Sunday, October 30, 2016


[In the spirit of Halloween, here's my take on a genuinely spooky film.]

When the Danish filmmaker Carl-Theodore Dreyer finished The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which was critically acclaimed but a commercial failure, he decided to make what could only be described as a horror film, which he called Vampyr.(1) In 1931, Ufa, the film's distributor, held up its release until after the appearance of both Dracula and Frankenstein, hoping to capitalize on the craze for such films. That Dreyer's film is more subtle and imaginative with its horror effects than either Tod Browning's or James Whale's Hollywood productions contributed to its failure in Europe. While Bela Lugosi's vampire became an iconic figure, Dreyer's Vampyr fell into a long and undeserved obscurity. As late as 1949, Paul Rotha's invaluable monograph, The Film Till Now called it "A film, much applauded by the intelligentsia, its obscure mysticism, its diffused and meretricious photography, its vague hints of the supernatural, have let the film become very much of a museum piece."(2) There is nothing in the least mystical about Dreyer's film, the photography is often "diffused" (with the use of a gauze filter), but can hardly be called "meretricious" since the film was a commercial failure, and Dreyer's "hints of the supernatural" are anything but vague.  

I must admit that I am not a fan of horror movies. Even when I manage to find one that is effectively creepy, I find myself asking to what end does its creepiness lead?. I saw The Exorcist when I was 15 or 16 and it scared the hell out of me, but only because I hadn't yet made up my mind about the devil. My mother had brought my brother and I up on a diet of "Bucket of Blood Triple Features" at drive-in theaters, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I was afraid of the dark until I was 16. The movies were cheesy, schlocky, usually foreign-made, and laced with plenty of nudity. How my mother got my brother and I through the gate with all those R ratings is a mystery. Admission was "by the carload," so I guess the guy or girl at the gate never bothered to look at the occupants of the car.

Perhaps because they were never taken seriously by producers, few, if any, of the films classified as belonging to the "horror" genre were worthy of serious attention. However, when Vampyr was released it was still possible to take the genre seriously. After all, it was Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1921) that established it at a fairly high level of artistry. Even Dracula and Frankenstein, though incredibly sensationalizied, still have a degree of fascination about them, due to the performances of Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

Taking two stories from the gothic horror writer J. Sheridan LeFanu's collection In a Glass Darkly as his starting point, Dreyer, who was worried of becoming known as the "saint" director due to the overwhelming impact of The Passion of Joan of Arc, acquired the backing of Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg and avoided the expense of shooting in a studio by renting an abandoned chateau in the French town of Courtempierre. The chateau, in disrepair and infested with rats, provided him with just the right atmosphere of decrepitude and death for Vampyr. The Baron de Ginzberg, employing the screen name Julian West because his aristocratic family disapproved of his appearing in a film, played the role of the protagonist Allan Gray who arrives at "a secluded inn near the river in the village of Courtempierre."

Dreyer wastes no time establishing an atmosphere of weirdness: A man in a broad-brimmed hat rings the bell for the ferry. He carries an enormous and menacing scythe like the figure of Death. Once settled in his room at the inn, Gray hears a strange voice through a door leading to the stairwell and, looking up the stairs, is startled to see a man with no eyes emerge from a room. He returns to his room and locks the door but, lying in bed, the key is turned by an invisible hand and an old gentleman enters the room and paces pensively. When he notices Gray lying in bed, he goes to the window and opens the blind. Looking directly at Gray, he exclaims, "She mustn't die! You understand?" He then takes a small sealed parcel out of his pocket and writes on it, "To be opened upon my death." The gentleman leaves the same way he came.

These first scenes are shot virtually without dialogue, except for what I've quoted and three words spoken by a girl who runs the inn. In the early years of sound film, some producers resorted to making different versions of a film: one with German dialogue, one with French, English, etc. To avoid using the heavy and quite immobile sound cameras, Dreyer shot his film silent, adding the spoken dialogue, music, and sound effects in post-production. Dreyer's cinematographer for Vampyr was the great Rudolph Mate, who managed to move his camera fluidly around the film's cramped interiors, following the actors from room to room.

