Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year in Meh

I love movies.  I equally love serious (artistic) cinema and regular "movie movies."  I am even under the impression that movies today are better than they've ever been, technically, artistically, and ideologically, something I would not and could not say through the 1980s and 1990s, though I will say my esteem for the output of these decades has grown in the past few years.

This is the time of year when moviegoers like me post their "best of" and "worst of" lists.  But I live in a city that is not first in line for foreign, independent, and "Oscar bait" releases, which is to say that I do not live in Los Angeles or New York City.  So many of the "best" movies do not enter my radar until the following year ... and often not until a whole year or two later, when the film shows up on DVD or somebody's "dark-horse masterpieces" list.  The best I can compile here are the movies of 2009 that struck my fancy and were actually seen in 2009.  Here they are:  AvatarWhere the Wild Things AreWatchmen2012and World's Greatest Dad (I saw this movie late on DVD.  It's best if you ignore the misleading title and the fact that it stars Robin Williams and rent it knowing only, as I did, that Bob Goldthwait directed it and John Waters named it one of the "best" of 2009.)  My list does not even hit the magic number ten.  I guess I'm saving five spots for 2009 releases I'll catch in 2010 or later.

Also, I am not a paid film reviewer, so fortunately I am usually spared seeing the "worst" movies of a year.  What follows, then, are my list of the ten (neither top nor bottom) meh movies of 2009, that is, the movies I expected to like because of glowing reviews, friends' recommendations, or my own irrational high hopes, but I responded to with little (if any) enthusiasm.  Some of these movies made real reviewers' "best of" lists, proving only "to each his own tastes."  Some of these movies are on people's "worst of" lists, meaning only that I've seen worst and found them at least to be bearable.  Most of these have been unreviewed in this blog and uncommented on here precisely because of my lack of enthusiasm for them and negligible interest in them.  All I can really say is that I saw them and probably won't remember them, so it's best if I list them here now, while I still can.

1.              Up 
2.              The Men Who Stare at Goats
3.              Nine
4.              Star Trek
5.              The Proposal
6.              Julie and Julia
7.              Me and Orson Welles
8.              The Hangover
9.              Zombieland
10.            Fighting

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Shroud of Chiquita

Story here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Complicated (Movie Review)

Ann asked me to go see It's Complicated with her yesterday.  We both walked into the theater knowing it would be a chick flick, but a chick flick par excellence since it sports Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski, Steve Martin, and, in cameo doses, Mary Kay Place, Nora Dunn, and (usually a warning sign) Rita Wilson.

Let me say the obvious first:  Streep is incredible in this film, and because of her deftly complicated performance as a 58-year-old divorcee with three children, her own business, and a dried-up sex life, Complicated is the first modern chick flick to be worthy of an Oscar nomination.  It's not exactly The Piano or Annie Hall great, but, with Streep in it, it's way ahead of the pack of things like Sex and the City (dreck) and The Proposal (which is not dreck, but it lacks nuance or wit).

In fact, all the glowing praise heaped on Streep for Julie and Julia (in which rather meh movie she is, indeed, won-der-ful) needs to be relit and reheaped for her performance in this film.  In fact, I will be angry if she gets nominated for playing Julia Child instead of her achievement here.  It's just that much better, though both performances are noteworthy.

If you saw the trailer for this movie, you get the gist of it (divorcees reignite the old passion with a late midlife affair) and you can perhaps even guess the outcome, but what you may not expect is how involved you can get in it.  It's mostly Streep's doing, as I said, with her finely tuned double takes, infectious laughter, and her gift (it's called acting) of conveying loneliness or embarrassment with just a flicker of an eyelash.  But some credit goes too to writer-director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday and Something's Gotta Give), who has a good ear for the things people say that hurt each other (intentionally or not) and the things people do not say that give each other hope.

Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski are also major pluses in this film, though neither gets to (or does) exhibit the range of human feeling that Streep does.  They don't convey a lot about their characters beyond their emotions, which (you're ahead of me) Streep does.  In fact, the mark of what a magnificent actor Streep is (despite what that shrill, jittery, and sometimes brilliant Camille Paglia says to disparage her talent) that she conveys not just emotions, but who the person is behind the emotions (so that we can imagine the character's responses to events that are not even in the movie!) and, most incredible of all, she conveys insights to the characters around her, so that about 40% of what we feel towards Baldwin's and Krasinski's characters is (I would argue) due to Streep's reactions to what they say and do.

Streep is 80% responsible for what we come to feel for the rest of the cast.  Not that they are bad actors, but they just don't or can't work a moment the way God's gift to American cinema can.  Steve Martin's performance as a newly divorced architect is peculiarly drained (and draining), almost as if the gifted comedian/banjoist/art collector/playwright is under the impression that total lack of affect is the best way to convey a character's insecurity, withdrawal, expectation, and sorrow.  And in retrospect I'm pretty sure that I would have been more impressed with Martin's "restrained" performance, had it not been juxtaposed against Streep's, which conveys all the above, plus the whole living being of her character.

Okay, enough jisming all over Meryl Streep.

What are the film's drawbacks?  For me?  Apart from some niggling complaints I won't bother with, it has one main drawback; it's way too elegant.  Way too.  Yes, everybody in it is fabulously wealthy and reside in absolutely envy-inducing homes.  Sure, they are lawyers, restauranteurs, and architects.  But their environments are portrayed in golden Hollywood excess ... art-directed to death.  It is possible to portray the lifestyles of the well-to-do without idealizing them, as even a brief excerpt from The Graduate about midway through this movie illustrates by contrast.  The mise-en-scene of It's Complicated is calculated to induce desire and envy, the way television commercials do.  The food Streep serves in this movie made me even hungrier than the shots of food in Julie and Julia, which is, after all, partly about the delectability of a well-prepared meal.  Why couldn't the beautiful and wealthy characters in this film at least breathe something remotely like actual oxygen?

