Category Archives: Cinephilia…and Cinephobia
Mile … Mile and a Half, released in 2013 by The Muir Project and directed by Jason M. Fitzpatrick and Ric Serena, is advertised as a documentary, but I actually experienced it as a low-budget horror film along the lines of The Blair Witch Project.
Just as in Blair Witch, a group of people you wouldn’t normally spend time with go off into the woods … and horror ensues.
In fact, I wasn’t sure whether it was more terrifying to imagine being forced to go on a 220-mile hike in the company of this insufferable coven of Starbucks yuppies or being on an innocent walk in the woods, stumbling across the filmmakers, and having to listen to them play finger-cymbals and talk about kale.
The fact that none of them can stay off their freaking cell phones for more than a few hours at a time is almost enough reason to leave them on the trail as bear chum. (Yes, if you’ve ever been to a wilderness area or national park in the United States, you’ve met them: These are the guys you come across on the banks of the most gorgeous lake in existence who, rather than sit there in wonder, use the occasion to phone someone back home to check whether their order of Nespresso capsules has come in.) What’s truly inexplicable is the filmmakers’ decision to make space in their documentary for footage of people talking on their cell phones.
If that doesn’t do it for you, the documentary also features the Most Irritating White Man In North America (you’ll recognize him by his hipster hat, his hipster beard, and his hipster humor — he’s so ironic that even his irony is ironic). Or maybe it’s all meant to be an homage to Jan Rubes in Witness, and I just missed the point.
The John Muir Trail, one gathers, takes hikers through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the lower 48, but you’d have a hard time knowing it from Mile … Mile and a Half. Lovely panoramas are certainly in evidence, though they mostly seem to be shot with a kind of sterile fastidiousness that renders them uninspired and just slightly generic. (Wow! They look just like … postcards!) But most (too much) of the footage focuses on the people, who were apparently convinced viewers would find their personal stories and their first-world struggles inspiring, emblematic, even iconic: the mother for whom it’s just so hard to leave her daughter (with family members) while she takes a month off to walk in the woods; the dedication required to lug 75 pounds of expensive sound equipment up a mountain so you can record the calls of frogs; the artistry of a composer who describes his work, apparently with a straight face, as a “personally-crafted ontology of sound”; the humanity of the out-of-shape dude who basically can’t keep up and abandons the hike early, amidst a chorus of philosophical musing about self-sacrifice that one might have expected only if the guy had thrown himself on a grenade to spare his companions’ lives or something.
What we actually have here are a group of Portlandians (in spirit if not in fact) who can afford both to take four weeks off their jobs and buy a crapload of expensive camping gear, who are struggling to survive on the fairly lavish meals prepared in advance in one team member’s state-of-the-art food dehydrator plus the barrels-full of additional supplies that are shipped to them by friends every six or seven days, and who are covering a rash and punishing … eight miles per day. It’s not exactly Into the Wild, is it?
The filmmakers quote John Muir incessantly — defining, once and for all, the meaning of the phrase “pearls before swine” — but you can’t help feeling Muir would have turned right around and taken up a career as a dental hygienist if he’d known the trail that bears his name would one day be traversed by people like these.
At least three times in American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s version of the life of Chris Kyle, “the deadliest sniper in American military history,” scriptwriter Jason Hall has a character repeat this maxim for military sharpshooters: “Aim small, miss small. Aim for a button, you’ll hit a shirt. Aim for a shirt, you’ll miss by feet.”
That admonition is the key to understanding Eastwood’s approach in American Sniper: By keeping the focus tight, at times claustrophobically so, on Chris Kyle’s life, values, and valor, Eastwood obliterates context and disposes of questions of ethics, morality, and politics.
Kyle was evidently one of those men who saw the world as simple, and Eastwood allows him to be simple—occasionally to the point of obtuseness. (When Kyle sees news coverage of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, his comment, cleansed of both insight and irony, is “Look what they have done to us.”)
At least according to Eastwood, Kyle’s life and actions were guided by immovable values that required no examination, ever. Right existed and wrong existed, and Kyle entertained not the smallest doubt that he knew where the line between them stood. As such, then, Kyle was truly “American” – in Eastwood’s covetous, agitprop deployment of the word.
Kyle, in short, was one of those men who, if the United States genuinely needed defending, you’d want on your side, and it’s difficult not to pull for him when he prevents his friends from being killed or returns to Iraq, despite the harm he intentionally inflicts upon his family and his own mental health, to hunt down and kill the Syrian sniper, Moustafa, who is stalking American troops.
