Monday, June 22, 2009

The Curse of Berlin

My cowboy-hatted compadre was making chit-chit with the cab driver. "Looks like the curse of Berlin!" she chirped, apropos of the rain pounding away at the cab's roof.

"Ach...there's no curse of Berlin!" clucked the driver in a reflexive PR maneouvre. "This is a great city! But every year it rains on Fete de la Musique. Every year!" he repeated.

It's true, the resilience of the party people in the face of scheisse Wetter is phenomenal. We sped through the suburban blankness of Koepenick to an undisclosed location. When we'd instructed the driver "Reichenzentrum" no address had been necessary -- the place had always seemed mysterious and elusive, not least because of the flying saucer, according to urban legend, harbored on its grounds. I felt as if we were bound for Berlin's very own Roswell.

We emerged to buckets of water accompanied by much Donner und Blitzen, taking refuge under a tent with some revelers, most of whom seemed cool except for some Oompa Loompa-skinned teenyboppers, presumably Lichtenburgers.

Finally, rattled by all the thunder,lightning and errant electrical gear, underdressed and shivering like the Dickens, we escaped our makeshift purgatory and made a B-Line for Reichenzentrum, through the brush a beckoning beacon of red and green flashing lights. Sadly, we were told access to the UFO wouldn't be possible for two more weeks. It's testament to the German sense of logic that on the day of a huge deluge, you couldn't actually go inside anywhere to warm up.

Between tents, cool-as-a-Teutonic-cucumber (or is that Guerke?) German boys lurched about on the wet beach. The Spree chugged along in the background, flanked by enough greenery to make me miss Seattle, and the ghosts of an old abandoned amusement park loomed, including a huge Riesenrad, or ferris wheel. An Orange sky speared by dingy smokestacks completed the picture.

There were "chillout areas" (the German verb is "chillen", a Dinglish word similar in conception to "uploaden") near the dock, i.e. soaked mattresses plunked here and there, and soggy paper lanterns dangling like sorry odes to Blanche du Bois. Mirrored disco balls, halved and quartered, were set in relief into the trees like toadstools.

Soaked to the skin, I hadn't been this wetly miserable since a belligerent queen lobbed several drinks at me at a Pet Shop Boys concert in Chicago. At least that venue had been heated.

Finally I decided to make Zitronensaft out of life's lemons, ordering a lime Jever, and warmed up the only way I knew how: trudging through the wet sand and joining the others in the zombie shuffle.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Revisiting Bruno

The American public has been teased by the Sacha Baron Cohen ambush machine for nigh on a year now. This month's premiere of the "fruits", ahem, of his labor, the new Bruno movie, fortuitously coincides with a high-water mark in advancements of gay rights in the states. To date, post-Prop 8, we have seen a number of states pushing for promulgation of gay marriage, five of them falling in quick succession like dominoes, as well as endorsement of the same issue by GOP leaders (however cynical their reasons). Yes, it seems that the Obama administration's method of tiptoeing around the issue has been inundated by the inevitable tide of social change, i.e. what is inexorably and morally correct (not that I believe in the inherent value of marriage, but it would be nice to know the option is there, and you're not being reminded every day of your life by the government and gloating "smug marrieds" that you are somehow less-than).

So now we're set to make the case that gays are really just the boys next door, trying to make ends meet, sustain a mortgage, a hedge fund, a happy home and 2.5 kids. But whither those fusty old stereotypes of yore: the interior decorator, the flamboyant queen, the hairdresser, the entertainer of society ladies, the Siegfrieds, the Roys, the Liberaces of the world? Cue Bruno. Cohen's character, developed over the last few years in a cod-Austrian cable tv show, aims at digging up these old archetypes in the service of his own particular brand of subversion, patented a few years ago in a documentary/talk show format with Ali G and Borat. With his own satirical scalpel, Cohen vivisects the prides and prejudices of the red-blooded American male, exposing US ideals of masculinity for the half-hearted sham charade that they are. The root of American society is inf(l)ected with the overzealous homophobia of said males, a real reflection of insecurity and fear. Not terribly manly, this homosexual panic is probably a conflation of fear of anal penetration and a concomitant fear that they might enjoy it. The corollary of this, with which I am sure Bruno would agree, would be Jean Genet's dictum that a man who fucks another man is double a man. Paradoxically, to give up that much power to another male would be anathema to any self-respecting American lad.

