Saturday, October 30, 2004

Virginia Film Festival, Day 3: Tours of Duty

The gripping new documentary Paper Clips gets better and better the more I think about it. This is the best offering at the festival so far, and may well prove the best film of the year. At the hospitality room, I meet producer Robert Johnson, and tell him how much I enjoyed his film. We talk about the numerous documentary films released this year: Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, Bush's Brain, Greenwald's "Un" series (Unprecedented, Unconstitutional, Uncovered), Outfoxed, Robert Butler's Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Johnson isn't impressed with any of them.

"There's a difference between documenting and editorializing," he explains. "A documentary should have a point of view, but it should belong to the documents you're presenting. The filmmaker shouldn't insert his own point of view into the documentary." His basic neutrality may explain why Paper Clips lacks voiceover narration: The participants tell the story and discuss its meaning themselves. In fact, the film Paper Clips doesn't have a lot of the things common to most documentaries this year, and that's all to its credit.

Four events today: Two films (one a television documentary, one a biopic), a panel on the new wave of activist cinema, and a live concert.

The Wendell Scott Story (dir. John W. Warner, 2003): This is the only program at the 2004 Virginia Film Festival to focus on African-American content. (It is also the first thing I've seen that pertains to the festival's ostensible theme of "Speed." The showing starts early on Saturday morning, and I'm feeling so tired I can barely stand up, but since a majority of my writing audience is African-American, I can't miss this event. The Wendell Scott Story is produced by a woman at CNN, directed by former racecar driver John W. Warner, and narrated by his father, Virginia senator John Warner. The production crew is lily-white to the marrow, but the film's subject is the life of black NASCAR racer Wendell Scott. As the first and only African-American stock car racer in the 1960s and '70s, Scott seemed to work twice as hard for half as much respect: When he finally won a race in 1963 (his only outright victory), the organizers refused to credit him, bumping his position to third place until all the spectators had left. Warner fils alternates between interviews, stock footage, and archival photos, just as you'd expect from a TV documentary. Interviews with Scott's children provide the high points. After the screening, the director notes that the film will air on the History Channel during Black History Month, next February. It's good, with a particularly nice use of period music. The audience consists of NASCAR fans, most of whom wear Bush/Cheney stickers. These are my people, and I like them.

Speed and Spin: Politics of Media Panel: The leftists and socialists on this panel (and in the audience) are not my people, and I find, unsurprisingly, that I do not like them at all. I have not been looking forward to this event, but my boss at Metro Herald tells me I ought to go, since I have seen several "crockumentaries" from the new Activist Cinema, each one, it seems, a little more scabrous than the last. Today's program consists of two excerpts from Robert Greenwald's anti-FoxNews documentary Outfoxed (dir. Robert Greenwald, 2004), and Soldiers Pay (dir. Trisha Regan, David O. Russell, and Juan-Carlos Zandivar, 2004). Note the absence of an apostrophe on that last title, because it's the only subtle thing we're going to see over the next two and a half hours.

I haven't seen Outfoxed yet, but the two clips shown here certainly whet my appetite. The first claims that Fox depends on Republican talking points to present the news, then shows a series of quick clips from several interview shows to prove it. (Problem: The evidence is not drawn from actual news coverage, and therefore does not support the claim that Fox's actual news coverage is biased. Saying that these interview shows are biased is kind of like saying water is wet -- obvious, but pointless.) A second excerpt from the film basically states that Bill O'Reilly is a pervert. I really like this one, which is edited for maximum incriminating value. Gratuitous personal smears invite aesthetic contemplation, and Greenwald is clearly as masterful at the game as the better-known Michael Moore. I get the sense that Outfoxed objects not to the network's alleged bias, but to its very existence -- and I'll find out later in the panel that my impression is pretty much on the money.

