Teachable Moments: Alamo Drafthouse, Cinefamily & the Future of Repertory Cinema

So I think its time to have a little conversation about value, worth and intersectionality.

Things are pretty weird right now. I was talking with a girlfriend the other day and both of us have been in the film community for a really long time. Long enough to remember when internet-based film writing/promotion and communities didn’t rule the scene. Imagine that! But internet/no Internet, there has always been misogyny. Always been racism. The homophobia has been lesser to an extent, but…that’s entertainment. It’s still there. We all know that transphobia is awful no matter where you go so…end scene.

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Let’s set the stage. Current events: if you’re a straight white male celebrity who sexually assaults women, you might want to start getting scared. James Woods found this out the hard way when Amber Tamblyn called him out on Twitter last week. She wrote two brilliant pieces on Teen Vogue and the NYT, in response to him calling her a liar after she recounted his ill-fated pick-up attempt when she was just 16. Tig Notaro’s recent season of One Mississippi dedicates 2 episodes to addressing sexual assault, which is a direct shout out to Louis CK. Tig has spoken widely about CK’s refusal to address his problem, as have other female comedians.

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Real talk: this shit has been shoved under the rug in the entertainment world since the casting couch was invented and studio heads invited women in for “lunchtime interviews,” promising them the “role of a lifetime.” But women are finally breaking their silence. Which is great. This should be supported and encouraged, especially by powerful men in the media world. But there’s a big chance it won’t be. Why not? Because making a “bold move” such as that might mean outing their friends or losing their buddies. And that’s scary and uncomfortable.

Dudes, I’m calling you out. It’s time. It’s not brave for you to step forward and join us in talking about what’s actually going on. If anyone tells you you’re “brave” or thanks you, tells you how “amazing” you are for standing up, that’s straight up bullshit. You should have always been doing this. You just finally smelled what The Rock was cooking, ok? No back pats, no OMG YOU’RE SO AWESOME!

Make a decision. Look at what’s going on and be on the right side of history. Because history does not wait and it certainly has no sympathy.

Over the last week, some straight white men in the film community have had a few real HOLY FUCKING SHIT moments. These were all heavily tied into the fact that they have absolutely zero comprehension of what VALUE means or what or who might, in fact, be VALUABLE.

It is important to note that most of the recent conversations being had in the film world have been incredibly white and privileged conversations. We have not stopped for one second to address women/people of color, trans bodies, or any communities that might have felt equally bludgeoned by what has been happening in the repertory theater scene. And by that I mean the recent scandals at the Alamo Drafthouse and the Cinefamily.

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LA Weekly, September 13, 2017

I want to approach this discussion of VALUE on an intersectional level and include every body that has ever felt assaulted by today’s straight white male dominated film culture. It is a structure designed specifically to celebrate all that is white, male, moneyed and heterosexual and oppress all that are not. All marginalized groups-defined as women (women of color especially), people of color, queer folx; trans and non-binary identifying individuals- are considered outsiders from this Primary Group and ostracized. We may try to affiliate ourselves with those in this Clique, but the very nature of its construction denies us entry. We haven’t gotten good seats in the movie theater for quite some time.

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I have been in the world of cinema and media studies for most of my adult life. The world has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and I’ve changed with it. The one thing that has not changed is the way that marginalized groups have been treated. This is absolutely a question of VALUE. We are simply not considered to have worth.

Structures of value and worth are why women are spoken over on newscasts and televised political arenas. It’s the reason so few brown faces are protagonists in feature films, there are currently no Asian superhero movies and why black bodies have rarely been lit correctly on film and television until work like Insecure (creators: Issa Rae & Larry Wilmore, 2016) or Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014).

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Issa and Molly, Insecure, Photo: HBO

The incidents I will be discussing- the sexual assault troubles at LA repertory movie theater Cinefamily and the sexual assault/employment cover-up/what-have-you at the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse- are not ones that I plan to give space to here. Please feel free to Google them at your leisure; there are tons of articles available on both subjects. I will be using them and specific details/ experiences in context that I believe to be important to this piece but I don’t believe that I need to link any articles.

