Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #27: Top Gun

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Top Gun (released May 1986)

Tom Cruise confronts Val Kilmer in Top Gun, the highest-grossing film of 1986.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: 
At the beginning of Top Gun a title card somberly informs us:
On March 3, 1969, the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it Top Gun.
One day, some filmmakers should craft a meaningful, big-budget, Oscar-bait motion picture about the origins of Fighter Weapons School... because Top Gun is so not that movie. Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. toss you immediately into an intense aerial combat sequence over the Indian Ocean. One of the Naval Aviators has a mid-air meltdown, survives, then promptly gives up his flight status. Since he was the aircraft carrier's number one choice for Top Gun school, there's a slot to be filled -- which turns out to be very convenient for a pilot named Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his radar officer Goose (Anthony Edwards). Everyone is a little iffy about this turn of events since Maverick is "dangerous," "a cowboy," "a wildcard" and "completely unpredictable." "Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!" Maverick's commanding officer barks just before he sends him (and Goose) off to Top Gun school at a naval air station in Miramar, California.

In Miramar, Maverick encounters the rest of the one percent of all Naval Aviators who get into Top Gun school. They're handsome, chew gum with their mouthes open and fondly regard one another as "dickhead" or "pussy." Top Gun school gives them a hard on. We know this because, well, it's the kind of thing the men in this movie say out loud. A rivalry is quickly established between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) -- who will win the Top Gun trophy? And Maverick's mavericky reputation precedes him -- as does that of his father, a pilot who died under some unexplained, classified circumstances that everyone has decided to interpret as recklessness. Thus, Maverick is a dangerous, completely unpredictable wildcard cowboy because... like father, like son. Oh, and the Top Gun instructor is a preposterously hot woman named Charlie (Kelly McGillis) that Maverick intends to bed because the audience must always be reminded of Tom Cruise's heterosexuality, especially since this movie is about as homoerotic as it gets. I mean, seriously, at the 41-minute mark, Top Gun interrupts everything for a glorious, completely irrelevant, shirtless outdoor volleyball match featuring lots of sweaty abs and pecs. In gay porn, this is the kind of scene that precedes an orgy.

That's Rick Rossovich as "Slider." He's very enthusiastic about volleyball.

Top Gun is... uncomplicated. Every question raised -- Will Maverick and Charlie be a thing? Will Maverick triumph over Iceman? Will Maverick ever find out what really happened to his father? -- gets answered. When someone dies, Maverick loses his confidence and has to prove himself again. This is Scriptwriting 101, but I have to give Top Gun credit where credit is due. That opening aerial combat sequence is stunning and emotionally impactful. Nearly 30 years later, in fact, the aerial sequences are still genuinely spectacular. Jeffrey Kimball's cinematography is extraordinary. No matter how bogus the love story here is, Cruise and McGillis sell it; they've got chemistry. Meg Ryan is solid in a small supporting role, and the older cast members -- Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, James Tolkan -- bring the gravitas. I'm indifferent about most Tom Cruise films, and I especially hate it when he acts with his teeth (that overtly cocky bear-trap smile is more off-putting than inviting to me). But to be fair, he has his moments here; some of his reactions and gestures suggest a vulnerability that feels absolutely truthful.

Stray Gay Observations:

Owning my own embarrassing misogyny: Watching Top Gun, I dismissed the idea that there was ever a female Flight Weapons School instructor in the 1980s. As I researched the film, I discovered that Kelly McGillis' character was inspired by Christine Fox, a real civilian flight instructor. In 2013, President Barrack Obama appointed her as acting deputy defense secretary, making her the highest-ranking woman ever at the Pentagon.

Kelly McGillis appeared in a couple of huge Hollywood films besides Top Gun, like Witness and The Accused. She became a major star, but felt unmotivated by fame or box-office success. Instead, she chose stage roles and, occasionally, more low-profile film projects. She's done quite a bit of Shakespeare, took the lead in Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler on Broadway, and played Mrs. Robinson in a national stage tour of The Graduate. In 2009, she publicly acknowledged that she's a lesbian, something she believes has been true since childhood. She's transitioned nicely into character roles; I particularly enjoyed her as a psychic in The Innkeepers (2009), a smart little slow-burn horror flick.

