Monday, March 31, 2008

Sports Dish

I disapprove but secretly am thrilled that Washington Nationals fans booed President Bush when he pitched the first ball at the season opener. Growing up in a military family and attending military-sponsored schools, I learned that one honors the office or rank of an individual, not the particular individual. Yet times have changed, etiquette and protocol have been tossed out of American culture, and, truth be told, we are talking about America's first bona-fide unelected war-criminal President, not Abraham fucking Lincoln.

But the real sports news is The Case of the Missing Male Nipples in Orlando.

Apparently city officials advised the WWE to airbrush the nipples of several shirtless pro wrestlers on a billboard promoting Wrestlemania XXIV to ensure that it was not "too provocative."

There they are: Triple H, Randy Orton, John Cena, Floyd Mayweather, and Big Show, all shamelessly shirtless and naked as Mattel made them. (See the photo and article today at

Apparently there was some mixup because WWE banners on the sides of metro buses were nipple-inclusive.

I like to think of the missing nipples as an extension of the logic of the state of Florida's antigay stance on marriage and adoption--since homosexuals can't procreate homosexually, homosexuality isn't natural. By analogy, then, perhaps we can conclude that since males can't lactate, male nipples aren't natural either.

In a state where homophobes are pushing for a law outlawing already outlawed gay marriage, the redundancy of male nips and areolas should not be problematic--but nipple-less pro wrestling would be yet another pile driver to gay men's fantasies everywhere.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stop-Loss (More or Less a Review)

Stop-Loss, the latest of a string of Hollywood movies directly addressing the war in Iraq, is a pretty good film. It's watchable throughout, not too long, and not too terribly predictable--though it's fairly obvious where the movie's heading after the first 15 minutes.

Still, I left the theater feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and so here is a list of my concerns. There are no spoilers here, and frankly a lot of thoughts on the film are so far half-baked, so proceed with caution and indulgence:

1. The movie has a vaguely liberal bias but fails to take a strong position. In its effort to understand the viewpoint of soldiers who believe in the justness of the war in Iraq, it treats the morality of the war as gingerly as a presidential candidate would--striving to sell tickets for the sake of conveying a partial message in lieu of taking a more compelling and controversial slant. Not that I would have respected the movie more had it been simple leftist propaganda, but I would have liked the film to have a stronger political point of view than a human-hardships-of-war film like The Best Years of Our Lives.

2. The opening scenes in Iraq are harrowing and suspenseful--but I had two problems here--the enemy is uniformly less than human (unavoidable, perhaps, given the film's chosen point of view--i.e. the American soldiers') ... and ...

3. the American soldiers are portrayed as arrogant, immature, and entirely unconcerned with the nature of their mission--surely at least some of the soldiers (even some of the young ones) have a more complex understanding of the war than "we're killing 'em in Iraq so we don't have to kill 'em in Texas."

4. When the protagonists return home to Texas, we see that the war has not changed them (except to heighten their natural instincts for arrogance, immaturity, and unconcern for the consequences of their behavior). We see this because we see how arrogant, immature, and unconcerned about the moral ramifications of war the folks back home are--who can even ignore a certain degree of the boys' psychoses as natural high spirits until some private property gets destroyed.

5. The New York lawyer who helps one of the soldiers to escape stop-lossing is portrayed as something of a sleazeball--especially in contrast to the clean-cut, earnest military leadership whose goal is to get the war-weary soldiers back to Iraq as quickly as possible. The lawyer clearly has good intentions, but his general disheveled appearance and his failure to distinguish Texas from Tennessee are especially potent signifiers in contrast to the crisp facades of Stateside military life. When he promises that parts of Canada are just like New York, the proud Texan soldier states that he doesn't much care for New York either.

6. The view of the soldier and his family laying low to avoid stop-lossing is generally sympathetic, but the point made most strongly is that such an evasion, morally justifiable in itself, has damaging consequences on one's spouse and children, which challenge the ethics of resisting the government's unjust authority. I'm not sure how I feel about this point--on the one hand, it's true that one's ethical decisions affect other people; on the other hand, the blame for the family's horrible situation (as the Phillippe character indirectly indicates) can largely be attributed to the soldier's decision to lay low.

7. Small point here--The Phillippe character's attempt at civil disobedience is paired with what looks like (and is interpreted as) sexual cheating--as the character's best friend's girlfriend assists him in his escape. Of course, it is stressed that they are unconscious of any sexual dynamic to their partnership--which takes them from one seedy motel to another; still, the film plays with it and draws attention to it repeatedly.

8. The scenes of male bonding are not particularly convincing--particularly the dramatic showdowns between the two best friends. These images seem secondhand, borrowed from countless other Hollywood male-bonding scenes, and reveal nothing interesting, new, or particularly real about the nature of male friendships.

9. Apart from the performances by Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, the acting in this film is pretty dreadful--even seasoned character actors like Ciaran Hnds and Laurie Metcalfe have little to do and what we see of them look like what must have been the worst available takes. Channing Tatum, thick, beefy, and sexy, looks barely capable of remembering lines, must less delivering them convincingly--his talents have been more positively displayed in other films.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Gayest Look

Check out

My Gayest Look
Joe Marohl's gayest look

Nine Underrated Movie Gems

Birthday Girl—This dark romantic comedy (set in England, but filmed in Australia) is funny, suspenseful, and sexy. Nicole Kidman is irresistible as a Russian mail-order bride, who hapless Ben Chaplin discovers is not all he expected her to be. Chaplin is a poor, trod-upon bloke, living a life overrun by petty nuisances at home and at work, whose fantasies come to life when he finds himself with a would-be bride who apparently speaks not a word of English. The film skewers the dull routine of work as effectively as Office Space and The Office do, and the images of suburban dullness offset the catlike but unreadable seductiveness of Kidman’s character. Another great point about this movie is the presence of Vincent Cassell (my favorite actor) and Mathieu Kassovitz, whose funny critique of the musical Cats towards the end of the film reveals a lot about the order of power in their relationship. But BG is Kidman’s movie first and foremost, and her nuanced performance traces every step of the character’s fickle affections and affiliations.