In that sense, American Sniper is a classic good guys/bad guys movie of the variety kids of my generation grew up watching. And Americans – or cowboys, which was, notably, Kyle’s career before he became a sniper – were always the good guys.
But the point is: we did grow up. Eastwood’s perspective on American intervention in the Middle East has not.
Allow your gaze to widen even slightly, pull back even a few inches from that close focus on the gallantry and tragedy of Chris Kyle, and American Sniper instantly becomes the jingoistic propaganda film that Eastwood intended it to be.
What might be more accurate to say, however, is that Eastwood has ingeniously crafted a film that manages to give the appearance of being both pro-war and anti-war at the same time. Is American Sniper about the price “one war hero paid,” as the Hollywood Reporter put it, or is it a film about how the psychological damage and ethical compromises of war make it impossible for heroes to exist?
For audiences of “my country, right or wrong” Bush Americans, American Sniper requires no independent thought and will not challenge the customary talking points. For those who question American involvement in Iraq and the Middle East, meanwhile, American Sniper certainly doesn’t encourage a more nuanced perspective, but it doesn’t actively prevent one, either.
In other words, while material for a more critical view of Kyle and of his actions is present if you scratch the surface of American Sniper, you will probably need a rake.
But in the end, who can really dislike a guy like Kyle, who loved his country and loved his friends and was willing to put himself in harm’s way, to commit almost any act, to protect their lives? In the immediacy of kill-or-be-killed skirmishes, which is where Eastwood relentlessly compresses the film’s gaze, could anyone fail to do as Kyle did?
When we saw American Sniper, in fact, audience members cheered when Kyle killed Moustafa, as it was obvious from the first half-hour of the film he would, just in time to prevent him from picking off Marines caught in an ambush. For those rejoicing in the dark of the theater, Moustafa was simply and only a bad guy.
In real life, to the extent that reality is important to Eastwood’s saga, Kyle didn’t actually kill Moustafa, and the scene never appears in Kyle’s 2012 book (on which the film is based).
Such crass emotional manipulation, however – as though Kyle’s actions and, indeed, his ultimate fate existed outside of history, outside of politics, and outside of context – is what makes American Sniper so reactionary – and so false.
In creating an environment in which all that is manifest from one screen moment to the next is the confrontation between entirely legitimate good and utterly unjustifiable evil, Eastwood makes clear how little he cares whether audiences wonder what made Americans good guys and Iraqis bad guys in the first place.
He isn’t interested in having viewers consider whether the same motivations – defending one’s country against the enemy, exacting revenge for the deaths of friends, protecting one’s family, sacrificing oneself to prevent the deaths of others – did not apply in exactly the same terms to Iraqis who resisted the American presence in their country. (Is a Syrian Clint Eastwood even now considering a film about the exploits and heroism of Moustafa?)
Eastwood encourages no one to raise the kinds of complicated moral questions that come from considering the atrocities committed by al-Qaeda in light of those committed by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the CIA torture chambers facilitated by the fifty-four countries that participated in our “extraordinary rendition” program.
In fact, though Kyle and a death squad leader known as “The Butcher” both murder a child in American Sniper, Eastwood provides Kyle’s act with a saving grace: Kyle shoots before the child can throw a grenade that would “probably have killed ten Marines.” “The Butcher,” in contrast, murders a child out of sheer evil; he is one of what Kyle calls (repeatedly) “the savages.”
Not long after 9/11, Susan Sontag wrote a famous commentary, published in the New Yorker, in which she argued against the then- (and still-) popular insistence on reducing the 9/11 attacks to a question of “good vs. evil” and dismissing the hijackers as “cowards.” Wrote Sontag:
The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? [….] And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.
For Sontag, the use of pre-defined words like “evil” and “cowardly” permanently eliminated our ability to bring the event within any meaningful moral or ethical context.
As in the media approach that is Sontag’s subject, Eastwood’s language in American Sniper is preordained; the meaning of the experiences he depicts is predigested, predetermined, and devoid of subtlety. The placement of footage from Kyle’s actual funeral in the film’s final moments, for example, is pure orchestration and is no less cynical and manipulative — is no less self-righteous drivel — for all the shots of a miles-long motorcade or of thousands of weeping bystanders waving hundreds of American flags.
Eastwood has bet (correctly, it appears) that fourteen years of “infantilizing the public” about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be sufficient to guarantee American Sniper its success.
