27 June 2006

Superman. The Movie.

Chris Reeve as Superman. What's not to love?
Origin Stories
It's funny. My re-interest in comics is almost neatly coinciding with the revival of the Superman movies (or we hope movies if Singer does a good job), which were the source of my first fascination with comics. As I've mentioned before in this silly online whatsis called a "'blog," Superman, The Movie, and by that I mean the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder/Gene Hackman/Mario Puzo et al. film of 1978, was a fairly powerful factor in my childhood. I am clearly not alone among gay men (and others) in this. Blogs are a-buzzin' with anticipation for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns--opening at the end of the month (and by the time I post this, has already opened)--and most of the excitement I've been reading has been fueled by a strong fondness if not downright love for the first two movies. I am such a painful geek about this stuff that when I saw the first preview for Superman Returns--a loving tribute to the initial cloud, sun, and sky trailer for the first Superman, complete with what sounded like a Brando voiceover, and snippets from the original, John Williams score--I actually got teary. And I'm not so easily moved. But it struck a chord for me, a very old one in an old place that hadn't been touched in a very long time, and that is sort of the reason I'm writing this little tribute to Superman and to some extent Superman II.

Christopher Reeve as Clark KentSecret Identities
There is a quality of sweetness about our childish obsessions, because, and not despite, the fact they were tinged with a green eroticism. There is no doubt whatever that part of the appeal of Superman for me was Chris Reeve, his muscles (especially because he was a skinny, but tall, shrimp of a man before he worked his ass off to get big for the role), his clumsiness and shyness, the sweet holding back he showed with Lois, his manliness, his politeness, his selflessness, and his vulnerability. There is no doubt that as with other hero figures in any boy's life, there was the unintelligible, ineffable difference between wanting to be him and being in love with him. For gay boys, a similar thing happens with the confusion about powerful women: Am I in love with Ann-Margret or do I want to be her?

Curious, isn't it, that gay men seem to be attracted to power of one kind or another: physical, sexual (as we've seen in some cases, but hopefully not often, political power). Yet for me, the appeal of Reeve's Superman was also the vulnerability, the sadness, the withholding, and of course, as has been written on extensively, the double identity. It is a double identity that one yearns to reveal--as Superman yearns to, and eventually does, reveal to Lois--to the people one is attracted to, or to one's parents, or to the world. But the specialness of that secret, its secretness, is always sexualized as the it grows closer to its revelation. It is a tease in the movie--and a self-tease in life, as you struggle to not tell your high school best buddy that you love him, of which it reminds, whether you know it consciously or not--when Clark starts to tell the dazed Lois, just after her interview with Superman, that he is Superman. In these movies, Clark telling Lois his secret is exactly telling her that he loves her. This little piece is what differentiates the Superman films from your garden variety romance films. Can gay men identify with the players in a straight movie romance? Of course they can and do. I do, and this is despite the repugnance I feel at having heterosexuality shoved down my throat by almost every fucking movie that Hollywood produces. Hollywood enshrines a straight love story in nearly every product it puts on the market, whether an action picture, a historical narrative, or, of course, a chick movie. In grad school, studying film theory, I learned this useful bit: it's called "the heterosexual embrace," and this occurs historically at the end of almost any film you can look at, but especially those in the Hollywood mold. Keep an eye out for it. Is the last or the second to last image of the movie an embrace or a kiss between two lovers, two would-be lovers, or two soon-to-be lovers of different sexes? It's as though it were a government directive. It's as though this were so ingrained that moviemakers don't notice they're doing it and movie watchers don't even see it as unusual. The trend is changing slowly, but this still goes on almost all the time. Now, let's ask, do straight audiences identify with either figure in a homosexual embrace in a film? If Brokeback Mountain is any example, the answer is starting to become yes, at least for some straight female members of the audience. As for the heterosexual embrace, neither of the first Superman movies ends with this. It is true that Superman/Clark kisses Lois near the end of both films, the first when she is dead, the second to make her forget his secret and their love affair; and those kisses seal the forbidden nature of their relationship. Whether the times have a-changed enough for gay kids nowadays, or even gay adults, not to feel that same ache is not for me to judge, but the bittersweet denial is what appeals here and, I believe, continues to appeal. To tell the person you love your secret is to tell him you love him, even if you don't tell him the second part. It hides just behind the teeth, this secret, when you are with the one that you love. Gay men and lesbians do not have a lock on this phenomenon, everyone has the experience at some point of wanting to tell the secret of their love to the person they love, with that fear of rejection attached. But for gay folks, queer folks, and bisexual folks there is this layer, this barrier, for much longer than only the most shy or the most different-seeming of the straight fold (I am not insensitive to the fact that heterosexual people can be too "fat" or too "ugly" or too "old"--whatever those sad, mean words are supposed to convey), where revealing one's secret identity and secret love will alter or end forever the relationship one treasures. Superman can take it back with a kiss, we can't.