Cellular—Chris Evans’ star-making vehicle is more than his finely crafted torso alone. It’s an action comedy, with chase elements reminiscent of Speed. The film features Kim Basinger, William H. Macy, and Jason Statham—as the leader of a gang of bad guys with a penchant for fuckability. Like Speed, Cellular has a plot whose very improbability becomes the central appeal of the movie. The film relies on a string of coincidences and mistaken identity, which provide a large share of the entertainment value. The sense of urgency, mixed with speedy edits and eye candy, more than compensates for the holes in the plot—and, besides, to complain about plot holes in an action movie is like complaining that musicals unrealistically break for song-and-dance numbers.

Crank—Jason Statham again, this time in the driver’s seat. This movie is literally adrenalin charged, focusing on a hit man injected with some mysterious Chinese dope that kills him if his heart rate falls below a certain level—truly a stupid means of killing off one’s enemies, as the movie makes clear. But like Cellular, Crank proves that improbability is the lifeblood of action comedy. The result here is a breathlessly fast-paced adventure in which Statham attempts to track down and avenge himself against his murderers, while at the same time seeking an antidote for the fatal drug.

Hellboy—Ron Perlman is Hellboy—his best role ever! Hellboy the movie is stylishly directed by Guillermo del Toro—and even though the film starts to lag after the halfway point, the first half has daring, frightening, jaw-dropping images one is not likely to forget—particularly the glimpses of Lovecraftian evil. This—not Pan’s Labyrinth—is del Toro’s best work. But Perlman as the wisecracking demon—who files down his horns to “fit in”—is the reason to see this movie. The guy is both physically impressive and funny as … well … hell.

Margot at the Wedding—Nicole Kidman again—herself an actress often unjustly overlooked. Here is the 2007 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role that Oscar apparently forgot about. The movie brings out the best in all its actors, and even Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black (both also Oscar-worthy) manage to tone down their usual scenery-chewing tendencies. The movie is funny and edgy and, most importantly, real. There has been no shortage of dramedies about dysfunctional families lately, but MatW is the best of the lot. Noah Baumbach’s writing and direction are insightful, wise, and a lovely homage to French director Eric Rohmer—the characters are named after notable Rohmer characters and the film’s title was going to be Nicole at the Beach, until Kidman was cast in the lead.

Mars Attacks!—Tim Burton’s comedy does not work as social/political satire, as perhaps it was intended, but it does work as a delightfully mean-spirited absurdist fable. The movie’s eclectic cast (Jack Nicholson, Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Lucas Haas, Martin Short, Rod Steiger) is competent, with two or three standout performances (Glenn Close is hilarious as a high-strung first lady, Pierce Brosnan’s comic timing is perfect as a dashing scientist, and, in the film’s only successful satire, Paul Winfield’s ass-kissing general sends up military officers with political ambitions—think Powell and McCain). No doubt the film’s misanthropic tone repelled mainstream audiences and critics—aliens threaten to destroy all humanity, but, unlike gung-ho action flicks like Independence Day, Mars Attacks! questions whether humanity in general is worth the effort of saving at all.

The Matador—Pierce Brosnan again—in his best role ever. Brosnan plays a hit man who has lost his mojo—he can’t seem to follow through anymore. Into his life comes businessman Gregg Kinear, who proves to be just the buddy Brosnan needs right now, and their alliance, of course, changes the course of both men’s lives. What I especially liked about this movie is the sexual tension between the two protagonists, complicated by heavy hints of the Brosnan character’s bisexuality. This tension fuels the caper, shot in gaudy colors in Mexico. Hope Davis plays Kinnear’s wife, but the role is too small, the film’s one true defect, wasting the actress’s talent and tantalizing viewers with too rare glimpses into a character remarkable in her own right.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—The retro sci fi visuals in this overlooked wonder are what make the film brilliant—robots from the covers of Amazing Stories and James Whale-inspired surrealism combine in what is nevertheless a punchy adventure plot with snappy dialogue and relatable characters. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie (in a small, pivotal role) are not only not overwhelmed by the computer-generated art design, but also not confined to the 2-D cutout characters they initially appear to be. The film captures a world as innocent as Tom Swift, yet as grandiose as Ming the Merciless. It is a wonder from beginning to end.

Trick—I liked this gay comedy when I first saw it, but was somewhat disappointed. I suppose I was not expecting the movie to be as sweetly romantic as it is. I expected it to have a somewhat colder, more brutally honest tone. However, once I reconciled myself to what the film really is all about—hopefulness, love at first sight, inspiration—I put aside my usual cynicism about romance and enjoyed the film as the gentle love story it is. What is special about Trick, though, is that it manages to be sweet and sexy at the same time (J.P. Pitoc—wow, shit, damn), a combination often attempted but seldom achieved—particularly in gay-themed films.

Friday, March 28, 2008

I Like a Good Fight


According to a Vanderbilt University study published in January, aggression causes the brain to release pleasure-giving dopamine, just like sex, food, and drugs.

The study may suggest why highly aggressive combat sports are so popular, at least as spectator sports--and especially in sexually repressed societies. It may also indicate why, for some people, aggressive behavior is a prelude to sexual desire. A fight can trigger the libido just like a porn film, dark chocolate, or two-martini lunch.

The effects must vary from person to person, and no doubt the forms and levels of aggression that have aphrodisiac effects must vary too--just as different folks differ in their tastes in erotica.