Everyone in this movie has a nickname -- Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Viper, Jester, Cougar, Slider, Hollywood, Wolfman. Everyone. Kelly McGillis plays Charlotte Blackwood, but her character is referred to as "Charlie." At first I thought all that was a dumb contrivance by the writers. Nope. These are call signs. Reading the credits, I noticed that all the instructors and pilots serving as technical advisors or flyers -- all of them -- have call signs: Bozo, D-Bear, Loner, Curly, Silver, Rabbi, Too Cool, Squire, Bio, Vida, Horse, Player, Organ, Circus, Jambo, Secks, Sunshine, Hollywood, Flex, Sobs, Tex, Boa, Rat, Jaws. Sight unseen, I just want to hang out with Bozo, D-Bear, Bio and Sobs. Admit it, you really want to know how a guy gets a call sign like "Sobs."

Filled with electronica, synthpop and power ballads, the Top Gun soundtrack encapsulates '80s radio. Giorgio Moroder wrote and produced the film's love theme, "Take My Breath Away" by the Los Angeles-based band Berlin, and it won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Moroder's influence over music has been inestimable -- since the mid 1970s he's collaborated with, among others, Donna Summer, Electric Light Orchestra, Sparks (oh God, how I love that quirky-queer band), Queen, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, David Bowie, Kenny Loggins and, most recently, Daft Punk.

Maybe one day Tom Cruise will win an Oscar for packing on some pounds to play Sen. John McCain, the real Navy maverick and POW with a nice smile who probably wrecked his own legacy by choosing Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate in 2008... and then turning into a grumpy hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn dotard that really doesn't know when to get the hell off the political stage.

In a post-Don't Ask Don't Tell America, surely someone must be thinking of a remake where Maverick hooks up with Charlie the Gay Male Top Gun Instructor. Or, he falls for Goose the Radio Intercept Officer. Well, anyway, I was thinking about that.

Should You See It? Frankly, I don't have a very high threshold for superficial, jingoistic nonsense like this. I kind of hate it when filmmakers crassly oversimplify the complex aspirations and dangerous accomplishments of military personnel. This would have been a better movie (maybe) if they skipped the dramatically inert romance and made the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman more realistic and observable. And with the exception of Anthony Edwards as Goose, the supporting cast is woefully underutilized. The filmmakers don't even have the courage to name an enemy -- the bad guys in the MiGs are generically referred to as "the other side" and they come from "foreign territory." But somehow, dammit, Top Gun entertained me even as I rolled my eyes, proving that I'm not completely immune to the charms of rousing, testosterone-oozing, Support Our Troops propaganda. Top Gun is a patriotic elixir: After the film's release, the Navy reported a 500% uptick in the number of young men who showed up at recruitment offices wanting to be Naval Aviators.

Next Time: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #26: Sunset Boulevard

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. 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..."

Sunset Boulevard
(released August 1950)

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The screenwriters behind Sunset Boulevard -- Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshall, Jr. and Billy Wilder (who also directed) -- made an audacious choice: the narrator of their movie is a dead man. His name is Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), "just a movie writer with a couple of B pictures to his credit." We're introduced to him floating face down in the swimming pool of an old mansion located somewhere along that 22-mile stretch of asphalt known as Sunset Boulevard. The incorporeal voice of Joe Gillis has a story to tell. It's a winner, and he's not about to let a little thing like death stop him from sharing it. Flashback to six months earlier, the fateful day he met Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging, reclusive silent movie star with a couple of decades between her and her last picture.

No one's buying Joe's scripts, so he's broke and way behind on his rent and car payments. When a couple of repo men show up for the car, Joe flees, but a flat tire forces him to seek temporary refuge in the garage of Norma's mansion. Joe's narration describes it as "a great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy '20s." Her manservant Max -- played cryptically by Eric Von Stroheim, himself a one-time silent movie director -- lets Joe into the house, mistaking him for the funeral planner who's been summoned to make arrangements for Norma's recently deceased monkey. She wants a white coffin, lined in flaming red satin. "Let's make it gay," she declares. Joe attempts to explain his real reason for being there, Norma overreacts and orders him off the property. But she changes her mind when Joe suddenly realizes that this is the Norma Desmond.  "You used to be big," he acknowledges. "I am big, it's the pictures that got small," she retorts. When Norma finds out Joe's a screenwriter, she proposes that he turn the handwritten script she's labored over for years into something Hollywood will produce as a star vehicle for herself. "I didn't know you were planning a comeback," Joe says. "I hate that word! It's a return," Norma seethes.