The rest of Dreyer's film involves Gray learning of a girl who lives in the chateau (whose father came to him at the inn) and is stricken by a strange illness. When he discovers she is the victim of a vampire, and that the vampire is being assisted by the village doctor, Gray helps to save the girl and destroy the vampire and the doctor.

Dreyer's cast is made up of mostly non-professional actors. I suppose it would've been too much to ask Baron de Gunzburg, having financed Dreyer's film, why he had to play the hero, Allan Gray. Tall, with unusually large eyes, he isn't required to give us much more in his facial expressions than the look of someone who has just sat on a tack. Otherwise he is utterly bovine.

At the film's end it is difficult to decide exactly what one has experienced. Dreyer indulges in atmospheric effects to create the cumulative effect of an hallucination. Although Gray himself has a vision in the film - the famous sequence in which he watches as his own body is buried alive, including shots through a window in the coffin lid - the entire film has the quality of a vision. Again and again I come back to the truly astonishing effect of a film: mobilizing forces, money and lives to capture images that end up as nothing more than shadows projected on a wall. The shadows captured by Dreyer in Vampyr are indelible, lingering in the memory many years after one has first seen them.

Ufa gambled on Vampyr capitalizing on the vogue for horror films created in Europe by Dracula and Frankenstein by delaying its release until after audiences had seen the two Hollywood films. Their gamble backfired when audiences, expecting a simple horror tale reinforced by expensive sets and elaborate makeup, became bewildered by Dreyer's non-linear style. Critics even condemned it as a ripoff of the vampire craze inspired by Dracula.

For Dreyer, who was his own producer for Vampyr, the failure of the film was so devastating that he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be treated in a Paris clinic for three months. The name of the clinic - Clinique Jeanne d'Arc - must have seemed ironic to the beleaguered filmmaker.(3)

(1) Aka, Vampyr, or The Strange Case of Allan Gray.
(2) Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now.
(3) Information provided in Torben Skjodt Jensen's 1995 documentary, Carl Th. Dreyer - My Metier.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Freedom from Speech

By now, San Francisco 49er's quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand during the pregame playing of the national anthem has been bandied about so much on both sides of the argument that the original reason for the protest has been overshadowed. As he explained after his first protest, he wanted to use his refusal to participate in the ceremony to bring attention to racial inequality and police brutality.

Many people saw his protest as a show of disrespect for the flag and for American servicemen and women and reacted in anger. When I expressed my own opinion of Kaepernick to my friends on Facebook, pointing out that good judgement was something that he neglected to learn in college all the while he was concentrating on throwing footballs to someone who could catch them, they made a point of defending the quarterback's right to free speech. This is what always happens when a protest, like the Black Lives Matter movement, degenerates into a free speech debate. Even when a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, chimed in on the subject, calling Kaepernick's actions "dumb," "ridiculous," "offensive," and "arrogant," social media erupted in harsh attacks on her. Probably amazed at the shitstorm her words elicited, Ginsberg has since walked them back, mollifying the same people who had cheered her the last time she shot her mouth off, dismissing Donald Trump a few weeks before. Her critics were merely citing the First Amendment, somehow forgetting that the Justice's job is to remind people of their Constitutional rights.

My remarks about Kaepernick's protest - and Justice Ginsberg's - were a response to the protest itself, the form in which Kaepernick chose to express his protest. I didn't say anything about depriving him of his right to make the protest. So why is everyone so vehemently (and so safely) citing the man's First Amendment right in response to everyone who disagrees with the manner - not the substance - of his protest? Why was Kaepernick's freedom to speak, by taking a knee, worthy of merit and mine (and Justice Gibsberg's) was not?

When I first learned of it, I thought about the reason - the real reason, not the avowed reason - for Kaepernick's distaste for having to stand up before every game. I thought about all the times I, too, had to stand up in movie theaters on military posts throughout my life, from when I was a boy into middle age before I left the Army at 42, in Albany, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, Okinawa, Japan and South Korea. In a movie theater there wasn't even an actual flag - just a projection of one on the screen. I remember a buddy on Fort Sill, Oklahoma one summer evening in '97 giving me a beleaguered look when he realized he had to stand up before watching Inventing the Abbotts. We were both drunk, and my friend even fell asleep during the movie, snoring so loudly that I had to wake him to make him stop.

