Friday, April 17, 2009

Milking It: Commodifying Harvey's Legacy, Neglecting Fox and His Friends and Ignoring Gays with "Gays"

During last year's arts section parade celebrating Sean Penn's temporary transformation into a visibly homosexual politician, whose assassination was martyred by cinematic tropes to illuminate the plight of homosexuals barred from legal union, it was easy to forget that the film wasn't particularly radical. Harvey Milk was somewhat anomalous in the world of politics as his ascendancy retained a firm root in the constituency that propelled it forward, including a sympathy for the local Castro street working class being potentially outrun by attempted corporate takeovers. Discussion of Milk as a politician assassinated for his homosexuality unfortunately places the conversation within a false dichotomy, which discussion of his legacy generally doesn't address.

Milk was assassinated for being gay, as well as popular and successful whereas his rival and eventual assassin's wholesome good looks and good 'ol boy patriotism had become dated and useless in the wake of the homosexual and working class representation surging within local politics. By resurrecting the story of Milk to time it with the debates over gay marriage amendments not only did the filmmakers deflate Milk's legacy by associating it with what essentially amounted to a reformist capitulation to heterosexist standards of cohabitation, but also ignored the larger socio-economic variables affecting homosexuals as individuals outside of their orientation.

As much as my anarchistic tendencies want to harp on the legacy being built around Milk's political trajectory, culminating in his becoming a fixture within the local government's bureaucracy and being forced to partake in a system where people are answered for instead of answered by, Milk's actual political activities were fairly nimble in a more amiably radical way than discussion would suggest. Milk's assassination took place less than a year after he was elected to office. The name Milk built took place entirely outside the realm of public office i.e. it took place in public, with the people.

For instance, one of Milk's more actually revolutionary accomplishments, at least within the scope of what he was working with at the time, was his integration of gays into the union. In exchange for aiding Teamsters in their attempt to oust large beer companies from area bars for their refusal to sign union contracts for their workers, they began to hire more gay drivers. It's a particularly odd dynamic given the generally conservative reputation of the working class (even though the Teamsters were pretty much an establishment half-removed and the conservative reputation rests on a narrowly defined double standard), to foment ties between one oppressed subset, workers, with another, gays. This, of course, is a false dichotomy because one subset is defined by their occupation and the other by their orientation, neither contradicting the other. The workers were stiffed and the gays were excluded, but at least the workers had developed a buffer which could now be extended to ensure gays previously excluded would have an organizational defense as well.

Milk acknowledged that the prevailing power structure, white and state capitalist, was an equal opportunity offender with no intention of extending its sphere of influence to the general population, especially to minorities and the working class at large. His community work engaged in the notion that the only way to provide a buffer against such a monolith would be to sap the power given it by an acquiescent population and aligning them on a grassroots level with each other.

That he's remembered as a short-lived politician is almost a joke when he was a life-long activist. Not to completely discount his political aspirations, which were undercut by a theatricality that gave the ridiculousness of the political process its due, but that he was able to facilitate a confluence of wants with material accomplishments in wildly divergent community without relying on the prevailing power structure is more impressive than his eventual election to public office. The deconstruction of homosexual mythology and breaking down of standard misconceptions was a great service that his flamboyant and bombastic campaigns really only served as a platform for. Boy was a hustler in a system that hustled.

As Sean Penn got an oscar for tastefully impersonating a homosexual while Robert Downey, Jr. was quietly ignored for making fun of that same cultural appropriation with the aim of reaping critical acclaim and the material awards that go along with it, Milk's screenwriter made a cloying speech about capitulating to god while remaining defiantly homosexual, with a nod to the gay marriage movement. While Milk would have supported equal rights and have been glad to lend his name to the cause, it's kind of an insult to his political legacy, in which much more radical barriers were broached. Where equality with heterosexuals was less an empty slogan and more an assessment of what that kind of equality means. Just like homosexuals aren't all the same neither are heterosexuals, and Milk's work with trade unions and local businesses in defiance of government sponsored development was a far more penetrating olive branch than the "me too" politics of marriage laws.

