I don’t read a lot of film criticism. Robin Wood inspired me to become one of the first out gay critics in Indianapolis — I don’t know but I may have been the first — and, like a real fanboy, I’ve followed Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s work for years, and often check in to find out what Roger Ebert thinks about this or that — not because I like his writing but because I trust his humanity. I sometimes read Manohla Dargis and, more often, Jim Emerson and David Bordwell for their intelligence and breadth of knowledge. When I could afford and had access to The Nation, I read Stuart Klawans, too. I loathe Salon’s film criticism and for the most part, Slate’s and Slant’s, too. Most of the bloggy variety either leaves me cold, makes me roll my eyes or pisses me off.
So much of it is dishonest, either press releases masquerading as criticism, or ideological posturing masquerading as analysis. So much of it is pretentious, verbose, cinephiliac preening. Very little of it is clear.
And some of it, like the post I’ll briefly critique below, is a muddled mess, combining aspects of all of the above.
FILM CRIT HULK SMASH is someone writing about movies and television via a gimmick. He’s the Hulk. AND SO HE WRITES IN ALL CAPS. He knows a thing or two about film or so he thinks. For someone obsessed with type, readability and yeah, film, this post is excruciatingly difficult to read.
He’s writing to defend Girls, a television show I really like, as well. But he does it so awfully. So very awfully.
Rather than veer off into name-dropping Stephen Soderbergh for no apparent reason or misreading Stanley Kubrick (Kubrick is not cold and I have no idea what “cold framing” even means.) HULK should have just done what he claims to want to do in the post’s title or in the first few paragraphs — confront the adolescent sexism and lazy criticism of posts like these. And despite the length of the post, I could never really figure out why HULK thought that Girls is remarkable.
For one thing, he uses the word, semiotics, as if everyone reading knows what he means being supercool and educated blog-reading cinephiles, and as if he’s employing semiotics in the post itself. He’s not. He simply types the word and vaguely suggests that using semiotics would be a good approach to understanding Kubrick, and I guess that has something to do with thinking Girls is remarkable. This is, by definition, pretentious.
Film semiotics was a briefly fashionable tool initially employed by critic Christian Metz in the 70s and based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories of semiology. Metz also borrowed from both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Semiotics is taught in film school as history, and students are often encouraged to write criticism using the various tools they study. Usually, when they graduate, they’ll find it makes sense to put those tools away. I did.
(For my senior thesis, I analyzed Stand By Me using, almost exclusively, Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics, but also Stephen King’s original novella. It was fun but I never wrote like that again. As I got older and the world changed, I realized that what once seemed subtextual in 1986 ends up looking pretty fucking obvious in 2013.)
As someone who plowed through The Imaginary Signifier, for fun, and was assigned Film Language in film school, the best thing I can say about semiotics as a critical tool is that it can be fun, just as many pattern-recognition games can be fun. But it’s by no means an unproblematic way of understanding film, or any individual film. The idea that film is a language is itself a contentious idea and not a settled question. The worst thing I can say about using semiotics, then, other than to quip that semiotics is the Nehru collar of film criticism, is that it can’t do anything more useful than what a reasonable intelligent high school student can do when confronted with, say, Death playing chess on the beach. Now, I hate obvious metaphors (and hate The Seventh Seal) and believe the imposition of such rigid interpretations of visual elements in film is a really good way to shut down discussion, not to mention enjoyment, of a film. It’s certainly the last thing one should do when watching 2001 or Eyes Wide Shut.
HULK does just that by interpreting a shot in Lena Dunham’s feature film, Tiny Furniture. He says that the alarm clock in the final shot means “THE COUNTDOWN TO THE CLOSE OF ADOLESCENCE” and further, “WHAT ELSE COULD THE PURPOSE BE?” If Dunham is really making such a literal point then she’s a far less interesting film-maker than I thought she was.
But, not content with making himself look silly in relation to the history of film criticism, THE HULK writes even sillier stuff.
