Sunday, October 30, 2011

"In Time": When life spans become fiat money (and what happens to Justin Timberlake to play the role; immortality will cost you))

Movies can create new worlds, with new topologies or rulesets, and make us believe we can live in them.  Sometimes (as with “Inception” or the “Matrix” series) they work.  Sometimes premises seem like artifices to satirize some moral imbalance, and really don’t even reach the status of dreams.

One important issue concerns the “cost” of providing for people as they get older.  A few films have demonstrated various fascist “solutions”.  With “Logan’s Run”, in the 1970s (filmed around the Zale Building on Stemmons in Dallas) nobody could live beyond 30.  I wondered how a late 20s yuppie could want to be complicit in his own end a few years later, or not even know about it.  One can imagine totalitarian horror movies based on variations of this theme: say, a gestapo, enforcing "body fascism", that seeks out and eliminates people once they are past reproductive age, or women and men with any sign of decay, like baldness (maybe even in the legs).  

If people “cost the system” as long as they consume when they don’t work, it may make the ultimate logical sense (and show the minimum of human compassion) to play games with relativity and treat time as money – literally. You earn time to live, and if you spend it all, you drop dead. 

Such is the premise of the satire (I am generous in calling this Fox film by Andrew Niccol that) “In Time” (I actually thought it was “Just in time”, for "Justified" Justin Timberlake, who plays hero Will Salas).  Call it fascism, or maybe “Darwinian capitalism” (as in the film).  And of course there seems to be a reference to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, except that the film was made before the movement started. The rich get to game the system.  “Many must die so that a few may be immortal.”

The “rules of engagement” make for artifice indeed. Medicine has programmed us so that everyone stops aging at age 25, supposedly the human biological solstice. You get one free year, in which you have to start earning and accumulating more time that you can live.  Actually, if a gene could stop aging at age 25, that would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (increase in entropy is unavoidable), a law which on its face sounds like it makes the existence of angels questionable, at least in terms of physics as they teach it to AP students. 

"Your" time-life account is read from a meter tattooed (of sorts) into your forearm. Now, one could say this is a nasty metaphor for the concentration camp marks, but it’s worse.  Instead of the natural location on the underside of the forearm (where you would do a tuberculin test).  The “hit counter” instead is on the upper side, which for many males presents an issue -- every male in this truncated society is "ruined".  In most scenes, Justin Timberlake’s forearm looks shaved and slightly regrown as stubble, so that the meter can easily be read and used to transfer time credits with others.  So it is with everyone. (The transfer scenes look something like asexual conjugation.)  Of course, Timberlake is no stranger to modifying his body (ever since he left ‘Nsync).  In both “Alpha Dog” and “Southland Tales” he was shaven (as if body hair were as optional as a beard), and in “Alpha” covered with even uglier tattoos.  Only in “The Social Network”  (as Shawn Parker) did he look like his fully masculine self (not even on “Ellen”).  It seems as though actors, especially, have to survive Halloween.   In this movie, Cilliam Murphy (the Timekeeper, who lives day-to-day ) and Vincent Kartheiser (the magnate who looks 25 at 85) also have “that problem”. (Murphy, however, was changed for “Breakfast on Pluto”.)

When the DVD comes out, there will probably be some director's commentary. It will be interesting to hear his explanation of the positioning of the "time meter" on the body. 

"You earn your time."  But at least, in this movie, there can be redistribution of wealth, and expropriation of immortality -- a Purification.

Here is the official site.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Little film "Shut Up and Kiss Me" examines gay relationships, but characters lack charisma

I like GLBT movies where the characters develop “relationshps”, gradually and slowly first; but the characters themselves need to have some real charisma and not talk too analytically.

Ben (Ronnie Kerr), after a comic dressing down on talk show, has reached his life’s midpoint at 35 and wants a real relationship, with some conservative values.  We’ve heard that before. But he gets his chance when he meets Grey (Scott Gabelein), in the little dramedy by Devin Hamilton, “Shut Up and Kiss Me”, from Ariztical.
 
There is some important stuff.  Grey is HIV+ with zero viral load.  He’s honest enough about that. But he also admits to flings, which doesn’t suit Ben, with his Log Cabin Republicans philosophy, too well.

The movie borders on outright flippancy early. Grey says he likes kids if he can give ‘em back. (Well?)
There’s a line where a female character talks gratuitously about what Facebook is for, and how she manipulates her “reputation”.  I think Facebook is for better use than she gives it credit for.

There’s some other funny scenes, like the pooch who eats a condom.  (I like those wild animals in the yard when they remember me but I don’t have to take care of them.)

There’s even a shrink’s couch.  Is “honesty more important than monogamy?” Well, it's a puzzlement.

Here’s the official Facebook site

Friday, October 28, 2011

"The Man Nobody Knew": A former CIA head's son presents a riveting view of life in the arency

Landmark E Street Theater in Washington DC featured director Carl Colby, son of former CIA chief William Colby, commenting between evening shows of his documentary “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, Spymaster William Colby”, from First Run Features.

While the documentary was motivated in part by family quest, it gives a valuable history and government lesson, especially for students, as it tells a story of how the CIA, born out of the needs of WWII, reconciles its need for clandestine activity for national security, with the law and the Constitution.

William Colby is presented as a somewhat self-righteous man who did not show affection easily.  His ex-wife, who survives his 1996 disappearance and drowning near the Chesapeake Bay at age 76, presents a coherent picture of the contradictions his life posed.

The film presents a particularly riveting picture of the role of the CIA (and Colby) during the time from early Vietnam involvement through Nixon, and the mess that Ford inherited in cleaning up the legal problems. The case is presented that the CIA essentially caused the Vietnam war, with all the problems, like the draft and the moral controversies over both student deferments and war resistance, that would follow.  The film has a lot of original black and white footage of paramilitary actions all the way back to Pearl Harbor.

The nature of the work of an agent comes into question.  Today, the CIA and NSA both present themselves as professional workplaces controlled by civilians, a long distance from the image in this film.

In my own novel manuscript, I have a protagonist character in his middle 30s who plays “spy” part time as an outgrowth of his own military service  while teaching AP history “full time” in a Texas high school.  (He uses well-prepared subs a lot.) In my (fictitious) book, he meets a gay college student and develops a relationship, a personal development complicating (and ending) his marriage, yet paradoxically drawing him deeper into discovering the next “apocalyptic” treat, which at first seems medical (a bizarre pandemic) which may indeed be a kind of “Andromeda Strain”, as well as (again paradoxically) strengthening his relationships with his own teenage kids. (I'll say more when I review "Red" [Nov. 2]).

This film certainly gives me a kind of yardstick to help me judge my own manuscript.The title of the movie reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "The Man Who Knew Too Much", to which this film is a kind of antithesis.  (Remember Arthur Benjamin's "Storm Cloud Cantata" at the end of the famous film?)

The official site is here

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"The Battleship Potemkin"

Occasionally, a historical classic film comes along that seems to tie together some threads of recent life. Such is the case with “The Battleship Potemkin” (“Bronenosets Potyomkin”), originally a silent film made in 1925 by director Sergei M. Eisenstein, but it was restored in 1976 by the Soviet Union; the DVD is now released (through Netflix) by Image Entertainment.  Apparently the film has also been distributed by Kino.

