Peaks and Valleys

Here is what you try not to think about over a long holiday weekend:

  • It was a record 108 degrees in Los Angeles on Saturday but clearly “man-made climate change is not primarily responsible for it,” say any number of those now in power to do something about it in Washington, DC.

Me, right now

  • Massive flooding in Houston occurred some days earlier leaving more than 50 dead and counting, many thousands of others homeless and a cost for full rebuilding over the next decade estimated into the billions (that’s with a “B”).
  • ELECTORAL POTUS has NOW decided to do away with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), thus requiring the MASS DEPORTATION of close to ONE MILLION people brought here as immigrant CHILDREN by parents who came to this country illegally.   They key world is children, or even toddlers – meaning many of these kids don’t even speak the native language of the country they will be deported back to over the next year.

I can’t…

Well, I did. For a bit. But finally it grew too much.

So I did what I usually do – escaped into media.

Just kidding… this is me, right now

There was the Twin Peaks two-hour finale on Showtime; a binge of the entire two seasons of the half-hour Netflix comedy-drama Love; and a screening of the much lauded Sundance indie flick with a confused gay, model-looking hunk protagonist called Beach Rats.

There was also food. A lot of it. A bit of frolic. And yeah, some worrying.

But what about the MEDIA????

Netflix’s Love

Talk nerdy to me

Judd Apatow co-created and produces the show but truly it is the brainchild of its male lead Paul Rust and his wife Lesley Arfin, who write many of the episodes. The reason and resonance is clear – it is loosely based on their relationship.

Of course, what writer of comedy-drama doesn’t base their work on past relationships? The correct answer is NO ONE – no matter how much they deny it in protest.  In this case, it is a twist on the archetypal nerdy, awkward but funny-smart guy in glasses and the hip, wild, partying hot girl with an even sicker sense of humor than he has. Will they get together and make it work? Or won’t they?

You may think you’ve seen it before, as I initially did, but you haven’t. One suspects that’s because the entire series is grounded in the realities that Rust and Arfin experienced themselves. No, not literally. It’s not as if what happened in Annie Hall four decades prior onscreen exactly mirrored the Diane Keaton-Woody Allen relationship or even recreated it. But there’s a reason why certain contemporary rom-com stories are great and addictive and usually it’s because they are real – at least thematically.

Realistically — I bet that sandwich was that good.

Love is all of this and more. Give it a chance and don’t roll your eyes at the initial tropes, which I did – only to then get quickly addicted for 22 episodes in less than a week. God, I love a good binge – of so many things.

Beach Rats 

Where to begin…

Beach Rats centers on a working class teenager struggling with his attraction to men – particularly middle aged men he meets online – but it might as well be set in 1957 instead of 2017. Masquerading as real and unflinching it is instead a skewed portrait of working class life that so tilts the deck towards gay panic and hopelessness that one almost expects its characters to be sporting ducktails and cigarettes rolled up in t-shirt sleeves rather than lean muscled bodies, random tattoos and endless thirsts to get high.

Like a modern day Kenickie! #exceptnot

Of course, they do share “smokes” and often speak like something out of an old Nicholas Ray film or a low budget indie Sundance version of Rumble Fish if those movies contained too many lingering shots of fireworks, arcade games and indecipherable male torsos.

It is certainly fine to depict a group of homophobic or homo-indifferent teenagers in contemporary life. What is not fine (nor real) is to so isolate them and every gay man depicted in the film into clichés last seen in films like Frank Sinatra’s The Detective – that movie from 1968 where a self loathing homosexual hits a lover over the head with a candle or ashtray or something heavy and kills him because he can’t bear the idea of not being straight.

Kind of like what I wish I did instead of watching Beach Rats

If we are to believe director-writer Eliza Hittman’s entire narrative we also have to buy it all leads to a ludicrous third act where an out, smart Manhattan boy drives to Brooklyn after meeting the film’s sexy leading teen-man online and does something TWICE no gay man even vaguely close to the character depicted would do. EVER. Let’s leave it at that unless you’re tempted to find out what happens some snowy night by the Brooklyn version of the Village docks circa 1968. But don’t say I didn’t warn you before you get into your time tunnel and then try to throw it at your screen of choice.

