Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Killer Joe and Compliance

I've seen two of more controversial movies of the summer in just the past few days. Had complicated reactions to both. They share an investigation of class and social order that I suddenly want to write a film studies dissertation about. Seems a bit much at the moment, so how about a blog entry instead?

I went into William Friedkin's film adaptation of Killer Joe excited to see past the campy gore that has made that play's reputation. Tracy Letts is smart and major; though August: Osage County is expansive and brilliant, I almost admire Bug more for its unhinged ambition. Friedkin adapted that play to film, but I couldn't get through it; the play was too fresh on my mind and I was too enamored with the intellect under its rough skin.

As for Killer Joe, I've never seen a production or read the script, but watching the movie I could just make out the wicked satire embedded in the story's genre plot. The elements are screaming at us throughout the movie: the corrupt, murderous police officer manipulating the poor dumb slobs, supporting and even carrying out their violence while making financial demands he knows they're unable to meet. He takes over their house, takes the virginal daughter as sexual property, makes mincemeat of them, and then sits them down to dinner afterwards. This is classic theater -- grotesque types turned to absurdist, allegorical comedy.

Friedkin more or less reduces the proceedings to a ham-fisted southern noir iteration, burying it all under layers of bruise make-up and fake blood. Save for one monologue that sounds like it just walked off the stage at Steppenwolf, with McConaughey (who's intensely good -- I liked the whole cast, actually) demanding Dottie by insisting on his "retainerrr," I never felt like this movie was asking the audience to absorb any of this stuff. I can imagine seeing a savvy production of the play and finding its content thrilling in the context of its pulpy melodrama. In fact, I spent much of the movie thinking, "I bet I would love this if it were on stage," then checking my watch.

The stuff of Compliance stuck with me more. I've had an interest in the movie since before its premiere at Sundance, since my friend Ashlie Atkinson has a nice role in it and made a great showing in the edgy Sundance talkback. It makes it a little hard for me to be objective about the movie; I was inclined to be persuaded by some of the more difficult elements in the script. But then, I think one of the film's strongest challenges comes in asking the viewer to go along with its premise -- that some guy on a phone can talk a fast food manager into letting him toy with, torment, and torture (by proxy) one of her employees for an entire shift.

Critics who don't go for the movie talk about how dense everyone in the movie is, which seems exactly the sort of intellectual superiority trap writer/director Craig Zobel sets for the audience. He almost dares you to disengage from the story, either by disbelief or disgust. No one could possibly be this stupid --as stupid as these lowlife fast food employees are. Shots of the customers unwittingly gobbling their chicken sandwiches in the dining room while this sadistic power play goes on in the back room reinforce an implication of the audience that's far subtler than the obvious Stanley Milgram/"following orders" substance of the events of the movie.

The movie's literal exploitation of a woman making minimum wage becomes a microcosm for a cultural exploitation of not just women but of an entire underclass. It's perpetuated by cruel men in nice houses, abetted by unwitting, well-intentioned people just trying to fit in, to do their jobs, or stay out of trouble, and it's exacerbated by those who reject that it happens at all.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I'm overdue on

writing about Searching For Sugar Man, which was one of the better film experiences I've had this summer.

I have to say, one of the film's pleasures to me was being surprised by it, by not knowing too much about it. That said, it's hard to write about the movie without giving the whole thing away, so you've been warned, etc.

Actually, as music documentaries go, it's a nice counterpoint to the Pearl Jam doc; as a band those guys blew up right out of the gate, while Rodriguez toiled in obscurity in the states before giving up and going back to construction work in Detroit. And somehow his two records end up in Apartheid South Africa and make him a legend there. It's a strange, wonderful story.

The thing I love the most about it is the assertion by many in South Africa that Rodriguez's anti-establishment content influenced social protest music of the period. Who knows if this is even quantifiable, but the movie credits Rodriguez's popularity as having a substantive, if indirect, impact on the fall of Apartheid.

Honestly, regardless of whether Rodriguez albums helped topple a government, it remains heartening. The guy made some music and hardly anybody in America listened. Then almost 30 years later he discovers a sizable portion of South Africa never stopped listening. The work made a difference.

The film presents Rodriguez as a humble man who is content with a simple life, but one of the delights of it is how easily he seems to step back into the spotlight when he finally returns to South Africa for a series of concerts. Of course, one thing the movie leaves out is that he already had an experience akin to this in Australia, touring with Midnight Oil (another political band he surely influenced) in the late 70s. Still, almost 20 years passed before he got back on stage to screaming, adoring crowds in South Africa. He takes to it like a fish to water, retaining that quiet journeyman persona that makes him so magnetic and mysterious.