Mutiny has, of course, long been a subject of literary interest, most notably British composer Benjamin Britten with his opera “Billy Budd” (drama blog, Feb. 27, 2008). This film, however, is not very concerned with individual character conflicts, even as it presents the crowded conditions of Naval life (and the hammocks for bunks) as well as any “political” film today, given recent battles over “don’t ask don’t tell”.

The story is familiar, if detailed. After a minor disciplinary incident with a particular sailor, cadre goes goofy. Some soldiers rebel at being served meat with maggots. Eventually a rebellion ensues that spreads to civilians in the home Black Sea port of Odessa. It even spreads, at the end, to other ships.

The fleet had been returning from a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War.

An “Occupy Czarist Russia” revolt does indeed develop and spread, as if this were an explanation for how Bolshevism came about.  The populist uprising becomes unstoppable. 

The film (at least in the 1976 version) uses the symphonies of Shostakovich for the entire background. It opens with the first movement of the 5th Symphony, and ends with the martial triumph at the end of the symphony.  I always enjoyed this work as a young man, even if I knew the triumph was formalistic and hollow, and the “meaning” was wrong (or at least politically incorrect).  In between many other symphonies of Shostakovich are worked in, particularly the 10th, 11th (year 1905), and 4th.  There is a night scene on ship with the eerie, Mahlerian close of the 4th Symphony playing in the background.

The  1981 Paramount film “Reds”, directed by Warren Beatty, comes to mind. In that film, an American journalist is taken up by Communist idealism during the Russian Revolution (the opening of Potemkin says that “Revolution is the only legitimate kind of war” and later has the line “One against all”, definitely not from Alexander Dumas (previous review).  Just before the intermission of Beatty’s three-hour film, the “Communist national anthem” gets played to great stirring effect, again with the wrong meaning.


OpenFix has the complete film on YouTube.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"The Three Musketeers" with some Leonardo da Vinci thrown in

“Independent” film now has 3-D, too, as well as manipulative literary adaptations that may reek more of cleverness than creativity. Such is the case with the new “The Three Musketeers”, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, from Impact Films, and Constantin Films (Germany), and distributed in the US by Summit.  The film was actually shot in the UK, France, and Germany and post-processed in Germany.

We read the (translated) Alexander Dumas novel in “general education” in the Ninth Grade (I took French but I don’t recall if we read it in French).  I always thought the novel was mistitled; it doesn’t give enough credit to d’Artagan ( a 19 year old Logan Lerman, here), who barges into the almost disbanded Three Musketeers (Matthew MacFayden, Ray Stevneson, Luke Evans), who now have almost no purpose, to join. Talk about unit cohesion! ("One for all, all for one!")

Of course, the controversial character is spy and double-agent Milady (Milla Jovovich), who seems to serve the interests of the Duke of Buckhingham (Orlando Bloom).

I recall that we read the translated version in 9th grade general education class. I don’t recall whether we read it in French, which I took.  It always seemed that the novel was misnamed. D’Artagnan is the center and hero of the story, and the title doesn’t give him credit.  Milady was always controversial. In the workplace in Dallas around 1980, we would call one of the project leaders on the user side “Milady”.

The “adaptation” tracks the story over to an “Cowboys and Aliens” scenario.  The revised plot centers around airship blueprints from Leonardo da Vinci, and in the film airships become part of the English fleet. 

The young Louis XIII (Freddie Fox), even more boyish in looks than d’Artagnan, demands that he have one, but it won’t be adequate.

Nevertheless, the airships take the film into a parallel world, perhaps: what was 17th Century technology really capable of, with a little imagination?  The swashbuckling takes a back seat to the alternative science.

Here’s the official site.

The end credits have a wonderful “best song”, “When We Were Young”, which you can buy here

Paull Haslinger wrote the orchestral score, which, during the end credits, follows the song with a concert overture with constantly modulating tonality.

You can watch the 1948 film on YouTube for $2.99.   There are many other film versions that are closer to the book.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"Margin Call": almost like a stage play, it examines the people on Wall Street just as a financial crisis (2008) is about to erupt

The compelling play-film from “rookie” director J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call”, was not part of Reel Affirmations, but it might as well have been. In the early part of the film particularly, the camera lingers and dawdles (as if staring at them while in person) on the two most likeable (or at least physically spectacular) male characters in the Wall Street meltdown, Peter, played by Zachary Quinto, and Seth, played by Penn Badgley.  In Street suits with coats removed, sleeves rolled up, ties loosened and shirts open, masculinity is to be beheld here.  Badgley, for one, looks much “better” with the mangy chest hair back, after losing it to play a teen in “Gossip Girl”. (Check out his primary image on imdb.)

And Wall Street traders are pretty much like preppy kids in this film, which reenacts the last 24 hours in the life of “The Firm” before a financial crisis (2008) breaks wide open. Generally, The Firm is like Lehman Brothers in September 2008, but the fact pattern in the play doesn’t match history exactly. No matter, it’s compelling stuff.  The film opens on a summery Thursday morning as managing analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is invited to a meeting from a female from HR, who first mistakes Peter for him. Pretty soon, he is told his email and cell phone are cut off, his severance is generous, and the like.  But Eric already suspects the company has something to hide – called derivatives, and too many credit default swaps.  He gives a flash drive to Peter as he leaves the building (and tells Peter “Be Careful”). Peter shuns going out to the bars with the boys and stays at work and analyzes what’s on the drive (it's what the math of the "tranches" shows is about to happen).  It’s this sequence that makes Peter so winning as a character. Pretty soon, he calls his buddies (Badgley and Paul Bettany’s character Will) back from clubbing. By midnight, management is back with a real crisis as Peter’s numbers proves that the film will go under.

The movie movies into a lot of meetings and other confrontations, including a field trip to Brooklyn Heights (not far from my favorite “Bargemusic”) to get Eric back.  Kevin Spacey, as Sam Rogers, and Jeremy Irons as Tuld (the CEO), as well as Demi Moore and Mary McDonnell round out the A-list cast for this little indie film.  There’s a great line, “I hate Brooklyn”.

The script has the characters passing the buck, showing their mettle, whereas Peter keeps his head above the storm, but has to explain the numbers in plain English to the CEO in a critical scene that is supposed to happen at 2:15 AM.

Pretty soon, Spacey and Irons (that is, their dopplegangers) are bypassing ethics and dumping the house. Spacey offers bonuses to those who sell enough, in exchange for deep-sixing their careers and personal reputations forever.  Many will be fired and never work on The Street again.  It’s Friday, and Sunday is coming. 

As for the layoff, I remember mine, on Dec. 13, 2001.  The Netware system told me that my account was disabled while I was talking to an internal client to solve a problem.  I didn’t sign off until finishing the call.  Then my manager appeared in my cubicle and said “We have a meeting.” 