For instance, I'm turned on by a fight until blood is spilled or one of the combatants is seriously hurt, while I'm sure that slasher films produce an exciting, even if guilty, thrill for others. Some women indulge in rape fantasies, even when the actual violence and insult of real rape appall them.

When a sport is redesigned as entertainment--as in professional wrestling--erotic aspects become obvious, intrinsic features of the spectacle--glistening oiled muscle, skin tight briefs, latex, sexually charged insults, and deliciously long clinches, during which the combatants' bodies achieve maximum agonizing contact.

Just last night I noticed that I got a bit of wood watching an old Popeye cartoon in which the Sailor-Man and Bluto have a prolonged, yet bloodless rumble--more dust and sparks than real brutality--just as I did as a young boy watching the same cartoon, or one with Mighty Mouse or an old M-G-M Tarzan film. Hell, I even got buzzed when the original King Kong wrassled a T rex in shaky stop-motion animation.

And several times as a teenager I got embarrassingly excited when two young dudes starting slugging it out after school, especially when one or both of them stripped off their shirts to do so. And, though I'm gay, I've even found women's wrestling arousing.

Last year I read a couple of books which attempted to explain the allure of professional wrestling in scholarly if somewhat stilted terms. Both authors agreed that part of the appeal of the spectacle--especially to sexually ambiguous 15-year-old boys--is that it celebrates masculine dominance in highly sexualized codes and signifiers. The scenarios of pro wrestling have traditionally involved the triumph of more masculine protagonists over obviously less masculine jobbers. Nowadays, mixed-gender wrestling matches have allowed heterosexuality (and dominatrices) almost equal time in the squared circle.

My first homosexual experience was, as a teen, getting drunk one night with some friends and stripping down to our briefs to wrestle--after which, one thing led to another--though all parties silently agreed to "forget" the incident when the sobering light of day arrived. Even today roughhouse and wrestling are my favorite forms of foreplay.

No wonder, then, many athletes reportedly avoid sex before a match, but are horny as hell after they have given their opponents a proper thrashing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Some Crazy Shit Here

lost highway

At last David Lynch's 1997 underrated masterpiece Lost Highway is available on dvd in widescreen format. Co-writing with Barry Gifford, Lynch blurs film history, psychological identity, and transgressive sexuality in this lush companion piece to Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., of which Lost Highway is the equal.

The lost highway of the title suggests a road movie, like Lynch's own Wild at Heart, but this is a metaphysical road movie--two actors (Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty) inhabit one soul between them, while Patricia Arquette is split in two--one part Bettie Page brunette, one part Lana Turner blonde--too much pulchritude for just one character--as the two protagonists' ineluctable destination.

The lost highway may also be sexual impotence, schizoid disconnection from reality, or simply the loss of narrative linearity and subjective integrity.

Audiences and critics failed to warm up to this movie. Part of the reason may be Pullman and Getty, two uncharismatic actors who, even as leading men, approximate invisibility in any film they're in. Yet Lynch, in league with these two actors, exploits this characteristic to good effect here--like Hitchcock, who sometimes played off the blandness of his leading men (John Gavin, Robert Cummings, Farley Granger, and, arguably, James Stewart), counterpoints to all the weird and perverse elements of the milieu.

And Lost Highway has plenty of weird to offset the blandness--weird that is in no small part supplied by the likes of Robert Loggia, Gary Busey, Jack Nance, Michael Massee, Richard Pryor (at the saddest, frailest point of his too brief career), Henry Rollins, and ... Robert Blake, sans eyebrows, in Uncle Fester whiteface. And what could make a thriller about a wife-killer creepier than to feature Blake as the ubiquitous bête noire of Pullman/Getty ("We've met before, haven't we?")

Arquette has never been sexier than in this film. It's hard to make a thriller with one actress playing both blonde and brunette without invoking Hitchcock's Vertigo. The hommage is there, to be sure, but Arquette's Alice/Renee embodies eroticism, vulnerable yet commanding, whether dressed in a long, dark brown sheath dress, or a shiny gold dress with straps and a plunging neckline. And Lynch's camera loves to show us Arquette slipping out of her clothes--in several cinematic stripteases, any one of which rivals Kubrick's famous opening shot of Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.

Lost Highway also boasts the best soundtrack of any of Lynch's films--with contributions from Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. And Angelo Badalamenti's score here is richly romantic, to offset the aural vacuum and J-horror creep effects that Lynch has explored since his first feature, Eraserhead.

Of course, audiences are often put off by Lynch's reluctance to adhere to a straight course--no characters with whom to comfortably relate, no simple cause and effect, no moral center, tenuous motives, elliptical and self-consuming story lines.

Lost Highway has all this, and then some.

In addition to the inexplicable switches and divisions of identity already mentioned, day turns into night, without warning. Exterior blends into interior. Arrival points turn into points of departure. Characters manage to be in two places at once in some scenes; in other scenes they are not present at all, though plainly visible to the audience.

But when a film has this much texture, it doesn't need a coherent plot. The film's realism is the realism of dreaming, and watching it, I am endlessly fascinated with both its distortions and its precise, hopeless eye for detail.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

"The reason that we have to talk about and deal with these divisions is because we get distracted every political season and election cycle by these divisions. And then we end up ignoring these big problems. Think about what these last few election cycles have been about. We argue about immigration, but we don't try to solve the immigration problem. It's an argument that is all about people's passions instead of trying to figure it out. We argue about gay marriage. In the meantime the planet is...potentially being destroyed. We've got a war that is bankrupting us. And we're going to argue about gay marriage? (applause) I mean, that...doesn't make any sense."
--Barack Obama in Medford, Oregon, last week (as quoted in Towleroad)

I don't get what Senator Obama is getting at here.

Is he saying marriage in general is not important or gay marriage in particular is not important? And why does he contrast being for or against gay marriage with trying to solve the problem of the planet's potential destruction? And why, oh why, is a gay issue being invoked here as the equivalent to the punch-line of a joke?

