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FILM: Back to Barton Fink: A Serious Man July 30, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Everyone’s blogging about this, so I thought I’d repost the trailer too. At the end of the trailer the Coen brothers’ most famous films are listed (Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men, etc.). But the most important for this film — Barton Fink — is missing! Of course, most people haven’t seen it, I suppose. But when I watch this trailer, I think of Barton, and I suspect A Serious Man, like the early nineties strange bit of cinema, will be just as novel.

Mika, Michael and The Celebrities That Would Be Gay July 29, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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UPDATE (3/8/10): It’s raining closet-fleeing celebrities! Sean Hayes has come out, awkwardly. He claims the gay community, through the gay media, put too much pressure on him. I disagree, of course. Regardless his reticence probably cost him a few jobs, though who knows; he’s a character actor. Is Matt Bomer next?

UPDATE (1/13/10): Michael Urie is now all the way out! Well, sort of. “…I’m not saying I’m gay now” and “I basically didn’t want to be labeled.” Might sound like another cop-out, but Advocate makes it clear: “When asked what letter in LGBTQ he identifies himself, Urie says Q, for queer.” Another one! Seems like my thesis on this is true. “Gay” is indeed dying.

UPDATE: Surprise! Mika has come out … as bisexual! This changes my thesis a bit — that his reluctance to be called “gay” was based solely on an ideological aversion to labels. Still, Mika’s “coming out” sounds a little defeatist: “call me bisexual.” He still doesn’t like labels. Oh well, bi he is!

Separated at birth? The difference between Mika (left) and Michael Urie's responses to questions about their sexuality

Separated at birth? The difference between Mika (left) and Michael Urie's responses to questions about their sexuality. Original at Splice.

ORIGINAL: Before writing this article I surprised myself with having to Google something: the last name of Oprah Winfrey’s partner, Stedman. You see, I only know of him as “Stedman.” I had no idea if that was his last name or his first. He is so shrouded in mystery I’d never cared to get the facts. (His name is Stedman Graham).

Oprah’s story is instructive because in all of show business, it’s one of the most persistent mysteries. Oprah talks about Stedman, though very rarely. For such a public person, Oprah has a tight hold on this part of her life, and she has every right to her privacy. Yet however private Oprah wants to be, we at least know that Stedman exists, and both Oprah and he have talked publicly about why they are not married.

My point: it’s possible for a celebrity to be honest and talk about their lives while still remaining ambiguous and private enough to do their jobs and be famous.

This conundrum of how to negotiate being a public persona and private person is at the heart of the debate over whether actors should or should not come out. Over 10 years since Ellen shocked the world, out actors have a mixed record. Rupert Everett is sad and hardly working, only getting headlines for saying crazy things about Michael Jackson and gaybies. Wanda Sykes is at the top of her game, as is Neil Patrick Harris, but TR Knight has been fired and Clay Aiken, well, let’s forget about that. Lance Bass post-N’Sync had no career to speak of, so all in all he’s fine; Wilson Cruz and other character actors get work as well.

Given this mixed history, it’s not surprising rising gay actors are hedging. The most shocking was Michael Urie‘s recent interview with New York magazine, in which he would not say he was gay. It reminded me of the ongoing debate around the singer Mika and his refusal to do the same, and the career of Sean Hayes. The waters for actors and entertainers today are troubling and hard to navigate, and I have sympathy for them. But still their answers are not satisfying, often unnerving, and I think it’s important to break down what’s really going on and talk about this issue in more nuanced ways than “they must come out for visibility!” or “they have a right to their privacy” and “gay actors don’t get jobs.” All these are pretty insufficient responses to a very important issue in media representation.

First: Are Mika and Michael lying? Well, no, not really. For his part, Urie looks like he’s trying to carve a middle road on the issue. He describes himself as a “member of the LGBT community.” He twitters things like “In the pride parade!!!! So much fun”—coincidentally on the same day the New York piece came out. Mika, on the other hand, isn’t saying much except he doesn’t like labels, which is basically a non-admission admission.