This is a panel, not a screening, so much talkitty-talk follows. (One old veteran asks the panelists if we can see Soldiers Pay and talk about it afterwards; the moderator flatly tells him no. Mustn't discuss the movies after we see them, must we?) We learn that most of these films go from concept to final product in a few months, which might explain their cobbled-together feel. They're made fast and cheap, and distributed on the QT, which places them in the same cinematic demimonde as pornography and exploitation cinema. Jim Gilliam, a producer on the panel who looks not unlike Nosferatu the Vampire, notes that these films turn a profit -- sometimes quite a substantial profit, as was the case with Fahrenheit 9/11. That's not good enough for the other panelists. The mainstream media reports conservative lies, they claim, and government must intervene to stop them. Moderator Patricia Aufderheide, from American University, expresses concern that conservatives may gain access to the new documentary media, and spread their nefarious lies.

After ninety minutes of indoctrination, we're all sufficiently tenderized to appreciate Soldiers Pay, a thirty-five minute digital-video short concerning the war in Iraq (more or less). Co-director Russell helmed the 1999 fictional film Three Kings, which was set during Operation Desert Storm. This film is a companion piece to that earlier work, documenting a real-life incident in which American soldiers robbed an Iraqi stockpile of American cash. (Unlike the fictional soldiers, the real-life thieves were promptly caught, and the ringleader dishonorably discharged.) But Soldiers goes beyond that incident, to become a full-fledged anti-war screed. The images consist mainly of talking-head interviews -- a few conservative, but most either liberal or leftist. Most of the leftist interviewees are former military personnel, except for Nicholas Von Hoffmann, who technically has no business in this film. Soldiers Pay pretends to be sympathetic to American troops in Iraq, while depicting them as dupes, dopes and/or evil oppressors. It's a reminder that the far left's position of loving the soldier and hating the military is kind of like the fundamentalists' mantra on "loving the sinner and hating the sin." Even though the film was clearly anti-war, audience members objected to the presence of conservative voices in the film because "common people might get the wrong idea." Commoners are stupid, you see.

The panelists noted that the ideas in their films have not filtered into the mainstream media. They attribute this to a regime of "censorship," and claim that the media as a whole is biased in favor of corporate capitalism and the GOP. They never consider the possibility that the media might not be listening to them because they are batshit crazy.

Jim White Concert: When is a film festival not about films? Jim White, an alt-country singer from Pensacola, Florida, was the subject of a documentary at this year's festival, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. After that screening (which I did not attend), the singer performed a two-hour set at Gravity Lounge, featuring a quirky blend of folk, rock, R&B, and rap with a strong Southern Gothic flavor that he calls "hick-hop." Although White is a solo performer, he surrounds himself with synthesizers, loop machines, drum machines, guitars, pedals, and other assorted electronica, so that the music sounds as rich and full as if a five-piece band were backing him up. White is on tour in Europe right now. If you have the chance to see him, by all means do so. His website is here.

By the way, I ended up at the Jim White concert because the evening screening of the upcoming film Chrystal had sold out. Fortunately, there's another showing tomorrow afternoon, so I'll see it then. (No panel discussion afterwards, but I'm pretty sick of panels right now.) Chrystal is a Southern melodrama set -- and filmed -- in the Arkansas Ozarks. It's supposed to be about pot growers, and Billy Bob Thornton stars. I'll write more on this later, natch.

Kinsey (dir. Bill Condon, 2004): The opening scenes of Bill Condon's Kinsey are weird and unsettling, in a way that reminds me of top-drawer David Lynch. Liam Neeson, as the famous sexologist, will certainly be nominated for an Oscar (and perhaps even deserve it), but Laura Linney should also receive a nod for playing Kinsey's long-suffering wife. With its offbeat subject matter, wrenching shifts of tone, and occasional flights of stylistic genius, Kinsey is far more interesting than the vast majority of Hollywood fare. But alas, it trolls for critical plaudits, wallows in sappy sentimentality, and generally seems too fixated on its award-winning potential to get really strange. The result, alas, is a missed opportunity: Let's call it "Oscarbaition."

End of the day: Drink, drink, crash.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Virginia Film Festival, Day 2: Hospitality

In case you're wondering, an average reporter's day at a film festival goes something like this: Hospitality room, movie, hospitality room, slice of pizza, drink, hospitality room, movie, drink, movie, hospitality room, Chinese dumplings, movie, quick interview, burger, movie, drink, drink, crash. I've spent nearly ten hours sitting in movie theaters today. Now I know how Ebert got so fat. My poor eyeballs feel like they've been french-fried inside their sockets.

