy small-town America: white picket fences, sun-kissed rose bushes, waving firemen, children bounding through carefully patrolled crosswalks, and charming single-family homes. Suddenly, a man watering his lawn collapses -- stroke, heart attack? -- and a yappy little dog drinks water from the hose he's still clutching in his hand. "Oh, that's sad... and kind of perverse" you think. And then the camera slithers through the grass, goes underground and reveals a cluster of icky, frenzied bugs doing their thing. That's writer/director David Lynch's twisted way of warning you that awful things are going on beneath the serenely banal surface of Lumberton, a North Carolina logging town that's about to lose its big-screen virginity in the most unsettling way possible.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the son of the man who collapsed on his lawn. He comes home from college to work in his father's hardware story until dad recovers -- incidentally, dad can't speak, his head is locked in some kind of grotesque medical apparatus and whatever happened to him is never explained; he has roughly 35 seconds of screen time, so you can just forget about him. After visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey wanders back home through a vacant lot and discovers a human ear. "I found an ear, " he says, surrendering it promptly to a family neighbor, otherwise known as police detective Williams. Obsessed with the ear -- well, wouldn't you be? -- Jeffrey hounds Detective Williams about his investigation, but gets no answers. As he leaves the detective's house one night, high school senior Sandy (Laura Dern) literally emerges from the darkness to ask, "Are you the one who found the ear?" Fortunately for Jeffrey, Sandy is the detective's daughter and her bedroom is right above his home office. She's heard things. Maybe clues about who's missing that ear. It could involve Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a sultry lounge singer with connections to a seedy (trust me, that's a charitable adjective) drug dealer named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Jeffrey and Sandy scheme like Nancy Drew and one half of the Hardy Boys to gain access to Dorothy's apartment. One sample of the gloriously bent dialogue that emerges from their plotting:

Sandy: "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert."
Jeffrey: "That's for me to know and you to find out."

Jeffrey gets inside Dorothy's apartment, but when she arrives home unexpectedly, he hides, ending up trapped in a closet and forced to witness her rape (or is it a sexual game?) by the sadomasochistic Frank Booth. This involves scissors, a blue velvet robe, the snorting of some kind of unidentified gas (amyl nitrite?) and the creepiest, most profoundly uncomfortable utterance of "Mommy!" ever. Seriously, ever. A detached human ear pales in comparison to what happens between Dorothy and Frank, so Jeffrey becomes obsessed with the lounge singer. Ostensibly, he wants to help her because Frank has (maybe) kidnapped her husband and small son, but an unhealthy sexual relationship develops between Dorothy and Jeffrey. She's whimpering "help me" one moment and "hit me" the next. He obliges. Simultaneously, Jeffrey and Sandy are falling in love like a couple of high school kids in a very strange 1950s sitcom. Eventually, Frank and Sandy discover that Jeffrey has become Dorothy's "special friend." And Detective Williams more or less proves that he should have picked a different line of work.

Blue Velvet is deeply unsettling, brazenly over the top and built on a mystery -- who's missing the ear? -- that becomes largely irrelevant as the film progresses. Writer/director David Lynch has created a highly-stylized world where everything is off. It's a retro 1950s landscape -- not a single car looks like it was built after 1970 and the pop songs that punctuate various scenes are all from the 1950s or early '60s -- but it's definitely taking place in the mid 1980s. That world is not compelling just because it gets increasingly weirder and more dangerous; weirdness, sex and violence will only get you so far. Lynch establishes a foreboding undercurrent from that opening sequence, but he really excels at two things. First, he's brilliant at juxtaposing the innocent and idyllic with the dark and disturbing; it's a world of opposites. And second, he's given us four characters -- Jeffrey, Sandy, Dorothy and Frank -- that draw you into this world in wildly disparate ways.

