Author Archives: unavitavagabonda

Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

 

logical familyAs painful as it is to say—and I write as someone for whom Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was an integral and beloved part of my coming out lo, these 40 years ago—his new memoir, Logical Family, is wan and prosaic and, with the exception of a few chapters, disappointingly dull. In fact, Logical Family highlights (presumably unintentionally) one of the inescapable facts about Maupin as an author: he’s not an especially great writer.

To be sure, he hit that trifecta of perfect timing, excellent luck, and great connections with Tales, and he created characters who were familiar and deeply haimish for anyone who lived in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s—or who simply dreamed of it, as so many of us did. This was, of course, decades before San Francisco was officially taken off life support and declared not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Oz is no more: but it was once, and Maupin both documented and helped invent it.

With that considerable credit being given where it is certainly due, let us be honest and say that Maupin is no prose stylist (I might make an exception for The Night Listener), and that weakness is on display in this memoir. Written in relentless chronology (“I did this, then I did that, and next I did the other thing”), Logical Family never precisely catches fire. There are, to be sure, sparks when Maupin writes, in his concluding chapters, about his parents, but that’s an exception.

More than anything, Logical Family leaves a lot unsaid: How did Maupin make the transition from being the scion of a Confederate-flag-loving, military-worshiping, right-wing family to queer activism? Other than perceiving the need to defend himself and his friends against the homophobic, North Carolingian nonsense he grew up with, did he interrogate and overcome the other ugly phobias and prejudices of his natal environment? (Interestingly, having a queer son or brother seemed to have affected his arch-conservative father and Trump-voting brother not at all—surely that left a mark.) And what really made Maupin so reticent—as a military officer surrounded by men who were either literally throwing themselves at him or who were, at least, available—to lose his virginity? In Logical Family, all that becomes a series of wry anecdotes, but don’t expect Maupin to reflect deeply on his self-constructed closet.

A secondary irritation of the book is Maupin’s awkward name dropping; more than one chapter begins with some version of this: “When my friend, [INSERT NAME OF HOLLYWOOD STAR], invited me….” Yes, I suppose it was important, both for the truth of his history and for book sales, to include those names, but was there really no less self-conscious way to do it? As a case in point, Maupin’s relationship with “Rock” becomes wearying in its superficiality. Hudson is but another anecdote, and there is very little there, there. (Christopher Isherwood, on the other hand, manages to come to life in Maupin’s story.)

What most clearly emerges in Logical Family is that Maupin is a nice guy who avoids controversy, doesn’t dwell on negatives, is generally pleased with himself and his life, and never met a bygone he wouldn’t pat on its back and send on its way. The question then perhaps becomes whether that’s the sort of guy who ought be writing a memoir about his part in one of America’s most important social movements or about his survival of one of history’s great plagues. Maupin is, in significant ways, the grandfather of us all, and he merits respect and gratitude, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish he’d written a better memoir.

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School for Scandal: Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors

Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors is trash. Not the provocative hilarity-inducing trash of a John Waters film or AbFab, but rather the kind of slimy, mean-spirited, exploitative, contempt-for-the-reader trash that you’d expect more in a supermarket tabloid than in a nonfiction title that purports to tell the true story of a series of puzzling murders.

In fact, though Orth never lets the reader forget she was on the Cunanan beat for Vanity Fair even before Versace was killed, the quality of her prose, the toxic levels of lead in nearly every paragraph, the repetition of catch phrases and clichés all belong to the style of The National Enquirer and not to serious crime journalism, which is where Orth appears to believe her book should place her.

To put it more bluntly: what is true in Vulgar Favors comes largely from newspaper clippings and the public record, and what is false is the other 9/10 of the book.

For those interested in a badly plotted novel starring a character based on Andrew Cunanan, Vulgar Favors may do the trick. But Orth has virtually no independent knowledge about the case (though it must be admitted that she solicited an astonishing amount of gossip), or about Cunanan or Versace, which leaves her to her powers of fantasy. To be sure, sustaining invention, even at the dilute level of Vulgar Favors, is a challenge, and yet Orth is so singularly bad at it.