Five films today, all "microbrews" of one sort or another:

Pickpocket (dir. Robert Bresson, 1957). Of the films I saw today, this was the acknowledged classic. Diary of a Country Priest is perhaps a better introduction to Bresson's style, but Pickpocket is his masterpiece. Any alleged cinephile who claims this film is boring is kind of like a literary scholar who claims not to like Moby Dick: Either he's lying, or he lacks judgment.

Paper Clips (dir. Elliot Berlin and joe Fab, 2004). Probably the best new release I saw today, and one of the best of the year. This documentary tells the story of middle-school students in southeast Tennessee who collected millions of paper clips for a Holocaust memorial at their school. Deeply moving, sensitively presented, and suitable for all but very young children, Paper Clips affirms traditional values in a rich and meaningful way, and serves as a much-needed tonic to anti-American rhetoric from the Left and the Far Right. The film opens Thanksgiving weekend in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., and will be aired on HBO this spring. If you have a chance, gentle reader, go see it in theaters -- and be sure to bring the kids.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (dir. Xan Cassavetes, 2004). This all-too-typical documentary about the movie business features the standard array of talking-head interviews and film clips. The ostensible subject is the Z Channel, a pay-cable television network that dominated the L.A. market from the mid-70s to the late '80s with arthouse fare, foreign films, and (the channel's bread and butter) softcore nudie movies. The film's impressionistic format and scattered chronology make it impossible to tell when anything happens, let alone why. After two hours of hearing employees and execs praise Z Channel to high heaven, I was still in the dark as to what Z Channel actually was, when it operated, or why it was an important milestone for cable television as well as the film business. Luckily, the film festival program encapsulated all the basic information the film omitted -- and to add injury to insult, did so in a single paragraph. Director Xan Cassavetes is John Cassavetes's daughter, which led me to reflect on how inherited talent frequently skips a generation. (The film's sole virtue: It shows a few clips from Stuart Cooper's Overlord, a long-neglected but apparently stunning WWII movie from the mid-'70s.)

Light Sleeper (dir. Paul Schrader, 1992). Schrader's Light Sleeper is basically an American reworking of Pickpocket. It suffers in comparison to its source material (how could it not?), but on its own terms it's a compelling piece of work. Since it features shots of Willem Dafoe riding around in a car, critics have compared the film with Scorsese's Taxi Driver. They're wrong, I think. Sleeper is a very different kind of film: restful, contemplative, less vengeful, and -- in keeping with its older, wiser protagonist -- less charged with testosterone. I don't think Scorsese could have directed Light Sleeper: The film demands an austere style, and Scorsese is a flamboyant director who deals in outsized emotions and baroque cinematic flourishes. (Scorsese's sole attempt to duplicate Bresson's style, Kundun, falls terribly flat.) After the screening, Schrader took several questions from the audience, and I could see why some critics are so disappointed with his work as a director. Even a brief discussion with the director reveals that his films are seldom as interesting as the ideas behind them.

Undertow (dir. David Gordon Green, 2004). Another of the year's best films, and the first I've seen from 28-year-old North Carolina wunderkind David Gordon Green. Although I'm informed that Undertow is not quite up to his debut feature George Washington, it's still a dazzling, emotionally gripping piece of cinematic poetry. The film struck me as a cross between Terence Malick's Badlands and Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, though Green mischievously claims that it was equally influenced by "hicksploitation" like Macon County Line and The Dukes of Hazzard. (We could add John Huston's Wise Blood to that list.) At bottom, Undertow is about masculinity in peril, and doesn't seem particularly apologetic about the idea that rowdy boys can (and should) grow up to be strong, independent men. Alas, Undertow is marred by a villain who starts out as a complicated ne'er-do-well, but gradually degenerates into a stock psychopath; by the end, the film might as well be called Overkill. After seeing this film, I wonder how much longer Green's winning streak can last: So far, the virtues of his films seem directly connected to bargain-basement budgets, but he can't remain a quirkily obscure indie filmmaker forever. When he finally helms a mainstream film, with a budget that allows him to put what he really wants to see on screen, I suspect the result will be less than impressive.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Virginia Film Festival 2004: Speed