Desperately needing an income, Joe agrees to work on Norma's script. She has one condition: Joe has to move into her deteriorating mansion, complete with Max the vaguely sinister manservant, a wheezing old pipe organ that's susceptible to drafts, and hundreds of old photographs of Norma in her prime (all actual stills of Gloria Swanson from her prolific silent pictures heyday). Joe's disembodied narration sums it up: "The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion." So, he stays, a willing hostage grinding out script pages for a picture he knows will never be made. Is he using Norma? Sure. She's wealthy and delusional and prone to buying him expensive gifts. His initial reluctance to being a "kept man" abates and Joe becomes comfortable enough with the arrangement, right up until the moment he realizes that Norma has developed a possessive love of operatic proportions for him. But is it love? Maybe. He's pretty darn handsome and nimble with the quips. Or, does he simply -- and finally -- fill the void in her pitiful life, one that a funereal manservant and that recently-deceased monkey could not? To give away much more of the story would be kind of spoilery.  

As morally ambivalent Joe Gillis, William Holden is fine. He's sardonic, raffish and looks awfully damn good in a pair of swim trunks. But this is Gloria Swanson's film all the way. An enormous star and fashion icon throughout the 1920s (she's been described as the screen's first clothes horse), Swanson made a successful transition from silent to sound pictures in 1929. Her career peaked by the early 1930s and she knew it, so she left Hollywood for a quieter life of radio and stage work in New York City. She made one film in 1941, but didn't return to the big screen again until Sunset Boulevard in 1950. Swanson is entirely credible as Norma Desmond, a woman who can't stop rhapsodizing about a career that was over twenty years ago. "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" And you get right away why her stardom is a thing of the past. Norma's facial expressions and gestures are frequently big, broad and overly-dramatic, as if the exaggerated movements and reactions she perfected for silent film acting are permanently embedded in her marrow. Worse, there's a strident, affected cadence in her voice that's fascinating only because of how unnatural it sounds.

Sunset Boulevard delves into some dark and juicy territory, even threatening to become a full-on gothic horror picture at times. John Landis, the director behind American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson's Thriller video, has even called Sunset Boulevard a monster movie. I tend to agree with that assessment in a way. Norma Desmond attained unimaginable fame, was roundly rejected by the film industry, then disappeared into obscurity. All this, plus her own inability to move on, made her more than a simple anachronism -- it created a monster. The frequently grotesque work Swanson does with her hands and eyes reminded me of early screen vampires like Max Schreck's Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Even Desmond's fate here has a bizarre parallel to that of Frankenstein's monster -- just switch out the torch-bearing villagers for merciless cops and relentless reporters. This glimpse of her life is wildly entertaining and perversely amusing, but the movie never lets you forget how profoundly sad it is to be Norma Desmond.

Sunset Boulevard deservedly earned eleven Academy Award nominations. It won three: writing, score and art/set direction. Nominees Holden and Swanson lost to Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday). The Academy has made some stupid choices in the acting categories over the years, but Swanson's loss to Holliday is particularly grievous. Swanson's performance is idiosyncratic, risky and so, so smart. It was, in fact, an astonishing return to feature films. She was robbed.

Stray Gay Observations: Sunset Boulevard left me with an immense desire to see Norma Desmond interacting with a monkey. I just need to own that. I can't be the only person, right?

Comeback -- we use that word far too liberally. Artists and musicians are allowed to go away and come back. Or not. I agree with Norma Desmond: "It's a return!"

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and legendary, Oscar-winning director Cecil B. DeMille (his career was so long that he actually made silent and sound versions of The Ten Commandments) play themselves in the film. DeMille is unexpectedly excellent.

"It was all very queer" says dead Joe Gillis at one point. He's right. Sunset Boulevard is so queer, I can't believe three heterosexual men wrote it.

In the scene where Norma shows Joe one of her silent films, director Billy Wilder chose a clip from Queen Kelly (1929). That's a real Gloria Swanson movie that was directed by Eric Von Stroheim, who plays manservant Max. It was a notoriously troubled production with lots of "creative differences." Swanson was so big a star at the time that she had Von Stroheim fired after he'd shot a third of the film. I don't know what Billy Wilder was thinking, but that must have been a weird day on the set.

My favorite William Holden film is Network (1976) -- a truly extraordinary film that's so prescient it's scary. He's also in one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, The Towering Inferno. He's the guy who thinks everyone's overreacting about that fire on the 81st floor that is never going to reach the 135th floor. Unpleasant deaths ensue.