The details are important here. Gone are the days, we hope, when obviously gay actors simply say they are straight—it’s part of the reason I’m starting to believe Seacrest. Instead, the typical response today involves obfuscation or word play. Either celebrities refused to be asked or simply will not say. There are different ways of “not saying,” though. Sean Hayes appears to not want anyone to know, and his reluctance to just admit it comes to close to shame, or at least that’s how it sounds. Fans can smell someone uncomfortable in their own skin. Take this thought by AfterElton: “But at some point, I hear their nonsensical responses to the question, ‘Are you gay?’ and I start to roll my eyes. Sean Hayes may or may not be gay, but after a decade of his refusing to give a, uh, straight answer to a simple question, I’m not sure how much a fan I am of that particular actor anymore.” Staying in the closet now may actually be bad for your career, especially in an age where “personality” is such an important part of fame. Whether they like it or not, “stigma” is still an issue. Regular people deal with it every day. They will expect you to respond to it and declare who you are; otherwise they will do it for you.

Mika is not Sean Hayes. He comes off as someone who likely has relationships with men and has thought seriously about whether he wants to call that “gay”: “I will not talk about labels, and I will not talk about over-categorizing things, because labels are the one thing that I’ve never agreed with—simply because I just don’t fit into them in my own personal life.” In case you’re unaware, there’s a lot of confusion from older gays about the refusal of young people today to use the word “gay,” preferring “queer,” “SGL” (“same gender loving,” most common among blacks) or no label at all. I understand it. Today, “me” is the only label that matters, and it isn’t always narcissism. Often it’s about allowing for greater diversity and new kinds of relationships to form outside the labels of the Boomer generation. I sense that this is where Mika’s coming from. The sophistication he brings to the question tells me he’s not just in the closet — plus the fact he is generally strange and his music and aesthetic are beyond nonconformist.

Michael is different. Urie was pretty brazen in saying he doesn’t want to call himself gay because, basically, he wants to get roles. Sure, he said it’s because he’s an “artist.” I suppose. So was Jackson Pollock, but everyone knew at least he was married to Lee Krasner, an accomplished artist herself. I imagine Urie‘s phrasing will not pass muster with a lot of gays. Still, he too is not Sean Hayes. After all, in the streets of New York he’s much more out than someone like—allegedly!—Anderson Cooper. Of course, Urie, as an actor, is at a disadvantage. Mika has an entire history of singers before him who played with sexuality without being explicit—Elvis, Little Richard, David Bowie, Kiss, Pete Wentz, and on and on. Actors, because they have to inhabit many different personalities, do not get the same allowances.

Perhaps part of my frustration with Urie and Hayes comes from being black and seeing so many black people, men in particular, not identify with a label out of cowardice. I can tell the difference. When interviewing black YouTubers for a project, I was shocked by how none would identify with a sexuality other than straight. Half my sample refused to answer the question. Some, I know, had ideological reasons (similar to Mika‘s), but some were just hiding, hoping one day they would be Will Smith and not wanting to be haunted by a pre-fame interview.

Fear of losing jobs is not an excuse. Being an actor, gay or straight, is hard. Sure Rupert Everett has a right to be pissed. If he’d been straight, he might have been Hugh Grant (whereas Sean Hayes would never have been Brad Pitt). But history shows most celebrities, regardless of orientation, have short careers. The list of performers with viable careers longer than a decade is pretty short. Being cagey about sexuality won’t help; only talent and personality will. That’s why Ellen is still around. It’s why Madonna is Madonna.

Meanwhile, whether they like or not, becoming famous does require that entertainers abdicate some privacy and answer simple questions. Every celebrity has to deal with it, from Sean Penn to Meryl Streep. No one says you have to be Britney or Lindsay, the smallest detail of one’s life revealed on a weekly basis. But there is a base level of honesty. After all, people don’t listen to music only based on the music. If that were the case we wouldn’t have the music video. Will Smith’s fame is based on more than his movies. We consume media because we are consuming people. All public personae deal with this. Yes, Barack Obama had the right policy proposals and better speaking skills, but look at his favorable/unfavorable ratings versus McCain from last year and you realize a lot of people voted for him because they liked him as person; how many people really knew the details of his healthcare proposal on November 4?

Can the public handle a gay entertainer? Yes! Before Rosie mysteriously left The View, ratings were way up. Ellen is a hit show. How I Met Your Mother is one of the few successful comedies on network television. Is the list of gay successes short? Absolutely. But without more brave entertainers, it will continue to be.

I am not, however, an either/or kind of guy. I don’t believe in someone being only “gay” or “straight.” If, like Mika, you prefer the in-between spaces, that’s fine.

But I do have a standard, and it is a pretty low one. I would like to hear some ambiguous celebs say they would be called gay—indeed, wouldn’t mind—but don’t like the label. Already, a number of actors, most notably Jared Leto, have said as much (i.e., I don’t mind if you call me gay, it’s just not true). See the subtle difference? This response acknowledges and honors that many people do have trouble coming out, that stigma still exists, that being gay is still an issue and also acknowledges a celebrity’s right to try to shape their personal life and its perception. It acknowledges that with great power and at least a footnote in history comes great responsibility. After all, if it were easy to be famous, we would all be.

FILM: Big Movies: Bad, Bland, or Misunderstood? July 24, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Original over at Splice!

Avatar_largeUPDATE (12/11): As we approach the Oscars, Avatar‘s chances at a nomination are looking up. Critics aren’t hating on the movie; some are loving it!

If you haven’t heard of Avatar, James Cameron’s upcoming monster of a movie—not monster movie—then you will soon enough.

Avatar is a sci-fi picture starring Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, produced by 20th Century Fox. It will have lots of special effects and be in 3-D. It is also, most importantly, expensive. Apparently the movie cost $240 million to make. (I’m not sure if that counts marketing and distribution; if it doesn’t, tack on at least another $100 million. UPDATE: The full cost including marketing is now being estimated, according to the New York Times, at a whopping $500 million!). I’m going to ignore the money specifics, because frankly in Hollywood that gets dicey (Universal paid more to distribute Brüno that the movie cost to make, making box office numbers a little less than relevant).

Big budget movies have a rocky history. Some big gambles pay off while others do not. Today, however, it seems the big budget original movie is falling out of favor. Sure, X-Men, Transformers and Harry Potter are enormously expensive, but those are based on books, franchises and prior box office success, guaranteeing an audience, however small. Avatar is straight out of the blue, out of the mind of James Cameron, making its production budget all the more confusing. Also, many of the most successful movies of the last 10 years cost little to begin with—Borat, The Hangover, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Slumdog Millionaire, among many others—and thrive in theaters based on word of mouth. It’s hard to harness word of mouth and turn that into dollars; just ask the producers of Snakes on a Plane. Not that 20th Century Fox isn’t trying: they’ve begun the publicity blitz now, six months before its release, showing clips from San Diego to Amsterdam.

So when Hollywood blows a few hundred million on a new project, my first instinct is to call them idiots. But then I quickly pull back. Special effects cost money after all, and proven actors and directors do as well. Let’s face it: money guarantees a certain level of competence. For a risk-averse industry, paying up makes some sense.

So I refine my position. What really upsets me are big budgets for bland projects. In recent memory the most notorious example is Evan Almighty, a sequel of sorts to Bruce Almighty (but not really, since it lacked Jim Carrey). Costing over $200 million, Evan didn’t come close to that in theatres, a complete bomb. Why overspend for mediocrity?

No, the best big budget films strive for new heights: new technical feats, novel storylines, brave performances. My favorite example in history is Jacques Tati’s Play Time, a sequel to his earlier films Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle which, when it was released in 1967, was the most expensive movie ever produced in France. Tati literally built a city to film in (only to have it thoughtlessly razed after production for a highway) and spent himself into financial ruin to make it. When it was released in theatres, critics and audiences hated it and Tati was finished. But today, Play Time stands among the most brilliant films in history. It follows Tati’s character, Mr. Hulot, around a modern Paris, as he interacts with its characters and architecture. There is almost no dialogue and virtually no close-ups. The buildings and abstract human interactions tell the story. Its ambition is gripping.

When I read about the migraine-inducing price tag on James Cameron’s new project, I think of Play Time. Will Cameron show me a world I’ve never seen before—or, just as well, our current world in a way I could never imagine? He must know that, with that enormous ticker price burned in the minds of viewers, this is the standard against which he will be held.

Avatar does not even need to be pleasurable. Certainly many of the most important films in history were not pleasing to critics and audiences at the time of their release. It would be fine if I misunderstand it; maybe in a few years I will get it. But for something that costs $2 million a minute, at the very least, it better be interesting.

FILM: Homophobia = Boring July 16, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Little Ashes (Grade: B-), Brüno (Grade: B-)

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If I’ve learned anything in the last week, it’s that homophobia in film can be so terribly boring. Okay, I knew that already. Honestly, what is state of gay cinema if homophobia is not the cornerstone of every plot line? I don’t know; I think it looks a little like Shortbus. One thing I do know is Little Ashes and Brüno are not the future of queer cinema.

Little Ashes, which has been out a few weeks, is more commonly known as the “gay Robert Pattinson movie.” The Twilight star, who has the rare quality of being gorgeous and talented, plays a young Salvador Dalí, in school in Madrid in the 1920s with an illustrious cohort, including director Luis Buñuel and writer Federico García Lorca. It is such a stellar group of individuals that today all three are known solely by their last names.

Starting with such interesting figures in history, the film, inspired by supposedly real events, should have been interesting. Dalí, on his own, is enough of an eccentric to entertain for ninety minutes. But rather than go the Almodovar route in queer cinema, Little Ashes instead recalls Maurice, a fine but forgettable Merchant Ivory period piece from the 1980s.

That’s exactly where Little Ashes is stuck: the 1980s. It’s all parting glances (not to be confused with the awesome Parting Glances) and no release. The film dwells so long on unrequited love it fails to inspire anything but ennui. Worst is its depiction of homophobia. Little Ashes turns Buñuel into a raging homphobe and gives him a slew of uninteresting lines about the moral depravity of homosexuality. Yes, Spain at the time was supposed to be oppressive and Franco’s power was only growing, but many gay films and books have shown that, even in oppressive conditions, same-sex desire was still exciting — even more so, perhaps, that it was so forbidden. Little Ashes‘ focus on tragedy drains its subjects of all life, and in doing so drains us.

Brüno‘s problem is similar in some ways. Of course, the Sacha Baron Cohen knows how to have fun. At the very least, Cohen gives his audience that.

But for most of the movie all the jokes predicated on America’s homophobia are the weakest. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, a lot of the presumed homophobia of Cohen’s targets is either incredibly dull — a group of redneck hunters are at worst “dismissive” of Brüno — or kind of sad. In truth, in a few instances, homophobia is explained away by professional codes: a martial arts instructor agrees to show Brüno how to beat up gays in part because, well, it’s his job to do what the customer asks, and the military men are harsh on Brüno mostly because, well, he’s not following the rules, not because he’s gay.

I’m not the only one who found Cohen’s depiction of American homophobia stale. The most homophobic thing about the movie may be Cohen himself, although I’ve known a few gays who, while not as exagerrated as Brüno (who is?) are similarly shallow, dumb and celebrity obsessed. Regardless, the GLAAD has put out a perfunctory hit on the movie. Some are wishing Brüno is the last salvo on decades of ludicrous depictions of gays in movies. Well, not so fast, but maybe we’re close.

The biggest proof homophobia is tired? Bruno’s box office numbers, already falling well short of expectations. It’s hard for lightening to strike twice. Borat may have been a one-hit wonder. Sure, some of the underperformance can be explained in other ways. While millions (of men) are willing to see a racist and sexist Kazakh reporter lampoon America on the left and right, who wants to watch an overly effeminate man prance around for ninety minutes doing the same and not as well? At least three men walked out of the screening I attended.Brüno does land one solid blow though, and it’s no wonder it’s saved for the last scene. I cannot say much except that “Straight Dave” and his transgression redeemed the movie considerably, showing how ridiculous it is to fear male-on-male sexuality. That’s right, I’m talking to you, the three guys who walked out of my screening.

Absent Straight Dave, however, people are looking for something new, another kind of homosexual who is neither Ennis del Mar, Jack McFarland or a figment of our historical imagination. Who is this magical homosexual? I can tell you he’s not in theaters right now.

TV: “Adam On The Road” and Other Web Series July 10, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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You’re forgiven if you don’t watch any made-for-Internet television — also known as: web series, webisodes, web shows, or web originals; they’re still working on the name. Most people don’t. Ever since Lonelygirl15, the faux-vlog on YouTube turned ridiculously over-the-top web series, debuted three years ago, the web show has been consistently on the rise but never reaching a breaking point. Sure, there have been breakouts, most notably Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the Neil Patrick Harris starrer recently honored with a few Streamys — a web series Webby — and now available on Hulu, and of course there is YouTube’s Fred, perhaps the most obviously popular (with 12 year-olds). But nothing has broken through the culture in a huge way. Not that celebrities aren’t trying.

More at Ronebreak

ME: MOVING July 6, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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moving2zd3

I am moving into a new apartment this week and next, so posts will be limited! Who knows, though, maybe inspiration with strike me and I’ll write up a storm!

TV: Rage Against the Doctors July 1, 2009

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Three new medically-themed shows arrive at just the right cultural moment. [Nurse Jackie (Grade: A-), Royal Pains (Grade: B), HawthoRNe (Grade: C+)]

nurse_jackie

Americans hate journalists and bankers. As a journalist whose best friend is a banker, this sometimes gets under my skin. But it makes perfect sense, and far be it for me to begrudge someone their hate.

Medical professionals, on the other hand, get lots of respect. Nurses, according to some polls, are the most beloved of our nation’s workers. They are caring and make us feel better but don’t make the controversial calls or handle the billing. Doctors are highly rated too, but if you’ve been watching cable television this summer, you might not think so.

At least three shows, all breakout hits, explore how doctors and hospitals are terrible for healthcare, while nurses can do no—or very little—wrong. ER and Grey’s Anatomy these are not. No wonder cable is so hot right now.

Nurse Jackie, my favorite of the shows, follows the travails of Jackie (Edie Falco), a nurse who always knows better. Falco’s Jackie is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, like the best of pastries. She abuses prescription drugs and cheats on her husband, but she is also an attentive mother, and, most importantly, very caring toward her patients, almost maternally so. She knows what to do before the doctors do. Meanwhile, the doctors are either childish pricks (Peter Facinelli’s Dr. Cooper) or overprivileged ice queens (Eve Best’s Dr. Elenor O’Hara). If they’re right, they are cold and uncaring to their patients; and then of course, they are wrong sometimes too. Right or wrong, they are jerks to the nice nurses. It’s a fun show, made better by the casting of super sexy Haaz Sleiman as a gay nurse.

The anti-doctor motif is a solid formula for Nurse Jackie, which Showtime has already renewed, making it another strong addition to the channel’s already solid lineup.

Another breakout is HawthoRNe, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s comeback show about another nurse, Christina Hawthorne, who is similarly amazing at her job. Like Jackie, Christina has a fatal flaw: a mistake she made caused her husband death. HawthoRNe plays with the same themes. Doctors are off playing golf instead of helping patients or make the wrong calls and then blame the nurses. The hospital bureaucracy blames nurses first and doctors later, meaning Christina’s job is harder to do and less prestigious. Less edgy than Nurse Jackie, HawthoRNe is less fun, an awkward compromise between network (think ER) and pay-cable aesthetics.

Yet by far this summer’s most surprising hit is Royal Pains, USA’s Mark Feuerstein starrer about an accomplished emergency room doctor fired for letting a billionaire hospital trustee die while saving a no-name black kid. A doctor we like, you wonder? Yes, we do like Feuerstein’s Hank Lawson, but only because he works outside the hospital system. Despite treating insanely rich Hamptons clients, Hank is noble because he has cut out the bureaucracy and the politics, getting to the heart of the problem without long lines or red tape (though he’s been known to use duct tape). His helpful associate, a super-nurse played by Reshma Shetty, is equally lovable and capable.

Why all the hate for doctors and hospitals? Cable networks simply got lucky and hit the right note at the right time. In our current healthcare battle, doctors are fast becoming the arch enemy. Most Americans are in favor of a government-run healthcare plan, but the American Medical Association, because doctors get less money for government patients, are vigorous opponents and have been for decades. It’s the kind of self-interest that is putting doctors in league with drug companies, who fear the government using its buying power to purchase drugs at lower prices, and insurers, who fear the loss of business if people flock to a public option. Already, stories are surfacing of doctors over-treating not only to protect their backsides but also to make more money. In a recent New Yorker article Atul Gawande wrote that hospitals “know that if their doctors bring in enough business—surgery, imaging, home-nursing referrals—they make money; and if they get the doctors to bring in more, they make more.” It gets worse: “Then there are the physicians who see their practice primarily as a revenue stream…They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work. This is a business, after all.”

In this context the stunning success of HawthoRNeRoyal Pains and Nurse Jackie make sense. Divorced from the revenue stream, nurses and independent doctors seem altruistic. It’s no surprise most nurses’ associations support either a single-payer or some other public healthcare option.

The lesson? Maybe this summer Congress should be watching more cable TV.