Safety not Guaranteed


A few days ago, I went with my friend Aneesh to see an independent film called “Safety not Guaranteed“. The premise of the movie is about a reporter and two interns who go investigating the person behind the following classified ad:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.

(Apparently the movie ad was close to a real one published in 1997 in Backwoods Home magazine, which was the inspiration for the film.) The movie is wonderfully quirky (in the best sense of the word) and full of strong, believable performances. I won’t spoil it for you, but something happens at the end which takes the movie from a bittersweet grounding in reality to somewhere else, and I struggled for a bit to accept this jump, but finally have decided that I love it. Ultimately this film is a meditation on the messy uncertainty of love and relationships, and the need to believe and be believed in as conditions for that love. I highly recommend this film, it was a total treat.

Step back in time


My friend Alok invited me and a few friends of his along to see a new Indian film made by a director he knows personally. The film was called Dhobi Ghat, which is named after the place in Mumbai where all the laundry washers do their work. The film was in no way a typical product of Bollywood, as there were no big splashy musical numbers and no one ended up getting married at the end. It was a much more somber affair than that, but I really enjoyed it, as much for the Bombay atmosphere as anything. It really made me want to go back for a visit, so many of the places in the film were familiar to me. After the film Alok’s friends suggested we go to a gay bar close by, and it ended up being a place called The Townhouse. This is a place I have heard of for a long time, but never happened to go to because it is so far east (58th and 2nd) and I am never over there. The place was a laugh riot. It was like time traveling to some pre-Stonewall era bar, everyone dressed in suits or sweaters with collared shirts underneath. It easily could have been 1965 at a meeting of The Mattachine Society. I found it charming as a kind of themed costume party, and Alok and I talked about going back at some point, but I think if this were the only gay bar in town I could just as well get a cat, stay in, and watch old Bette Davis movies on an endless loop.

This calls for a drink


My friend Jonathan (and his friend Derek) and I went to see an alternative French film yesterday called “35 Shots of Rum“, directed by Claire Denis. The film tells the story of the modest disintegration of a formerly static community of four people in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris. One of the most wonderful things about this film is its portrayal of minority community in France. None of the main characters are white, although the history of colonialism weighs heavy over the entire picture, even if it is always subtext and in the background. The film manages to be somehow about that history and completely on the side of it at the same time, because it is really about these characters and their emotional attachments to and longings for each other, whatever their particular context. And these are some really wonderful character studies, of a father, daughter and their sometimes too strong relationship with each other, and two neighbors that want to involve themselves with them and be a part of that bond. Ultimately the film is a lovely, slow paced meditation that invites us to melancholy over the knowledge (hardly surprising) that nothing is truly static. We make temporary stability in our lives, but that stability is illusory and elusive, and as people grow and change and move on, life continues.

In the Navy Blue


A one of a kind, odd, tiring, hot and sweaty, but mostly fun day today. My friend Eric and I went to be extras in a film being shot only a few blocks from my apartment. The film, called “BearCity“, bills itself as a sort of gay(er) SATC with a group of bears as the protagonists. Most film sets are all about the waiting, and this was no different. Of the 6 hours we spent there, probably only about ninety minutes was actually blocking and filming, the rest was just standing around. My big scenes were all about me leaning up against a wall (supposedly in some sort of gay bar back room flirting with the crowd) while the various actors criss-crossed in front of me doing their sundry scenes. One of the guys that had a bit part in the film was the cowboy from The Village People. When he came swaggering into the bar, in full regalia it was obvious who he was. It really made me think a lot about how much this role must have defined his life, and how over time it must have just became his sort of permanent drag. The outfit hasn’t varied much since the late 1970s, and that is I suppose part of the reason he is still so recognizable. When he first arrived on the scene, he was introducing himself to everyone, and then it seemed important to him to school everyone in the history of gay liberation, not bothering to listen to what anyone else had to say. Then he loosened up a bit and seemed a little more relaxed and playful. Over all, he was a pretty nice guy (if slightly old school). The rest of the cast and crew were for the most part very nice and mostly having fun on the set. We would go in and out of scenes as they needed us, and just when we thought we were done someone shouted at me “Hey, navy blue” (the color of my t-shirt), “We need you for another shot”. I have to tell you it was hotter than hell in that little room where the shooting was, between the lights and the number of people and all the simulated cruising going on. They asked us to come back tomorrow or Saturday for a couple more scenes, and we may, but I have the feeling that my 15 minutes of fame as an extra bear may have already passed. Grrr…

me cowboy eric

Bon Appétit!


