A dirty shame

Yet again, I am in the distinct minority on a movie. My review of Shame can be found, of course, on the website for San Diego LGBT Weekly, and I’ve pasted the whole thing below.

Shame, Steve McQueen’s dystopian tale of compulsion and sibling conflict, is the most sexually explicit movie I’ve seen since John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus but it is not nearly as interesting, inventive or sexy as Mitchell’s movie. In fact, Shame is about as sexy as taking a cold shower, clothed, while your grandmother sits on the toilet seat and tells you about her dentures. To be fair, Shame is not meant to be sexy, or at least I don’t think it is. In theory, watching the chiseled, intense Michael Fassbender get blown in a gay sex club and have a ménage à trois with two burlesque dancers should be hot, or at least really titillating. But by the point in the film when these scenes arrive, Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan has shown himself to be so cold, angry and self-hating that McQueen could have sent him running through a field of daisies singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” and I would have still been depressed.

Brandon works in finance and has a white, spare apartment in a fancy building in the middle of Manhattan. He has sex with every vaguely beautiful woman he meets, and he masturbates all of the time, even at work. His life resembles that of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, except that Brandon feels – wait for it – shame. When his computer at work is taken in for repairs, he immediately fears what will be found on the hard drive, and when he gets caught masturbating by his sister, he becomes enraged. When he tries to have sex with a woman he actually likes and can’t get it up, he’s mortified. I’ve seen articles about Shame that state that Brandon is a sex addict, but this seems like a misreading. He has sex compulsively and with strangers, but when he doesn’t have sex, he doesn’t go through withdrawal. He seems to have sex in order to punish himself; he shows no pleasure in it, not in the hunt, nor in the kill. If he’s addicted to anything, it’s repression.

What Brandon is punishing himself for is never clear, though it has something to do with his younger sister, Sissy, played with ecstatic rawness by Carey Mulligan. The film opens with Brandon playing and deleting Sissy’s answering machine messages, and when she lets herself in and invites herself to stay while she’s in town singing at a couple clubs, he is greatly irritated. She is impulsive and flighty and needy and her arms are covered in scars from cutting herself, but when she sings “New York, New York” slowly, almost as a lament, it’s clear that Sissy is much more in touch with her emotions that Brandon is. Brandon is so unhinged by Sissy because of something from their past, but aside from the reference that they “came from a bad place,” this past event is left to our imagination.

That McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan refuse to provide us with the big reveal is probably a rejection of the clichéd plot structures of most psychodramas. This seems ironic to me, because Sissy’s character, Brandon’s self-flagellation and making gay and group sex akin to an addict’s rock bottom are as clichéd as the phrase “done to death.” As beautiful as McQueen’s visuals are and as well as he directed the cast, the film just isn’t as profound and moving as Brandon’s final breakdown indicates it is supposed to be.

That said, when Fassbender commits to an emotion, he is mesmerizing; he’s a third Lawrence Olivier, a third Al Pacino, a third Christian Bale. Even if Brandon is the least attractive character he’s played this year (I’d take his Rochester in Jane Eyre, thank you very much), it is the most striking and the bravest performance. He has been widely tapped to receive his first Oscar nomination for Shame, and it will be deserved.

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Badge Dale
Rated NC-17
At Landmark Hillcrest

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.

[30 Day Song Challenge] Day 8: A Song I Know All the Words To

I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Jane Street Theater on the last night John Cameron Mitchell performed it live on stage (until he did it again later in the run) with my roommates Liz and Jason on the 4th of July weekend of 1998. I think it is the great rock musical, and I also believe that it’s one of the greatest commentaries on gender and sexuality of the last 20 years. It changed my life, and not just because I ended up dating the show’s original producer for three and half years, and not just because I used the song “The Origin of Love” in my toast at Liz and Jason’s wedding. It’s just… amazing. I know all of the words to a bunch of the songs in the show, but “Wig in the Box” is the most fun. Here’s the song from the most excellent film version, which was directed by Mitchell.

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:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7r_y_SVRaEE]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.

Kiki loves you so much that she came back from the dead

I’m kind of gleeful that this YouTube video of Kiki & Herb doing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” exists. I was afraid I’d never get to see them perform again. (Thanks, Joe!)

Heh, I shoulda known.