For instance, he coins the phrase, THE ART OF INVERSION, or NARRATIVE INVERSION. I’d never heard of this phrase as it relates to film, at least as he’s describing it, and so I did a Google search. Apparently, Google hasn’t heard of it, either. Narrative inversion would mean, literally, changing the temporal order of the story. It does not mean what THE HULK says it means. When he mentions Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods as being an example of “narrative inversion,” what he’s describing is self-reflexiveness or self-reflexivity. Whedon directly refers to other movies and modes of story-telling within the narrative, in a self-conscious way. Both the audience and the characters who get the references are in on the jokes. We all know it’s a movie based on other movies and aren’t we all really smart for noticing that. But this method of storytelling is bastardized Brecht. Brecht broke the fourth wall in theater as a way to point out the ideological forces at work to produce meaning in conventional narratives, duplicating dominant power structures. When Brecht did it, and when Godard, Tashlin, and Lewis did it much later, it was avant garde. When Joss Whedon does it in Cabin In The Woods, it’s clever pastiche and no longer new or radical. The television show Moonlighting, starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, for fuck’s sake, did something similar in the 80s. Whedon did it much more successfully and artfully in Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy directly addresses the camera and thus the audience at one point, singing with a very strange look in her eyes, “And you can sing along.”
More importantly for this discussion, I can’t recall any episode of Girls in which there were any self-reflexive moments like that. So I have no idea what THE HULK is trying to get at. Or, are there any moments in Kubrick movies that are Brechtian? No.
I’m not going to fisk THE HULK’S entire post. I don’t have time. But it’s filled to bursting with fatuous and nonsensical assertions about film form.
Here’s my take on two of them:
All film-makers try to make you think, not just “art” films and “art” film-makers. Provoking thought is not what distinguishes an art film from some other form. For some thoughts as to what an art film is as opposed to a more mainstream film, see Bordwell. Also, a preliminary definition of an art film, offered by Jim Emerson, might be that an art film teaches you how to watch it. Maybe that’s what THE HULK means by “making you think” but that’s not how THE HULK uses the phrase. Further, there are art films, like those of the late Stan Brakhage, that try to make you feel and experience something through editing rhythms and color, or art films that call attention to their form above all else, such the films of Michael Snow. You might start thinking, or even drifting off, during the landscape films of James Benning, but I’m not sure that’s the whole point of what he does. It’s also not hard to think of an art film that makes you think all the wrong things. So “making you think” is not an absolute value in and of itself.
There is no such thing as emotional and psychological plotting. THE HULK is confusing narrative structure and character development. Film-makers employ strategies attempting to provoke emotional responses and use the psychology of characters to encourage audiences to identify with them, to make them seem real. There’s nothing odd or unconventional about this. It’s the definition of conventional. What I think he’s getting at is that the things that happen in Girls to move the plot or evince emotions are very small — Marnie hits her head and breaks up with Aaron; Adam masturbates and Hannah yells at him in a show of dominance — but they are nevertheless, things that happen. They’re not bombs blowing up or presidents getting assassinated but they nevertheless constitute a more or less conventional way of developing both plot and character. Emotional and psychological plotting sounds like a camera moving through an empty room and finally bumping into a character who’s crying or getting angry; end scene. That sounds experimental and it might be interesting, but that’s not what Girls is doing.
What makes Girls remarkable is not its form, but rather it’s the writing — honest, sometimes brash, fearless — and the performances — fresh and fearless, as well. I think that makes it great art. It’s not necessary to refer to Kubrick and Soderbergh to make that case, nor is it wise to write about concepts and methods which you don’t really have a handle on.
There’s nothing badass about writing about film in this way. Dumbass is more appropriate.
Before I watched Quentin Tarantino’s latest controversial film I thought I had seen the film-work which contained the most usages of the word, nigger. And that would not have been Tarantino’s own Jackie Brown but rather any random release by a gay porn site featuring black men and blatinos called Gay Gangstas. In these minimalistic sexual scenarios, the word is used provocatively, as a sort of masculine challenge to attain new heights of sexual prowess, and sometimes tenderly or as a compliment. Then I saw this episode of the animated series, Boondocks, so controversial itself that it never aired during the show’s regular season. N-bombs, as Davey D calls them, get dropped so often by the inmates of a prison who are also conducting a Scared Straight program with the show’s two young protagonists that I’m not sure it would be possible to count them all and still laugh my ass off, which is what I did when I watched it. The effects of the word in this episode are initially shocking, then comical, because of its rapid-fire delivery, because of the timing, because of the satirical context of the story itself.