Oh, what characters they are. Jeffrey is the bland, clean-cut, all-American boy-next-door who jumps at the chance to visit the dark side of Lumberton. And there he finds Dorothy Vallens, a seductive but complex bundle of neurosis and unique sexual predilections, and Frank Booth, more or less the personification of pure evil. Meanwhile, there's impossibly sweet and decent Sandy, the kind of girl who'd probably be worried about prom night in any other movie. As for the performances, Kyle MacLachlan is the right type for Jeffrey and he's fine, but everyone else is better. Isabella Rossellini (the daughter of legendary Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini) is beaten, sexually abused, degraded, stripped of her clothing and teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plus, she has to sing (the 1950s hit "Blue Velvet," naturally) in a lusty and dangerously close to flat voice that instantly explains why she's performing in Lumberton and not Las Vegas. With only a handful of credits before Blue Velvet, the model-turned-actress is convincingly wounded and unstable in what can only be adequately described as a groundbreaking role. As Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper is... well, seriously committed -- and bizarrely comical, creepy and terrifying all at once. Foul-mouthed, deranged, depraved, manic and prone to violent outrage, this is the kind of character that leaves an indelible impression and spins iconic, not unlike Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs. Nothing about Frank Booth is ever explained or rationalized, which makes him all the more unnerving. And sure, Dorothy and Frank are the showy roles and Rossellini and Hopper got deserved kudos, but Laura Dern flat-out nails the wholesome, hometown Sandy role.

Ultimately, Blue Velvet is the kind of movie that makes you ask, "How did this ever get made?" It frequently plays like a daft satire of small-town life and it gleefully eschews or spoofs Hollywood storytelling conventions. I might even argue that Lynch is trenchantly flogging the shit out of the preposterously quaint 1950s-style American Dream scenario that U.S. conservatives still insist is real, universally desired and attainable through nothing more than hard work. Where there are dreams, there are nightmares, Lynch reminds us in his very own idiosyncratic way.

Of all the films I've reviewed for this series, Blue Velvet has been the most difficult to watch and write about. It's one of the earliest examples of American postmodern cinema -- films with a pastiche of styles that attempt to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, plus twiddle with the audience's suspension of disbelief. With Blue Velvet, David Lynch takes the sunny, idealized small-town movie trope and drops it directly into an intensely personal and innovative reinvention of the classic 1940s and '50s film noir genre. It's shockingly uninhibited, freakishly imaginative and boldly absurd in ways that may work for you, or not. I appreciate what Lynch does here, but I ended up admiring Blue Velvet more than I enjoyed it. That's not really a criticism. I've seen plenty of movies that were tepid, safe, artless and instantly forgettable. Blue Velvet isn't one of them.

Stray Gay Observations: If I had to sum up my Blue Velvet viewing experience in one sentence, I'd say something like, "David Lynch just sent me a poisoned valentine." However, there are number of things I unreservedly love about Blue Velvet. The music -- sinuous, jazzy, ominous, old Hollywood, strangely evocative -- is an extraordinary mix of mostly forgotten pop tunes and original compositions by Angelo Badalamenti. Then there's the production design by Patricia Norris and the work of cinematographer Frederick Elmes -- their collaboration expertly defines the light and dark sides of Lumberton, and the distinction is striking. Even the contrast between Sandy (blonde, fresh cheeks and invariably dressed in modest pinks) and Dorothy (black hair, red lips and dark, rich-colored clothing) is fascinatingly extreme -- and taken to an arresting degree when they finally meet face to face. And I just have to mention the appearance of an animatronic bird straight out of Disney's Mary Poppins -- for me it is the single most splendidly perfect and flabbergasting thing about Blue Velvet.

Dennis Hopper dominates every scene he's in, except one -- that's when his character, Frank Booth, and some of his colleagues take Dorothy and Jeffrey to a decidedly unsexy brothel run by a fey and vaguely sinister man named Ben (Dean Stockwell). Frank repeatedly and admiringly compliments Ben, calling him "suave." Stockwell manages to momentarily eclipse Hopper with a bizarrely insidious performance. And when Ben begins to lip-sync a classic old Roy Orbison tune, "In Dreams," the film reaches something like a queer apex.