Kaepernick probably resents the fact that his announced motivation has been overshadowed by the usual useless controversy about his First Amendment right of free speech. If pressed, what opinion would his defenders give about his protest? Would they express an opinion at all, or would they go on hiding behind the First Amendment? Freedom of speech doesn't exonerate one from speaking.

This is nothing but political correctness, which, as critic Robert Brustein once put it, is "freedom from speech." Arguing that Kaepernick's protest is purely a matter of free speech does several things to the substance of his gesture. The first thing it does is effectively neutralize it: instead of Kaepernick's solidarity with victims of racism in America, another front of the Black Lives Matter movement, taking center stage and getting all the attention, the issue of free speech takes precedence and obscures the meaning of the speech itself. It also insulates people from charges of racism. What they don't seem to understand is that using the old Voltaire line "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" announces their disagreement with the substance of the speech while silencing further argument. And one more thing that it does is cheapen the importance of speech altogether, which is always a problem in a liberal democracy. In a totalitarian state, the people are told to shut up, but in a liberal democacy they are told to talk all they want because whatever they have to say is of no consequence.

And there is even more to it than that. In his invaluable essay, "On Bullshit," Harry Frankfurt argues: "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world."

Unlike men and women in the military who are obliged to stand at attention and salute the flag, for civilians it is a matter of personal delicacy what they do during the national anthem. They aren't obliged to stand. They can remain seated (which is what Kaepernick did at first, before deciding to take a knee), and endure the disfavor of everyone around them. I am amused when I see some of the fans clumsily saluting the flag, which is a duty reserved for people serving in the military.

When I was in the Navy and the Army (in that order, believe it or not) if I was on a military outpost in uniform and a flag was being raised in the morning, I would hear a warning over a loudspeaker called a "tattoo." It is a signal to anyone standing outdoors to either face the direction of the flagpole, come to attention when "reveille" was played and salute the flag, or else I would use the tattoo as an excuse to duck indoors to spare myself the bother.

Honoring the flag is an obligation for people in uniform. Kaepernick isn't dishonoring it, as his vocal critics believe; he is simply declining to honor it. He is entitled to his beliefs. After everything we've gone through as a nation in the past few years, he probably feels the same thing when the announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for our national anthem," that I feel when a speaker announces, "Let us pray." Since I'm not a believer, what the hell am I supposed to do? I definitely can't take a knee.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Junkie's Lament

James Taylor is one of the most enduringly popular recording artists of the past fifty years. Although a product of the Sixties, few people would think of associating him with the drug culture of the time, and even fewer people remember him as a serious addict, or "junkie." Yet Taylor claims that he fought an addiction to heroin for twenty years.

As he told The Rolling Stone in 2015, "I had taken my first opiate in 1966. Joel 'Bishop' O'Brien, the drummer in the Flying Machine, was an addict. I spent a lot of time at his apartment, so it was just a matter of time before I tried heroin. I was pretty much born to shoot dope - it was the key to my lock, so I really was gone for the next 20 years."

Taylor's 1976 album, In the Pocket is one of his richest, despite the fact that only one of the twelve songs it contains, "Shower the People," became a hit. Like many other of his recorded songs, the rest of the album has remained virtually unknown since its first release. Two songs from the album, which I'm somewhat ashamed to say I heard for the first time last year, have since acquired a special value for me. As a substance abuser myself (alcohol), I found myself identifying strongly with the words to Taylor's songs "Golden Moments" and "A Junkie's Lament," both of which paint vivid pictures of the highs and lows of addiction.

The song "Golden Moments" is disarmingly lovely. It's subject is bliss, but Taylor's lyrics to the song give one clues about the origin of the bliss:

Now if all my golden moments could be rolled into one,
They would shine just like the sun for a summer day.
And after it was over, we could have it back again,
With credit to the editor for striking out the rain - very clean.
And all it really needed was the proper point of view.

No one's gonna bring me down.
No one's gonna stop me now.

Now I gathered up my sorrows and I sold them all for gold,
And I gathered up the gold and I threw it all away.
It all went for a good time and a song - come on.
The laughter was like music, it did float my soul along - for a while.
And all it really needed was the proper point of view.