I haven't seen the film yet, but a friend sent me a link to an interesting article in the Irish Times:

The author makes the valid point that Bruno is trading in retrograde stereotypes at a pivotal time. A time in which we are making measurable progress in the courts, whereas homophobia is still thriving in the streets. Bruno, she says, presents a cartoonish portrayal of gay men as promiscuous, shallow buffoons in a way which has the effect of robbing the homosexual of dignity and any social progress s/he may have effected. (Ha! She should take a gander at Perez Hilton, Bruno's much more pernicious real-life counterpart. Scads more embarrassing.)

In reality I don't see this as problematic, mainly because anyone who is gay can tell you that the stereotype of the hedonistic homosexual does still exist, and probably always will. In my mind I see Bruno as something of a cut-up artist, employing an ancient trope in a new and subversive way, which turns the joke around and places it on the perpetrator of hate. OK, he may be playing anal sex jokes for laughs, allowing the more liberal members of the audience to give vent to their discomfort as well, but if you ask me his touch is light enough to show that sex is absurd and ridiculous (and inherently undignified), no matter what your orientation is. After all, queers certainly don't have a monopoly on perversion, or on anal sex/sodomy for that matter. Furthermore, in his crass shallowness and celebrity worship, Bruno seems to hold up a mirror to the culture.

I can certainly empathize with the author insofar as being aware of how one is perceived by the world. Self-consciousness, whether foisted on the queer by societal causes or not, is necessarily a birthright of all homosexuals, and also germane to the artificiality needed to create art, and to precipitate self-invention. One hand is always aware of what the other is doing. But sometimes a finger becomes gangrened, and needs to be cut off. Having always been somewhat naturally witty, there was a time in the past when I have been considered the life of the party. The danger is that there is a natural tendency for the homosexual, intelligent or not, to play up to this role, that of the court jester. Sadly, once I realized I was expected to take on the role of entertainer in every social situation, it was clear that the friendship was past its sell-by date. I mean, look what happened to poor Oscar Wilde: rewarded with two years' hard labor for his efforts. Perhaps it's harsh, but people had formed an intractable and untrue image of me, and I had had a hand in the friendship's demise, having enjoyed the attention all too much. You see, the truth is, just as Sacha Baron Cohen is a Cambridge-educated scholar, underneath the funny exterior, lay a very very serious lesbian feminist.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

It was a veritable hall of mirrors today as I scanned the headlines, doing a morning-coffee-sploshing double take at the top story: "Woman who Missed Flight 447 Dies In Car Accident". Nearly two weeks later. Yikes. The would-be passenger and her husband were reportedly spared the doomed flight by a dilly-dallying taxi driver. The poor thing bit it yesterday when an oncoming truck swerved into her lane on an Austrian highway, colliding head-on with the vehicle in which she was riding. Egads.

I shuddered as the plots of several fatalistic horror yarns of yore unspooled in my mind. Films like The Ring and Final Destination, in which protagonists are doomed to some kind of time-release mumbo-jumbo which they must thwart right quick to avert Death in whatever arbitrary form the script dictates he take. Unfortunately in real life, these things tend to come without warning. Fear the reaper, baby. No place is safe -- not even the domicile.

In Final Destination, the characters can't even seek refuge in their own kitchens and bathrooms -- they're crammed with Rube Goldberg-inspired deathtraps fashioned from household appliances, a bit of rope here , some lighter fluid there, an errant gas flame, an old record player, some electrical cord and a tub of water, e.g. Like a plane crash, these incidents are triggered by a catastrophic sequence of events, which could be set in motion at any minute (each time augured by the strains of a John Denver tune -- get it?) Each set piece is preceded by an almost excruciating sense of suspense at what gimmick the savvy, William-Castle-ish filmmakers will inflict on the audience next, which emotional levers they will pull as the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Unfortunately our protagonists aren't given a chance to put up much of one, as they are operating on "death's timetable", mere puppets in the cosmic scheme. And the old hooded one don't appreciate no cheatin' at life's poker game. It's a schematic approach that works in the filmmaker's favor (ka-ching!), but not the characters'.