Dean Stockwell as Ben the lip-syncing brothel owner

After Blue Velvet, David Lynch made another movie (Wild at Heart) and then co-created the revolutionary TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91), about an FBI agent who investigates the mysterious murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer in a Washington state logging town. I know people who think Twin Peaks is a masterpiece. I'd describe it as a hauntingly perverse, occasionally mesmerizing mess that might actually be a masterpiece if David Lynch had wrapped it all up in the first 8-episode season or simply conceived it as a miniseries with a definitive ending. But that's not how TV worked in those days. A network actually expected David Lynch to entertain a mainstream audience and sustain a level of compelling visionary weirdness episode after episode. That's a tall order. Viewers hung in there for a while but abandoned the series as soon as Laura Palmer's murderer was revealed in the seventh episode of the second season (and it's possibly the creepiest and most horrifying moment in scripted television history to that point). Nevertheless, Twin Peaks succeeds as a distinctive experiment that changed the network television landscape forever. And without Blue Velvet, there would never have been Twin Peaks.

Should You See It? After my initial screening, I thought the whole thing was messed up, self-conscious and propelled by forced theatricality. Then I gave myself a few days to think about it before I wrote this review. After some reflection, I still think Blue Velvet is undoubtedly and intentionally all those things. David Lynch is deliberately fucking with me, you, and everyone else. I think he knows exactly what he's doing and he's certainly okay with the fact that a lot of people just aren't going to get it. Whether or not you think there's any merit to what he's doing is open for debate. So, personally, I may not be wildly enthusiastic about Blue Velvet, but I'd recommend it to anyone who prefers their movies dark, vigorously peculiar and unapologetically surreal.

Next: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #30: The Bodyguard

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Bodyguard (released November 1992)

Whitney Houston as superstar Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard
(This futuristic Egyptian warrior queen outfit is not the silliest thing about the movie.)

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The Bodyguard is one of those movies that can literally be summed up in three sentences: Someone is trying to kill superstar singer/actress Rachel Marron. Her handlers hire ex-Secret Service agent Frank Farmer to protect her. Complications arise when Frank and Rachel fall in love. 

Kevin Costner is Frank Farmer. He abandoned his Secret Service career after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. We're reminded over and over again that he wasn't even on duty that day, but Frank has apparently spent the last decade brooding about the incident while freelancing as a bodyguard. Whitney Houston is Rachel Marron. She lives in a gargantuan mansion surrounded by handlers, a passive-aggressive sister, an adorable eight-year-old son and a security guard whose sole qualification seems to be that he's a big lug. After a Rachel Marron Barbie doll blows up backstage at one of her concerts, Rachel's primary handler, Devaney, seeks Farmer's help. "I don't do celebrities," Frank protests, but you know he's going to change his mind in about ten minutes.

Rachel's been getting death threats for six months. The letters say things like this:

Marron bitch
You have everything
I have nothing
The time is coming
When you shall die

Someone has also gotten into the estate, located Rachel's bedroom and masturbated on her bed. Devaney and Rachel's publicist, Sy, decided not to tell her about any of that stuff, even explaining the bomb away as some kind of "electrical problem." And no, they haven't told the police or the FBI either. Her publicist is worried that those creepy letters and the anonymous spooge on her bedspread are going to "freak her out." Frank recognizes that Rachel Marron is being handled by idiots and takes the job. He orders all kinds of new security measures and moves into a swell guest house on the grounds. And still no one, including Frank, tells Rachel what's really going on. She's alternately enraged and titillated by Frank, constantly poking fun and teasing him with lines like, "You probably won't believe this, but I have a reputation for being a bitch." Whether she's a bitch or not is arguable, but she definitely nails obnoxious.