No one's gonna reach me here.
No one's gonna know I'm gone.

You may think I must be crazy, and I guess you must be right,
But I know the way I feel today is out of sight.
I do not trust my senses to remember your name.
Without corrective lenses, things are never quite the same - anyway.
And all it really needed was the proper point of view.

No one's gonna bring me down.
No one's gonna stop me now.
No one's gonna reach me here.
No one's gonna know I'm gone.

What else could Taylor be singing about, in such diaphanously dreamy music, but getting high? He wants to escape, to be where no one can find him, where no one can stop him (or criticize him). What better ticket to oblivion than heroin? Like all drugs with which people self-medicate, it is a disease but also its cure. Escape can only be temporary, but while we are in its thrall, nothing can touch us. The world recedes to a faint murmur, a distant commotion on the horizon.

Taylor was honest enough with himself to celebrate his highs, and to give us a vivid impression of what they were like - but he didn't fail to describe, in telling language, his lows. If addiction were nothing but a constant high, no one would want to be rid of it. But unless the highs are evened out with occasional lows, a drying out, being strung out, the addiction would lead to inevitable overdose and death.

The other song from Taylor's album In the Pocket that, ironically, is on Side B,(1) that relates to us the other side of addiction, is called "A Junkie's Lament." It is the perfect companion piece to "Golden Moments."

While never having tried heroin, I know where Taylor is coming from in the tellingly direct words to "A Junkie's Lament":

Rick's been kicking the gong, lickety-split, didn't take too long.
A junkie's sick, a monkey's strong, that's what's wrong.
Well, I guess he's been messing around downtown,
so sad to see the man losing ground.
Winding down behind closed doors
On all fours.

Mama, don't you call him my name.
He can't hear you any more.
Even if he seems the same
to you, that's a stranger
to your door.
Go on, ask him what's he come here for.

Oh my God, a monkey can move a man.
Send him to hell and home again.
An empty hand in the afternoon,
shooting for the moon.

It's halfway sick and it's halfway stoned.
He'd sure like to kick but he's too far gone.
They wind him down with the methadone.
He's all on his own.
But baby, don't you throw your love away.
I hate to seem unkind.
It's only that I understand the man
that the monkey can leave behind.
I used to think he was a friend of mine.

La la la la la la la la . . .

As Taylor explained to The Rolling Stone:

"I've got a lot of recovery songs. This one's ["A Junkie's Lament"] a warning not to think of a junkie as a complete functioning human being. Heroin should've killed me about five times, but it never did....People take drugs to be in control. They want to short-circuit any risk that they might take in life, any uncertainty, any anxiety. They just want to find the chemical route, to just push the button that gets the final result."

As I said, I didn't become acquainted with these two songs until the summer of 2015, during my last bad bender. Having been a habitual drinker since the death of my father in 1988, with occasional respites, all the way up until 2004, when I began to routinely experience serious withdrawals (without knowing exactly what they were at first), it was late that year that I discovered a dangerous solution to my withdrawals: the hair of the dog that bit me - i.e., continuous drinking. Eventually, this discovery contributed to my losing two jobs, which forced me to move in with my sister, abandoning an apartment full of furniture to fly from Des Moines, Iowa all the way to Anchorage, Alaska. Since then, however, I have interspersed extended stretches of sobriety with occasional benders. I never quite know what provokes them. They arrive out of the blue after sometimes months of abstention.

What I have learned is the same thing that Taylor evidently learned a much harder way: what every addict must face before he goes too far is the choice between life or death. He cannot go on using or he will end up dead. It's always the same choice: get clean and live or go on using and die. Choosing life has its obvious perks, but how enticing those beautiful dying notes from "Golden Moments" sometimes seem.

In the treatment of bi-polar disorder, physicians do us no favors by informing us that depression is nothing but a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with prescription drugs. What is happiness, then, but a similar treatable chemical imbalance? Having taken Prozac for awhile in 2006, during a long sober stretch, after about a month of low doses I suddenly felt as if someone had turned on all the lights. I was awake for the first time in more than a year. Unfortunately, the drug also made me more confrontational and argumentative, unsatisfied with my life. And within weeks I was drinking again. For the untreated, self-medicating user, withdrawals (depression) is the price he pays for getting high (happiness). What he must figure out - "all on his own" - is whether or not it is worth it.