Given that all but nothing is known about why Cunanan did what he did, his motives and motivation can only be ascribed. Orth, however, demonstrates no detectable ability to enter into the psychology of her main character (or any character, including Versace), leading her to populate her book with cardboard cutouts painted with the deft hand of a Jerry Springer or a Maury Povich.

One of the most spectacularly galling features of Vulgar Favors, however, is Orth’s fulminant, reprehensible homophobia. Or perhaps that is the second most galling aspect of this book, and the first is Orth’s habit, just as she is about to serve up some distasteful, titillating “truth” regarding “homosexual culture,” of announcing that the tidbit in question came from a gay journalist or a gay informant, or a gay friend of Cunanan’s. In other words, Maureen Orth wants you to know that she is an objective reporter of inconvenient truths and has certainly not included such details in her book solely for the pleasure of insinuating something too deliciously filthy to leave out—or because her credentials (such as they are) as a journalist provided the ideal cover for a low-tech gay-bashing.

Her credulousness about gay men’s lives in the United States, and in particular in cities like San Francisco and Miami, would be painful if it reflected naïveté, but this is no act of naïveté.

Rather, it is Orth’s deliberate, malicious, all-engulfing desire to draw every raunchy, seamy detail out to the limits of the fervid homophobic imagination, embellish it, and repeat it at studied intervals as a strategy for reinforcing the idea that there was something insidiously, darkly “queer” about Cunanan’s murder spree—and to imply that all but one of his victims, and especially his most famous victim, were, if not deserving of their fates, at least (amorphously) complicit.

The fact that Orth continuously harps on a supposed seconds-long meeting between Cunanan and Versace in a San Francisco club at some ill-defined moment in the past, which Orth manages to parlay into “met several times,” is an important example. Of course, Orth allows no one to forget it was she who “confirmed” this “fact,” although, in fairness, what she calls confirmation is little more than hearsay. Even if Cunanan and Versace had met, it isn’t clear what relevance that would have to the murders—unless the reader believes, as it is quite clear Orth wishes the reader to believe, that Cunanan was provoked to murderous fury because Versace had infected him with HIV.

Now, Cunanan did not have HIV at his death (though he may have thought he did at one point), and it remains a point of controversy whether or not Versace was HIV-positive, a question that will never be resolved thanks to the legal shenanigans of a flotilla of high-priced lawyers mobilized by Versace’s bloody-minded, image-besotted siblings.

Having introduced the concept, however, it becomes possible for Orth to hint, both subtly and not—that the murder of Versace was a revenge-motivated assassination. (Note the book’s subtitle.) If it wasn’t HIV, then perhaps it was that Versace had involved Cunanan in some sort of circle of boy- or drug-procurement that turned sour, or perhaps it was that Versace had promised Cunanan fame and fortune and then reneged, or maybe it was just that Cunanan was psychopathically jealous of Versace’s success and ostentation and needed to murder the designer as the symbol of everything he desired but could never attain.

Yes, the analysis is just that deep.

Vulgar Favors was written twenty years ago, which still provides no excuse for Orth’s delight in salacious detail and sexual innuendo, nor for her distorted pronouncements regarding gay men’s lives, which she delivers with anthropological, Meadian certainty. Perhaps at this distance, she has developed the strength of character to be ashamed of her book, but one tends to doubt it.

In any event, what becomes clear is that delivering these dispatches from the exotic, repellent—and yet endlessly fascinating—tribes of the sex-mad, fetish-driven, drug-addled homosexual underground, of the depraved and soulless super-rich was Orth’s real purpose in writing Vulgar Favors.

Because this is the space that Orth occupies as a writer—a world in which she deploys words like “lifestyle” and “jet-setting” in blissful ignorance that she is trite, unconscious of her evident envy of those who enjoy great fame and great riches even as she condemns them for moral corruption and shallowness. (For more examples of Orth’s style, look no farther than the breathless, voyeuristic hack job she committed on Michael Jackson in her reportage for Vanity Fair between 1994 and 2005; or her most recent book, The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex, Orth’s slavering exposé of “the big room where the rules that govern mere mortals don’t matter.”)

