Thursday, June 30, 2011

15 Questions

I'm suffering a little from blog fatigue right now. Since last September, when I really started to ramp up my efforts here, I've been on kind of a tear and it's starting to burn me out. I didn't even write about all of the queer films I saw this month. There are three that I chose to leave be, mainly because all I had to say about them was that they starred cute boys with a certain idealized "look" and what does that say about the gay male gaze? I never got around to writing my exegesis of gender construction in Looney Tunes, either, though I may come back to that in the future because I've actually done a lot of the preliminary legwork on that. It's a matter of will at this point, and I don't have the will to do the rest. I've also had some real-world things rearing up to bite me in the ass.

So I need to pause for a bit to catch my breath. As a stopgap, I thought I'd answer a movie meme I've seen rattling around the blogosphere. I first saw this over at The Girl with the White Parasol (and pay Rachel a visit, she's a terrific blogger), but I've seen it elsewhere, too. It's fifteen questions about my movie habits. So without further ado...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Martyr Complex

One of the things that struck me as I watched the opening scenes of Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976) was how closely both it, and through its influence, subsequent gay cinema resembles porn. I mean, the opening pantomime for the pleasure of the court of the Roman emperor, Diocletian, is an art house version of a bukkake reel, what you might get if Fellini decided to film a reel for the gay bathhouse rough trade. And it doesn't change much when it focuses its attention on its (mostly nude) male cast of exiled soldiers a few minutes later. It films their bodies in long, lingering idylls. These are the same kinds of longueurs one finds in any given Emmanuel movie, complete with the slow motion splashing of water and the frequent voyeurs watching the action. Jarman throws in some kink, too, with several flogging scenes.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Krell Labs Podcast! Episode 1: Interview with a Queer Pornographer

This is a new experiment here at Stately Krell Labs. It's a podcast! The first episode interviews transgender activist and feminist pornographer Tobi Hill-Meyer, who makes and distributes sex-positive, trans-positive feminist porn through her company, Handbasket Productions. She's also a frequent contributor to the GLBT blog, The Bilerico Project. In the interview, we talk about the conventions of porn, especially as it relates to the trans and feminist communities and we talk about the practical elements of DIY filmmaking.

Hopefully, I'll make more of these. So without further ado, on with the show:

Friday, June 24, 2011

Crazy for trying...

The title of Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) pulls double duty. It's most obviously a reference to the Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson song, which finds multiple iterations on the film's soundtrack. The way it's punctuated, though, indicates that it's an acronym, consisting of the first letters of the names of the five brothers whom the movie is about. They are: Christian, Raymond, Antoine, Zach, and Yvan. The film itself is primarily interested in only two of the brothers: Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant), a drugged out, burned out fuck-up, and especially Zach (Marc-André Grondin), who struggles from early childhood with his sexuality, and with their father, Gervaise (Michel Côté). The main conflicts in the movie are fueled by Zach's denial of his own homosexuality, and by his father's intransigence when it comes to accepting anything that might be tainted with a gay brush. We experience the movie from Zach's point of view. He narrates the film, and we are privy to his vision of the world and his fantasies about how he would prefer the world to be. On a basic level, the narrative of C.R.A.Z.Y. is kind of banal. It's a queer coming of age story. It covers twenty years of Zach's life, from birth to adulthood. The relationships between Zach and his brothers and between Zach and his father follow well-trodden queer narratives. And that's fine, I guess, because what the movie lacks in narrative originality, it more than makes up for it with both its cinematic elan and its tendency to completely blow up those well worn tropes in unexpected ways.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Run for the Shadows

A couple of weeks ago, Wyatt Weed, the filmmaker who made the promo reel for the Vincentennial, sent me a message on Facebook. He complimented my blog and asked if I reviewed small independent horror films (which, of course, I do). Let me back up a bit and talk a little about the promo reel at the Vincentennial. The premise of the reel was a ghost walk through St. Louis to the locations where Vincent Price grew up, went to school, etc. At every location, there was a ghostly manifestation of Price, culled from his films. It was well done and it fit very well with both Price's screen persona as a horror star and the celebratory nature of the festival. Wyatt clearly knew what he was doing. So we traded emails for a bit, and then his movie showed up on my doorstep last week.

