Saturday, January 10, 2004

Family Values, Family Law

The concept of family is highly valued in American courts, or so they tell us -- unless, of course, someone in that family happens to be Gay. Check out this story from

A Tennessee appeals court says a gay father must keep his homosexuality in the closet when his son is around. But the court says it was wrong for a lower court to send Joseph Randolph Hogue to jail for simply telling the boy he is gay. As part of a divorce hearing, Hogue was barred from "exposing the child to his gay lovers and/or his gay lifestyle." Hogue claimed it was an illegal and overly broad restraining order. The appeals court says it found nothing wrong with the lower court shielding the child from the gay influences. But the court did agree with Hogue that the order didn't specifically bar the father from telling his son about his sexual orientation. A complaint filed by the wife's attorney said Hogue told the boy that ''when someone is gay, they are born like that.'' He told his son that he was old enough to understand and that his boyfriend was in love with him, according to the complaint. Hogue was sentenced to two days in Williamson County Jail in September 2002 for breaking the restraining order.

It's hard to understand what could motivate the lower court's ruling -- why a judge would throw a man in jail just for saying that he's Gay. But under family law, and the family court system, this sort of thing can be done. What's more, it frequently is. A family court prohibited one bisexual man from taking his daughter to church, because this church regularly offered accepting, Gay-tolerant messages from the pulpit, and the judge feared such thought (along with the many Gay people who attended that church) might contaminate the little girl. But I don't have to read the news to learn the scope of this oppression: Many of my Lesbian friends with children hide their sexuality not just from their children, but from the world at large, because they're afraid of losing their children to the family court system. The same courts have kept a few of my Gay male friends from seeing their biological children, all on the grounds that the slightest exposure to non-heterosexual persons is pernicious to little ones -- and perhaps (gulp! gasp!) even contagious.

Never mind that all psychological evidence contradicts these assumptions. Never mind that children raised by same-sex couples are no more likely to be Gay, Straight or Bi than children of opposite-sex parents. The family court judge needs no justification, psychological or otherwise, for his rulings: He (and it is almost always he) thinks that Gay is bad, that it is proper to tell children that Gay is bad, and that children should never knowingly meet people who are Gay -- even if those people are the child's parents. And the word of the family court judge is Law. To paraphrase another ruler: L'etat, c'est lui.

Of course, the family court judge also thinks that male parents are inferior to female ones, a prejudice most of us generally (and wrongly) accept along with him. So not only is "family law" biased against Gay people, it's also biased against heterosexual men, also without any psychological or physical evidence to support it. Thanks to this prejudice against fathers, divorced heterosexual fathers almost always lose contact with their children. And if these men ever find themselves unemployed and unable to pay court-mandated child support, the full weight of the government -- including, most incongruously, recent laws designed to prevent terrorism -- will fall upon their defenseless heads. I can't explain why a divorced father should have the same legal status as a suspected terrorist. But under American family law, he does.

Thus our government slips its tendrils into parents and children alike, recreating the idea of family in its own image. And the idea of family, an official fiction enforced by all-powerful family court judges and social-worker bureaucracies, need bear no resemblance to any known reality to have oppressive, coercive power over living individuals. The result: Single mothers, persecuted fathers, delinquent children, and Gay parents left in the cold. Or in jail.

Hurrah, then, for "family law."

Update (1/14): For more horror stories about our legal system, check out Walter Olson's

Friday, January 09, 2004

DVD Watch: Northfork

After considerable critical acclaim, the Polish brothers' latest film, Northfork, has finally made it to DVD. Defiantly quirky films like this one aren't usually seen in towns like Charlottesville, VA, so I'm glad the film has a chance at last to find a wider audience. But now that I've seen Northfork, I think I know why it won't. We'll get to this problem at the end.

A friend of mine notes the strange proliferation of double-headed filmmakers in America: the Coen brothers, the Farrellys, the Wachowskis, the Chiodo brothers, the Polish brothers, and so forth. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that both the Farrellys and the Polishes have recently made films about conjoined twins? The Farrellys waited until a month ago to release Stuck on You, which failed (inevitably) to live up to its outrageous premise. But in the case of Mark and Michael Polish, they jumped into the freak-show realm of Chang and Eng with their very first film, Twin Falls, Idaho.

The Polish brothers' second effort, Northfork, is also set in the Pacific Northwest (more or less), but has nothing to do with conjoined twins -- unless you're counting the film's duplicative structure, which is intercut for a diffuse narrative quality that could pass among the inattentive for a sort of poor man's epic. Kudos, then, to the Polishes for trying to pass off chamber drama as grand theater, but I'm afraid I didn't buy it; David Lynch managed the feat much better in Twin Peaks -- or at least, the Peaks pilot.