Vulgar Favors is, to be sure, offensive and scandal-mongering, vacuous and devoid of insight, smutty and sneering, but what elevates the book to the level of tragicomedy is Orth’s clear belief that, in writing it, she was practicing something akin to genuine journalism.

How the West Was White: The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California

Here is what I learned at the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, CA:

First, what they mean isn’t “western film history” but “film history of the Western” (or, maybe, “Western-film history”), which is different.

Second, the “suggested donation” isn’t suggested and it isn’t a donation. It’s a mandatory entrance fee. There’s even a sign that says “Minimum donation: $5.00.” I don’t mind paying, but I do mind people telling me that words don’t mean what they mean.

Third, when John Wayne was young, he was a friggin babe!

FOURTH AND MOST IMPORTANT — Between the 1930s and the early 1970s, film Westerns were the unfolding of a long and multidimensional saga of white dudes. White dudes did everything; they were capable of anything. They were good guys and bad guys; hustlers, heroes, cowards, and cooks; rustlers and ranchers; loners, law men, and outlaws; the moral conscience of a community and the reflection of its vilest impulses; sidekicks, loyal friends, and back stabbers. In short, white dudes were Just People.

Then there were some Others. Women, to start with. In the posters for Westerns (as in the movies themselves) women are in danger or are being saved from danger; they are behind men or, sometimes, literally under them in embraces that looked like they made someone’s back hurt. Mostly, they aren’t on the posters at all. Women could do a few things — take care of children and men (or ruin them); attempt to exert a “civilizing” influence, however unavailingly; suffer loss beautifully. They could shoot, sometimes, if there were no men around to do it for them, or run a ranch or a business if tragedy had left them without a man to do *that* for them. Women were often nearly people in Westerns but never quite completely.

The other Others were people of color — mostly American Indians but sometimes Chinese railroad workers or borax miners, sometimes black cooks or laborers. As for Indians, virtually their only job was to be bad guys, except on a very few occasions. They and the other Others were not even close to being people.

Of course, there are exceptions to all these rules. But the point is that they were exceptions.

What’s kind of unforgivable is that the Museum of Western Film History doesn’t try to tackle any of this. There’s a great deal of quoting of critics and directors and actors (white dudes all) about how Westerns showcased America imagining itself — and they did. Just not exactly in the way these guys meant.

There’s lots of information in the Museum about stuntmen, for example, but nothing about the role of the (many) Native American actors who appeared in Westerns (or of the Pretendians who not infrequently were cast in “native” roles).

Don’t get me wrong: There’s great stuff at the Museum. But there’s no attempt whatever to trouble the notion that America’s vision of itself and of its values, as transmitted in and by more than 50 years of Westerns, is an almost exclusively heterosexual male-centered, white-centered vision.

And yet all this other life is there, just at the edges of the camera frame, waiting to be seen.

If Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History shifted its gaze only slightly, it would realize it had all the materials necessary to tell the real (and much more interesting) story behind American fantasies of manifest destiny, masculinity, and white supremacy that Westerns helped create and promulgated for decades.

As it is, though, the Museum’s exhibits simply reify and occasionally even glorify the Western’s sociopathic attachment to the hallucination of America when it was “great,” its sentimental, delusional belief in White Male Benevolence.

Or put it another way: Mythologies are, arguably, neither good nor bad, but what’s perhaps most interesting about them is why they’re needed in the first place and by whom and why some so stubbornly endure.

Don’t Call Me: All the Ways Call Me By Your Name Gets It Wrong

For the first ten minutes after Call Me By Your Name ended, I sat still, moved by the visual beauty of the film and, I will admit, emotionally caught up in the cheap sentiment of the final scene.

**SPOILERS FOLLOW**

But the more I thought about it, the more Call Me By Your Name pissed me off. 