Badgley’s character starts to become a sidekick as the movie progresses.  At one point, he sits on a toilet seat and weeps, and then watches Bettany shave (just his face) to get ready for the day after the all nighter.  You wonder why Badgley wears yellow socks.   The characters get yummy omelet breakfasts catered (you could have eaten the food right off the screen), and Bettany asks “why did they include fruit?”  And most of the characters – except for virtuous Peter – smoke (and that’s depressing).  Why does a Ph.D. physicist work on Wall Street?  For the money. (Sounds like "Double Indemnity", doesn't it!)

Then, there is the City (Donald Trump's favorite), shown outside as the night and day progress.  In one sequence, a Chopin prelude is played in the background. Yes, I think Trump would hire Peter as his next "Apprentice". (He'll make somebody a lot of money -- honestly -- even if on Mars, some day.)  Trump, of course, doesn't have a monopoly on "You're fired"; it happens a lot at the end of the film. (And a bankrupt firm would have trouble with severances and outplacement for ordinary paeans.) 

The theatrical version is distributed by Roadside Attractions, but Lionsgate is offering the film for on-demand viewing at the same time. (LionsgateVOD charges $6.99 to watch on YouTube; I paid $10 at an AMC Shirlington, which had a fair crowd for a Monday night.) The film is shot in regular aspect ratio because of the expectation of heavy cable and Internet viewing; I wonder if this marks a future trend.  It could have used the wider aspect.  I think this film would also benefit for enhanced digital projection in large, new theaters.

It's going to be in the running for Best Picture of 2011.  

Here’s the official site  

It does seem that when you make independent movies today, you still want an A-list cast.

Here’s a YouTube video of cast interviews.
See also my GLBT blog today for story about Zachary Quinto and Kevin Spacey. The film can be rented legally on YouTube from Lionsgate for $2.99. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Spare Parts" is a grim film from Slovenia about human trafficking

The campaign mounted by actor Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore against trafficking can be supported by the little (87 min) 2003 film from Slovenia, “Spare Parts” (“Rezervni deli”), directed by Damjan Kozole, distributed by Film Movement, produced by Emotion Film.

Ludvik (Peter Musevski), an embittered widower and former motorcycle racer, trains a younger but a first reluctant and likeable accomplice Rudi (Aljosa Kovacic), who gradually becomes brainwashed by the experience, into smuggling people into Trieste, Italy from Slovenia, sometimes in vans, box cars, or even trunks of cars. Ludvik makes remarks about how many “Chinese” fit into a trunk.  As with any organized crime, there are serious “mishaps”, as some of the clients don’t make it.  (Trieste was a political hotpoint in the 1950s.)

Clients pay with their “spare parts” – often organ selling, sometimes the sex trade; one was going to be a guinea pig for a tobacco company.

The film has some scenes of motorcycle buggy races (as Ludvik revisits his better past). I once worked at a fast food stand at an MCC benefit for a buggy bike event in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, in early 2003, about the time this film appeared.

Toward the end, Ludvik says to Rudi that he hopes that Slovenia stays out of the EU, and says that the EU is just a continuation of what Hitler wanted. 

The film was shot on location and looks appropriate grimy, with many effective shots of the ragged trains. 

The distribution company has a curious “video quiz” on the film online on a PDF, here as if a high school English teacher were going to use it. I’ve never seen anything like this before from a film distributor. (When I subbed, the kids had to take a quiz on “Hotel Rwanda”.)

The DVD also has a twelve-minute short, “The Youth in Us,” directed by Joshua Leonard.  Jack (Lukas Haas) is comforting his girlfriend Alicia (Kelli Garner) by recalling a disturbing incident in his own past in the winter wild. Then we see what she faces.  Medical ethics, to say the least.


Friday, October 21, 2011

William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni screens short documentary about its own development

This evening, at a reception in the Botetourt Gallery in the Swem Library at the College of William and Mary,  GALA screened a short documentary by Tom Baker (1966) with interviews of many graduates, tracing the history of William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni(ae)  (link).  The group was founded in 1986.  In 1990, the College added a policy of non-discrimination because of sexual orientation to its official policies. The film was shot very recently. This week marks the 25th anniversary (silver) of GALA.

The documentary director himself graduated in 1966, but had an incident in 1962 recalling mine, and says he was placed in “the infirmary” in isolation but the situation was soon resolved.  Readers familiar with my blogs and books know that I was forced to leave the College of William and Mary after eleven weeks in the fall semester of 1961, right after Thanksgiving. The details are on the “BillBoushka” blog Nov. 28, 2006. There is obvious synergy in these stories (lending itself to more movie making, documentary or otherwise) and more will be said about this in coming weeks.  I will add here that I never returned to William and Mary (there was only brief talk of it), but went to George Washington and “lived at home” and graduated in 1966.  I would have another (uneventful) dorm experience as a grad student at the University of Kansas 1966-1968, and serve in the Army later without incident. 

The director also read some passages from a novel manuscript. Again, some coincidental similarities to my own history, as he had been stationed at Fort Eustis VA overlapping the time that I was. My experience with the draft and subsequent “permanent party” stay at Fort Eustis is documented in Chapter 2 of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book.  I won’t say too much about the content of the reading, other than the level of fantasy would fit well into the style of filmmaking enjoyed by Tom Tykwer (yesterday’s review of “3”).

The video (or director afterward) mentioned that until the early 1990s, it was technically illegal in Virginia to sell alcohol or a drink to a homosexual, even though gay bars had long operated in Virginia (particularly around Norfolk and a couple in Richmond, like the old DialTone) ever since the state gave up being dry in 1969 (when I was stationed there in the Army, below).

The video also discusses the "Safe Zones" concept at WM for student counseling, and also the Cornish Fund (more details coming on another posting).

I think it’s interesting that the US Army, in the days of the draft, was often more hospitable to gays than was much of the civilian world, especially southern campuses.  That would change quickly after Stonewall, as civilian culture would open up but the military “absolute ban” would develop and be installed in 1981, twelve years before “don’t ask don’t tell”.  Baker says that he was actually present in the Stonewall Bar the night of the Stonewall riots (the first night?) in June, 1969. 

There are, in fact, several films about Stonewall.  In 1984, Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg did “Before Stonewall”, and in 1999 James Scagliotti presented “After Stonewall”, which I saw in a film festival at Bell Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.  Nigel Finch directed “Stonewall” (1995, Strand), and Kate Davis and David Heibroner did “Stonewall Uprising” for PBS in 2010 (see July 17, 2010 posting on this blog). 

GALA also presented a video tribute to the late Stephe Snell, who did much of the work to set up the LGBT library at Swem.

The story of the change or total transformation of attitude and culture toward LGBT people at a prominent southern college has to be something that will attract more attention with time. 

My GLBT blog has a review and link to the GALA “It Gets Better” project film (14 min) on Oct. 2, 2011. 

See also "Equality U" here Sept. 20, 2011.

Below: a door on second floor in Wren Building. We think this led to the Dean's office with my own 1961 expulsion.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tom Tykwer dazzles audiences with "3", a metaphysical drama (set in Berlin) about a "hidden" love triangle

Tonight Reel Affirmations 20 screened, at the Goethe Institute in Washington DC, Tom Tykwer’s new (2010) existential film “Three” (“Drei” or even “3”).   The “X-Film Creative Pool”  film is set for theatrical US distribution by Strand Releasing, but also carried the Warner Brother’s Casablanca intro.