Kudos to the film (and its script) for transgressing some of the generic boundaries of the chick flick, for daring to violate the principle that all children should be adorable, for not depicting middle-aged sex and romance as inherently ridiculous, for at least hinting at what makes philandering husbands charming, and for addressing the feelings of guilt over casual sex with some attention to their ethical bases, and yet without didacticism or the pretense that sexual mores are absolute or just.

Chick flicks have an audience beyond those of the female persuasion, to be sure.  Some, like It's Complicated, are just good entertainment, regardless of their genre, and can be enjoyed even by those who aren't ordinarily devotees of the form.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Monkey Punch and Bunny Lift

Brian Kenny, Monkey-Punch, 2009

Brian Kenny, Bunny-Lift, 2009

Friday, December 25, 2009

Yule (A Suggestion)

Christmas Tree, by Gareth Pugh (2008)

I'm of the opinion that Christmas should always be on a Sunday, just as Thanksgiving Day is always on a Thursday.  The holiday is inherently anticlimactic, with the potential for spoiling every day of the week except Sunday, which, let's face it, most of us have already gotten used to being pretty much a washout.  Things shutting down on a Friday, like today, just seems cruel.  In fact, putting Christmas permanently on Sunday would give Sunday a little color, at least for one Sunday out of every 52.

Putting Christmas on Sunday should also make the Christians happy, putting Christ back into Christmas and letting them just go to town singing hymns, building creches, and feeling holy.  Nobody believes that Jesus was born on Christmas Day anyway.  Christmas became Christmas because the tenth-century church wanted to put the kibosh on pagan midwinter celebrations, like Yule.

Now, Yule is another story.  We could keep Yule as a fun time, to celebrate peace and fertility (or the Germanic divine-mothers) the old-fashioned way, for three to twelve days sometime from late November to the beginning of January, depending on the lunar calendar.  We could probably dispense with the animal sacrifice or wild hunt (though an NRA tie-in could help popularize the revival of Yule in the South), but we could maintain the tradition of decorating logs and trees, singing our hearts out, lighting bonfires, and drinking heavily.  It would be a great time for all, including non-pagans.

The important thing is, if we're going to shorten operation hours at the mall and stop mail service for the day, Christmas on Sunday would ensure that we don't get two boring days within three days of each other.  Not to say that shopping at the mall or getting junk mail is all that much fun, but at least it's nice to have options for stuff to do.

And then Christmas could be all about the "true meaning" and shit, and everybody could coo over the baby Jesus, and angels, and shepherds, and wise men, and Yule could be about "happy holidays" and laughter and irreverence and sex and just getting along and fun.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Come and Behold Him

Pecs and biceps like these, to say nothing of lashes black as ebony and lips like cherry soda, wipe the slate clean of all the insincerity, narcissism, salesmanship, and self-promotion of the video in general.  Here is the true meaning of Christmas:  a babe and a proclamation of good news (for five days only).  Visions of sugary plums and a stocking-stuffer for my long winter's nap.

Jay Smooth's Defense of Humbug

Smooth reuploads a holiday rant to his hiphop video blog, full of love and respect for the unhappy, the lonely, and the strapped for cash.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An Assault on Avatar

Knowing my enthusiasm for the film Avatar, my friend Tim sent me an opinion piece from yesterday's New York Times, arguing that the religion of the fictitious Na'Vi people is pantheistic.


I would have thought that anyone watching the film would have picked up on this and perhaps been perceptive enough to read a vaguely political subtext criticizing the West's historic exploitation of native people, most of whom, like aborigines in Australia and the Ainu in Japan, believed, like the Na'Vi, in a god or gods who are immanent in the natural world.

The article lumps Avatar with other films like Dances with Wolves and Disney's Pocahontas in its supposed promotion of pantheism (and around Christmastime, no less!), failing to mention that these films were, to the extent that Hollywood ever is, historically accurate representations of the old beliefs of certain Native American tribes.

The article's author is Ross Douthat, whose book Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class [another exploited population] and Save the American Dream hit bookstores earlier this year.  In the past year, Douthout has written a number of opinion pieces for Atlantic Monthly and the Times, including one in defense of the Teabaggers (if not of their independence from the Republican Party) and another in which he daydreamed aloud about a run for the White House by Dick Cheney.

I suspect that Douthat is pissed that Avatar has (unlike 85% [I estimate] of action-adventure movies Hollywood has manufactured over the past thirty years or so) a progressive point of view and offers a critique (however superficial) of capitalism, corporate control of the military, and exploitation of people for the energy resources they happen to live over.  Perhaps even more aggravating to conservative moviegoers is the film's positive treatment of diplomacy, cooperation, and environmental preservation.

Besides representing yet another worldly encroachment on the sanctity of Christmas (which, for the record, the Christians appropriated from pantheistic pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule, including both the December 25th date and the decoration of trees), the offense that Avatar poses for Douthat and perhaps others is that it considers the possibility that life and death are natural cycles, not circumventable by Christ's blood or prayers to saints.

"Religion exists, in part," he states, "precisely because humans aren't at home amid these cruel rhythms.  We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it.  We're beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality."

At least Douthat seems to perceive religion as a human construct and humans as kin to other animals, but he can't seem to fathom a "faith" that might simply accept the natural facts of life (and death) for what they are.

