Saturday, May 01, 2004

Power, Not Principles: Democrats strike back in Charlottesville, Virginia

The City Council race in Charlottesville has been getting really ugly over the past two weeks, perhaps because this time, two Republican candidates have a solid chance of getting elected. City politics in Charlottesville has long been the exclusive domain of a Democratic machine, but if Republicans do well in this election, local Democrats may find themselves in the minority, for the first time in anyone's memory.

The ruling class is worried, and its operatives are trying some truly bizarre tricks. Independent candidate Vance High, a genuinely idealistic fellow who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has been the latest to feel pressure from the Dems. First, they stole his only campaign sign. Then, according to a recent campaign press release, Democratic City Council candidate David Brown approached High with a promise from Charlottesville Democrats: If High would drop out of the race and endorse the Democratic Party, he would receive an unpaid city government position. (As an obscure Independent, High probably doesn't have much support -- third-party candidates seldom do -- so this race must be really close.)

High is a left-liberal by conviction, so he doesn't really want to help the Republicans. Still, he couldn't remain silent over such an outrageous request. For his part, Brown is a chiropractor by trade, which should have prepared him for these twisted campaign ploys. He is also a past chair of the local Democratic Party, which suggests that -- if High's press release is accurate (and there is no good reason to doubt it) -- he knew he was skirting the edges of legality, to say the least. Besides, it's kind of crass for local liberals to bully a genuinely nice guy who walks with a cane.

Still, as long as you have power, who needs principles?

Update (12:30 a.m.): Charlottesville's local paper, the Daily Progress, has run a minor story on the High-Brown brouhaha. The reporter, Liz Nelson, has a well-known pro-Democratic bias, which you can see in the article. (Hint for young reporters: If you need a campaign analysis, don't ask one of the candidates for it.) Even so, David Brown doesn't come off very well, does he?

Vote-buying is a felony in Virginia, which means that if Brown is investigated and convicted (a long shot at best), the chiropractor could lose his license to practice pseudo-medicine. That would be a pseudo-shame.

Virginia Creepers: Did the gay lobby let HB 751 happen?

On July 1, HB 751 -- otherwise known as Robert Marshall's "Marriage Affirmation Act" -- becomes the law of the Commonwealth. As readers of this blog already know, this provision will allow state courts to void any private contract made between two persons of the same sex that grants any benefits which are (or might be) somehow associated with marriage. Marshall and other members of the General Assembly are under the impression that this law will be used solely against its intended targets, i.e. all Gays and Lesbians residing in Virginia. Certainly it can (and will) be used to nullify living wills, hospital visitation rights, powers of attorney, and any other contracts same-sex partners deign to create with and for each other. So until this law is ruled unconstitutional, it will ensure at the very least that Gays and Lesbians will possess no contractual rights which the state must respect. It might even throw contract law into chaos for heterosexuals as well.

Now we're learning about the role played by Virginia's statewide GLBT lobby group, Equality Virginia, in this debacle. According to this week's Washington Blade, the fight to stop HB 751 was easily winnable -- especially considering that if only a third of either house of the General Assembly had opposed the bill, Governor Warner could have vetoed it outright.

It turns out that Equality Virginia could easily have won this battle, had it not made some crucial (and mind-numbingly obvious) strategic errors. One was that they never contacted the state Democratic Party headquarters. Dyana Mason, EV's only paid staffer, told the Blade that "I've contacted them in the past, but never followed up. We've always crossed in the night." There's a lot of contact going on at Equality Virginia, as it turns out, but no follow-up anywhere. And the problems, I've learned, lie on both sides of the aisle.

Given that Democratic support for GLBT issues in Virginia is spotty at best, Mason might have good reason not to regard the party as a natural ally. Yet it might have been an ally of convenience in this case. HB 751 was an issue primarily among partisan Republicans, and a sustainable veto would have given Democrats more leverage against the bill's prominent supporters -- like Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who sent out a letter to Republican legislators prior to the final vote -- and who may be running for governor next election.