I also recently finished reading Samuel R. Delany‘s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders in which the word, nigger, is used by its characters as many times as the above film-works do combined. But not once, that I can recall, does the word convey what could simply be called racism., or denigrate in a simply pejorative way: A Caucasian-looking muscleboy who has a black father and a white mother gets hard whenever his light-skinned lover, and that character’s white father, calls him a nigger, usually during sex; an area in a porn theater frequented by black guys and their admirers is called Nigger Heaven; most of the black characters casually refer to each other as niggers; and yet, the place where they live was created as a sort of utopia for black gay men. Delany has said that race (and sex) does not exist, only class (or gender).
Regardless, it’s self-evident that the word is not prohibited in all contexts nor does it mean the same thing in every usage, and much depends on who’s speaking it.
Race as performance
Discourse says, ‘You are.’ Rhetoric preserves the freedom to say, ‘I am not.’
From Longer Views: Extended Essays by Samuel R. Delany
I was surprised to discover that a lot of people laughed their asses off watching Django Unchained, as well, and that the word, nigger, was a primary instigator. You can read an account of that here. I thought the film was funny, too — if not as funny, not by a mile, as “The Hunger Strike” — but I can only remember once laughing at a line that used the word, nigger, and that was when, during the film’s climax, Django and Stephen, played by Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson respectively, confront each other. Django has a gun, but Stephen, weaponless, thinks he’s out of ammunition:
Stephen: I count 6 shots, nigger.
Django: I count two guns, nigger.
The lines are funny, but why? Would it be as funny without the word, nigger, punctuating the statements? Maybe, but they wouldn’t have been as pointed.
The setup of this exchange is Django asking Stephen what he thinks of Django’s “new duds:” “You know, before now, I didn’t know burgundy was my color.” Stephen then tosses away his cane, like a prop which he apparently doesn’t need anymore, along with his heavy, obsequious Negro accent, which he also doesn’t need anymore since all the white people he was performing for are dead, and says his line.
So this scene depicts two rival characters as performers, in costume, one black actor in “black-face” (Jackson reportedly insisted on making his skin tone darker), facing each other as performers and reminding each other that they are by using the word, nigger.
Django has been shown throughout the film in one costume or another. He starts out wearing very little as a slave on a chain gang — barefoot, shirtless, with a ratty natural — then ends up picking a frilly over-the-top outfit to play the part of King Shultz’s footman — and gets made fun of for it by a woman slave on a plantation — then chooses a more utilitarian outfit for his job as bounty hunter. That outfit, which low-riding hat, tight-fitting pants and jacket reminds me of what Little Joe would have worn on Bonanza, and which got my young gay imagination going a long time ago, is introduced iconically for its generic references to the heroes of spaghetti Westerns, representing “cool” for some, “sexy” for others. In all these situations. the costume Django wears accompanies the movement of his character through the narrative, and points out how he’s the only character who is able to remove clothing and accessories in order to change how he’s perceived. Even when he’s nearly naked at the beginning of the film, his tossing off of the thin wrap is a self-conscious act, revealing a muscled Black back. A few minutes later, his fellow slaves make the same movement, but with a different effect, mostly comic.
I’ve been reading a lot of the responses to Django and some of them are interesting and useful, particularly Jelani Cobb’s powerful essay in the New Yorker, Tarantino Unchained. Still, he writes some things that I find spurious, but none more curious than this: “the audience wasn’t asked to suspend disbelief, they were asked to suspend conscience.” How precisely an audience member is asked to suspend conscience isn’t explicitly explained in this paragraph, but rather later on, Cobb makes clear his main objection to the film:
Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which Tarantino deploys the n-word. If ever there were an instance in which the term was historically fitting it would seem that a Western set against the backdrop of slavery—a Southern—would be it. Yet the term appears with such numb frequency that “Django” manages to raise the epithet to the level of a pronoun. (I wonder whether the word “nigger” is spoken in the film more frequently than the word “he” or “she.”) Had the word appeared any more often it would have required billing as a co-star. At some point, it becomes difficult not to wonder how much of this is about the film and how much is about the filmmaker. Given the prominence of the word in “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown”—neither of which remotely touch on slavery—its usage in “Django” starts to seem like racial ventriloquism, a kind of camouflage that allows Tarantino to use the word without recrimination.