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This isn't the scene, but I love this pic.
What is all this about? Yes, the erotics of wanting to be like someone else are, if not clear, then acknowledged--and the proper term for this in psychoanalysis is, of course, identification. What's left is precisely something to be desired. I think there is an ethics attached to the image we desire and somehow desire to be like. I think it's usually easy to discern the difference between people who wanted to be like Superman and people who wanted to be like, to choose someone related to a very different kind of super-man, Ayn Rand (see Alan Greenspan, see Hillary Clinton) at some point in their formative years. Superman represents kindness, justice, and power that helps those in trouble or danger, and Superman implicitly sets an example. What would the world be like if more people acted like Superman instead of Ayn Rand? Yes, what would Superman do?

Behold: Ayn Rand!
We'll table that and all the other questions of power and responsibility that Rand evokes for a now, because this post is really about Superman as embodied in Superman, the Movie, and that means as Christopher Reeve. It is Reeve's depiction of the Man of Steel that captured my fascination--and while the man and the character have to be somehow separable, you can't have one without the other. It was Reeve as a handsome, sexy, slightly-dorky, truth-telling, puppy-dog, super-powered Boy Scout of Integrity that lit the fire inside; and a nine-year-old could do a lot worse for an example, for an exemplar. What I've realized as I've thought about this over the last few weeks is that there will always be some unconscious part of me, whether I want to or not, that's checks in with Superman, that draws some kind of character from there, because the earliest things we use to build who we are will always be the most powerful. And in this case, as terminally geeky as it sounds, I wouldn't have it any other way.

22 June 2006

When is a post not a post?

When it's a lame excuse for not having posted anything. I've been working on a ridiculously long piece that only 4 of you will finish. Soon, you'll get your chance to not read it.

13 June 2006

I Live in the Nation's Safest Neighborhood/WWJD?

As much as I loathe to reveal personal information about myself, I learned when I moved into my new neighborhood in Greater New York, that it is in fact the safest neighborhood... in the nation. This may seem strange when you hear that I live in the East Village, but it's true. My apartment complex has its own security team on foot, bicycle, and in cars; there are security phones everywhere: it is, statistically speaking, the safest neighborhood in the United States.

So, imagine my surprise when I learned that Kevin Aviance, a well-known drag performer, recording artist, and downtown NYC personality--who gave one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen at the Tunnel, some time ago--had the shit kicked out of him a block away from my apartment Sunday morning, near Phoenix bar, while I was sleeping soundly in the arms of my boyfriend.

The reports say that there were others nearby, but they did nothing to stop the assault. This attack has made the news at least on MSNBC, on ABC.com, and of course, Queenmother; but I thank the redoubtable Joe.My.Blog for the initial alert. Monday reveals the usual superb GayProf post on the subject.

I've asked myself, as I think one must, what would I have done if I'd been there? I decided that I would have run into the bar, gotten some friends, or anyone I could find, and gone back to help stop what was going on. We all think, or hope, that we will never be gay-bashed, but this is a case (and Aviance was not in drag at the time, as that must mean something to you) of there but for the grace of god go I. (It's a catch phrase, people, I'm as athiest as they come.)

Now, this brings to mind a few things, at least for me it does: I hope you're aware that in the current White House, inter-office memos, whether from the current occupant or from the lowliest intern, often carry the acronym, "WWJD." You know what that means, right? It stands for: "What Would Jesus Do?" What would Jesus do?