(Aside:  The supposed "need" that human beings have for belief in a god or an after-life is most eloquently answered in the lovely poem "With Mercy for the Greedy":  "Need is not quite belief."  [Anne Sexton, the poet, who suffered from a complex form of depression, likewise had difficulty feeling "at home" with the irrevocable fact of death, perhaps contributing to her suicide in 1974.])

Perhaps the part of Douthat's piece that riles me up the most is his equation of pantheism and atheism.  In pointing out, quite rightly, that both respect nature, its beauties, and its complex processes, he makes the mistake of confusing the two.  In doing so, he pulls quotations from books by atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and uses them out of context to suggest that atheism and pantheism are thus generally equivalent.

Sure, modern atheism grew out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's celebration of nature and reason, derived in large part from the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose pantheon of gods represented a variety of natural forces observably at work in the material universe.

The deists in "enlightened" Europe and America (Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, possibly Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) attempted to see in nature the workings of an eminent (not immanent) god, which nevertheless was not likely a person and, if so, not particularly interested in the prayers and struggles of individual human beings.

When a character "prays" to the female deity the Na'Vi of the planet Pandora worship, he is told, that she looks over creation in general, not the individual interests of the creatures.  This principle is conducive to deism and some forms of pantheism.  The principle that natural laws (such as life and death) operate regardless of human wishes or needs is similarly one that most atheists would agree to.  Such a confluence hardly makes the three viewpoints the same, though.

It looks to me like Douthat is carving a niche for himself as a conservative cultural warrior, a somewhat more articulate Glenn Beck, to fool pseudo-intellectuals (i.e. Libertarians), and his attack on Avatar is perhaps a sortie on behalf of American Christians who, despite constituting a majority and having their say in virtually every aspect of American daily life, including which holidays are "officially" sanctioned by the state, persist in perceiving themselves as a persecuted minority.

Avatar is entertainment, a fantasy adventure in which fictitious characters engage in fictitious conflicts that remotely resemble real history (sort of like Murphy Brown and Harry Potter).  That Avatar dares to have faith that "humanity" (if not humans) has a future, despite the best efforts of the military-industrial-state complex, is cause for rejoicing ... a belief, in keeping with the old pagan myths of Saturnalia and Yule, that in the usual course of nature the darkest hour comes before dawn.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This Is a Family!

Christmas will be twice as nice this year, knowing that James Franco's tongue-kissing grandpa.

My idol, my god, a man I would like to grease up and rassle, Mister James Franco:

Sunday Beefcake

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar (Movie Review)

It's the shit.

It could be the best movie I have ever seen.

For 162 minutes I sat in the theater with a box of popcorn in my lap and 3-D glasses over my own glasses, propping my jaw up with my right hand.

And I am not a James Cameron fan.  My biggest memory of Titanic is my poor 77-year-old father with prostate problems having to hit the restroom every 15 minutes while the doomed ship interminably (it seemed) took on water.  I think Cameron spoiled what Ridley Scott had created in Alien with his forgettable sequel, and while I found the Terminator movies entertaining, there are maybe two images that remain in my head from having seen them.

Avatar is something different.  There's not much to say about the plot or acting.  It's all about the technological accomplishment of this film, but, then, without its technological accomplishment, what was 2001: A Space Odyssey?  And I mean no disrespect to 2001, one of my favorite films of all time; I just mean to say that any movie experience, even something as basic and true as a Bresson film, is about 90% the technology of it.

You have to see Avatar to experience it, and you have to see it on a big screen with 3-D glasses.  I cannot speak to what IMAX could add to the experience.

I had previously heard the film's plot compared to Dances with Wolves, a film I never saw (I can't watch a lot of Kevin Costner, pace Bull Durham), so if it's just story you want, you may just want to watch that film again.

For me, Avatar is like the best Tarzan movie ever made ... best hand-to-hand fight! best underwater romantic interlude! best elephant stampede (without the elephants, though), and best goddamned trees.  It has twenty times the visceral excitement and dreamy milieu of the old MGM Tarzan pictures, with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, which I love dearly too, even though they are pretty much just a camp enthusiasm for me now.

Beyond the movie's technology and jungle romance, one could probably (and properly) speak of its political, ecological, humanistic, and metaphysical implications.  I can't and don't want to go into these now, except to say that, no, of course the movie is not as deep as Persona, but, on the other hand, Bergman's movies did not have giant frigging flying lizards.

Avatar lasts almost three hours, and I never once yearned for it to be over sooner than it was.  It's average parts reminded me of the best parts of Peter Jackson's masterful and respectful remake of King Kong, using many of the same technicians, I hear ... minus the embarrassing Christmas ice-skating sequence with Kong and Naomi Watts in Central Park.

The one potentially embarrassing part of Avatar is, over the closing credits, we hear Leona Lewis sing an original song called "I See You."  It sucks, and it's obviously a play for a Best Song Oscar nomination.  At the very least it is not Celine Dion.

But you need to see this movie.  Forget you.  I need to see this movie again ... and soon.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Education (Movie Review)

Like Precious, An Education is a movie with really only one reason for being:  a performance.  An Education is not so much about anything as much as the charismatic screen presence of its young star, 24-year-old Carey Mulligan, just as Precious is unimaginable without the brooding yet stalwart presence of 26-year-old Gabourey Sidibe.

Both actors portray characters significantly younger than they really are.  And there are other bases for comparison and contrast, as well.  Both movies concern the education of their young female protagonists, and on a broader level both concern the value of education in general, specifically a bourgeois education, an issue about which An Education is somewhat more skeptical than Precious is.