Two years ago, I wrote a wistful essay about the post-drag cabaret duo geniuses and their “final” show, “Kiki & Herb Would Die For You.” It was supposed to be their swan song. But they’re back. Or, I should say, Justin Bond, who plays Kiki, finished grad school and needs a chunk of change to get back in the swing of things. They’re doing a month on Broadway. I wish I could see the show, but I won’t.

Anyway, I have reprinted, for your pleasure, my essay on the “end” of Kiki & Herb. I don’t suggest reading it in its original form, because the Maisonneuve site is too slow. So here it is:

The first time I saw Kiki and Herb perform was in the spring of 1999. They had a Wednesday night engagement at Flamingo East, a gay club in the East Village now best known for Pop Rocks, its cotton-candy, 18+ night. Kiki and Herb had the second floor; downstairs, people were drinking $10 martinis and discussing the Columbine massacre. I went with three friends. We were half of the audience. I’m always terrified when I realize a show is empty. If it’s bad, if you get tired, if you’re really gassy, you can’t leave. (Well, you probably can, but I’m too polite, too easily embarrassed.) Even worse, I noticed that one of the guys sitting in front of me was “Clark,” a gay Mormon I’d been disastrously set up with in college. He was drunk.

And so was Kiki. Or so, I should say, was Justin Bond, the thirtysomething man who played Kiki, a seventysomething lounge singer who was a turbulent mix of Rosemary Clooney, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Wendy O. Williams. While her accompanist, the long-suffering Herb (played by the long-suffering Kenny Mellman), slammed away at his piano, Kiki scream-sang and told stories. What differentiated Kiki from other drag queens was her song choice (Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film),” Mary J. Blige’s “Deep Inside,” Belle and Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” and the like) and her deeply felt, fully constructed, deeply wounded personality.

A quick bio: During the Depression, Kiki’s parents gave her to an orphanage but kept her sister. At the home, Kiki met Herb: “He was a gay Jew ’tard before it was cool to be a gay Jew ’tard.” Eventually, she became a stripper, then a singer, an activist and a drunk. She had three children. One died, one became a mother-hating gay travel agent and one—Miss D—was taken away by social services. Eventually, Kiki and Herb ended up performing on the Love Boat in the 1980s. They were tossed overboard, but then found their way to San Francisco and New York, finding people who loved their music (“tuning into our sound”) along the way. Faced with violence, drugs and rejection, Kiki and Herb were indestructible.

But Kiki wasn’t about cross-dressing and transgression for comic effect. Kiki was post-drag. Like Hedwig and Dame Edna, Kiki was a great dramatic character, and her performances were transcendent. Hedwig was a modern, punk-rock Tiresias. Edna is the extremity of celebrity. And Kiki was rage personified, the ultimate result of twentieth-century oppression transmogrified into scathing humour. It was well within her character to throw a tumbler of Scotch at my disastrous blind date Clark when he talked through one of her songs. It shattered as it struck Clark’s table; glass flew in every direction and Scotch droplets hit my face. Then she declared that it was difficult to care too much about the victims of the war in “Bosnia Herzevagina,” as she called it, “because face it, ladies and gentlemen, they will never be a part of our audience.”

And now, no one will ever again be part of their audience. You’ll notice that I refer to both Hedwig and Kiki in the past tense. Hedwig exists only on film now, and Kiki and Herb are dead. (Edna lives on, of course.) Between that 1999 show and September 19, 2004, Kiki and Herb became the queen and butler of New York edginess. They sold out their weekly engagements at Fez, gave infamous performances at the Knitting Factory, released a demented Christmas album and starred in an off-Broadway show for a year. But then Justin Bond decided to move to London and go to graduate school. So they found some producers to rent out Carnegie Hall and the result was “Kiki and Herb Will Die For You,” which happened once and only once on September 19. The CD will likely come out in December.

It took me weeks to get around to buying tickets for the show. I kept thinking, as a good self-hating hipster homosexual would, “It’ll never sell out. There will be orchestra seats on the day of the show.” Then I discovered, two weeks before, that the only seats available were (yay!) $29 and (boo!) in the rear balcony. When we sat down, we laughed as blood flowed from our noses. It was like seeing a show at Madison Square Garden, except from these seats you could watch thousands of edgy fags kissing each other’s cheeks instead of thousands of forty-year-old guys from Queens in KISS T-shirts spilling beers on their girlfriends. Nevertheless, just as when KISS exploded onto the stage in a ball of fire, when Kiki and Herb entered stage right, they looked like ants. Tiny gay ants. I wished I’d brought binoculars. The guys sitting next to us had a pair, but they didn’t offer to share. Bitches. But I’d seen Kiki and Herb so many times, I knew from the way they jerked their heads, from the songs they screamed, from Kiki gallivanting across the stage, what their faces looked like: contorted, ashen, insane.

