Saturday, August 26, 2006

Snakes on a Plane and Idlewild

This hasn't been a good summer, or a good year, for African-Americans at the movies. The Wayans brothers' Little Man was an insulting collection of booty-call jokes, with a premise stolen from "Baby Buggy Bunny" (itself not one of Bugs Bunny's best efforts). And yet, if you remove that film from the roster, what exactly do you have? Spike Lee is focusing his best energies on a Hurricane Katrina documentary for HBO; talented Black filmmakers still can't get their projects greenlighted. Even the Scary Movie series, which began by exploring the love-hate relationship Black audiences have with horror movies, has passed into Caucasian hands and become Not Another Genre Spoof. Mission: Impossible: III (which proved you can never have too many colons in your title) kept its Black character actors under lock and key (lest they upstage Tom Cruise); X3: The Final Insult turned Halle Berry into a Martha Stewart ice queen-slash-den mother; and Superman Returns inadvertently showed what a dull, dreary place an all-White Metropolis would be. The only mainstream film to feature African-American actors in dramatically substantive roles was Michael Mann's long-delayed and underwhelming remake of Miami Vice, which for all its whiz-bang action and steamy sex still felt perfunctory.

So it says something that the low-budget craptacular Snakes on a Plane features the most interesting role for an African-American actor I've seen so far this year (and yes, that includes Laurence Fishburne's rah-rah turn in Akelah and the Bee). As an FBI agent, Samuel L. Jackson takes his jive-talking, badass persona and works it right to the muthafuckin' wall. It's a far cry from his work in Jungle Fever, to be sure, but great actors have the right to slum every now and then. Laurence Olivier played Zeus in Clash of the Titans, Ian McKellen was the sole bright spot in The Da Vinci Code, and Orson Welles's final film was Transformers: The Movie. Still, Snakes on a Plane looks pretty shabby even for the low-rent district; the production values suggest something you'd watch late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel. Without the massive ad blitz and free Internet publicity, Snakes would probably have gone straight to video. At least Jackson makes it go down smoov.

Frankly, after watching sadistic, laugh-at-the-monkey schlock like Little Miss Sunshine, it's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't even pretend to care about human beings. Audiences come to Snakes on a Plane to watch things die. It's sociopathic, but at least it's openly so, and thus attains a sleazoid integrity of its own. James Berardinelli at Reelviews thinks this might be enough to earn the movie cult status, but I'm inclined to doubt it. Cult movies gain their following because, intentionally or not, they're subversive. In the 1936 Reefer Madness, bad acting and technical ineptitude undercut a terribly earnest anti-drug message, and the most financially successful of all cult movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, deliberately skewered compulsory heterosexuality by suggesting that any sexual activity -- hetero, homo, bi or trans -- can be good, depraved, dirty fun. I don't know what a film like Snakes on a Plane could subvert, though it might have started by subverting itself. Certainly the script exploits all the usual action-movie and disaster-film cliches, right up to a last-minute "cheater." But Snakes never quite takes the big risks, never undercuts itself intentionally or unintentionally. In the end, all conventions are upheld, all expectations confirmed, all prejudices left intact. Blatantly insulting movies like Soul Plane might become cult items someday, in the way that ceramic Mammy figurines are now cult collectables. But I suspect Snakes will be little noted nor long remembered.

The 1920s rap musical Idlewild is more hip-hep than hip-hop, and if it were substantially better it might have had a shot at midnight-movie immortality. As it stands, Idlewild is a long, dull drizzle with occasional flashes of lightning (mostly in the musical numbers). Although this film obviously has a lot on its mind, it doesn't know what to do with any of it. (I won't even try to describe what passes for a plot, except that it involves a small town in Georgia, a nightclub, plenty of tommy-gun gangster action, a talking gin flask and one Motown-style chorus of spinning cuckoo clocks.) It also disproves the axiom that any film with Cicely Tyson is automatically worth seeing. Then again, Tyson has roughly fifteen seconds of screen time in the film -- just long enough for an attentive viewer to say, "Look! It's Cicely Tyson!" I don't know if wasting an actress of that caliber is a criminal offense, but it should be.