Our heroes have "cheated" death by averting immolation with their colleagues when the flight for their class trip explodes shortly after takeoff. As the vessel prepares to roll down the runway, one of the students has a panic attack/premonition of the crash, which gets him ejected from the flight along with a few friends and a concerned faculty member. The plane then blows up in a huge conflagration, in front of their dazed and startled eyes, while the traumatized teach and teens are left to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately for them, having "cheated death" the first time, the audience need only sit back while, in one Grand Guignol tableau after the other, the survivors are dispensed of in a mechanical, baroquely gruesome fashion.

The first hour of the film is among most realistically depicted plane crashes I have seen. It uses the crash of real-life flight TWA 800, which exploded off the coast of New York in 1996, carrying a group of students (as in the film) on their senior trip to France, as a jumping off point for its convoluted plot machinations involving the invisible scythe-wielding menace. At the time FD came out, it was considered in somewhat poor taste, if not gripping entertainment, with an appealing teenybopper cast, including forgotten Canadian heartthrob Devon Sawa.

Small wonder the "coincidence" in the tale's real life counterpart in the Air France crash has gripped people so forcefully. In such cases, viewers must confront themes such as chance, fate, the luck of the draw, the road not taken. Whether or not we are really lucky, when we think we've dodged a bullet (especially when said bullet has your number on it, and comes to nab you seven days -- in the case of the video cassette in The Ring -- or a week and a half later). And indeed, the human propensity to seek causality where there is none is phenomenal. If nothing else it's a grim (no pun intended) reminder that old skull-face is coming for us all sooner or later, like it or not. In the surprisingly philosophical Final Destination, these elaborate deathtraps, fashioned out of run-of the-mill household objects -- represent the threats that surround us on a daily basis (and if I thought about it too much, I would be living in a bunker).

Though the fixation of the public on the stranger-than-fiction twist spawned from Air France flight 447 is understandable from a human interest perspective, the downside is that the religious wingnuts will seize on this as proof positive of god's will. Shortly after 9/11 I was working in social services, and one of our clients came in and rather dogmatically, without the slightest bit of irony, proceeded to inform me and everyone present that all the folks unlucky enough to have been in the WTC that day, from lackeys at JP Morgan to busboys at the Windows of the World, all of them got what they deserved, because it wasn't chance or bad luck or what have you, but divine intervention on a massive scale. Yes, the man proclaimed vociferously and with as much unchecked conviction as Bush the Conqueror would later display in his promulgation of unfettered power to send the military into misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, those people had a debt to pay, and on Sept 11, by god, it was their due date!

Jeez. All those people in the same building at the same time. Just going about their own business, living their lives, trying to bring home the bacon. Businesspeople, trying to make something of themselves, janitors swabbing the latrines before going home to their families, secretaries sharing a morning coffee with their bosses. Not to mention the firefighters who arrived on the scene, and the parish chaplain who was among the first to die. Forget the jihad, we've got sinners in the hands of a wrathful Judeo-Christian god, folks! All summoned on that sunny Tuesday to pay their debts. What a coinkindink. Just like flight 447.

See folks, this is why these religious whackjobs need to be expunged from consciousness -- preferably by knocking them unconscious. Sometimes I think their eschewing of logic -- and embrasure of that of the fuzziest kind -- would preclude them from engaging in any kind of rational dialogue. All those sinners aboard, they say, are in a "better place", or at least, the place they deserve to be. And what these fundy lunkheads are propagating is operating in the service of something not so different from the fantasy on which Final Destination is predicated. But one thing is "lost" in all this metaphysical rubbernecking, and that is that the victims were actual people with actual lives. Let's not forget that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Deborah Harry, Deborah Harry

It's important to occasionally pay homage to the icons of our past, and not forget who inspired us in our younger days. What with Blondie on tour in 2009, what better time to pay tribute to that paragon of effortless cool and deadpan soignee, Deborah Harry? I ask you, where would modern day warblers like Robyn or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs be without her? (Forget that crystal addict tranny Fergie, whose trash burlesque was woefully upstaged by Harry at the MTV awards).

Ms. Harry was something of a shapeshifter and changed her style regularly, but, roots or no, always retained the essence of her Deborah-ness, which is why she has remained an icon. Indeed the musical stylings of her band Blondie were all over the map, but they managed to carve out a distinctive sound which is still instantly recognizable.