Most major films broaching the subject of homosexuality fall into that trap, too, placing homosexuals squarely within the context of a sociological statistic, a constant which can respond uniformly to any variable. The most daring thing done is to merely present to generally heterosexual males within a homosexual paradigm, make generalizations about their relation to all homosexuals and finito, you've got a message picture. Though I'll give I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry for engaging an audience that would normally write off homosexuals in one fell swoop out of gay panic in a fairly combative assessment of what it means to be gay in superficially masculine, oppressively heterosexual atmosphere (don't hate, it could have been worse, like, in and out, at least this one acknowledged the falsity of the stereotypes it was playing with).

In contrast, I'd like to point you to Fox and His Friends, a classic of German cinema and a milestone in sexual discourse. It's director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, moved beyond the confines of the sexual binary, not defining himself as either gay or straight, but willfully acknowledging the plights of both. Growing up and operating within West Germany Fassbinder experienced the less overt oppression of the capitalist economy and the government which enforced it. Historically written off as the democratic counterpart to its fascist soviet neighbor behind the wall, not everyone living there forgot that that critiques of power and exploitation by german intellectuals like Marx and Luxemburg were born within a capitalist economy. Not everyone forgot that Luxemberg was executed for her anti-capitalist critiques. And not everyone was averse to the conditions that made her put her life on the line. Fassbinder's films tended to explore the damaging effects of new manifestations of old power structures. Male-dominant, heterosexist, and exploitatively competitve. Fox and his Friends is an excellent amalgamation of those exact illnesses.

What goes unacknowledged in presumably homo-progressive cinema is that homosexuals are also human, and are citizens confined within the systems their surrounding societies are governed by. Therefore, the same hierarchical delineations that affect heterosexuals can affect homosexuals as well. In the film, Franz Biberkopf is a lower-class gay carnie who goes by the name of Fox. Fox wins the lottery and inherits a fortune as well as a new group of friends, a bourgeois collection of biting socialites with an exquisite, extravagant, and expensive taste in living standards. Fox's sexual relationship with one of them makes him a prime target of their classist standoffishness, automatically measuring everything about him, from his education to his fortune to his dick size.

Due to the decadence of their lavish lifestyle they seem to value bodies as exchangeable commodities just as well as their most recent wardrobe purchase, and the organ in which Fox rode in on is soon replaced by another member of the circle by the name of Eugen. Eugen is derided as "prissy" by Fox's street standards while Fox is deemed uncultured and savage by almost everyone else. Despite Eugene's precise calculations of Fox's behavioral qualities and their relation to his carefully measured upper-class standards, Eugen delves into a carefully mannered but mildly uninhibited affair, much to the chagrin of his own partner, another member of the circle who won't even regard Fox's presence as a human being.

Soon Fox is initiated into Eugen's family, an ostensibly well-off and well-rounded mother and father facing financial troubles in an unstable economy. Eugen's expensive lifestyle and his family's financial woes are charitably assuaged by Fox's good fortune, naively assuming it's what one does in a standard cohabitation, he assumes the good will of his new de facto in-laws. Having been used to a more free flowing, and more amicable interaction with a less judgementally uptight group of working class queers, his quick quips from the wells of street smarts find themselves no match for the bourgeois lifestyle demands of an armchair decorator with cushy tastes requiring books for shelves instead of shelves for books, 18th century artistry for a place to sit, and crystal castles for the light switch.

And here the groundbreaking aspects of the film's discussion can already be assessed. Fassbinder was criticized for his negative portrayal of homosexuals by gay rights activists. What their narrowly defined objective ignored though was Fassbinder's acceptance that homosexuals ARE people, and instead of being an ideal definition of people "as well," they could also be a less than ideal people "as well." The adaptation of class doctrine can defy oppressed designation, working within multiple paradigms in a way that's both counter-intuitive to one's own self-worth but also to those one is closely associated with by means of a similar societal deprivation. The movie's subtitle is survival of the fittest, a bastardization of Darwin's theories that inevitably lent itself to conservative social theories, one in particular being the ruthless accumulation of capital. Fox's Friends in the title acquired the capital necessary to exist as themselves without interference, but their unstable method of acquiring that protective power affects every realm of the lifestyle they've adopted to properly maintain it. And not even if. Fox's sugar daddy co-optation comes about when Eugen is kicked from his apartment for "immoral relations."

