Saturday, February 03, 2007

"Marygate" again

After more than two years, America's most political lesbian (whether she likes it or not) is once again in the papers: Now that Mary Cheney and her partner have announced their decision to raise a child by themselves, all the unresolved accusations from the 2004 "Marygate" fracas have reared their ugly little heads. For James Dobson's evangelical crowd, Mary's very existence is an unpleasant reminder that despite Bush's penchant for quoting old-school Methodist hymns, he may not be on their side of the culture war after all. Fundamentalists and social conservatives are perfectly happy to have the government break up loving, stable, two-parent households (just as long as they don't have to do the dirty work themselves). Yet they are utterly powerless to prevent or even forestall the personal decision of the vice-president's daughter not only to bear a child out of wedlock, but to raise it with her female partner. (Even worse, her father seems happy that Mary's expecting.) It's only natural that they've been fulminating against Mary and her father from the moment she broke the news.

The attacks from the Left have been no less surprising, though perhaps more discouraging. Since they're essentially rehashes of arguments made against the Cheney family in 2004, a little historical background might be in order: John Kerry started "Marygate" by noting in a speech that the Vice President had a Lesbian daughter. The information was hardly secret, but coming from a Democratic presidential candidate in the waning weeks of a vicious campaign, it carried unpleasant connotations. For one thing, it suggested that voters should reject a political candidate because of his daughter's sexual orientation. Since neither John Kerry nor his running mate John Edwards had gays or lesbians in their respective families (that we knew about, anyway), it implied that a vote for the Democrats might even help perpetuate traditional, no-queers-allowed family values.

But more importantly, Kerry and Edwards meant to cast doubt on whether Dick Cheney actually loves his daughter. After all, Cheney is a Republican, and we all know what Republicans think about gay rights, so as a Republican, Cheney must be at least vaguely embarrassed by his daughter's sexuality. He would certainly qualify as a hypocrite, perhaps even a liar, for serving an administration so deeply committed to the oppression of his own daughter. Yet Cheney opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment in the 2004 Vice-Presidential debate, in a rare instance of a sitting veep publicly criticizing his boss and his party platform. Of all the major-party presidential and vice-presidential candidates that year, Cheney was the only one not to endorse a state marriage amendment for political gain: John Edwards and John Kerry expressed their support of anti-marriage amendments in Missouri and Massachusetts, and when the odious Federal Marriage Amendment (supported by George W. Bush) came up for a Senate vote, they conveniently skipped town.

Even though Cheney has been roundly criticized for his alleged anti-gay activities, he's actually one of the few national politicians (perhaps the only one) with a solid pro-gay rights record, and he has weathered criticism within his own party that might well have cowed another man. Still, it's clear that Mary has always been included in the Cheney family. All evidence indicates that the vice-president loves and supports his daughter unconditionally, regardless of what the Far Right (or for that matter, the Left) may think. Cheney has even provoked a rare instance of unscripted tolerance from President Bush himself: When asked about Mary's pregnancy, Bush replied that he thought she'd make "a fine mom" and Cheney a terrific grandfather.

We can still hate Dick Cheney for his positions on torture, indefinite detention, the right to privacy, unlimited executive privilege, the radical expansion of government power, the suspension of habeas corpus, the Iraq War, the Scooter Libby affair, and even his own apparent right to shoot a hunting buddy in the face. But on this issue, Cheney's a mensch: He's standing up to anti-gay bigotry, and he ought to get a little credit for it.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Amazing Graceless

A few days ago on the Guardian's free website, David Boaz of the Cato Institute offered a preliminary review of Michael Apted's new film Amazing Grace. This story of William Wilberforce and the British antislavery movement is due to arrive in American cinemas by the end of the month, and I daresay you'll find it at your neighborhood video store sometime this May. Boaz is deeply enthusiastic about the film, probably because he has (by his admission) "only seen the trailer." I am considerably less enthused, alas, because I have seen the whole thing.

Here's what I wrote last October, just after Amazing Grace played the Virginia Film Festival:

For me, the biggest disappointment at this year's festival has been Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, slated for US release in February 2007 (I doubt the film will improve much between now and then). This confused biopic of British anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce offers a "special thanks" to Purpose-Driven Life pastor Rick Warren in the closing credits, so it's just possible that evangelical Christians might embrace it. They'd be unwise to do so, especially since Amazing Grace treats Wilberforce's devout Christianity with the sort of embarrassed tolerance one might extend to nosepickers, double-dippers and bedwetters. The film spends more time on Wilberforce's colitis than his faith.