I shan't forget sitting in my parents' beat-up Toyota throbbing along to the rock/disco pulse of Atomic, thinking I'd died and gone to musical heaven (later Britpop band Sleeper would score their lone hit with their tinny Xerox version on the Trainspotting soundtrack). Of course, at the tender age of 7 I had scant concept of nuclear annihilation, or that the ditty would prefigure the Pyongyang nuclear standoff by a good three decades! Then there was the time I stood on a sand dune on a beach at our summer place on Lake Michigan, with the reggae lilt of The Tide is High on high, tautologically watching the actual tide roll in. Bliss.

A couple years back a friend of mine (Hi Jamie!) mentioned what big Blondie fan he was, then proceeded to declare that I reminded him in attitude of Debbie Harry! He couldn't explain it, any more than one could explain the ineffable cool of Miss Harry herself. I certainly have no idea what he meant, especially since I am a man, quite macho and dark-featured! Perhaps it is her special blend of humility and rock aggression, a simultaneous streetwise earthiness and vulnerability, with a bit of cheeky humor thrown in for good measure. Like Ms. Harry, I really didn't hit my stride career-wise until my thirties, and, like her, I am often told I look years younger than my actual age. It's really not for me to say. But it was an incredibly flattering thing for my friend to say.

In this rather antediluvian interview we find Ms. Harry in bubbly blond yet purposeful, almost business-like mode, maintaining her sangfroid while a clueless and homely interviewer dogs her with questions about her age!

For some reason they've been removing classic videos formerly available on Youtube (perhaps due to copyright issues), so the original Atomic video is unavailable, but they've kept the Xenomania remix, which isn't half bad (though it omits the incredible bass guitar solo at the bridge). They're the crack team of producers behind the Pet Shop Boys' new comeback album, as well as pop tarts Saint Etienne and Girls Aloud.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bacon at the Met

Slate recently featured a slideshow essay highlighting the pivotal works of seminal 20th century painter Francis Bacon's oeuvre to mark his retrospective at the Met. I hope his mutely shrieking popes and groping, degraded figures, make it across the Atlantic, leaving their telltale "human snail trail" of slime (as Bacon famously described it*) in their wake.

The touchstone “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” caused a huge furor upon its exhibition in the 1940's. The work’s confrontational yet detached emotionalism moved me immediately upon seeing the work. The painting’s amalgamation of several intriguing themes was also a factor. These include crucifixion, dysmorphic human figures, nihilism and the modern notion of the grotesque.

Bacon opted to present his work as a triptych, a model used in many religious paintings. The viewer is presented with three discrete versions of what appears to be the same vaguely phallic, anthropomorphic figure, rendered in murky grays, whites and browns against a vermilion background. The creature in the left hand panel appears slumped over, bloodied and resigned. In the center panel the head seems to have been reduced or eradicated altogether, the neck tied in shroud-like white gauze (a tourniquet?), the only remaining features being a couple of slits at the end of the long appendage. The panel on the far right features an inverted head with a gaping mouth frozen in a silent scream reminiscent of Munch. Each humanoid figure is presented on a base: a table, a pedestal, a rug, from which the “limbs” of the figure spring organically, further dehumanizing the humanoid.

The technique of dehumanization and the notion of “human furniture” or decoration is also a by-product of Bacon’s background as an interior designer. His obsession with gaping mouths, triggered by a textbook he purchased on diseases of the mouth which haunted him perennially, is first manifested here. The horrific appearance of the figures prefigures later Bacon riffs on the theme of the Eumenides in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The distancing technique of the triptych format is a Bacon paradox: an avowed atheist with a martyrdom complex, he used the crucifixion as a template upon which to hang, as it were, images of a godless world infused with a post-World War II sense of alienation and despair. He also hated “narrative” painting, wanting all the emotions of a particular work to hit the viewer at once. The triptych format helped break up the narrative, such as it is, so you really can’t tell what’s going on in the painting. This heightens the ambiguity of the piece. What does come through is a raw beauty and a depiction of the modern condition as a silent shriek of isolation, self-disgust and horror which has been compared to the literary works of the Existentialists.

*see Love in a Dark Time by Colm Tobin for further reading on the life and art of Francis Bacon