The film in question is a vampire movie called Shadowland (2010), and when I saw that it was a vampire movie, I groaned a little inside. But then I perked up a bit when I saw the DVD cover because I remembered seeing a pair of prop vampire-sized bat wings from this film's cover at Contamination last year. Contamination is St. Louis's fledgling horror media convention.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Mermaid

There's a statue in Copenhagen of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, looking mournfully back out at the sea. This is it right here:

This is one of the saddest pieces of art I've ever seen, based on the most bittersweet of fairy tales. Whenever I think of the lives of mid-20th Century trans people, I think of this statue for some reason. Not because I think they've suffered some irretrievable loss, mind you, but because so many other people believe this. This is an attitude that persists unto the present day. In my own life, I cannot count the number of well-meaning cisgender acquaintances who have come up to me and said: "It must have been very hard for you," with that note of condescending sympathy. Maybe the condescension is something I only hear in my head. I'm sure it's sincere, but, man, it gets old. And it's so clueless.

Copenhagen itself is where Christine Jorgensen underwent her surgery, substituting her fins for legs, and if you believe the end of the movie version of her life, The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970, directed by Irving Rapper), she suffered nothing but heartache in the bargain. The movie has that same condescending sympathy. The form of the movie--styled as a 1950s weepie--builds this into the very fabric of the narrative. And it's so earnest! Mercy, it's earnest! So much so that it barrels right through its own cluelessness. This is a combination that usually results in really bad movies, and this one, it turns out, is a howler.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bring Out Yer Dead!

One of the things that's really started to bother me about some horror movies is the way that they function as Christian propaganda. This is most prevalent in vampire movies, but it's not exclusive to them. The Exorcist, for one example, is one of the most cunning pieces of Catholic propaganda ever filmed. This is, of course, the nature of the beast. Most horror movies postulate a supernatural universe, so it's almost inevitable that they would turn to conventional religion as a counterweight to the forces of darkness. There is, however, a smaller subset of movies in which religion itself represents the forces of darkness. Movies about the horrors of The Inquisition, for example, or movies about sinister priests. It's a rare movie that tries to have it both ways. Such a movie is Black Death (2010, directed by Christopher Smith), in which the forces of the Church and the forces of secularism are two sides of the same rotten coin.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Green is the Color

True story: The first time I saw a trailer for the new Green Lantern movie (2011, directed by Martin Campbell), a little girl a couple of rows behind me said to her parents: "That's not right! Green Lantern is black!" All hail the power of television, because the John Stewart iteration from Justice League is the version of the character that has had the most mass-media exposure, in spite of DC Comics' best efforts. John Stewart supposedly makes an appearance in the movie, but I didn't spot him. Perhaps as a kind of sop for going back to a whitebread Green Lantern, the movie makes room for Amanda Waller, head of DC's version of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it doesn't solve what may be a fundamental miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers if their intent is to build a franchise on a familiar character, because the Hal Jordan iteration of Green Lantern hasn't been the dominant one to the world at large for more than a decade.

I realize that I'm speaking in code. I apologize to any non-comics geeks out there. But then, this is the kind of movie that's really tailored for an audience of comics nostalgists with deep knowledge of the material. If a general audience can penetrate its mysteries, well, bully for them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Bloody Mallory

The title character of Bloody Mallory (2002, directed by Julian Magnat) is a gothy anime-ish asskicking supernatural superhero whose team takes on demons and monsters. Assisting her are a statuesque transsexual named Vena Cava and a telepathic girl genius named Talking Tina. The team drives around in a hot pink hearse and dress like a cadre of cosplayers. The whole thing plays like a kids movie gone 'round the bend, or more probably like a post-modern update of a silent serial, though Mallory ain't got nothing on Irma Vep. Or Buffy, for that matter. From the description of our heroes, you can probably surmise that this is one of those "supposed to be campy" films. It's French, too, so it's shot through with a fair amount of Gallic theater of the absurd.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

More Noise about Silence

My answers to a couple of the comments on yesterday's Silence of the Lambs post seem like they deserve a post of their own. So here it is.