To be sure, immigration and gay marriage are old warhorses of right-wing American politics--sure to galvanize a lot of conservative and MOTR panic, without seriously addressing any underlying problems of, say, for instance, injustice. Obama makes the point clearly enough in his first remark--raising passions about immigrants without seriously examining the underlying problems of the issue--how reprehensible.

But then why doesn't he strike the same balance in his next remark? Of course, arguing about gay marriage looks like nonsense against the need to save the entire planet from being destroyed; but whether this is destruction by war, global warming, or gay marriage, he does not make clear.

(And 50 years ago didn't waffling liberals claim that civil rights issues were a mere piffle compared to the threat of the atomic bomb and the global spread of communism?)

Why doesn't he say, "We argue about gay marriage, but we don't try to solve the problem of gay inequality"? Wouldn't that have been the more reasonable balance to his preceding remark?

But what if he did mean marriage in general is politically unimportant? Do you think the Oregonians who applauded his remark thought that was what he meant?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Staying the Course: The Math

The following numbers come from the office of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, which released them yesterday in observance of the fifth anniversary of the War in Iraq:

The Cost to Our Forces in Iraq

3,990: American troops who have died in Iraq since the start of the war. [, 3/17/08]

29,395: Number of U.S. service members that have been wounded in hostile action since the start of U.S. military operations in Iraq. [AP, 3/11/08]

60,000: Number of troops that have been subjected to controversial stop-loss measures--meaning those who have completed service commitments but are forbidden to leave the military until their units return from war. [US News and World Report, 2/25/08]

5: Number of times the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment has been sent to Iraq. They are the first Marine Corps unit to be sent to Iraq for a fifth time. [San Francisco Chronicle, 2/27/08]

2,100: Number of troops who tried to commit suicide or injure themselves increased from 350 in 2002 to 2,100 last year. [US News and World Report, 2/25/08]

11.9: Percent of noncommissioned Army officers who reported mental health problems during their first Iraq tour [Los Angeles Times, 3/7/08]

27.2: Percent of noncommissioned Army officers who reported mental health problems during their third or fourth Iraq tour [Los Angeles Times, 3/7/08]

The Cost to Our Military Readiness

88: Percent of current and former U.S. military officers surveyed in a recent independent study who believe that the demands of the war in Iraq have "stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin" [Foreign Policy/Center for New American Security, 2/19/08]

94: Percent of Army recruits who had high school diplomas in Fiscal Year 2003 [Larry Korb, The Guardian, 10/12/07]

79: Percent of Army recruits who had high school diplomas in Fiscal Year 2007 [Larry Korb, The Guardian, 10/12/07]

4,644: Number of new Army recruits who were granted moral waivers in Fiscal Year 2003. [Houston Chronicle, 10/14/07]

12,057: Number of new Army recruits who were granted moral waivers in Fiscal Year 2007. [Houston Chronicle, 10/14/07]

67: Percent of captains the Army managed to retain this year, short of its goal of 80 percent, and in spite of cash bonus incentives of up to $35,000 [Armed Services Committee Hearing, 2/26/08]

The Cost to Our National Security

1,188: Number of global terrorist incidents from January - September 11th, 2001. [American Security Project, "Are We Winning?," September 2007]

5,188: Number of global terrorist incidents in from January- September 11th, 2006. [American Security Project, "Are We Winning?," September 2007]

30: Percent increase in violence in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007. [Reuters, 10/15/07]

21: Number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan in 2001. [Center for American Progress, "The Forgotten Front," 11/07]

139: Number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan in 2006, with an additional increase of 69 percent as of November 2007. [Center for American Progress, "The Forgotten Front," 11/07]

30: Percent of Afghanistan controlled by the Afghan Government according to DNI Mike McConnell. [Associated Press, 2/27/08]

2,380: Days since September 11th, 2001 that Osama Bin Laden has been at-large.

The Cost of Funding the War in Iraq

$50-60 Billion: Bush Administration's pre-war estimates of the cost of the war. [New York Times, 12/31/02]

$12 Billion: Direct cost per month of the Iraq War. [Washington Post, Bilmes and Stiglitz Op-Ed, 3/9/08]

$526 Billion: Amount of money already appropriated by Congress for the War in Iraq. [CRS, 2/22/08]

$3 Trillion: Total estimated cost of the Iraq War. [Washington Post, Bilmes and Stiglitz Op-Ed, 3/9/08]

$5 Trillion - $7 Trillion: Total cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accounting for continued military operations, growing debt and interest payments and continuing health care and counseling costs for veterans. [McClatchy, 2/27/08]

160: Percent that the cost of the Iraq War has increased from 2004 to 2008. [CRS Report, 2/22/08]

The Cost to Iraqis and Journalists

8,000: Number of Iraqi military and police killed since June 2003. [Brookings Institute, Iraq Index, March 13, 2008]

82,000-89,000: Estimate of Iraqi civilians casualties from violence since the beginning of the Iraq War. [Iraq Body Count]

4.5 Million: Number of Iraqi refugees both inside and outside the country. [Washington Post, 3/17/08]

61: Percent of Iraqis that believe the U.S. military presence makes the security situation in Iraq worse. [Agence France-Presse, 3/17/08]

127: Number of journalists killed in Iraq since March 2003. [Committee to Protect Journalists]

Economic Costs of War in Iraq

$33.51: Cost of a barrel of oil in March 2003. [Energy Information Administration]

$105.68: Cost of a barrel of oil on March 17, 2008. [NYMEX]

U.S. Troops and Contractors in Iraq

132,000: Number of U.S. troops in Iraq in January 2007, before President Bush's escalation. [Brookings Institution, Iraq Index, 3/13/08]