Tarantino isn’t using the word — his characters are, and they’re using the word in very specific ways that clarify and question what saying this word means. But, racial ventriloquism? Come on. Cobb comes pretty close to calling Tarantino a racist here and I think he should say that if that’s what he means. The evidence, such as it is, is the frequency of the word, nigger. At least Spike Lee was more direct when he called Samuel L. Jackson a house slave defending his master after Jackson defended the use of the n-word in Tarantino’s movies. If I were Jackson, playing Stephen would have to feel like a deliciously ironic retort.
But regardless of whether or not anyone feels Tarantino is some kind of sneaky racist, the numb frequency of the word is what makes its use by Tarantino’s script radical in context, as opposed to his other films which do not “touch on slavery.” Its ubiquity makes clear the discursive backdrop against which Django’s revenge narrative plays out: The institution of slavery which said, over and over, every minute throughout every day — You are a nigger, an object constructed, disciplined, molded, commanded, traded and owned by white men. When Django, challenged by King Shultz for his over-the-top performance as a black slaver, says that he’s just doing what he has to do to convince white slaver Mr. Candie, played with just the right amount of crazed, wicked stupidity by Leo DiCaprio, and that he’s just “getting dirty,” the moral cost for the character is plain, conveyed powerfully through Foxx’s pained and focused performance, and it’s not diminished or trivialized by the uses of the word nigger — it’s brought home. Imagine what a coy farce the movie would be without that word.
But more importantly, Django consistently resists this discourse — he’s not that word. But neither, exactly, is the character, Stephen, who embraces his own twisted version of the stereotypical house nigger, one who sees what the master can’t, manipulates him for his ignorance and is even able to sign checks for him in a short scene often ignored by reviewers. Stephen has achieved a certain power, compromised for sure, but a compromise which has exacted a plain moral cost on him, as well.
It’s problematic to depict the resistance to American slavery as a struggle between two types of black men, both of whom are referred to as niggers by white men and who use the word themselves, and it’s here that Cobb’s criticism of the film is strongest. The historical fight against slavery was enjoined and joined primarily by the enslaved. Point taken, but I really don’t think anyone, not a racist, not anyone, is going to come out of this film believing that it claims historical accuracy, or that they were educated. But that’s not the job of an artist. This film is about how we talk about race and slavery now, and to the extent that it indulges and uses mythologies, I think it does it in a serious way.
In fact, for my money, this is the first serious Tarantino film I’ve seen. Whereas all his other films seem to indulge the “couch potato” or the “14-year old closet queen” in all of us, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has quipped, with their knowing nods to other films, TV shows, directors, self-conscious camera movements that remind us of other film-makers, genres and styles and a whole lot of empty “pissing about” with non-linear or elliptical narrative strategies, Django is for the most part an old-fashioned linear narrative that, yes, refers to other genres and styles and borrows from them, but this is the first Tarantino movie that made me think about something other than that.
I welcome feedback and comments on this post and about the film itself, as there really is a lot more to discuss. This post is only a preliminary investigation. Meanwhile, I’m going to either go watch the second episode of Roots, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, or Superfly. #BHM
For a list of articles I read or videos I watched when thinking about this movie, check out my Django tag page on diigo.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present
Directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre
Documentaries about art and artists strike me as being more necessary than most subjects for film-makers to tackle. Although almost every modern cultural worker has benefited from instantaneous global communications networks — the writer, the musician, even the photographer — most other artists have not. While photos of impressive buildings do the architect some justice, and there are plenty of architecture-porn blogs, how does someone experience the effects of space on the body and in the mind when it’s on the other side of the world?