Already incisive enough the film has an unexpected interlude. Eugen and Fox elope from the confines of their staid, placid, and increasingly hateful constraints (Eugen has begun training Franz to be civilized, causing Franz to resort to binge sessions hating himself with the bar stool queers) to Morocco. Hoping to spring some vitality back into their relationship they intend on picking up a male to use as their temporary sexual liason. Seemingly having studied from a pick-up manifesto his society friends cobbled together from years of clandestine pursuits of the libidinal, Eugen ropes Fox into a shopping spree with the market being Moroccan men. The film, having already engrossed you in the classist dehumanization of a poor German by fellow citizen of the same sexual orientation, now asks you to question the levels of exploitation, the levels of dehumanization, and the hierarchy intensifies and stretches beyond belief. Germany was a powerful colonial force and it's citizens, being part of a European ancestry that for centuries defined the world against its will, still have a lingering sense of entitlement to the fruits of their geographical counterparts.

Fully anticipating Eugen's rope tricks a Moroccan falls into their favor and bides his time in a knowledgeably patient manner while Eugen and Fox debate whether or not to jeopardize their already fragile relationship with a fling. Eugen being the most adamant for saddling up with a "camel jockey." When they get back to the hotel they are barred from entering their room together, as the Moroccan bell hop has been trained to follow the European hotel chain's orders and not allow Moroccans to exist on the premises. An argument ensues in which Eugen defends what he payed for and Fox defends their potential lover's rights in his own country (they both possibly make this point). The Moroccan boytoy, having been through this before, willfully leaves without further commotion. Feeling like they've been busted and sabotaged Eugen and Fox kind of kick their feet in until the bell hop comes back and tells them not to make a fuss. If they want a boy they can send someone from the staff!

If Eugen and Fox, as European tourists with large amounts of currency, want to have their choice of servants for personal pleasure their continental clout allows them that. The movie abruptly reverts back to Germany after that, where you have to refocus your attention on Fox. It's slightly jarring, but also substantially more enriching for the rest of Fox's story.

Culminating thoughts: Group identity can be necessary for erecting a protective barrier against individual oppression for a common trait, but it also creates a lowest common denominator standard of non-consented absorption where manipulability and exploitation of an entire set of arbitrarily linked individuals becomes feasible. Individual identity allows one to see outside the cloistered association to understand why one particular aspect of your biology might define your link to a subset but not your relation to everyone else, mostly the dominant subset, or even yourself, each person being a confluence of characteristics that would require an obnoxious amount of hyphens to properly explicate. As a result each member of a subset can be affected by laws and mores of another subset they are excluded from, particularly when it's a subset has control over their standards of living and means of sustenance. Fox's friends can be gay and oppressed, but they can be rich, elitist and exploitative like the best of them, because they're not defined by their gayness, they're defined by the class they belong to, and a new hierarchy that doesn't revolve around preferences inevitably separated potential companions.

"Let Me Put Some God In You": A closer look at the videos for Usher's Love In This Club and Z-Ro's Tired

Yeah, so, this is a year late but bear with me. Every time I view Usher's Love In This Club video it continues transmogrifying from a sleek, celebrity-filled vision of the hottest blue balls ever to something even scarier than I originally imagined. The video's initial allure was the way it wrapped itself up in the material excesses the genre is criticized for and subtly flaunts them in a preternaturally seductive way.

Usher stumbling alone into some purgatory of his repertoire's intended haunts, with the doors leading back into itself, suggests an isolated detachment the seemingly retired superstar had to face when making a comeback. When Timbaland production team member/rising pop star Keri Hilson shows up as the video girl, her sultry taunts in response to his nervous and aggressively defensive inquiries play like the unstable youth demographic he's after. "I'm your every desire." Does the dude still matter? All the girls that fawned over him before his cameo in She's All That are grown, youngsters like Omarion or even weirdos with a futuristic vocoder and a Stevie Wonder visage like T-Pain done stole his place, and the market is unpredictable for celebrities not returning on the surreal life.

But then Polow Da Don comes in, the synths take over, and all of a sudden Usher is at home again, no need to freak out, just freak. Just like the song is about fucking right there on the dance floor because there is no waiting to get out, about that moment that can't be suppressed, that is so immediate it feels just right, the music feels that way, too. Usher puts on his sunglasses, shouts out the DJ, and proceeds to ceremoniously emcee the main event, in which Usher attempts to fucks with a lady right there in the club or, maybe, slide his way into the pockets of his desired demographic.