(1) In actuality, the track listing for In the Pocket places "A Junkie's Lament" on Side A, Track 2 and "Golden Moments" on Side B, Track 6. Significantly, the album closes with Taylor's evocation of opiate bliss.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Assault on the White House

This past week, parents all across America have had to talk to their daughters about a video in which Donald Trump talks openly and brazenly about how he forces himself on young women, kissing them and grabbing their genitals. At the October 9 debate, two days after the news broke, Donald Trump was told that what he was describing in the video constitutes a crime - sexual assault - and he was asked if he indeed commits such acts on women. He denied that he actually did such things and claimed that he was engaging in "locker-room talk." Living currently in the Philippines, I watched the news throughout the week as, one by one, more women have come forward to relate their experiences of Trump forcing himself on them, kissing them and grabbing them by their genitals. So far he has denied the accusations, claiming that there were no witnesses and that there was "no way" he would ever have done such things to the women accusers, suggesting that they weren't attractive enough for him to even consider assaulting them.

Two days ago, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech at a Clinton rally in Manchester, New Hampshire that seems to have galvanized women's feelings about Trump's remarks and alleged actions:

"This wasn't just lewd conversation. This wasn't just locker banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior and actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us are worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV."

I have a 14-year-old step-daughter who has been exposed to the repeated news reports about Trump's boasting about his sexual assaults. By now, she knows that Trump is a candidate for president and that the election is on November 8. She also knows my opinion of the man from well before his announcement to run for the Republican nomination last year. I have always thought that he is an obscenity as a human being, let alone as a candidate for president. I knew that his disgraceful character would eventually become an issue in the campaign and that it would be his downfall. But when my step-daughter expressed to me yesterday her bewilderment at the attention that Trump is getting for this latest "gaffe," I turned off the TV and tried to explain things to her.

Though English is her second language, she understands just about everything I say to her - even if she sometimes pretends that she doesn't. I told her that Donald Trump was born a millionaire, that his father was a wealthy New York real estate developer, and that he grew up with the knowledge that he was privileged beyond her wildest dreams. Having seen the Macauley Culkin movie Richie Rich with me, she had a good idea what kind of life Donald Trump grew into. Such a privileged life usually leads the privileged person to two different conclusions: that he is either "blessed" - somehow singled out by some unknown power for such a privileged life because he is somehow deserving of it, or that he is lucky - the recipient of a completely random good fortune that could have just as easily been bestowed on someone else just as - or more - deserving than he.

Trump, I told my step-daughter, grew up convinced that he is some kind of Chosen One. A story emerged recently from a writer who once worked in an expensive New York hotel. When Donald Trump got into an elevator with him one day and let slip a resounding fart, Trump was reported to have said that his fart probably increased the value of the hotel. What makes the story convincing - to me - is the certainty that Trump probably wasn't joking, that he actually believes that a noxious gas escaping his rectum adds value wherever he bestows it.

Donald Trump is incapable of seeing himself as virtually everyone else (except for his slavering supporters) sees him: a relatively undistinguished man who was lucky to be born rich, who has spent his life pursuing self-gratification, squandering several fortunes, marrying and disposing of attractive women (who bear him occasional children), and philandering without fear of any consequences - even if it comes in the form of a substantial divorce settlement. 

He will probably die, not long from now (he's 70), without ever becoming acquainted with the truth about himself. Perhaps his children can come to terms with his terrible legacy: when, in one of those rare moments when they can be honest with themselves and with one another, are capable of judging him as a father and a man, without reference to his phenomenal wealth, to all his properties, won and lost, and all his business exploits, which often seemed oblivious of who was being exploited, they can judge him for what he was - and wasn't.

