August 2009

Dark Stores from the site Not If But When.

Particular People (PDF link), my NaNoWriMo last year, was set in the very real 100 Oaks Mall – a wonderfully ironic name that made me wonder if that’s how many trees they cut down to build the place or if they instead had installed 100 saplings in containers inside the mall. 100 Oaks was a Nashville, TN, shopping mall that opened and closed repeatedly over the course of its life. It’s now been bought by Vanderbilt and is being redeveloped as medical offices or something. When I asked KJ to get me pictures of it last year she couldn’t because it had been closed off in preparation for that work.

On a practical level, of course, it’s always preferable to see existing spaces redeveloped instead of new projects take up new spaces but were I king tomorrow I would decree that a certain percentage of dead retail and development spaces had to be kept around, unmaintained, as silent monuments to… something. Hubris? Ecology? I don’t even know what lesson is to be learned there, just that there is a lesson there of some sort. That the CitySearch page for 100 Oaks is still up is both amusing and insufficient.

Bruce McCulloch, Kids in the Hall, 1990.

I’ve started reading DC’s Detective Comics for the first time in years upon years upon years. What was once the homestead of Batman is now about Batwoman with a B-side about Gotham City PD Detective Renee Montoya moonlighting as a vigilante known as The Question.

The initial reason I returned to this is that both characters are lesbians and it’s very rare to find gay women in mainstream comics. It is legitimately refreshing to see a mainstream, superhero, action comic pass the Bechtel test. Between Detective Comics, the name of which would be written in eighty-foot-high letters of chiseled granite on any landscape of comics history, and Buffy Season 8 there are at least two such comics out there so we may actually be at the high point of that standard.

Upon reading the first issue that’s solely about Batwoman (well, almost solely) I found that it’s actually a really good comic book. The writing is classic Detective Comics – it’s about a dedicated anti-hero whose neglected mess of a personal life takes a back seat to what they see as the much more important work of fighting crime. In the fine tradition of Gotham City crime-fighters, Batwoman is someone whose obsession with justice and revenge could just as easily have turned her into a villain and now she tries to strike a balance between doing her job and enjoying it too much.

As for the art… well. I’ll be honest, the artwork actually made me gasp. It is amazing. Batwoman’s costume is black with red highlights – a fire engine red bat logo, gauntlets and long wig to match the shorter and artificially red hair under it – and scene after scene is in those classic black, shadowy gray and misty blue colors that make anyone think of Gotham City. When Batwoman descends on her foes from above we get two-page murals of violence in mid-swing against a backdrop of rich crimson. The artistry devoted to the faces of the characters – the set of her jaw as she attacks the same people who put her in the hospital two years ago, the sick little smile of Batwoman as she tells a pummeled flunky to whisper his information into her ear, the quaver of fear in that flunky’s chin – is equally remarkable. I read #854 in bed and actually woke The Boyf up a couple of times to make him look at something.

Covers that, for me, express the dynamism of the art can be seen here: #854, #855. The art in this book is simply beautiful. I get more excited about reading Detective Comics than any other book to which I subscribe. I should note that this is probably all Aaron’s fault.

We went to see District 9 last night and loved it. Highly recommended. I daren’t say more.

My final thought about NCGLFF is to share one of the best things in any film. In Weak Species there’s a character who is the resident beautiful monster of his high school. He’s decided that as an ongoing piece of performance art he’s going to have sex with every other gay guy in his school and then make them feel terrible about themselves. He’s not a nice kid. At one point we see him working on a sketch and the camera angle shifts to reveal that instead of sketching something he’s written the following:



  • ART

I can’t begin to tell you how hard I laughed. It’s every kid who was too smart for school, ever.

Is it me, or is it about time the Carolina’s film festivals started giving out awards? Oh, I know, I’ve been saying it for years, but I honestly do think that a small jury and a short ballot attached to each 10-pass could give out awards without overwhelming the organizers with more work to do. The films we see at NCGLFF, NEVERMORE and ESCAPISM are winning awards everywhere else and I don’t think it would do them or the Carolina any harm to see the Carolina’s awards listed on their posters.