There to witness the proceedings are fellow Rap and R & B luminaries currently taking the clubs by storm. Those that Usher fizzled out to. The artists that Usher maybe passed the torch to before going back to his dressing room. Here everyone's a friend, Usher's like the kid that took a gap year and is now back for some serious business. Now he finds himself surrounded by wizened industry heads, borderline divas on the cusp of saturation, their entrance, their existence almost a wax work in a museum, crystallized in slow motion. Kanye with his back on the bar while a pair of high heels with legs attached to them saunter past his elbows, barely cocking his head in acknowledgement cause his glasses do enough attitude for him, one of Keri's girls slowly grazing his proximity (as well as Nelly's and that of many others), feels just as right as the song does.

What undercuts the self-indulgence of the proceedings is that all this is good and great, but Usher isn't actually getting any. He's on the cusp of getting some when Keri Hilson and her crew of temptresses taunt him. Moving past the bevy of new social circles being famous and photogenic Usher is getting swept up by the libidinal undercurrent, it's not just flashy it's fuckable in there and he's going to cash in but right as they lock lips, right as they're about to bump hips she disappears. Usher being left to dance choreographically to his heart's and his loin's discontent. And still nothing. Then it ends. Everyone disappears. The girls are there no more. Usher tries to run out again, but this time he ends up in some approximation of heaven. Surrounded by clouds he's actually standing in the rubble of what was once the structure that hosted his grandstanding re-entry into superstardom.

All of a sudden the song's libertinism becomes apocalyptically conservative, with the site of casual sex being done in like Sodom and Gomorrah. What really drives this home, and I didn't notice this until a recent appraisal, is that Keri and her girls don't just graze by and tempt the guys in the club. They leave them hanging in more ways than one. Each encounter leaves the men's lusty demeanor with a parting gift. When Kanye is walked by his hand goes out and a chain is dropped into his palm. Attached to that chain is a cross. When Nelly's hands are clasped by one of the girls, he's being signaled to guard the cross now placed in his holding. In the context of Usher's return, this is a trainwreck. Back in the lime light and before his first video is over his dick killed everyone. By unleashing the atmosphere of promiscuity everyone was blown to bits. Keri's angels did what they could, but maybe it wasn't a sure thing. In the context of Love in this Club, is there no such thing? Or is such a thing a sure fire way to get crossed out of existence?

Like, the brilliance of the thing doesn't necessarily make it agreeable, but holy shit is it a sight to behold. The idea of spiritual liberation from the libations of liminal turmoil makes a startlingly irresponsible return in Z-Ro's tired:

I've written here extensively of Z-Ro's depression, the way don status mythology making was progressively de-layered by his own self-admonitions. Raised by extended family, harassed by the police, isolated by both a perpetual violence that claimed most of his friends and a systematic injustice that incarcerated the others. Ro doesn't have time for romance, all he has time for is to scramble. And constantly being down on his knees he looked to god. Even if you're an atheist you understand the prescriptive nature of his laments are less out of ideological puritanism and more out of desperation.

Despite being robbed of a comfortable existence, despite needing Lexapro to deal with it, he still looked outside himself. No matter the antipathy he still made space to reach out to gays, lesbians and other discriminated demographics. His willing of god onto others was, yes, superstitious, but also dissociative. A coping mechanism in which he saw the breadth of oppression claiming more people than himself. If he could use god maybe everyone else can, too. But what's odd is the continual knee-dropping, and not just because of it's undeniable presence, but because of how aware he was on I'm Still Living of its apparent inability to solve anything. "I pray so much I should be kin to the heavenly son." It's beyond solemnity now, it's a cruel joke, and one he assumes he'll keep on having to tell himself or he'll break down and stop waiting for anyone else to do him in.

What's weird about this new video, boasting Mya instead of, say, past Rap-A-Lot hook roster stalwart Tanya Heron, is the comfort level. Ro's music video production values have gone up, and despite the relative obscurity, his old line about how "Niggaz say Rap-A-Lot ain't payin me like I ain't got nuttin, If six figures is bein bent over, I'm lovin the fuckin"seems to be the de facto protocol.