The film opens with a number of split screen etudes about the significance of the number 3, which Clive Barker had explained on the opening page of his novel “Imajica”.  It’s pretty much the same. Three’s a crowd, or maybe it’s a real family.

Hanna (Sophie Rois) is a Berlin (Germany) television producer, in love with Simon (Sebastian Schipper), who has to deal with his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer, and then his own confrontation with testicular cancer.  Both, unbeknownst to one another, fall for Adam (David Striesow), an middle aged super-hero of sorts whose interests include sailing, choral singing and competitive swimming.  There are kids involved, living in gingerbread German houses; toward the end, the group will make the argument that you really can have a “marriage” of three people as parents, an idea many will not like. The film also argues that true bisexuality exists with males as well as with women when the psychological dynamics (polarities) are there. 

But the political and social arguments (even about polyamory) aside, the deeper issues are metaphysical, which Tykwer dazzles in front of us in a hypermodern 2.35:1 canvas.  There is a stunning orchestral and chamber music score by Tykwer himself as well as Heil, Klimek and Mounsey (there is a passage that reminds one of Bernard Herrmann in “Psycho” or “Vertigo”).  One of his ideas is that people have flexible identities – he challenges the idea that people need to pin themselves down (invoking the debate about the recent policies of Facebook and Google+ not to allow double lives on their sites, for example).  Another is that it seems wrong to him that some people need to see other conform to their “rules” in order to remain responsible for what they do.   Tykwer gets very explicit in his images about potential insults to the body – by surgery prep (Simon undergoes his surgery under a spinal and remains awake and sees it all go), as well as what  swimmers take as routine (even Adam’s armpits are shaved).  He also has some rather graphic dream sequences in black-and-white (one where Simon experiences all of his teeth falling out). Despite the destruction, there is rebirth, as Adam finds, first with Simon, then with Hanna.  Finally, the relationship leads to a medical enigma (starting with a pregnancy test scene).

The visual and music style of the film approaches that of Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.

Here’s the official Facebook site

Here is Strand’s official trailer.


Tykwer (Germany's David Lynch?) is well known for “Run Lola Run” and “Winter Sleepers”, both of which I have seen, the latter, as I recall, at the University of Minnesota during an International Film Festival years ago.

After the film, there was a reception upstairs, where the Institute has an exhibition of the photography of Frederike Brandenberg, link


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

This is what "Love in Action" looks like (film)


Back in 1989, when I worked for a Washington DC public policy research consulting company, I met the roommate of a younger coworker, and was told he was in the “Love in Action” program.  I did see a little of the printed literature, with references to “ministry” to people with AIDS, and was told that the roommate was “trying to give up the gay lifestyle.”  After I had left the company, I was invited anyway to a Sunday night (March 1990) service that the group sponsored at the Presbyterian Center in Washington DC (below), near American University. It was mostly a classical music concert, but before the end of a Bach cantata, the minister interrupted the service for a “prayer”.  I thought that did disserve to the performance of the music. But no one mentioned gay issues at the service. I don’t believe I have ever been in that large facility since.

The film “This Is What Love in Action Looks Like”, directed by Morgan Jon Fox, from Sawed-off Collaboratory Productions (72 min) starts out with close-ups of a most appealing young man, Zach Stark, with camera angles arranged to emphasize his visible “masculinity”, in street clothes.  Pretty soon he is blogging (I momentarily thought about Jesse Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg in the blogging scene of “Social Network” [about the loss of "Erica"]).   We are never told how he breaks away from the forced  isolation (no media allowed) of the “Refuge” run by Love in Action, where he is a client, sent there involuntarily by his parents at 16 (in 2005) after telling them that he is gay.  Instead, he somehow played undercover reporter, leading to protests in Memphis and other cities that would bring down much of the ex-gay operations of Love in Action.

The film gives us some history. LIA was formed around 1973, after the APA declared that homosexuality is not a mental illness.  Pretty soon there was an umbrella organization, Exodus, which the film presents almost as if intended to scam religiously gullible young adults and, later, their parents.  The film goes into the “house rules” of the Refuge, and these get pretty bizarre – and suffocating. The commentators in the film (which includes interviews by Diane Sawyer and other journalists) called it “shame therapy”.

As the film points out, eventually activists would bring legal action in Tennessee, with some success, on the basis of the idea that forcing minors into “reparative therapy” is a kind of child abuse.  Yet, other documentaries (as on PBS) have told stories of parents hiring military schools to come and take their kids away in the wee hours of the morning.

My own experience at NIH in the later part of 1962, which I have explained elsewhere in the blogs, was not as grotesque as this, but shared some of the same intentions.

I still ask myself this question: Beyond the “obvious” religious motives, what motivates parents to do this?  That’s what I would want to make a film about.  I do have a theory that willingness to share purpose with others may gradually become a compelling moral principle in a world focused on sustainability.  Parents may believe that it is both their right and responsibility to bring their children up to become biologically and socially loyal to their families.  The idea of a progeny (and “vicarious immortality”) may be very important to holding a marriage together for some couples as they enter middle age.  One could say, one should not have children for such “selfish” purposes, or others could say that is every reason and the only ultimate reason to have and raise children.   It could be regarded as an existential responsibility.

The film plays up a common but now underreported idea among social conservatives and much of the “religious right”:  to avoid becoming a parasite upon the sacrifices of others, gender conformity is a moral ukase.  Joseph Nicolosi (a conservative Catholic and author of an anti-gay book that I analyze on my Books blog on Jan. 21, 2009, where the author starts out by saying “masculinity is an achievement” and talks about “gender deficits” as moral deficits) is shown giving a lecture (he has appeared on Dr. Phil, perhaps a mistake).  The film has scenes at Refuge where teenage boys are required to develop some proficiency at sports like by hitting baseballs (surrendering to the stereotype of gays as physically weak). Boys are even prodded to learn to become publicly chivalrous toward females and learn to put them on a pedestal. 

The repeal of "don't ask don't tell" should make the ex-gay movement less credible, especially in the minds of gullible parents. But through much of the history of Love in Action, gays were officially excluded from the military by "asking", and then we had the "don't ask don't tell" statute, which can feed the kind of propaganda (a generalization of "unit cohesion" as applied to the extended family) that LIA wants to "sell".

The film presents several other teens, such as Lance Carroll.
 
Near the end of the film, Zach is shown in college, in a dorm, majoring in I.T., and typing his mood now finally is “happy”.  I wondered if Jesse Eisenberg will play him some day in another Sorkin film, or invite him to cohost SNL.  Whatever his parents’ overbearing religious values, they seemed to have raised a very promising, resourceful and responsible son.   They ought to let themselves be proud of him now.

Here is the official site  or this newer link.  Check the "Truth Wins Out" blog here.  

The film was screened late Wednesday afternoon at the West End Cinema in Washington DC, before a moderate festival (Reel Affirmations 20) crowd, at a reduced price admission. There are reports that demand for the Men's Shorts late Tuesday night at the same small venue was overwhelming; I didn't get to those.