Still, both films ultimately endorse a sort of faith in education, which to my mind, as an educator, never quite gels with other elements of the films' settings and plots.  An Education at least at one point raises the problem that the utility of an education is (contrary to the received opinion) not self-evident, as an end to itself, yet both films simply resolve the issue by leaving a central premise (that education is indeed good) unproved and not deeply investigated.

An Education is a tale of a seduction, based on Lynn Barber's recent memoir, set in the early 1960s.  Its protagonist Jenny is seduced by knowledge, both conventional knowledge (the study of French, appreciation for Ravel, King Lear) and forbidden knowledge (freedom, jazz, Russian cigarettes).  Contrary to what a plot synopsis might suggest (Jenny becomes involved with an older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard), Jenny is less carried away by the idea of carnal knowledge:  she has determined to retain her virginity until age 17 and, upon its eventual loss, seems rather let down that sex was no more than it was.

Without spoiling anything about the plot, it's safe to say that four-fifths of the film follows the slow evolution of Jenny's self-awareness and the sort of learning she wishes to pursue, and then radically shifts direction in the last part of the movie, seeming to come full circle ... or has it?  What's dissatisfying to me about An Education is its last part, where a course of action is taken despite what we have come to question in the first four-fifths.  The heroine makes a choice that seems hardly free, and yet we the audience are expected to see it as some kind of personal triumph for her.

I would have been more satisfied had the movie explored the reasons and implications of Jenny's final decision, with the same humorous and insightful detail that it explores her previous decisions.  Instead, we get a montage:  "The Student Prepares," it could be titled, comparable in some ways to the montage in Precious, in which successive images of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Tiananmen Square, an opening flower, and Mahatma Gandhi stand in as a truncated "taste" of what education means, without ever making sense of how these disparate images relate to Precious's dismal reality.

At the end of An Education, we are told that paperbacks and postcards are "all you need," a perplexingly vague and reductionist claim (which, I would argue, only hints at Jenny's having risen to a higher level of consciousness), especially disappointing given the pains with which the movie portrays the character's development earlier towards a different conclusion.  Even more puzzling is the film's last line, in which the character pretends to an ignorance (or lack of experience) that we and she alike know she has already lost.

So lacking a satisfactorily developed theme, in my opinion, the movie falls back on the unmistakable elan of its star.  Yes, the reason to see An Education is to savor every shot of Carey Mulligan.  She is pretty, with an innate intelligence shining through her eyes.  She has a droll way with a snide bit of dialogue.  Her facial expressions draw us into her dilemma, her distaste for conventionality (embodied by her parents), and her dignity and wisdom (beyond her years).

And that alone is quite enough to make for an entertaining and lightly satisfying film.  But like other recent small-budget hits (Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, Juno) that rely on the winsomeness and charm of their young stars, it does not make for a profound film.  For that, the filmmakers must have the intelligence and courage to pursue either intellectually or imaginatively (or both) the unwieldy implications of the story's subject, in this case, the question of whether an education is good and, if so, good for what.

Precious (Movie Review)

It's Christmas break.  I'm a middle-aged orphaned only child, so there's no family to speak of.  No boyfriend either, and not enough money to fly off to Paris or Fiji for the holidays.  I can't scrape up enough for a weekend at Disney World and a night out at Parliament House.  Even Fayetteville bars and tattoo parlors are out of my price range.

So I spend the eighteen days off going to movies, my Christmas gifts to me, whatever's showing that I've been meaning to see that might still be found at local theaters.  It's less stressful than flying by air at this time of year, being "included" in somebody else's family gathering, or getting turned down by guys in a language I don't even know ... and I don't have to worry about what to do with the dog.

I may be the last person in Durham to see Precious who ever intended to see it.  I was the only person in the theater for the first show.  At the concessions stand I even overheard the box-office girl walky-talky somebody telling him that there was "one" for Precious, which meant that somebody needed to hop to and warm the projector up.

I was worried that the movie would be a downer.  It wasn't.  I was worried that the movie would be Oscar bait or Sundance Audience Award bait.  It was, but not in especially egregious ways.  The best and most accurate pre-assessment I received on the film was somebody's remark that it was "this year's Slumdog Millionaire."  But even that was off the mark for me, because, though I loved the first 45 minutes of Slumdog and caught a bit of a smile off the closing "Jai Ho" number, my sense of it was that it's more maudlin and manipulative than Precious, which I enjoyed from beginning to end.

The most fun part of Precious is trying to remember what Mo'Nique, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey look like when they're not dressing down to look like ordinary working-class people.

The second most fun part of Precious is watching Gabourey Sidebe's mature, understated performance as the title character and letting my heart ache for her, especially towards the end as things begin to look darkest just before the dawn.  Not a dry eye in the house (neither eye was dry) when Precious at last confronts her no-account mother.

The third most fun part of Precious is figuring out how the gratuitous artsy touches (some lifted right out of Rumble Fish and City of God, other touches, less artsy, come right out of Muriel's Wedding) relate to either the story's setting or its theme.

The fourth most fun part of Precious is guessing who thought it was good marketing or good art to make the full title of the film be Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, and why.

Past those four things, the fun is basically waiting to see whether director Lee Daniels will give Barret Helms (aka Barret Isaiah Mindell) any more screen time (he does, repeatedly) and whether he'll ever make Helms take off his shirt (he, sadly, does not).

Oh, and one more thing: it's nice to imagine how different it would have been had John Waters made the movie, and what a neat concept it would have been to allow two versions of the same movie, one by Daniels, one by Waters, same script, same cast, to play side by side at theaters.