I downloaded his two albums from the 70s, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. They're solid folk rock albums from the period, with a few standouts that become hard to shake. He sounds like he learned a lot from Dylan and Neil Young, which he counts as influences. Some might be quick to call them derivative, but the lyrics are honest and personal, and he has a charming way with a poetic phrase. They're really good records, and he deserved to make more. I'm glad he's getting a renaissance now with the movie.

Here's a trailer. Go see it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Another Arkansas post

I love that the Arkansas Times has been covering the Miss Gay Arkansas America pageant and its new queen, Veronica DuVall.

Pic by Marcus Rachard

Next stop Miss Gay America!

Speaking of Arkansas

I've been remiss in not posting about the sexual harassment controversy at Oxford American, which was hot enough news to make it to the NYTimes, the Atlantic, the New York Observer, and New York Magazine, among others. Some of the attention comes from founder and editor Marc Smirnoff refusing to go down without a fight; he's written a blog in his and fellow ousted editor and girlfriend Carol Ann Fitzgerald's defense. It's called editorsinlove-dot-com. Seriously.

Arkansas Times was on it from the get-go, with this column from one of my AR favorites, Max Brantley, offering some fun insights.
Marc Smirnoff, the obsessive founder of Oxford American, wore out my patience years ago. As a result, I knew with a certainty that his firing by the magazine board would not go quietly, not given his tendencies, as exhibited previously over far smaller grievances with writers here and other publications.


Smirnoff can obsess on this and create media maelstroms for as long as someone will listen and report. It won't help him (indeed, the letters should make him radioactive to cautious future employers), but it might damage the institution he nurtured and young people still there. That seems to be the point.
I'm an irregular reader of the magazine but always appreciated its existence. One of my holiday rituals when I head home for Christmas is buying the annual music issue and playing the CDs in my parents' car on my trips back and forth to Little Rock. I hope a new editor is good for the publication. Hopefully whoever they pick will avoid carousing with the interns.

Arkansas on the TV

I indulged in a little cable news TV yesterday, switching back and forth between CNN and MSNBC. I settled on MSNBC and got a little mesmerized by what appeared to be a multi-show effort to link rape obsessives Paul Ryan and Todd Akin. Lawrence O'Donnell was more sensational, but Rachel Maddow was more thorough, pointing out how entrenched the idea is in the Republican party; here's a HuffPo article about the whole thing.

Her best point gets at the anti-victim misogyny of the "forcible rape" nonsense, pointing out that by their logic, Ryan and Akin and anyone else who advance this theory suggest that women who become pregnant couldn't possibly have been raped and actually wanted the sexual attack. Therefore all pregnancies should be carried to term and if pregnant women don't like it they should've kept their legs closed.

She traces the history of this rape mythology to my home state of Arkansas (wish I could say I'm surprised), with James Leon Holmes in 1980 advancing the anti-victim theory that pregnancy doesn't really happen with rape, and later comparing the pro-choice movement to Nazism. GWB appointed him an Arkansas District Court Judge in 2004.

And then there's Fay Boozman, who had to apologize for saying such things in 1998, right before Mike Huckabee appointed him Director of the Arkansas Health Department. He died unexpectedly in 2005, and now every year the Arkansas Physicians Resource Council offers the Fay Boozman award "to physicians who practice their Christian faith in family practice and community affairs."

Incidentally, that quote is from Wikipedia, which has already been updated to link Boozman's rape statement in 1998 to Todd Akin's a couple of days ago. Check it here.

And I didn't get this from TV, but heaven forbid Huckabee bless us all with his silence on the matter; he wants us all to know that rape can be awesome on the back end.

Finally, this is unrelated, but I got caught up on this thanks to CNN. WTF Jonesboro? RIP Chavis Carter.

Friday, August 17, 2012

New links!

Hey, today is apparently blog update / maintenance day. I've reorganized my links to the left here and added a few new people, notably my friend Dawn McCoy's darling blog Beauty Frosting, and the aforementioned Homo-Centric and Luke Gattuso Photography. If there's anyone I've left off or forgotten about, let me know and I'll add you.

Speaking of

other places in the world, this is exciting.
Uganda’s LGBT community was able to conduct a weekend of gay pride events despite police arrests and harassment.

The historic LGBT pride was a series of events held at Entebbe starting with a party and including a beach parade, more parties and a small film festival.

The event was well attended, despite the fact that in Uganda gay people face life imprisonment according to law and widespread homophobia from the public.

On Saturday (4 August) police raided pride and reportedly detained activists who were taken by van to the police station but later released without charges being filed.
Read the rest here.