There are other problems with Amazing Grace, too. Its narrative is needlessly convoluted, and the first half-hour has more time shifts than a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The acting is uneven, to put it mildly: As Wilberforce, Ioan Gruffudd (of the Horatio Hornblower) series is bland as instant potatoes, and although Romola Garai (as Wilberforce's wife) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Pitt the Younger) acquit themselves quite well, a fright-wigged Rufus Sewell chews too much scenery as radical activist Thomas Clarkson. Steven Knight's maladroit screenplay crashes into one silver-fork cliche after another, and the insufferable "meet cute" between Wilberforce and his future bride left me wanting to hurl brickbats at the screen. Worst of all, the movie is much too genteel and flaccid to depict the horrors of the slave trade, which drains most of the moral urgency from its central conflict.

Against the negative points, however, we must place Albert Finney: As John Newton, a former slave trader and the author of the titular hymn, he delivers a magnetic performance. When Finney is offscreen, Amazing Grace founders and sinks; when he appears, we can't look away. It doesn't hurt that the historical John Newton had a gift for aphorism: Finney's best lines are lifted directly from the biographical record (though presented out of context), and they possess a fervor and frankness sadly missing from the rest of the film. For instance, Newton actually said that "Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great saviour" -- though he did not, as Finney does in the film, say it to Wilberforce.

Even when it comes to Newton, though, the film is far from satisfactory: By presenting him as Wilberforce's private conscience (another cliche), it ignores Newton's substantial popular success as a London preacher. Newton was hardly isolated from the world, as the film depicts him; rather, he was thoroughly engaged with the social, political and religious affairs of his day. (Nor was "Amazing Grace" Newton's only hymn -- he wrote nearly three hundred others.) But this omission seems of a piece with the film's more generally dismissive attitude toward Christianity. It deems faith acceptable as a private vice, provided its presence does not make unwarranted incursions into the public sphere. And that's a shame, considering that the abolition of slavery has been the greatest achievement of Christian activism to date.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple

Documentaries are the comfort food of intellectuals, and Stanley Nelson’s recent Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple fits the bill with its all-too-typical mix of talking-head interviews, still photos and archival footage. On the big screen, this account of Jim Jones’s spectacular rise as a charismatic California evangelist Jim Jones, his equally jaw-dropping decline and fall, and his suicide with more than nine hundred followers in the wilderness of Guyana, seems flat and emotionless. It looks like a PBS television production -- and as it turns out, that’s precisely what it is.

Jonestown was produced as an installment of PBS’s The American Experience, but its filmmakers, sensing potential awards-show buzz, chose to give it a limited release in theaters first. Its one-week run (starting today) at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. may seem slightly anticlimactic, considering that the film failed to earn so much as a single Oscar nomination this year. For diehard fans of documentary films, the film might be worth an early visit, but everyone else should wait to see it on the small screen, where it properly belongs.

Unlike many documentaries, Jonestown avoids an authoritative, offscreen narrator; Nelson uses the words of former People’s Temple members and survivors of the infamous “Jonestown Massacre" to tell his story. His greatest achievement, though, involves digging up some never-before-seen footage from Jones’s San Francisco church, the “People’s Temple.” The film is genuinely eerie when it shows Jones’s near-hypnotic control over his flock -- which he established, according to interviewees, through sleep deprivation, emotional manipulation, physical intimidation and classic brainwashing techniques.

Jonestown has a great deal of narrative ground to cover in its ninety-minute running time, and it does so efficiently, with competence and candor. Nelson doesn’t shirk from issues of race -- the People‘s Temple, one woman states, “functioned completely like a Black Church“ -- nor does he sidestep the much thornier issue of Jones’s bisexuality.

Yet the film is never more provocative than when it depicts the political activity of the People’s Temple. Even though the left-wing Jones predated the contemporary Religious Right, his church was still a hotbed of ideological extremism, and he pioneered many of the tactics that conservative Christians would perfect in their own quest for influence. Jones managed to become a powerful force in local Democratic politics, and the documentary shows footage of Democratic leaders -- most notably Vice-President Walter Mondale -- praising Jones and his movement.