I liked the movie that was actually made.  I hope it gets lots of nominations for Oscars and whatever, but I hope something better will win them.  What I'm basically saying is I'm waiting for something to come along to knock my socks off.  Precious rolled them down to the ankles, which, all things considered, is nice enough for a mid-December afternoon at the matinee

Uganda, American Evangelicals, and Homosexuality

The BBC website received waves of complaints yesterday for asking the question, in its talkbox feature, "Should homosexuals face execution?"  In response to the criticism, the question was toned down to "Should Uganda debate gay execution?"  The focus on Uganda instead of homosexuality and the substitution of the more politically correct word "gay" for the more clinical-sounding "homosexuality" (the word preferred by those who disapprove of homosexuality) are strategic rhetorical changes.

The question attracted a lot of anti-gay commentary from British responders, such as "Totally agree.  Ought to be imposed in the UK too, asap.  Bring back some respectable family values," and "Bravo to the Ugandans for this wise decision."

The original wording of the question, though provocatively blunt, not necessarily a bad thing, seems designed to excite anti-homosexual sentiment.  While defendable as the expression of a free press, promoting free speech, it seems to me as reckless as asking, "Should Obama be killed?"

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 calls for the death penalty specifically for HIV-infected homosexuals.  The penalty for being found guilty of a homosexual act would be life imprisonment, and seven years in prison for family members and friends who refuse to turn in known homosexuals.  If passed, the bill would add Uganda, which has criminalized homosexual acts since the late 19th century, under the influence of Protestant and Catholic missionaries, to the list of seven nations, overwhelmingly theocracies, including US allies, that still punish male homosexuality with death: Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Iran.

The Uganda bill appears to have been inspired by a recent visit to Uganda by three American evangelicals spreading their message about "the gay agenda" and the "recruitment" of heterosexual youths to the "gay lifestyle," but those evangelicals have subsequently condemned the bill for its harshness, as have other evangelicals, including, after some initial reluctance to speak out, Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, and prayer leader at this year's Presidential Inauguration.

The three evangelicals in question are Caleb Lee Brundidge, Scott Lively, and Don Schmierer.

Brundidge is a sexual reorientation coach with the International Healing Foundation, a Maryland-based organization devoted to treating and curing "same-sex attraction (SSA)."

Among the "causes" of this condition, listed on the IHF web site, are "unresolved family issues," "artistic temperament," "over attachment to opposite-gender parent," "detachment from same-gender parent," "name calling" by siblings and peers, "lack of eye-hand coordination," "homosexual imprinting," promotion of homosexuality through the "Internet, media, and educational system," and "divorce."

Arguably some of these factors are outcomes, not causes of same-sex attraction, whereas others have no more correlation to homosexuality than to heterosexuality.  But this view of homosexuality, naive and tunnel-visioned as it arguably is, seems representative too of other evangelicals' explanations of sexual desire.

Lively leads Massachusetts-based Abiding Truth Ministries, through which he publishes a number of books, including The Pink Swastika, which denies that the Nazis persecuted homosexuals, and the online book Redeeming the Rainbow: A Christian Response to the Gay Agenda.

Schmierer is on the board of directors of Exodus International, the "largest Christian referral and information network dealing with homosexual issues in the world."  Founded in 1976, in the heat of Anita Bryant's Florida campaign to deny job protections to gays and lesbians in Dade County, Exodus "upholds heterosexuality as God's creative intent for humanity, and subsequently views homosexual expression as outside of God's will" and opposes "thought crimes laws" (i.e. inclusion of same-sex attraction among the conditions protected by hate crimes laws).

Evangelicals who focus on condemning and "healing" homosexuality (in ways that are far out of proportion to biblical injunctions on same-sex activity) have long claimed that their teachings have absolutely no relation to the bullying, bashing, and badgering gay people in America (and elsewhere) experience (still) fairly routinely, especially within the stronghold of "God's creative intent," the traditional family.  The example of Uganda would appear to support a different conclusion.

I, for one, do not insist that others accept me or my sexual proclivities on moral grounds.  I do not, of course, view myself as immoral, or even amoral, but it does not bother me that others should see me as such.  They have a universal human right to develop personal values and codes of conduct of their own, as do I.  They have as much right to judge and criticize me according their own ethical standards as I do to judge and criticize them according to my values.  As far as I'm concerned, the fact that people are repulsed by my life style is not a matter for debate.  I am repulsed by theirs, so there.

What I do insist on, though, is a democratic, multi-ethical society based on mutual respect, if not mutual admiration.  In such a society, law should not favor one set of values to the detriment of other reasonable alternatives to those values, unless compelling evidence is given that such values constitute a real threat to citizens or to democracy itself.

In an egalitarian and multicultural society, personal discrimination, even animosity, must be tolerated, but never given the force of law.  The law should be objective and apart from morals, as a rule.  Individuals and organizations can freely continue to despise and rail against the practice of masturbation, for instance, and they can offer "cures" for unwanted masturbatory behavior, but the state should not take up the practice of fining, imprisoning, or executing masturbators ... nor should it tolerate acts of coercion and violence against those who regularly, perhaps even obsessively jerk off, and it should not tolerate other actions that deny the "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" of onanists, however reviled by churches and high-school coaches, however predisposed to blindness or hairy palms.

Telling young children that they may be doomed to an eternity in hell fits my definition of "child abuse" much more than simply touching their genitals.  I don't demand wide agreement on this point, and I recognize that my view represents my own interests and life experiences and do not expect the government to embrace it or give it the force of law any time in the near future.  I would insist, though, in being allowed to make my case, so long as no one else's liberties or lives are thereby put in jeopardy.

