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The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green (Review), Gay Cinema (Choke), and What’s Film Criticism For (Anyway)? 8 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Pop Culture, Reviews.
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Ugh. After reading a couple positive reviews in the gay press, followed by the interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle, I was all ready for a light, funny, gay romantic comedy. Instead I got “The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green.” (By the way, this is the second horrible film I’ve seen from Here! productions in the past month; the first was the painful lesbian dramedy April’s Shower, which was so bad I couldn’t bear to review it.)

I know, I know. It’s based on a comic strip (a rather funny one, at that) by Eric Orner, which incidentally is a key piece of gay history since he first began drawing it in 1989. The San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum included Orner’s strip in its 2006 special show on gay and lesbian cartoons. I’m not saying a comic strip can’t be translated into film, or that this couldn’t have been done well; but it did feel like the gags just didn’t translate somehow. When you see Ethan Green in a comic strip, his flaws and stupidity seem funny. But when you watch a warm-blooded human being making the same bad choices it is god-damned painful.

02_film_ethan_26_lg.jpgBasically, Ethan is highly judgmental of every man he dates and ends up breaking up with every one because they aren’t good enough–a relatively common and relatively serious problem among humans in general in our consumer-cum-dating culture. This is mixed with a series of stereotypical gay inside jokes. Again, these play funny in print, but come off as ham-handed on screen. From recently out athletes, to log cabin republicans, to middle-aged gay aunties, to teenaged oversexed newbies, this is a veritable dramatis personae of gay male stereotypes. Comedies made from within minority communities can make great use of such images, both as gentle prodding to get us to see what’s there inside of our own lives and communities and as ways to simply see ourselves represented and laugh. So although I laugh when I read Ethan Green in comic strip form, I cringed and felt self-hating when watching the film.

Top this all off with bad pacing (sometimes it drags in the middle of hijinx…hello, editing? direction?) and bad acting (watching a straight guy act gay, like, look at me ma, I’m acting!), and you have an evening of disappointment. No matter how cute the lead is or how hot the sex scenes.

We use the arts (from high-brow to low), as people, to express our ideas of ourselves and to explore our experiences in the lives that we lead. Cinema (and television) probably have more power to accomplish this end than other forms of art, because we can see real human beings moving, acting and reacting within situations we may find ourselves in; cinema allows identification in a way that is fundamentally different from other art forms. And for that reason, its power to represent and produce meaning, I believe, outstrips other forms. For subordinated communities, where the meaning of their lives is always in opposition to (or in competition with) the meanings ascribed to them by the dominant culture, the representations in film and television can be devastating. Whole shelves in libraries are devoted to the research done on representations of subordinate peoples and the effects these representations have on bolstering systems of oppression and producing dominated personalities in the minorities. For gay men and women, the production of representations by, for, and of ourselves has been key to our ability to emerge from the homophobic and heterosexist norms of American society and create full lives for ourselves despite the dominant culture.

This is difficult to talk about, because I hate the whole dynamic where minority artists have to “represent” their people (as if that were possible); yet, the continued production of meaningful art that you can at least sit through without throwing empty popcorn buckets at the screen is of utmost importance at this turning point in gay history. We are on the verge of having de facto ‘acceptance’ into America. But that will not eliminate our need as a group to continue to have discussions about what our lives and loves and communities should mean. And we will need to do better than this film.

Having said that, I’m not a film snob by any stretch (really, I’m not!). In fact, I’m a bit of a social outcast in San Francisco, where cultural posing is de rigeur, from local hip-hop among the kids, to only the right electronia among the clubbers, to only the right restaurant for the bourgeois; and everyone in the city seems to be a movie snob. Now I like movies ranging from blockbuster action, to teen dramas, to historical epics, to impressionist films from Siberia. I like film for the masses and cinema for the elite. In short, I like film. I’ve never studied film history or film making, so mostly my reviews are just my viceral response to them (although sometimes my cultural-sociologist brain will kick in and I’ll have a fit analyzing the cultural production and circulation of meanings in particular contexts. See above.).

