Thursday, April 24, 2003

Santorum and the "right to privacy"

After this last post, I'm going to drop the entire "Santorum affair" and return to posts on culture, where My Stupid Dog and I truly belong. (For those two of you waiting for my essay on Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, it's coming. Promise. I also have an essay on Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ up my sleeve. Look for both sometime over the weekend.)

A friend and regular reader dropped me an e-mail stating that I missed the point of Santorum's remarks. The problem, he noted, lay with my insistence on a "right to privacy." He noted that states have the right to outlaw private acts, such as taking drugs, polygamy and/or homosexuality. (Never mind that the first two are prohibited under federal law, so the states don't have the right to legalize them.)

Now I'll grant that Santorum's interview is basically "word salad," but he seems to argue that the government should be able to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, with respect to intimate activity between consenting adults in private. He's not necessarily talking about homosexual activity -- he's talking about any sexual activity. Kinky bedrooom fun with whipped cream and handcuffs could be outlawed because it's "detrimental" to the family unit. Ditto adultery, open relationships, or any sexual position other than missionary-procreative. Childless married couples and unmarried persons would be subject to special scrutiny under Santorum's guidelines. Even masturbation could be rendered illegal and placed under the state's purview.

Santorum's argument hinges on the very postmodern assumption that there is no such thing as a "private act" or a "private sphere." If we agree that all acts have social consequences, however small, and are all therefore classifiable as "public," then they should all be subject to governmental regulation, right? This is the pretzel logic underlying "hate crimes" laws and other forms of left-liberal social engineering. In all of these situations it is assumed that the State's business is not to provide a framework for personal choice (the Athenian model), but to promote collective moral virtue (the Spartan model).

So to my loyal reader: Point taken and welcome. You're correct to say that a "right to privacy" isn't explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. But look at it this way: Does the Constitution give the federal government -- or state and local government, for that matter -- the right to invade your home on the suspicion that you or a member of your family might possibly be (gasp!) masturbating? If you said no, you've just made the case that the Constitution does not grant our government the right to intrude on certain basic personal liberties. For better or worse (and I'll concede it is often the latter), we refer to many of those basic liberties with the stock phrase "right to privacy."

The question we should ask when faced with expanding governmental power is not, "Is there a right to individual privacy in the Constitution?" That places a burden of proof on precisely the wrong party -- the individual. You'll find, if you read our Constitution, that it says very little about individual rights per se. Its purpose is to set the boundaries not of individual behavior, but of governmental authority.

No, the real Constitutional question is where those boundaries of governmental authority are. If you believe our government always has the unconditional right to act against individual liberty, then there are literally no limits to what government can do. And if our government has no limits, then it is a totalitarian state, and we who live beneath its iron heel are mere Helots.

Then again, if America were a totalitarian state, I wouldn't be able to write an essay on the importance of personal liberty. Thank God I'm not in Cuba, or Castro would probably have "purged" me already.

Now back to the culture stuff.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Santo Santorum -- Update

Here's why I don't write on politics very often.

When I posted the previous article on Rick Santorum, I was using an AP article for my source. Since the article didn't accurately represent what Santorum really said in his interview with the AP reporter, a few major corrections are obviously in order:

1. Santorum does mention pedophilia and bestiality during the interview. The reporter tells him that this discussion is "kind of freaking me out."

2. Santorum says he doesn't oppose homosexuality, just "homosexual acts." Apparently he'll even describe them in great detail if you ask him -- so don't ask, okay?

3. In his own words, what Santorum really opposes is the "right-to-privacy lifestyle."

So it's not so much that he doesn't like Gay people or Gay sex. Rather, he thinks that the federal government should regulate intimate, consensual relations between adults. And not just some of those relations -- but all of them. The effect would be sort of like George Orwell's 1984, only way kinkier.

Michael Kinsley invented a new category for this kind of statement: the "supergaffe." A gaffe, according to Kinsley, occurs when a politician says what he really thinks. A supergaffe occurs when a politician says what he really believes. The last supergaffe was when Trent Lott waxed nostalgic about segregation. Now it's Rick Santorum, extolling the virtues of a religious-fundamentalist police state. (Taliban, anyone?)

So in the middle of the night, when you hear that menacing knock on your door, just remember: He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake. Yes, Santorum is comin' to town!

Santo Santorum

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, Republican from Pennsylvania, has just made a statement that homosexuality is "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family," and ought not to be included under the implied Constitutional right to privacy. Shortly before this he compared homosexuality to incest, adultery and polygamy.

What? No pedophilia or bestiality?

