Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Merriest Month of July


I’ve been a bit surprised by the critical reception of Bruno, and wonder how it might be viewed differently if Sacha Baron Cohen was a gay Alabaman. Well, he’s not, so I guess that’s a silly question, but even as a Jewish Englishman, his duty to properly represent a group of people is no greater. GLAAD wants a vision of homosexual normality in Bruno, which is insane, since Cohen’s first allegiance is to comedy, regardless of how many people see his movie and with what false motives. That said, Bruno strikes me as an entirely less troubling, more tolerant, and much funnier movie than (the over-praised) Borat, because its central characters exist in a somewhat recognizable comic universe. Who can truly deny that the love story with Lutz is kind of sweet, and that the family that comes into being at the end, with young OJ, is as close to normal as any family needs to be?

When GLAAD says that Bruno doesn’t “help America understand the hundreds of thousands of gay families who get up every day, do the carpool then rush home to make dinner and be with their children,” I believe they are simply saying that sex is bad and marriage is good (which is not a surprising position for them to take when marriage has become the entire focus of the gay rights movement). Granted, much of the gay sex depicted in Bruno is far from realistic, but GLAAD’s attitude allows critics to continue calling the film “cringe-worthy” because they are unable to differentiate between what is simply good fun and what is absurd theater. I never felt that Cohen was denigrating anyone’s sexuality or sex practices; the only truly cringe-worthy moment is a scene with Ron Paul (simply because the film makes him look foolish in a way that has nothing to do with the point of the satire, so you sit there distracted by the downcast eyes of poor Ron Paul) and the only depicted sex that seems capable of endangering anyone is the humorless business at a swingers party.

Public Enemies
tells its story efficiently, but has no real interest in any of the elements that make the story worth telling: the Great Depression, John Dillinger’s fame, motivations, the minutiae of criminal life. The movie is great to look at, and at least we have Michael Mann to show us what digital video can do. He’s a great stylist, but the look of Public Enemies sits uncomfortably with a typical Hollywood score, overbearing sound effects, and bad bad bad CGI at the crucial moment (Mann could stand to spend some time at the Dogme 95 school). It’s not all bad: it has the best crowd head-turning scene since Strangers on a Train. The actors are good, but Christian Bale’s role is so limited that you might wonder why his character went on to kill himself 30 years after the events of the story, why you should care, and why the movie has chosen to tell you this.



The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James :
A thrilling narrative so far, in the midst of all its colors and violence. Take blog-approved John Crow’s Devil and multiply it by two, and you’ll have this in length and power.

Other recent reads:

Passing by Nella Larsen : Great in all the expected ways, and timely in a couple of unexpected ways. First, it fits in well with the new science-fiction-of-the-mentally-ill genre that I noted a while back, at least in the way that the narrator is finally so overcome with her perception of meaning that her last act is to faint. What did that mean? As she began to work it out in her numbed mind, she was shaken with another hideous trembling. Not that! Oh, not that! I would be surprised if any reader has ever been able to divine what the narrator has discovered in these sentences. She is not mentally ill, just unable to cope in a world of passing.

Second, the character Clare Kendry, in light of recent news, reads like the original of Michael Jackson. The ways her patterns of behavior might be interpreted are the same as the ways Jackson’s life has been interpreted in recent weeks—the loneliness, the desperate need for attention. Whether or not passing was the central dilemma of Jackson’s life, he seems to exist in this book from time to time.

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin :
I had hoped that John would decide between sin and salvation in a way that sprang organically out of the story, but then there’s that long scene on the threshing floor in which he’s inhabited by a spirit and has the choice made for him. I balked at first, but it becomes apparent that this spirit or curse is something that’s existed in the speech of his ancestors for generations, and his choice will always be defined by history and things out of his control. And there’s more at stake than salvation; religion is the realm of family for John, so choosing the opposite denies much more than God. But salvation is a continual process, so with my mind always on Baldwin, I know that he may fail immediately after the story ends.

Going to Meet the Man
by James Baldwin :
Maybe the best collection of short stories I’ve read, and “Sonny’s Blues” is without a doubt the single best short story I’ve read. The latter makes evident, both explicitly and through the forcefulness and honesty of its telling, the reason these stories need to be told. “Come Out the Wilderness” is a nice companion to recently viewed My Dinner With Andre, suggesting that we are all lost and don’t know what we’re doing, but maintain an illusion that we know because we’re afraid to find out that everyone else is lost. There’s such a variety of narrators in these stories, a variety of attitudes about black people and white people, an awareness that even the enlightened few have blinders on, that I have to wonder who was this man James Baldwin? How was he so brilliant?


1) Unless they have an undiscovered classic I’m unaware of, I wonder why The Everly Brothers never recorded their own Pet Sounds in the early 60s, defining “the album” as an art form, swapping ideas with The Beatles, and leaving The Beach Boys mere forgotten hitmakers. The Everlys’ best songs of the late 50s have all sorts of neat twists and turns, and “Cathy’s Clown” (1960) is a thrilling arrangement and has the best harmonies I’ve ever heard outside of “God Only Knows.” But I guess the brothers were always just a couple of country singers.

2) In the past 12 days, I’ve seen live performances by Elvis Costello, Meat Puppets, No Age, local acts Gay Beast and Baby Guts, and a veritable cavalcade of opening acts (Gay Witch Abortion, Knife World, Manimal Quartet, Mayor Daley, Pterodactyl, Tiger Gash, Atomic Annie, Kill to Kill, the not-noisy-in-the-least Kate Voegele) for a grand total of $19, which also got me a delicious falafel sandwich. Either this is the way things go in the summer, or I’ve just been lucky. All those local bands almost give the impression that there’s a vibrant music scene here, but I’m still not sure.

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