After talking extensively with my good friend Matt about movies, I finally admitted to him that I actually like Roger Ebert. Most people know him only from the television review program, which is of a necessity abbreviated and simplistic (thumbs up or down? please). But when you read his published film criticism, you get to understand not only how much he loves cinema, but how much he gets it. Often, the role of critics is poo-poo’ed in our anti-intellectual American culture, our own backwards form of cultural populism. But critics can serve a vital role of interpreting works of art and engaging us in the meaningful conversations that they evoke. Camille Paglia’s recent collection of poetry explication/criticism, Break, Blow, Burn, demonstrates the role of critic beautifully, showing us that criticism at its best makes us stop and reconsider, moves forward our understanding, contextualizes pieces, and finally may actually inspire us. I have discovered the Ebert is one of those cultural critics.

In the introduction to his 2002 collection of essays about 100 of his favorite movies, The Greatest Movies, Ebert says this of film:

Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people. Noot many of them are very good, however. Yes, there are the passable Friday night specials, measured by critics including myself in terms of their value in entertaining us for two hours. We buy our tickets and hope for a diversion, and usually we get it, but we so rarely get anything more.

I suppose that I just want something more from Gay Cinema.

Capote 9 April 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Cultural Critique, Ethics, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Sexuality.
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I'm still processing the film, but wanted to put up a strong recommendation. Truman Capote, as he is portrayed in this film, was a narcissistic artiste, willing to do anything to get the raw material he needed to write his non-fiction novel. What the film highlights is the emotional and personal cost of two competing drives in Capote, between his writerscraft and his very real connection to a murderer. Capote depicts a man torn apart by coming to know, understand and even like a man who had committed horrible acts of brutality; witnessing Harry Smith's hanging was, for many biographers, the loose thread that ultimately unraveled the genius. [Slate.com had a great two-part article by Daphne Merkin discussing the artistic and biographical merits of the film. And Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek's review of the film explains the brilliance Hoffman's portrayal.]

Here's Truman Capote at age 24, just after he wrote Other Voices, Other Rooms:

Moral Art vs. Moralizing Art: “Munich” and Violence 12 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Ethics, History, Judaism, War & Terrorism.
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A movie that successfully asks difficult and complex moral questions is rare. It is far too easy for art to fall into moralization, rather than morality. Moralizing art tells us the right answer, so that believers feel comforted in their moral superiority and unbelievers will see the error of their ways and experience a conversion. But moralizing art is never good art. Rather than fostering an opening of the heart and mind, encouraging a careful and compassionate consideration of difficult issues, it feeds us the moral outcome as if we were children in Sunday School. In order to make its point, moralizing art must rely on piecing together images and ideas in nearly propagandistic ways; in movies, this means easily-recognizable and readily intelligible representations that require no subtlety of thought, setting up situations that emotionally resonnate but are not in fact realistic, and most aggregiously in film, giving us two-dimensional characters that are actually no more than stereotypes. This year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, "Crash", is such a moralizing film, reducing characters to stock types, and putting them in situations where, of course, their Evil is made clear. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times wrote today a great response to "Crash's" boosters: Race relations in today's Los Angeles simply don't work the way they are portrayed in the film. For me it is far more simple: "Crash" is moralizing art, and therefore bad art. It hits the viewer over the head with dumbed-down, simplistic moralisms, which aren't helpful at all in understanding the realities of race relations or drawing moral conclusions about race.

