Monday, March 31, 2008

FILM: Shelter

On the recommendation of a friend who had caught it at Outfest, we saw the film Shelter this evening. What a beautiful film! To call it a coming-out story or a "gay surfer film", while true, would vastly oversimplify this film, which deals as much with the conflict of a young man trading dreams of art school against the obligations of supporting his struggling family. The protagonist, Zach, loves to surf, and surfing plays a big role in the film, but as one blogger said, to say that Shelter is about surfing is like saying that Brokeback Mountain was about animal husbandry. Like Brokeback Mountain, this coming out story is also set in a very atypical and unexpected context for a gay story (in this case, the California surfing subculture) and with characters whose situations make being gay especially difficult. Zach is the only son in a working-class family, with a disabled father, a deceased mother, an irresponsible sister, and her five-year-old son, for whom Zach is his only father figure. When Zach discovers an unexpected romance with the older brother of his best friend and surfer buddy, it threatens to be a life-shattering conflict. What is wonderful about this particular story is that it is not just a unidimensional conflict about acceptance or rejection of being gay. It is also about Zach pursuing his dreams of going to art school, and fulfilling his sense of obligation to his family to support his young nephew (both emotionally and financially). It is not a simplistic narrative of being true to himself by embracing his "gay self". For Zach, being true to himself includes his family values and his artistic aspirations, as well as his newly discovered romance, and so embracing his "true self" doesn't pull him in just one clear direction. Seeing how he resolves this makes a very satisfying story.

Shelter is not only a beautiful story, but is filled with great music and wonderful visual imagery. I was not at all surprised to find on IMDB'ing the film that its writer-director, Jonah Markowitz, while making his feature-length debut in those roles, had long film experience in the art department and production design. The film was visually beautiful to behold, not only a cinematic paean to surfing and California beaches, but a visual valentine to the town of San Pedro (a working-class suburb of Los Angeles dominated by its location on the port, and its Croatian and Italian immigrants of last century). Not only the set shots of the shiploading cranes in the port, the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the lighthouse and the rocky cliffs, but the tiny bungalows, McGowan's market, the Pacific Diner. (In checking Markowitz' IMDB creds, I was not surprised to see his production design credit in QuinceaƱera, another film that combined a gay sub-theme with traditional family values in a unique way, embedded in a visual valentine to a distinctive gritty neighborhood, in that case my own Echo Park. I also noticed that Jonah Markowitz seemed to have originally been Jonah Markovich, a Croatian-sounding name which made me wonder whether he grew up in San Pedro, but I later read he had originally thought of Long Beach as the setting, and only stumbled on San Pedro while location-scouting in the vicinity.) Zach's artwork, mostly expressed as distinctly artistic graffiti, creates some great visuals as well (if you're not too put off by the glorification of a brand of vandalism). And all of this visual beauty is nicely underscored by a bunch of well-chosen (mostly original?) tunes.

The lead actors, relative newcomer Trevor Wright as Zach, and Brad Rowe (who was the object of Sean Hayes' desire in Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss ten years ago), both do great jobs bringing their characters to life (especially impressive since I think both are straight). Wright is especially outstanding given all the emotional nuances that his character navigates through the film. Tina Holmes also adds depth in the supporting role of Zach's sister Jeannie, and Jackson Wurth is appropriately adorable as the nearly latchkey kid. This small indie film, which did well on the gay/lesbian film festival circuit last year, opened this weekend in a small number of screens in selected cities, and is also set to be shown on Here!TV cable channel next month. It is well worth seeking out, and I would enjoy seeing it again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