Sure, call it a chick flick if you think that damns it to some lower status. Maybe it is one. But I absolutely loved Julie & Julia, which I just saw today. It tells interweaving stories about the formative years of the famous chef  on the one hand, and the woman many years later who would base a blog on working her way through every recipe in Child’s cookbook. Along the way we are treated to a jaw dropping impression of Julia Child by the incomparable Meryl Streep, and great performances by Amy Adams and the rest of the cast. It struck me that a great deal of the fun in this film is about the somewhat caricatured yet iconic place Julia Child holds in our culture. Her persona and mannerisms are legend, and the movie even plays to this by having the later characters watch the famous SNL skit with Dan Akroyd as The French Chef. On the more modern end in the character (based on a real person) of Julie Powell, I was moved by the potent idea of doing something for the love of it, and for the sake of having something to do. And through our projects, almost any project really, we find meaning in our way of pushing a rock up a hill only to have it fall back down again. Arriving somewhere is not nearly as interesting as the journey, and taking stock and pleasure in where we are right now.

The movie dovetails nicely with so many of my own interests, spread as they are over the years of my life. From France and French culture, to writing and blogging, this film really spoke to me. And of course one of the greatest elements in the film, taking notice that the love of great food is part and parcel of the love of life and living.

A shred of doubt


It seems to be movie week with Stephen. Today Josh and I finally went to go see Doubt. The acting, especially by Hoffman and Streep, was truly wonderful. I was surprised (a little) at the end how Josh and I reached different conclusions about the guilt of the main character, Father Flynn. I said not guilty (although I could easily see how people could see him as guilty) and Josh said guilty (with a seemingly greater degree of certainty than I). I think the film is a Rorschach for many things in each of us, and there is of course no “right” answer and the film is intended to be ambiguous.

For me, this film would have been completely different (possibly not doable in this context ie, Catholic, 1964) without the gay subtext. It is precisely this subtext which makes it possible to believe in the innocence of Father Flynn. One of the reasons Josh said he felt convinced that he was guilty was because when threatened by Sister Aloysius with digging through his past, he acceded to her demand that he leave the parish. For me, it was possible that sure, there were things about his life he didn’t want exposed (gay things) and (this being a very unacceptable thing in 1964) decided to leave rather than face condemnation for status rather than actions.

In addition, this film is excellent for making us question the nature of guilt and innocence, and our individual and collective need for “justice” to be served.  It made me think about the kind of people who support the death penalty. No matter the evidence they are presented with, they hold to their irrational need to “get those baddies” even if it means innocent people will be killed along the way. They seem to have (like Streep’s Character in the movie) an emotional need for “justice” which outweighs “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

Watching Watchmen


I went to go see the Watchmen movie today with my friend Barrett. Overall I thought it was really amazing visually, and there were some very interesting elements of the superhero genre that were being critiqued.

1. Sex and violence – There were many points in the movie where you understand that the violence of the superheroes beating up people (good or bad it seems) is quite the aphrodisiac for them. At one point in the movie one of the characters can’t get it up during sex, but after he and his super-heroine partner go out and rough up a few bad guys, they return for some amazing sex. There are also some disturbing parallels in a rape scene perpetrated by one of the “heroes”.

2. Gayness – It was all over the movie, in good and bad and ambiguous characters, and in obvious and subtle forms. Outside of one of the initial characters being a lesbian (and subsequently killed), the character of Ozymandias has gay written all over him, although they never come out and say it. Still, there are about a million cues.

3. The nature of good and evil – Comic books have dealt with these themes for a long time, but Alan Moore, who created the series, really was one of the best at muddying the waters between good and evil, realizing not only that the capacity for good and evil exists within all of us, but that often it isn’t clear which is which.  His characters are rich in moral contradictions, and are capable of some pretty gruesome acts in the name of the good (or feeding their super egos).

