‘MURICA. . . As It Has Never Been

To all those readers outside the United States, I say: Guess what? It’s America’s birthday!

To all those inside the United States, I say: Happy Fourth of July! Don’t set off fireworks into your neighbors’ trees!

For me, America is the land where my parents live. It’s writing words in the air with sparklers on a warm summer’s night. It’s running around with the other neighborhood kids catching lightning bugs (and occasionally feeding them to the local bullfrog). I see an American flag, and I think of performing with my high school marching band. America is the place where I spent my childhood. 

As an adult I still identify as an American, but this modern America is not the same country where I rode my bike to UDF for ice cream. It’s a place where a crazy person can walk into a Colorado movie theater and create a slaughterhouse. In this America, when you go to a restaurant you see half of the patrons giving more attention to their smartphones than the person sitting across from them. We distrust our politicians, we isolate ourselves from one another, we place our faith in drugs and alcohol.

American films present a view of our country that is equally skewed. The Patriot depicts the American Revolution as one man’s war against the eeevil British solider who (for no apparent reason) killed his family. Django Unchained gave us the Civil War with a righteous ending, but one that is soaked in blood and anger. So many of our popular films which deal with America are violent.

But maybe the America I remember never really existed except in a child’s mind. Like a personal movie, maybe this is just a story I constructed in my mind to explain why I was so happy as a child.

I realize this is a depressing post on America’s birthday, but I think we need a few somber moments on days like these– lest they become mired in food and alcohol. I am an American. No matter where I go, I will always be an American. But I am worried for my country.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) and the “Problem” of Gay Cinema

In honor of Pride Weekend here in Chicago, I took a look over the last few days at some of the movies Netflix categorizes as Gay and Lesbian. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of them featured a straight main character who has an over-the-top gay friend. Sassy Pants, for example, is about a young woman breaking free of her overprotective mother’s neurotic clutches. It is grouped with gay cinema because the protagonist’s father left his family for another man (played by Haley Joel Osmont, a long way from seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense). However, it doesn’t say anything about gay culture except: OMG having a gay bestie to sashay around the mall with is awesome, for realsies!!1!

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Of course there is nothing wrong with a film featuring a gay character surrounded by straight folks. The problem is that so many of those gay characters fall into safe stereotypes. Every cute heroine searching for love needs a gay buddy who gives sassy advice! And how many times have we seen the hero’s runt of a sidekick threatened by a butch lesbian in a seedy bar?

Gay people! They are defined by their sexual preference, and it is pure komedy.

However there are a few jewels in the rough. I have known of Kissing Jessica Stein for several years, but this was my first viewing. To my delight, it is a quirky, intelligent comedy driven by two extraordinary performances– Heather Juergensen as the confident, adventurous Helen and Jennifer Westfeldt (Ira and Abby, Friends with Kids) as the rule abiding, borderline neurotic Jessica.

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Jessica is a copy editor who is unlucky in love, mainly because she detests even the smallest imperfections in her dates. She has only ever dated men, so when she answers a “woman seeking woman” ad (because it quotes her favorite poet Rainer Maria Rilke) she doesn’t tell her friends or family. The ad was placed by Helen, who has many male lovers but who wouldn’t mind adding a woman to the mix. The two quickly strike sparks. Helen is certainly the aggressor while Westfeldt gets a lot of laughs from her depiction of Jessica’s wishy-washy approach to a lesbian relationship. She’s like a little kid at a swimming pool: dip one toe in and then yank it back right away.

jessicastein_bedEventually they consummate their relationship, but still all is not well. I was reminded of a letter in Dan Savage’s column in which a straight young man complained that as much as he tried to be receptive to a same-sex relationship in the name of open-mindedness, he could not become sincerely attracted to another man. Savage’s response was simple: you are straight. You can be open-minded all you want, but at the end of the day you are still a straight man. This is also Jessica’s problem. She has a strong connection to Helen, to be sure, but she isn’t a lesbian, not really. In one of the best scenes in the movie, she tries to describe her and Helen’s relationship to a coworker, and while she can easily list all of Helen’s wonderful qualities, she trails off saying “But she’s skinny and she has skinny arms, and it’s just all wrong, wrong, wrong.” She loves Helen, but she can’t love her in the right way.