Should evangelicals face execution?  No.  Execution would be neither an effective way to address the manifest social problems that evangelicalism poses nor a humane and respectful way of treating other rational beings.  On those grounds, especially the latter, I would oppose it without further consideration.

Wet Blankets (and Not in a Good Way)

It's starting to dawn on me that some of my acquaintance are wet blankets.   I guess this comes with age: the loss of vivacity, the propensity for finding fault, the sharp decline in adventurousness, the turned-up nose.

What bothers me more is seeing a growing number of these symptoms in myself.  What symptoms, you ask?
  1. Speaking as if one expects to be quoted later, preferably with an affected accent
  2. Enumerating the things one would have to dragged into doing
  3. Turning conversations to the subject of one's aches and pains
  4. Granting others permission, with magnanimous tolerance, to do things one would never do oneself
  5. Calling anybody (other than oneself) "oversexed"
  6. Using "one" as a pronoun, instead of "I," "we," or "you"
  7. Sitting, excessively, preferably in something overstuffed
  8. Favoring absolute adverbs:  "never," "always," "definitely," "absolutely"
  9. Criticizing other people's tastes (in fashion, entertainment, travel destinations, etc.)
  10. Being oh so bored with the topic of sex (or any topic, for that matter)
  11. Having other plans for the evening, but always ambiguous ones
  12. Liking nothing more than a good walk
  13. Complaining about all the noise and smoke in public places
  14. Asking rhetorically, "When did people become so ...?"
  15. Making a point of taking others down a notch or two
  16. Saying, with a great deal of studied nonchalance, "I suppose I've just outgrown __________"
  17. Saying "suppose"
  18. Wincing at other people's remarks and observations
  19. Insisting on a good night's sleep
  20. Knowing the exact boundaries of what is likely to be funny or not
Three of these symptoms means you're a wet blanket.  Four or five, and you're a party pooper.  Six to ten of these, and you're a fogey.

More than ten, consider the possibility that your personality is flatlining.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bossy Bottom

Track from Jonny McGovern/Gay Pimp's 2007 album, Gays Gone Wild

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Heaven's Gates Swing Open for Little Oral

Good night, Oral.  You had a good run.  Ninety-one years is nothing to sneeze at.  Better men have not seen so many years on this earth ... or raked in so much dough on the fears, gullibility, and plain meanness of inbred troglodytes.

Yes, I'm intrigued by the coincidence of your passing today with the failure of real healthcare reform in the Senate.  You leave us at a time when a good many poor people will have need of a faith healer, and the prayer cloths you charged nothing for (except to save databanks of addresses to dun for future contributions) were immeasurably cheaper than health insurance premiums and probably just as efficacious.

I remember watching your program on a little black-and-white TV set, my family's first, in Altus, Oklahoma.  I remember your white shirt tight on the wattles of your throat and the sweat pouring down your temples.  I remember your frenzied voice full of the Holy Ghost.

I was a good Christian child of seven and eight and nine, but I was not moved.  I knew you were supposed to be a man of God, but, little sucker of a believer I was back then, I wasn't a big enough sucker to believe in you.  You looked fishy.  Your congregation looked like chickens clucking in a crowded poultry house, waiting to have their necks broke.  I had a sense of the smell of you and them rising off the screen of our boxy television.  The lights glared pitilessly over everybody's head, but nothing looked enlightened.

In 1980, a 900-foot Jesus told you to get your people to pay up or he was going to shut you down, eternally.  Folks paid up, and your City of Faith Hospital got built.  You've got a lot of people to thank for the last 28 years, Oral.  I hope you spend the next ten thousand years writing thank-you notes.

In a Flannery O'Connor sort of way, I miss the old hellraisers like you.  We still have Fred Phelps, of course, to keep the joke going.  These days we have cleaner, spiffier-looking tabernacles and congregations.  They have gift shops where people can buy the Left Behind series in paperback, audiobook, and dvd formats, along with Christian-y knickknacks like fish-symbol necklaces and the old reliable praying-hands figurines.

Despite my snide attitude, I hold you and your religion in grudging respect, if not admiration.  There are some good ideas in bibles.  Too bad you never worked any of them into your sermons.

Anyway, rest assured, Oral, plenty of money is left to be made on the old rugged con.  And plenty of sharks out here still ready to swim in toward the blood.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Ruse by Any Other Name

Pollsters are asking voting Democrats whether they'd be more or less likely to vote in the 2010 general elections if no public option is included in whatever version of healthcare reform, if any, Washington manages to pass next year.

I'm leaning to the side of the 33% who say they will be less inclined to vote for anyone.  I'm familiar with the opposite line of reasoning:  If progressives don't vote, we only shoot ourselves in the foot, basically giving corporate conservatives exactly what they want.  On the other hand, a perhaps more principled and common-sense line of reasoning would be to wonder why progressives would want to vote if (ahem) "our" party fails to support and push through a public option, particularly given the widespread public support for such an option.

Are elections simply a matter of words like "Democrat" and "progressive," or do actual decisions matter?  Sure, voting "Democrat" in 2010, despite a massive failure to enact fundamental reforms, is a good idea if mostly what we want to accomplish is protection of the brand name.  But what if some of us actually expect words to have effects?

In other words, should I really care whether it's a Democrat or a Republican who is giving corporate bosses exactly what they want?