I am sure, in except the most irony-free of the people who could possibly be reading this text I am writing, that the very idea of what Jesus would do, or even might do, couldn't be further away from almost anything this administration has accomplished or attempted. Cutting funds to youth-support groups? Waging war under false pretenses? Waging war at all? Depriving funds for body armor for the soldiers fighting this war? Cutting funds to returning veterans from said war? Cutting taxes to corporations and the very wealthy to put the tax burden on the middle-class? Cutting anti-terrorism funds to New York City and Washington D.C., the only two cities attacked, thus far, in the "war" of terror? Destroying the environment and the education of children with programs that purport to protect said national resources? I'm certain there are some who will read this and be baffled about this news, or believe it is leftist propaganda--but for the rest of you who have been following the news that doesn't appear on Fox, I am quite sure you find these gestures by our government, by the current occupant of the White House, to be the furthest thing you could imagine that Jesus would do. What would Jesus do, indeed?

There is a lovely piece by Hendrik Hertzberg in this week's New Yorker that touches on some of these issues. Hertzberg notes that there is an imprimatur that occurs when any official lends his name and his words to discrimination, to bigotry, or, no matter the soft-pedaling, to hate.
...The Constitution is not going to be defaced by the “Marriage Protection Amendment,” as its supporters style it. In Wednesday’s Senate vote, it failed to attract even a majority, let alone the sixty-seven votes that would be required for actual approval. But the President’s hypocrisy is not cost-free. He has stirred up prejudice. He has lent his imprimatur to an effort to make gays and lesbians—specifically, gays and lesbians who would like to formalize and solemnize their commitment to their partners and, in some cases, to their adopted or natural children—the scapegoats for the real troubles that afflict American families.

In the past forty years, the definition of marriage has indeed been changed, not by any homosexual master plan but by an epidemic of heterosexual divorce. Marriage is a social good—Bush is certainly right about that—but it has become a disposable good. The causes of divorce are manifold, and they do not include gay marriage. (The state with the nation’s lowest divorce rate, Massachusetts, is also the only state where gay marriage is legal.) The day after the Senate vote, USA Today reported that “the number of active-duty soldiers getting divorced has been rising sharply with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.” The divorce rate among Army enlisted personnel since 2003, the year of the invasion of Iraq, is up twenty-eight per cent. For officers the increase is seventy-eight per cent. Perhaps this, rather than the imaginary threat of same-sex marriage, is something that the President should look into.

Indeed. I encourage you to read all of Hertzberg's piece--it's quite short. But let us leave, for only a moment, the question of loving couples being allowed to marry, the impact of a difficult martial conflict on the marital relations of soldiers and their loved ones, even the ethical conduct of the current Commander in Chief. Forget those things for only a moment, and ask yourself, what would Jesus do, if he were standing on a streetside, while four men were kicking the shit out of Kevin Aviance, breaking his jaw, bloodying him brutally, and leaving him on the pavement to limp his way to the hospital? What would your Jesus do?

The police caught the bastards.

02 June 2006

I Geek Out Sometimes: X-Men 3: The Final Movie

[I assume you've seen the film. If not, I solemnly swear to take no prisoners and to spare no plot points. This is not a review so much as it's a sort of... "assessment." An annoyed one.]

X-Men 3: The Final Movie

Or we pray it is the final installment in this stalled series. Where to begin with the list of grievances and missed opportunities? Where to begin....

I should start by saying that I really liked the first two movies. Or I should say I loved the first one, and enjoyed the second. When I learned Singer was leaving the franchise, I did not ask for whom the bell tolled (I could hear it in the distance). The tolling became deafening when I read the auteur responsible for Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, and Red Dragon was the new man at the helm. After seeing the final product, I was not let down by what I found.

X-Men 3 is NOT saved by Jackman, McKellen, and Stewart--whom, I might point out, are all non-American actresses. They do the best job they can with weak material, but the dialogue is just shit, and each of them says some truly stoooopit, out-of-character stuff. Stewart has to snit at Jackman--after the living hell of explaining the film's version of the Phoenix; McKellen does the best he can with, "WHAT HAVE I DONE?!"; and Jackman comports himself well with his "JEEEEAN!!!!"

Nothing can save the film from the awfully idiotic choice of writing Magneto to go off the callous deep end: his egging Joenix on, his heartless dropping of Mystique after she saved his ass and as a result lost her powers ("DAMN. That shit is COLD," I actually said out loud), his decision to use the mutant "cure" against other mutants, and most egregious his sending the Morlocks to their deaths in the final battle sequence, dismissing them with a gloating smile as "pawns." Nice brotherhood you got going there, Magneto. After the first two films spent so much time presenting Magneto as a textured, complex character, this latest edition pulls no punches and displays him in full fascist--Holy Richard the III, Batman--mode. Too easy. And lame. Did I mention lazy?