Kissing Jessica Stein is not a perfect movie. The emotional impact of Jessica’s and Helen’s breakup (which of course must happen) is alleviated way too soon when the next scene shows them happily chatting away about Jessica’s new male love interest. As far as I’m concerned, breakups are hard enough. It must be even harder when you break up because one of you is not engineered to be attracted to the other. It feels unnatural to see the two women as good friends immediately after they stop being lovers. But before that disappointing conclusion, the film features many thoughtful conversations about love, sex and what it means to be straight/gay/bisexual/curious.

jessicastein_coupleAbove all, Kissing Jessica Stein is a worthwhile movie because it showcases characters who are not defined by their sexuality. Yes, Helen is a bisexual woman. She is also a smart, funny and self-confident art gallery owner. Likewise, her gay coworkers are not limp wristed stereotypes but well-spoken, intelligent people who see the difficulties in Helen’s and Jessica’s relationship long before they do. They feel well-rounded enough that another film could be made about their work at the art gallery instead of their sexual preferences, and it would still be interesting. This is what sets this film apart from movies like Chasing Amy.

So a slightly belated Happy Pride Month to everyone out there! May you find love in all the right places with nary a word being said against you.

When a Film Blows Your Mind

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time yesterday. I looked forward to the movie with great anticipation. Many of the critics and filmmakers I admire love this film. So when  I hated, hated, hated the first hour, I was pretty disappointed. In fact, I had to go out and get myself a cup of coffee just to stay awake.

And then something extraordinary happened. I began to love the movie.

If that transition sounds abrupt, good. Because that’s how quick my judgement flipped on Kubrick’s masterpiece— hated the first third, loved the middle third and bamboozled by the final third. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as my review will be posted early this week, but I can definitely say that I have never seen any movie like the last part of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is a short post because I am moving today. However I wanted to throw this question out to the internet world: what movie made you change your worldview? Or, maybe, what movie made you change your definition of film? What blew your mind?

I love hearing from you! I will post my review of 2001 soon, as well as brief look at some gay films on Netflix (in honor of Pride weekend).

Happy weekend, all!

Theatre as Film

muchado_coverI recently had the pleasure of seeing Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. In a word: delightful. However as much as I enjoyed all the shenanigans onscreen I had to wonder why this movie had been made at all.

There is nothing cinematic about it. As my friend put it, “It’s like Joss Whedon had a party and after the fifth bottle of wine they were all like, ‘Let’s do some Shakespeare!'” Granted, I would kill to have been a fly on the wall at that party. However this film played like he set up the camera in the corner and instructed the actors to put on a stage drama in front of it. By which I mean, there are no intriguing camera angles and no visual style (besides the hipster use of black and white).

As I said, I found the film delightful. But if you’re not going to do anything with film as a medium why not save yourself the expense and put on a stage play?

Any thoughts?

(I own nothing related to anything ever.)

Gigantic Megaplex Movie Screen vs Itty Bitty Laptop

As I was working last night on my review of 12 Angry Men (which will be finished one of these days–seriously), I found myself wondering whether the film would be any different if I watched it in a movie theater. My laptop is great and all. . . actually that’s a lie. My laptop is an evil thing which seeks to thwart me at every turn. But it’s my only option for watching movies, so I must pacify it with soft words.

Anyway, are films better when projected on a movie theater screen? I think most people will agree with me that action films like the upcoming Superman reboot are more impressive when the actors are ten times their normal size. Who doesn’t want to count Henry Cavill’s nose hairs? Action films tend to have a desire to entertain at their core rather than a desire to enlighten, inspire or analyze. Hence why a large screen is more appropriate.

But what about other films? I saw the Iranian film A Separation at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The film is about a divorce and possible manslaughter. Tensions run high throughout the entire story. But did I need to see it on the big screen?

Though it flies against my love of all things cheap, I say yes. It is always preferable to see a film in a theater rather than at home–especially when you are watching it on a laptop. Not because the sound is better or it is easier to admire the cinematography (though both of these things are true) but because a theater is a defined space. As long as you obey the no-cellphone rule, there is nothing to distract you in a movie theater. At home I have a hundred things I could be doing instead, including sleeping. In a theater I have only myself and the film.

There are days that I feel movie theaters are my church, and the director of whatever movie I am watching is my priest. Then I remember the directors I have met and decide to just enjoy the film. Happy viewing, everyone.

Movie theaters– esteemed place of cinematic worship or damn ripoff. What do you think?