Moral art, unlike moralizing art, must be firmly anchored in realistic situations, must represent human beings in their complexity, their moral ambiguity, and show that in real life, morality is not clear and easy, but messy, dirty, and often bloody. Real human beings make morally wrong decisions constantly. Good people do bad things, and vice versa. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is a much more successful moral film. What I found impressive from the first 20 minutes of the film is the equanimity with which the violence was portrayed. There was no difference in style, technique, or point of view between Palestinian-perpetrated and Israeli-perpetrated violence. The film focuses on the Mossad group that is hunting down and killing those whom the Israeli government had pointed out as the planners of the Munich murders. The characters (and the audience) must grapple with the possibility that what the Mossad assassins were doing was, in fact, immoral. At the most basic level it asks what kind of response to violence is justifiable.

Because of the focus on the Mossad group, the audience is never asked to consider the moral issues from the Palestinian side. And so the movie fails as an examination of the nearly 100-year-old Palestine-Israel conflict (war?). Although it might be too much to ask a film about a group of Israeli assassins to equally humanize and explore the Palestinian point-of-view, I found the moments when Palestinians were represented to fall back into the moral ease of stock characters giving stock speeches. For example, as the team cases out a French-Palestinian's apartment to plant a bomb, his wife delivers a shrill speech about Palestine's suffering; and again, a PLO agent working with the KGB delivers an even more shrill speech to the Bana character. To the extent that these two scenes work at all, it is because of the effect they have on the main characters, who are visibly troubled by confronting real human beings whom they must kill. But these scenes do little to humanize the Palestinians for the audience. So this is not a good film about Israel-Palestine, and should not be interpreted as such. But that should not be grounds to dismiss "Munich" as a failure.

Rather, where the movie succeeds as moral art is in the gradual transformation of the main characters, as they confront what they have done and the implications of violence for violence's sake. When you talk with a man in his home and listen to his wife talk about the suffering of her people, and listen to his daughter play the piano, what then does it mean to murder him? What if he wasn't even involved in the crime you are murdering him for? And most poignantly in the film, what does it do to you to kill him? In other words, does perpetrating violence, even when you believe yourself to be morally justified, come back to damage you, to destroy your own moral self.

Some have dismissed the film as only so much "liberal Jewish handwringing," but if I were Spielberg, I would take that as a compliment. What is most remarkable and humane and worthy about liberal Judaism (and for that matter, liberal Christianity and liberal Islam) is its willingness and indeed its insistence on moral handwringing. Religion that teaches moral absolutes, a black and white world, is a religion that will easily fall into violence, be it social, cultural, or the infliction of bodily harm. Easy morality allows violence against "enemies" and clearly defines who those enemies are: anyone who is not like us. Liberal strands of Judaism, over the past 200 years or so, have stepped out of tribal formulations of ethnic identity and asked what it means to be a Jew among human beings. From an early script of "Munich" available online (the dialogue in the finished movie—where punctuation doesn't count—was more precise and polished):

ROBERT
We're Jews, Avner, Jews don't do
wrong because our enemies do wrong.

AVNER
We can't afford to be that.. .
decent anymore.

ROBERT
I don't know that we ever were that
decent. Suffering thousands of
years of hatred doesn't make you
decent. But we're supposed to be
righteous. That's what I was
taught, that's Jewish, that
beautiful thing. That's what I
knew. Absolutely.
And I think I've lost that. Avner.
I've lost that too.

AVNER
Oh that's, that's —

ROBERT
That's everything. I've lost
everything. My, my soul.

Ultimately, the film shows men who are transformed by killing. They become paranoid, haunted, detached. They are morally mangled as they systematically kill other human beings. I suspect that on both sides of any conflict the oucome is the same, unless you have forced yourself to believe in the facile morality that justifies without question or reflection the perpetration of violence. I suppose the ultimate question, and perhaps the most fearful one, is whether someone who believes the facile morality, someone who refuses the moral question and kills or maims believing they are doing the Will of God or that they are fulfilling their patriotic duty actually feel the impact of taking human life. Palestine-Israel or U.S.-Al Quaida: one soldier facing one sniper—one insurgent with one hostage—one suicide-bomber on one bus—one military pilot and one apartment building—one assassin and one target.