Maudlin & Infuriating

This will run next week in LGBT Weekly, but I just had to get it up today.

About ten minutes after the end of maudlin 9/11 drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I was standing outside the theater, feeling the tears drying on my face and the crying jags subside, and I got angry. I asked my friend who I now feel guilty for bringing along, “Why in the world was it necessary to make this movie?” You can ask that question about all sorts of terrible movies, and usually the answer is “to make money.” The Transformers franchise and just about every Adam Sandler vehicle exist simply as methods to earn cash, to make profits, to please shareholders of multinational conglomerates. But movies like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close have loftier goals. Sure, everyone involved is making money and wants to make as much as possible, but directors like Stephen Daldry and producers like Scott Rudin value prestige and artistic excellence as much if not more than their bank accounts. Unfortunately and bizarrely, none of these laudable goals are met or even visible in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which is a cruel and blunt assault on the audience’s basest emotions. I didn’t think I would ever see a movie more offensive than Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s cynically manipulative slapstick comedy about the Holocaust. But I have.

The plot is admittedly somewhat ingenious. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a precocious, oddly articulate 9-year-old boy who probably has Asperger’s Syndrome, a kind of autism. His father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11; he was on the 106th floor of one of the towers and probably was one of the jumpers. Oskar’s mother Linda (Sandra Bullock, as good as she’s ever been) is beside herself with grief and depression. About a year after Thomas’s death, Oskar is rummaging through his father’s closet and finds a key in an envelope at the bottom of a vase; on the envelope is written “Black.” Believing that this is a message from his father, part of one the elaborate adventures of investigation that the two shared, Oskar is determined to find what the key opens. This involves talking to everyone with the last name Black in New York City and trying hundreds and hundreds of locks. It is only through this quest that this analytical, emotionally destroyed little boy can find meaning in what happened on “the worst day.” Eventually, Oskar is joined by the mute old man (Max Von Sydow, moving and Chaplinesque) renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother.

Since it is clear to the old man and to the audience that this quest is going nowhere, watching Oskar run around the city, desperately searching for a grand meaning to 9/11 seemed sadistic to me. That Oskar is at times adorable, but is also at times dreadfully mean, makes this even more problematic and discomfiting. But the biggest problem is how Daldry zeroes in the grief of this boy and his poor mother; I felt as if I was a finger rooting around in a gaping wound. At one point, the old man tells Oskar – via his notepad – to stop playing the answering machine messages Thomas left while the tower was burning. Stop. He can’t take it anymore. The entire audience is crying, and I wanted to scream at the screen just what the old man had written.

Extremely Loud is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, which was published four years after the September 11th attacks. In addition to a great deal of praise, it earned a great deal of criticism similar to what the film has: that it was sentimental and obvious and attempted to create false and unbelievable profundity. I didn’t read the book; my experience of 9/11 and its aftermath was traumatic enough that descriptions or images of the events sent me into a tizzy of grief and anxiety. However, it took me ten years to write about it, but I have. I can listen to Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant album The Rising now without crying. But I still cannot bear to be asked, “Oh, you lived in New York then? What was it like?” It was awful. Awful. Why any filmmaker would want to berate an audience with this awfulness or why anyone would want to pay $12 to experience this awfulness is simply beyond my comprehension.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by Eric Roth
Starring Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow
Rated PG-13
Opens January 20 in San Diego
At your local multiplex

It took me ten years, but I finally wrote something about September 11th. And then I made a little movie.

I knew I had to do it eventually, and I had to do it by today. When I saw that the VAMP theme for August was “Alternate Endings,” I knew exactly what to do. I wrote it in two hours; it exploded out of me. I’m sure it could be honed here and there, but I like the raw weirdness of it. What follows are my remarks as prepared for delivery. In the video, the last word is “possibility,” and I swallowed it for some reason. Also, I apologize for the sound quality; I don’t really know what I’m doing. Anyway:

When I can’t sleep, when I’m lying in bed hyped from caffeine or excitement or anxiety, instead of counting sheep – which I must admit I’ve tried doing, and it can work, but it’s rather dull, which is probably the point, but still – instead of counting sheep, I list the top ten things I would do if I won or inherited or successfully stole $10 billion dollars, or I list the top ten superpowers I would want if I could manage to become a character in the Marvel Universe, or I list my top ten wishes.

I usually feel guilty about wishing things just for myself, so I tend to wish for stuff like a cure for all viral diseases, the end to population growth, completely clean energy, and the ability to go back in time and stop Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges or Reagan’s inaction on AIDS.

