Saturday, October 31, 2009

13 Years of Halloween

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)—for showing us that the monsters we love and fear are our unruly emotions

Irreversible (2002)—for Vincent Cassel and the unbearably realistic “scene”

Sleepy Hollow (1999)—for the exuberance in which it depicts decapitation and the beauty of its evocation of late eighteenth-century America

Shaun of the Dead (2004)—for the laughs, the camerawork, and, ultimately, its heart

Let the Right One In (2008)—for its banal but haunting imagery of violence

Jeepers Creepers (2001)—for Justin Long, its long yet effective setup, and its implicit dispelling of the sexist assumptions of earlier horror films

Sheitan (2006)—for Vincent Cassel (again, but in a totally different vein) and its disturbing recalibration of the iconography of Christmas (so, yes, it’s also a Christmas movie)

Final Destination (2000)—for tackling Fate (and, by insinuation, God) as the ultimate monster

Ringu (1998)—mostly for its ghostly video montage but also for introducing Japanese horror to mainstream Hollywood

Hostel (2005)—for its subversive and indirect critique of predatory sexuality and the slippery slope of the global free market

Planet Terror (2007)—for Rose McGowan and Marley Shelton

Underworld (2003)—for its slick but hardly ever plausible battles between werewolves and vampires

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)—for Ryan Phillippe in the shower

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dante in Hell

Dante in Hell, the Seventh Circle, the Third Ring, where the Sodomites suffer:

"As champions, naked, oiled, will always do,
each studying the grip that serves him best
before the blows and wounds begin to fall,
while wheeling so, each one made sure his face
was turned to me, so that their necks opposed
their feet in one uninterrupted flow."

(Canto XVI, Inferno, trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

I'm teaching Dante right now in my World Literature I class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Where Dante places his sinners in Hell, what they're doing there, and how Dante responds to them reveal a lot about Dante's scruples.

Interestingly, Dante imagines the Sodomites resembling wrestlers, he-men champions, not effeminate girly-boys.  And though they are condemned to a lower circle of Hell (below murderers and tyrants, even ... but no worse off than credit and loan officers, i.e. usurers), Dante happily reunites with his old friends there, notably his old beloved mentor Brunetto Latino.

Here's William-Adolphe Bouguereau's 1850 painting of Dante and Virgil in Hell, visiting the Seventh Circle

And here are some cogent variations on the image by boofhead and renatodomas

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Christopher Street Boys

Jay Smooth, one of my YouTube heroes, speaks up for the truth and "lets a brother know."  Ill Doctrine always has something to inspire ...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Beefcake (for Laurie)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (Movie Review)

I am thoroughly charmed.  Spike Jonze’s lovely, honest, elegant without being egregiously arty adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book explores emotions on the level of a child’s imagination and an animal’s instincts.  Its combination of nature and fantasy is as gnomic and elusive as Andy Goldsworthy’s stick-shell-and-stone sculptures.  The movie seems simultaneously homemade and otherworldly.

The film essentially captures a child’s problems of incorporating himself into a scary yet fragile world—a galaxy with a dying sun and overwhelming egos, towering adults with their weird combinations of sexual yearning, physical exhaustion, and lonely affection, and the cruelty of feeling and exuberance.  Perhaps no film has so affectingly captured the way a child's sense of self blossoms through something close to confabulation—and perhaps no film has so accurately depicted the clash of values between childhood and adulthood (previously, only Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits has come even close).

Special kudos to the effectively naturalistic special effects by a host of technicians combining puppetry and CGE, the voice-work of James Gandolfini as the monstrous Carol, and the musical score of Karen O and Carter Burwell.  The screenplay by director Jonze and Dave Eggers, adapting a book consisting of only ten sentences, is a work of wonder.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Last night I went with Barbara, MK, and Shane to a new bar (new to me) in downtown Durham, Whiskey, an old-fashioned dark-wood-paneled bar with a buck’s head facing the long bar.

I had said just that afternoon to Kirsten that if I could find a bar that makes a decent Sazerac cocktail, I could say I had found a hangout.  (My esteem can be won by decent guacamole, spumoni, cheeseburgers, fish or shrimp tacos, and Sazerac cocktails.)  Sazeracs, a mix of absinthe, rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and a slice of lemon, are reputedly the world’s first cocktail.

Top of the list of cocktails at Whiskey was the Sazerac.  I ordered it ($12, steep, but it was a full-course meal), tasted it (made with a slice of orange, instead of lemon), savored it, and announced to everybody that I now had a favorite bar in town.