In fact, Eastwood’s depiction of Kyle is so controlled and so resolutely free of context that viewers could be forgiven for leaving the theatre with no clear ability to judge what Kyle’s actions actually meant or what genuine moral meaning could be applied to his military and post-Iraq experiences.
Such an analysis is nearly impossible, in fact, when all you’re allowed to aim at is a button.
I had only been in San Francisco a few months in 1981 when a doctor friend, who was doing research at the CDC, mailed me a photocopy of the first epidemiological report on “gay cancer.” He paper-clipped a note to the reprint: “Be careful.”
At one level, I understood what he was trying to say. For several years, before he went off to Atlanta, he’d been my doctor. During the late 1970s, he’d treated me for any number of STDs, and what he was hearing at the CDC was that people with “it” had a history of STDs. So: “Be careful.” But what did “careful” look like, exactly, if my past meant I was already infected?
When Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart aired on HBO last month—his 1985 play transformed, at long last, into a movie—I couldn’t help but remember receiving my friend’s note, a moment that now feels as though it took place in some distant, tramontane past.
Just like that note, The Normal Heart also seems like a dispatch from antiquity. And that’s one of its biggest weaknesses.
Full disclosure: there has never been a time when I wasn’t ambivalent about Larry Kramer. I am glad he exists and can’t imagine the 1980s and 1990s without him. But while Kramer was an enviable communicator, he was often a lousy source of information.
During the years when I was writing AIDS journalism for Spin, the Bay Area Reporter, QW, and other magazines and newspapers, I interviewed Kramer at least twice, very briefly. Sometimes, in journalism that makes some feint at objectivity, you need someone to represent the extreme position in order to provide the kind of contrast of opinions that allows you to write your way back to the point you actually want to make. Kramer was good for that, and I always knew exactly what he was going to say. You’d push a few buttons and there he’d be. “Say something outrageous, Larry.” And he would. If you accused me of smarm because of the way I used Kramer as a source, I wouldn’t defend myself. But I certainly wasn’t the only writer who did, and Kramer didn’t seem to object to the role. It was never hard to get him on the phone.
The Normal Heart was a bad play when I first saw it nearly 30 years ago, and it’s kind of a bad movie. It’s Larry Kramer settling scores and saying outrageous things, and whatever drama is in it takes a second seat.
The Normal Heart wasn’t, by the way, even the first “AIDS play.” Playwrights like Robert Chesley, Doug Holsclaw, and Rebecca Ranson, and theatres like Theatre Rhinoceros were presenting work about AIDS, living with AIDS, and the impact of AIDS on lesbians’ and gay men’s lives as early as 1983. But none of that work got the mileage that The Normal Heart did, a major portion of which is about Ned Weeks’ crusade to get gay men to stop having sex, spurred on by a woman doctor who tells him it’s the only way. A year earlier, meanwhile, Robert Chesley had set Night Sweat in a sex club for the terminally ill and argued that sex didn’t have to equal death.
I distrust The Normal Heart for other reasons, too. As history, it’s suspect because Larry Kramer wrote it after the fact, shaping events to make him seem more prescient than he likely was. Now, thirty more years have passed, and there’s been more opportunity for tinkering. When the film premiered last month (this is from the New York Times of 21 May 2014), “director Ryan Murphy led the thousand-member audience in a standing ovation for Mr. Kramer. ‘Larry, before we begin this film, I only have one thing to say,’ Mr. Murphy said. ‘You were right.’”
Well, slow down a sec, Ryan. Larry Kramer was indispensable, but he got a lot of things wrong.
In its 2014 incarnation, The Normal Heart has the shape of one of those WWII films from the 1950s: everybody fought hard, there were tremendous sacrifices, many decent people were lost. Those who died of AIDS were heroes. People who “responded” to the disease by forming organizations and collecting money and marching and educating the public were an army of gallant knights-errant in search of wrongs to right. And, in the end, it was all worth it. We fought the good fight and we won. Didn’t we?
The final moments of the film, when Ned Weeks attends Yale’s “Gay Week” dance (alone; his lover has just died) and sits tearfully on the edge of the stage watching male couples shuffle around the floor, are clearly supposed to represent progress. Ned suffered terribly for his convictions, but at least a bunch of cute Yalies got to put their arms around each other and slow-dance with other hot boys right out in front of God and everyone (there were apparently no lesbians at Yale).
But that moment didn’t make me tear up; it made me squirm. That isn’t how it happened at all, and Kramer and Murphy have crammed history into a terribly distorted shape.