Not content to leave it there, the film also paints lonely pathetic lives for all the homosexual males we meet over the age of 40 –desperate creatures prowling online for boys they can have in the bushes or in seedy motels without having shaved, showered, deodorized or, no doubt, even brushed their teeth. Though somehow our sexy leading teen/man always manages to do so for his sex dates with them. But of course he’s young and not totally gay. Yet. Hmm, what or whom to root for?

At this point I would have preferred this old gay stereotype

Sadly, there is a stinking, rotting quality to everything here – perhaps on purpose for “mood” – but ultimately landing with the great weight of phony pretension. Still, the director seems to have gotten away with this pose in the eyes of films festivals and critics galore. Check out the reviews from Sundance or this one from The New Yorker.

As a kid from the boroughs myself, who grew up loving the fireworks, arcade games and bumper cars depicted in Beach Rats, I began to dread each lingering faux magical shot of the milieu as its endless minutes marched into what seemed like many endless hours. Repetitive visual imagery is no substitute for depth of story and character, no matter how many random lights in the sky or ocean waves one’s camera relentlessly aims to capture.

The Beach Rats audience

There is a great movie to be made on exactly this subject but that’s about the only thing most gay people will feel once this film comes to its retro torturous end – other than anger.

And NO, I didn’t like it. No one bit.

Twin Peaks: The Return 

Paging Agent Cooper…

It’s like the person you dated in college or in your twenties who was a glorious irresistible mess and yet you couldn’t get enough of them. Smart, confounding, funny without trying to be so, obtuse and more than a handful of times just downright f-ckg brilliant.

Often you don’t officially break up with this person. Something circumstantial happens or an unexpected situational event occurs that inevitably puts an end to the whole thing. But it’s never totally voluntary on your part no matter how many times your friends, family or even you feel like you were f-ckd over. This is because there truly was something so unique, so individual about the experience that can never be duplicated and you wouldn’t give that up for the world despite how much turmoil it might have put you through.

When’s the honeymoon?

Ironically enough, David Lynch and Mark Frost did put us through the Twin Peaks wringer again 25 years later thanks to Showtime and those of us who stayed are all the better for it. We got some hope for the saga of Laura Palmer, time traveled back to the 1950s, tried to learn some new, never heard before languages and began to realize that a good deal of the key wisdom of the world can be learned via a giant tea kettle, barren potato head tree or discovered in a Tilt-A-Whirl room with comfortable green velvet chairs.

You know I’m not gonna pass up posting a pop culture chair #takeaseat

OK, some of it made no sense at all, but have you checked the news lately? Nothing in this Twin Peaks was literal but, then again, Lynch and co. were bold enough to linger on so many scenes in real time elongated minutes that perhaps everything was. Twin Peaks is the opposite of anything pretentious – it is filmmaking/TV making (Note: Just what is the difference anymore?) with a purpose. And that purpose is to take us to a place we can believe in despite how extreme, absurd or hateful it is. It is and always has been what the books tell us great storytelling is – a seamless dream.

And with that – good night.

Muddy Magnolias – “American Woman (Slowed David Lynch version)

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Gay is the Old Black

Emmy bait.

Emmy bait.

One wonders if Michael Douglas would play the part of the homophobic father of Jonathan Allen, the 20 year-old from Tennessee who, after being thrown out of the house by his parents two years ago for being gay, wowed the judges on America’s Got Talent this past week.  Or, better yet, if Steven Soderbergh would even choose to direct a movie about it.  Or if Jerry Weintraub would ever decide to produce it.  The way all three did with the continuously lauded and now award-winning HBO film about Liberace’s later years and prurient love life, Behind the Candelabra.