The bartender, a man with a dashingly curled mustache, explained the cocktail choices to us.  Almost all of them were vintage pre-1960 mixes—the Cosmopolitan, the Old-Fashioned, etc.  The TV show Mad Men had, he said, inspired the list.

In the course of conversation, Shane offered his opinion that the bar was a bit phony, that it lacked the authenticity of, say, a bar like The Green Room, a historic pool hall in town.  I see his point.  Authenticity would require that the bar date back to the 1950s, at least, that the wood paneling be antique and probably original to the décor, that the deer head on the wall have a story that goes with it (for all I know, it does, but I didn’t inquire). 

Further, I can’t say what it is, but none of the clientele looked like regulars—perhaps the place is too new for regulars—and “regular-ity” is something that somehow shows in a person’s face, I think, like character—and, more alarming, everybody looked fresh and businesslike, without any sign of the disrespectability that stirs interest.

Still, Whiskey is by no means just an Epcot version of Cheers.  It has eccentricities, which count for a lot:  the cocktail list for one (I had not been able to order a Sazerac anywhere within 200 miles of where I live), and the dramatic swoop of our tender’s stache for another.  Plus, there was an inexplicable “room” close to where we sat—a closet really—but a closet furnished with an overstuffed chair, where a lush could get a decent jag on in privacy if he so chooses.

And, no small thing, the bar is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Durham, a city with a distinctive louche ethos of its own, where I’m proud to live at a modest rent of $650 a month and free to nurse a Sazerac all night at my hangout.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ripley's Thirteen Today

To Do List

1.              Get out of Iraq
2.              Get out of Afghanistan
3.              Give detainees (re: anti-terrorism) legal representation and fair trials
4.              Close the School of the Americas
5.              Eliminate the death penalty
6.              Reclaim public patents and copyrights on technologies (microwave, computers, plastics, satellite) created and developed through public funding
7.              Reinstate the Eisenhower 91% tax rate for the top 5% of income earners
8.              Strictly regulate lobbyists and campaign contributions
9.              Strictly regulate defense and covert intelligence spending
10.           Create free clinics and a public alternative to for-profit health insurance
11.           Reform and reinvigorate workers’ unions and collective bargaining
12.           Provide academic education and/or vocational training free of charge
13.           Eliminate private contracting and outsourcing in the military
14.           Create jobs relating to public works (schools, highways, health, parks)
15.           Eliminate all government recognition of and restrictions on marriage
16.           Reduce the prison population by releasing all inmates not regarded as threats to public safety
17.           Reinforce the separation of church and state
18.           Provide grant money for newspapers and eliminate the profit motive in news media
19.           Reinstate the fairness doctrine in news media
20.           Remove abstinence-only education from public schools
21.           Remove the teaching of creationism and intelligent design from public schools
22.           Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
23.           Legalize marijuana for recreational use
24.           Legalize consensual (adult) prostitution
25.           Require talk shows to either allow call-ins or have guests who can reasonably debate the issues

Stephen Gately 1976-2009

Stephen Gately, 33, of the Irish boy band Boyzone died mysteriously yesterday while on vacation in Majorca with his husband Andrew Cowles.  Reports say that he fell asleep after going out for drinks and never awoke.

Sunday Beefcake

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (Movie Review)

If Michael Moore's documentaries really had the impact that people on both the political right and left believe they have, we would be living in a very different America now.

Roger and Me would have convinced Americans to put the brakes on the corporate greed that through the 1980s crushed workers' unions, stole workers' jobs, exported them to sweatshops overseas, and destroyed communities.  

Bowling for Columbine would have exposed fear-mongering as the guilt trip that it is and effectively defused it as a tool of political and social manipulation.  

Fahrenheit 911 would have barred a second term for George W. Bush and ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Sicko would have sold us all on the idea of public health options and altogether eclipsed the existing health insurance industry from the debate on reform and quite possibly put some of its executives in prison before they could destroy any more American lives.

Had America really listened to everything Moore ranted about and plied with ridicule for the past twenty years, he would never have had to make his latest movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, which, in effect, encapsulates all the above, but updated for 2009.

Ironically, then, given the excellence of Capitalism, it's perhaps best that Americans ignore Michael Moore, since his movies get better the angrier he gets.  Future generations (assuming a higher than warranted rate of survival) will look back on him as the American Cassandra, that ill-fated Trojan princess cursed with always being right but never being believed.