So My Architect goes farther than any YouTube video could, but I’d wager walking inside the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban itself would bowl me over, just as the first time entering the Joan Miró room at MoMa stunned me into heavy, wide-eyed silence.
And Henry Darger could never go viral and that really, is some comfort.
The Internet is absent for a reason in the documentary The Artist is Present. Marina Abramović — the self-described grandmother of performance art — spent three months, 7.5 hours a day, 6 days a week, sitting in a chair in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium, inviting to sit in front of her in silence and stare anyone who wanted to. What Abramović does in this not-really solo, not-at-all virtual performance, depicted in some detail in this film, is to suggest that the Internet, this filter that is supposed to efficiently focus the world’s attention on what’s important and valuable, to provide solace and connection, is not enough.
It’s no wonder so many who engaged with Abramović in this way ended up with tears streaming down their faces. As curator Klaus Biesenbach suggests, for many who sat in front of Marina it was an opportunity to experience the full attention of another human being, and points out just how rare such an event is, despite the constant offer of attention that social media promises. There are no false likes or pluses, however, just simple regard: The artist is present, really.
I watched the film twice trying to assess the quality and origins of my own responses to it — not as moved as those shown weeping but affected nonetheless — and decided that, while the “charismatic space” Abramović created could be critiqued from several different positions, what I couldn’t deny was its power and her affirmation of what I have always considered as the essential role of artists in human societies — as shamans, oracles, to be living lenses we can look in the eye and find ourselves mirrored, reflecting back our suppressed experiences, our common pain.
It might seem like I’m not watching much, but I have been. I just haven’t been writing. It’s been especially hard during these last 9 weeks of chemotherapy.
When I’m fatigued, I tend to watch crap, or else more easily approached and digested 45-minute television episodes. I’m still enjoying The Walking Dead, Treme, The Clone Wars and Boardwalk Empire, for example; and I indulge in The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural. I wasted far too much time with the politically incoherent Homeland, unfortunately. And The Dark Knight Rises was a steaming pile of crap.
Most of the gay-themed movies I’ve watched have been forgettable, except for a number of interesting shorts, which I’ll get around to writing about eventually.
The other day I took a break from all that stuff and decided to watch I Want To Live!, a 1958 B&W melodrama directed by Robert Wise. You might remember him as director of The Curse of the Cat People, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and of course, The Sound Of Music and West Side Story.
I was prepared for some overwrought acting — in fact, I was looking forward to it — and some juicy dialogue. I was not prepared for some rather brutal, minimalist sequences depicting the preparation of the gas chamber for main character and accused murderer, Barbara Graham, played to the hilt by an awe-inspiring Susan Hayward. These montages provided plenty of tension in the film’s final 30 minutes.
I was also surprised by the amount of room made for doubt in the script as to Graham’s innocence. Unlike most weepy Holllywood courtroom dramas, all we really have to go on is Graham’s insistence that she didn’t kill that old woman and the mountain of evidence against her provided by the prosecution. The film doesn’t show the killing. Put in the same the position of the media “audience” of the time, any possible sympathies we might have for Graham are in the character’s charismatic personality and down ‘n’ out life-story as portrayed by Hayward.
Although Graham started out the film as a fatalist and an unapologetic criminal, eventually she discovered she wanted to live.
That was enough for me.
Directed by Andrew Haigh
I was trepidatious to watch the much-lauded Weekend after reading the gushing review of it by A.O. Scott in the New York Times. Also, I’ve become cynical after watching so many bad “gay” movies lately that were recommended by reviews or IMDb ratings. I wasn’t in the mood to get fooled, or bored, again.
I’m pleased to say, however, that Scott isn’t wrong or writing hyperbolically. Weekend is, in fact, a great and poignant love story featuring two gay men, carried mostly by its two central, flawless performances acting from a smart script, particularly by an open, soulful Tom Cullen, but also by its style and the form it takes. Appropriately, there’s already a Criterion Edition. Further, Weekend renders irrelevant and glib every mumblecore movie I’ve ever suffered through, although it superficially resembles, at least during the characters’ conversations, the stylistic markers of that awkwardly named and executed genre.