You bet your life I love having Obama as President and Democrats "in control" of the halls of power.  I tell myself over and over, these days, to remember the previous eight years under Bush/Cheney and how much worse the nation and the world would be under a McCain/Palin administration.  In broad terms, I believe myself when I tell myself these things.  But on some days I have to ask myself, "Do I really believe?"

Well, no, not really.

Deep down I suspect that politics is a game between friendly rivals, considerably more phony than a pro wrestling match, which at least involves competitors willing to put themselves at some personal risk to put on a good show.  Today's politicians are risk-averse, Democrats being considerably shyer than Republicans about attempting a shooting star plancha to the stadium floor.

The difference rests with reimbursement.  If conservatives make a suicide dive in defense of corporate interests, they risk losing reelection, sure, but invariably they'll find themselves in cushy corporate positions the following year or, if they love Washington too much to leave, high-paying jobs as corporate lobbyists.

You see, the enemies of public options, minimum wages, demilitarization, equal rights, and environmental protections have deep pockets, and ready cash and 16000-square-foot office suites do much to cushion a "fall from power."  (How many CEOs would settle for the measly $400,000 a US President makes?)  If a politician crash-dives in the interests of corporate giants, he or she is neatly picked up off the floor, dusted off, and given a fat salary, plus fatter bonuses, guaranteed even when such largesse is achievable only through bailouts on the taxpayers' dime.

But if a politician crash-dives in the interests of the poor, the sick, the powerless, and the victimized, he or she risks losing office and then ... gets nothing ... nothing but blame for being a failure ... and in a matter of months, the corporate-owned media can recast him or her as a bona-fide loon, an egoistic nut as out of touch and even dangerously unhinged as, say, Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney ... or name your own favorite ex-Green Party candidate.

It's so bad that even the poor, sick, powerless, victimized slobs the politician meant to help will be convinced that he or she should be regarded as a pariah.

If Democrats can't push through popular legislation, stop unpopular wars, and act in the interests of justice, liberty, and equality for all, i.e. the mandates of the nation's founding documents, why should we vote for them?

If a Pelosi or even an Obama walks like a Palin or a Bush, even while not exactly quacking like a Palin or a Bush, just how excited can you expect the progressive base to continue pretending to be?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two Kinds of Substance?

More provocation from QualiaSoup:

Sunday Beefcake

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Little World

"My dear friends, for 22 years, in the capacity of theater manager, I've stood here and made a speech without really having any talent for that sort of thing.  Especially if you think of my father who was brilliant at speeches.  My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I'm fond of the people who work in this little world.  Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better.  Or, perhaps, we give the people who come here a chance to forget for a while, for a few short moments, the harsh world outside.  Our theater is a little room of orderliness, routine, care, and love.  I don't know why I feel so comically solemn this evening.  I can't explain how I feel, so I'd best be brief.  My wife and I, and the rest of the Ekdahl family, my brother Carl--I think Carl is here--we wish you all a happy and joyous Christmas." --from Fanny and Alexander, dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1982.

Today has been interesting.  Today I got word from my friend Ann that her father died on Tuesday, after a long and messy illness; his funeral is tomorrow.  Today I read an article, posted on Tuesday, that claims that modern physics may prove that death does not exist.  Then earlier this evening, in the tradition of watching my favorite Christmas-themed movies in December, I watched Fanny and Alexander, one of Ann's favorite movies, too, which, alluding to August Strindberg's Dream Play, questions the reality of space and time, as well, suggesting that reality and life and death, the essential stuff of philosophy, poetry, and religion, are compositions of the human imagination, created out of our body chemicals and firing synapses, much as a painting is created out of oils and brushwork.

So imagination and coincidence may be the bases of reality, after all, an idea that Bergman's movie suggested 27 years ago, through constant allusions to the theater (the "little world" that resides within the big world), magic, puppetry, lies (that seem closer to truth than exactitude), pranks, laughter, magic lanterns, gifts, small acts of generosity, chance, and childhood, that time of life when everything is equally possible and probable.

And that being so, or so assumes a speech delivered at the movie's conclusion by an admitted sentimentalist, we must take note of the small world of our illusions, senses, affections, emotions, and memories, for they are the colors with which we paint the real world (or perhaps only reflect it reduced to our paltry human scale).

They are what we have before our energies pack up and head to other possible worlds.

I am certainly more comfortable with the small world of art, literature, theater, and film--simple pleasures, birthdays, friends, and moments--than with the big world of politics, metaphysics, history, and physics, and it's a pleasing (even if delusional) thought that, as some Renaissance thinkers thought, human scale is the true scale of things.

Whatever else can be said for it, though, it is the scale that fits us humans best.

Lately I have felt the big world weighing down on me, overwhelmingly, and have beat a retreat to my own small world, to whatever extent that modern life and present circumstances permit.

I do not stick my head in the ground to avoid the big world, but I do try to take things in slowly and in manageable bits, sweetened somewhat, so they can be processed and mulled over and savored.

People with the "big picture" and long-range goals still impress me, they are heroes, perhaps, but, like the theater manager of limited talents, I am not one of them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Extinction: It's What's for Supper

Last Friday I attended an honors students meeting at Wake Tech, in which a young man offered his rather elaborate and almost plausible theory on how colonization of the planet Mars could ensure the survival of the human species as life on this pretty blue planet is pretty much doomed.  As a Libertarian, the student also proposed that the colonization be financed privately, letting the beauties of the free market determine man's ultimate fate ... and, no doubt, which investors are fittest to survive on the angry red planet.

My office mate Jim, also an honors instructor, leaned over to me after the student's presentation and mentioned that one option was overlooked:  what's so bad about extinction?