The new documentary is not Moore's biggest critical success (reviewers, even liberal ones, are apparently bored now with his antics, i.e. compulsive truth-telling), but it is his most sweeping and important film.  

In it he dismantles key myths about American capitalism, for instance, that American workers are capitalists, though capitalists are almost by definition not workers, but people who thrive off investments in and loans to stimulate and profit from the labor of others.  Capitalists are to workers what kudzu is to pine trees; they should be perceived as scavengers and, even more accurately, as parasites.  Vampires would not be far from the mark either.

Another myth of capitalism that the movie explodes is that the nation's founding fathers were sympathetic to capitalism.  Through the closing credits, Moore intersperses pithy quotations tinged with anti-capitalist feeling from quintessential dead white males like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  

Much earlier, Moore pulls one of his typical stunts by scouring the U.S. Constitution for even small signs of support for capitalism, the free market, or the profit motive, finding only its wholehearted support for the value of democratic people's joining in "union" to support the "common good."  

Perhaps too generously, or even ingenuously, though, Moore ignores the Constitution's tacit endorsement of slavery, the most successful economic system in pre-industrial America and one that was capitalistic inasmuch as the benefits of labor went to slave owners, not to slaves.

The difference between slaves and employees is that employees have contracts, instead of physical chains.  But apart from cases of arbitration, the so-called free and mutual contract between employer and employee is entirely one sided:  

We get to fire you with or without cause if we deem circumstances as warranting your removal, but you have to give us thirty days' notice before leaving; we pay you what we feel like paying you, but you have only the choice of finding work elsewhere (after thirty days' notice and not, if you intend to maintain your current occupation, within 200 miles of your current workplace).  

Hence, we find in Moore's movie that pilots for some well-known budget airlines earn approximately $18-19-thousand a year and sell plasma to help make ends meet at home.

Moore also challenges the fundamental American tenet of faith that Christianity is conducive to capitalism.  Assuming that Jesus' teachings still have anything to do with today's Christianity, nothing could be further from the truth.  

Jesus, who blessed the poor, had doubts about redeeming the wealthy, and cured the sick and raised the dead, had no thought about turning profits or denying his signs and wonders to those with preexisting conditions.  

In on-camera interviews, priests and bishops tell Moore (raised an American Catholic) that  capitalism is a force of evil in the world, antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church.

Undoubtedly the ineffectiveness of Moore's movies lies in the fact that they mostly preach to the already converted, lefties like me, though about 90% of their content addresses the arguments of conservative Republicans and Libertarians.  Perhaps this accounts for the Cassandra effect.  

One could argue, though, that the films arm us lefties to contend with the specious arguments on the right, and indeed that argument carries weight with me, too, except it presumes that the left is and will be vigilant in its defense of sound sense and humanistic values.  

Sadly, though, lefties are habitually slack in this regard, preferring to react to the rants on the right with "respectful," though basically condescending silence:  quietly repeating platitudes about free speech (while forgetting that free speech only works towards democratic ends when flawed reasoning is regularly met with objections based on facts and clear logic) and bipartisanship (failing to recognize bipartisanship as the mistake that the reverend founding fathers tried to avoid by dividing the federal government into competitive yet complementary branches).

There's a sense of urgency in Moore's latest film that is lacking in its comparatively offhanded predecessors.  

Especially in Capitalism's closing minutes, Moore addresses the audience directly, pleading with them to take action against corporate capitalism's rapid dismantling of American democracy.  

There's a sense that a moment is about to be lost, a moment that was strongest and most lucid in the days after the election of November 2008.  

There's a sense, in the tone of Moore's voice there at the end, that if we do not enact the potential of America's democratic and humane values now, we may never again have the right circumstances for doing so again.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bright Star (Movie Review)

Two very remarkable things about Jane Campion's new film Bright Star, based on the thwarted love affair of poet John Keats and seamstress Fanny Brawne:

One, the film cuts through Hollywood "romanticism" to the spirit of early nineteenth-century Romanticism. The movie relies little on a grand sweeping musical score (most of the music is simple, heavily reliant on human voices in harmony), and there is little or no "star power" in the casting, though I admit, for me personally, to having a certain thing for actor Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, ever since Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in 2006, and for North Carolina-born (local boy) Paul Schneider, who plays his friend and sometimes benefactor, Mr. Brown. The film, obviously steeped in period costumes and decor, even manages to avoid feeling like a Merchant-Ivory production, mainly by affecting a stark yet poetic naturalistic tone, akin to Peter Weir's early film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The actors murmur, moan, growl their lines, rather than enunciating them as if performing on a stage. The flutter of eyelids and the nervous glances aside tell us as much about these people as the dialogue. And the effect is to make the people and the situations of the story more real to us.