Were it up to me I’d have to go with:

Funniest line in any film: “I’m from outer space and I want to be in dirty pictures.” (Twoyoungmen, UT)

Funniest Overall: The 24ish episode of Chico’s Angels, which also features that rarest of gifts, a hot guy playing a character who might as well be named Hot Guy yet can act and be genuinely funny.

Most surreal moment: The cheerleader using a urinal in Girl Parts! or, possibly, the sudden intersection of Prodigal Sons and F for Fake. Both blew my mind. Loved them.

Most dreadful: Q-Case, hands down. To quote Opus, but Lord it wasn’t good.

Tried Hardest and Failed Anyway: Ogles with Goggles, which is also pretty dreadful.

Creepiest: Easily a tie between Steam and Weak Species. Yeesh. Both excellent, but still, yeesh. Pretty much anything in the There’ll Still Be Rain collection could win that, though.

Most Sincerely Touching: I can’t possibly name one. Prodigal Sons is just such a lovingly-told story about how hard it can be to love someone. Redwoods is awash in the chemistry of the leads and the sweetness of its story. Get Happy is so warm and funny and was exactly what I needed to see at the moment I saw it. I couldn’t possibly pick.

This was an excellent year for programming and the crowds were talking about that. Here and there were films that I felt fell way short of the mark set by the others but overall these were some of the best films I’ve seen at the festival. Ever. Mad kudos to the programming committee, because they did a fantastic job.

It was also an excellent year for protesters. They were there Friday night and Saturday morning but Saturday afternoon a guy showed up with a “FREE HUGS” sign and gave hugs to anyone who wanted one. This defused the situation and it also just confused the hell out of the protesters. They were shut down for a good 10 minutes while they tried to figure out how to react. The completely sincere FREE HUGS guy, I’m sad to say, took some direct verbal abuse from the bigots but kept it up and when I got back from lunch on Saturday I found that the protesters had packed it in and given up before the festival was even half over. They never came back. Good riddance.

Maybe next year they’ll stay home.

Sunday I saw two films and one short, all really great. Sundays tend to be a good day for movies in general at the festival and this year was no exception.

Redwoods – This was a really sweet, touching, sincere and most of all low-key romantic drama about two guys meeting while one of them is in a deeply dull but responsibility-laden relationship. The acting is quite good, the chemistry between the two leads is palpable and the story is surprisingly universal. Part of what impressed me about the movie is that it asks some of the expected romantic drama questions – what defines happiness and is it worth the costs – but it doesn’t rely on a queer couple for some unique positive or negative trait. It’s another example of what I noticed overall, that queer films at the festival this year seemed to be open to being about regular life without being about being about regular life. It also stars a Durham native who was fantastic, both in this and in the extremely dark and creepy short Weak Species.

Twoyoungmen, UT – This played right before Redwoods and is a simply magnificent short film. It’s about two guys meeting when one goes out to a gay bar for the first time. It refuses to conform to one’s automatic expectations of what that means, though, and proved to be both tremendously subtle – in presentation, direction and performances – and deeply touching. Between the honesty of the characters’ fears and the slightly surreal tinge, this film felt like being 17 and scared. I loved it.

Little Ashes – This film presents a version of the youthful relationship between the Spanish poet and playwright Garcia Lorca and the painter Salvador Dali that may or may not be historically accurate. I’ve read that it is “an imagining” of that relationship, but the closing title card notes that late-in-life recollections by Dali “inspired” the film. I don’t particularly care how accurate it is or is not because either way it is beautiful and affecting. The performances are great and the times presented – the end of one era of Spanish politics, the yearning for something new, the collapse of hope in the face of Fascism – will feel just a little familiar to any Generation Xer who was once young and wreckless and invincible. Gorgeously shot, tremendous production value and the guy who plays sparklepire Edward Cullen plays Dali.

Little Ashes is well worth seeing and is being held over at the Carolina for at least the next couple of nights.

This afternoon I had the extreme good fortune to catch On the Edge of Happiness, which is kind of a movie and kind of simply a TV show. It’s film length but it’s shot as five episodes of a soap opera that doesn’t exist outside of these five episodes. The writer/director/producer was there and I hope to see him again tomorrow because I really want to tell him how much I loved this piece.