Mykal (of the excellent Radiation Cinema--you should seriously check it out), writes:

"Vulnavia: Wonderful analysis. I agree. Lector is a monster, pure and simple, and a great one. Thus, a horror movie. I can’t agree with your reservations about grading this film as great as I find your prism too specific, if completely valid (that is to say, it didn’t occur to me but probably should have). For my part, I reserve "great" status because I find it too easily entertaining. Hopkins himself said that Lector was one of the easiest parts he ever played. Once he got the voice, the rest was like falling off a log. It’s basically a softball waiting to get lashed out of the park. I would happily watch it anytime and never feel the slightest challenge, and there certainly isn’t a thing wrong with that. It just keeps it from reaching the upper strata.

Another great post - always challenging."

Hi, Mykal,

This is one of the reasons I try not to "rate" movies. Is The Silence of the Lambs a great movie? Absolutely. Does it have less-great things about it? Let me give you another example outside of my specific prism: After the FBI bursts into the wrong house near the end of the movie, Crawford gets that one moment where he goes "Clarice!" This moment is utterly stupid. I mean, there's nothing to give any indication that she's in any danger at that moment. This DOES establish Crawford as some kind of patriarchal "protector" who has somehow failed. It's kind of galling, actually, given the way the movie is sending Clarice out as a kind of knight errant.

The way this sequence is crosscut is interesting, too, so permit me a non-sequitur: Demme's subversion of the conventions of cinema in this sequence is brilliant. When the caption on the exterior shots says "Calumet City," and then the interior--without attribution--is in Pennsylvania, the director is having fun screwing with the audience's mind.

That being said, "perfect" movies are boring. There's nothing to write about. Give me flawed masterpieces every time.

J. Astro, who runs the Screen Grab blog, writes:

"I didn't, even as a youngster when I read the book, necessarily assume that Buffalo Bill was any sort of overall representation of the transgender set. I just viewed him as another wonderful cog in this well-crafted story. As I grew older and learned to appreciate films more on different levels, I've actually become entranced with Ted Levine's portrayal of the character and I like him more than the widely-loved Lecter.

This may be just be my mis-reading this, and if so lemme know, but it seems you kinda resent the Bill character out of the assumption that he is meant to be a scary shorthand for all transgender personalities. Did you feel the same way about Norman Bates when you watched PSYCHO? (although not strictly "transgender" by definition, Bates was the closest thing that era would've come to depicting a Bill-like character in that day)... Just curious."

Hi, Astro,

This particular objection is a quagmire for me. As I say in my second paragraph, it's one of the reasons I've held off writing about the film. There are some differences between Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill. For what it's worth, I love Ted Levine in the movie and the character is certainly indelible. But...

The transgender psychopath is a cliche, and a pretty harmful one at that. It's one of the four dominant depictions of transgender identities. The others are "the pathetic, the prostitute, and the punchline. These are collectively the four "P"s. The trans person as psycho has its origins in the Gein story, natch, and it WASN'T a cliche in Psycho, which was the first film to exploit it. And Norman doesn't necessarily "read" as transgender because the image of him in Mom drag is so patently absurd. He's not fooling anyone. I'm more troubled by the daughters of Psycho in movies like Homicidal or Dressed to Kill or Stripped to Kill, et al., because these films have a vested interest in deceiving the audience in a way that suggests that trans identities are inherently deceptive. But that's another argument. In the case of Buffalo Bill, the depiction exists in a more specific political context, which I enumerated in my post. It also does some very particular things that I chose not to write about. I'll cover some of those now:

First, it fetishizes the exterior. Bill doesn't seem trans when he's not dressing the part. It suggests that the trans identity (which, of course, the movie claims he doesn't actually have) is all about the surface. The fetishistic nature of Bill's crossdressing feeds my second point: The Silence of the Lambs sexualizes trans identities. When Bill is done up in his human-scalp wig and his frou-frou, he mouths at the camera "Would you like to fuck me?" He gets off on dressing up, and on the image of himself as a woman, and here's where the movie becomes inextricably entangled with trans identities in spite of its best intentions. Bill is exhibiting a paraphilia, and it's one that has been used to categorize transsexuals in the DSM until VERY recently. He also exhibits a condition called "autogynephilia", which is a quack science description of why transsexuals do what they do. The fetishistic sexualization at work here feeds the public discourse on the rights of transgender people, because it feeds the moralizing tendency of opponents of trans rights. If it's done for sexual pleasure, then it must be sinful, ipso facto, it must be okay to sanction this in the public sphere. Now, I'm well aware of the fact that as a matter of ethics and as a matter of law, it is and should be illegal to legislate from this position, but that doesn't stop people.