NO ONE is gay in this film, except maybe Elio. Oliver is the sort of bisexual that gives bisexuals a bad name, and it’s clear Elio was never going to be more for him than a summer fling.

And that’s fine. Yay summer flings. OIiver and Elio aren’t going to be together for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that no mainstream movie is ever going to tackle the complications of a relationship between a teenage boy and a man more than ten years his senior.

Fine, fine.

Elio’s father isn’t gay, though he sort of is and sort of regrets not being and sort of tells Elio he ought to be, if that’s what his heart wants, but it’s a tortured and weird conversation that I could hardly follow, so I have a hard time believing a 17-year-old followed it. Meanwhile, the only identifiable, non-closeted gay people in the whole film are a clownish male couple, figures of fun à la La Cage aux Folles. (The author of the book on which the movie is based, André Aciman, plays one member of that couple, by the way, which is all very meta: the straight author of a book about pseudo-gayness turned into a film with straight actors who pretend to be in lust with each other and in which not even a very briefly-seen gay couple is allowed to be an actual gay couple.)

Oliver isn’t gay: He makes out with women in the town and then goes back to his nice, safe life in the states, all ready to enter into a heterosexual marriage, now that he’s gotten the dick out of his system.

Can we talk, by the way, about how badly the women in this film are treated by men who can’t figure out what they want? (Or even about how Italians are treated, relegated as they are to cameos as a folkloric servant class for a family that is not merely rich, but obscenely rich?)

Initially, Oliver pretends he wants no involvement with Elio (Elio shouldn’t “act on” his feelings, is how he puts it, which nobody has ever told a straight adolescent boy, ever), but of course he actually does. Later, though, he insists he never tried to fend Elio off, but was sending him “signals” all along. No. No, he wasn’t, and Elio ought to have punched him for that attempt at gaslighting.

Anyway, here’s another clue the filmmakers dropped to make sure no one mistook Oliver for a homo: the man cannot dance to save his life. Now, maybe it’s Armie Hammer who can’t dance, which is certainly possible. He’s a strapping, patrician 6’5″ straight boy with some very nice parts except for a pair of disturbingly skinny legs, so he’s not exactly from the House of LaBeijia. But the director kept showing Oliver dancing badly, and showing him dancing badly, and showing him dancing badly, so it started to feel more like a feature than a defect. I mean, Oliver may not be averse to a cock snack, but he’s not some dancy, disco fag or anything.

Aciman has told anyone who would listen that he isn’t gay and never has been, which I guess is supposed to make it even more marvelous that he wrote a novel with gay(ish) protagonists, something a lot of very fine gay and lesbian writers have been doing for decades and not getting their books made into films.

James Ivory is, I suppose, gay of the “everybody knows, so there’s no need to say it” variety, but up until very recently he had raised dissembling to the level of an art form. Admittedly, in his May 2017 interview for the New Yorker, he did get off lines like “I lived openly with [Ismail Merchant] for forty-five years, in New York and wherever else we were. That says what it says,” but even that much declaration was more than he’d said in public for decades. To give credit where credit, etc., Ivory has made some swell gay movies and apparently even lobbied for there to be dicks in CMBYN, a film that’s all about boy-sex, but he was ultimately overruled. Still, he’s the author of the terribly coy dialogue between Elio and his father, so I’m not letting him off the hook.

The director, Luca Guadagnino is gay, but I’d like to see his membership card. He spreads “We’re European So We’re Above Sexual Labels” chic over the depiction of homosex in this film like Nutella on toast. In an October 2017 interview with Screenprism (http://screenprism.com/insights/article/luca-guadagnino-talks-call-me-by-your-name-at-the-55th-new-york-film-festiv), he described Aciman’s novel as “as “a Proustian book about remembering the past and indulging in the melancholy of lost things” and commented, on the character of Elio, that “the body of an adolescent is really going everywhere and the person doesn’t know where it’s going,” both of which are cutesy, pseudo-erudite ways to say that, “Don’t worry folks, there’s nothing in the Oliver-Elio relationship you have to take seriously.”