I cringed at The Normal Heart’s portrayals of saintly gay men (all white, all upper middle class) who became saintly because they had AIDS. I am unconvinced by the idea that getting AIDS somehow touched people with wisdom and righteousness; I object to portrayals of the divine victim and the holy caregiver. (A lot of jerks got AIDS, too, and a lot of people dumped their friends and lovers and went running; I didn’t even always blame them, given the prevailing reign of psychological terror.) And I object to the implicit suggestion that AIDS singled out the best, the brightest, the most talented, the most beautiful and that that added to its tragedy. It’s an almost irresistibly romantic—even cinematic—notion, but it is not true.
If you think I’m exaggerating the false spin that The Normal Heart is getting, read what Patrick Healy said about Kramer in the Times:
In the 1980s, he was the most strident, scolding voice in New York City (in the world, really) on behalf of gay men infected with H.I.V.: men whose parents shunned them, whose doctors feared them, whose dignity disappeared as their corpses were stuffed into trash bags. Now, 33 years after Mr. Kramer helped found the advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis, AIDS has just fallen out of the top 10 causes of death in New York for the first time since 1983. Epidemics of loneliness and isolation have given way to same-sex marriage and the Michael Sam kiss.
In other words, it got better. The arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward justice.
Except that it doesn’t. There’s still no cure; there’s still no vaccine. Though the rate of new diagnoses of HIV infection has remained steady for nearly a decade in the U.S., there are still some 50,000 new HIV infections each year. The vast majority of them are among men who have sex with men. (And ONE-THIRD of them are in the south, which, don’t even get me started.)
AIDS may have “fallen out of the top 10 causes of death in New York for the first time since 1983,” but that’s in part because people with HIV are now living long enough to die from something else. You can give Larry Kramer full credit for that if you want; I won’t.
Equally alarming to me is the fact that we’ve made no recovery at all from three decades of propaganda that turned sex into something terrifying and bad. Conversations exactly like the ones in The Normal Heart are still going on, even among young gay men; when you hear terms like “Truvada whores,” you understand the degree to which sex continues to be demonized.
Meanwhile, it took Nick Rhoades five years and a state supreme court decision to overturn a conviction for criminal transmission of HIV in 2009. Rhoades had had sex—with a condom—with a man who did not know Rhoades had HIV. He didn’t infect the man with HIV; he didn’t even do anything that might have infected the man with HIV. But he still got convicted. Gay men (or “men who have sex with men,” as the federal government has it) are still prohibited from donating blood by the FDA and the Red Cross—under regulations that haven’t changed since 1983.
Even if you’re HIV-negative. Even if you’ve only had protected sex. For thirty-one fucking years.
And that’s because what is suspect is sex between men itself. When it comes to queers, there’s no such thing as “safe sex.” We’re all infected. Sex is the disease.
For years after we began to hear about gay cancer, GRID, ARC, HIV disease, AIDS (and I’ve probably left out some names along the way), no one had any better advice than my former doctor’s: “Be careful.” “Know your partner.” Lawrence Mass famously opined in a May 11, 1982 New York Times article entitled “New Homosexual Disorder” (different from the old disorder, which was just being homosexual), “gay people whose life style consists of anonymous sexual encounters are going to have to do some serious rethinking.”
Even once safe(r) sex had been “invented,” educational campaigns still made gay sex itself the problem. So-called “promiscuous” sex was re-pathologized by experts—even from within our “community”—who cheerfully opined that a gay man who wanted a lot of sex with a lot of different people must be suffering from “internalized homophobia” and self-hatred.
Our “leaders” had no willingness (or backbone) to say that so-called “anonymous sex” or “promiscuity” were not really the issue. And why would they? Who wanted to come out in favor of saying two guys who didn’t know each other’s names should be left alone if they wanted to butt-fuck in the backroom?
In the face of this, organizations like the well-intentioned Stop AIDS Project did their best to provide a sort of counter-propaganda but, at least in its San Francisco incarnation and at least for me, Stop AIDS’ cadres of vanilla boys patrolling the Castro with clipboards and a chirpy message of “sex positive” salvation were about as welcome as a Jehovah’s Witness at the door. Maybe there were people who still needed to hear that “safe sex can be hot,” but my feeling was that most of us could have used something a lot more nuanced.
Virtually no one could or would talk meaningfully (at least not in public) about harm reduction or about how to assess personal risk. When I published “Safe Sex Sucks: The Oral Sex Controversy” in 1994, I was assured I was murdering people.