Two, the film deals with the subject of writing and poetry intelligently. It is a love story, sure, one that captures the reality of romantic yearning more vividly than any film I've seen in a long time, but it is also the story of a writer who faced an uncomprehending audience in life and whose reputation as one of the great English Romantic poets emerged only after his early death, at age twenty-five.

In one scene, certain to be replayed in literature classrooms everywhere, Keats explains that poetry works in the senses, not the mind. When one dives into a lake, he says, the immediate purpose is not to work oneself back to the shore. Instead, one luxuriates in the tactile sense of being in a lake, its tastes and smells. So, likewise, one enters a poem to "feel" what it has to offer by way of sensuous pleasures and surprises, not simply to work it out like some kind of brain-teasing puzzle. It's a subtle point, beautifully made, and as true of Campion's richly sensuous film as it is of, say, "The Eve of St Agnes" or "Ode to a Nightingale."

Particularly compelling is Abbie Cornish, as Fanny. This is, after all, Fanny's story, not Keats's. In the beginning, we see her mentally caught up in her stitching, photographed so as to emphasize the evenness and regularity of her work. She is a craftswoman, but, we learn later, a craftswoman who yearns for a sense of the sublime as any poet or painter. At first, she is petulant and teasing, and only gradually are we let to see her depth of feeling and character. Her dynamic change from self-absorbed girl to muse to passionate, self-assured woman is wonderful to watch ... and it comes with her gradual awareness of the imagination's power to connect us to the grandeur of nature and thus to all human feeling (a fundamental premise of Wordsworthian Romanticism).

But the real achievement in the film is writer-director Jane Campion's. She makes the characters real for us, but she reminds us of our own sense connections to the world, what it feels like to hold a cat or to feel the ping of a snowflake against one's already cold cheek. She draws our eye to the weird gorgeousness of butterflies, like insects and faeries merged together, and the beautiful, sad, horrible impermanence of all the lovely things in life that touch our senses. I cannot, in fact, think of another movie that so accurately captures what being in love feels like, for me, anyway.

But as I said, citing Keats, there is no point in trying to explicate such beauty as this movie offers. Plunge in. Enjoy. Feel what you can feel. It will be over and done all too soon.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Muse/U2, 3 October 2009

Tim: Arrive early, eat sandwiches, upgrade seating

Showtime at Carter Finley Stadium



Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, October 3, 2009

U2 Live from Outer Space

I’m going to see U2 tonight. For a band that’s not actually my favorite, I’ve seen U2 more times in concert (3—and soon 4) than I’ve seen any other band. I tried to like them back in the 1980s, but only managed to find them interesting. I warmed up to them when they “sold out” to pop music—circa Zooropa and Pop—but overall my problem with them has been what draws a lot of fans to them—their Christ-tinged sanctimony.

Of their songs, my favorites are ones that had some airplay but are not the quintessential U2 that most fans adore. I love “Mysterious Ways,” especially after the Zooropa tour in 1992 when a belly dancer materialized in the midst of the audience, fairly far from the main stage—that moment was magic. And if I’m not mistaken, it was during that song that I found out, via the show’s continuously streaming Zoo Vision that one of my favorite artists/writers/persons David Wojnarowicz had died.

That’s perhaps their biggest hit I dearly love. “With or Without You” is a fantastic song, but Bono usually spoils its plaintive loveliness with his closing wail, meant, no doubt, to portray the spiritual agony of love, but, for me (perhaps alone in all the world) it craps on the rest of the song. I also love “The Fly,” “Numb” (OK I used to have a thing for The Edge), “Miss Sarajevo,” “Staring at the Sun,” and “Discotheque,” pretty much the numbers that true fans tend to snub.

The first time I saw U2 live on stage was in 1986 in Atlanta, in a festival-style concert celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Amnesty International—an organization I was working with then (mainly by acting in the US premiere of Harold Pinter’s short anti-torture play One for the Road, to benefit AI). The Police, the Neville Brothers, Peter Gabriel, and Joan Baez were also in the lineup. I remember Bono blindfolding himself and climbing atop some tall stacked speakers, meant to portray his blind faith in divine providence, I suspect, and pretty much concluded, then and there, that the guy’s an asshole.

