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.