While it's easy for me to rationalize all of this as a depiction of a specific character in a specific movie with a specific pathology, my eyes tell me that this just isn't so. One of the first depictions of transsexuals I ever saw was John Davidson on a 1974 episode of The Streets of San Francisco who was as close to Buffalo Bill as 1970s television would allow. So if I resent Buffalo Bill, it's only because he's the most prominent incarnation of this archetype of the last 25 years. It's because the specter of the transgender psycho is so strong in the popular mind that it's used as an argument to bar people like me from the public restroom that is appropriate to my gender or prevent me from adopting kids or teaching school, it's hard for me to turn a blind eye.

Anyway, thanks to both of you for commenting.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clarice in the Underworld

One of the things that really irks me about hanging out in horror fan spaces on the internet is the persistent question of whether or not The Silence of the Lambs (1991, directed by Jonathan Demme) is a horror movie. To which I say: Of course it is. The argument that it's "really more of a thriller" doesn't hold any water with me on multiple fronts, not least of which is the notion that movies that are "thrillers" aren't also horror movies. Even granting that dubious division, Silence passes the smell test, because if you think Hannibal Lector is a natural human murderer and not some unnameable creature from the outer dark, you are wrong. Not only does he possess abilities and insights that are beyond human ken, the movie tells you outright that he is some kind of more-than-human monster. "Never forget what he is," Jack Crawford tells Starling at the movie's outset, and the film cuts to Dr. Chilton answering the elided question with, "He's a monster." Later in the movie, Clarice is asked if Lecter is some kind of vampire. She replies: "There's not a word for what he is." What he IS is a conflation of every horror-movie mad scientist ever to stalk the silver screen. He's Dr. Caligari (a psychiatrist guiding the actions of his protege), he's Svengali (grooming his follower for success), he's Dr. Mabuse (ruling the world from his cell at the asylum), he's Dr. Jekyll (after Hyde has taken over completely). So let's dispense with the notion that Lecter is a presence that could exist outside the context of the horror movie, that he's not a creature of fantasy. That notion is absurd. But more than that: Buffalo Bill is based on Ed Gein, and by my lights, any movie that's based on Ed Gein is, de facto, a horror movie. We'll come back to Gein in a bit.

In any event, the previous paragraph is one of the reasons I've never really written about The Silence of the Lambs, despite a long familiarity with the movie (and the book). It's a discussion with which I have no patience. The other reason I've never really written about The Silence of the Lambs is because it's a movie that gives me all kinds of fits when it comes to the politics of its imagery, and writing about those politics--which for me are completely unavoidable--is going to make me sound like an apologist or (and) a scold. I don't intend this. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Love and Undeath

"I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine" --J. Sheridan le Fanu, "Carmilla"

Although Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness is more well-regarded by critics, Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970, directed by Roy Ward Baker) is the grandmother of lesbian vampire movies. It's one of the few relatively faithful adaptations of "Carmilla" (that eternal wellspring of lesbian vampires) and it was one of Hammer's biggest hits. In spite of all of this--or maybe because of it--it's a film that makes me uneasy.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Hellraiser: Bloodline

I gave up on the Hellraiser movies after the third installment. The fourth installment, Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, directed by Alan Smithee) was not promising and I never got back to it until now. For one thing, it was directed by "Alan Smithee," in reality special effects man Kevin Yagher. When you have a director making his first film, a director promoted from the special effects department, and he hides behind the DGA's pseudonym for directors who are disowning their work, that bodes ill. For another, it was one of the first horror franchise installments to take its characters into a science fictional setting, usually a sign of a property that has gone way past its sell-by date. And for all that, it was a Dimension project, and before there was Platinum Dunes, there was Dimension and its anti-Midas effect: everything they touched turned to shit and ashes. With all that in mind, I still had the idea in my head that it couldn't possibly be worse than Hellraiser III. Could it?