Now to pile up the corpses.

Halle Berry
Thank god they got Tina Turner to lend Halle one of her old wigs from the 80s.

"It's okay, Jackie!"

I mean, the wig in the first film was AWFUL, the second wig was a slight improvement, but this one is an affront to humanity (the filmmakers even refer to it directly in an icky moment between Storm and the Beast when Berry squeals, "You've changed your hair!" And the Beast notes, "So have you." Not enough). Anyway, Storm has a larger--a much larger--role in "Final," and it becomes eminently clear why Singer kept her lines down to a minimum in the first two films: the woman can't act. Compare the cut scene on the first X-Men DVD in which Storm teaches a class of mutants. Awful. Every word she utters is a lie, including "a" and "the." No, that implies too much intention--she doesn't know what the fuck she's doing. Okay, Halle. HALLE! Repeat after me: Storm is a what? A what? You don't know? Storm is an African Weather Goddess. She is regal. English is not her first language. I know, honey, I know, don't cry, baby. I know, accents are hard. But you're getting paid. You are a professional actress. Get to work.

Berry is so laughable with almost every syllable she utters. She's made Storm all sassy 'n' shit--watch her tell off Wolverine. You go, girl! Snap! Snap! She does Storm like she's just this side of white from Kim and Cookie. And every time she uses her "weather-witch" powers she goes all slack jawed like she's having a seizure (the whited-out, Little Orphan, Annie Eyes don't help). Ok, remember in the first film when Sabretooth is chocking the goddamn out of her in the train station, and she goes all slack and mouth-breathery in the face, and you think she's dying, then her eyes go all white and she calls down lightening from the heavens? It's like that every time in this movie. Oh, I'll vomit if I go on. Fire her.

Why hire Kelsey Grammer to do Hank McCoy? I dunno, because no one's looking to hire him to do Shakespeare again any time soon, and maybe he needed the work. But he's okay more or less. It's the atrocious make-up they've saddled him in that hurts the soul so. Okay, he's BLUE. He's fucking blue.... I can't help thinking Singer would not have been so literal. Just see for yourself.
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Dr Jekyll or Papa Smurf, I presume.

Now, this is what the Beast is supposed to look like, as rendered back in the day by John Byrne at his prime (inks by Terry Austin).

First of all, the Beast is kinda sexy, even covered in fur. But come on people, make him blue-black or something. Whatever.

The Morlocks
Some genius working on this movie thought it would be way cool if the living-in-the-sewers, outcast, underground mutants, known as the Morlocks should all be various ethnic minorities, and dressed like some horrible, post-apocalyptic, fashion mistakes, fresh as hell from the 80s. I mean, honestly, they look like characters visiting from the set of a Pat Benatar music video. It's sorta analogous to the S and M themed costumes for Two-Face's gang in the Val Kilmer Batman Forever fiasco. Remember them? Someone who has no idea what they're doing thinks something they know nothing about looks cool, so that over-determined design makes it into the movie. The image resonates, that's enough; it doesn't really matter what it might mean. Hey! In a mutants-as-queer franchise, let's make the Morlocks all Latin or sorta Asian or sorta androgynous. What a great idea! There's such a misguided, bad-faith race, class vibe about this choice that my skin crawls. Except for Halle (and, let's not kid ourselves too much about her, anyway), all the major players are white white white. Then having Magneto send these "pawns" to their deaths for his cause--which superficially includes them--is simply repugnant. And this from a Holocaust survivor.... Yeah, bigoted Magneto's all about the end-justifies-the-means. This move drains all the nuance out of the character--it's just sad to see McKellen put through his paces this way. It doesn't serve the narrative or the character, it just makes him into the easy villain of the piece. Why make his morally complicated decisions interesting or even intelligible when he can just be a dick?