Anonymous sources within Virginia's Log Cabin Republicans have informed me that Equality Virginia dropped the ball with possible GOP allies, too. As one e-mailer informs me, "The EV people told the LCR [Log Cabin Republican] lobbyists to contact various GOP members to let them know that a package of information would be delivered to them. So LCR did that, and then EV never delivered the materials. In effect, those potential Republican votes were not lobbied."

This is significant because HB 751's passage over the governor's veto rested on a very slim margin. If only one senator (or four delegates) who voted for this bill had been pressured to vote against it in the final crunch, HB 751 would most likely not have passed in its original form, and gays and lesbians in Virginia would still possess the right to private contract. The single senator and/or handful of delegates could have been Democratic or Republican -- and most likely would have been both, had Equality Virginia bothered to follow through on its contacts.

Instead, it appears as if Equality Virginia and its executive director Dyana Mason counted mainly on the governor and lieutenant governor to block HB 751 from passing. They never enlisted the state Democratic party to oppose the bill, and they ignored several potential Republican allies altogether. Worst of all, Gay and Lesbian Republicans who were members of EV, and who took time out of their busy schedules specifically to lobby GOP delegates and senators on EV's behalf, were left twisting in the wind because EV refused to provide any follow-through for their efforts.

EV's failure to produce a sustainable veto for HB 751 can only be seen as a colossal disaster, one which may indicate serious problems within the organization itself. Gays and lesbians, like me, who have donated our time, talents, and hard-earned cash to ensure EV's survival and viability as a GLBT lobby group, must be wondering whether all this effort has gone to naught. We need to call the organization's directors and employees to account for a few of these obvious and egregious screw-ups -- and we must begin, I suspect, with Mason herself.

Friday, April 30, 2004

Outdoor Drama Alert: Great Passion Play

I've written about outdoor drama before -- its unique, group-directed aesthetic, the unsophisticated lighting and straightforward stagecraft, the necessary emphasis on spectacle over introspection, the outsized scale of its production, the relatively low ticket prices, and the fact that many of these shows have run for thirty years or more (including several that have run for over half a century). What interests me most about outdoor drama, of course, is that people who wouldn't be caught dead inside a traditional indoor theater will flock to these family-friendly tourist productions. For most Americans, outdoor drama is their sole exposure to live theater.

Most outdoor dramas won't open for business until mid-June or thereabouts, but two in the Ozark Mountains -- The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and The Shepherd of the Hills in Branson, Missouri -- intend to get a six-week head start on the others. They're opening this weekend.

It's been a long time since I saw Shepherd of the Hills and my memories of it are fuzzy: As I recall, it's basically a sanctimonious drama (based on the old Harold Bell Wright novel) about a good little boy who marries his childhood sweetheart, and a bad little boy who falls in with bandits. There's a little romance, hillbilly humor and music, some thoughts on the problem of evil, and a little talk about modernization in the mountains. Also, those bandits I mentioned earlier raze a cabin in the second act. A real cabin. Burned to the ground.

I wonder what it's like, building a log cabin every day only to have it burn down every night. To me it sounds like a pioneer's version of Hell.

Well, this talk about fire, Hell and general damnation brings me in a roundabout way to my real subject: The Great Passion Play, which opens tonight in Eureka Springs (about an hour southwest of Branson). This performance will open the 37th season, so by now this show should be just about critic-proof. What's more, with Gibson's Passion of the Christ stoking the Christian faithful, this year should be well attended.

The last time I saw this production was about a decade ago, but since outdoor dramas usually change very little over the years, I think I can still talk about it with authority. In the case of The Great Passion Play, the only major additions I've noticed since the mid-'70s were a special-effects sequence dealing with the Harrowing in Hell ("Oooh! Smoke and colored lights!") and a brief, tacked-on scene among the Jewish high priests where they talk about how awful the Romans can be. This minute-long interlude (inserted during the mid-'80s, I suspect) tries to make the evening less overtly anti-Semitic. It doesn't work, though, because throughout the rest of the evening, ominous music plays whenever "the Jews" appear on stage, and the chief priests always shout in harsh voices. These are part of the play's soundtrack -- which as far as I know has been used since 1968.