In a film brimming with great dialogue, I think Holden has one of the best lines ever uttered in a movie: "Norma, you're a woman of 50, now grow up. There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25." That had to have been startling candor for an audience in 1950 to hear. I'll know that America has matured a wee bit when Jennifer Lawrence gets to say something like that to one of her male co-stars. Like Bradley Cooper, her co-star in Silver Linings Playbook... who's sixteen years older than her in real life, but apparently we're not supposed to be having a conversation about that.

Should You See It? Absolutely. It's one of the best movies ever made about the movies, and Swanson gives one of the all-time great performances.

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Next Week: Top Gun (1986)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal

I consider it a compliment.

Swedish Marines & "Greased Lightning"

Over the last few years I've posted a couple of videos of U.S. military personnel lip-syncing and dancing to popular hits, like Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" and Lady Gaga's "Telephone." They typically rack up millions of views on YouTube and bring the smiles. There are, however, some perpetually constipated individuals who are not amused by these videos, apparently believing that the men and women serving our country in places like Afghanistan should lead miserable, fearful, uncreative lives and be content to clean guns and read the Christian Bible in their downtime. Let's be honest, there are far worse things they could be doing off duty than learning the lyrics to a pop tune and teaching themselves some funny choreography for a video. If this kind of thing keeps them sane, I'm all for it.

Earlier this year, a group of Swedish marines in Afghanistan -- I didn't even know Sweden had marines -- produced a video of their own. It's a smashing version of "Greased Lightning" from the 1978 film (and guilty pleasure) Grease. The idea came to marine Boris Zelada, who also directed, after his unit watched the film together one night. Impressed with star John Travolta's showstopper musical moment, they all decided to put something together in their free time. They've substituted camo gear and a military vehicle for leather jackets and a classic car, but pretty much taught themselves most of the film's original choreography. With a few additional hip thrusts. And a couple of simulated bro sex moments surreptitiously planted in the background. Like the car in the film, this video is systematic, hydromatic and ultramatic... and the queerest thing I found on the Internet this week. Just watch.

If this is any kind of representative sample of Swedish men, then the country must be filled with good-looking dudes. I was already grateful to Sweden for giving us ABBA. This is just icing. Also, I want to live in a world where wars are settled by dance-offs.

If you'd like to see how close these guys got to the original, have a look.

Want to see some other entries in this series? Go here or here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 4

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my underwear. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the season. Summer needs a soundtrack! In part four of this 7-part series, I'm featuring earworms from The Heartbreaks, Ingrid Michaelson and Prides.

The Heartbreaks. They're a British alternative pop/rock quartet from Lancashire. At first glance it's tempting to dismiss them as just another boy band, but that would be a mistake -- these are serious musicians. Matthew Whitehouse handles lead vocals, accompanied by drummer (and songwriter) Joseph Kondras, guitarist Ryan Wallace and bassist Christopher "Deaks" Deakin." NME, the weekly British music journalism publication, has called them one of the "most exciting bands in the UK today." Their sophomore release, We May Yet Stand a Chance, dropped in June of 2014.

The Heartbreaks, left to right:
Christopher Deakin, Joseph Kondras, Matthew Whitehouse & Ryan Wallace 

Song & Video: "Absolved" -- The song is unapologetic, uplifting, bombastic pop (and a pretty brilliant little single). The video is a goofball homage to those nattily suited, all-male groups of the 1960s (think The Four Seasons), complete with admirably cheesy choreography. Also, Sideburns Guy (Ryan Wallace) is my musician crush of the summer.

The chorus, for those interested...

Absolved, I am
From the guilt of all the feelings
that you don't understand

Absolved, I cry
From the guilt of all the feelings
that hit me when I catch your eye

Ingrid Michaelson. This indie-pop singer-songwriter has been around for about a dozen years now, crafting songs of impressive emotional range. Somehow, she's managed to be successful by being charming instead of controversial. Her latest album, Lights Out, proves she not afraid to dabble with a more mainstream pop sound, complete with catchy hooks and a little more lushness in the production than usual. Her website is here.

Ingrid Michaelson (from her Facebook page)

Song & Video: "Girls Chase Boys" -- Its a disarmingly sweet breakup song complete with hand claps and... wait, is that a harpsichord I hear? Whatever, it's damn seductive pop. Even better, the video is a terrific homage to Robert Palmer's clip for his 1988 smash, "Simply Irresistible." Yeah, the one where he's surrounded by a bevy of gorgeous, enigmatic supermodel types. Michaelson's video is a gender-remixed take on things. In other words, she queered it up. Very successfully.