Down at Gravity Lounge, Charlottesville's only bar/coffeehouse/performance venue/art showcase/internet cafe/bookstore, Rob McMurray expounds on what he calls a "microbrew" theory of culture. "First, it was Miller and Busch," he explains, "but all it took was a few people to try something different and they said, 'I don't want to drink this crap anymore.'" Well, now's the time of year when Charlottesville's cinephiles lay off the mass-produced swill that floods our moviehouses week after week, and imbibe some of the best films that classic and independent cinema has to offer.

Tonight was the official opening of the seventeenth annual Virginia Film Festival. This year's theme is "Speed," which suggests a lot of fast action. Ironically, most of the film's I'll see over the next few days will be kind of slow: Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (which I'll see tomorrow); David Gordon Green's Undertow (the nation's top critics either love it or hate it); Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper (Schrader will present the film himself); a shot-by-shot workshop of Terrence Malick's classic Days of Heaven -- you get the idea. It's going to be an artsy, informal, occasionally grungy little farrago, which is just the way we Charlottesville folks like it.

For the past few years, I've covered this festival for the Metro Herald, an African-American newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia. It's a great gig, but exhausting as hell. Since the film venues are a bit closer to each other this year, perhaps I won't spend so much time running to and from major events. This year, I'm going to blog about it as well, as a sort of rough draft (very rough, I suspect) for the articles to come.

I'll leave out the opening-night speeches, during which various state-level functionaries patted themselves on the back, and a woman from the Virginia Film Office presented a wildlife-management official with an empty wine bottle. The bottle came from the set of a Colin Farrell movie about the founding of Jamestown, filmed in the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area. Film Office personnel claimed The New World (which sounds too much like MTV's The Real World, I think) might have been shot in Rumania but for their prayers and entreaties. Local law enforcement officials were used to provide security, so if I want to see my tax dollars at work I suppose I'll have to buy a ticket. (Update (11/10): Since The New World is directed by none other than Days of Heaven auteur Terrence Malick, perhaps we should all buy a ticket.)

Lest you wonder how a film set in Tidewater Virginia could be filmed in Transylvania, I suspect the crack about Rumania wasn't meant to be taken literally. It was probably a dig at Anthony Minghella's historical parade float Cold Mountain, which made Transylvania "stand in" for the American South (reversing the standard Hollywood process by which America is made to "stand in" for the rest of the world). The opening-night speeches will sound much more impressive when I write them up for real in the Herald.

That leaves only one feature film tonight, but it's a real doozy.

Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman: Everybody gets fucked

I liked Nicole Kassell's debut feature The Woodsman, which features yet another career-making performance from Kevin Bacon. (How many in a row does this make it?) This time Bacon plays a convicted child molester -- heterosexual, fortunately. Between this film and the upcoming Nicole Kidman psycho-thriller Birth, pedophilia is becoming quite a hot topic in contemporary cinema. Not since Lolita, etc. I don't know what Birth will be like, gentle reader, but everyone gets fucked and fucked hard in The Woodsman. (Many spoilers follow, so don't say I didn't warn you.)

First, there's Bacon's character, who has been released from prison only to find that his old urges have retained their potent allure. Then there's his new girlfriend, who has her own history of sexual abuse. There's a police officer played (brilliantly) by Mos Def, who has seen too much suffering to have faith in his fellow man. There's a strange guy who hangs out at the schoolyard and seems way too interested in the little boys. Finally, there are all those sweet children who get the oozy end of the man-stick. (And they wonder why parents don't let their kids walk to school anymore!)

At least Kassell -- the daughter of a UVA med school professor -- is a good storyteller, ratcheting the visual tension to nearly unbearable levels. Her compositions subtly confine the Bacon character, frequently placing him behind a fence, inside a structure, near a wall or inside a building. The cumulative effect of these shots is paralyzing claustrophobia. Yet on those few occasions when Kassell allows the protagonist to leave obvious visual confinement, the style becomes even more nerve-wracking. With low-angle close-ups, she presents the pedophile from a child's-eye view, showing us how a sexual predator gains the trust of his young victims, then manipulates them to satisfy his twisted desires.