The film company offers an extended video (10 min) clip on youtube,

Wikipedia attribution link for Memphis skyline and pyramid    My last visit was 1992.  John Grisham’s “The Firm”, a movie in 1993 starring Tom Cruise, takes place there. The novel opens with a sentence that marriage was "mandatory" for employment within The Firm. 

"Walker Percy" documentary airs on PBS; story of a southern intellectual author

PBS Frontline on Tuesday night aired “Lost in Detention”, a one hour documentary about the continued tough policies illegal immigration practiced by the Obama administration, continuing the policies of Bush. The Obama administration says it is simply enforcing the law.

At issue is the Secure Communities Program.  People who look like possible immigrants get stopped for minor traffic violations and detained when they don’t have proper documentation. They are processed by ICE, the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.  Often, they do not have the right to due process or legal representation if they do not have documentation.

Many have been sent to detention centers, including one “tent city” on the Texas-Mexico border near Brownsville. Females have been subject to abuse.

Some of the film covered his time in Greenville, MS, making it a cultural center of the deep South. 

Here is the PBS Frontline link

Here is the WETA link.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Private Property": ideology gives way to tragic family drama of spoiled people (Belgium)

A film called “Private Property”  (“Nue propriete”), even if in French and from Belgium, ought to attract libertarians, right?

Well, this little drama, which is almost like a filmed play, directed by Joachim Lafosse, certainly is a warning to adult children who expect to inherit property. 

The setup is that two fraternal twin brothers, Thierry and Francois (Jeremie Renier and Yannick Renier, probably brothers), having turned 20, are still big babies, living in their divorced mom’s (Pascale – played by Isabelle Huppert) farm-estate somewhere near the Luxembourg border.  The father Luc (Patrick Descamps) sends alimony on condition she take care of the boys.

We see them taking baths together and washing each other’s hair, and then playing ping pong.  When Pascale meets a boy friend  Jan (Kris Cuppens), who wants Pascale to sell, turn the boys loose, and start a business, the boys feel threatened.  The “property” is to be theirs, with no work to earn it, right?

It gets worse when the mother leaves anyway, leaving the boys to turn on one another.

The film is quiet, with no music during the credits and almost none until the end, when a bizarre arrangement of the fourth movement “Primal Light” from Mahler’s Symphony #2, with a demonic violin replacing the voice part, sooths us as the camera moves away from the estate, having documented a tragedy.

Maybe Ayn Rand was right. Those who inherit property without earning it or deserving it will just waste it and lose it.  The Radical Left (even the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters) which objects to inherited wealth, might like this movie, too. 

Here is the official site

The 2006 film was distributed by New Yorker Films and now by Netflix Red Envelope.

Wikipedia attribution link for map of Belgium. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Belgium.jpg

"Mary Lou": Eytan Fox makes a TV concept into an ambitious musical set in Israel; the story is sadder than the music

The “musical” is perhaps the most difficult of all film genres to pull off well.  The story has to be rich and serious, and the music has to reach the audience while matching the grim happenings of many plots. That’s one reason why “The Sound of Music” is still so successful, that match.

NYC-born director Eytan Fox, who has a repertoire of LGBT films set in Israeli, takes on the genre in “Mary Lou”, with the unusual experiment of first setting it up as a TV miniseries of four 35-minute episodes, in Hebrew.   The concatenation (which labels the episodes as "Parts") works quite well as a feature film, however long (over 140 minutes), and the story seems continuous, with the mandatory beginning, middle and end that all screenwriting professors demand. The television origin means that standard aspect ratio was used (full anamorphic widescreen is common in US musicals). 

The music centers around the songs of 70s icon Svika Pick, with original music by Adi Goldstein, Ivri Lider, and Tzvika Pik. The overall effect is a tuneful but somewhat superficial atmosphere related to Israeli popular music, with overuse of relative major and dominant chords in somewhat modal minor tunes.  (Although the words “Mary Lou” are usually sung on a three-note downdraft to the leading tone, which is effective.)  The story would have lent itself to opera; and a challenge, as almost any modern composer would feel challenged to add tension to the music.

The setup is sad indeed. At age 10, young Meir (Amit Moris) is faced with the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of his mother.  His father (Schmuel Vilozni) is willing to live with the shame of the idea that she ran out on him. Mother had admired the songs of Pick and dreamed of being a diva herself. At 18, the grown Meir (Ido Rosenberg) goes on a search for his mother. He dyes his hair and puts on lipstick and dresses in a superficial drag and performs in the Tel Aviv clubs under the name Mary Lou (the title of his mother's favorite Pick song, which she sings to him as a little boy in a particularly touching flashback).  But he never takes the makeup of drag performances too far.  When “out of uniform”, he remains a thin and energetic  attractive male who keeps the shag on his arms and particularly his legs.  (Sorry, no bicycle races or swim meets, either.)  There follows a series of quests, barking up wrong trees (at one point he fears his mother was taken into the sex trade), and then relationships.  He falls in love with a macho, much more heavily muscled Israeli soldier, whom he seems to bring "out".  There is a scene where Meir shows up at the Army base, and the boyfriend fears Meir will ruin his military career – which is odd, because Israel is said to have fully integrated open gays into its military – an argument that was helpful in the recent repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” in the United States.   (Fox had tackled the issue earlier with “Yossi & Jagger”; remember, Israel has mandatory military service, a draft, of both men and women.) Meir’s best friend Shuli (Dana Frider) drowns after another unrequited affair.

Finally, there comes the “revelation”, which would amount to a spoiler. But the concept had appeared in a very different film a few days ago (“Take Shelter”, Oct. 14).  Suffice it to say, frustrated fantasies can take one out of commission, completely.

The film shows Meir (as played by Ido) narrating some of the story, in close-up shots of him with no makeup, and looking quite appealing in natural appearance. 

The film was screened Oct. 17 in Washington DC the Embassy of Israel by the Reel Affirmations 20 film festival.  The facility was small, and the screen relatively small. Unfortunately, the presentation stopped as the end credits started, when some of the better orchestral music might have been performed.  The little bit that I heard had more tension than the songs.  The film has also been screened at Outfest in Los Angeles (link ).

The film is written by Shira Artzi.  I found a sales site for the film from "Nancy Fishman Releasing"..  Distribution information and an official website have yet to be entered into imdb.   The Facebook page (from Fishman) is here. Strand Releasing, Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films have distributed the work of Fox (including the "spy thriller" “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble” [not to be confused with another film from Magnolia] as well as “Yossi and Jagger” before.   

Nancy Fishman offers this YouTube video trailer. 


Wikipedia attribution link for Tel Aviv picture

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Into the Lion's Den" premiers at Reel Affirmations 20; a gay "road horror" thriller that fits an effective genre well

Ever since “Psycho”, road movies have become a vehicle for a particular kind of horror.  A likeable character, or group of friends, goes looking for adventure and sometimes “love” and gets more than it bargains for (or at least not what they expect). In a good horror thriller like this, you see it coming, and you want to yank the characters right out of the screen before they meet inevitable doom or demise.