With Ben Vereen, Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard, Patti LaBelle, Macy Gray and the aforementioned Tyson, it's possible that no other film this year will feature a cast with this much talent to burn. Unfortunately, director Bryan Barber burns them all, by relegating his top-notch cast to second-banana status. The real stars of Idlewild are Andre Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patten, from the rap duo OutKast; the film is structured around their music -- and little else, it would seem. As a small-time hood, Patten shows real screen presence and dedication to the narrative. He might just have a future as an actor, provided he doesn't make many more films like this. Benjamin plays an aspiring musician (in the movies, is there any other kind?) trapped in a stultifying small-town funeral home, but doesn't seem to care as much about his performance: With his trademark scraggly goatee, he doesn't fit in the film's sepia-toned milieu, and when he tries to emote, it's embarrassing.

Still, to hear some critics praise the film, you'd think Idlewild was a Black Studies course come to life, an authentic screen portrait of middle-class life in the early twentieth-century South, and with rap music to give the whole project a postmodern-contemporary sheen. (You may call it Moulin Noir.) Yet Idlewild makes no mention whatsoever of the inescapable historical reality of segregation, or of the violence that African-Americans faced throughout the South (especially during the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was at its zenith). Nor does it mention the importance of the African-American churches in its fictional community, save indirectly: The fictional speakeasy where most of the action occurs is called "Church." African-American filmmakers like Charles Burnett have noted that Black communities did not begin or end with booze, broads and jazz; in Warming by the Devil's Fire Burnett discusses the complicated relationship between Saturday-night sin and Sunday-morning redemption. When one thinks of what Burnett might have made from the rich raw materials of Idlewild, one can only dismiss Barber's final product as a botched opportunity. Barber's Idlewild confuses history with style, and in the end doesn't offer much of either.

Following the advice of Ralph Ellison, I saw Idlewild with an almost entirely African-American audience, in the hope that "here, when the action goes phony, one will hear derisive laughter, not sobs." It's probably no surprise that African-American audiences haven't changed much in the more than fifty years since Ellison wrote "The Shadow and the Act," since when it comes to depictions of race the American cinema hasn't changed much either. But this audience of mostly women came with bullshit detectors on high alert, and gave the film a razzing it richly deserved. Andre Benjamin's tear-filled plea to his father (a variation on the old Deanna Durbin "music is my life" speech) elicited guffaws and wisecracks, and one protracted declaration of love led a woman to shout "This boring!" and storm out of the theater. A sequence in which "Big Boi" Patton encounters a pious old woman practically brought down the house; the scene was meant to signal Patton's readiness for redemption, but no one bought it for a second. An allegedly tragic climax also earned titters and giggles, mostly because of Benjamin's inability to act. Idlewild may deceive some ordinarily intelligent critics into believing the film "authentically" represents some variant of The Black Experience (tm). The film's target audience, however, knows better -- which is why I predict Idlewild will crash and burn at the box office. Still, the musical numbers (Patton's in particular) managed to hold everyone spellbound -- less for the content, I suspect, than for elaborate choreography and whiplash editing.

The current drought of decent African-American films is unlikely to end soon. Perhaps Dreamgirls will break it in December, but until then, the cinema is going to be a pretty dismal place for people of color. If the trailers preceding Idlewild are any indication, Hollywood marketers expect African-American audiences to enjoy a lighthearted fall comedy with the lovely title Let's Go to Prison. See, the movie is a comedy about going to prison, and since lots of Black men really do go to prison, they'll want to see this movie, too.

Can you dig it?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gay Nazi Pedophiles on the March!