In Weekend’s case, however, the characters do more than pose. They also register as people — people I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with, unlike in say, Hannah Takes the Stairs. I’d run away as fast as I could from those characters. In my Criticker mini-review, I said something like: Weekend is a character study about two characters who interrogate and challenge each other’s character, leading them to experience something like love. That jibes with my own memories of weekend love affairs, in which infatuation and easy attraction very quickly generates affection and respect. In dramatizing that, which should resonate well beyond its natural gay fan base, it’s the first truly great gay-themed film since Brokeback Mountain.
Weekend is also firmly anchored within a particular place. Here’s the opening shot just after the credits:
There are a number of similar shots throughout the movie — long shots of landscapes, cityscapes and large interiors. Sometimes the characters are contained within them, so small that it took a second viewing for me to notice them.
In the first screengrab below, pulled from the opening credit sequence, the main character hasn’t even entered the frame yet, and we’re not familiar enough with him, really, to exactly notice when he does. The figure we do see is not him, although I thought it might be when I first took this screenshot. (Film continuity conventions usually have a character enter from the left anyway, when the next shot is a different location.)
Here are a couple other screengrabs featuring the characters dwarfed by their surroundings.
In contrast with these very wide long- shots, more intimate interiors with people in them, not speaking, are often shot obliquely, with the camera at a 45-degree angle to the main architectural or set element — across a bed, frequently, such as in the sex scenes, or at the side of a bathtub. We get two versions of the latter shot, with the camera tracking to deliberately avoid what another director might consider the primary element — in one case, a character’s soaping up his cock. Other shots displace to the side characters who would normally be center-frame in a non-art film.
During conversations, a handheld camera tracks or pans to capture each speaker, whether between the two main characters who are often in close-up , or between a group of characters conversing, as in the party scenes featuring the straight and married friends of main character, Russell, who’s not quite out-of-the-closet. There are no shot-reverse shot conversations.
Often, in these group scenes or couple scenes consisting mostly of conversation, the camera shoots through a piece on the set, or through a geographic or architectural element of the shot, or through other people. Frequently and significantly, those elements nearly occlude the main action. These shots register as being “medium-long” shots — at a distance — as well as feeling like close-ups.
All of these types of shots either invoke intimacy, or simultaneously contrast it by showing how small the characters are, or how hard they are to spot, in relation to the larger world. In the Kings Walk screengrab above, for instance, we only know we’re seeing the two main characters because we hear their conversation, in close-up to our ears, as it were, as we’re seeing the long shot of the street they’re walking down.
But it’s in the shots and sequences depicting the two main characters, Russell and Glen, alone in conversation, where the director’s stylistic choices powerfully reflect and build on what’s happening in the narrative.
In some shots in which Glen and Russell talk to each other, the camera frames one while partially excluding the other:
In others, when we can see both of them, the depth of field (whatever we see in the shot that’s in clear focus) is so shallow that neither Glen nor Russell can be seen in sharp relief at the same time.
Here’s the shot at the end of that sequence, in which the camera quickly pans down to reveal Russell’s emotional tenor, revealed in body language, at hearing Glen’s renouncement of formal attachment:
Those crossed arms were always there, but the film only lets us see them at the point of maximum impact.
It’s hard to see from these screengrabs, but one or the other character shifts out of focus depending on who’s talking, and that’s a very shallow depth of field, literally and metaphorically. This stylistic choice emphasizes their differences — Russell is trying to convince Glen to commit, to someone, to him; Glen insists that he can’t do it, all while qualifying that he doesn’t want the two of them to “fall out” over that point. Yet, he’s still there.
But the film’s final shot — a long, slow zoom that begins with the audience unable to hear the beginnings of their conversation — shot through fencing separating the train stop from the audience where Glen begins his journey from Nottingham, from Russell — that succinctly and powerfully enumerates the film’s central concerns: How hard it is to make connections, how many roadblocks are thrown up against intimacy, not just because of personality differences, but because of socio-political context. As Glen and Russell emotionally say goodbye, a group of youths off-screen taunt them: Fucking gay boys.