Of course, that the play would attempt to dilute its anti-Semitism, even for a moment, shows just how far The Great Passion Play has strayed from its roots. The whole enterprise -- amphitheater, production and grounds -- was founded and funded by radio evangelist Gerald L. K. Smith, famed for his 1950s campaign to "Stop Ike the Kike." Smith was chief lieutenant to Huey Long in the 1930s, and eventually became one of the most notorious anti-Semitic hate-mongers of twentieth-century America. Christian white-nationalist and supremacist movements found in Smith a loyal if discreet ally, and under his influence they organized all along the West Coast. The "Great Passion Play" complex -- on an Arkansas hilltop which Smith christened "Mt. Oberammergau" -- is the man's final monument to himself, and his outdoor drama is allegedly the most popular outdoor theater in the country (although, to be fair, at least half a dozen outdoor dramas make a similar claim).

In America, these passion plays have one major problem: In theory, an actor would have to be superhuman to survive even a few performances, let alone an entire season, without his health and his voice breaking down completely. Outdoor dramas require large amphitheaters and crowds to break even. The Great Passion Play, for example, seats over four thousand souls, and dependably fills up on Friday and Saturday nights. No actor could speak to such a large group night after night, and anyone who attempted it would be hoarse within a few days (the passion play in Eureka Springs runs five performances a week, through the end of October). Since a disproportionately large number of lines in a passion play -- including several long speeches -- are assigned to the actor who plays Christ, the standard outdoor-theater strategies of distributing lines among members of the cast can't apply. Even outfitting the lead actors with wireless mikes won't do. So The Great Passion Play goes one step further.

The entire show, gentle reader, is canned -- which means that it is "live theater" only in the loosest sense of the term. The persons onstage are live, true, but the voices you hear over the loudspeakers are not theirs. (A decade ago, attentive viewers could hear crackles, pops, and hisses on the soundtrack: Somehow I doubt this has changed.) The actors pantomime to this prerecorded tape, most of which was created in 1968. They seem unaware of -- or perhaps unprepared for -- their cues, since the actors move slightly out of sync with the recording. The effect is like watching a badly dubbed Japanese movie. But the tape ensures a certain uniformity in the performance -- which may be important, since the producers claim that most of the actors are nonprofessionals, members of local church groups and such.

When it comes to the play's memorable moments, most people will mention the spectacular moments. The scenes of town life feature a barnyard of animals. The crucifixion is pretty good, as crucifixions go. There's a late scene in which Jesus vanishes with the help of scrims and a movie projector. But the grand finale is a much-ballyhooed "ascension," in which a crane hoists the actor playing Christ over a hundred feet into the air (an unnerving gig on windy nights). For my part, though, the play's most memorable moment occurs at the beginning of the show, when the lights come up on the block-long set (meant to represent first-century Jerusalem). By this time, it's just managed to get dark, and powerful stage lights flood the various buildings. It's wakey-wakey time on set, as bats fly out of Gerald L. K. Smith's fake Zion. Somehow, those bats seem all too appropriate.

The trouble begins at 7:30 tonight (Central Time). Tickets, I'm informed, are $23.25 for adults, slightly less for church groups, and considerably less for children and the military. Since most entertainment of this sort is priced at under twenty dollars a ticket, The Great Passion Play has established itself as one of the most expensive outdoor dramas in the country. Then again, it's also the biggest, with a cast of over 250 actors; in terms of sheer stagecraft, it's one of the slickest productions I've seen anywhere. This operation -- excuse me, ministry -- makes money hand over fist. Church groups totter into Eureka Springs from all over the country just to see Gerald L. K. Smith's theatrical extravaganza. And folks, if that doesn't give you the creepin' willies, very little will.

Note: My information on Gerald L. K. Smith comes from Michael Barkun's Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (Chapel Hill, U of North Carolina P, 1994).

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Gay, not gay: Latter Days

Since C. Jay Cox's Latter Days tells the story of a Gay Mormon missionary, the most obvious title for a review would be "Come, Come, Ye Saints." But this piece isn't a review per se, and I think I've taken enough cheap shots against the LDS Church for the time being. This time I have a point to make, even if it's not especially fresh.