Reel Affirmations 20, on Sunday Oct. 16, gave the world premiere of the new thriller, “Into the Lion’s Den”, directed by Dan Lantz, written by Philip Malaczewski  (and Philip Mawoshowski?)  Three friends – Michael (Ronnie Kroell), Johnny (Jesse Archer) and Ted (Kristen Alexzander Griffith) have become “bored” with West Hollywood and make the cross country trip to New York.  “Come east”, indeed.  In the Amish country of Pennsylvania, Johnny gets a text (probably spurred by cell GPS location) “inviting” the trio to stop by a dive called the Lion’s Den.  After they settle in a flea-bag motel and Michael takes his protease meds (an important clue), they head for the place, and find, well, it’s not exactly the gay bar they had hoped.  Really, in rural Pennsylvania?  You won’t find a Town DC or a Studio One.

The film was shot outside of Philadelphia, according to others’ notes (as in the Blade). But there was one scene that looked like the Strasburg railroad, a tourist attraction, just south of Lancaster a bit (east of where the mountains start).  I’ve ridden it before.  The Choo-Choo Barn (not to be confused with Roadside America) is nearby.  The film shows Amish buggies with a bit of irreverence. I know a lot of Pennsylvania pretty well; “America starts here.”

As for what happens to the characters, well, you have to think about the villains: a skinhead, and a viper lady sporting a bow and arrow (“she” is the main villain). Downstairs there is a chamber of horrors.  We can start with the electroshock treatments, but there is far “worse”.  In the ensuing carnage, something will happen that does indeed answer right-wing arguments against gays, spurred by the relatively sudden appearance of AIDS, put out in the 1980s by the likes of Paul Cameron and others.  Let’s say people can get what they deserve, based on their own actions.

I won’t give too many more specifics here.  But the film bears comparison to others in the genre, straight and gay. There was an obvious reference to Anthony Perkins in the 1960 classic at one point; and the setup reminds us of Lionsgate’s “Hostel” franchise.  But the really interesting comparison is to Carter Smith’s horror masterpiece, “Bugcrush”, a 37 minute short (2006) set in Maine, reviewed here  January 29, 2008. In comparison with that film, the central characters here elicited less identification from me, and the “horror” scenes actually came on too suddenly, without real “prep”.  In “Bugcrush”, there is a real bond of “affection” (or pseudo-love) between the characters before it gets “dangerous”.  That aspect, making “Bugcursh” an erotic film, was lacking here.  

The film opens and closes with a black-and-white sequence showing a white rose that reminded me of the German film “The White Ribbon” (not to be confused with “The White Rose”, better known in the  US as the remake “Sophie Scholl: The Last Days” (review July 1, 2009)).

The film (Lion's Den) will be released by Breaking Glass Pictures on video soon.  I hope there is a theatrical release.  As I write this review, Kevin Smith is discussing his road horror film "Red State" on ABC's "The View"; I've not seen it (yet), but it deals with travelers encountering a fundamentalist sect; and Smith is saying that it costs $20 million for a movie to get main theatrical chain distribution.  Not real encouraging!

Another film for comparison could be "Albino Farm" (reviewed here Aug. 11). Another one is "Timber Falls" (2007) from A-Mark, by Tony Giglio where the villains want a baby out of a traveler.

Ronnie Kroell had appeared at the panel discussion Wednesday night.  Most of the cast as writer and director were present for a Q&A (below).  Philp Malaczeski  (above) was present for the discussion, and later at the after-party at the Tonic at 23rd and G. It was Quigley’s drug store and grille in the 1960s, when I went to GWU and graduated (1966).   I remember a day, before a chemistry hour exam at Corcoran Hall a few buildings away (across from Lisner), going into the place for a burger and was greeted with “nothing from the grille; she’s cleaning!”  


The Pennsylvania  "Amish country" pictures are mine, mostly from 2006. Remember the Nickel Mines tragedy?

Here's a YouTube video of an interview with Breaking Glass Pictures CEO Richard Wolff on indie film:

"The Maiden and the Princess" and "I Don't Want to Go Back Alone" shine at Reel Affirmations Shorts program at Lisner

The “Best of the Fest Shorts” program for Reel Affirmations 20 took place Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University.  While waiting, one could grab a sandwich at the Marvin Center a half block away.

The Maiden and the Princess” (18 min, dir. Ali Scher, USA) , a musical of sorts, was the most innovative film and the most important of the set. Emmy Adams (Tallulah Wayman-Harris) “accidentally” kisses a girl in a kids’ tag game in what looks like either London or a New England town.  Her parents, not pleased, arrange for her to be sent an appropriate fairy tale from the Grand High Council of Fairy Tale Rules and Standards, headed by Bernard (Julian Sands).  At least, she isn’t whisked away to boarding school (that would make another movie).  A writer and storyteller, Hammond (David Anders) is threatened with the loss of his tongue (and writer’s license) if the story he tells isn’t “right”. But Hammond breaks all the rules himself. The scenes with the Council are in tepia tones (with the hooded characters) and almost in black and white. The music (Corey Wallace) is a little more contemporary than usual, sounding sometimes a bit like Leonard Bernstein.  Here’s the official site. This is the only film I gave a 5/5.   The layered story-telling was quite interesting. At one point, the film showed an image of the screenplay (Final Draft?) of Hammond's "fairy tale".  Some of the concepts, of animated newspaper  images, have the look of the "technology" of Harry Potter's world. 

I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone” (17 min, dir. Danile Riberio, Brazil, in Portuguese) (“Eu Nao Quero Voltar Sozinho”).  Well, Portuguese is not as close to Spanish as I thought.  I couldn’t follow any of it without the subtitles. (I noticed this when I was in Lisbon in 2001, with that short bus trip to Fatima.) Here Leonardo  (Ghilherme Lobo), a blind teen, wants the attention of classmate Gabriel (Fabio Audi) after a history teacher assigns them to work together on a report on Sparta. (The girls work on Athens.)  Giovana  (Tess Amorim)  would interfere.  A sweaty t-shirt becomes an important prop. The film explores how a person explores sexuality without visual cues that most of us depend on.  The film makes Sao Paolo look modern.   Here is the official site

No Direction" (13 min, dir. Melissa Finell) has a recent college graduate and philosophy major, of ambiguous gender, Jamie (Harper Gernet Girard) falling in love with a GPS robot her parents give her.  When I moved to Minnesota in 1997, I learned about the world of philosophy majors.

Public Relations” (17 min, dir. Gianna Sobol, USA) as a public relations director take her “phone pal” girlfriend on a cross country road trip to LA from NY without warning. Not quite Thelma and Louise.

Franswa Sharl” (14 min, dir. Hannah Hilliard, Australia). A teenager, Greg, enters a pool contest on a family holiday to Fiji, and does not please his macho father by cross dressing.  The alternate low-focus photography did not work for me.

The Queen” (8 min, dir. Christina Cole) has a Korean-American young man working for a parents’ dry cleaner quite taken by the opportunity presented by a female customer’s prom gown.
“52” (4 min, Josh Levy, Canada) has an aging gay man exploring the alternate realities of dreams, as with “Inception”. This film was shot in 2.35:1 and was projected cropped.  

Gayby” was reviewed here Sept. 12, 2010, for DC Shorts. But the point that a woman needs to have a baby “naturally” to inherit trust money is well taken.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

"Take Shelter": a new indie thriller in the tradition of "The Last Wave", "The Birds", and even "Inception"; we've been warned!