On the Edge of Happiness is set in a fictional Mississippi county, near the border with Tennessee, and features an intricately plotted and entertainingly delivered storyline. There are questions of paternity, unfaithful spouses, a wedding, intra-familial blackmail, betrayals of trust, land-grabbing schemes, ham-fisted acting, contradictory details, questionable timelines and a mysterious shooting and that’s just the first episode. The title card features blood-spattered roses, a biscuit and a beer tab.

The piece itself, taken as a whole, is half parody and half sincerely loving homage to the soap opera form. It got enthusiastic applause and I would dearly love to see five more episodes next year. It’s available online, though he takes it down when it’s being presented in theaters so it’s currently not able to be viewed.

I was also going to watch Hollywood, je t’aime, but twenty or thirty minutes in I got pulled out by work (I’m on-call this weekend, of course). Since I can’t fairly offer an opinion of the whole work, I’ll simply note that it had great production value and the star is a complete hottie. It also seemed not to think a hot star would make a good substitute for the character having an emotional life.

The title credits indicated that it likewise stars Chad Allen and I endorse pretty much anything involving him, even the “Tommy Westphall Universe” theory.

Just watched the “Ain’t Nothin’ Dirty Going On” collection of shorts. It was a decidedly mixed bag. I’m sorry, but the unfunny Seussian short “Ogles With Goggles” doesn’t really get off the ground, lingering as it does over reinforcing conventional standards of beauty and pretending a strikingly handsome guy is ugly just because he’s in a bowtie. It feels like a movie that would like to challenge the established gay caste system but is scared to pull the trigger. That said, “Boycrazy” is a fun and funny musical with a phalanx of hot guys in it, well worth seeing. More than anything, though, the short documentary “Get Happy” is an amazingly sweet, funny and positive film about a child drag queen.

It occurred to me after that none of the movies I’ve seen this year are about queer characters being solely the victim. We can make films about being happy, we can make films about being disappointed, we can make films about being abused, but we don’t have to exploit ourselves to tell the story.

This weekend is the 14th annual NC Gay & Lesbian Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Tonight I saw one film and two collections of short films. Pre-film-reaction notes: the OnlyBurger truck is at the festival and serving up famously good burgers and fries. (Also, the absurdly hot staff are not at all above flirting for good tips.) The annual half-dozen protesters are there and they’ve got their big, wooden cross. Once again, Durham’s Finest showed up to make sure they stayed off theatre property and out of everyone’s way and it felt damned good to know I live in a town where the power is on my side.

Now, movie thoughts!

First I saw Prodigal Sons, an absolutely breathtaking documentary. This is probably the most intense film I’ve seen since Audition and it’s made even more gripping by virtue of being completely true. The narrator and filmmaker, Kim, grew up as the football star in her tiny town, went away after high school, became a woman, then returned for her twenty year high school reunion. Reading the synopsis, I thought this was going to be a film about her old friends having trouble coming to grips with her new identity, but no, that is not what it’s about. At every turn it avoids predictability and schmaltz. Instead of being about the trials of trying to rebuild old friendships, it’s a documentary almost entirely about her ongoing efforts to rebuild a relationship with her adopted brother, now mentally ill and facing his own identity crises. Stunning. Absolutely magnificent from start to finish. I think she went into it expecting this to be about people thinking she’s a freak and instead, I hope, she came out realizing how together her psyche is and how wonderful she is. Absolutely the best documentary I’ve seen in years. If this plays a festival near you, or sees a theatrical release, do whatever is necessary to see this film.

Next: Chico’s Angels. Last year during a comedy shorts program I saw a short film called Cooking with Kay about a drag queen named Kay Sedia. Say it aloud and you’re almost certain to almost smirk. I thought parts of last year’s short were well done but that it was, frankly, not that great. Chico’s Angels, though, was actually very funny. The lesson learned is that ensembles are way funnier than anything that gets carried around on the back of one particular performer. Each of the roles in each Chico’s Angels “episode” gets in at least one good solid laugh, usually several, and each brings a different kind of funny to the table. They complement one another extremely well.