Had a great time

last night at the Homo-Centric reading at Stories Books in Echo Park. Queer literary guru Hank Henderson reminded us in closing how fortunate we are to be able to gather and read our work there, when there are places in the world where you can be jailed or executed for such things. And he's right! Long live Homo-Centric. Every month at Stories Books. Check them out sometime.

My friend Luke Gattuso took some cool pictures of the evening. Here's me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

La Cienega

is my favorite part of Bring It On: The Musical. Gregory Haney kills it playing the the first high school transgender character on Broadway. Or at least he did in L.A. when I saw it at The Ahmanson. I'm sure he's equally amazing in NYC. Here's a quote from a Playbill article about the actor.
La Cienega was one of the final roles to be cast. [Book writer Jeff] Whitty says he wasn't sure if an actor actually existed who could inhabit the role honestly and also harness the "fierceness" required by the girls at Jackson High. The creative team auditioned transgender performers for the role, but Whitty points out that the pool of represented talent in the trans community is currently very small. Drag performers were also brought in, but "there was a lot of sort of commenting on femininity," he recalls.

Luckily, Haney was a few blocks away preparing to come in for final callbacks. Dressed in an Afro wig, a headband, lip gloss and four-inch heels, Haney says he knew that if he could walk "the gauntlet" from a friend's apartment to the audition room, he could get a taste of the courage it took to be La Cienega.
Read the rest here.

Come hear me read this Thursday

I'm doing my second Homo-Centric this Thursday in Echo Park. The plan is to read a short play in its entirety, doing all three characters. I just have to finish the play and rehearse it so I don't make a complete ass out of myself. Come check it out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I went to a party

on Saturday and ended up having a fun conversation with some people about their favorite rock documentaries. A lot of titles came up, and one guy said, "I really hate Pearl Jam but that documentary Cameron Crowe did is awesome."

I think that's about the best recommendation of a music documentary one can offer, so I checked it out.

Pearl Jam was a favorite of mine in high school. I was obsessed with their first two albums; I'm pretty certain I used to sing Ten from start to finish at the top of my lungs in my bedroom. Probably did the same with Vs. One of my high school highlights was making the 90-minute drive to Little Rock with my friend Jenni to see them at Barton Coliseum. I didn't follow them much past Vitalogy, though. Not sure why, but maybe my veering toward smart asses like The Pixies and Pavement around the same time made me suspicious of PJ's earnestness.

But I never really dismissed them out of hand. I remember getting excited about their live CD releases and bought one, playing it in my car until it scratched. I admired their Ticketmaster fight, even if it was folly. I loved the idea of them going on tour with Neil Young, even if I wasn't sure that I liked the sound of it that much. And anyone who supported the West Memphis 3 has my respect.

Pearl Jam Twenty was a fun trip for me, revisiting some of that early 90s attitude, baggy shorts, Doc Martins, and Eddie Vedder's disarming lower lip. I remember them all like they were yesterday.

Nowadays they all seem like mature, comfortable music guys happy to still be going strong. I get the sense they're all deeply aware of how fortunate they are to be doing so.

As fond as I've always been of Vedder, Ament became my new favorite band member after watching the movie. In a scene of him flipping through old punk records from his collection, he talks about learning to play Ramones songs on bass by turning the balance knob all the way to the left. And his humility about having the luxury to write songs and actually have them materialize into music is the best kind of earnest. It made me want to buy him a beer and talk music with him.

That's the best rock documentary I've seen on my TV lately. Searching for Sugar Man is the best one I've seen on the big screen. More on that later.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Local premieres

And here's my list of local premieres I hope to see. Who's into going with me? Ernessa? Andrew? Lemme know.

Seeing Red tonight at the Taper, and I'm excited for many reasons, not the least of which is that I'm a big fan of Jonathan Groff.

It's just one of a handful of intriguing local premieres going on in town right now. Some other shows I'd like to get to are--

The City by Martin Crimp at Son of Semele.

Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame-Kwei Armah -- Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble at the Lost Studio. There's a nice article by director Gregg T. Daniel on L.A. Stage Times about his search for this play here.

Lorca in a Green Dress by Nilo Cruz at Casa 0101.

The Return to Morality by Jamie Pachino -- The Production Company at The Lex. Another good L.A. Stage Times article about this play, conceived in response to the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal (so you know I'm into it), can be found here.

World premieres

Just thought I'd do a couple of posts about some show's I'm going to try to get to around town. Anyone want to join me? Henry? Tira? Eddie?