I hope I’m not playing “spoiler” by hinting that the new thriller from director Jeff Nichols “Take Shelter” (Sony Pictures Classics) recalls to mind the 1977 Peter Weir film “The Last Wave” from Australia. That film, perhaps a prescient warning about climate change, would be a good topic for my other “disaster movies” blog. 

That comparison may dig deeper than just the outcome. But Nichols film struck me even more as a character study, of a family man disintegrating, while his madness may indeed enable him to see dangers others miss.
  
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is already having discipline problems with his boss at work for a quarry west of Cleveland. His wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”; “The Help”; “The Debt”), is genuinely supportive as Curtis, not yet 40, starts having seizures and bleeds in their bed, and yet getting a cochlear implant for their hearing-impaired little girl is the top family priority. 

Perhaps it’s a little hard to believe that Curtis does get the “loan” to build the underground shelter he sees as necessary to protect his family from the coming apocalypse.  His borrowing company equipment gets him fired, and the scene where his boss comes to his house to terminate him is particularly brutal.  So is a confrontation with a coworker at a community potluck where he announces “There’s a storm coming.”   The interesting thing is that he is so into his own mind but wants to protect others, in his own way.

The movie plays up the psychiatric element, with the history of his mother’s commitment for schizophrenia, and his own therapy sessions.  Still, it constantly retains the edge of a thriller, moving in on horror, almost in a way as to put “average” horror films to shame.  The film blends dreams and reality (suggesting ideas in “Inception”) and has some scenes evocative of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

A storm does come, and when the family is in the shelter, I worried he would lose the key, and become entombed (as in a Poe story).  But there will be one last surprise.

The film was shot in Ohio, and the setting is named as Elyria, a small "rust belt" city on US 20 about 10 miles east of Oberlin and 25 miles west of Cleveland.  I spent my summers as a boy in Kipton, five miles west of Oberlin. 

A few streets in the film looked familiar (the east side of Oberlin?)  The house in the film may have been located near Route 58, south of Oberlin, in an area with some gas wells (one of which provided for an aunt's income;  people don't realize this area has oil and natural gas and that retirees depend on it for income). The film also showed an intersection near LaGrange, a major location of the film "Farmageddon".  It seems as though Ohio and Michigan are getting aggressive about getting films shot there ($$$  and new jobs). 

Here is Sony’s official site.

The 2.35:1 photography on expansive “Midwestern” landscapes gives this relatively low budget film a big look.  David Wingo’ music score adds to the sense of menace.

Here’s an interview with Jeff Nichols:


Note: pictures, of the Oberlin and Kipton, Ohio area, are mine, form a 2010 trip for an aunt's memorial service. One of the houses had the words "c-sharp" on the front entrance, suggestive of a musical note (C#-minor of the Moonlight Sonata, maybe.)   In general, though, the scenery in the film very much resembles these photos. A couple of my photos catch a thunderstorm (in October, no less) over an Ohio Turnpike service area.  When I was a boy, summer thunderstorms around Kipton were much more violent than those at home around Washington DC.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

"Machine Gun Preacher": Gerard Butler plays wild man out to save the souls of the world (Sudan, at least)

Gerard Butler has appeared on Piers Morgan with his new, trim bod at 41. Butler certainly plays the part of the psychologically masculine, hypermanic “man of action” (and, oh, so restless) “Machine Gun Preacher”,  that is, Sam Childers. a former drug dealer, saved and baptized in Christ, who takes on the mission of saving Sudanese children.  (No, I can't picture Ryan Gosling in this role, even after crushing everyone in his last two movies; Butler is the right choice.)

The film, directed by Marc Forster, moves too quickly, despite its 2+ hours length, with Childers impulsively jumping back and forth over 6000 mile journeys as if they were commutes.  (Other films about humanitarian missions have generally moved a little more deliberately.)  Yet, the scenes of the abused villagers and children, many “drafted” by rebel armies from the north, are among the most harrowing in cinema.

The early part of the film has a harrowing sequence where a tornado, rare for the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania, devastates the mobile home park where he lives and where he uses his shotgun to clear the way for his family to “take shelter” beneath it. (Prescient of another film? By accident only.)   The storm provides his roofing business a lot of income, and soon he has a home. After a sermon about service (echoes of Jimmy Carter in the 1990s, one sermon at First Baptist in Washington DC in particular, in connection with Habitat for Humanity), he takes the challenge to go save kids, even at the risk of neglecting his own.

He lands in northern Uganda.  The other guys want to go to Kampala “to look around” but he’s already into his mission, to go north.  The film does not mention the controversy in Uganda over draconian anti-gay laws proposed there, based on the theory that gays won’t continue family lines – as if a society there were worth preserving (Oh, I know, who am I to be insular enough to even thinking of passing such a judgment!)

In souther Sudan,  he builds his church, only to have it torched. Villages (Christians) are under constant threat of raids from “rebels”.  His wife (Michelle Monaghan) at first supports, even pushes him, but then tries to draw him back. Gradually, he turns soldier, to the point that a female British correspondent calls him mercenary, after earlier he is accused of being there as a professional tourist.  The battle scenes, while brief, remind one of “Hurt Locker”. 

Here is the official site.  The film is distributed by Relativity Media, often a production company, usually associated with Rogue Pictures  (“Catfish”, “Skyline”) by having purchased it, and related "upstream" with both Sony and Universal.  The film was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival.  The on-location filming overseas was done in South Africa by South African production companies. 

Here's a MaximoTV YouTube video of a Butler appearance.


In the closing credits, the "real" Childers says, "if you have a child, or a sister or brother, and I save them, do you care how I did it?" I have none of these. Of course, he poses a moral question.  If you don't have your own children or families to save, should one be "assigned to you"?  

Compare this film to “In a Better World” (April 12, 2011 review).  See Sept. 12, 2007 on this blog for reviews of Darfur-related films.

Still photos here are mine (from in and around Johnston PA, near location of story  -- Central City PA -- in film), from 2007. 

Since there’s a tornado in the film, I’ll add a weather channel video of the inside of a tornado crossing I-95 in Virginia: link (embed doesn't work). 

Update: Oct. 27

I happened to visit Central City, PA today on the way to the 9/11 Flight 93 Memorial.  I think I did pass a small Assembly of God church, not sure if this is the right one.  The town offers quite spectacular Allegheny scenery from the heights.
Here's an interesting church there, probably not the right one:
Here's another video, with the real Childers talking about "His Place", on DayStar, link.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

HBO's "The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell": a compelling history of the military gay ban and its end

It’s not too often that I would “go to the movies” at 8 AM. In fact, this morning I was awakened by a heavy autumn thunderstorm, and hoped that it wouldn’t cause the power or cable to drop.

Somehow, in the merriment of Sept. 20, the day “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed, I overlooked the airing of “The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  (directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato) on HBO.  Today, it re-aired on HBO Signature and is available on-demand (which I haven’t tried to use) until Dec. 31.  (I’ve had trouble with recording cable recently; that was another distraction.)  As documentary film, it turns American history into real storytelling, and yet retains a touch of a Ken Burns style. 