When you're part of a truly despised minority group, you tend to see the world through a jaundiced lens: It's not so much that you seek prejudice in the world as that prejudice seeks you, and always finds its target. And if some of your friends, colleagues or co-workers are not members of your particular despised group, you learn to steel yourself against some offhand remark or inference that, like as not, will cut to the quick no matter how well you think you've prepared for it. This constant guard does not necessarily make you a better or more empathetic person. In fact, it's likely to make you touchy, perhaps even a bit paranoid, to the people around you, and no more sympathetic than average to others' distress: I am wounded, and I would wound.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Terry Teachout's latest "Sightings" column in the Wall Street Journal. The subject, or at least the take-off point, is Gunther Grass -- Nobel prize-winning novelist, committed left-winger, exposer of dirty Nazi deeds, and now, we learn, a former member of the Waffen SS. That Grass had skeletons in his closet shouldn't come as a surprise: Any German who lived in Germany through the Nazi years was inevitably tainted by Nazi atrocity, and Hitler's regime made sure that the young wallowed in the worst of it. Grass learned the truth at seventeen, hardly an age of political accountability, and if we're compelled now to read his oeuvre as an apology for his misspent youth, we ought at least to remember that the decision to misspend it was not altogether his.

Teachout's point is not that some evils are so broad, so all-encompassing, that they exhaust the finite human capacity for justice and restitution. Nor does he offer Grass as a tragic figure, the man who would redeem his country but instead sank into the mire. Instead, Teachout wants to remind us that good artists can be bad people and do bad things, and that when gauging an artist's obvious moral failings (and we will), we must be kind. It's the old New Critical dictum: Judge the art, not the artist. Whether Grass actually qualifies as a good artist is a question for another day -- Teachout suggests that he isn't, and I'm inclined to agree. In any case, nothing cuts short a finger-wagging moralist like the stench of hypocrisy, and when the inevitable collapse occurs it's something of a relief. That said, when Teachout offers a list of artists in similar predicaments, it emits another, slightly different stench:

The revelation of Herr Grass's hypocrisy is only the latest in a series of belated airings of the dirty laundry of prominent artists. The obituaries for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the great soprano who died two weeks ago at the age of 90, reminded us that she lied shamelessly about her membership in the Nazi Party, admitting to the truth in 1996 only when confronted with incontrovertible evidence. And Benjamin Britten, the foremost English composer of the 20th century, was the subject of both a 2004 BBC documentary and a recently published book, "Britten's Children," that documented in detail his lifelong sexual interest in adolescent boys.

Gentle reader, you may have noticed that one of these things is not like the others. It may well be that in the mind of a contemporary Briton, nonces loom as large as Nazis, if not larger. Despite Britain's reputation (at least over here in the States) for intelligent public discourse and a superior educational system, this is the country where a man was run out of town there for the unspeakable crime of being a pediatrician. Still, why lump the pacifist anti-Nazi Britten with former Nazis like Schwarzkopf and Grass, who bear responsibility -- indirect in Schwarzkopf's case, seriously qualified in Grass's -- for some of the most horrific atrocities of the twentieth century? Especially when, as is the case with Britten, he doesn't seem to have done anything to deserve it?

True, Britten's fondness for children is hardly a secret -- especially when it comes to boy sopranos and boys' choirs, whose purity of tone no doubt stimulated some highly impure and improper thoughts. Nor is there any serious doubt that many of Britten's compositions for children carry disturbing overtones. The subtly sexualized roles that young boys play in his operas -- the wife-like apprentice in Peter Grimes, the boy-seducer of The Turn of the Screw -- ought to confirm any lingering doubts about Britten's attraction to youth. Still, Britten was no hypocrite on the order of Grass or Schwarzkopf. If he hid his pedophilic urges, he hid them in plain sight. Much more importantly, he kept his hands to himself.

