Saturday, January 01, 2005

2004: Year in Review

Politics: The personal got political back in January, when President Bush pledged support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have encoded anti-Gay discrimination into the US Constitution. Technically, this didn't matter a fig, because Presidents don't get to vote on Constitutional amendments. Still, it started a nasty little game of "Smear the Queer" during the presidential campaign -- and the most eager player, as it turned out, would be Democratic vice-presidential hopeful John Edwards. But his slimy innuendoes about the Cheney family backfired, and for a brief moment the GOP became the party of tolerance, relatively speaking.

This wasn't true at the state or local level, where violent anti-Gay rhetoric from Republicans was the depressing norm. In Virginia, GOP Delegate Bob Marshall proposed HB 751, which states that any "legal arrangement" between same-sex partners will be null and void in Virginia. The General Assembly eventually enacted this broadly worded bill, over the feeblest of objections from Governor Mark Warner. Attorney General Jerry Kilgore -- one of the bill's leading supporters -- claims that this law will not affect private contracts. Then again, he has also claimed that local police have the power to arrest citizens under Virginia's sodomy law, which the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional just last year. Barring a miracle, Kilgore will be the commonwealth's next governor -- so start praying, gentle readers.

Virginia led the way in Gay-baiting, but it didn't stand alone. By November, thirteen other states had passed constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage -- many of which bore striking similarities to our own HB 751. (Gee whiz, you don't think any of those efforts might have been coordinated, do you?) Louisiana's constitutional amendment, though approved by a large margin of voters, was thrown out for its overbroad language, and the same fate may happen to Georgia. The anti-contract language in the Arkansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah state amendments probably won't be challenged anytime soon.

Meanwhile, our national and local Gay-rights organizations stood by and did nothing. Equality Virginia actually discouraged Log Cabin Republicans from talking to their representatives in the the General Assembly, with the result that only two Republicans (who had already been lobbied) voted against HB 751. I'm informed that a few Republican legislators would have voted against the bill, if only someone had told them about its potentially damaging effect on private contracts. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign chose not to assist local Gay-rights groups in twelve of the thirteen states where anti-marriage amendments were up for a. It decided to place all its eggs, so to speak, in Oregon's basket -- and lost.

Election: I wavered between supporting Bush, and supporting Anybody But Bush (i.e., Kerry). I even considered voting for the Libertarian candidate, until I heard him speak in Charlottesville and realized that he had absolutely no grasp of foreign policy issues. The "MaryGate" incident, in which John and Elizabeth Edwards attacked Dick Cheney for siring a Lesbian daughter, convinced me that a Kerry-Edwards administration would be no better for Gay and Lesbian Americans than a second term for Bush. In the end, I cast my vote for the incumbent -- though it was a gesture of resignation, not support.

Movies: I spent so much time on politics that I never had the chance to write about some of my favorite films. M. Night Shyamalan's The Village was a lovely meditation on grief and community, disguised as a thriller: I was particularly impressed with its deft use of sound, always a hallmark of Shyamalan's features but never more so than here. I saw Alexander Payne's Sideways and enjoyed it immensely: It's a standard-issue teen sex comedy with middle-aged schlubs instead of horny kids, but Payne's sense of mise-en-scene is so true and unerring that I forgave the film its hackneyed hijinks.

The best film I saw this year was a modest, G-rated documentary entitled Paper Clips. This film follows a group of middle-school students in rural Tennessee, who create a Holocaust memorial by collecting eleven million paper clips. Believe it or not, that's just the beginning. Every time I thought I knew where this story was headed, it took another, more beautiful turn, delving ever deeper into human kindness and generosity. No film last year made me laugh or cry like Paper Clips.

Theater: Among the outdoor dramas I saw in 2004 were Horn in the West (Boone NC); Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Big Stone Gap VA); Legend of Daniel Boone (Harrodsburg KY); Tecumseh! (Chillicothe OH); Blue Jacket (Xenia OH); Johnny Appleseed (Mansfield OH); and The Stephen Foster Story (Bardstown KY). I didn't write about any of these shows at the time. But since I've kept my notes and my programs, I might give them a plug this summer. Horn, Blue Jacket and Tecumseh! are especially good.