The dour music score, by David Benjamin Steinberg, caught my ear. It sounded constantly ready to erupt into Josh Groban’s passionate “The War at Home,” a four minute hymn which would be entirely appropriate for this subject matter, and cost a fortune to license.

The film does start with a brief history of the role of gays in the military, all the back to ancient Sparta (and then Alexander the Great [causing Warner Brothers a flap with its Oliver Stone film "Alexander" in 2004], and Richard the Lionheart).  It covers the clumsy attempt to ban gays during WWII, based on the (very false) stereotype that gays were “effeminate of body”, etc.  It  then covers briefly some of the cases before the Clinton “don’t ask don’t tell’ era, especially Leonard Matlovich (which became a TV film in 1979, “Matlovich v. U.S. Air Force”), Copy Berg, Perry Watkins, and others.  Then it launches us to 1992, when a younger Bill Clinton is running for president, and then into, with some detail, the debate all spring of 1993 on the plan to lift the ban, finally leading to President Clinton’s speech on July 19, 1993 at Fort McNair, where he proposed “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue”  (as documented in Stanford Law School’s library, here).

The film covers many of the eccentricities of the 1993 debate, such as the concept of “unit cohesion”, and the awkward notion of “privacy” in a military environment.  Sam Nunn, Charles Moskos, and Colin Powell all make their appearances.  There is a question as to whether sexual orientation is, unlike race, a “behavioral “ characteristic.  Senator Nunn’s low crawl on the USS Hammerhead is shown; I would repeat it myself with a visit to the Sunfish docked in Norfolk.  Tracy Thorne’s testimony in Norfolk appears, when he was rebuked by Senator Strom Thurmond who said “It isn’t natural….” and the Naval audience (fresh off of Tailhook) cheered.  (I have to give Sam Nunn’s post-Senate life credit; he is a leading authority and stopping the proliferation of nuclear raw materials.)  Former midshipman Joseph Steffan, author of the 1992 book “Honor Bound”  (my books blog, Oct. 10, 2007) appears (now in middle age).  Keith Meinhold ("I am proud of who I am") does not appear.  Greta Cammermeyer testifies how she disclosed her lesbianism as part of a security clearance investigation and was discharged.  (She was played by Glenn Close in “Serving in Silence” (1995).) 

I recall here that Barney Frank had suggested what became Clinton’s “don’t pursue” (and Frank often appears in the film).  Frank, in 1993, tried to make a division in policy between being “on base” and “off base”, as in the civilian world, where it does not always work even there.  Yet, a friend of mine from Adventuring once said “Barney Frank stabbed us in the back”.

The film moves on, in somewhat telescoped fashion, to the failure of “don’t ask don’ tell” to protect servicemembers when they tried to remain discrete.  Aaron Belkin, from the Palm Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, at the University of California, Santa Barbara) often speaks, especially in this portion of the film. (I visited Belkin on the UCSB campus in February, 2002.)  Gradually, the national security dangers of the policy become apparent.

The film covers some of the more recent cases, such as Mile Almy, who reports being escorted off base after his email was intercepted after his leaving a previous assignment, for no reason. The interview scene with him shows a chess set a game started. (Steffan had mentioned playing a lot of chess in his summer submarine tour.)  Lt. Dan Choi (West Point graduate), important in the last year with his unusual protests, also appears. 

The fall of the WTC towers on 9/11 is briefly shown.  The obvious point that the discharge of gay linguists may have led to documents not being translated or intercepted fits in.

The final part of the film covers the gradually accelerating push during the Obama administration to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell”, especially during the lame duck session after the 2010 elections.  John McCain tried to act a bit like a bully. But the tone of the debate was much “kinder and gentler” (even in conservative parlance) than it had been in 1993.  Patrick Murphy and Joseph Lieberman would introduce a stand-alone bill with a convoluted “certification” process that would pass on Dec. 18 finally lead to repeal in September of this year.  Murphy did not win reelection to Congress.  Murphy often appears in the film, as does Aubrey Sarvis from SLDN (and Dixon Osburn, former director, at least once).  A scene from the SLDN Annual Dinner at the National Building Museum on March 2010 is shown (I was there).  The “final” rally at the Capitol north lawn on Dec. 10, 2010 is shown, and I think the camera barely missed me.  While I was at the rally, my mother back at home took a sudden decline; I received a cell phone call in the middle of Michele Benecke’s speech.  She would pass away at age 97 Dec. 14; she had lived long enough to know that my own subterranean repeal efforts had worked (although I don’t think she could comprehend it at the end).

This film presents the history of DADT in a visually and dramatically effective fashion like no other. It ought to a theatrical release.  I will personally look into the possibility. In the past, HBO films could be released by a (TimeWarner) New Line brand called “PictureHouse”; maybe the brand should come back, or maybe I could jump in with my own “Do Ask Do Tell” and make it a movie distribution brand.

The one big area the film does not cover – and that I think is left for me to do in film (“Do Ask Do Tell” again) is the connection of the military policy to civilian life and the example it can set. Actually, at one point, the film mentions some pre-Stonewall demonstrations in 1964 (just before Vietnam heated up) to the effect that the military (specifically) is a cause of oppression of gays.   My expulsion from William nd Mary in the fall of 1961 as a freshman (“BillBoushka” blog, Nov. 28, 2006) became the locus for my 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book, and on a certain level the book draws on the “barracks” (aka dormitory) “privacy” analogy (possibility relevant to the tragedy at Rutgers in 2010—all these things are connected).   Charles Moskos had actually commented on this, before deciding after 9/11 that conscription should come back and that DADT should be repealed (he even said that to me in a Nov. 2001 email).  At one time, as in HBO’s previews (below) he had said “a strict ban” on gays was necessary for unit cohesion.  That would imply continuing to “ask”, but Moskos supposedly coined the phrase “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”.

But the connection is layered. The concept of “unit cohesion” corresponds to bigger ideas in the larger “civilian” community, like shared vision and solidarity, and openness to interdependence, ideas which may become connected to sustainability, especially as the environment as challenged and as longer lives connected to demographic changes like smaller families lead us to reconsider how we build our own attitudes to other people. 

The film did not cover, as much as it could have, the role of the online world (the Web and social media) in undermining DADT.  Without Facebook, etc., it might not have been repealed. In the modern world, our idea of “privacy” has certainly changed.  And its interesting to me that Mark Zuckerberg, from Facebook, has said that a double identity shows a lack of “integrity”.  And yet a double life is what “don’t ask don’t tell”, even in the words of William Jefferson Clinton, espoused.

Hers is the site for the film


My GLBT blog has a prospective introduction to the film on Feb. 4, 2011.  The film did not cover the role of Log Cabin Republicans and the suit as much as it could have (and it stayed away from partisanship -- but see my comments on the "Boy Culture" short film on DADT repeal, previous post).  This HBO film could not be included in Reel Affirmations DC film festival because it had already been released "commercially, but as I noted in the previous post, everyone at RA and at "One in Ten" realizes this is a very important film on LGBT issues. 


Note: all still pictures are mine, even though they resemble what is in the film. I was present at the events shown.  I could say that I could have made much of this movie, and presented pretty much the same point of view.