The film has its share of flaws, too. Like too many first-time directors, Kassell deploys her primary visual motifs (birds, the color red, children and adults in suggestive poses) with a heavy hand. She imitates the films she's studied, sometimes at inappropriate moments, rather than developing a style suited to the material. In a few scenes she even tries a gimmick that Manny Farber derisively called "The Gimp" -- a gratuitous shot, devoid of stylistic context, which announces a character's emotions in 50-point bold type. The film also takes a strangely contradictory attitude toward vigilantism -- vigilantism is bad when it's directed against the lead character, but good when the lead character takes out his vigilante impulses on someone else. In this light, the film's finale seems a bit crass.

Since The Woodsman takes a decidedly feminist view of sex in the cinema (even to the point of directing the camera's scopophilic gaze at prepubescent girls in a clearly ironic/subjective mode), it might be somewhat helpful for me briefly to discuss Bacon's hetero-pedophile character as a feminist construction of male sexuality. Always threatening, always requiring close female supervision, the unleashed man becomes a menace to society, represented in turn by the innocent little girls (or boys) the predatory male is said to molest. Perhaps in the vengeful world of Anglo-American feminism, we are all abused children -- and if we are, Daddy must be responsible.

The Woodsman arrives in theaters this December, just in time for Oscar consideration. Given the disturbing subject matter, I doubt it'll see more than a limited theatrical release. With a budget of less than three million dollars and a running time of just under an hour and a half, this is truly a cinematic "microbrew" -- not for all tastes, to be sure, but worth sampling if you have the stomach for it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Five movies for Halloween

All Hallows' Eve is just around the corner, and here are a few movies that should put you in the proper (ahem) spirit:

The Black Cat (1934): Boris Karloff meets Bela Lugosi in this bizarre thriller written and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (not long before Ulmer's affair with the wife of a studio head got him thrown off the Universal lot). Technically, the film belongs to the "Old Dark House" genre (like James Whale's classic film of that name, or like Ridley Scott's "old dark spaceship" thriller Alien). But in this case, the house in question is brand-new, embodying the latest advances in Bauhaus modernism. Like most of Ulmer's best work, The Black Cat explores the irrational side of human behavior. Ulmer really outdid himself, too, with a story of Satanic rituals, psychological compulsions, possible otherworldly visitations, and a basement full of well-dressed corpses. (Then there's that titular cat, which meets a fate -- offscreen -- too grisly to mention.) As you might have guessed, the film bears no resemblance to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe; it's far too lurid for that. But Karloff and Lugosi make a superb term, and Ulmer makes sure the strange doings get under your skin -- in one scene, quite literally.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960): Georges Franju's masterpiece is more like a Jean Cocteau fairy tale than a horror film: The imagery is consistently uncanny (in the Freudian sense of unheimlich), but it's not trying to inflict sudden shocks on viewers. Franju also explores irrational human compulsions in a modern setting, but this time, terror lurks on the antiseptic operating-room table. In one scene, a series of still photographs documents the decomposition of a young woman's face, accompanied by a flat, drily academic voiceover. For my money, the montage is as genuinely creepy as anything ever committed to film. The new Criterion DVD of Eyes Without a Face features a pristine picture transfer, and a period-appropriate audio mix that makes the most of Maurice Jarre's playfully macabre score.

Masque of the Red Death (1964): Unlike The Black Cat, this film is actually based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Roger Corman claims that in this film he tried to duplicate the existential terror of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. As usual, Corman came a cropper. Instead of a profound meditation on life and death, Masque became a campy morality play on the abuse of power. But never mind the failed pretensions: Richard Matheson's script is deliciously nasty, Vincent Price is in top form, and Nicholas Roeg's color cinematography ravishes the eye. The climactic scene -- where the film hews closest to its literary source -- is a nice bit of feverish surrealism.