Northfork itself comes with a can't-miss premise: Thanks to a brand-new dam, a small town on the Montana plains is about to lie at the bottom of a lake. In the town's last days, residents haul their homes and businesses to higher ground. Meanwhile, state inspectors make sure a few recalcitrant inhabitants clear out before the gates close and the water starts to rise. One inspector, played by James Woods, wonders if he should retrieve the coffin of his dead wife or simply leave it under the lake. This is a good, suspenseful question, sufficient for a film unto itself. Combined with the larger drama of the town, it's a crackerjack story.

I have to mention Woods's performance here, because it may be his finest to date. Like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Woods curtails his trademark excesses to play a character whose icy veneer conceals deep, rich reserves of grief. It is obligatory for this character to suffer a third-act emotional breakdown -- such is the nature of catharsis -- but Woods's tough-guy demeanor gives his particular crying jag an extra, visceral kick. I liked that the film's best scene takes place in a curiously constructed outhouse, and it doesn't hurt that Woods plays his character against type, as basically a nice guy.

Had Northfork adhered to this character and his moral dilemma, it would have been one of the two or three best films of the year. Unfortunately, there is a second story, concerning angels, a dying child named Irving, and a mumbling priest played by Nick Nolte. This half of the film is generally as bad as the other is good, full of pretentious twaddle and pseudo-surrealism that simply feels fake. But, malformed as it may be, it is no less visually or stylistically accomplished than its conjoined brother. There is even one worthwhile scene in which Nolte's priest delivers a stinging verbal jab to a young couple who refuses to adopt Irving sight unseen. (The male half of the couple is played by Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan, reinforcing the link between Northfork and David Lynch.) But the Polish brothers' attempts at magic realism consistently fall flat. Why do the Polish brothers spend such care on a scene in which unseen spirits shoot each other with tranquilizer darts? Why is Darryl Hannah's character always dressed like a fugitive from the Renaissance Fair? Most importantly, why does Nick Nolte feel the compulsion to mutter unintelligibly through every scene?

I suspect the problem with Northfork is different from most of its ilk. Unlike other good-bad movies, this film seems to know exactly what it's about, but is afraid to commit to it for fear of alienating an art-house base. In a way, I can understand the Polish brothers' timidity, their lack of faith in their best material. After all, most Los Angelans or New Yorkers who own property on a lake don't know -- and maybe don't care to know -- the people who lost their homes to the dam that made it. These victims tend to be working-class residents of oft-ignored "flyover states," most of whom will never get the chance to see Northfork in theaters or on video. Yet they number in the tens of thousands, and it's high time our culture paid some attention to their stories.

So, despite its can't-miss premise, Northfork misses, and misses rather badly at that. But perhaps I expected too much from it: After all, the strange folk who actually inhabit small towns on the Plains are visibly different from the narcissistic producers and purveyors of art-house cinema -- who, truth be told, probably consider themselves closer in spirit to the magical, dispassionate alien-angels of the film's other plot. Perhaps if a filmmaker were to show a real interest in rural Americans, unblemished by pretense or condescension (as occurred with Lynch's brilliant, unabashedly sentimental The Straight Story), the result might be so different from our expectations as to be no longer within the genre of "highbrow independent film." But this diagnosis, if true, begs a broader question: Should we be surprised that Americans in the heartland show little interest in matters of "culture," when that culture obviously shows so little interest in them?

Even though I can't recommend Northfork, I think the Polish brothers' stylish imagery and James Woods' performance make it worth a rental. I'm afraid you must make of that judgment what you will, gentle reader.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

DVD Watch: Lord Love a Duck

Lord Love a Duck is one of the boldest, darkest comedies to emerge from the swinging '60s. Tuesday Weld stars as Barbara Anne Greene, a breathy, oversexed sweater girl. Roddy McDowall -- at 38 years old, still playing teenagers -- lends able support as Alan "Mollymauk" Musgrave, surely the wickedest of fairy godfathers. The supporting cast includes a young, wild-eyed Harvey Korman, and a pre-Rosemary's Baby turn from Ruth Gordon. Best of all, however, is Lola Albright, as Barbara Anne's self-centered mother. Her role begins with plenty of high camp, but ends in a devastating emotional breakdown, providing the film with unexpected dramatic punch.

George Axelrod is best known for writing The Seven Year Itch, the film that made Marilyn Monroe an international star. Along with Hugh Hefner and Billy Wilder, he helped create Monroe's mythic screen persona -- and here, in his directorial debut, he sends up that creation flawlessly. Barbara Anne Greene is a perfect monster, willing to manipulate any man into fulfilling her insatiable desires for boys, clothes and fame. She tells us, "Everyone has got to love me. And I deserve it." In short, Barbara Anne is the very image of "Marilyn," only without a heart or remorse.