155,000: Number of U.S. troops currently in Iraq. [Brookings Institution, Iraq Index, 3/13/08]

140,000: Number of U.S. troops projected to be in Iraq in July 2008. [Associated Press, 2/26/08]

35,000: Number of private security contractors operating in Iraq. [Human Rights First, Private Security Contractors at War]

180,000: Number of private contractors operating in Iraq. [Human Rights First, Private Security Contractors at War]

Progress Towards Political Reconciliation Made By Iraqis

3: Number out of 18 Bush Administration Benchmarks Met by Iraqi Government As of January 24, 2008. [Center for American Progress, 1/24/08]

18: Number of provinces President Bush said would be secured by Iraqis as of November 2007. [President Bush Speech, 1/10/07]

8: Number of provinces actually secured by Iraqis as of January 2008. [NPR, 1/7/08]

Bush-Republican Intransigence on Staying the Course in Iraq

8: Number of times a majority of the Senate has voted to change course in Iraq.

7: Number of times Bush Republicans in Congress have blocked changing course in Iraq.

1: Number of vetoes issued by the White House over changing course in Iraq.

A Foolish Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of US Politics

With Mike Gravel off the radar now even on left-liberal media, I'm pretty much firmly in the Obama camp. Clinton's advantage in being able to keep America on a steady course amounts to the captain's promising to steer the Titanic steadily on a downwards course.

If all I wanted was more of the same old same old, with a makeover, I would vote for McCain and send him a Judith Leiber handbag.

As it stands, Obama's arrogance and bible-flavored oratory may well land the nation in a pile of shit, but, after eight years of W, at least this shit will be fresh.

What I don't get is the talk about consistency.

For instance, it's been noted that Obama has been inconsistent in statements about his relationship with his pastor or in his own views about the state of Israel--I ask you, at what point precisely has criticism of Israel's policies been equivalent to anti-Semitism? and at what point did we vote to include "guilt by association" as valid logical proof?

And where then is the admiration for George W. Bush's consistency? He's consistently been wrong every day he has served as President.

And if Obama is as big a liar as Bush ... or Clinton or McCain, I just don't see it. That case has yet to be made. But nitpicking over changes in wording or emphasis is inadequate support for such a charge.

Inconsistency is bad when its purpose is to deceive, to obfuscate, to defy logic and reason, or merely to butter up a skeptical audience.

But what intelligent person does not occasionally change his or her mind--when new evidence is presented? or when past decisions prove to be wrong? or when the present course of action is no longer feasible?

American politics is supposed to be based on compromise and collaboration--between balanced powers of government--to work out syntheses through (ideally) fair argument or (realistically) political pressure.

What Senator has been consistent ... ever? The ability to compromise and collaborate is what usually makes a Senator or other member of Congress a better leader of the nation than experience as a CEO, governor, or military officer--where unilateral orders are given and meant to be obeyed unquestioningly, and mistakes are resolved by asking subordinates to fall on their swords.

A Senator supposedly is someone who understands strategy and diplomacy, who respects and values differences of opinion, who has mastered rhetoric, who makes judgments based on consideration of the best opinions and evidence available--whose whole career has been to represent and benefit a constituency.

In the current campaign, Obama shows the most strengths in these areas. His so-called "inconsistencies" are a combination of some real, troubling self-contradictions, to be sure, together with an honest, responsible willingness to compromise, openness and responsiveness to criticism, and flexibility.

So, by all means, question Obama's and the other candidates' judgment, experience, vision, honesty, and administrative abilities, but, unless it clearly affects one of these--or raises points of concern strongly established on other forms of evidence, let's leave the candidates' little inconsistencies out of the argument.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Someplace I Have Never Been

Last night I had an odd dream--of returning to an old job and an old apartment from 30 years ago. In the apartment, the TV played the same sequence of shows I remembered from when I first moved into the apartment in the 1970s--a coincidence I discuss with my new roommates--who are the same as my old roommates (only the same age as they were 30 years ago).

At school, I visited the site of a big student rally I had witnessed decades before and remembered vividly. I ate familiar food (a reuben sandwich, I think, with thick french fries) at a student hangout. I revisited the offices of the faculty I used to know--but the faculty themselves had been replaced with new faculty.

But here's the weird part--all the familiarity was fake.

I never had an apartment like the one in the dream, I never have seen shows like the ones on the TV, I never had roommates like the ones in the dream (at any age), I never witnessed a student rally, the hangout was unlike any grill I have actually been in, and the university offices were not arranged in any pattern that I recognized (except that the layout was vaguely similar to where I am presently).

So it was déjà vu in a dream--the illusion of familiarity--the sensations of returning someplace I have never been.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Repressive Tolerance

"Tolerance of free speech is the way of improvement, of progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth, and improvement must necessarily be a compromise between a variety of opinions, but because there is an objective truth which can be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which is and that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind."
--Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," 1965

The free speech of 21st-century America is based on a presumption of absolute relativism. Only radicals and reactionaries seem to believe in truth, beauty, and art anymore. And pretty much all we have left today are reactionaries.

In 2008, the truth of Islam is equal to the truth of atheism, the truth of homophobia is equal to the truth of gay pride, the truth of racism is equal to the truth of equality.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, because we no longer accept an ideal of beauty; instead, we have marketable fetishes of beauty (breasts, abs, full lips) or an undefined, all-embracing "beauty" that is ultimately destructive to the idea of beauty (if everyone is beautiful, is anyone really beautiful?)

Art is not only for its own sake, but it is anything that can sell itself under the label of "art." In the aesthetic relativism of the free market, is it even possible to find a philistine anymore? Baudelaire once complained that the bourgeois no longer exists because even the bourgeoisie have condemned it. What might Baudelaire make of 90% of today's recording "artists"?