Here’s some selections from that zoom:
Amidst the rush to solely define “coming out” in individualist terms — through counter-culture, non-monogamist posturing — or via conservative, social-justice conformity — through pro gay-marriage imperatives – Weekend pauses to dramatize and document the difficulties of navigating between personal, inter-personal and political demands on individuals and on couples attempting to make a connection, however transitory that attempt is. And makes that struggle moving, beautiful and, despite the film’s final parting, hopeful.
Directed by Marlon Riggs
I hadn’t seen Marlon Riggs’ poetic polemic, Tongues Untied, since the early 90s. I probably saw it during one of Chicago’s Gay & Lesbian Film Festivals. But I can’t remember now.
What I do remember is that it didn’t affect me as profoundly then as it did just now, especially after I did a brief search to find out which of the performers and artists featured in the film were still alive. I stopped after three obituaries. It was just too much.
Both Riggs and poet/performer Essex Hemphill died of complications due to AIDS in the 90s. Because that’s what happened to most gay men with HIV, white and black, artist or not. Although black gay men tended to die faster, as did women, facts that most don’t seem to remember now and many didn’t care all that much about then. Not even the white gay activists I knew in Chicago cared that much, most of whom did not attend actions focused on people of color and women.
Watching this film has left me feeling sad and with a sense of loss. Sad that these men, really at the beginning of what they were capable of doing and creating in the world, are gone. I wanted to meet them, to talk about ACT UP, to talk about the sexualization of black men in white gay culture, the absence of positive images at all, to talk about what it means that, looking at this film, more than anything I would have wanted to suck Hemphill’s dick, if he’d have me.
Now, since we’re all so post-gay and marriage-crazy, that sounds crass. But there was a time when desire itself felt revolutionary, even though “this nut could kill us.”
“Black men loving black men is THE revolutionary act,” says Hemphill in Tongues Untied, so maybe he wouldn’t have had me, if he’d lived.
We’re all responsible for giving our lives meaning, and our deaths. But, in life to remain silent is to die way too soon.
Sex with a man like that would have been a revolutionary act for me, not because he was black, or even a poet, but because he didn’t go quietly either.
Once More, With Feeling
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Obviously, this response is full of spoilers for those that haven’t seen the show.
Once More, With Feeling, the seventh episode of the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer — the famous musical episode — is the pop culture key I turn to now most often to make sense of my world.
Consequently, I tend to think of folks who don’t “get it” as clueless philistines.
But I was one of those once.
Back in the 90s, when I thought that musicals were for fairies and queens who wore sweaters, that only fuzzed-out guitars, xeroxed zines and alt-country had anything to offer me, I passed on watching this particular episode of my favorite TV show, purely on objecting to the genre it referenced.
But, I grew up.
Now, I know all the words to the songs (Sorry, Stephanie Zacharek, that proves the songs are memorable.) and I’m moved as the characters move through this story, rather clueless, expecting no one to find out what everybody else already knows or suspects. Pretending to feel, be and know things that are rather, secrets and lies, painful truths. For me, with only a short time left, each time I watch is both a new thing and a familiar thing. That’s why they call it timeless, I guess.
Yet it’s still uplifting. And that’s because it’s pretentious and its theme is how people with character use pretense to hide, yes, but also to become and join something bigger than themselves.
The pretense begins with the production itself. Writer, creator and director Joss Whedon had never written a musical before. He can’t sing. He can’t play the piano. James Marsters, the actor who plays the vampire Spike, chided him and said, “The songs sounded really cheesy and horrible” and that Whedon was ruining their careers. Whedon proved him both right and wrong and uses that tension to not only critique the genre itself and Whedon’s use of it — Anya, the ex-demon getting ready to marry Xander, derides one of her duets with her future husband as a “ditty” and “retro pastiche that will never be a breakaway pop hit’ and also chatters about one wall in their apartment becoming a “fourth wall” thereby referencing Brecht and Frank Tashlin all in one clever aside — but also demonstrates the generic, storytelling power of conventions and forms, or, “book numbers,” as Anya says, nailing it again.