Moving forward then- value has been an issue for hundreds of years in marginalized communities. Consider the following: a body’s worth measured in economics (slavery) or a body’s worth measured in marriage and reproduction (a son is good, the family name/legacy continues, a daughter is bad except for marrying off/childbearing). What about a slave body that can reproduce another slave body (a woman of color)? Think on these things. These evaluations are not done by the bodies themselves but by an outside force; an oppressor. Whether it is White Supremacy or Patriarchal Heteronormativity, dominating another body because of your self-created value structures is just fucked up.

One of the primary topics of this article is sexual assault, an act that involves our physical selves. Our bodies. Our bodies are a big part of our worth. Our bodies are physical containers but they are also reflections of our PERSONAL worth. We value ourselves and we value our bodies. So what do we do when our bodies are violated? Worse than that, what do we do when those whom we value enact violence upon our valuable, worthwhile bodies? Who do we turn to when we are viewed as so invaluable that we cannot even be consulted about intimacy? That’s a fucked up feeling.

This was something many women faced at Cinefamily and have faced for years in the film community. Who would believe that so-and-so did THAT? “He’s so coooool Are you sure you remember right? You weren’t just a little drunk?” Because then he’s off the hook. If you’re drunk, the incident didn’t happen. And if he’s got some kind of high-level rep or if he’s famous then it definitely didn’t happen.

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IndieWire Headline, Aug 22, 2017 11:21 pm

Intimate violence is visited upon our bodies and we can do nothing about it. We are not believed because we have women’s voices. Or queer voices. Or black voices. Or trans voices. While white women like Amber Tamblyn can reveal their stories and talk back to James Woods, do you think anyone would’ve believed a black trans woman who wasn’t famous?

Let’s look at social structures of VALUE. White people don’t value POC. If we did, black bodies wouldn’t be strewn lifeless throughout American streets, while the white bodies that violated them are legally allowed to move on without repercussions. Women/women-identifying folx are not valued. If we were, there would be no such term as “mansplaining.” White women are valued more than Women of Color but that in and of itself makes me cringe. And let’s be honest: trans and non-binary identifying individuals get the worst of it. It’s not just that people don’t value them. People pretend they don’t exist. Value and worth. If society, structured exclusively by White Rich Straight Older Men sees no value in you, you play no part and you are worthless.

Having attended the Cinefamily for a long time, I always noticed that there were many female employees and volunteers. Like an overt amount. I knew a few of them. I also saw a huge turnover rate. I stopped going a few years ago except to certain screenings. I saw brilliant and painfully talented people get treated poorly and that left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Film School Rejects, AUGUST 25, 2017

There were a few men employed there, but for the most part, it was women and not in an “empowering women” way. Looking back, the presence of so many women employees had a display case feel. Which I thought was strange. I chalked it up to Cinefamily being an “extreme hipster” theater but that was definitely not it. Sometimes we tend to compartmentalize when we don’t want to see things that are staring us right in the face. This was one of those things.

To Hadrian (Cinefamily founder), cultivating the look and molding the culture around that theater was part of its cachet. He did a masterful job in many ways. On the other hand, other people who never received the credit did much of the work attributed to him. What is critical here is that he created an environment where the only value system at play was his own. In any other work setting, this would have been seen as abusive. In any other work setting there would’ve been a HR person to assist his employees. But his male-dominated upper management structure (which includes the board) was in charge of the entire feel and social landscape of Cinefamily, from screen to popcorn maker.

So the regular floor employees were intimidated as fuck. The value of the women had been as objects, the men as continuing the promoting of the world/culture that had been created. Sounds a little bit culty. Which has been mentioned before. But I really read this as a lot of fear and sadness and a deterioration of personal worth as you continue to be abused by a workplace situation that you used to adore.

Here’s the even shittier part: this is what the world of repertory theaters and film festivals has been like forever. So the fact that Cinefamily exploded when it did made me roll my eyes a little. I couldn’t help but think: OH FUCK. Here we go. So who’s next? And let me stress right now that I have a lot of love for a lot of people working in the film festival and repertory worlds. My archivist/preservationist world is 100% not without its horror stories. In fact, we are probably due for some explosions too. But we’ll deal with those when they happen.

 

Guerrilla Girls' Pop Quiz 1990 by Guerrilla Girls

 

As for theaters and festivals and their dreadfully loosey goosey culture…These white, straight and male-dominated events and networks have always had Questionable Incidents. In the past, they were sighed at, and “Oh, that’s just so-and-so”-ed at. It really was like Mad Men. Whispers and secret confrontations swept under the rug. It was expected and built in. But when the ladies talk behind closed doors, we’re not fucking happy about it. And we haven’t been happy about it for years.