Prides. This Scottish synthpop trio will surprise you with their big, earnest, passionate sound. They aren't holding back, making the kind of music that will probably get crowds to chant their anthemic lyrics. As of this writing, their first EP is already available in Europe; coming soon to U.S. iTunes. You can also find them on Spotify. Their website is here.

Prides, left to right: Lewis Gardner, Stewart Brock & Callum Wiseman

Song & Video: "Messiah" -- It's exuberant, soulful power pop. The kind of stuff you can imagine your slightly drunk self singing too loud at a party with friends who love you anyway. The video features two very hot, joyriding priests that have apparently gotten themselves involved in a disturbing (and perplexing) scheme. There's a sentence no one could ever anticipate writing. (I think celibacy will drive men to do some pretty awful things.) Anyway, the trio of bandmates appear only briefly as hitchhikers -- a cool enough way cameo in your own video.

To check out volume one in this series, click here; volume two is here; volume three is here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #25: Do the Right Thing

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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'll be 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.

Do the Right Thing
 (released June 1989)

Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley in Do the Right Thing

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The knockout four-minute opening credit sequence of Do the Right Thing features "Fight the Power," a confrontational and anthemic song by Public Enemy, the legendary hip hop group. It's a protest song filled with rhetoric calling on the oppressed to "fight the powers that be," as well as dismissive references to Elvis Presley and John Wayne. As it plays, Rosie Perez (her first film role) does a mesmerizing angry-erotic interpretive dance on an ominously theatrical New York City street set. It's an audacious, in-your-face kickoff that immediately suggests you're in the hands of a fiercely ambitious filmmaker -- that would be Spike Lee, who wrote, produced, directed and stars.

Do the Right Thing takes place on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. As the movie begins, the neighborhood's residents -- a diverse mix of African Americans, Italians, Puerto Ricans and Koreans -- go about their business, intersecting in alternately funny and adversarial ways that play out somewhat like an edgy, super-adult version of Sesame Street. The film's ostensible protagonist is Mookie (played by Spike Lee), a delivery man for a popular pizzeria run by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino and Vito. One of Mookie's friends, an instigator named Buggin' Out, decides to confront Sal about the "Wall of Fame" in his restaurant -- a space devoted to framed photographs of famous Italian Americans, like Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino (even Liza Minnelli!). Buggin' Out argues that since Sal's pizzeria is in a predominantly African American neighborhood with primarily African American patrons, there should be some brothers on the wall. Sal responds by saying that it's his pizzeria and he gets to honor whomever he chooses. The dispute intensifies, but Mookie escorts Buggin' Out from the premises before things get too ugly. It's a slyly prankish but perceptibly tense scenario that adroitly forces you to have a quick conversation in your head: Am I supposed to take sides? Who's right and who's wrong here? What would I do in the same situation? Moments later, Mookie's first pizza delivery of the day is interrupted by his neighborhood's affable old alcoholic, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). He imparts this advice to Mookie: "Always do the right thing."

As the sweltering hot day progresses, a rich cast of characters appear. A droll cop and his macho partner. A stuttering, mentally-challenged young man selling photographs of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The impatient Korean grocers who just want you to buy something and move along. A boom box toting dude who's determined to share his music with the inhabitants of his small world. A Greek Chorus of black men who occupy one corner all day, discussing, among other things, the fact that the two most successful businesses in the neighborhood are run by Italians and Koreans. An old woman who's seen it all and is exhausted by it. And then there's Mookie's girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), who just wants him to grow up and take an interest in their toddler son. As the heat affects everyone to varying degrees, amusing bits are juxtaposed with flaring tempers, seething frustrations and blatantly racist rants.

There's a deceptively loose, almost episodic structure to Do the Right Thing, but all those raw nerves and expertly drawn racial tensions are building to something. And when that something comes, it's a visceral moment that culminates in a shocking death on the street. A crowd gathers, stinging confrontations escalate and then Mookie makes a decision that will either confound you or rouse you; chaos ensues. The entire sequence is 15 minutes of harrowing, hold-your-breath filmmaking. Spike Lee pulls no punches. He gives you an unflinching, closeup view of the kind of incidents that most people only know about from tendentious snippets on the evening news.