Staleness, though, may befit the occasion: Michael Blowhard and Bilious Young Fogey have linked to my month-old review of the Todd Phillips movie Starsky & Hutch, and both have noted my comments on the film's Gay subtext. Blowhard seems to get special satisfaction out of this, since he's been sounding off for months on insidious Gay influences within mainstream culture and advertising. (He's all wet, of course, and the rest of this post should give you a solid indication why: Despite all these "Gay" influences, the mainstream cultural presence of heterosexuality is just about as compulsory as ever.) Blowhard in particular seems to have missed my comments comparing Starsky & Hutch with all those Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures of the 1940s -- even though my first sentence states that the film feels "like a ... 'Road' movie as scripted by Quentin Tarantino."

Those "Road" movies may have predated the cultural visibility of Gay men, but they have scads of Gay subtext, too. All the films provide men with one-liners about how they'd rather be with women (and yet, they always end up with each other instead). In Road to Morocco Hope and Crosby even go so far as to share a brief kiss. It's an accident, of course: Hope and Crosby are trying to kiss a desert mirage of Dorothy Lamour, but she vanishes and leaves our hapless twosome momentarily kissing and clutching at each other. The "Road" pictures may never move beyond wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo -- but in some of the "Road" films you can get a pretty good idea of what this twosome might have to wink and nudge about. The quick kiss between Hope and Crosby is actually much more daring (and explicit) than any of the same-sex subtext in Starsky & Hutch.

What Starsky & Hutch has in common with the classic "Road" pictures -- beyond its fairly relaxed, anything-goes comic sensibility -- is the characters' deliberately infantile sexuality. Ben Stiller (in the neurotic, Bob Hope role) and Owen Wilson (in the relaxed, Bing Crosby role) can stare at a woman's exposed breasts, and Stiller's character can fantasize about rainbow-colored romps on the beach with his partner. But the film never gives the impression they can do much more than that, at least not when the camera is rolling. Granted, if the titular duo go beyond staring at women (or each other) on camera, the film would lose its PG-13 rating in a hurry. Yet this cultural pressure from the MPAA is precisely what keeps the film's sexuality at the infantile level: The characters must never be seen acting on their sexual impulses, so they're limited to ogling, wisecracks, and the occasional kinky piggyback ride.

It's difficult to ascribe the sexuality in Starsky & Hutch to an alleged "Gay" influence, since it has so much in common with film comedies of the 1940s. Almost every light comedy or musical -- classic or not -- featured at least one "sidekick" character who cracks wise about the lack of available women. (In Rodgers and Hammerstein's WWII musical South Pacific, this stock character -- who sings "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" while surrounded by beefcake -- dons drag, which takes this particular gag "about as fer as it kin go" without actually hitting the sack.) Of course, no character in these films, musicals, etc. is actually Gay -- and Gay men weren't culturally or politically visibly yet. These films were about heterosexual panic, the anguished perception of homosexuality rather than the thing itself. That's why they had Gay subtext.

Starsky & Hutch also has Gay subtext. It presents same-sex attraction as a neurotic tic, on par with thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. Frankly, I suspect this is still what most Straight people think about Gay people. As Toby of Bilious Young Fogey has noted, the film seems to have given its intended audience of teenage boys an indelible lesson in applied homophobia. Yet because the film's style is so deliberately anachronistic, so delightful in itself, I gave its content a pass. I probably shouldn't have done that.

Contrast with Latter Days, a comedy-turned-"problem picture" which attempts to take the idea of same-sex attraction seriously. Like most Gay-themed cinema, this film has received only a limited release in a handful of urban areas, and won't find a national audience until it comes to DVD. When a movie dares to suggest that Gay people might be more than a smutty joke, red-state Americans never get the chance to see it. Yet despite the commercial limitations, Latter Days has decent production values, a few well-turned one-liners, and two or three terrific performances. Unfortunately, it's more successful as a "problem picture" than a romantic comedy. But when it deigns to function as a romantic comedy, it gives a sense of how mainstream, formula cinema could be truly Gay-inclusive.