If gay adolescents “don’t know where they’re going,” then their sexuality isn’t real—though no one in history has ever told a heterosexually active teenage boy that he “didn’t know where he was going” and could well turn out gay one day. No, this is an observation reserved exclusively for queer teens.

The main actors aren’t gay, and both of them are doing that unspeakably offensive straight-boy-actor thing of going around giving interviews about how funny and brave it is for men to kiss other men on screen and how Timothée Chalamet used to grab Armie Hammer’s crotch on-set (hilarious!) because that’s the sort of not-serious thing straight boys can do nowadays, and isn’t it terrific that we’ve risen above worrying about all that?

Meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of one of the great sex panics of modern times, the kind of giddy terror about the anarchic, even treacherous potentials of sexuality that Andrea Dworkin probably had nightmares about. In that context, the universal admiration being showered on CMBYN is, in a word, inexplicable.

How is America in love with a film about a grown man boinking a teenage boy? Why aren’t we KevinSpaceying and #MeTooing the living fuck out of Aciman and the entire crew of CMBYN?

Not surprisingly, I have thoughts.

First, notice that virtually all descriptions of the film say that Elio falls in love with Oliver — not the other way around and not mutually. For the filmmakers, then, as for reviewers and a great swath of the public, Elio, the younger partner, is the aggressor and seducer.

That’s an odd proposition in a Zeitgeist in which the great progressive minds repeatedly insist that a teenager cannot be an aggressor, cannot choose to be sexually active with an adult because … something incoherent and tautological about “power.”

For consistency’s sake, at least, Elio ought to be receiving universal sympathy as a victim and Aciman-Ivory-Guadagnino ought to be losing their jobs for promoting pedophilia! But that’s the opposite of what’s going on, and the reason is the cleverly constructed prison the film’s makers created for Elio.

Like the hundreds of heterocentric, heterosexist novels and films that have come before, CMBYN punishes Elio for his desire generally and, more specifically, for his attempt to pervert a nice straight guy who doesn’t know better than to wear those shorts.

What is more, to the extent the film suggests that Elio is the “real” homosexual, he is the carrier of “sin” and, because of that, cannot be truly innocent, which is as much as to say he cannot be a victim. 

Luckily, Elio’s clumsy attempt at recruitment doesn’t take. But if his seduction ultimately fails, if he is rejected by Oliver in favor of the latter’s marriage to a woman, and if he is left disappointed, alone, and melancholic, that is both his proper punishment and the reassertion of “normal” heterosexuality in the world.

It’s also the manifestation of a literary trope that’s well more than a hundred years old. OK, sure, it’s been updated: Elio doesn’t have to die, except emotionally.

What Aciman doesn’t tell you — and what the filmmakers won’t tell you — is that Oliver is an asshole. He provokes Elio’s desire and occasionally satisfies it, but he simultaneously sees it as comical, perhaps even mortifying. (The “cummy peach” and “thwarted standup blowjob” scenes, for example; in the latter, Oliver sucks Elio just long enough to get him hard, then leaves him standing there, commenting, “That’s promising.”) In other words, Oliver encourages Elio to desire him but never abandons the unhealthy dynamic of unequal participation: Elio really wants it; Oliver can do without. If Oliver also gets hard from having Elio’s dick in his mouth, we’re not allowed to know. (P.S. “That’s promising” is a very odd thing to say to your lover’s hardon.)

“I would kiss you if I could.” Well, for fuck’s sake, Oliver. You can.

In another scene, Oliver and Elio are walking in town and find themselves in the shadowy recess of a doorway. The sexual tension is, as they say, palpable. “I would kiss you if I could,” says Oliver.

Well, he absolutely could. Nothing stops him – except his interest in protecting his heterosexual image, except “society,” except the filmmakers’ titubation regarding what goes on between men who are in love and in lust, except his willingness to participate in the preservation of a status quo that oppresses them both (which is what makes it so clear that Oliver is also a Republican). Elio would have kissed Oliver, but then Elio’s incipient queerness has turned him into a wanton.