With horrifying speed we are likewise beginning to redefine "democracy" as whatever calls itself a democracy, "health" whatever calls itself healthy, and "justice" whatever we are willing to settle for as just.

To use Stephen Colbert's apt neologism, we are seekers of "truthiness." And the defining quality of truthiness, as well as its chief appeal to the contemporary mind, is that it is not ever allowed to trump any other form of truthiness.

What Marcuse called "repressive tolerance" is the show of tolerance that demands of us to put all versions of truth on equal footing. It requires, for instance, that we teach intelligent design as no better yet no worse than scientific theories that have much better and more logical proofs--not because we are earnestly seeking the real truth of the matter, which would be a respectable objective, but because to call a lie a lie offends the liars.

We live in a world that tolerates Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern stating that "homosexuality is a bigger threat than terrorism," and in response to expressions of outrage at her ignorant, hateful remark, she blithely has replied, "Don't I have a right to free speech?"

Indeed, she does. Perhaps more of a right to free speech than a gay teen who gets shot in the head for asking a classmate to be his valentine has a right to life.

In fact, Kern's critics are attacked in blog after blog (even by some on the political left) as censoring free speech--as if, one wonders, her critics then are not allowed to express their criticism ... or, by that means, to encourage Oklahomans to look for a somewhat less nutty state representative.

People, I'm not calling for authoritarian dictates of what is officially true and what is false. I believe in free speech, too, absolutely. But free speech whose goal is not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all --or even the goal of truth--cannot be elevated to the same place of high esteem as free speech that potentially makes us all freer and perhaps a little closer to the objective truth.

Free speech means also freedom to criticize and evaluate the speech of others and even to hold them accountable for their words.

This is why argument, free and public, is far superior to mere tolerance.

Free speech requires open and reasonable debate on the issues. Every harebrained idea needs a wise, intelligent, and articulate advocate--it deserves its "day in court," so to speak.

But it does not then follow that every harebrained idea is equal to every other idea in the final analysis ... and, regrettably, analysis is a skill we've let slip away from us, and so now we allow not only obvious imbeciles to share the platform with their moral and intellectual superiors, we let them shout down the speakers who are presenting the better evidence and speaking in calmer, more open-minded tones.

What happens to a society that tolerates lies and shuts up those who call the lies and liars what they are? What happens to a society that no longer weighs claim against claim in the hopes of discovering a fair and objective resolution? What happens to a society that allows brutal, hateful speech to go unanswered because the speakers hide behind the facade of religion ... and, therefore, presumably, are not subject to proof or rebuttal?

What happens to a society that embraces a repressive tolerance as a lazy alternative to seeking truth, liberty, and the common good?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

In Bruges (Review)

in bruges

Some notes on my impressions of Martin McDonagh's film In Bruges:

Now at last I can name a Colin Farrell movie I really like. Farrell overplays his cuteness a bit, but in the end his character is more lovable than cloying.

The movie is very play-like--like David Mamet's films--more literate than visual or kinetic--the setting (Bruges in winter) and even the characters (mainly, two smalltime British hoods, played by Farrell and Brendon Gleeson) seem only loosely connected to the dialogue, which exists in its own realm--as if spoken in a radio play. "Bruges" is a word or concept more than a place--a point made directly from time to time during the film.

The movie is intriguing for the same reasons McDonagh's plays are intriguing--and its only weakness is the sense that all this would probably work just as well on stage--or perhaps a bit better on radio--though, perhaps, with some loss to the immediacy of some of the scenes of violence. The film is minimalist in its cinematic effects, but it works, just as Mamet's and Harold Pinter's minimalist screenplays often work in their own fashion.

In fact, certain plot points of In Bruges remind me of Pinter's claustrophobic one-act play The Dumb Waiter.

Ralph Fiennes is riveting (and creepily sexy, as usual) even though he seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. An offhand reference to Gandhi struck me as practically written, tongue in cheek, for Kingsley.

The scene with Gleeson talking on the phone with Fiennes seems like it is a single long take, paralleling the famous long take in Touch of Evil, which plays on TV in the background of the scene.

As in McDonagh's plays, cutting wit counterpoints serious moral dilemma.

In Bruges is about guilt, personal responsibility, and, as Fiennes's character drives home repeatedly, honor and principle.

Remarks about Vietnam, racism, and the Day of Judgment play off other, equally offhand allusions to Gandhi, familial duty, and Christmas, reminding us of political, social, and religious parallels to the private conflicts that play out for us, but not in a ham-fisted, didactic way.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tell Me Something Good

I’m a pessimist. I think McCain’s going to win—or, worse, maybe a year from now I’m going to wish McCain had won.

Gas prices and home foreclosures are at an all-time high. If you lose your home, you may not even be able to afford to live in your car.

The US dollar has dropped to an all-time low. Every dollar I earned today is now worth just under 66 cents.

People are on edge. Even normally nice people are beginning to develop shark eyes. All my friends seem depressed.

Patrick Swayze has weeks to live. Maybe. People will make jokes about this, Just as they did about Heath. \

My dog is getting old. My car is getting old. The city where I live is running out of water. Kind of a necessity, I hear. I am falling apart.

American soldiers in Afghanistan are depressed. An Army report released today recommends sending civilian psychiatrists to the front to address the growing demand.

Strawberries don’t taste like strawberries anymore. They taste like Dasani strawberry-flavored water. And I fear I may have eaten my last tomato with any flavor at all.

We’re halfway through the present semester, and even my brightest students in Argument-based Research cannot recognize an argument when they read one.

Kids are zombified on Adderall and Ritalin. In class, away from their computers, cell phones, and plasma-screen TVs, they take on the aspect of unplugged appliances.

Today the FBI admitted that in 2006 it improperly accessed Americans’ phone records, credit histories, and Internet use. And is this something that somebody has fixed now?