One of the problems with Dickens was his inability to see a solution to the obscene gulf separating the rich and the poor. The only way out for Dickens was a "change of heart" - the rich man whose humanity is as crippled as Tiny Tim's tubercular leg suddenly realizing the horrible error of his lifelong pursuit of money at the expense of every human relationship. Because Ebeneezer Scrooge is such a caricature, an irredeemable miser to the nth degree, his transformation into a decent, loving, compassionate human being is equally unbelievable. Try to imagine Donald Trump as Scrooge. He would make the old skin-flint Scrooge chillingly convincing, right down to his inability to sneeze (to allow himself to be natural). But Trump as Father Christmas? No one would believe it. He will die in his luxurious bed unreformed.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Sad Year

Though the Fall season is only a few weeks old, for me the year has already fallen. The new year is 86 days away, but there is little that can happen in what's left of 2016 to make up for my losses.

I have often said that the worst thing about popular music is that it is so inescapable. No matter the time of your life, on whatever occasion, some otherwise forgettable pop song is sure to be there to intrude on your memory-making. And for the rest of your life, like it or not, it will always stink up your cherished remembrances. Every time that stupid song is played, it will evoke for you images and emotions with which it has no right to associate.

So, there I was late last December, listening to a local Manila radio show called Doctor Love here on my Philippine island, when the DJ played a song from 1977 that I had never heard before. It was Barry Manilow's "It's Just Another New Year's Eve," which, unbeknownst to me, became a perennial favorite for awhile. Manilow is (in)famous for some obnoxious jingles he wrote for TV commercials and for a handful of hit songs he performed in the '70s, like "Mandy" and "I Write the Songs." Like I said, the worst thing about them was that, for an unconscionable amount of time, there was no escape from them.

When I heard the song last December, during Twixtmas, that week of limbo between Christmas and New Year's Day, I thought about my sister, seven years older than me, living alone in Anchorage, Alaska. I sent her the song in time for the Big Night, hoping it would strike as deep a chord in her as it had in me.

It's a quite unconventional song for the holiday, reflective and somber rather than optimistic and cheerful, rather like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a somber acceptance of hard times during the holidays. Who can ever forget Judy Garland singing it in Meet Me in St. Louis to a distraught little sister.

Much like the song traditionally sung on New Year's Eve, "Auld Lang Syne," Manilow's song takes a look back before looking forward to the coming year:

Don't look so sad
It's not that bad, you know
It's just another night, that's all it is.
It's not the first, it's not the worst, you know.
We've come through all the rest,
We'll get through this.

Not the most memorable lyrics, but the words are ring true for many more people than we'd like to admit. The holidays are depressing precisely because we are told at every moment for weeks how happy we're supposed to be. And on New Year's Eve we're all supposed to make resolutions to change our lives - admitting, at least, that something isn't right about our lives and needs to change.

Then the chorus arrives.

It's just another New Year's Eve
Another night like all the rest
It's just another New Year's Eve
Let's make it the best.
It's just another New Year's Eve
It's just another Auld Lang Syne
But when we're through
This new year you'll see
We'll be just fine.

Somewhat faint words of encouragement, but they were deeply felt, if not very deeply thought. Within a few months into this year, however, the wheels started to come off. So far, this year has been calamitous for myself and the people I love. I had no idea when the year began, and when I shared Manilow's thoughtful but harmless song with my sister, that by now, with less than three months to go, I would be stopping here to assess the damage. Two dear people I knew, the brother and oldest daughter of my companion, have died - the latter violently murdered. And my sister was herself in the hospital - for a time in ICU - for thirty days. My great distance from home, from everything I know and that makes sense to me, makes the holidays especially hard.

Sadly, I think that the words of Manilow's song will be more apposite for the coming New Year's Eve. I saw Barry Manilow recently on a home shopping network, selling advance copies of his latest CD. I hadn't seen him in awhile and I was a little surprised by his cosmetic surgeon's additions to his face. But I also did a little reading about him and I was surprised by his being chosen by the widow of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer to set one of his last unpublished songs to music. Mercer, who died in 1976, had been an admirer of Manilow and Manilow's setting of the song, "When October Goes," matches the prevailing tone of the season, as well as the Fall of this sad year:

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by

The children running home beneath
A twilight sky
Oh for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away to hide
The helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go.