What's awful here on my part is that his artistry is invariably also judged by his honesty, and Z-Ro's honesty was particularly hard to swallow because of the shit he had to get off his chest. His real talk was that he was living the same fucked up life everyone else around him was. The more fucked up, the more stirring, the more depressed, the more soulful. It's as if the only way he could get any better was to be on his death bed and though everyone wanted him to pull through his exit would have left a mark on rap analogous to that of Ian Curtis.

What's great is that now Z-Ro seems to be finally doing better, or at least the videographer is making a convincing case. Sure the subject matter is about the shackles caused by societal constraints, but looking at all of his new videos dude looks a whole lot better than he did in his most recent stint in county prison, better than he did on his last album before going in. This video, though, is where it gets uncomfortable. Not because of the subject matter, which is aptly conveyed with Z-Ro's trademark sympathy, but his sympathy now seems to have a punch line. The whole thing plays like a weight loss infomercial. Sure, Z-Ro might have found god and told you before, but he never gave weight to it, he just obsessively referred to it as the last thing he could possibly turn to, telling others out of concern, but still not being 100%. Here, though, it's like it's a given, he's outsourcing the work to a street corner preacher. Every symptom of malaise and oppression is lined up like a welfare line and written off with the power of god, at least through the hands of this preacher. All the symbolic shackles are miraculously undone by that dude that was always catcalling you with catechisms on your block.

At least Ro doesn't blow you up, but it's like meat and dairy and the split between vegans and vegetarians. Which is worse? Being killed or being stuffed in a cage and prodded at?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

(I know I'm late on this, but it's now on on dvd so go watch it)

In a moment of familial convalescence I had only gotten a glimpse of falling asleep to late night conversations between my mom and her sister, the two sibs at the center of Rachel Getting Married wash up scars both real and embedded. It blows the fire-breathing wound salting that came before it out the loch ness dwelling it wallowed in, almost making the mythical burrowing seem absolutely necessary so the connection could be made this strong again.

My mom's upbringing, from the bits and pieces left at my disposal, was less than ideal. Impenetrable parentals barely there (youth done in by a nazi escape route, shell shocked IDF backlash, double time work loads to pay for the housing) with the double-edged sword of authorial command left at my mother's feet. The chance for being siblings was upended by a circumstantially forced hierarchy that tore them apart for years, the youngin's not knowing who the real mother was, my mom not knowing where her allegiances lay, or where her priorities were to be spent. Empty house for months at a time brought on round the clock, drunken card games, on one hand putting the youngest two of the four on display for guests to play with like dolls, with her other hand broom-ready, a dust pan in tow.

On a most recent trip, while sleeping next to the crib of my sister's new born kid in her village house outside tel-aviv, both my mom and sister, always prone to on and off familial theatrics, just pored over the details of their youthful responsibilities. I, of course, felt unusually privileged and spoiled, again any sunk moods the result of first world neuroses. It was an odd moment, billion piece puzzle finally seeing some kind of solidified semblance.

Rachel Getting Married is kind of like that. Both experiences making me jealous I wasn't and didn't have a sister to deal with the world through. I've got a little brother, he's more like the music hired for the film's festivities, a self-proclaimed god of rock blazing trails only distanced from a telescope in NASA. He's loads of fun, the infighting there aplenty, but the feminine quality that my post-gender lib/arts education is doing away with is totally missing.

Without going too heavy into details, the film's wedding video with a broken record button on infinite gaze catches the whole unpacking of the family dynamic's fractured psychology. The constantly shifting alliances when a junkie sibling breaks back into the fold, the center of a tragedy she'll never be able to outlive being partly responsible for, the intimate knowledge thus wielded by every knowing relative to cut deep into that black hole of emotional negation. Why would blood relations be so cruel to one another? The underlying joke being that the titular character is working on her PhD in psychology, a bevy of statistics and APA terminology still finding itself useless in the alien terrain of another person. No matter what institutions these bloodlines hide behind, it's each other they'll eventually have to answer to. The sooner they realize that, the sweeter the release of finally knowing who they're forever bound to. Don't watch it for Anne Hathaway, watch it for who her character represents, in the context of her familial extensions.

That release will never be that sweet, as the film attests, a bitter taste left on the tongue, too much baggage for a swift layover and departure, the desire to just leave the bags and fuck the f off. But finally, knowing what to fuck the f off from, and being able to decide what parts of it to warm up and into. Cut deep, but with a surgeon's precision. Stitches are imperative.