Now for the indoor stuff, most of it in the greater Charlottesville area. At LiveArts, one of the most exciting community theater groups in America, I saw a typically eclectic and ambitious bill of fare, including Kushner's Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika, Bogosian's sUbuRbia, Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Charles Mee's Wintertime. I thought Wintertime was terrific, and I'd recommend it to any theater company looking for a Yuletide production that doesn't involve Ebenezer Scrooge, Jesus, and/or a chorus of tow-headed brats. As for the other plays -- well, the Kushner and the Bogosian were as good as they could be, given the lackluster material. But the Brecht was heartbreakingly bad even by Brechtian standards, redeemed only by a winning performance from a Danish exchange student whose name I've forgotten. (I should add that this debacle was strictly the fault of a director who took the playwright's idea of verfremdungseffekt way too seriously.)

At the University of Virginia, I saw a nearly perfect production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, and a misguided but lively rendering of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. At Signature Theatre in Arlington VA, I had the chance to see the world premiere of The Highest Yellow, a musical by Michael John LaChiusa (of Wild Party fame) about Vincent Van Gogh's psychiatrist. The title song is performed by a naked man in a bathtub, which tells you everything you need to know. I also saw LaChiusa's First Lady Suite at Piedmont Virginia Community College -- it's not perfect by any means, but it's much better than Yellow. (The PVCC production was lousy, though -- a show about middle-aged women is not appropriate for a community college, and LaChiusa's music is incredibly difficult to sing.)

Overview: Politics aside, 2004 was a great year, with movies, theater and music galore. The Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival was marvelous; the fall colors were gorgeous, if a bit late in coming.

The year's most encouraging development, however, occurred at Vivace, a local Italian restaurant. This warm, intimate venue stood mostly empty on weekends, until bartender Salvatore "Das" Delfino started booking small jazz combos on Friday and Saturday nights. One of my former writing students, Kate Dunton, fronted a jazz piano trio, the first group to establish a weekly gig there. Between Kate's piano stylings and Das's hard-hitting cocktails, the Vivace lounge grew in popularity, until it became a center of Charlottesville's night life. If you go to Vivace on a Friday night, you'll probably find me at the bar, hanging out with friends and taking in some straight-ahead jazz. Oh yeah.

Friday, December 31, 2004

The Second Annual My Stupid Awards Show

'Tis the season, when the author of this blog stops to recognize his best and worst posts of the year. After all, if I don't give awards to myself, no one else will.

It's been a long, strange year for me and My Stupid Dog. I spent my best efforts trying (unsuccesfully, it would seem) to defend myself and my neighbors against arbitrary state-sponsored oppression in the form of anti-marriage amendments. This left me with less time for film, theater, music, literature, travel -- in short, the things I enjoy most.

I'll try to do better on the culture front next year. For now, here are "My Stupid Awards" for the year 2004. (As is customary for these awards shows, no post will receive more than one Stupid Award.)

Best post of the year: The post that seemed to get the most attention in 2004 -- including a surprise citation in Slate magazine and a not-so-surprising link at Dorkland!) -- was this off-the-cuff rumination on Nietzschean ressentiment in George Romero's zombie flicks. Not content to leave well enough alone, I also discussed a few basic differences between zombie and werewolf movies.

Best current-events post: Democrats' use of Mary Cheney's sexual orientation as a campaign tool struck me as pretty despicable politics. This post on "MaryGate" inspired a few major bloggers to congratulate me for stating "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Yet to my knowledge, it generated only one link, at Alan Sullivan's Fresh Bilge. (To my fellow bloggers: The next time I manage to write a Gay-themed post you enjoy, I'd be awfully grateful if a couple of you could congratulate me in public, mmkay?)

Runners-up include a close reading of the anti-Pericles, an instructive lesson on the perils of mass transit, and a still-timely countercharge against Bush's Keynesian critics.

Best film criticism: This one is a tie, with two posts written after the election. An overview of the new "activist cinema" was probably the most substantive piece I wrote on cinema this year, and certainly required a good deal of unpleasant research. This post on language and the Western proved a far greater pleasure, especially since it gave me a chance to discuss one of my favorite B movies, Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station.

Runners-up include a meditation on cinema as a social event, an angry comparison of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ to the oeuvre of Italian schlockmeister Lucio Fulci, and a tribute to African-American director Charles Burnett.