Or stopping September 11.

Because, really, everything bad that has happened in the last ten years is directly or indirectly caused by 9/11.

The wars, the hate, the killing, the Tea Party, Casey Anthony, the Real Housewives; I could even find a way to blame 9/11 for Mondo losing to Gretchen on Project Runway if you give me enough time. Call it Six Degrees of of 9/11.

(Mondo, a gay HIV+ Mexican-American made exuberant clothes that would be worn by the more fabulous character in an Almodovar film. This makes him scary on what, at least five levels. And Gretchen’s ready to be sold at Anthropology, Ladies in the Canyon blandness won because it was more “of the moment” and safe. Bland and brown and non-threatening is the moment, because the national mood is full of fear and ennui and the broken promise of America, and this was created by the recession caused, in part, by Bush’s terrible not-paying-attention to anything but war and stopping gay marriage, which he was allowed to do because he got reelected using Jingoism and lies to win a second term, which never would have worked if not for 9/11. See? It totally works.)

All of the bad things would never have happened if not September 11, and I wouldn’t have the dreams anymore. While it’s not as often as it was, I still have nightmares. I never dream in reality; I don’t relive past events, so I don’t dream about standing on the corner of West 12th and 7th Avenue and watching the tower on the right, red and white ulcer in its side, trying my cell, running to the payphone and calling, in tears, my friend Rachel, who worked downtown who I imagined being crushed by rubble or enveloped in flames.

I don’t dream about crying on the subway, going to work as if it was the right thing to do, then walking home, south from the Time-Life Building, against the masses creeping north, the now-cliched perfect day still totally perfect, 80 and sunny and slightly breezy, perfect except for the billowing white nothingness emanating from the tip of the island, which is what I was walking into, towards.

I don’t dream about buying a sandwich and sitting on a park bench with my friend Matthew, watching roller bladers weaving down Hudson, going the wrong way carelessly down the car-less street, just to gawk at the surviving firemen and tons of rubble. I don’t dream about the nightmares I had for weeks and months and years later. I don’t relive or redream.

I do dream about the smell. My dreams are like documentaries of parallel universes; instead of planes flying into skyscrapers, it’s Imperial Star Destroyers stabbing the streets of the West Village, actual, not CGI-ed explosions eradicating my neighbors and the cars and Two Boots Pizza and the White Horse Tavern and the perfect townhouses owned by Sara Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The dreams are like the more chaotic scenes of Titanic, except a lot less ridiculous and focus-grouped, and I was there, and so were my boyfriend or my brother or my mom or my dad’s dog. The memes, or the themes, whichever: running, falling, fire, crashes, epic, epic crashes, and all through it the distinct feeling of colossal malevolence and doom and that horrible stink, a mix of burning oil, melting plastic, plaster dust, and ineffable sadness of things falling apart.

When I tell myself the story, of the wish, to go back in time and stop 9/11, I can’t just leave it there. It’s not like, Poof! and it didn’t happen. No grief, no missing posters, no smell. No Poof!

There needs to be a logical, or at least narratively logical way for it to happen. For the time travel, I use Dr. Strange-like magic or Star Trek physics to get where I’m going.

Then there are a number of scenarios. Sometimes, I go to each house of all 19 hijackers and I assassinate them one-by-one, sort of like in the last season of Buffy, when the minions of the First Evil offed all of the potential slayers. Except I’d be on the side of the righteous.

But murder, even in the service of saving the world, even in the vision of me as Jason Bourne-like, Jason Statham-like hero, which would be so super-awesome, well, murder would probably be very hard for me. I doubt I could do it.

So, there are a series of police-tip scenarios: In which I send copies of the 9/11 Commission Report to every police station in the United States in 1999. This probably would end up making me seem like a nut, and the book would just be treated as the Turner Diaries, Part 2. And we all know that warning the authorities didn’t seem to do much good.

Unless, of course, it’s a direct warning. So, another scenario had me calling all the airports that the planes originated from and telling them that, “Dude, there are four guys on United 93 who are carrying exacto knives and box cutters and they’re going to use them to hijack the plane.” A credible-sounding bomb threat could stop an airport from functioning for just long enough ruin those impeccable plans of Mr. Bin Laden.

Then there’s the point where I realize that if I was going to use Dr. Strange-like magic or Star Trekky technology to going back in time, I could probably use said speculative forces to stop the planes, the crashing, and the death, and the smell.

And make it all rather comic book fabulous, like a cross between the X-Men and Planet Unicorn.