The story is a kinder, gentler version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses: On a bet, a promiscuous Gay party boy (soap opera hunk Wesley Ramsey) attempts to seduce a Mormon missionary (Steve Sandvoss, in a star-making performance). Naturally, the seduction succeeds, and the seducer discovers that he has managed to fall in love with his intended mark. The Mormon missionary is excommunicated, attempts suicide, and is put through a hellish regimen of "reparative therapy" -- all of which seems like an unbelievably melodramatic caricature of homophobic religion until you talk with Gay Mormons who have actually gone through all this stuff. Meanwhile, in a far less interesting parallel plot, the party boy goes through a period of remorse and eventually becomes A Better Person for it. Eventually the two reunite, sadder but wiser, and the whole crew has Thanksgiving dinner together.

If this were all, it would be too much, but Cox throws in several other formula elements to make his film a mess. Most Gay-themed comedies feature at least one actress of a certain age, who plays witty den mother to a gaggle of adoring young men. In this case we have Jacqueline Bisset, who plays a few nicely written scenes opposite Sandvoss, and provides the film with much of its emotional heft. Then there's an impossibly witty, flamboyantly fey minority character -- in this case, obviously modeled after Antonio Fargas in Next Stop, Greenwich Village. There's "The Guy Who Is Perpetually Dying of AIDS," whose purpose in life (or death) is to help party boys become better people; there's an aspiring rock star, because every sitcom lead must have a roommate. Plot threads seem to unravel before our eyes: Only a series of improbable coincidences can pull them together for a marginally coherent, heavy-handed finale.

And yet, and yet ... what's refreshing about this film is the way Cox's characters deal with heterosexual panic as a source for something other than cheap laughs. Heterosexual panic is still a source of potential humor in this film, but not because same-sex desire is too silly and neurotic to be believed. Instead, it breeds conflict, and the humor (such as it is) emerges from that conflict. The difference here is not just that several of these characters are themselves Gay, it's that the scenario provides a space for Gay people to exist as more than ciphers, best buddies or punchlines. That can't be said for the 1940s "Road" movies, or for the 2004 Starsky & Hutch.

I wonder if other American filmmakers could create mainstream films where Gays and Lesbians emerge as fully realized characters. Given the box-office success of Starsky & Hutch (as well as Gibson's gratuitously homophobic Passion of the Christ), I'm not holding my breath. But at least Cox has shown that Gay characters can be incorporated into formula filmmaking without belittling the characters or disrupting the formula.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Schadenfreude Alert!

When I was a kid in school, my teachers taught me that drinking just one alcoholic beverage could make you an alcoholic for life. Maybe that's why I find this story so insanely funny:

The superintendent of Alexandria Public Schools was arrested for drunk driving a few days ago, and she wants to let all graduating seniors know that drinking is not acceptable behavior under any circumstances. (She may not be the foremost authority on this particular subject, but that's another matter.) So she called a school assembly, and told the teens: "With prom and graduation approaching, I want you to know that you cannot think it is okay to throw back a beer or sip some wine. The consequences can be disastrous."

Hey, kids, don't you love it when drug warriors get busted?

Monday, April 26, 2004

Why Jean can't read: Etre et Avoir

I don't think Nicholas Philbert's documentary Etre et Avoir was meant to serve as a muckraking expose. The film's placid tone would suggest that it has no overt political agenda: Philbert's ambition is merely to show a slice of French life we didn't know existed, by depicting a year in a one-room elementary school as neutrally and honestly as possible. What he shows is a school system run by incompetents, where discipline is lax, and learning nonexistent. For anyone who thinks French schooling superior to its American counterpart, this film will be a real eye-opener.

A brief confession: I used to be a teacher, after a fashion. For several years I taught writing courses at the University of Virginia. I left that job because I realized I didn't have the necessary temperament for it; I'm too impatient to teach writing, or much of anything else. This makes me just about the last person you'd want in a classroom. Still, compared to Georges Lopez, the teacher and default protagonist of Etre et Avoir, I was as amazing as Mr. Chips. Poor M. Lopez seems to exist in a terminal state of exasperation: He has a dead-end job, with no chance of promotion, and he takes out his barely repressed anger on everyone in sight. But instead of beating his charges black and blue, he finds more subtle ways to attack them.