Well, pardon me if I let out a great big yawn. As a Gay man, I've heard my way of loving compared to just about anything you could imagine and a few things you most likely can't. At least I certainly hope you can't. Jerry Falwell has compared homosexuals to the Mafia in my presence. The Catholic Church blames us for all those recent scandals involving priests and altar boys. Lou Sheldon, when he's not fighting to stay out of jail, works to drive Gays out of Oregon (like St. Paddy and the snakes, I suppose). Trent Lott compares me to a kleptomaniac, the Family Research Council thinks I'm more like an alcoholic, and Paul Cameron (a.k.a. "NARTH Vader") claims that I'm "sexually broken" and will die very, very soon. Some of my friends on the Far Right, like Pete LaBarbera, even keep an extensive collection of Gay pornography handy, so they can show how awful homosexuals are. As the great sage Tom Lehrer once said, "More! More! I'm still not satisfied!"

A big "phphphpht" on them all. Frankly, Rick Santorum's comments are too lame for me to take offense. If he really wants to get my attention, he'll have to mention sex with barnyard animals, or hardcore sadomasochism. I mean, Santorum didn't even mention coprophagia, for crying out loud, and every anti-homosexual crusader on the Far Right talks about coprophagia! (If you don't know what "coprophagia" means, I envy you. I wouldn't know either, except that -- irony of ironies! -- a Christian fundamentalist discussed it with me. At length. Euwwww.)

There are too many truly vile lies about me and my Gay friends for me to get worked up about a garden-variety cretin like Santorum. Basically, he's sounding off against a Supreme Court decision, due very soon, which will most likely strike down "same-sex only" sodomy laws as a violation of the Constitution's "equal protection" clause. (The only real suspense about that decision is whether they'll also strike down universal sodomy laws, because these laws are used exclusively against Gays and Lesbians. I don't think they will, but one can hope.)

Sorry, folks, but I just can't get miffed. Senator Santorum is railing at the wind, like poor Trent Lott protesting the end of Jim Crow. The whole sordid spectacle should inspire pity, not anger.

For God's sake, shut up and get over it, Rick.

Update: Andrew Sullivan weighs in with long-expected righteous indignation. He's quite correct, of course.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone died yesterday at 70. She hated being called a "jazz" artist, and thought it was a racist label. She thought just about everything was racist, actually, and left America in disgust in the mid-'70s. She left us some great music, though. Her rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue" (set to a piano accompaniment of "Good King Wenceslas") is one of the classic Christmas bummers, and can induce full-blown post-holiday depression in four minutes flat. But the one tune I think I'll remember her for is her own "Mississippi Goddam." I can't tell you how many times I sang it while driving through the state last year. (Maybe some enterprising Mississippi legislator will make it the official state song. I know I'd love to hear a marching band play it for halftime at an Ole Miss football game.)

It's impossible to place Simone in one musical genre, because she tackled so many of them and gave each one her own stamp. She could cover Bob Dylan, old showtunes, jazz standards, French cabaret, classic R&B, and original songs, and everything would fit together perfectly, as if the whole musical spectrum had always belonged to her alone. Above all, that husky voice -- bloodcurdling in rage, yet always perfectly poised, tender and sad and angry at once.

For many Gay men -- especially Gay men of color -- Simone was a role model. She was a diva for the new age of liberation, as far from the self-pitying histrionics of a Judy Garland or the philosophical detachment of an Edith Piaf as one could imagine. She didn't crawl into a corner and cry, or take her knocks stoically, without complaint. When Simone felt she'd been wronged, she got pissed off, and she inspired a lot of other people to get good and pissed off, too.

Her rage couldn't last forever, to be sure, although Simone kept it seething as long as she could, perhaps longer. It took a peculiarly ironic turn late in life, as her views on race gradually came to resemble the segregationist policies she opposed decades before. She deplored "race mixing" (even though she had had a White husband at one point in her career) and encouraged Black separation or exile where possible. She claimed that the liberation she sought could never take place, at least not in America, and that her fellow Black Americans were simply doomed to die en masse. The rage and despair even seemed to consume her body. People who saw Simone perform in her final years remarked that she looked much older and frailer than her age would suggest.

The exception to all of this, of course, was when she performed. Then, I'm told, she was positively glorious, right up to the end. As you've guessed, I never got the chance to see Simone live. (Perhaps that's because I grew up in Arkansas, much too close to Mississippi for Simone.) But I still listen to her records. Even now I hear her voice emanating from my stereo, hurling a curse from beyond the grave:

"Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
and everybody knows about Mississippi

Monday, April 21, 2003

Archive Review: Eloge de l'Amour (a.k.a. Godard and the perfidious French)

Editor's note: I wrote this review back in late January. Since no one has shown an interest in publishing it, and since I don't feel like writing anything new today, I thought I'd post it to My Stupid Dog. Enjoy!