Watching the People’s Temple in full flower provides a real frisson, especially since we know the horrible end in advance. But all in all, Nelson’s Jonestown is made for easy consumption and disposability. It is plug-and-play filmmaking, and as such it cannot truly convey the horror that Jim Jones unleashed upon America and the world.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Harlem Renaissance: King Lear at the Folger

It’s not often that you see a citywide festival as ambitious as the 2007 salute to “Shakespeare in Washington.” More than seventy arts-related groups -- theaters, museums, ballet companies and orchestras -- have banded together to create over one hundred Bard-related productions between now and July. The whole affair can seem a bit daunting to a casual observer. But all in all, it’s a terrific opportunity for D.C.-area theatergoers to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with truly great drama, and sometimes at a relative bargain to boot.

One of the festival’s highest-profile offerings is the Folger Theatre/ Classical Theatre of Harlem co-production of King Lear, now playing at the Folger Shakespeare Library after a successful New York run. Set in a mythical, pre-civilized England, Lear may be the bleakest of the Bard's tragedies: From the very first scene, it presents a world broken in two, where power means everything and the struggle to possess it overwhelms even the deepest familial bonds. Lear himself may well be Shakespeare’s most fascinating “bad king,” not only because he makes a foolish decision that sends his kingdom (and his family) careening toward disaster, but because in the ensuing chaos he discovers the meaning of loyalty and love.

Director Alfred Preisser has chosen to relocate the play in ancient Mesopotamia -- or so he claims, though a trained anthropologist might disagree. The colorful dashikis worn by the largely African-American cast suggest a West African influence; the show’s two ritual dances belong unmistakably to the world of Off-Broadway theater. But on the whole, this production is round, unvarnished Shakespeare, performed with great sensitivity to the text, and only a few ruffles and flourishes along the way. This Lear is simple, spare and direct, and its horrific final scene socks an audience in the gut.

Performances are uniformly excellent. Andre de Shields’ Lear is every inch a king, majestic in his insanity and heartbreaking in his grief. Deidra LeWan Starnes and Chantal Jean-Pierre play daughters Regan and Goneril with just the right touch of sass, giving their confrontations with Lear (and each other) unexpected snap and verve. Even Todd Scofield shines in the thankless role of Albany, Goneril’s husband (and possibly the only straight-arrow in the play). But the star-making performance of the evening goes to Ty Jones as Edmund, an illegitimate son who becomes an object of lust for both Regan and Goneril (and who therefore stands in a good position to seize the entire kingdom for himself). Jones displays a potent combination of wit, charisma and raw sex appeal, and his sly, unforced delivery of lines like “Now, ye gods, stand up for bastards!” is worth the price of admission in itself.

The Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre attempts to replicate an indoor theater of Shakespeare’s time, though the original designers opted for aesthetic beauty over strict historical fidelity and gave their stage a distinct Beaux-Arts flavor (down -- or rather, up -- to the Renaissance-fair frescoes on the ceiling). For this Lear, a few concessions have been made to contemporary staging practices as well: Troy Hourie’s set of moving, shifting platforms never grows tiresome or intrusive, and Aaron Black’s lighting accentuates the action without calling undue attention to itself. This production is masterful in every respect, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

King Lear. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Alfred Preisser. Two hours and thirty minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. At the Folger Shakespeare Library through February 25. Tickets $32 - $50. For more information, call (202) 544-7077, or visit

Monday, January 29, 2007

G.I. Zombie

According to a recent BBC story, the US military has sent reenlistment letters to soldiers killed in Iraq. This gives "Plus Up" a whole new meaning.

In related news: The February issue of Reason magazine would be worth reading just for Radley Balko's blistering attack on the Balkanization of the National Mall. But it has also resurrected a fairly notorious -- and frankly silly -- blog post of mine from 2004. The subject, gentle reader, was zombie movies, and it would appear that Reason's Web editor Tim Cavanaugh, who reviews three recent tomes on the cinematic undead, shares my enthusiasm to some degree, and briefly summarizes my paranoid-Randian glass on Romero's first three Dead movies to counter more typical left-wing takes on the genre.

Of course, I might not agree entirely with the central claims of that post today, even where Romero's films are concerned: His then-unreleased Land of the Dead hewed so close to Marxist orthodoxy that one could swear it must have been shot in the old Soviet Union. (Its production values were too high for North Korea or Cuba.) In Land, zombies serve as the vanguard of a class-based "Deadshevik" revolution, and like good proletarian heroes, they confine their appetites to the fatty flesh of the rich. True, Land hardly invalidates the individualistic message of Romero's earlier Dead movies (especially Dawn of the Dead), but it suggests that his sympathies have undergone a dramatic realignment: The filmmaker has joined his undead, and become an advocate of mob rule.

Although Cavanaugh's article mentions me by name, it omits the name of my blog -- for understandable reasons, I think. All the same, he has my thanks.

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