Interesting point.  Humanity reached its peak roughly 2400 years ago, with lesser peaks and reasons to hope sporadically dispersed down the line, the last one being, by my estimate, roughly 300 years ago. Since then, with the dawn of industrialization, capitalism, and the modernization of slavery (including wage slavery, debt, and imperialism) and the decline of reason, poetry, and gentility, humanity has been laying its planet (the only one it has) to waste.

I'd be hard pressed to say exactly why human beings today are more deserving of survival than dodo birds or pterodactyls.

It seems altogether fitting that homo sapiens should individually and collectively accept the inevitable, take from their decline whatever shreds of dignity, beauty, and honor they can and stoically face the abyss they have largely contributed to bringing into being.  And, of course, by "they," I mean "we."

And, no, I am not calling for mass (or individual) suicide, an act that, with Western nations' hesitancy in taking strong enough measures quickly enough (about 30 years ago, by my best estimate) and religious sectarians' eagerness to embrace the death principle (thanatos) and reject the life principle (eros), would be a rather obvious redundancy at this point in our history.

No, I suggest that we work to lower the earth's population, not through war and famine (our current course) but through encouraging various forms of non-procreative sex and semi-monastic spiritual practices (silence, solitude, meditation, austerity) designed to rediscover the intricate loveliness of the human soul, even as the oxygen and water needed to preserve its bodily container become progressively scarcer and polluted.

The human soul is indeed lovely, though you can hardly tell it anymore.  The plague of national obesity seems more a sign of people's desperate need to fill some kind of insatiable emptiness inside than an effect of McDonald's hugely successful marketing campaigns over the decades.  (McDonald's is not innocent, but savvy advertising and Happy Meals seem hardly sufficient explanations for people's willingness to eat shit they know is not good for them, and not even especially satisfying to their sense of taste and pleasure, what little of that sense they have left to them, though it's easier to blame McD's than plumb the depths of modern men and women's penchants for self-annihilation.)

It's probably just as well that our corporate cultures have progressively dismantled the humanities in education and in life (jingles replacing poetry, logos replacing painting, reality TV replacing drama, opinion polls replacing democracy).  How could a poetic soul survive in the modern world?  Perhaps that's why so many artists and entertainers of the last century were suicides, from Van Gogh to Monroe to Cobain.  Don't say that's just to be expected of artists, that sort of theatricality and melodrama:  suicide, because you'd be hard pressed to find as many artists before 1890 who so willingly and eagerly sacrificed, in so brief a time span, their gifts and vision, just for the lovely blankness of extinction.

But now that we've pretty well ensured that the planet cannot possibly survive, wouldn't it be a nice gesture if we set aside some time, in the twilight of our species, to memorize some lines of Ovid or Pope or Wordsworth or Byron or Whitman or Akhmatova, to reread the Sermon on the Mount as a work of humanist wisdom and not as the bleating of a sacrificial Lamb, to eat some fresh cut pineapple, to dance, and to fuck someone we love for his or her wisdom, strength, beauty, courage, or integrity?

Humans have had a good long run on this planet.  Our show has been a hit, but it "jumped the shark" a couple of millennia ago.  The curtain is closing on its own; there's no need for us to dim the lights.  It would just be nice, I think, if we, all of us, could make a brave and gracious curtain call, bowing to the emptiness of space, leaving our best wishes to the cockroaches, earthworms, or whatever have the fortitude to outlast us.  That is, to reaffirm our humanness and the life principle itself, even as we disappear.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Cooky Party

My first cooky party was on the first Saturday of December 2004.  The inspiration was somebody else's cooky party, or rather my sense of what the cooky party was going to be before I found out that it was just a regular party, but with cookies.  I decided that a real cooky party should involve people making cookies on the spot, so I invited some friends over for food, drink, and a supply of butter, sugar, flour, and other ingredients (and whatever special ingredients they brought with them) and we made cookies ... some of us following recipes, some of us following whims.  It was a reasonably fun time for all ... and spared me from the usual hostly responsibilities of actually entertaining my guests.

Ever since then, the cooky party has occurred on the first Saturday of December, usually with a quasi-Christmas theme ... not the "true meaning" of Christmas (hell no), but rather Santa, snowmen, absinthe, reindeer and other animals, elves, sex toys, nutcrackers, skewered shrimp, pagan deities, and those little roll-up spiral sandwiches that I like to eat compulsively.

I almost opted out of this year's celebration.  I'm poor ... even poorer than usual ... and I'd just moved to a new and cheaper and smaller place not especially conducive to the rhythm and flow of a party, possibly especially not one centered on activities in the kitchen, which, in the new place, is cut off from the rest of the rooms.  But friends (especially Barbara, Shane, and Aimee) encouraged me to do the cooky party at least one more time.

I took some pictures, but relatively early into the evening and not for very long, so not everybody is represented here unfortunately ... and really nothing to show for cookies either.  Sorry for failing to capture the milieu, but I've never been a gifted documentarian.  But you can fill in the "soundtrack" with the new stuff by Devendra Banhart, The xx, The Good Listeners, Miss Li, Bob Dylan, Imelda May, interspersed with Christmas and Hanukkah songs and selected tracks from the Verve Remixed series, featuring dancefloor takes on Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, etc.

Shane (Bad Blitzen)

Pat, Geoff, and Joanna

Aimee and Shane

Reindeer lightening up

Laurie and Cliff

Barbara and Farley

Jim and Kirsten

Susan, Milton, and Dave

William and Susan

Jim, Tim, and Kirsten

Susan, Milton, and Dave

Jim and Kirsten


Joanna, Geoff, and Shane

Sunday Beefcake


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