Mollymauk is more problematic, and perhaps more interesting. Doubtless '60s viewers saw the character as a revenge fantasy -- a teenager who can beat the system, mooch off adults, get good grades, tell off the principal, and beat beefy football players to a bloody pulp. But McDowall's subversively fey performance opens up another possibility that writer-director Axelrod probably never intended: Mollymauk may be, in fact, a Gay teenager, who compensates for his alienation and marginal social status with a sort of masochistic hypercompetence, an ability to do anything he sets his mind to, as long as he does it to please someone else. Today, with Gay-Straight Alliances proliferating in our high schools, Mollymauk might turn out like Jack in Will and Grace -- capable and energetic, yes, but exuberant, outgoing, and self-affirming as well. Alas, amid the anti-Gay repression of the 1960s, Mollymauk is closeted, bitter ... and evil. If he and Barbara Anne ever manage to combine forces, they might well conquer the world -- which might be just what they want.

With a subtextually closeted queen and a sexually voracious woman as nominal villains, it would be easy to dismiss this film as misogynistic fantasy. But heterosexual men fare worst of all here. Barbara Anne's father is crazed with incestuous lust; a scene in which the father buys expensive sweaters for his daughter none-too-subtly suggests mutual orgasm. The high-school principal is also a lecherous beast -- as is nearly every man who falls within Barbara Anne's orbit -- and an ignorant prude, to boot. Jiggling teenagers at the beach play patty-cake, then fall onto each other in simulated sex; seldom has a beach party looked more like an all-out, bisexual orgy. Then there's the minister of the First Drive-In Church of Southern California, whose banal platitudes feel right at home in this spiritual wasteland. This film has no hero or heroine, only an assortment of heels.

Axelrod rightly called Lord Love a Duck "an act of pure aggression," and its undiluted misanthropy is echoed in a bleak, strangely flattened mise-en-scene. This is doubtless a product of the film's limited budget, but it couldn't be more appropriate. Although the film ostensibly takes place in sunny SoCal, the stark, studio-bound locations look and feel more like the first circle of Hell. It's easy to see why Mollymauk rebels so violently against this system, eventually murdering Barbara's hapless husband, his principal, the drive-in minister and the minister's prudish wife in cold blood. Today, with school shootings and other teenaged violence fresh on our minds, the film's climax feels more sinister, and prescient, than ever.

Mod and hippie jokes abound, occasionally dating the film. (Dig Neal Hefti's guitar-heavy score ... it's so groovy!) Yet in other respects, the satire of Lord Love a Duck seems even fresher than when it premiered, nearly forty years ago. If you've never heard of this obscure film, you don't know what you're missing. Rent or buy immediately.

Back from Holiday: Best and Worst Films

I didn't have a particularly happy holiday season this year, gentle reader. Sickness, substance abuse, and dementia are taking their toll on my family, and it seems as if everyone has had a pretty rough go of it. Since my relatives would probably resent my broadcasting their problems all over the Internet, I'll just say I'm glad to be back here. Here's hoping this year will be better than last in all respects.

I haven't gone to the cinema since mid-December, when I saw Return of the King. The film was a little too artsy for my taste, and it may be slightly more disjointed than Fellowship or Two Towers. But I'll still hold that it was the best mainstream film I saw last year. Only Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Fernando Mereilles's City of God managed to surpass it. (I know that technically, City of God belonged to 2002, not 2003. So what?)

Other honorable mentions include Wayne Kramer's sexy, retro The Cooler -- a great '70s movie for grown-ups only -- as well as the wild-assed craziness of Matrix: Reloaded. Justin Lin's hard-hitting morality tale Better Luck Tomorrow deserved better than it got in theaters; unfortunately, an R rating from the MPAA kept thoughtful teens from seeing it. Here's hoping they find this worthy little film on video.

The worst film I saw last year? Well, with Eloge de L'Amour, Gospel of John, and Matrix: Revolutions all in the running, competition was stiff. Objectively speaking, the American Idol fiasco From Justin to Kelly was the worst-made film of the year. But for bad-movie buffs, it was ninety minutes of unintentional hilarity, a gloriously rancid stink bomb as terminally lame as the television show on which it was based. Huzzah!

Robert Altman's The Company was far and away the year's biggest disappointment. Aside from some well-shot (though overlong) ballet sequences, the movie is a sloppy, ill-conceived mess. Still, a friend of mine notes that Altman has achieved the nearly impossible: He's made a two-hour film about dance which features not a single openly Gay character. That's like making a film about jazz with no Black people. So much for the director's legendary "honesty." (At the Virginia Film Festival, one of the film's producers confided that Gay characters were consciously excluded "for commercial reasons." Given the picture's lackluster box office so far, I wonder if he regrets that decision.)

But nothing I saw last year infuriated me more than James Mangold's Identity. This film began as a solid whodunnit with uncommon feeling for character and location. Then, in a narrative bait-and-switch, it turned to pretentious, inane psychobabble of the David Fincher (Se7en, The Game) variety. For wasting a good B-movie premise and a crackerjack ensemble cast, Identity gets my vote for the year's worst film.

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