FILM: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

We thoroughly enjoyed Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, a delightfully hilarious and romantic story about a down-on-her-luck unemployed governess with an amazing touch of serendipity. Frances McDormand is deadpan perfect as a slightly frumpy, unkempt, and less confident echo of Mary Poppins, whose magic is timing, and a sensible head and heart. Amy Adams is delicious as Delysia LaFosse, the blonde American nightclub singer and actress-wannabe, who is desperately juggling romances with the nightclub owner, a big West End producer, and a handsome piano player. Just as Delysia's manic life is on the verge of great success or total disaster, Miss Pettigrew arrives on the scene, pretending to be a social secretary, and fumbles her way to sorting out not only Delysia's life but her own as well. The film faithfully conjures a period piece mood of London on the eve of World War II, which casts an ominous shadow over the end, balancing the carefree flapper attitude of the younger characters. The story draws a nice contrast between the younger characters who have no experience of the previous world war, and the older ones who do. The film gave us some good laughs and some sweet smiles.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hypocrisy is the Least Forgiveable Sin

In discussing the Spitzer case with some colleagues today, it occurred to me that Spitzer actually committed several transgressions in the same act. There is of course the criminal act that he committed in engaging a prostitute. And there is the cardinal marital transgression of cheating on his spouse. And there is what is perhaps the most grievous public offense: hypocrisy. In his notable career as Attorney General, he had been a vigorous prosecutor of crimes including prostitution, so it was especially hypocritical of him to be a perpetrator of that crime. In my estimation, it was the hypocrisy that made it politically impossible for him to stay in office. As far as the marital transgression, I concur with many who find it personally reprehensible, and he deserves an expensive divorce. (If his wife stays with him, even that she would stand behind him at recent speeches, is more than he deserves.) However, I don't agree that it has much if any bearing on his qualifications to govern. Sure, ideally, I'd like my government leaders to be moral leaders as well, but that's a bonus if we get it, not a primary qualification for the job. People can be far from virtuous in their personal life, at the same time as being fine political leaders. His moral offense ought to be a private matter between him and his wife.

As far as the legal crime, I'm inclined to the libertarian view that prostitution shouldn't even be a crime at all, and so it's hard for me to get much worked up about that. It's almost entirely irrelevant to his duties as a governor (as compared to, say, taking bribes for political favors), although one colleague made the valid point that he did expose himself to the possibility of blackmail, raising risk externalities of legitimate public concern. A question of judgment is also raised. But it just doesn't outrage me in the same way as, say, finding a horde of cash in a Congressman's freezer. (And apparently even that doesn't make it politically impossible to continue to hold one's job.)

No, I think it's really the hypocrisy that was fatal to his career. Nobody likes a holier-than-thou crusader, and everyone loves to see them taken down. Who can resist the schadenfreude of such a Shakespearean fall? Bill Clinton and Jim Bakker both cheated on their wives, but it was only a career-ending move for the preacher. And as I've mentioned, William Jefferson is still in Congress despite being indicted on corruption charges, but the story would be very different if cash had been found in John McCain's freezer. (That's purely hypothetical just to illustrate the point. I'd be shocked and appalled if cash were found in McCain's freezer. But then that's the point.) Vice in any man is a failing, but vice found in those wielding the cloak of virtue seems the hardest to forgive.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

American Idol: Top Ten

Winnowing down from Top 24 to the Top Twelve, I think American Idol was working unusually well this season, and the right choices were being made. I've blogged before about how the way voting works on Americal Idol is inherently messed up. The run of good decisions was too good to last, and last week America seriously blew it when David Hernandez got voted off. (I just really hope he didn't lose because it got out that he was a stripper at a gay club, but I can't help but wonder.) My top three had been the three Davids. Hernandez has been awesome from Hollywood week (Love The One You're With), and I bought his singles of Rolling Stone and Midnight Hour from iTunes. Last week I was stunned when he was in the bottom three, and even more stunned when Kristy Lee Cook got to stay. (She's had some good performances, but last week wasn't one of them. Simon was right - it was Dolly Parton on helium.) This week I was okay with the end result -- I liked Amanda's spunk but her music wasn't really my taste -- but we were nearly throwing objects at the television when Ryan said that Carly Smithson was in the bottom three. That was just crazy. Despite Simon's not getting it, Carly's Blackbird was the performance of the week. She shouldn't have been anywhere near the bottom three.