The only main differences between Kiki and Herb at, say, Fez and Kiki and Herb at Carnegie Hall were in sizes: a bigger stage, a bigger budget for Kiki’s dresses and a bigger fine if they went past their 11:30 PM curfew. Otherwise, the changes were subtle. They weren’t drunk, for instance. (They were often sloshed during their epically long, chaotic shows. Once, Kiki stormed off-stage because someone was talking and then didn’t come back for twenty minutes. Another time, she threw a beer bottle at a man, hitting him in the head. Once, she crawled on a table, knocked over everyone’s drinks and, writhing, screeched the lyrics to Pulp’s “This is Hardcore.”) Kiki did drink from what looked like a Scotch bottle, but I don’t believe it was anything but water, or maybe apple juice. Perhaps Vitamin Water? Whatever it was, she was in control, and very mindful of her audience.

She sang songs that we wanted to hear. “Flamingo” is one of their signatures, and Kiki sings it so fast (usually with the “go” as an exclamation) that it sounds like lounge speed-metal. When a song gets repetitive, they speed up the refrain. This is sort of their calling card, their “Whatcha talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” They did it on Annie Lennox’s “Why?” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” which, along with “Flamingo,” made up part of the opening string of songs. They were all old Kiki faves. Then she stopped the show with a bombastic “Windmills of My Mind,” which I’d never heard her sing before and which she introduced with a long, rambling buildup about her friendship with Grace Kelly. (It was somewhat reminiscent of Elaine Stritch’s long and rambling—and funnier—story about getting drunk with Judy Garland, found on Stritch’s At Liberty.) More than stopping the show, the song knocked Kiki out. As she lay on the stage, Herb belted the Decemberists’ “I Was Meant for the Stage” and, I hope, launched his post-Herb career. In the past, Mellman’s singing has been, to put it bluntly, atonal. I was astonished by this performance, as was the audience. Thrusting us back into ironyland, they then did “The Rainbow Connection” and ended the first act. The audience loved every moment. In fact, the roar from the audience—mostly men without dates, as Kiki mentioned—was eerily, creepily reminiscent of the cheers following every song on Judy at Carnegie Hall. When Kiki pointed out her daughter, Miss D, in the audience, I did my four-finger whistle and hoped against hope that I would be able to hear myself on the recording.

After the intermission, Kiki and Herb did a medley from their (fictional) 1972 spoken-word album, “Whitey on the Moon.” It consisted of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Lose Yourself,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Release Yo’ Delf.” She mixed in some “Wu, mutherfucka!” and somewhere a hole was ripped in the space-time continuum. Matter. Anti-matter. Boom.

Then there was a singalong (“Dominique”), more irony (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”), a gloriously insane aria (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and encores full of special guests (Rufus Wainwright, Jake Shears and Sandra Bernhard helping on “Those Were the Days.”)

Then Kiki and Herb closed with “Running up that Hill.” They do it more slowly than Kate Bush, with a great deal of anguish and devoid of irony. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced at the theatre.

You don’t want to hurt me,
But see how deep the bullet lies.
Unaware I’m tearing you asunder.
Oh, there is thunder in our hearts.

Maybe I took the lyrics too seriously, too personally, too politically. They had, understandably, set a different kind of mood for this show. While the songs, the singing, the audience and the jokes were all vintage Kiki and Herb, the banter was not. The stories were more bitter than they’d ever been. I’d never heard her talk about the drowning of her first daughter or being beaten by her first husband. She was much more anguished than I’d even seen her. When she spoke of Reagan’s death, she cackled and told Nancy that she got what she deserved and that the former president really got what he deserved. “What’s Reagan’s legacy?” Kiki asked. “Herb, how many of our friends died of AIDS? Well, that’s Reagan’s legacy.” The bitterness from Kiki is to be expected. The character is an aged, crazed lounge singer. But I felt that Bond’s rage was seeping through. I felt that Kiki and Herb’s death was really Justin Bond giving up on New York, on the revolutionary arts scene of the 1990s, on the war waged by him and John Cameron Mitchell and Tony Kushner and Doug Wright. One of the great ironies of the year is that Angels in America played on TV and didn’t seem at all dated. It must be frustrating. I’m frustrated.