My guess:  probably not.  Most movie stars of Mr. Douglas’ generation dislike playing roles they deem too unsympathetic.  And don’t use the example of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.  That film was made in and about the 1980s – a time when the general population actually agreed that “greed was good” and that ole Gordy was not so much a villain but a slightly tainted ideal many aspired to.

Of course, the majority of critics, audiences, and the cast and crew have not deemed the cable TV portrait of uber-gay Liberace unsympathetic either.  That would require that the real-life tale of the entertainer and his former lover Scott Thorson had been truly told.   The one about a 16-year old boy who was lured into the Las Vegas home of a fifty something mega-millionaire star with promises of wealth and family.  The one where the star repeatedly had sex with the boy for several years before he turned 18 (as well as any number of years after) with full knowledge said star was breaking the law. The same one where, when the older man got bored with the boy and the boy started taking too many drugs, as many young boys do, found a replacement and tossed him onto the street as he had so many others before him that were of age, with a little bit of money and a couple of fur coats – all the while publicly denying to his dying day that they ever had that kind of relationship or that said entertainer was even gay.

Eyeroll

Eyeroll

I’ve resisted writing anything but a few paragraphs about Behind the Candelabra up to this point because it seemed like the kind of film that would get some recognition for the circus stunt of Michael Douglas in sequins and a blonde-tressed Matt Damon screwing him from behind, and then disappear.

Such is not the case.  The cable film just won best drama and best actor from the Broadcast Critics Association.  It played to large and enthusiastic crowds at the Cannes Film Festival.  And mostly straight audiences (and some gay) seem to have embraced it as bold and groundbreaking.  Even those few writers who have dared to write critical pieces about the movie are often skewered, lacerated and told to get over themselves in the comments sections (even in respected places like Salon).   Also, Behind the Candelabra is likely to get nominated and win a slew of Emmy Awards, and go down in the books as “the courageous film all of the studios passed on with that director and that cast (can you believe it!) because they were too afraid of the gay subject matter.”  The latter is the meme that Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Weintraub have been tirelessly and successfully peddling during the last six months.

Which is why, at this point, I’m weighing in.

Frankly – this film disgusts me.  Not as much as the lies about the war in Iraq, gay bullying or the right wing trying to take away a woman’s rights to choose.  That’s a different level of disgust – maybe more like infuriation.   But disgust – yeah, that about covers this.

I’ve thought a lot about other words to use to describe my feelings – queasy, nauseated, annoyed or even…jealous?  But finally, after much consternation, I decided that the perfect world is, indeed….

dis·gust  A feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.

It is worth noting it’s not the people attached to this film that signal disgust to me – I respect them all (professionally that is, I don’t know them personally).  It’s the film itself and everything it tells us about where the industry is today vis-à-vis movies about gay people – or about most minorities – that makes me want to run to the toilet and be sick.

Someone tell that to the Emmys!

Someone tell that to the Emmys!

This is also not to say that the life of Liberace might not make an interesting movie.  That story – the one about how a young Midwestern piano prodigy invented (and for years carried off) the flamboyantly effeminate (some would say homosexual) persona of a character named Liberace and became the world’s greatest entertainer while still managing to convince his mostly gay intolerant world of fans he was anything but homosexual, would indeed be fascinating and almost certainly would not have caused me to write any of this.  And, even if it wasn’t particularly good, I doubt it would actually have made me feel disgusted.

Of course,  we will never know for sure since that tale was far from the one HBO and this prestigious group of A-list film professionals chose to tell in 2013 – a time when gay marriage is not only favored by the majority of people in the US (and an overwhelming majority under 25) but where its difficult to read any daily print or online news source where a major story about something homosexual is not featured on the front page.  I mean, even me – a middle aged guy who was “born that way”- sometimes gets gay fatigue.

geyyyyy

Still, true change in the movies, and the world, is not solely about the amount of ink you get or the measure of RAM you occupy on someone’s computer or website.  True change not only moves at a glacial pace but is often a one step forward, two steps back deal.  And this is where Behind the Candelabra comes in.  And me.  And my disgust.  The kind that I’m feeling right now as I compose this.