Meanwhile, you could smoke all the cigarettes you wanted and expose everyone around you to scientifically verified harm from second-hand smoke, and no one proposed arresting or even shaming you for it. But if you wanted to fool around with guys, no matter how safely you did it, there were still people who thought your sex life was a matter for the state.
There was little recognition that sex was important in people’s lives for perfectly legitimate and defensible reasons (maybe especially in gay men’s lives? I’m not sure) and that telling them to “just say no” was never going to work.
More than that, there was total abandonment of a principle that ought to have been fundamental to gay politics: the radical notion that consenting adults had the right to do what they wanted with their bodies.
Larry Kramer helped make this transformation not just possible, but inevitable. He started with his novel, Faggots, in 1978 and, when AIDS came along, he wrote The Normal Heart as if to say, “See, I told you all that sex was bad for you.” The Normal Heart makes “just say no” seem like a reasonable message, but it wasn’t.
It still isn’t and, more to the point, it still isn’t working.
Making people feel ashamed of their sex lives encourages them not to get tested, not to raise the issue with partners, not to practice safe sex. Sure, homophobia is one reason the “down low” exists in the first place, but what holds it in place is shame about sex.
I doubt Ryan Murphy will be making a movie about that.
Unlike the New Yorkers in The Normal Heart, I lived the early plague years on the other coast in San Francisco, which was different in important ways from New York, but not entirely dissimilar. We looked to New York, to ACT-UP, to GMHC, especially in the beginning. Until San Francisco’s journalists got their act together, we, too, read the often hysterical New York Native and the loathsome, toadying Gina Kolata in the New York Times.
Here’s one thing Larry Kramer got right in The Normal Heart. In those years, gay men and lesbians and an awful lot of straight friends and relatives created an unprecedented and inspiring political and social response to a horrifying situation. Not unprecedented in human history, but certainly unprecedented for queers. It was nothing short of heroic.
Doing so gave us a sense of purpose and a way not to sit there like victims in the face of indifference and pure evil on the part of the government, the media, pharmaceutical companies. It was the closest thing to a sense of community that most of us had ever experienced. Of that, nothing remains. Not one shred.
And there is no moral to this story. There is no graceful skyward arc toward progress, uplift, wisdom. There is no saving grace. There is no redemption. It’s just what happened.
I can’t even remotely imagine that The Normal Heart will energize or inspire “a new generation,” which is what Kramer says he hopes. It depicts a reality that no longer exists and, in the end, it teleports into the present the worst message of “the AIDS years”: be wary of sex.
Kramer himself is still on message: “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom,” he told Patrick Healy. Other people’s sex lives are still Larry Kramer’s business.
Steven Soderberg’s 2012 Magic Mike has finally appeared on cable. Here are a few reactions:
1) Can we please never watch another Steven Soderbergh film again as long as we live?
2) If I were trapped on a desert island with the strippers from Magic Mike … well, that would be a really excellent time to start studying Sanskrit.
3) No matter what role he’s playing, Matthew McConaughey always needs to wash his hair.
4) How did Soderbergh manage to make a handful of handsome, hunky men so revolting?
Corollary: Did he do it on purpose?
5) No matter how you slice it, watching a man shave his legs is not sexy.
6) How come nearly everyone who reviews or comments on this film titters about how “the ladies love it” instead of specifying that (some) straight “ladies” (might) love it? (Along with some gay gentlemen.)
Corollary A: Why, in the entire film, are they always “ladies” and never “women”?
Corollary B: Is this really what straight women love?
7) How come female strippers pretend to make out with each other on the theory that straight guys enjoy seeing that sort of thing, but Magic Mike’s male strippers never pretend to make out with each other for audiences of straight women?
Corollary A: Did Steven Soderbergh actually ask any straight women whether they might enjoy seeing that?
Corollary B: How likely is it that not one single male stripper in a group of about seven is gay?
Corollary C: On the other hand, people were in denial about The Village People for a long time, too.
Corollary D: What is Soderbergh’s deal with sex anyway?
8) It is physically impossible to dance and be butch at the same time, which explains why all the Magic Mike strippers look as though they are trying mightily to hold back an urgent BM.
Corollary: Or maybe the presence of Matt Bomer just made all the other boys clench real hard.
9) No matter what you stuff into it, a red-white-and-blue sequined jock strap is camp.
Corollary: So is dry-humping with a cowboy hat on.
10) Were we supposed to Learn Something?