I still hold that David Archuleta is going all the way. Though this week's performance wasn't my favorite (I thought he was trying just a bit too hard to embellish), he's been consistently amazing, and has a really distinctive charismatic voice. But he'll get a tough run from David Cook, Brooke, and Carly. And with the top six rounded out by Syesha and Chikezie. Them's my predictions. That is, if America does the right thing. Big if.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Real Super Tuesday?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that tomorrow may turn out to be the real "super Tuesday", with two decisions of great moment that could happen tomorrow. The first, of course, is the presidential primaries in Texas and Ohio (as well as Vermont and Rhode Island). Texas and Ohio have been called Hillary Clinton's "firewalls", and after being fought to a draw on February's "super Tuesday", and then suffering 11 consecutive losses since then, the conventional wisdom is that she needs to win both Texas and Ohio in order to have any hope of continuing. The Clinton campaign, in a seemingly inexorable retreating spin, keeps redefining success downward. The last I heard is that she'll claim victory if she wins the popular vote in Texas, even if she loses in the delegate count. My best hope is that Obama can win Texas, not only in delegates, but in popular vote. As Clinton's campaign slides into Huckabee territory, will she have the good grace to concede, as the seemingly valedictory notes of her close in the Austin debate hinted? Or will she drag us through to June in Puerto Rico, clutching at uglier tactics to get her way? The math is ever more daunting. And while Huckabee majored in miracles, Clinton majored in law, so her approach to surmount mathematical improbability may be to mount a lawsuit against the Texas Democratic Party over how delegates are selected. I'm sincerely hoping tomorrow's outcomes preclude all that.

The other decision of great moment happening tomorrow will take place in a San Francisco courtroom, where the California Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the consolidated gay marriage cases. Here I'm hoping that the Supreme Court will see fit to uphold the excellent opinion of the trial court judge, in unequivocally smacking down denial of gay marriage as unconstitutional. (That opinion from a Catholic Republican judge, mind you.) Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the long-awaited case. Their opinion is expected to be announced within 90 days. If they do the right thing, my husband and I might celebrate our wedding anniversary in July by getting a bonafide California marriage license. (Under the circumstances, the seventh anniversary will be paper.) Equality California noted that the case was one of the most heavily briefed of any case in the court's history, with 20 counties and municipalities filing briefs in support. They also noted that 2008 was the 60th anniversary of Perez v. Sharp, when the California Supreme Court lead the nation by two decades in striking down its miscegenation laws as unconstitutional. Let's hope they continue that honorable distinction of being leaders in justice.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

FILM: In Bruges

I generally can't take violent and bloody films, but I have to say I really did enjoy Martin McDonagh's film In Bruges. The film is such an intriguing and at times laugh-out-loud funny juxtaposition of improbable elements: two hit men with honor and consciences laying low in Bruges, pondering a recent killing gone wrong while taking in the charms of one of Europe's most well-preserved medieval towns. Actually, one of them, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is taking in the charms, while Ray (Colin Farrell) is the worst tourist in the world. Therein is the source for much of the humor, as the film manages to be a visual valentine to Bruges, at the same time making fun of Belgium (or at least poking fun at people who make fun of Belgium), and poking fun at tourists. Colin Farrell is a delight just to watch his brilliantly funny body language, he made me laugh just the way he sat as the two took a canal tour, with his shoulders shrugged up in his coat looking glum and staring at walls, while Brendan Gleeson takes in all the history and culture around them. And Brendan Gleeson is wonderfully expressive as the good-hearted elder hitman (if you can imagine such a thing, which McDonagh makes us do). And fortunately, these two great actors are not only funny, but excel in other poignant moments. For the irony runs profound in McDonagh's script, as the two men ponder their deeds while viewing medieval churches and Hieronymus Bosch paintings. In fact, a Bosch sensibility runs through the whole film, as McDonagh skillfully weaves his existential tapestry of transgression, guilt, and fate, in images both beautiful and grotesque. It is no accident that the final scene is a tableaux filled with costumed figures right out of The Last Judgment. Just as with Bosch's triptych, the end of this film is violent and bloody (and inevitable), but the masterfully executed dark humor and deeper reflection make it worthwhile to see.