As an exploration of racism, Do the Right Thing has nothing in common with Hollywood claptrap like Crash or Driving Miss Daisy, two unremarkable films that undeservedly won Oscars for Best Picture. Crash is undermined by a series of implausible coincidences that add up to nothing more than the non-revelation that racism is a bad thing. And Driving Miss Daisy, despite two fine central performances by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, is terrified of offending anybody. In contrast, white critics literally feared that Do the Right Thing would incite violence in black moviegoers simply because the movie depicts violence in an excruciatingly real way. It must have really surprised these critics when African Americans all around the country saw the film and left the theater without setting it on fire or killing an usher. Side note: Spike Lee rightfully criticized reviewers and op-ed writers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture. (Leave it to white people to think that a movie would incite riots, as opposed to centuries of institutionalized racism.)

Released 25 years ago, Do the Right Thing has become one the most debated films ever made. But beyond the unprecedented treatment of the subject matter, it's an amazing, kinetic blend of theatricality and shattering realism. Ernest R. Dickerson's cinematography is outstanding. Spike Lee makes consistently interesting directorial choices, including provocative camera angles and having many of his actors deliver portions of their dialogue directly to the camera in a way that feels completely natural. There are some notable veterans in the cast  -- Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Danny Aiello in an Oscar-nominated role. Spike Lee is convincing as Mookie, wisely refraining from making the character ingratiating. And there are some standout performances among the eclectic mix of newcomers, too. Roger Guenveur Smith is affecting as Smiley, a mentally-challenged resident of the block; Giancarlo Esposito goes big and gets under your skin as the reactionary Buggin' Out, and John Turturro is bristling and loathsome as Sal's aggressively racist son, Pino. I especially admire Turturro's performance because a lot of actors would have looked for a moment to soften the edge's of a character this contemptible -- he doesn't.

Considering the low budget, location shooting and the fact that Spike Lee was directing, producing and acting, this production had to have been a high-wire act. Do the Right Thing was only Lee's third feature film, but he's in full command of his craft. Plus, he managed to get a major studio (Universal) to release a film that completely ignores any traditional Hollywood template in the summer, which is not exactly the time of year when people go to movies that might make them think. He never interjects any cheap preachiness about these characters or their actions, and the denouement doesn't tidy up a single thing. He didn't even have to change the film's final images:  two conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the most prominent civil rights leaders of their time. As far as I could tell, Spike Lee made only one definitive assertion with this movie: "always do the right thing" is easier said than done. Unfortunately, Do the Right Thing got no love from the Academy Awards. It lost in both categories for which it was nominated (Supporting Actor for Aiello and Original Screenplay for Lee). The Academy took a safer route by selecting Driving Miss Daisy as the year's best picture.

Stray Gay Observations: Well, leave it to a big homo like me to notice what the characters in a movie like Do the Right Thing are wearing. Ruth E. Carter's costumes suggest the late 1980s without making it seem as though the film is permanently stuck there. That couldn't have been easy.

While it's surely true that Spike Lee inspired a lot of African American filmmakers, what does it say about us (and by us, I mean Americans) that the most successful black filmmaker today is Tyler Perry, a man who makes godawful melodramas (Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor) and so-called comedies that involve him getting into drag to play a large, overreactive, randomly vindictive, gun-toting elderly woman named Madea. Jesus. Seriously. Jesus.

Should You See It? I picked Do the Right Thing because I noticed it was the film's twenty-fifth anniversary and I wondered if all the original controversy about it would still make sense. Aside from a few cultural references from the era, Do the Right Thing does not feel dated at all. It may depict the fictional events of one day in one neighborhood a quarter of a century ago, but it all feels like something that could have happened somewhere last week and will certainly happen in America's future. I grew up in the South and have lived here almost my entire life, so I've witnessed a lot of overt racism. Yet, Do the Right Thing was a genuinely startling, enthralling and unsettling experience; I was surprised by the grief it brought up for me. It's easily the most worthwhile movie I've ever seen about race in America.

With Do the Right Thing, I'm halfway through this series about movies I've never seen before. I've really enjoyed many (in fact, most) of the films I've already watched. But this is the first time I've sincerely regretted not getting around to a movie sooner. I wish I'd seen it 25 years ago in a theater, surrounded by an audience. I'll bet it was electrifying.

Also... If this movie came out today, I can't imagine it being any less polarizing and controversial than it was 25 years ago. Conservative radio hosts would be apoplectic. Every Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives would blame Obama for its existence. And there'd be some serious pants pissing over at Fox News.

Next Week: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal

I consider it a compliment.