The story of Jean-Luc Godard's latest film, Eloge de l'Amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), is simple enough, assuming you can figure it out. Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), a mopey but attractive artist who seems to live in a perpetual state of writer's block, is trying to cast a new film which he hasn't yet written and can just barely conceptualize. His idea is to depict the various stages of love among three couples: one young, one thirtysomething, and one elderly. After a few false starts, rehearsals and problems with backers, Edgar tracks down a former lover, Elle (Cecile Camp, doing her best Anna Karina impersonation), and attempts to convince her to appear in his film. She rebuffs him coolly, in the classic French art-house fashion, and shortly thereafter he learns that she has died.

This revelation leads to the film's second part, an extended reverie (probably but not necessarily Edgar's) of the couple's first encounter two years earlier. In one of the film's many departures from convention, the contemporary story is filmed in black-and-white, and the reverie is shot on color-saturated, heavily manipulated digital video.

If it seems as though I'm giving away too many "spoilers" in this review, don't worry. Storytelling as such has never been a major goal of Godard's films. Even in his 1959 debut Breathless, Godard supplanted smooth cinematic narrative with something far more disjointed and fragmented. For this film, he uses his typical bag of tricks to break up the images, most notably random intertitles: "Of Something-or-Other," "Of Love," "Already Two Years Past," and so forth. In only one case does an intertitle clearly relate to the story at hand, and that one divides the two parts of the film.

Godard's idea of love isn't exactly traditional, either, and it may be even more difficult to comprehend than the basic story. At one point Edgar says that Elle "really had something to say about the State." That's supposed to be romantic, and in this film's skewed context, it very nearly is. Godard repeatedly juxtaposes love with "The State," and seems to characterize love as resistance. Resistance, Godard tells us repeatedly, is "impossible without memory and universalism," as if this constituted a clue to his ultimate meaning. Images and evocations of resistance are sprinkled throughout the film, including an elderly couple who worked in the French Resistance and who now sell Steven Spielberg the rights to their stories.

Godard even mentions Vietnam as an example of heroic resistance. One wonders if he has ever been there.

If it's not clear what love or resistance might be in Godard's overall scheme, it is at least clear what he'd have his viewers resist. Here's where the film has encountered its greatest controversy, for Eloge de l'Amour is Godard's most explicitly -- and reprehensibly -- anti-American film to date. Americans are generally described as a "pain in the ass," and Godard's chief complaint is that "they're everywhere." Race, gender or creed seem to make no difference to Godard; all Americans -- including one African-American woman, who makes a particularly unpleasant impression -- are repugnant to him. (There are isolated "good Americans," one character notes, but the only example he can provide is one "who left America during the Reagan administration.")

Late in the film, Elle makes the unchallenged claim that Americans have no real past, or even a name of their own, and that Americans attempt to find their history through foreign interventionism. "Can't you do it more nicely?" she asks, but since she's objecting so strenuously to a simple, nonviolent business transaction, one wonders exactly what would be "nice" enough for her -- or for Godard. Of course, in keeping with the French theoretical zeitgeist, Godard's America is a militaristic dictatorship where all aspects of culture are subject to state control. One sinister representative states that "Washington is the director of the ship. Hollywood is merely the steward." If this is true, someone should tell Senator Joe Lieberman; he doesn't seem to know it yet.

To be fair, Godard's vituperative anti-American rhetoric predates the September 11th terrorist attacks. But American audiences who see the film will get a pretty good taste of the deep, irrational hatred the French bear toward us. In this film, we can practically hear the French gloating, "Good. America got it good." But in this case, there is something else at work, too. As befits a film with "Eloge" in its title, this is an elegy, and elegies tend to be reactionary at heart. Godard pines for lost love, lost revolutions, lost ideologies and perhaps even the lost artistry of French cinema. In his world view America represents the horrific force of modernity, subtly encroaching on pristine "la France" through its commercial products and especially its crowd-pleasing cinema.

Alas, despite its formal innovations and extensive use of digital-video technology, Eloge de l'Amour feels like a throwback, a dead-end. Unlike Godard's early films, which practically blew the cinema apart with their energy and excitement, this one feels mannered, enervated, alienated. It's easy to see why. When Godard began his career, American cinema was in clear decline, and the world looked to the French New Wave for artistic innovation, even for a rebirth of cinema. But today, French cinema is in decline, having never quite recovered from the excesses of later New Wave films. Godard blames Americans, the perennial emblems of modernity, for that loss, even though (or perhaps because?) American independent cinema has most thoroughly appropriated the New Wave's spirit of innovation and self-conscious style.