Writers are told all the time that their movies need a reason to be made. So are producers, directors, actors and studio executives.  But since writers are, by definition, the inventors of the first tangible version of a project, perhaps it is best to start with us.  As a writer one asks oneself:  What is the reason for this story?  Why make it?  What compels it to be told?  What would interest an audience?  Why will anyone care?  Why do I care?

I feel you Neil.

I feel you Neil.

I teach my writing students to ask these questions early on because I don’t want them to waste their time working on anything they are not fully invested in.  Even if it is the silliest, most exploitative story in the world, the author must find a way to imbue some kind of personal feelings of – well, something – into it.  Because if it doesn’t mean much to us, how can we expect it to mean anything to you?

I’ve watched Behind the Candelabra twice and have been looking for meaning, or even relevance, to today’s audiences.   Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • The story of a May-December relationship told from a gay perspective could be fair diversion, one supposes.  But that would seem only fair (and not exploitative) if we had a bunch of films about other, less prurient (and more successful) same sex relationships to compare it to – which we don’t.
  • The emotional journey of a relationship can sometimes be enough to override a lack of story.  In essence, the ride you get having a front row seat to the ups and downs of human interaction between two people over a period of time can substitute for a paucity of plot points.  There are some emotions here – for instance, shock and sadness that an older person could actually convince a younger person to have extensive plastic surgery to remake their face to that of their “mentor.”  But certainly not ever sadness or shock that this relationship will end badly – or interest in how it does – which knocks out most of the tension throughout the film and causes the last hour (and more) to be deadly dull.

    A sharp contrast to this knee-knudge heard 'round the world.

    A sharp contrast to this knee-nudge heard ’round the world.

  • Maybe it’s the spectacle??  Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.  The sequins, the clothes, the excess of a hidden lifestyle and time period in show business that no longer exists is lots of fun.  And those gays – who better than them to do this up in style!  (Though note: there is not a single gay person in the principal above-the-line talent or crew).
  • Another attraction could be the over-the-top characters themselves, who are at the very least entertaining in a very broad, stereotypical manner compared to what else was going on in the world at that time.  The homosexuals have always done this well since time began and it makes audiences quite comfortable to view them this way, thank you very much.   And certainly, why make any movie that is not at least fun!!??
  • Juicy parts for actors who can be cast against type.  The old Hollywood joke: Every time a straight man puts on a dress they give him an Oscar?  Well, not anymore.  (Note: Even James Franco’s Marilyn Monroe drag as Oscar host fell flat a few years ago).  So, you have to find new ways for them to do it.  How about a happy recipient of anal sex who dies tragically that can’t be X-rated?  It’s Oscar/Emmy bait for Michael Douglas.  (He even gets to have AIDS, but we can downplay that ‘cause the real life Liberace did!). Plus, what about an enjoyment of Speedos, suntans and Las Vegas?  It’s the flip side of Ocean’s 11 for Matt Damon and he’ll jump at that!   What actor wouldn’t want to play younger than they are, get fat and then skinny and then fat and skinny again as they age, become addicted to drugs and then recover?  No one, that’s who.
Yeah, I'm exhausted too.

Yeah, I’m exhausted too.

But please, please, please, please – do not tell me this movie is groundbreaking or even something different.  And if you’re a high-powered A-lister, don’t keep spreading your tales of woe about how the heads of movie studios are ruining the business by not taking chances on this kind of film.   They might be ruining the business by not taking chances but NOT taking a chance on this film was exactly the right choice.  It has no relevance to 2013.  It had relevance in 1983, and in 1993 – at the height of the AIDS epidemic – when it might have meant something other than an easy way to make some money, get some attention and garner a few awards for “courage.”

The people who made it should know better.  And might benefit from watching Jonathan Allen tell another all too familiar, yet far more commercially relevant and compelling story for today.  This story was  indeed shown last week not on the big screen or on cable television but on, of all things,  network reality TV  – America’s Got Talent, to be exact.

It is indeed the golden age of television.  In some circles, at least.