Best cultural criticism: In early April, I compared Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul to Tim LaHaye's Left Behind novels, thereby pissing off red-diaper babies and Christian fundamentalists at the same time. Hooray!

The many runners-up include a backhanded eulogy for Jacques Derrida, a discussion of how mainstream American theater could learn a thing of two from outdoor dramas, a old-fashioned sermon on Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," an essay about the box-office potential of Christian cinema, and an expose of Christmas television.

Best plug: The LiveArts Summer Theater Festival contains the best, most adventurous community theater anywhere in the country. This is the sort of thing I love to write about -- great theater, reasonable prices, receptive local audiences. May the Summer Theater Festival live long and prosper.

Best reminder of the difference between fascism and liberty: This post explains why so-called "body fascism" is anything but.

Best personal writing: These two posts from April 24 and May 13 offer some details about how and why I abandoned the Left to become a conservative. The latter entry, which focuses on my experience as a young teacher, received particular acclaim.

Runners-up include this account of the Reagan funeral, as well as an obligatory essay on coming out to my parents. Given the penchant of Gay writers to discuss their coming-out experiences, it's a miracle that I managed to avoid the subject for almost a year and a half.

Best expose: Here's some old-fashioned journalism about an AIDS fundraiser that became an anti-GOP hatefest. The piece earned a few links in the critical days prior to the election, but drew relatively few readers. Now that AIDS funding will be reevaluated by a largely Republican Congress, the ideological biases of AIDS service providers may come under much closer scrutiny.

Runners-up include a university audience's response to a film about Hugo Chavez, a visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and a case in which the Congressional Black Caucus gave its blessing to thirty-year-old pro-terrorist propaganda.

Special award: Here's one intellectual's tribute to Ronald Reagan, the representative American of the late 20th century.

Most provocative: I wrote this Ciceronian dialogue on Shakespeare's Othello back in May. Of all the posts I've produced in 2004, this is the one I can't get out of my mind.

And now, the inevitable round of booby prizes:

Bitchiest posts: Rumors of the American Left's demise may be premature, but that didn't stop me from invoking Kubler-Ross. I'm also quite fond of the Dogville drinking game and a silly jab at our language's convoluted orthography. (All right, so that last post wasn't exactly bitchy.)

Cheapest shots:: In a final attack on Wesley Clark, I quipped that the Dog's favorite Generalissimo ought to clusterbomb himself. I'm also proud of a few nasty jokes made at the expense of D.C.'s new World War Two Memorial. But this post contained the year's sharpest one-liner: This is like saying your dad was abusive and he wasn't around enough.

Dumbest rant: In late September, I wondered whether Terry Teachout had lost his mind. I should have looked to my own brain first.

Most pointless post: Why oh why did I volunteer to see Book of Mormon: The Movie? Did I really need to see the film to know it would suck?

Most self-righteous tirade: Lots of stiff competition for this award. But this open letter to Steve Sailer wins, hands down. Everything I said was correct, I think -- but I suspect I could have said it much better. For more about Sailer and the dubious intellectual company he keeps, click here.

Weirdest post: I probably read too much into the summer blockbuster Troy.

Poser alert: The single worst sentence I managed to write last year was probably the following: "Was it only two years ago that Columbine bamboozled me with its inexorable montage?" Sweet Jesus, what twaddle. But check out the context, which is somewhat better.

Crystal ball awards: Most of the predictions I made last year proved wrong, but some were more spectacular than others. For example, I foresaw that business for Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ would drop seventy-five percent in its second weekend. I also believed that the legislature would pass Governor Warner's amendments to HB 751, thereby turning a malignant law into a merely useless one. There's a reason this site is called My Stupid Dog.

Worst post of the year: This award had some pretty stiff competition, too. But the unquestioned winner has sixteen f-bombs in one paragraph, all directed against George W. Bush. Count 'em if you dare. Yet despite that barrage of invective, I ended up voting for him in November. Sometimes you just can't win.

Last but not least, a few mea culpas for essays I failed to write: A religious analysis of The Polar Express never quite made it off the drawing board, but a short travel piece about Branson, Missouri, may appear in the next week or two. The main thing I meant to write, but never got around to, was a piece on American composer Roy Harris -- whose third, sixth and seventh symphonies are at least as interesting as anything Aaron Copland wrote.

Until next year ....

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