Did you know that, guys? Or did you think things were ok? Because a lot of you had to know about a lot of the heinous shit that has happened over the last 20 years. Whether I am in academia, the film festival world, entertainment journalism or my current archiving/preservation community, I want some answers. If my girlfriends and I know, if we’ve been frustrated and angry because we couldn’t call someone out because they were Too Big Time, then you guys must know the stories too. You probably know worse stories and have laughed or just rolled your eyes about it. Every time you didn’t warn us or stop those guys or call them out or do something, you let the women in your life and in the film community know that they were not valued.

Friends. WE JUST HAD TWO NUCLEAR MOVIE HOUSE EXPLOSIONS IN LESS THAN TWO MONTHS. Think there’s something rotten in the state of theatrical? Cuz I fuckin’ do.

So let’s update. It’s 2017. Less rep houses, mostly due to the analog/digital changeover. So we’re down a lotta movie houses and up a hellovalot more film festivals. What did that do? Well, it gave us the white, straight male-dominated film culture that focuses on the White Male Film Geek as Lord King God. It is literally White Geek-Bro Supremacy. This is something that has been planted, cultivated and grown over the years, carefully and intentionally. Fed with social media and entertainment journalism, it is so large that it IS VALUE and considered something OF WORTH. Basically, these geeks bring in the bucks. But at what cost?

I’m here to tell you fuck White Geek-Bro Supremacy. There is nothing valuable that can be created by this system. It does not create communities of worth. It gives NOTHING back.  The Cinefamily, Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest are examples of this dynamic in action and each one of these has either imploded completely or fractured under the weight of its toxic masculinity.

Communities established under this structure do not value women of color who love to read comic books or cosplay because it is joyful. In fact, the communities developed by White Geek-Bro Supremacy do not center joy at all. White Geek-Bro Supremacy centers competition, bullying, and one-upsmanship instead of goodwill, respect and an infectious love for cinema. The cradle of this system is binary viewpoints (best/worst) and list-dependency (top ten most ___). It was heavily nurtured with the idea that some media was indubitably to be valued and some not to be valued, based upon a knowledgeable hierarchy that rose to the top of the message board/chat group communities and eventually published blogs and articles. Incidentally, this is how men ended up dominating authorship of Internet movie sites.

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from Katie Kilkenny’s article, “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?” in The Atlantic, Dec 27, 2015

White Geek-Bro Supremacy is what was working overtime during the Alamo Drafthouse turmoil this week.

Many thought the mess was about a sexual assault(s) committed by a former writer for an Alamo Drafthouse publication. It was about more than that. It was about a severe lack of transparency, the preferential treatment for a pal and the willingness to risk an entire company’s reputation and national operations on an individual relationship. This speaks of a special kind of blindness: Privilege Blindness. As my friend John Wildman eloquently wrote, a large problem in the Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s “crisis management” was that he never stopped to listen to those who should have been listened to.

This is a recurring theme with privilege. Those with White Privilege, Male Privilege, and Heterosexual Privilege have the idea that their privilege affords them earplugs & blinders. The definition of Privilege Blindness is “I will not make the space to listen to you because of xxxx reasons.” Guess what, honey? Not one of those xxxx reasons is valid. Grab a beer. Pop the top. Just get uncomfortable with this.

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When you do not take the time to listen to another person, you are telling them, “You are not valuable. You are not worth anything. You have nothing to tell me of any value. I do not see you as someone who could add value to my life. Your experiences/thoughts/feelings mean nothing to me.” When you do that to someone in a marginalized group, it can be both achingly familiar (we’ve lived our whole lives not being listened to) and possibly life threatening. While the aforementioned former writer for Drafthouse certainly did lousy things, he wrote one good thing on his now-deleted Medium post: “Believe women. Especially when they are talking about you.”

What is it going to take to destroy these systems of oppression? What is it going to take to break down years of abuse? The men and women who have spoken out against the ongoing practices at the Drafthouse are mirror images of those at Cinefamily. They feel ignored, stepped on, devalued and left in the cold. They were not hip enough. Not in the cool kids club. