All in the Family

I’ve been randomly catching up on new movies because it’s that time of year. 

The period when a bunch of award-worthy and/or star driven prestige films get released either at the box office or via streaming platforms. 

Tis the season!

It sort of starts a bit in September then increases, in earnest, once November and December roll around. 

There are lots of reasons for this, and I could go on about them.  But at this point…

Who really cares???

Pass the popcorn please

Technology is in the midst of changing how we view everything and it’s anyone’s guess where this is all going.   

It’s not even a far-reach to suggest that within this century movie theatres will be obsolete and we will be viewing the latest film via a chip portal implanted within our brains that you can buy on Amazon at the low cost of $29.99 per year.

The catch is every studio will have it’s own portal and by the time you’re done you will have so many chips and holes in your head that they (Note: Whoever THEY are) will charge you as much as $2999.99 annually to view everything sans commercials.

Maybe Lumon will have a discount rate?

Though judging from the handful of new 2022 movies I’ve been sampling lately, as well as my experience as a still chip/portal free human on this planet, one reality won’t change. 

Like Cats, we will now and forever be inundated with films about….

Family. 

Yes –

FAMILY. FAMILY. FAMILY. FAMILY.  FAMILY. FAMILY.

You tell em Dom

You can’t get away from them.  Literally.

Drama, comedy, horror, kid friendly, romance, action – it doesn’t matter.  The family WILL endure be it frighteningly awful, wonderfully fantastic or, more than likely, somewhere in between.

Despite whatever cynical sensibilities popular culture tries selling us, we don’t ever tire of reflecting on or grappling with what it means to be a member of either our born into or chosen tribes.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

It shows up consistently in the majority of new movies and is one of the only perennial go-to subjects for filmmakers to this day (Note: Whether they admit it or not).  And we, their audience, will be drawn in no matter what the packaging is (Note: And it is especially varied) in the last few weeks of this year.

To whit: Three extremely different but much anticipated new, ahem, family films available, or about to become available —

Right after this profound quote from the forever wise, and seemingly familial, Gloria Steinem:

Happy or unhappy, families are all mysterious. We have only to imagine how differently we would be described – and will be, after our deaths – by each of the family members who believe they know us.

Ugh.  Why is she always right?

I mean look who she goes to the movies with! #theyknew

The FabelmansThe most obvious choice for family memoir but not the most obvious story.  You might think you know all about Steven Spielberg from his movies and gazillion interviews but this is the just slightly fictionalized version of what formed him that we could never have imagined on our own.

It’s fascinating to watch someone who is the most commercially successful director in film history, as well as one of the more critically acclaimed, so openly sort out his, stuff, before our eyes.

A true peek behind the curtain

Sure, there’s a bit of a dramatic pullback here and there but seeing how Spielberg remembers his somewhat bipolar, artistic mother and his stoic and slightly removed genius father work out their emotional infidelities with their kids as voyeuristic hostages, provides a compelling narrative that shouldn’t really work as well as it ultimately does.

Some of this might be due to the director himself, who has always known how to squeeze supersized movie moments out of even the most mundane of people.  Though with the help of co-writer and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, his family becomes much more than that.

Meet the Spielbergs…. I mean… the Fabelmans

Yes, there’s just enough dysfunction, betrayal, anti-Semitism, disappointment and heartbreak, told Spielberg style, for the film to get by without becoming a for the ages contemporary version of a Bergman movie (Note:  Of course, I would have REALLY like to have seen that).  But there’s a limit to how bare-boned he is going to get, and, more importantly, how bare-boned you really want him to be.

So what makes his most personal family film bold and true and exactly right is the story of how the director became the Spielberg who changed movies and our worldview of them.  He was given the tools at an early age as the oldest white male child of upper middle class privilege; encouraged a lot, or enough, to persevere with movie making through some bad times as a way to heal both himself and his family; had an insane obsession with movies his closest relatives happily colluded with; and came from parents who were each quite brilliant in their respective fields.

Release the Sammy Fabelman cut!

Combine the inventive mechanical genius of his father with the aching, emotional concert level piano playing of his mother and what you get is the alchemy behind a kind of once in a generation talent in any chosen field.  The obstacles were there, but his destiny feels inevitable.  The time period of the fifties and sixties had drawbacks for nerdy Jewish boys but we know deep down they won’t be insurmountable.  And the ongoing love, if not always understanding he received from those closest to him in adolescence had a price but never one that was completely soul crushing, even if in one instance it comes close.

If you ever wondered why Spielberg and his films are the way that they are, well, it’s all there.  Or at least his version of it, told in a much more imperfect way than you might have imagined he ever would.

Get this man his Oscar please

The WhaleDirector Darren Aronofsky saw playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s play about a morbidly obese online English teacher eating himself to death almost a decade ago and worked with him to turn it into a movie.

The Whale is probably one of the most difficult films you could choose to watch this season but with Brendan Fraser it has one of the finest lead performances you will see all year.  At its heart it is really a movie about the effect one’s actions have on those they consider to be their adult family, e.g. a spouse, a child, a lover, a good friend, and how every choice we make in life can reverberate a thousand fold towards our loved ones whether we like it or not.

I was incredibly moved and momentarily mentally destroyed watching the tenderness and selfish determination Fraser brought to this role, as well as amazed by the choice of Aronofsky to tell this story as a horror film crossed with a family drama.

Also starring Sadie Sink, who is much more than Stranger Things

It all worked for me, and then some, which is why I’m thoroughly confused by the thus far mixed critical response to The Whale.  Its hyper real, hyperactive presentation of a bad situation growing horrifically worse is not for the faint of heart.  But nothing about it is exploitative, apologetic or facile.

If we accept that we humans, especially members of the same family, are alternately, selfish, loving, hateful and understanding/not understanding towards each other, and most especially ourselves, The Whale has quite a bit to offer as an exploration of the human psyche.

What happens when life happens and you can no longer live up to the rigorous requirements of the world, of those closest to you (Note: If there are any still left) and, mostly, of yourself?  How will it end for those of us who can’t hack it?  Is there grace, or at least some fleeting moment, or moments, of redemption?

Deep thoughts, Chairy.

Sure, it’s melodramatic.  Duh.  It’s supposed to be.  This is not hyper reality.  It’s a movie movie in tone and execution that challenges us not to look away and dismiss that which we do not want to see because it’s too emotional, illogical or uncomfortable.  And there are far too few of them these days.

NopeJordan Peele’s movies are nothing if not imperfectly strange and imaginative.  Nope debuted in theatres this summer and was available on streaming platforms in September.  I didn’t catch up with it until a week ago and, as usual I found what he was serving up confounding yet impossible to dismiss.

The thing with Peele, like all interesting filmmakers, is either you accept him on his own terms and look beyond your expectations or you don’t.  I often can’t go all the way but there is something about what he imagines that makes me come back for more with each subsequent film.

… and I’ll never look at clouds the same way

He’s like the crazy uncle I want to relate to yet always feels just out of reach.  He starts a conversation at a family gathering and I initially find him the most dynamic person in the room but somewhere along the way he loses me and I go back into the kitchen to help my mom with the food because there are other people at the party who are a much better audience than myself.

For all its sci-fi elements of flying saucers, dusty southern California desert landscapes and the vagaries of those in the entertainment industry seeking fame and fortune that they can never hold on to, Nope is essentially a family story.

A brother and sister have inherited a multi-generation family ranch/business that trains and provides animals for commercials, TV and film.  One loves the biz, the other is lukewarm but deep down they love each other despite a perennial lack of understanding of where each is coming from.

Can we all just talk about how great Keke Palmer is?

They want something real for themselves but they’ve been put in a box by the world and have been generationally walled off from too many upwardly mobile opportunities because of their heritage and the ways in which their family and the world, in this case, Hollywood, has always worked.

Little do they know that when a somewhat supernatural opportunity uniquely presents itself to them, it will be the beginning of a road that has the potential to set things right personally, if not professionally.

That’s about all you need to know if you haven’t seen it, except that even when it doesn’t work at all it does seem to be working on another level.  That is not unlike every continuous family dynamic we’ve ever seen.  Even when we don’t fully get what’s going on, we’ve invested to stick around just long enough to know what will happen to each of these people at the end of the road.

So much family, wanted and unwanted.  And so little time.

The O’Jays – “Family Reunion”

The Fake True Story

I was watching the first two episodes of season 11 of American Horror Story the other night because:

a. I needed an escape

b. It takes place in gay NYC in 1981, and 

c. I figured, how much worse could they make the impending doom of that time than it already was?  

Do I really want to know the answer?

Plus, one thing I can always count on this show and Ryan Murphy for is a few cheap thrills.   

And let’s face it, these days nothing is cheap and little, if anything, feels thrilling.

Well hell if I can’t say American Horror Story: NYC and Ryan didn’t deliver every cheap, thrilling, tawdry, salacious and ridiculously familiar tidbit with a twist that I could imagine, and then some.

But the problem is, it also made me think.

LOL What???

In an age of alternative facts is it okay to simply mix real events and fictionalized nonsense to the point where even I, an overly analytical gay guy who lived through those times, can barely tell the difference between fact and fiction? 

Or, say it isn’t so, is that actually the point???

AHS: NYC is the latest in a whole series of sensationalized TV and movie fact-tion that to varying degrees feasts on real people, real events and even numerous real names and images.  

They then swallow them whole and spit them out into a based on a true story but not really dramatization of events and eras that definitely existed but, well, in not exactly the way we’re telling it.

What is real???

Netflix’s recent humorless (note: and in my mind heartless) feature Blonde, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novelistic approach to the barely fictionalized life of Marilyn Monroe (note: real name used) instantly comes to mind.  As does the retelling of one view of Princess Diana’s life in last year’s Spencer, not to mention the singular tragedy porn take of director Pablo Larrain’s telling of the brief post-assassination period of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in 2016’s Jackie.

Oh for god’s sake

This approach is not limited to the real lives of women, though those stories often prove irresistible fodder since we in the public have loved to fetishize females as somewhat tragic figures who never seem to get either the credit or the love that they deserve.  

Full confession:  I’m as guilty as any on this score.  Me, a guy from the boroughs, spent my teens, twenties and some years beyond feeling so badly for the very young, very from the boroughs and very inexperienced at love Fanny Brice/ Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.   

Who… me?

I mean, she marries the handsome, worldly gambler Nick Arnstein because she so purely and desperately loves him and, despite their differences, knows she can make it work as she does everything else on stage.  Until she is forced to finally realize the hard way that mere love is not enough to make a relationship work.

It’s compelling to watch versions of the naïve, odd-looking, inexperienced kid from the cheap seats and the handsome, high-living lothario with a heart of gold who falls in love with her that we’ve all heard and read about, right?  Except, well, it’s all kind of made up.

Does Lea know?

It was only with this new 2022 Broadway iteration of Funny Girl that even I, Mr. Show Biz, found out the real Fanny Brice was married and divorced from her first husband prior to ever meeting Nick-y Arnstein, her second one. Not only that, but she already knew he was an unapologetic racketeer into all kinds of illegal stuff long before she married him and even well after.

But, I mean, how romantic is that story? (Note: I, for one, find it wildly compelling but that is yet another story).  

There has been a tradition of plundering through people’s lives in hopes of making some creative and commercial sense of their existences.  You clean up a little here, romanticize a little there, condense the timelines when convenient and change the names to protect against any one who can sue you.

Except Diana: The Musical… I have no idea what that is

No one really cares that Fanny wasn’t a virgin and that she brazenly married a racketeer if it’ll ruin a better story and make them not appear…sweeter.  Just like audiences don’t really want to know that in Gypsy the real life stage mother from hell, the iconic Rose, also had female lovers, one of whom she shot and killed after she dared to make a pass at her daughter Gypsy.

It’s one thing to tidy up specific people’s lives but it’s quite another to pick and choose from many, many lives you are appropriating, not to mention in what ways you are doing it.  But well, is it?  

The Law and Order franchises have made ripped from the headlines roman a clef a true television art since 1990 and lives on to this day.  (Note: Do not say ONE BAD WORD ABOUT MARISKA!).   And there is hardly a decade of history in the last 250 years that has not been pilfered for reinvented real-life tales, tall or otherwise.

WORK!

This is all a lot to consider (or not) while watching the beginning of AIDS, the murderous virus of homophobia, the leather cruising, the excessive drug use and the pilfering of fact and fiction as the subculture of gaydom before it was mainstreamed and/or talked about as portrayed in AHS: NYC.

It’s 1981 and we’re given a bit from the much criticized movie Cruising (1980) when a closeted gay detective played by Looking’s Russell Stovey examines what remains of the body of a handsome, fictionalized, leather-clad airline pilot murdered by the docks.  

But the detective is living with an angry, middle-aged out gay journalist, played by renowned out gay director-actor Joe Mantello, a composite of many but sort of a roman a clef of a real-life but much younger out gay journalist at the time, Michaelangelo Signorelli,  who became famous for outing famous closeted gays in the late eighties for not doing more to lead the fight against AIDS.

Joe giving us full Ryan Murphy lighting

So far, so good and  a smart mix of fact and fiction – kind of.

But then it gets kind of murky when we’re introduced to several requisite gay killers, one of whom is stalking our sweet, young, looking-for-love but not necessarily for sex, hero Adam, causing his best friend to go missing and Adam to become desperate.

A series of clues lead him to a bathhouse where he stumbles upon a famous photographer of provocatively naked, rough-looking gay males, but someone who also likes to capture images of flowers.  He should really be called Robert Mapplethorpe but isn’t because this isn’t a Fanny Brice-type biopic.

Not now Lea!!

However, it sort of is because the Mapplethorpe type has a rich boyfriend/manager/art patron named Sam, portrayed by Zachary Quinto, as a sleazy, sadist who is a little older and who is clearly based on Mapplethorpe’s real life lover/patron, Sam Wagstaff.  

By all accounts, the real Sam was a kind man who loved Mapplethorpe, bought him a building to finance and create his art, and believed in his work when almost no one else did.   Nevertheless, his AHS version likes drugging young men, locking them in cages against their will and doing god knows what to them before they meet some looming awful demise.  At least by the end of episode two.

There’s also a lot more.  

Ryan? Excess? I don’t believe it

The obviously well-educated ex-military gay psychopath who, with some help, drugs and kidnaps men at gay bars, and then tortures and/or kills them by injecting needles under their fingernails.  He and the crimes in the opening are sort of but not exactly based on New York’s notorious real life Last Call Killer as well as some of the murders portrayed in Cruising.

Not to mention the chanteuse at the gay bathhouse played by Patti Lupone, who so far has no dialogue but sings two songs great.  The problem is one of them is the haunting Oscar-nominated tune I Am Calling You, from the 1987 film, Bagdad Cafe, and she’s singing it in 1981 to a group of gay men, many of whom are likely to be dead by the time the real version of this song was first written and recorded six years later. 

On the other hand, does this matter when you get to see Patti in a Cleopatra/Cher/Victor/Victoria type headpiece, doing an homage to the world’s most well-known, real life gay bathhouse singer, the young Bette Midler of the early 1970s? 

No, it definitely does not

Not to anyone else but me, it seems.  

AHS:NYC and the like may not be historically accurate but they don’t have to be.  They are real enough, real-ish, which is fine as long as they are believable enough to be moneymaking and/or entertaining.

To use the present vernacular, they provide us infinitely more digestible alternative facts than our actual history.

And then some.

The lovely Kellyanne Conway first coined the oxymoron alternative facts in early 2017 on NBC’s Meet the Press in an effort to defend, or at least massage, the Trump administration’s lies about the number of people at his inauguration.

‘member her?

Days before, at his very first appearance as White House press secretary, Sean “Spicey” Spicer bellowed to a group of disbelieving reporters that President Trump had the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – PERIOD…!

That easily provable lie and blatantly improvable alternative fact quickly became an embarrassing international meme and butt of many a Saturday Night Live gag.

Some of Kate’s best work

Numerous comparative aerial photos, as well as final Washington, D.C. Metro figures for that day became irrefutable truths that Trump didn’t have anywhere near the attendance they claimed.  In fact, the first inauguration of Barack Obama more than doubled the real Trump numbers, which Spicer had already exaggerated by about 20-25%.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, more of an embarrassing mess that would ultimately be cleaned up in the history books by real facts, not alternative ones.

And look where we are now.

George Michael & Lynn Mabry – “I’m Calling You”