Dead Ringers (1988): If the concept of identical twin gynecologists doesn't give you the willies, gentle reader, you may well be unshakable. Director David Cronenberg has made more lurid films (I'd probably have included Videodrome on this list if it weren't so obviously incomplete), but Dead Ringers may be the director's definitive statement on the terrors of human intimacy. Cronenberg's beautiful, burnished visuals make you wonder if the film hasn't been somehow coated in bronze, and they complement the pulpy material quite nicely. Despite the fact that Dead Ringers is a "psychological thriller," it doesn't stint on the gore -- which probably cost male lead Jeremy Irons an Oscar nomination. The Criterion DVD features an excellent transfer, if you can find it.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995): John Carpenter is best known for Halloween, The Thing, and the Kurt Russell Escape films. But this nasty little shocker, based loosely on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, may be his best work to date. Lovecraft himself is an interesting if minor short-story writer whose style depends a bit too heavily on rhetorical breakdowns, climactic moments in which the first-person narrator insists that the horror he has experienced is too great for mere words to express. The strategy is a bit too abstract, or perhaps abstracted, to translate well to cinema (Stuart Gordon's schlocky, cartoonish Re-Animator is the exception that proves the rule). Undaunted, Carpenter conveys Lovecraft's literary tone through mostly traditional filmic style, playing on viewers' susceptibility to suggestion and never showing the film's horrors outright. One scene in which the neurotic protagonist confronts a vast darkness eloquently expresses Lovecraft's central theme: namely, that human beings are utterly irrelevant in the universe's terrifying, self-annihilating void. Of course, Mouth of Madness undergoes a rhetorical breakdown of its own at the finale, with several unnecessary plot twists and a generous dollop of smoke-and-mirrors postmodernism. But the sensation of physical and metaphysical terror lingers long after the final credits.

You can see that my celebrations of Halloween involve the irrational and the uncanny, instead of the supernatural. I've always been a bit of a gorehound; ghosts, werewolves, vampires and various creatures from the black lagoon feel a bit corny to me. (I tend to prefer zombie flicks, naturally enough.) But one film about the supernatural gest to me, no matter how many times I see it: Benjamin Christensen's silent film Haxan (1922) treats the subject of "witchcraft" with the detachment of clinical psychiatry. Haxan is not a horror film in any standard sense, but it is one of the cinema's most unsettling and unique artifacts. (It's also available from Criterion.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Welfare Queens: Local AIDS fundraiser turns into anti-GOP hate fest

If I were to attend a charitable fundraiser, during which a conservative speaker denounced Gays as evil, self-centered narcissists, I'd have an obligation to write about it here. But this time, the situation has been reversed. So it's with a heavy heart that I report on a recent fundraiser for one of my favorite charities, Charlottesville's AIDS/HIV Services Group (ASG). The program seemed to promise music, satire and good humor, but it promptly degenerated into an anti-Republican festival of hate.

The Kinsey Sicks bill themselves as "America's favorite dragappella beauty-shop quartet." These four drag queens -- Trixie, Rachael, Winnie, and Trampolina -- have flamboyant personalities and outfits to match, and they sing satirical novelty tunes with a distinctively Gay twist. The Sicks' send-ups of Cher, same-sex dating, and the long-standing institution of "Gay Pride" are priceless. If you're into this sort of thing (and have a strong stomach), they're one of the best cabaret acts in the country ... unless they're doing their anti-Republican schtick, in which case you should probably run for the nearest exit.

Last night, the Sicks arrived in Charlottesville for an ASG benefit show, performing material from their latest album, "I Wanna Be a Republican." I probably should have guessed the tone of the evening from the opening number: "There's no need to join the Klan / Just become Republican." The GOP was described as "a place where I'm embraced / for being selfish and mean." Listen to the full number here.

As it turned out, that was the nice part. Gay conservatives were singled out for special opprobrium: One drag queen -- Rachel, I think (though the drag names were a bit of a blur until the end of the show) -- claimed that sex with Gay Republicans was unusually good, because "People consumed with shame and loathing make for a really good pounding." There were the usual Cheney-family jokes, of course, including a description of "Parents of Lesbian and Gay Republicans, or PLAGER. And we love PLAGERists." Mary Cheney was described as the only member of "Lesbians for Bush," a wisecrack which I think I've heard a few hundred times elsewhere. Another drag queen claimed that she "converted" to Republicanism because she realized in cloaca that "God made me go pee! G. O. Pee!"