Why not start with pulling an army of super-smart apes, a la Planet of the, from a distant dimension and use them to clear the southern tip of Manhattan.

Why not provide some of the apes with the best eye-hand coordination some 29th century fighter planes with super-sonic, even light-speed abilities to chase and catch the hijacked planes in tractor beams, lower them to meadows of sunflowers and where passengers can escape and the hijackers can be cuffed and chained by my simian minions.

And if my chimped-out space ships aren’t fast enough, why don’t I just conjure up a super-spell to turn a plane or two into giant soap bubbles, give the passengers jetpacks, and use a flock of crimson winged unicorns to pop the bubbles and the dreams of the jihadists.
Then there would be rainbows and jelly beans and the world would be saved, the next decade would be saved, and New York would never have stopping smelling like bagels and garbage and dry-cleaning and overpriced everything.

And the world, or rather, just the United States, or maybe just New York, or maybe just me – I would never have stopped feeling the sometimes cuddly, sometimes sexy, sometimes enveloping embrace of possibility.

I used to be a storyteller; I’m a storyteller again.

poverty-strikesA few weeks ago, after a long day at the beach, after I’d already settled into the couch and the Tivo, Rob reminded me that we’d promised to go to a story slam.

As it seems that not everyone knows what a “story slam” is, it’s sort of like a poetry slam, but instead of poems, the slammers tell stories. If you don’t know what a poetry slam is, then, well, gee. Read this nice Wiki entry. And for every “poem,” insert “story” and you’ll get a what a story slam is. Or read this recent Times story about the Moth, a story slam that has been around since 1997 but was finally noticed by the Times, you know, last week.

(Last week, The Paper of Record also ran a story about how pot bellies are trendy. It’s as if no one noticed that Americans are fat until last week. That story should have run in the Onion. Guy Trebay is going to end up in the same special level of Hell reserved for hack Styles writers that was originally created especially for Alex Witchell but now has numerous already predestined denizens.)

Rob reminded me that we promised to go, and since I’m always griping about how there is no culture in San Diego, I should probably get off my ass to go see the culture that is actually here. And we should support the folks pouring their sweat and tears (and occasionally blood, if there’s an accident) into such ventures. Through our friend Jess, we met such folks, and they’re responsible for So Say We All, which is San Diego’s version of the Moth… minus the professional actors and arrogance. And they’re also responsible for VAMP, which is a video, art, music, and performance event that complements So Say We All. They’re each monthly, and they usually share a theme. Because Rob and I were going to be part of the first VAMP, we went to see a So Say We All story slam.

It was at Cream, a coffee shop in University Heights that I used to frequent because it has big tables you can stack a lot of books on and because their salads were good. Then I discovered that Twiggs had much better coffee and all my friends were usually there. Also, Cream has weird ventilation problems: When we arrived at So Say We All, it was hot. Damn hot. And crowded. Really, really, really crowded. I couldn’t believe that there were 200 people in San Diego who wanted to hear amateur strangers (or mostly strangers, since I’m sure every storyteller brought 10 or 20 friends) tell five-minute stories about “When Disaster Strikes!” which was the theme that month. But there they were. It made me feel, I dunno, warm and fuzzy inside. San Diego!

[youtube:]The stories started out okay and then got very good. Of course, it was after two beers and only a few okay stories that I put my name in the hat, thinking, “Heck, I can do that!” Then the really good folks got on stage, and I got nervous. I went second to last. And I won! Well, there was a three-way tie for 1st place, but the lady had won in a previous month and the guy worked at the place from where the prize came from, La Jolla Playhouse. So, I won the prize, which was two tickets for Herringbone, a new musical starring BD Wong. The video of my story is above. It’s about debt, Williamsburg, lawsuits and the evil that is Patenaude & Felix. Remember what those asshats did to me? Now there’s video!

The event was inspiring. It’s made me write again. For realz. For VAMP, I got dirty. For the next slam, I’m going to be sentimental. And next Thursday. I start a poetry class. And… AND… I’ve started working on my novel again. W00t.

“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.”