Excited to see Hearts Like Fists by blogger/interviewer Adam Szymkowicz at Theatre of NOTE.

Adam interviews Vanessa Claire Stewart in his most recent blog entry. She wrote Stoneface for her husband, French Stewart, which is apparently awesome and up at Sacred Fools. Gotta get to that.

And there's The Government Inspector, adapted from Gogol by Oded Gross, at Theatre@Boston Court (a co-production with Furious Theater). Their last play, The Children, by Michael Elyanow, is a highlight of my theater-going this year, and it sounds like they're on a roll this season.

And then there's Playwrights' Arena's production of Euripedes' Helen, adapted by Nick Salamone, at the Getty Villa. I loved seeing SITI Company's The Trojan Women there last year, both for the setting and Anne Bogart's brilliant use of it. I'm looking forward to seeing what Jon Lawrence Rivera does with the space.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

My new play Bumblefuck, AR

is getting a reading today in Topanga. I've wanted to be involved in Botanicum Seedlings for some time now so I'm excited to get an opportunity with this play. But first, brunch at The Inn of the Seventh Ray.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Along those lines

I pulled a nice article by Chicago playwright J. Nicole Brooks from Rogue Machine's Twitter feed. Here's a quote
There’s room for all of our stories, past and present. Speaking of the past, I no longer have ill feelings towards Madame Bernhardt (or any of my teachers.) I just resented having to bow down to yet another iconic European beauty. Revisiting her now, I actually have some admiration for the woman. Sarah once said “The theatre is the involuntary reflex of the ideas of the crowd.” Ainʼt that grand? She’s right, you know.

I’ve learned that there’s room for all kinds of stories. I split my time between Los Angeles and Chicago and I don’t begrudge my journey. I am quite fortunate to have a terrific career as an actor, playwright and director. And though I have the support of a revered artistic institution, I admit I still have my moments of feeling like I’m back in college. Struggling with lack, limitation and deceit. When you grow up in a city like Chicago, divided by race, you are either taken down by apathy or you fight tooth and nail to tell the stories of those people who live within your spirit.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

This is a little tangential

but inspired by this post. Also this one a little bit.

One thing I appreciated about the talkback after my favorite Outfest documentary, The Prep School Negro, was the lone criticism director Andre Lee got from an audience member. It was a respectful thought, expressing the idea that, although his film handled racial and economic privilege head on, it didn't really address the issue of male privilege that he benefited from, allowing him to go to good schools and have a nice life in New York. Meanwhile his mother and sister, lacking access to that privilege, stayed behind in their old neighborhood in Philadelphia.

His response was mature; he told the woman he respected the note and mentioned that it did come up in a conversation that made its way into the movie, but it was cut for whatever reason. The thing I loved about his response was his assertion that "it's okay."

Actually, I don't know if he said it quite like that. But that was essentially his point. Or, to be more specific, his point was that we're allowed to have a conversation about these things without it being an attack or confrontational. The viewer can bring up the fact that his film lacked a direct investigation of male privilege, point out that he has benefited by male privilege, and still have a civil conversation about these things. He doesn't have to feel attacked, or guilty, or bad about the fact that he was born as a cisgender male in a society that values cisgender males.

I would add to that idea that it doesn't make his film less valuable either. Or more valuable, for that matter. One thing that I like to think I've grown out of is a blanket dismissal of anything that doesn't pass some kind of race/class/gender/sexuality smell test. I think there's an importance to desiring and insisting on diversity of representation, but it doesn't follow that any narrative that sits comfortably in some realm of privilege should be automatically dismissed, anymore than it should follow that stories about minorities should be dismissed.

I get to love and be obsessed by Mad Men even as I wish they'd figure out a better way to value and focus on minority and queer characters in the context of their setting. I get to admire some of The Help's many strengths while being disturbed by its retrograde archetypes and avoidance of so much of the actual terror of the racist south (not to mention the sexism). These aspects actually contribute to the work of art that it is. Sure, they can be ways in which we value them or relate to them, but to insist that all art maintain some kind of thorough treatment of race, gender, age, religion, politics, etc. is an impossibility. It's also a sure way to dilute and compromise a story's character and substance. Not to mention the storyteller's.

Still, this can be hard to remember when I'm watching yet another play about straight people (or straight people and their single, alcoholic gay friend) set in a well-appointed New York apartment or Hudson River Valley weekend getaway. Or when I'm watching a film depicting two beautiful thin white gay men in possession of both the well-appointed New York apartment and the Hudson River Valley weekend getaway. It doesn't mean these stories don't matter, or aren't well told. It just means they matter as much as all the other stories.

And I want to see more of the other stories.