Monday, June 06, 2011

Members of the Wedding

I wish I could write about Bridesmaids (2011, directed by Paul Feig) without writing about the sociological issues surrounding it. In years past, this kind of comedy would have been no big thing. In 2011, its success or failure is a referendum on movies made by, starring, and targeted at women. Which is complete and utter bullshit, by the way. I mean, 51 percent of potential moviegoers are women, guys! This is NOT rocket science. And all those tickets you sold for Titanic and Twilight? Who do you think bought them? But Bridesmaids is being sold with lines like "Chick flicks don't have to suck!" and is being characterized by its gross-out humor (one freaking scene! ONE!), as if they're selling a movie for women to an adolescent male audience. Which, of course, is exactly what they're doing. They don't know any better. They're a bunch of entitled fucking dude-bros in the boardrooms of the movie studios these days. They've transplanted the frat house to the corner office. None of which should have even the slightest relevance to Bridesmaids. But it does, and we're all poorer for it.

It's hard for me to review a movie like Bridesmaids, actually, because all critical standards are suspended for comedies in the face of the one true comedy imperative: Is it funny? I mean, I could write a masters thesis on the patterns of class warfare in this movie, and on the existential plight of the single woman in a society that demands she have a partner, but while that's all well and good, it doesn't matter if the movie doesn't get laughs. And laughs are produced by some weird alchemical process involving personalities and timing that no one can quantify. In the case of Bridesmaids, the ultimate verdict I can render is that it made me laugh more or less consistently. So there's that. That won't stop me from writing about the existential dilemmas of a single woman, of course, but I thought I'd put all that right up front. It's a funny movie.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Mutatis Mutandis

Way back in 2003, writing about X-Men 2, I wrote the following: "A more subversive queer subtext can be derived from Mystique, whose character suggests a polymorphous transgender sexual revolution. She's the ultimate genderbending mind-fuck; the perfect sexual object, one that can take the shape of your heart's desire. Furthermore, she likes it and is unrepentant about it." I'm kind of surprised to be resurrecting this line of thought concerning X-Men: First Class (2011, directed by Matthew Vaughn), but this theme isn't even subtextual anymore. I mean, it's true that the X-Men have always been a vehicle for examining the oppression of any given "other," but what Mystique articulates in this movie, and how it relates to both Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr seems to me to be unmistakable. It causes some serious problems for the movie itself--as was the case with X-Men: Last Stand, the villains have the moral high ground in this movie--but, damn, it makes the movie more fun to watch than any other dumb tentpole movie this year.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I remember being fairly disappointed with Frank Oz's In & Out (1997) when I saw it on its initial release. My memory of it is that I thought it wasn't nearly funny enough and that it was entirely too middlebrow. It didn't have the strength of its convictions. Choosing to watch it again for Pride month and the Queer Film Blogathon was an act of laziness on my part, actually. It was on Netflix instant and I didn't have to scroll through a bunch of titles on my Roku to find it. Easy peasy. It turns out that my memory of it was pretty good, to a point. It IS entirely too middlebrow for its own good. It's also a pernicious fantasy and a bundle of unfortunate stereotypes.

Survival of the Fittest

I wish that Animal Kingdom (2010, directed by David Michôd) wasn't as relentlessly downbeat as it is, because it makes getting to its utterly magnificent final frame a bit of a slog. I mean, I probably like movies about bad people doing bad things more than the next person--don't get me wrong--but when a film hoards its first (and only) smile-worthy moment for the end of the movie, it tends to make me wonder why I'm watching. This is all orchestrated, of course, and the film has a veneer of artiness to go along with its unpleasant gaze into the lives of lowlifes, and, as I say, the punch line is magnificent, but this is a strategy that tends to diminish the movie a bit. When I look back on it, I'll say: "That was hard to get through, but worth it." Or maybe I'll forget to qualify it. In retrospect, I'll probably steer interested viewers to the much more diabolically entertaining The Square, which plays in the same ballpark, but with more savoir faire.