[youtube:]At last! I finally saw “Southland Tales,” Richard Kelly’s much-maligned, barely released, long-awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko” (which is one of my favorite movies ever). I had been a bit desperate to see the movie, but, alas, it wasn’t even released in San Diego during the week or so that 18 theaters were allowed to show it. So, I spent a weekend or two back in December trying to BitTorrent pirated versions, hoping someone had stuck an Academy screener DVD on the Interweb. But, alas, all that was available was a pretty shitty shot-in-the-theater-with-a-handicam version. (I guess there weren’t any Academy screeners. Natch.) Still, I downloaded it. And watched about 15 minutes. And I couldn’t stand how bad the video quality was. It was like watching a 20-year-old VHS tape during an earthquake. So, I chucked the file and waited. I was wasting some time (procrastinating like a mo-fo) on Netflix, and I saw that the DVD was coming out on the 18th. I had it in my mailbox on the 19th. How many ways I can say that I love Netflix? Anyhoo, after I finally finished writing my first qual paper (Woohoo! And more on that later…) I set about to watch the film that made all of $227,365 and Richard Roeper called “one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I’ve ever seen.” (For more critics trying to out-nasty each other, check out the Rotten Tomatoes site here.)

I think this would be a perfect moment to cite, in a Fisk-y but not really Fisk-y way, the wonderful essay by Joe Queenen in last week’s Guardian about what really makes a truly terrible movie:

To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met.

Agreed. Too many people will simply state, as Queenen complains, that such-and-such is one of the all-time worst movies without thinking deeply about what really makes some awful.

For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck?

Totes! That’s why, say, “Bad Love,” a Jenny McCarthy vehicle for Chrissake, which scored all those Razzies a couple years ago, doesn’t count for me. Neither, really, does “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which was God-awful, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be any much better than the first movie, which was pretty near-God-awful. But, yes, after making “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly was expected to make another truly great film. He had a cast of thousands, and he had a lot of money, and he had heaps and heaps of ambition. It seems as if he wanted to make something like a cross between “Nashville” and “Dr. Strangelove,” which is pretty ambitious.

The view from my desk is so very different

The view from my desk is so very different from what it was when I lived in New York — well, besides the fact that I’m not looking at New York. I look at eucalyptus trees and grass and men on lawnmowers and toddlers in red wheelbarrows pulled by their parents and bland late 60s university architecture. All day, I’ve been looking out the window while the scanner hummed — I have been compiling an archive of documents for a lawsuit I’m filing against one of the debt collectors that sued me — and I have been able to avoid thinking about what happened on this day five years ago.

When I lived in New York, I couldn’t look out the window without seeing, or feeling, the terror of that morning and the weeks and months that followed. From my window of West 13th Street, where I lived on September 11 and for another two months, I could see the missing posters on the telephone polls, and I could see, and smell, the smoke, that horrible smell of burning plastic and rubber and oil and things I can’t bring myself to name. At night, I could see the white glow of the flood lights at Ground Zero. Then when I lived on Norfolk Street, my window looked out on an elementary school playground. I could hear the children screaming, and I loved it. But I was even closer, and the smell was stronger, and the sirens louder. But those kids were so alive. Kids are so resilient; even if they are going to remember that time in different, and perhaps more damaging, ways, they still bounced around, brave and silly, while so many of the adults were drinking and crying and popping Xanax and having terrorism sex. In Williamsburg, where I moved in February of 2002, I would have been able to the see the towers from my window, if they had still been there. For several months, I could still see the smoke, or the dust, or maybe it was just my imagination, when I looked out the window, when I looked across the river and down to the right a little.

One of the reasons I left New York was so that I wouldn’t be able to see New York anymore, so that I couldn’t so easily be reminded of how I felt back then. Terrified. Depressed. Sad in a way that is indescribable, except to say that it was a sadness more powerful and deeply engrained in my gut than anything I have ever felt, or could have imagined feeling. And it wasn’t just the events of September 11 that put me in that state of being; I was slowly breaking up with my partner and my unemployment was not caused by choice. Everything fed on each other, but my memories of that sadness are focused on September 11 and the posters and the smell and flood lights and the smoke. Of course, I left New York for a lot of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I would still be in New York, living a very different life, if geopolitics, capitalism, religious fanaticism, and government incompetence hadn’t converged on a perfect morning five years ago.

[youtube:]I was going to write a post about what my September 11, 2001, was like. Where I was, and what I did. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ll do it another time. It was a pretty bland day, compared to what so many people experienced. I don’t want to go into those specifics; they hurt and they exhaust me, and they almost sound like bragging, especially now that I don’t live in New York. Today, I prefer the vagary of art. I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” right now. I seem to do that every year. I found a video of him doing the title track on the Grammys. It’s an amazing performance, of course, but it’s too bad that Robin Williams was asked to introduce the song. I love him, but his tone is pretty off. Though, what is the right tone for talking about September 11? I don’t know. It’s hard to say.