Anyway, you were promised a love story. So, Frank goes shopping with Rachel in a funky little clothes shop. She tries to engage him in some flirty banter with only a dressing room curtain between them. He's deliberately aloof. She interprets this as disapproval. He grins. She pouts. Back at her super-secure gargantuan estate, Frank watches one of Rachel's music videos on the big TV in his swell guest house. He's so absorbed by her talent and beauty that he can't even blink. All the way up in her bedroom, she hears the music and watches him from her window. Yes, that's exactly how this movie chooses to demonstrate that these two people have fallen in love. Rachel loves Frank because he went shopping with her. Frank loves Rachel because her music video cast some kind of weird spell over him. I guess that music video business is plausible; I fell in love with Michael McDonald, the former lead singer of The Doobie Brothers, after I saw him in a music video for "Sweet Freedom" in 1986.

So, Frank and Rachel have a date night -- a movie, then drinks at a bar -- and no one recognizes her. At all. Even though she's a superstar singer and actress. They slow dance to a country version of Houston's hit, "I Will Always Love You." For a minute, Frank is nervous that someone in this country bar where no one recognizes her is going to kill her. So, they end up back at his place for some puzzling, not remotely erotic Samurai sword foreplay. Then they sleep together. Frank immediately regrets this. Rachel gets petulant. Her songs keep invading the soundtrack. She gets nominated for an Oscar. A boat explodes. Her sister sings "Jesus Loves Me." And somebody still wants to kill her. Truthfully, about an hour and ten minutes into this mess, I wanted to kill her, too.

Kevin Costner -- an often underrated actor --  isn't half bad as the bodyguard. The script requires him to perform plenty of cartoonish heroics, but there are moments when he almost makes you believe you're watching a much better movie. He tries everything short of rubbing sticks and stones together to ignite sparks between himself and Whitney Houston. There's just no chemistry. It's easy to contend that Houston is miscast -- she is -- but the problem with Rachel Marron is twofold. First, she's just a badly written character -- fractious, selfish and clueless one minute, schizophrenically lusting after her bodyguard the next. For a superstar, she barely works. For a mother, she has almost no contact with her child. In fact, she has exactly one inconsequential scene alone with her son and it lasts less than thirty seconds -- Frank has multiple interactions with the kid. Rachel lacks most of the human characteristics that might make her relatable or recognizably vulnerable. Are we really supposed to like a woman that sits by the pool listening to her own songs on headphones? And second, I'm not sure anyone could have made this awful part work, but Whitney Houston simply did not have the skills -- this was her debut role -- to convince you of anything other than the fact that she had a phenomenal singing voice (and we already knew that). She couldn't sell lines like, "Frank, I need you. I'm afraid. And I hate my fear."

I was genuinely surprised that The Bodyguard is such a bad, bad movie. It blusters right on past unbelievable to become the perfect storm of stupid in its last half hour -- that's when all is revealed and somebody tries to kill Rachel at the Academy Awards in front of a worldwide audience. Sound dramatic enough for you? Don't worry, the filmmakers depiction of an Oscar ceremony is so hilariously wrong that the movie finally becomes a can't-look-away-belly-flop into the deep end of the camp pool. (A refresher: Camp is what happens when a bunch of creative people come together to make a serious drama, but something goes monumentally awry in the process and they unintentionally make a comedy... and they don't know it until the audience starts laughing in all the wrong places.)

Stray Gay Observations:

There's an idea for a gay remake stirring around in my head: Ryan Gosling is the bodyguard for Kanye West.

The Bodyguard was written by Lawrence Kasdan. According to my research, it was Kasdan's first script, originally submitted to studios in 1976. At one point it was supposed to star Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, then Ryan O'Neal and Diana Ross. I doubt the outcome would have been much different.

After seeing the godawful movie that eventually got made from his first script, it's kind of amazing that Lawrence Kasdan also wrote the screenplays for some fine American films -- Raiders of the Lost ArkBody Heat, The Big ChillThe Empire Strikes BackThe Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon.

Should You See It? As ill-conceived Hollywood star vehicles go, The Bodyguard crashes and burns in all kinds of enjoyable ways.

Next Time: Blue Velvet (1986)