I suspect that those of us who were precocious little queers, desperate, at age 14, 15, 16, 17, for someone to love and/or fuck us, have an easier time recognizing that Oliver is an asshole. But I also suspect that’s most gay men, if we’re telling the truth. And that’s one major reason why this heterosexualized fantasy rings so false. Gay desire serves a metaphorical, literary purpose in CMBYN but cannot be permitted to be what it actually, literally is.

And who knows? Perhaps Elio’s character grows up to be an ethical, aware, and loving gay man, having witnessed first-hand his father’s dissatisfaction and been stung by Oliver’s pusillanimity. (In fact, in one brief scene, he calls Oliver a traitor, which was probably the truest thing Elio said about their relationship, though he doesn’t do it to Oliver’s face, which is a damn shame.)

Or perhaps he comes away wounded, contracted, and wary, as is more likely, because of the insistence of the adults in his life on considering both his passion and his pain no more than delectable “Proustian melancholy,” because he recognizes, as so many of us have, that his desire will never be on equal footing with heterosexual desire, and that it will always make him a quantum more vulnerable.

Perhaps the biggest falsehood of Call Me By Your Name, though,  lies in the notion that the film is a “coming-of-age story.” That tagline, which began with the film’s release and only seems to be gaining traction over time, does two things: First, it prays the gay away (otherwise, it wouldn’t be so difficult to say out loud that it’s a movie about two age-disparate men who are fucking each other); and, second, it camouflages the fact that the spoiled first love in CMBYN isn’t “just like all the other” [meaning heterosexual] stories of bittersweet adolescent romance. In fact, CMBYN contains elements that are specific to gay mens’ experience: the importance of the older man who may be guide, lover, or exploiter (or all three); the way in which engaging in a sexual relationship implies questions of identity (and possibly levels of secrecy) that do not arise for straight people; the reality that it’s possible to be rejected not solely for all the usual reasons but also because the relationship places one of the partners in a category he finds socially and/or psychologically intolerable.

If we’re talking about traitors, meanwhile, Aciman is first among peers for his false, inauthentic novel, and Ivory and Guadagnino stand alongside him on the same podium for their disingenous, evasive film. And now that I’ve written this, I’m more pissed off than before.

We’ve come a short way, Baby.

Boy, Play

mmInsidiously, but constantly, promulgated the notion that the only true “red-blooded American males” were heterosexual, masculine, and capitalist. Funded the work of Masters and Johnson. Thought that women could liberate sex but that only men could liberate women. Supported gay rights long before others did. Worked to banish shame about sex. Published interviews with Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Martin Luther King, and assigned Alex Haley to interview Malcolm X for the magazine in 1963. Was once reportedly told by Gloria Steinem that “A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.” Turned women into decorative objects and furniture. Published a magazine that contained some of the best journalism of the 20th century. Wrongfully equated sexual liberation and sexual objectification. Pushed an early version of prosperity theology in which God was bourgeois consumption, and sex with hot, big-breasted women was salvation. Bravely challenged corrupt American puritanical notions of morality. Reinforced and popularized standards of physical beauty that were and remain demonstrably harmful to women. Made substantial donations to the Guttmacher Institute, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, and supported the Women’s Business Development Center and Women Make Movies. Popularized a philosophy in which women’s sexuality was an ideal defined by men. Contributed $25,000 to the reward that helped break the case of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. Sold straight men a fantasy of never having to grow up. Supported the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in its earliest days. Demonstrated Foucault’s dictum that a liberatory, even “transgressive” attitude toward sexuality could serve perfectly well as an oppressive deployment of power. Provided initial funding for the then-newly invented rape kit in the late 1970s. Affirmed a straight, male, middle-class fantasy of urbane consumption in which sex was recreation and women were the toys. Brought black artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole to headline his TV shows as early as 1959. Made millions by paying women to take their clothes off. A visionary and pioneer. A misogynist and pimp.