"American Gurl " -- The Bearody Version. You may not have ever heard of singer/songwriter Bonnie McKee, but you've probably heard something she's co-written for artists like Katy Perry ("Teenage Dream," "Roar") or Britney Spears ("Hold it Against Me"). In fact, all kinds of artists have recorded her songs, from Adam Lambert and Kelly Clarkson to Kei$ha and Lea Michele. Back in the summer of 2013, McKee released her own bouncy single, "American Girl." It made it to #25 on the Billboard pop chart. But then a San Francisco-based video jockey named Bill Dupp created an all-male lip dub version. Let me be more specific: this video contains all shapes and sizes and hairy men. It's giddy good fun that takes "American Girl" in a whole new direction... and easily qualifies as the queerest thing I found on the Internet this week.

Personal lust might have something to do with it, but I think this guy steals the video.
Pure exuberance and that awesome t-shirt. I'm calling him Kern Cub.
Bill Dupp, the man behind the project.
And here's openly bisexual singer/songwriter Bonnie McKee.
To see her original music video for "American Girl," go here.
Wanna check out some other posts in this series? Go here or here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #24: How to Survive a Plague

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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'll be 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.

How to Survive a Plaque
 (released September 2012)

ACT UP member Peter Staley dragged away from the scene of a demonstration

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: This 2012 Best Documentary Oscar nominee begins with a thirty-second montage of five hospitalized people literally wasting away to skin and bones because of AIDS. Their deaths are inevitable and imminent; it's an inescapable conclusion. Those thirty seconds are a painful reminder to those of us who lived through the worst of the AIDS pandemic, and a startling introduction to anyone who did not. Director David France does not linger on these images. Instead, he wisely chooses to plunge directly into a riveting six-minute sequence that introduces you to New York City's ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. An unidentified speaker describes it as "the diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis." It's March 1989. Footage of an actual ACT UP protest planning meeting are juxtaposed with the nonsensical press conference ramblings of the city's mayor, Ed Koch. Then, thousands of ACT UP members and supporters descend on City Hall for the largest demonstration in the group's two-year history -- a condemnation of the city's inadequate response to the AIDS crisis. Police arrive. Hundreds are arrested. There are no reenactments or talking heads soberly describing what happened. This is what happened.

One of the most remarkable things about How to Survive a Plague is that the majority of the film consists of footage from over 30 different videographers who recorded all kinds of meetings, demonstrations and unguarded personal moments as they were happening back in the 1980s and '90s. Combined with mainstream news footage and interviews with people who were there, this elucidating documentary reveals how ACT UP coalesced, strategized and chose its targets: politicians, religious leaders, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. ACT UP and the members of its treatment and data committee (who essentially had to become scientists), questioned everything from the National Institutes for Health's research priorities to the Food and Drug Administration's sluggish medication approval process. ACT UP members infiltrated government committee meetings and demanded to know, "Who represents the patient on this panel?" ACT UP presented the uncommunicative, byzantine labyrinth of U.S. health agencies with a national AIDS treatment and research agenda and even developed a glossary of AIDS treatment terms -- because the bureaucrats couldn't come up with these things themselves. The film is a blistering indictment of institutionalized indifference and government apathy.

The demonstrations -- influential and infamous -- are here, like the siege of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration building, including the hanging of a "Silence = Death" banner over the entrance, as well as the controversial die-in inside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, organized in direct response to Archbishop Cardinal O'Connor's public condemnation of safer sex education and flagrant lies about condoms. In contrast, but certainly no less controversial, was ACT UP's ingeniously mischievous decision to drape the North Carolina home of virulently homophobic senator Jesse Helms with a giant condom as his confused and bewildered neighbors watched. The large-scale protests are compelling, but there are so many powerful smaller moments, like when ACT UP's Bob Rafsky forced 1992 presidential hopeful Bill Clinton to speak about AIDS for the first time in public. Or, before introducing Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of AIDS Research for the National Institutes of Health, to a packed room for a town-hall type treatment meeting, the moderator reminds everyone this isn't a free-for-all, it's a "working confrontation." And the first thing Dr. Fauci hears is definitely not, "Thanks for being here today."