Most pedophiles don't (e.g. Roman Polanski). Perhaps Britten's decades-long relationship with Peter Pears (also hidden in plain sight) checked those impulses, or perhaps he decided his feelings were better sublimated into his music. Whatever it was, according to a recent review in The Telegraph, "those in search of roving hands up trouser legs will be disappointed by Britten's Children." True, the review notes that Britten had one sexual relationship with an underaged partner: When it began, the youth was seventeen and Britten was in his mid-twenties. But this sort of thing would be perfectly legal in the UK today, and if the relationship were heterosexual, no one would bat an eye. So the only remarkable thing about the recent scholarly investigation of Britten's sex life was that absolutely nothing new or incriminating turned up. What's more, British parents seemed to think nothing of leaving their boys in the composer's care: They had no worries of Michael Jackson-style shenanigans, and as far as anyone can tell none occurred. (Had one occurred, we would most likely have heard of it well before now.)

Why, then, does Teachout mention Britten? His clothesline connection of "dirty laundry" seems too flimsy to serve as an answer. After all, if you're looking for classical composers with real dirty laundry -- especially where the Third Reich is concerned -- you don't have to look very far. Teachout mentions two obvious examples later in his article: Wagner's music was practically the soundtrack of Nazi Germany, and Richard Strauss was probably the best-known classical artist to work for the Nazi state. Still, for sheer reprehensibility, neither holds a candle to Carl Orff, who not only feigned membership in an anti-Nazi resistance group but co-opted the identity of a dead student to do it.

For that matter, Gunther Grass is hardly the first revered writer with ties to Nazism. Ezra Pound's open support of Mussolini (for which he was imprisoned after the war) and T.S. Eliot's flirtations with fascism are touchy subjects among literary scholars, and even the apolitical modernist Gertrude Stein, esconced in the French countryside, collaborated with the Vichy regime by translating Marshall Petain's speeches into English. Of course, Stein promptly switched sides once the Allies retook France, dashing off pro-Resistance pieces like Yes Is For a Very Young Man. And regardless of her allegiances, she and her lover were generally left alone, a happy condition which most Lesbians under Nazi rule did not share. The question remains: Why Britten, and not one of these people?

More important, why does Teachout's offhand association get under my skin? Well, for one thing it's offhand, and therefore -- at least according to the hermeneutics of suspicion, which members of despised minority groups practice assiduously -- tends to show what a person really thinks. And it's certainly no secret that many heterosexuals, the ones who don't think we're women trapped in men's bodies or vice versa, believe that Gay and Lesbian people are child molesters at heart. In my own case, friends and family members whom I hold quite dear have indicated in none-too-subtle terms that they believe I'm potentially dangerous to children. Certainly in the public sphere, whenever questions of Gay foster parents arise, the accusations of pedophilia swarm and sting us like mad hornets. Throw a whiff of Nazism in the mix, and faster than you can say "pink schwastika," we're pulled into a swirling vortex of heterosexism and homophobia. The end product is usually anti-Gay legislation, or a constitutional amendment. Britten becomes yet another figure in the passing parade of prejudice: "Gay Nazi Pedophiles ... on the march!"

Still, I don't for a moment think Teachout deliberately intends these connotations, though that doesn't mean they don't exist. Besides, Teachout bears malice only toward works of art that waste his time, and in such cases the malice is well and truly earned. The worst one could say is that although this article carefully considers the feelings of its Jewish readership (and rightly so, given the sensitive subject matter), it is less than careful where its Gay readership is concerned. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that when Teachout wrote the passage in question, he followed the "Rule of Three," looked for recent examples of artists with skeletons in their closets, and finally shoehorned something in his paragraph that didn't quite belong there.

My concern, for what it's worth, is that some readers who encounter this passage will believe that Britten does belong with the "ugly souls" (Teachout's phrase) like Schwarzkopf and Grass, and act accordingly. Then again, people who act on anti-Gay prejudice, whether they wield oppressive legislation or an old-fashioned tire iron, seldom read arts criticism or use it to justify themselves. They don't need to.

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