Whedon knows he’s reaching, but builds his own trepidations into his story and into the characters’. During a crucial group sing made up of the overlapping songs of most the characters, Willow, played by the actor Alyson Hannigan who also happens to be the actor who didn’t want to sing in the show at all, sings this, while scrunching up her face in mockery and distaste: “I think this line’s mostly filler”. Self-reflexivity is how this show rolls.
(For my aside, if your only objection to musicals is to its formal properties, you really don’t have an argument. You have a dismissal. Musicals point out, maybe more than any other genre, that’s it’s all artifice, even and maybe even especially naturalistic styles and genres. It’s just musicals are a lot more honest about it. But, anyway, artifice is grand!)
The supernatural premise of the show is that all of Sunnydale, not just Buffy’s gang, is under the influence of dancing demon named Sweet. So everyone, regardless of their singing and dancing ability, bursts into song over trivial things (When Buffy’s sister, Dawn, is asked what she sang about at school, she replies glumly, “Math.”) but these songs and performances also become pivotal points in much broader character arcs.
But the show has always been about people pretending to be something they’re not. Teenagers pretending to be the saviors of the world, but referred to, first by fans, and then by the show itself, The Scoobies. Buffy pretending to be an ordinary teenager and not the “warrior of the people” with supernatural powers. Willow pretending not be in love with Xander. The same-sex relationship that develops between Willow and Tara was initially disparaged because many felt it was going to be another “lesbian kiss” moment and that the show would discard the premise: Was Willow just pretending to be lesbian? That’s an accusation leveled at many bisexual women when they cross the line. Whedon proved them wrong again when that relationship became powerful emotional fuel for additional story arcs.
Amber Benson’s well-praised solo in this show as Tara, Willow’s girlfriend — its cunnilingus finale is the dirtiest thing Whedon ever wrote, he says — manages to celebrate a celebrated relationship while at the same time ironically pointing out the deception beneath the so-great-together surface. The joyful chorus of this song become something much darker in another scene.
Finally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television show pretending to be just another genre exercise dabbling in B-movie tropes, but it became one of the most loved and so much more than that.
Probably because, as these characters pretended, they changed themselves. They anticipate and engender their own efficacy in the world. That’s what makes them heroes, sometimes tragic ones.
That must be where my affection for this show comes from: an irony that isn’t distant but rather, alive. This episode’s title is ironic but somehow a joyful one.
The ironies of Buffy’s character and plotlines are central to how everyone else’s plays out. She’s recently been brought back from the dead, again, (“Hey, I’ve died twice!” Buffy sings, making her mentor Giles smile.) by her friends, particularly the powerful witch, Willow, whose addition to magic is brought to the fore in this ep, with serious consequences later on. They assume, from Buffy’s behavior, that they pulled her from “an untold hell dimension,” when, in fact, she thinks she was in heaven, and at rest. Compassionately, she’s hid this from her friends, but confessed it to Spike: “They can never know.”
The primary effect of this “musical extravaganza” demon is to make the characters reveal their secrets. In OMWF, Buffy is forced to tell hers: “There was no pain/No fear, no doubt/When they pulled me out/Of heaven/So please, give me something to sing about,” she wrenches out of herself in one of the series’ best performances by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was also afraid of what she’d look like singing and dancing.
The answer to that is: Like a hero, the subject of graduate theses, pop culture courses, idol to millions of fans, and a heroic character who is also an ordinary girl, but one who’s very, very tired of life. In the opening shot, Buffy’s alarm rings after a sleepless night and instead of turning it off, she simply picks it up and stares at it blankly as all the other characters in the house get ready, quite happily, for work and life. That’s a funny and effective metaphor.
Buffy and Spike finally do get together at the end, compounding ironies — vampire slayer snogging with a vampire, two dead people who just want to feel. Then we hear the crescendo of the final song: “Where do we go/From here?” A big red superimposed THE END appears, styled after Hollywood cinema codas.
But there’s one final point in this musical teleplay: The curtain doesn’t fall, it closes.
Note: Here’s an interesting take on someone watching it who didn’t get it until later, too.