Then the second time was the Zooropa tour in 1992, which I caught also in Atlanta with Vince, my boyfriend at the time and a big U2 fan (an Irish thing, perhaps). The spectacle was amazing, but Vince was a little bitch that night because I hadn’t got particularly good seats for us, and the tension between us (he refused to sit with me) pretty much spoiled the mood for me, if not for him—with the notable exception of the “Mysterious Ways” number.

Then in 2005 my friend Barbara had bought two tickets for a concert (again in Atlanta), in hopes of finding an amour to go with her—but in the end she had to settle for me. That was the year of going to fantastic concerts with Barbara—Sigur Rós here in Durham and Antony and the Johnsons (with CocoRosie) in Milwaukee, among which, U2 fell somewhere at number 3—despite ungodly expensive tickets that I think Barbara bought from a scalper.

So tonight will be the first time I see U2 outside of Atlanta. Tim bought the tickets for him and Dave, but Dave is not a fan of rock or modern pop, a strictly classical and jazz standards fan is he, so Tim invited me along, as somebody who at least has some appreciation for the group and rock'n'roll.

And I’m really looking forward to it. The group is receiving rave reviews as being on top of their game, and Rolling Stone calls the show “the Biggest Rock Show Ever.” Seventy thousand fans are expected to converge on Raleigh for tonight’s show, so Tim and I plan on getting on the road early—leaving us plenty of time to twiddle our thumbs at Carter Finley Stadium.

If I’m blown away tonight, I’ll eat my lukewarm words above.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fountain of Youth

From the perspective of 56 (56 “and a half”) I’m beginning to see the allure of youth elixirs. I think today is the first day in my life when I consciously wished I could back up the ineluctable march of time (a Macy’s parade that ends with Death, not Santa) for, let’s say, three decades or so.

Not that I’m pining for 1979, particularly—it was an okay year but not the best for me, and it was just a heartbeat away from Reagan and AIDS. But, oh, to be 26 right now—that is, 26 with a source of income, far from Iraq and Afghanistan (or Utah), and not living with Moms and Pops.

What’s most remarkable is it’s taken me this long. I hit my thirties without blinking—best decade of my life (if only I were more of an optimist I would add “so far”—as. if.) And my forties were so rocked by personal losses and flagrant, deliberate assaults on my self-esteem that I had little time to assess them—or really experience them.

But my fifties have so far trotted along with a chummy sort of knockabout charm—things are slowing down, to be sure, and the abyss is indeed opening before me, but my mood thus far has been to stretch my arms up, fingers pointed to the sky, and ready myself for the big dive downwards.

Not today, though.

Something (I don’t know what) snapped, and I found myself wishing I could be tomcatting with my studly male students and falling in love all over again for the first hundred times.

What a 26-year-old me couldn’t do with 2009! A society relatively (only relatively) open to homosexuality and atheism—I could have escaped whole heaps of private guilt and interior ping-ponging much sooner than I was able to. My personal kinks—wrestling and fighting—have gained a semi-sorta-legitimacy in the mise-en-scène in which I live and breathe. I could be going to gay clubs where hot dudes in jockstraps grapple under hot lights, instead of watching drag queens lipsync to Donna Summer.

(But, then, oh my, there were the dance floors of back then!—with Tarzan-boys swinging on ropes past glittering disco balls and over our jam-packed shirtless bodies!)

Had I owned DVDs of my favorite movies back then and pushed buttons on my laptop and iPhone to reach whole worlds of flashy new information and erotic provocations, I would have thought I had died and turned into God.

I’ve thought these things before, but never with feeling. Today the feeling came.

Impossible as I know it to be, I yearn to trade my old self in for a newer model … with standard tattoos, firm muscle, an unbustable sense of my own rightness and clarity of perception, and sure knowledge that, since I have not yet made enough decisions in my life, all options are still wide open and ready to be snatched up.

Sure, I realize that the switch would come with the usual side effects—blotchy skin, self doubts, fear of the future (hey, young people, it’s bad, but it’s survivable—so far, anyway), but, fuck, I could take it now—no problemo—bring it on—just to have hair on my head again and a spring in my slouchy walk … sweet bird of youth!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Jon Stewart on the Democratic Super-Majority

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Democratic Super Majority
Daily Show
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