4. The nature of power and humanity – One of the characters is so powerful, that he is in danger of losing his identification with humankind, and thus ability to empathize with or care about human suffering. One realizes that action (in the service of humanity, for example) is entirely based on scale, that is to say, too far a distance from being human all suffering looks irrelevant. The character even remarks at one point that “at a molecular level” a living body looks identical to a dead one.

One of the other great things about the film was that one of the characters (Dr. Manhattan, the powerful one) is naked throughout much of the film, turning the sexist convention that women are always the objectified, naked ones on its head. He is naked because (as stated above) he is less and less concerned with a human sense of shame or propriety and sees no reason to alter his “natural” appearance.

There were also a lot of pure camp moments in the film, like when two of the characters are having sex with the song Hallelujah playing in the background. Much of the music chosen for the film was evocative of various eras, which was interesting because most people already have their own imprint for these songs, and I am sure that hearing them over a number of scenes caused some varied and odd associations. As a meditation on the superhero genre and what it tells us about our society, the film was really top notch. The only thing that felt a bit odd was that, because the film (as with the graphic novel, released in 1986 and 87) is set in the mid eighties, its concerns with the cold war and world nuclear destruction no longer seem as relevant today as we confront global warming and environmental destruction, terrorism, and the like.

Bad lesson for children (or anyone)


Having sort of run out of movies to see here, I agreed to go see Prince Caspian, the second adaptation from the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. A quick check of the reviews showed it to be very well received, so I thought how bad could it be?

Pretty awful, actually. It was bad on so many levels. From the best to the worst: Special effects and art direction were decent, not great. Acting ranged from pretty good (Susan) to downright cringeworthy (Caspian). But the real standout for me in terms of awfulness was the moral of the story and plot (which of course are direct from C.S. Lewis).

Let’s take a look at all the ugliness:

– Super simplification of good vs evil. I happen to think this is a terrible lesson for children, that the world can be divided into black and white, good and evil, etc. I think it a great scourge in our society that we tend to vilify those we disagree with and forego civility.

– Cheap faith and a vengeful God. The moral of the story is that if you have faith in Jesus (the Lion), he will save you by destroying your enemies (in a quite violent way). It really doesn’t matter what the faith in question, if there is a central father figure who smites those who don’t believe in him, I find it problematic and a bad lesson for children (or anyone). I don’t think it serves human kind very well to think of God as a vengeful, anthropomorphic superhero, but I suppose this is part of the Western Tradition (make that the human tradition, I can think of a few Eastern examples as well).

– The Crusades (or Jihad). Along with the overly simplistic good vs evil is the religious crusade behind it. There is an orgy of violence in this film that is disturbing. Interestingly, in the couple of scenes of one on one combat among the major characters, they (the good guys, of course) are shown to be merciful, passing on killing when they have the chance. These same characters think nothing of slashing and killing everything in their path throughout the rest of the film, however where they happen to be killing nameless, faceless soldiers or other less elite creatures.

I’ve never exactly been a fan of Terminator style movies, but at least those leave out the religious overtones and moralizing. The disturbing thing when watching the Narnia movies is that you can totally see that this is how some on the religious right view the world. No room for nuance or differing world views. The rest of you are going to burn in hell, period. What a sweet message for the children.

The Darjeeling Limited


My friend Dustin and I decided to go take in a movie yesterday at the wonderful Arclight. (This is LA after all, one has to see films whenever possible.) So as I perused the schedule, I noticed “The Darjeeling Limited” was playing and thought it would be great to see a film set in India. I was curious about the representation of India through Western eyes and also what it might stir up in me having just returned. The movie itself and its plot were sweet and somewhat humorous, but not a whole lot else. The “setting” was a complete mess, and not at all in the real Indian sense. I am sure that I found the environment far more distracting that the typical viewer, but there were so many things they got wrong about India (or even the “idea” of India). From the perfect American accent of the conductor on the train, to his girlfriend’s breezy Western sexuality, to the unreal mix of religions and regions, to the train itself, everything was out of whack. If this was the representation the filmmakers wanted for India, there was certainly no reason to go on location. One has the impression that they dreamed up their “vision” of what India is or was, and then went to India to make it fit, realities be damned.

The one good idea that the film tries to portray is that the journey is the destination, and one’s steps to enlightenment come not just from the preplanned visits to “holy” places, but more importantly from noticing and being part of the chaos of life (and death) swirling about us.