As an attempt to invoke the lost greatness of French culture, Eloge is merely a sad parody. But on its own terms, the film has considerable virtues. Godard's black-and-white images of Paris are lovely as ever, and his use of ambient sounds and scored music is particularly astute. The final scenes contain some of the most beautiful images ever created on digital video. For a filmmaker who insists on primacy of the visual, Godard has lost none of his aesthetic elan.

Still, a film this idiosyncratic, this opinionated, and this reprehensible is difficult to recommend even to the most devoted cineaste. It's strangely affecting to observe this meditation on lost faith in a decadent culture, and I'm enough of a Francophile that I could join Godard for a good cry -- albeit perhaps for different reasons. On the whole, Eloge is a mixed bag. Watch, if you must, at your own risk.

Footnote: Godard's Eloge de l'Amour hasn't yet played in a DC-area theater to my knowledge (gee, I wonder why ...), though it did play for one night as part of the "Offscreen" film series at UVA. To my knowledge that was the film's only theatrical screening within the Commonwealth of Virginia. You may be able to find a VHS cassette of the film at your local video store, but I wouldn't count on it.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Big Love (a.k.a. Mee Two)

Charles Mee's play Big Love ended its run at the University of Virginia tonight. It's the second play of his I've seen in as many months. (The Charlottesville company LiveArts staged Summer Evening in Des Moines in March. Now Des Moines has the single funniest line I've heard in contemporary theater -- "To me, you are a model human being" -- a quadruple entendre which can only be appreciated in context. Still, it is much, much less than the sum of its parts.)

Mee's plays aren't easy to describe, but if I had to fix them in a formulated phrase I might say that they're part philosophical treatise, part slapstick circus, and part karaoke bar. They seem episodic and monologue-heavy, which I don't like, but they frequently use musical interludes and carefully staged choreography to interesting effect.

Since I saw Big Love among an audience of college students, most of whom had never seen contemporary theater, I wasn't surprised when one young man several rows behind me blurted out, "What the hell is this?" Nor is the question necessarily inappropriate.

Big Love is based on Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, one of the oldest plays (possibly the oldest) in the history of drama. In the play, a group of fifty foreign women -- the daughters of a defeated king -- flee their arranged marriages and seek refuge in Greece, begging divine favor and protection from Zeus (hence the title). The leader of the local Greek city-state discusses their request with them, yet refuses to make a commitment until the people have taken a vote. This action baffles both the women and the old king, none of whom are familiar with the concept of democratic rule. Soon after the people agree to harbor them, the monarch who arranged these marriages sends an army to bring the women back. The play ends on the brink of war.

For its first twenty minutes, Big Love follows this story faithfully. Its setting is updated to present-day Italy, and all the political discussions about democracy and despotism have been dropped; other than that, Mee's adaptation sticks close to the source. But once the intended husbands arrive, Aeschylus abruptly stops, and Mee has to go forth on his own. He acquits himself fairly well, too, even if one especially gory plot twist proves more worthy of Euripides than Aeschylus.

As you'd expect from college theater, performances are a bit uneven, if only because some college students can play adults and some can't. In the former category, I'll include the six actresses and actors who represent fifty brides and grooms. (Ebenezer Quaye and Faith Noelle Hurley are especially good as the characters Constantine and Thyona, both of whom bring the play to its shocking climax.) In the latter category I reluctantly include Giorgio Litt, who plays the family patriarch Piero. Most of the time, Litt looks the part of a well-seasoned Italian gentleman, but his voice can't yet convey maturity.

The cast also includes two scene-stealers: Allison Mui and Adam Brock. Mui, as the aged crone Bella, is the play's voice of reason and deus ex machina rolled into one. She looks and sounds like a woman raised in the campagna. Brock, as the outrageously fey Giuliano, has a much showier role, but maintains a campy tone without veering into mere caricature (a testament more to his acting than Mee's writing, I'm afraid).

Big Love is Mee's most popular play to date, and I could understand why it might even be considered his best. It isn't as witty or intelligent as Summer Evening in Des Moines, but it is nonetheless better. The tragic fatalism of ancient Greek drama imposes a discipline on this play that Mee's work seems generally to lack. As with the best of ancient drama, the characters and problems in Big Love create an overpowering forward momentum. Fleeing arranged marriages, Mee's brides find themselves compelled to resolve their problem once and for all (that is, as long as they're willing to pay the terrifying price).

The "love-conquers-all" ending is far less than satisfying, if only because up to that point, the "all" in question includes rape, forced marriage, betrayal and murder. Still, up to that point, Big Love touches the greatness of ancient Greece in ways that a contemporary audience should understand. That's more than enough for me to recommend it.

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