Adieu ’22

I avoid ever saying this is the worst about anything because to me that is tempting fate.  

Invariably life will answer you back with, really, then try this, and you will find yourself wishing and dreaming and hoping of what you once thought was the worst because in retrospect you had no idea how truly “worst” things could get.

Somehow it can still get worse

All that being said, 2022 was by no means a STELLAR year.

If it wasn’t the WORST, and clearly it wasn’t in case life is listening, it was by no means the BEST.

I will cop to the fact that it was better than sitting quarantined at home in an infinity number of Zoom chats, as we were in 2020 and large swaths of 2021.  It was also preferable to the morning after Election Day 2016 or that time in 2006 when Crash won the Oscar for best picture over Brokeback Mountain (Note:  March 5th, somewhere between 8 and 9pm PST, to be exact.  Not that I hold grudges.  Much). 

Promise.

I watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever the other night and I quite enjoyed it.  Or let’s say, it hit home with me and I wasn’t bored, which is more than I can say for the majority of critic’s darlings this year (Note:  I still want my 12 hours back for Tar and the other 18 that I devoted to _____fill in the blank___).

Side Note:  What is it with the length of movies this year, anyway?  Why has more become more, and even more be determined to be even better??

Me, after I finish Babylon

Nevertheless Wakanda.  At two hours and 41 minutes it is actually four minutes longer than Tar but to me plays like a short film by comparison.

And I guess that is the real point.

Taste, like life, or even year-end recaps and annual 10 best lists, is really all about point of view and perspective. 

For me, Wakanda summed up a several year period of loss and gave us a comic book blueprint about moving on.  If it wasn’t the best film of the year, and certainly it wasn’t even though that’s a pretty low bar, it certainly was one of the most relevant.

More Angela in 2023, please

What do you do when the world, as you understood it, disappears?  How do you survive when one of the people closest to you dies?  How do you move on when your hero (or heroes) disappears and your moral compass is gone? 

And what actions can you take when there is no one left to lead you but yourself and deep down you know you are nowhere near up to that task?

Wakanda answers that question in a reassuring, old-fashioned way.  That, of course, none of us are by ourselves if we’ve ever loved and lost because the memory of that person, or the good that once was, is always inside of us.  We merely need to go deep down and feel the joy, through the pain of what once was, and use it and all we experienced as the basis for a new path that we create for ourselves to move forward. 

A kind of moral, even informational, blue print, if you will.

Whoa, Chairy. That’s deep!

I heard some politician or theologian this year talk about the history of social movements as a relay race that one runs in during their time.  You advance the cause as far as you can and then pass the torch on to the next generation, in hopes that they can go even further   

The race never ends but neither does the spirit of anyone that has come before you, despite the inevitable losses.

That’s the way we move on and carry on and certainly it’s all far above the pay grade of anyone trying to summarize 2022. 

Except, clearly, some people.

Vibes.

The horrific invasion of the Ukraine by Russia began in Feb. 2022 and continues through this very moment and beyond. Yet Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor with little political experience, unlikely leads a shockingly strong and still standing Ukraine, and was just voted Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. 

Dressed in fatigue colors and armed with the ability to stay charismatically on message as bombs drop all around him, Zelensky has somehow risen to fill a leadership gap in the world by merely stepping up in a moment.  No more so then when he addressed the U.S. Congress a few weeks ago and proclaimed that the billions in military aid we are giving to Ukraine should not be seen as “charity” but an “investment” for freedom and all of our futures.

True courage

What could read like political tripe played as exactly the opposite merely because it was the truth and was said with conviction and a little bit of humor.  And it got him a standing ovation from the vast majority of blue AND red politicians in the chamber.  Not to mention the world.

To make a cheap comparison to movies – which is cheap because they are NOT real life despite what we think – it’s what happens when an actor so totally inhabits a role that the effect is undeniable.  Austin Butler in Elvis and Brendan Fraser in The Whale.  Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans and Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once.  Four high points of many low points overall in 2022 cinema.

… and the rocks. Of course, the rocks.

Actors, in particular, often get their moments in the unlikeliest of roles and/or in the strangest of times.  And many of them, like many of us, never hit that jackpot in quite the way they or we imagine they would.

Nevertheless, we all continue running the race, as the mere fact of you reading this proves.  And that is at least one other great thing about 2022.  We are all still running.

I could tell you The Bear and Wednesday and Smiley brought me the most fun on streaming platforms in the past 12 months, and that the Jan. 6th hearings were clearly the smartest and most interesting thing on network television but what would that prove?

… that you’ve been thinking about this dance for a month?

I can confess that re-watching select films on Turner Classic Movies this year probably gave me more pleasure than any other 2022 release (Note:  I marveled at Paris Blues (1961), a perfectly imperfect movie, and cried once again at Jacques Demy’s classic Umbrellas of Cherbourg) but who really cares.

It’s even less important than admitting that I loved Mary Rodgers’ autobiography Shy a lot more than the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel All The Light We Cannot See, which I tried reading over the summer but never finished because there is only so much description of items in a room (Note: Meaning, not much) that I can bear. 

This feels right

That fact is even less surprising than publicly stating I listen to almost none of the new songs and albums that made it onto music critics’ 2022 top ten lists (Note: I can’t anymore with Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé, though they and their admittedly oversize talents, should live and be well). 

Oh get over it!

Still, in fairness I must state that I do love me some Brandi Carlisle and was really, really, really disappointed that the forever young and forever cool indie rock group, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, had to bow out of the season finale musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live because one of them was ill.

They should live and be well (Note: When did I turn into my great-grandmother?) through 2022 and beyond, too. 

As should we all and then some for what a new, potentially fabulous year could have on the horizon.  Or not.

No pressure, 2023.   At All.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs – “Spitting Off the Edge of the World”

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”