The monumental challenge for a film like this is arranging footage for maximum narrative impact while sustaining context. So many documentaries try to do too much, going broad and inevitably undermining cogency. Not here. The producers, editors and director David France have made impeccable choices in assembling this film; it never loses focus. Nor do the filmmakers sanitize or sugarcoat anything; ACT UP's own internal conflicts, fractious meetings and organizational split are included. To keep things grounded, there's sparing but effective use of new interviews involving a handful of the original activists and allies, like Larry Kramer and Ann Northrup. But if the film has one evident through line, it comes by way of Peter Staley, a former Wall Street bond trader who joined ACT UP not long after its inception and became a key player. He looks like the kind of guy you take home to meet mom, so it's fascinating to watch him scrambling up the side of a building to hang a banner, then later deliver a stirring speech to hundreds of people at an AIDS conference. There was clearly an alchemy between Staley and ACT UP that released his inner audacious warrior.

Because of the remarkable archival footage available to the filmmakers and their clear-eyed treatment of the subject, it is impossible to overstate the significance of How to Survive a Plague. It is an unflinching depiction of what an improbably diverse group of people had to do in order to successfully reverse the tide of an epidemic. And what they had to do was this: refuse to be ignored, engage in fearless acts of civil disobedience and literally shame their own government, and the country's medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry into moral, ethical and compassionate behaviors. It wasn't going to happen by asking politely.

On the Personal Side... I put off watching How to Survive a Plague innumerable times. My longtime activist friend, Terri, asked me repeatedly since the film's release if I had seen it yet. "No," I'd tell her. "I'm just not ready." What I instinctively knew, but never told her, is that How to Survive a Plague was probably going to be an endurance test for me. I became sexually active with other men around 1983, so my entire adult life has involved  HIV/AIDS -- dating, testing, condom negotiations, working at CNN during the worst years of it, becoming infected myself, experiencing countless deaths, and jumping into a second career developing and facilitating workshops for people infected with or affected by the virus. I feared this documentary would take me through an overwhelming range of emotions. And frankly, I have already been through an overwhelming range of emotions.

Around the Summer Solstice, Father's Day and my birthday -- events that coincided with the 21st anniversary of living with HIV in my own body -- I decided to watch this documentary and review it for this blog series. I had to stop the DVD repeatedly and breathe. At one point I got up, paced around my loft and sobbed for ten solid minutes until I literally felt dizzy and dehydrated. I was not crying because How to Survive a Plague is a sad movie that dwells on death. It does not dwell on death, though the film never lets you forget that ACT UP emerged because people were dying. And there was only one scene that I personally found to be devastatingly sad beyond words. How to Survive a Plague affected me profoundly, as I expected it would, but I finally realized what those tears were really about: catharsis. You can only repress three decades worth of sorrow for so long, and this film gave me permission to release a whole lot of stuff I didn't even realize was pent up inside of me.

One last thing. Sometimes I have to listen to people who've never been to a demonstration in their lives dismiss the actions of ACT UP as "too extreme," or "bad for the image of the gay community." So, for the record, here's my response to them: Fuck you. I'll get back to you when I want to have an in depth conversation about Madonna. In the meantime, why don't you try to wrap your mind around a couple of facts. First, activism is not for the faint hearted or people who find loud talking in public spaces uncomfortable. ACT UP's response to the widespread American antipathy and fear about AIDS was exactly right. They got people to hear and see them without waving guns, planting bombs or crashing planes into skyscrapers. You might want to get some perspective around what constitutes extreme actions. Furthermore, the only reason there are over 30 drugs approved for the treatment of HIV in 2014 is because of the explicit and reasonable demands made by the men and women of ACT UP back in the day. The truth is that many of my friends -- and probably some of yours --  are only here because ACT UP infiltrated government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry with the inarguably laudable goal of helping to identify promising medications and getting them into expanded drug trials quickly. I'm fiercely proud of the confrontational methods of ACT UP and grateful for their dogged determination. ACT UP is the reason I am alive today and can go off on an invigorating rant like this. 

Should You See It? I worried that my personal history with HIV/AIDS would make it difficult to write objectively about this documentary. So, let me say a little something about my process here. I watched it once and had my emotions. A few days later, I watched it a second time with a deliberately critical eye. The filmmakers behind How to Survive a Plague had the daunting and meticulous task of distilling down an epic ten-year period into something not only comprehensible but engrossing. Mission accomplished; this is expertly paced, searing storytelling. If you're unfamiliar with ACT UP, How to Survive a Plague will most likely be an absorbing -- and shocking -- American history lesson. This is not just essential filmmaking -- it's very likely a seminal work.

If you would like to see a short interview with director David France, in which he describes his impetus for the film and a little bit about the process of putting it all together, go here.

Next Week: Do the Right Thing (1989)