The White House is fighting to the finish to keep its own spying records (since 2000) off the record. Freedom and privacy are not worth the paper they’re printed on.

Today 97 percent of stock shares closed in the negative. Bombing in Times Square. Seminary shootings in Jerusalem. The President dances like a Teletubby on YouTube.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Balls and Chains

In principle, I support same-sex marriage, but somewhat less than I support gays being allowed to serve in the military …and just as much as, in principle, I support equal access to the death penalty for gay serial killers.

My point is I don’t believe in the death penalty, have a hard time justifying any war likely to be proposed by any of the world’s current leaders, and cannot understand the appeal of marriage, gay or straight.

I have not wanted to marry … ever. Marriage didn’t even enter into my childhood fantasies. When I was told as a lad of 10 or 11 that homosexuals were men that (1) liked to wear women’s clothing and (2) wanted to marry other men, that misinformation gave me a decade of self-deluding comfort that I could not possibly be a homosexual.

Mainly I lack the desire to marry, but in recent years I have had opportunity to build a case against the institution of marriage:

1. The religious connotations. I don’t believe in gods, so having the blessing of one of these imaginary beings on one or any of my personal relationships is no more desirable to me than receiving a valentine card from a leprechaun.

2. Relationship buidling. I’ve never seen a marriage deepen a relationship any more than it was already before the wedding. Given the considerable expense of getting married, especially if one is inclined to “do it right,” a wedding should accomplish a lot more than simply make an existing relationship “official.” The costs far outweigh the benefits.

3. The government connection. I can’t see what business it is of the state of North Carolina or the US federal government whom I may choose to spend the rest of my life with. I can understand the point of a driver’s license, perhaps even a fishing license, but a marriage license? Why? If I’ve spurned the possible approval of my own parents in choosing to love another man, why would I want George W. Bush’s approval?

4. Health and economic benefits. Political clout and energies would be better spent on gaining universal health care, independent of one’s marital status or employment, and (see #3) I don’t recognize the government's vested interest in awarding tax benefits to married couples, when, by and large, single people have to bear the greater burden in cost of living and work productivity—for instance, single people will still be paying for America’s public school system after all the marrieds with children have spent their vouchers on home-schooling and St Homophobia’s White-Only Christian Academy.

5. Commitment. It seems presumptuous of me to swear that I’m going to love and/or cherish anyone or anything for the rest of my life. I love Häagen-Dazs pineapple-coconut ice cream, expect I’ll love it till the day I die, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sign a contract promising to love it even five months from now. How does one contract or guarantee one's future feelings? Given a 50% divorce rate, most such marital vows are empty rhetoric anyway. I don’t want to cut off the possibility of personal growth and change—or even of surprise--for me or for the person I love.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

My Big, Fat Roman Orgy


Guest List (Maximum Occupancy: 55 + me):

Matt Battaglia, Eugen Bauder, Leandro Becker, J.C. Blackhawk, Andre Bolourchi, Matthew Born, Raoul Bova, Vladimir Brichta, Vincent Cassel, Nicolas Cazalé

Ryan Daharsh, Marco Dapper, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kerry Degman, James Ellis, Chris Evans, Matthew Fox, Terry Frazier, Arno Galmarini, Joshua Goodman, Blake Harper, Brodie Holland

Krag Hopps, Michael Horta, Sebastian Jondeau, Brian Kenny, Ben Kirby, Mark Lander, Ryan Lebar, Tyler Lough, Alexandre Marchi, Christian Monzon, Jeremy Mulkey, Rick Otto

J.P. Pitoc, Brad Pitt, Ryan Reynolds, Blake Riley, Tim Robards, Ramon Rodriguez, Todd Sanfield, Liev + Pablo Schreiber, Bruno Schuind, Emil Sitoci, Andrew Stetson, Dane Tarsen

Brandon Templeton, Rafael Verga, Danny Vox, Matt Walch, Josh Wald, Paul Walker, Tony Ward, Chad White

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Laws of Desire

My ENG 112 students are writing cause-and-effect arguments on human sexuality this month, investigating contradictory scientific, sociologic, and psychological explanations for sexual attraction, sex orientation, mating, masculine/feminine traits, and long-term romantic relationships.

Although any argument is based on the arguer’s values to some extent, I have asked them to minimize evaluation in favor of analysis, weighing the scientific and empirical evidence.

Some of my students are up to the task, whereas a good many are not, but, for me, the assignment addresses the sort of thinking challenges that a college education should confront them with.

The mysteries of desire—created and/or stimulated by genetics, hormones, culture, imagination, volition, and the pleasure principle—are of great interest to me.

Desire is part of the working of nature—and, like all aspects of nature, it has been romanticized and idealized to the point of disconnection with physical nature, and, if examined closely, as, say, under a microscope, it appears odd, a bit unwholesome, and hostile to convention and theory.

All romantic and sexual relationships strike me as perverse, even (maybe even especially) “normal” and “successful” ones.

I’m as curious about what makes one straight as about what makes one queer. Under the alienating lens, monogamy is as hard to justify as promiscuity or polygamy. Nowhere else in existence, except perhaps in death, do I find a force as hard to explain, as difficult to justify with logic and reason.

No wonder, then, that desire is the subject of so much mythology—and so distrusted (and suppressed) by the puritans who want to reduce the world to simple dichotomies.

I sometimes wonder to what extent all sexual desire is fetishistic; whether making a fetish of latex pudding wrestling or suburban white picket fences, we ascribe a certain “magic” to objects and gestures that, for us individually, exhibit implicit sexual power.

What makes some people, actions, and things “sexy”? and others not? Why did Europeans cover women’s breasts, but Polynesians did not? Why do Japanese tolerate nudity as un-pornographic, as long as no pubic hair is visible? and why did 19th-century Japanese women blacken their teeth (ohagura) to enhance their sexual allure? And why do homophobes insist on saying gay men’s “parts don’t fit” when so obviously they do?