Of three recordings of the song that I've heard, Manilow's, Diane Schuur's, and Nancy Wilson's, it is Wilson's that is by far the best. She captures the sad wistfulness of the words, something of what I feel at the moment.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Gender Bender

At the 2016 Emmy Awards last month, Jeffrey Tambor won in the Best Actor in a comedy series category. I haven't watched Tambor's show for several reasons, most prominent of which is the fact that, produced by Amazon, I'm not able to watch it on my remote Philippine island. I am mentioning Tambor only because of what he said in his acceptance speech.

“I’m not going to say this beautifully: to you people out there … please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story,” he declared while accepting the Emmy for best comedy actor.
"I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female,” added Tambor, who won an Emmy in the same category for the same role last year."(1)

When I first heard Tambor's remarks, and whenever the issue it addresses is raised, I remember the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, directed by the talented woman director Beeban Kidron. It was afflicted by a terrible script, but it had three amazing performances: Patrick Swayzee, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes as three drag queens on their way from New York to Los Angeles to take part in a contest hosted by Julie Newmar. The three actors, all straight - or cisgender - men (even somewhat exaggeratedly so), responded to the challenges of their unusual roles with astonishing conviction. In fact, they were rather better at playing drag queens than they were at playing straight roles. Of course, a drag queen is not a transgender person, and I'm not altogether sure if they're included under the LGBTQ umbrella. But they have been a mainstay of popular entertainment for centuries. I think it must have grown out of the tradition of men playing women's roles in the theater. Drag queens, as Eddie Izzard has pointed out, aren't necessarily gay. So the casting of straight men as drag queens isn't as much of a stretch as it might seem.

But when straight actors play gay or lesbian characters on stage or screen, a whole different dynamic comes into play. When I reviewed the Gus Van Sant film Milk (2009) several years ago I examined the fact that all the lead gay characters are played by straight men. The decision to cast them in the roles, and the expectation of audience acceptance of such casting choices, probably had more to do with esthetics than politics. Clearly, Sean Penn, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk, was cast in the role because he's a well-known actor capable of giving a good performance.

Is it possible that an audience feels more confortable exploring the drag or gay or transgender worlds with a straight actor guiding them? When Sean Penn kissed James Franco in Milk, was the kiss somehow more palatable because everyone knew that neither actor - presumably - was getting anything out of it? I mentioned in my review that gay magazines and ezines often conduct polls among their readers to determine the top ten sexiest men, and that straight men, regardless of their hetero orientation, are included among their choices. I suggested that there might be some fantasy element to the appearance of straight men in gay roles - especially since Van Sant is gay.

Jeffrey Tambor was suggesting, somewhat self-servingly, that only transgender actors should be cast in transgender roles - so that they might have more opportunities for employment. But Tambor was cast in the role he plays in Transparent only because he was an excellent actor and recognizable to TV audiences. What does it matter, ultimately, what gender he is if he is a good enough actor to convince an audience that he's trans?

On January 29, 1997, African-American playwright August Wilson and theater critic Robert Brustein engaged in a highly-anticipated debate with the title, "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson-Robert Brustein Discussion." (I heard the debate on NPR.) It was inspired by Wilson's published remarks, among others, against the employment of actors in roles whose race differed from theirs. In other words, only Asian actors should be cast in Asian roles, African-American actors in African-American roles, etc. He stated that color-blind casting was, to him, an "aberrant idea" and that a black actor should not perform in, for example, a Chekhov play. "It is wrong for black actors to appear on stage as anything other than black characters," Wilson argued.(2)

Robert Brustein, a proponent of color-blind casting, insisted that political correctness was "freedom from speech," and presented what I consider to be the only acceptable argument for the casting of any actor in any role: it wasn't a matter of acquiring the right actor for the right role, but the best actor for the role, regardless of race, orientation, or gender. Since definitions of gender are being questioned lately, audience acceptance of such gender-blind casting, in contradiction to Jeffrey Tambor's view, would appear to be where we are headed.

(1) "Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor calls for more trans actors in Emmy Speech," The Guardian, 19 September 2016.
(2) I wonder if Wilson has perhaps softened his views on race-specific casting in recent years since the productions of some of his plays in China featuring all-Chinese casts.