Beatings would probably be more humane in the long run. When one four-year-old student doesn't count to seven, clamming up at "six," M. Lopez pokes and prods for a few minutes, then proceeds to humiliate the child before his entire peer group, claiming that he "can't do it." When he speaks with an introverted, inarticulate eleven-year-old girl about her stunted social development, he gradually reduces her to a quivering, sobbing wreck. (Both scenes are filmed in a single take, with no cuts.) A newcomer to the classroom cries for his mother; unable to soothe the child or leave him alone, Lopez aggravates the problem until the kid is squalling at the top of his lungs. As much as Lopez tries to talk to his older charges, he can't get a response from them: No one can withstand this man's unbelievable hauteur.

Nor does much learning seem to occur in this school. While Lopez tries to work with the older children, the younger students go largely unsupervised. Incoming students are force-fed a "whole language" approach to reading, and they're hastily corrected whenever they try to "sound out" words on their own. It's clear that these kids could learn to read more efficiently with phonics (that's why they try to "sound out" the words they don't know), but for M. Lopez, phonics instruction is simply not a possibility. (This is doubly ironic, because the French language is better suited to phonics-based instruction than English.) The kids are functionally illiterate, and from the way M. Lopez labors over "dictation exercises," it's pretty clear that spelling is also a problem. Eleven-year-olds don't know basic multiplication tables, and struggle with addition and subtraction.

In case you're wondering how children cope with such visibly subpar education, the film shows us that they don't. We see two final conferences between Lopez and his graduating students, and the result is nearly identical: The teacher informs the student that his math and language skills have been deemed insufficient (that's means the kids are flunking out in math and language), that his admission to middle school is conditional, and that he may even need individual tutoring once he gets there. In short, it looks like these children emerge from the one-room school in just about the same condition as when they first got there. They have much catching-up to do.

Some parents try to get involved with their children's education, only to find themselves roundly rebuffed by the imperious M. Lopez. When one exasperated mother says that she can't help her little girl with math because she doesn't understand what's going on in the classroom, M. Lopez bluntly states that parents are not important to the educational process. "The important thing," he says, "is the child's development" -- as if parents were not a factor in that development. Fortunately, some parents are willing to bypass this system, though their unsupported results are not much better. We see a mother and an uncle (who work on a dairy farm), trying to help their child with multiplication problems. As the whole family puzzles over thrice-times tables, roaches scurry across the kitchen table.

If director Philbert had wanted to make a case for French educational reform, he couldn't have done a better job to my mind. Some of these children are obviously intelligent; all are alert, if not always articulate. M. Lopez's classroom is always neat and well-appointed. Computers stand sentinel along the back wall (though we never see them actually used). Students draw and color with pens and markers, instead of less-expensive wax crayons. There is a photocopier, which younger students, lacking adequate supervision, break. The student-teacher ratio is remarkably low; the teacher even lives in a rent-free apartment above the school. In short, this classroom costs French taxpayers a bundle. And yet the students fail to learn.

Most people who see Etre et Avoir don't notice these glaring problems, viewing the film as an extended agrarian idyll. One middle-aged British couple leaving the theater spoke glowingly of "the incredible patience [Lopez] gives his students" and "how civilized the French are." When I asked these two if they noticed some of the things this teacher did wrong -- berating four-year-olds, poking and prodding at eleven-year-olds until they cried, using educational approaches like "whole language" reading that obviously didn't work -- the wife stated, "I'd rather live there than here," to which the husband readily assented.

Etre et Avoir was released in France in 2002, which means that Lopez should be retired now, drawing a cushy government pension. Presumably he won't be teaching any more students, which to my mind is a good thing. But the bloated French educational bureaucracy that produces hundreds of instructors like him is as firmly entrenched as ever. Thanks to them, the poor, rural children we see in this film -- along with thousands of others across France -- will most likely be left behind, as (it would seem) their parents were.

If you were French, gentle reader, wouldn't that thought make you the teensiest bit angry? I'm not French, and it saddens me.

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