Tattoos or no? Body hair or no? Straight acting (whatever one means by that) or no? Muscles or no? And to what precise extent?

These are mysteries we find within ourselves, and they are worth investigating.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Theory of Gifts

My theory of giving and receiving gifts is based on 12 simple principles:

(1) A gift should be wrapped … unless it is an event or an occasion (such as sex or a trip to the theatre), in which case something symbolizing the gift may be wrapped or enclosed with a card.

(2) The wrapping of the gift should itself be a gift. The giver should wrap the gift himself, if possible, preferably binding the package with ribbon or string, not tape. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it shouldn’t look slapdash or cheap.

(3) A gift should cost the giver something. It may cost time or money, but it should represent some kind of a (not necessarily big) sacrifice for the giver. Re-gifting is not the same as giving a gift, unless the giving of it involves some measure of real generosity on the part of the giver—i.e. not simply passing along something the giver doesn’t like or want anymore.

(4) A gift should be something both the giver and the receiver can appreciate. Ideally, it should be something the giver and the receiver can appreciate in some special sense … like a private joke. Also, a gift should be something the giver thinks will make the receiver a better person, but not something that is needed—such as, for instance, socks or urgent medical attention.

(5) A gift should be an unexpected surprise.

(6) A gift should pleasantly appeal to all the senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

(7) A gift should pose no inconvenience for the receiver of the gift—i.e. no assembly should be required, unless the assembling process promises to be fun.

(8) A gift should be delivered in person … unless distance and scheduling are impossible obstacles to overcome.

(9) A gift should be opened at once, in the presence of the giver of the gift. The unwrapping of the gift should be as ceremonial as the receiver and the giver can feel comfortable with. A gift should be accompanied with a kiss and/or a hug … or, as appropriate, sex.

(10) The receiver of a gift should express gratitude for the gift—both in affect and words.

(11) Gift-giving among adults should involve alcohol and sometimes food.

(12) The giver of a gift should apologize for offering anything short of what is described above. The receiver of the gift should always accept the apology and assure the giver that none of this really matters.

Why Hillary Still Matters to Gays

As of his open letter this week to the LGBT communities, Barack Obama is the candidate expressing the clearest, strongest message for homosexualist and transgender rights.

Still, I am troubled by Obama's rhetoric--precisely the quality that has the public and media so starstruck. It appropriates the language of Christian faith ("believe," "hope") for political ends, a strategy Obama unabashedly espouses, beginning with his 2006 opening address for Call to Renewal, a Christian ministry based in Washington, DC, that advocates for the social messages implicit in Jesus's teachings--help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick.

I don't doubt that such a synthesis may be harmless--and even do a great deal of good--the civil rights movement was enriched by the evangelistic zeal and mountain-top oratory of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson.

But its play upon people's values and emotions is not rational and will be hard to translate into helpful, enforceable legislation.

Even though most Christians consider homosexuality an abomination, Obama is not evidently of that opinion--and he claims his goal is to find the common ground between socially conservative Christians and the LGBT communities.

However, his recent actions--giving a platform to ex-gay minister Donnie McClurkin and refusing to be photographed with pro-gay San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom--seem to indicate that Obama still treads more softly around the homophobes than the LGBT voters he's calling out to now.

It's worth remembering that, all through 2007, support for Obama was mainly white and male--with a higher percentage of blacks and women supporting Clinton. That has changed, of course. At the end of the year, Obama conducted a strong campaign in SC to win the African American vote, and the higher visibility of Michelle Obama nowadays may be a strategy designed to appeal to female voters.

Still, for the most part, Obama has done relatively little, apart from this week's open letter, to directly appeal to gays.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has marched in gay pride parades--for years now. She granted an interview last year to The Advocate, the national gay-lesbian news biweekly. Her public perception as gay-friendly seems to have even fueled rumors that she's lesbian.

However, like Obama, she stops short of endorsing gay marriage, claiming in the Advocate interview that her age (60) impedes her acceptance of the concept--next month Elton John will be 61 and Barney Frank, 68--so clearly age alone cannot be the issue. (Obama claims his religious faith is an impediment to his acceptance of equal marriage. Both candidates support civil unions that grant all the benefits of marriage.)

The Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, continues to be a formidable weapon against gay rights. Barack Obama wants to repeal the law. Hillary Clinton wants to alter it.

While Barack Obama's appeal to voters is his inspirational oratory, I think Hillary Clinton appeals to many gays because she is a strong, outspoken woman, which has always been the stuff of gay diva-worship. Her semi-tragic past, born stoically during the worst of times during his husband's impeachment, also is alluring. Even her visual presentation and attitude--which cross genders in their effects--like Martha Stewart and Jodie Foster--seem to signify more solidarity for gay causes than Obama's unmistakably straight, Boy Scout-variety do-goodism.

I think that gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women perceive Hillary as a friend. The perception, right or wrong, is comparable to the much repeated comment that George W. Bush was the type of guy you could have a beer with--all the more remarkable since supposedly Bush hasn't touched alcohol since 1986. Hillary appears to be the type of person who could be comfortable in a gay setting.

On the other hand, Barack's outreach to gays seems one part political and one part evangelistic. It's hard to fully endorse a candidate that speaks on acceptance and tolerance and yet has an image, right or wrong, of being uptight and guarded around gay people and on the issue of homosexuality. In many ways, he seems to lump us gays with the poor, the hungry, and the sick that Jesus commands him to love, however personally repugnant he finds us.

Of the two Democratic candidates, Obama promises more. Of the two, Clinton seems the more capable of getting things done in Washington.

Clinton's advantage with LGBT voters boils down to the perception that she is "one of us." The question remains Is that a legitimate, valid, and safe perception?


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