Okay, this is where the serious geek factor enters the conversation: Yes, I was a big X-Men fan back in the day when the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix saga was first published. X-Men writers since then have hopelessly muddled it--I gave up trying to follow the latest convoluted explanation for Phoenix long ago, having lost all desire to know or care. But when the story first came out, it was clean and relatively simple: Jean Grey, selflessly saving her teammates, perished in a radiation storm while piloting their ship back into the earth's atmosphere. The ship crashed and she emerged with much greater powers, a new costume, and a new name, "Phoenix." In a major, very cool plotline, an old X-Men villain, named Mastermind (he's an illusion-caster, and was re-tooled as Jason Stryker in the second X-Men movie), was able to enter her mind, and essentially alter her personality, making her the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club (don't ask, just know it's as bad as it sounds). Thanks to Scott (Cyclops) she came to her senses, but the damage was done. Mastermind's manipulation had unleashed a power-hungry side of herself that manifested, just as soon as they defeated the Hellfire Club, as the ridiculously powerful Dark Phoenix. She flew off into space, consumed a star (yes, you read that right), which had the unfortunate side-effect of destroying a planet of asparagus people. That's right, asparagus people. Dark Phoenix returned to earth, fought the X-Men, and with Xavier's help, Jean was able to reassert her personality and place "psychic blocks" which would keep her extraordinary, cosmic-level psychic abilities under wraps. All seemed good until a race of aliens arrived to claim justice for the poor dead asparagus people. In a fight with the aliens (on the moon, no less), Jean reverted to Phoenix, and knowing she couldn't control her power indefinitely, telekinetically triggered a space cannon to blast herself into smithereens.

She's dead, Jim.

As you can see, only a small handful of these elements found their way into the screenplay for X-Men 3. What Bryan Singer had in mind when he decided at the last minute to re-shoot the ending of X-Men 2, so that Jean died, complete with a "Phoenix Effect" in the water at the very end, is any one's guess. He had clearly decided to do the Phoenix story in the third film, but who knows what of his intentions actually made it to the screen. In fact, the Phoenix Saga is exactly what we do not get. Instead, Jean-Grey-as-God is a measly subplot in the much less interesting and far less operatic main plot of the mutant "cure" and Magneto's full-scale war against it. The lame and perfunctory Rogue-Iceman-Kitty love triangle got more freakin' screen time.

What-we-wanted vs. What-we-got

The movie should have been about Jean, the Phoenix, and the X-Men. I'm not an adaptation literalist by any means; in fact, I believe what was so admirable about Singer's two X-Men movies is that they departed from the comic to a significant degree, had their own internal coherence, satisfied fans and newcomers alike, and were sophisticated, well-crafted, superhero action films with a serious ethical undertone. Not easy, people. The Harry Potter movies actually got better as they went probably because J.K. Rowling was around to control quality and because after Chris Columbus left, the franchise finally got good directors on board, ones who have this thing called "vision" and the wherewithal to carry it out. But I digress.

Back to Phoenix in X-Men 3. I enjoyed the references to Carrie and The Exorcist--it's too bad that the cleverness regarding this character was relegated to a series of visual cues, but what can you do? Jean (or Phoenix) "wakes up" from under the lake, kills Scott immediately with a vampire kiss, lapses into a coma long enough to be discovered by Halle and Hugh and brought back to the mansion, wakes up, comes on to Hugh, leaves, kills the professor (in a mostly cool scene, effects-wise), joins Ian McKellen, and spends the rest of the movie standing there in a red dominatrix outfit, looking peevish. That's it! Sure, at the very end, she gets all scary, pretty much for no reason, so Hugh pops his claws into her. The End. This is the Phoenix Saga? This is a story? The original comic version told an epic and tragic tale of ambivalence, madness, loneliness, love, redemption, and finally death. I tell you, you hand Hollywood gold on a silver platter, and they still find a way not to get it. This thing had no-brainer written all over it from the get-go. But last and not least, where was the Phoenix Effect I ordered?? I'll tell you where: superimposed on a lake surface at the end of the last film.

One last thing: I like Famke Janssen--she seems smart, she played a mean transsexual on Nip/Tuck, she speaks four languages, and provides the Dutch-language narration for the Studio Tram Tour at Disney parks. I just wish she's had something to do in her last outing as Jean Grey. Oh. And I wish they hadn't dyed her hair that absurd magenta-orange too.

Rant over.

All that said, X-Men 3 isn't a steaming pile of shit. It's an engaging summer blockbuster, and the special effects with the Golden Gate Bridge are kinda breathtaking. The problem is just that except for having the same actors playing the same characters, it bears almost no relationship to what Bryan Singer did before it. I'm not saying don't see it, I'm saying it is a weak, empty-headed, by-the-numbers follow-up to a couple of movies that managed to achieve something pretty special. (Did you like how I saved anything nice to say till the end?)

Now, one last thing. People always wanna know why so many gay guys like comic books. It's because the artists draw men like this:

This is SO eighth-grade jack-off material. Thank you, John Byrne!