I started taking notes. The Sicks offered a generous helping of Republicans-are-racist jokes, claiming that voting-machine company Diebold equipped its booths with "Negro detectors." They staged a mock "photo-op" with cardboard cutouts of various minorities, possibly to attack the GOP for tokenism. "Republicans believe in the big tent," one member said, "as long as it's clear who's sitting in the shade and who's being paid minimum wage to hold up the tent pole."

There were Iraq jokes, too: Trixie (I think) claimed she spent her time "modeling lingerie at Abu Ghraib prison," a remark which elicited as many gasps as chuckles. The Sicks led a rousing chorus of "Oil's Worth More Than Peace" (to the tune of "We Shall Overcome"), and followed it with chants of "Iraq out of Iraq!" There was one joke claiming that Bush and an al Qaida terrorist were alike, because each one "takes flying lessons and works to destroy the country." (You see, Bush was a member of the Texas Air National Guard, which makes him practically the same as the folks who flew those planes into the World Trade Center. Get it?) Aside from a one-liner about "having to take a dump the size of Michael Moore," no political jibes were made at the expense of Democrats. Ho, ho!

Now, the Kinsey Sicks have the right to say what they want, as outrageously or offensively as they want -- and under ordinary circumstances, I'd laugh along, or at least try to. But when a nonprofit charity with tax-exempt status and a generous share of public money sponsors explicitly partisan political invective, I have a very big problem. Most charities know enough to keep away from blatant partisanship, which drives away donors, creates local opposition, and in the worst cases, even jeopardizes tax-deductible status. I can't explain why ASG didn't see this as a potential problem: Perhaps the staff there didn't realize what they were getting into.

I hope ASG doesn't lose community support over this event, though in the long run it could lose something just as important. Government grants constitute a sizable share of the organization's budget, and those grants are overseen by the Virginia General Assembly and the US Congress. Both these legislative bodies are predominantly Republican -- as are the state and federal legislators within ASG's service area -- and these Republicans have made a positive showing, on the whole, in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Over the past three years, Congress has increased public funds for organizations like ASG by nearly thirty percent. Meanwhile, Virginia's legislature retained and expanded drug subsidies during hard economic times, and even expanded its own funding for AIDS prevention efforts. Thanks largely to these massive infusions of public money, ASG has managed to expand over the past two years -- renting larger offices, starting a new family-housing plan, and serving more clients over a larger area than ever before.

In short, Republican legislators helped make AIDS/HIV Services Group the social-service organization it is today. Last night, while their backs were turned, they finally received their reward. What do you think these benefactors might do, gentle readers, when they finally learn what happened?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Georgia's hate crimes law overturned

Whenever a court throws out a law for being "unconstitutionally vague," there's reason to rejoice. If the state of Georgia cannot enforce "unconstitutionally vague" laws to protect Gays and Lesbians, perhaps it cannot enforce such laws against us, either.

Georgia's proposed constitutional amendment against same-sex couples is not especially vague, as these things go:

No union between persons of the same sex shall be recognized by this state as entitled to the benefits of marriage. This state shall not give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other state or jurisdiction respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other state or jurisdiction. The courts of this state shall have no jurisdiction to grant a divorce or separate maintenance with respect to any such relationship or otherwise to consider or rule on any of the parties' respective rights arising as a result of or in connection with such relationship.

At least the amendment doesn't explicitly prohibit private contracts, and it may even allow employers to continue providing DP benefits. But it throws open the question as to whether state courts can enforce contracts between two partners in a same-sex relationship. Of course, like most legislation of its ilk, the amendment will give the state carte blanche to rip apart loving families. It will almost certainly be used against adoption and custody agreements. Worse, it may encourage partners in same-sex relationships elsewhere to "go deadbeat," evading obligations for child support by moving to Georgia (or some other state that refuses to provide basic legal protections for same-sex couples).

That said, even if Georgia passes the amendment, it still won't be as hostile as Virginia is, Louisiana was, or Missouri and Ohio will be. Does this qualify as good news?

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