The first short is an episode of Chico’s Angels about the team having to save the little lost chihuahua of a lady from the neighborhood. It sets the CA standard of slapstick mixed with comedy of errors and it just works. Between episodes 1 and 2 of Chico’s Angels is Martini: the Movie, a reasonably cute piece about a bitchy old has-been star named Martini Glass. I’m pretty sure it’s funnier if you’re, you know, a friend of Martini Glass, but it still had some good laughs and an excellent musical number. Martini also does a really disturbingly hilarious impression of Kate Hepburn that’s worth the price of admission. The second Chico’s Angels episode is, frankly, a little incoherent but it’s got some great laughs. The other inbetweener short film, dividing episodes 2 and 3 of Chico’s Angels, is an absolutely mind-destroyingly dull thing called Q-Case. It tries to parody X-Files but mainly it just fumbles around in the dark. There’s one good laugh and they take way, way too long getting to it. Sorry, but there it is. I managed to sit through it for the final Chico’s Angels and am extremely glad I did so because the last thing in the collection is an absolutely pitch-perfect parody of 24 called 24ish. I shouted with laughter during it.

Happily, I sat in the back and wound up next to the filmmaker for Chico’s Angels so I got to display my appreciation by my laugh-shout. I had the misfortune of being in front of a guy who felt the need to mutter his enthusiasm every time a hottie walked in front of the camera, but hey, it’s festival. The party atmosphere pervades. Two years ago it was a tiny queen who squealed, “oh my GAWD!” every time anything surprising happened during a horror movie. So it goes.

Last, I caught the 11:15 showing of the dark drama shorts collection, There’ll Still Be Rain. All of the films were excellent, especially Steamroom, which I described to Brian A. by saying it starts out physical and then gets metaphysical and that it’s a tense, lusty, 10-minute version of The Fog. I noted that it is wicked hot and also extremely creepy. Also, hot. Also, creepy. Everything in that collection was extremely well done, though, and any one of them could have carried an otherwise lackluster program. To have them all in one collection is an extraordinary treat.

Tomorrow: too many things to count.

Stay classy, John C. Wright.

Saturday night The Boyf and I went to the Carolina Theatre of Durham to catch one night of a three-day run of West Side Story. He had never seen it, another entry in the years-long game of him confessing to never having seen something and me expressing shock entirely out of proportion to that. The print was just unbelievably gorgeous. It was like seeing the movie new. It was in every bit as good shape as the brand new, never-shown print of Wrath of Khan the Carolina showed at Escapism! a few years ago. The crowd was middling but wrapt. When the credits rolled we all sat in silence and just watched, absorbed in those closing moments. I get goosebumps thinking about it, honest to the gods. I love that movie.

Of course, it’s proven to bear special value to me as a Twin Peaks fanatic, since two of the male leads were in that show. It’s pretty amazing to see them so young. The sight of Riff doing back-flips through a crowd as they dance around him is made even more impressive when one realizes that’s Dr. Jacoby.

Almost the whole rest of the weekend was spent installing Ubuntu on my work laptop, getting AFS and Samba and vpnc and everything else set up and working, then trying a new video driver that hosed my system completely, then starting over from scratch. It’s all done, though, and today I’ve worked in Ubuntu all day without issue and am currently, in another window, installing XP on a 20GB slice in VMware for the sole purpose of doing my timesheets (yes, really) and the occasional Visio diagram. How sweet is that? It’s a complete reversal from Friday, when I was running Ubuntu in a VMware slice on my Windows laptop so I could test-drive the alternative installer’s option to set up an encrypted file system.

Some dozen-plus years ago I briefly had a Unix workstation as my day-to-day work machine and I’ve basically been waiting to get back to that state of affairs ever since. For years upon years I have gazed longingly at Bascha’s work laptop, which runs Linux, and thought to myself that someday I would get to a place where I could do the same.

Now that I’m back in an academic environment, and one short on budget at that, my request to run an OS other than Windows was met with more than acquiescence; my boss commented that of course I could, he had decided to do the same thing himself.

Nice. It makes for a pretty decent start to the week.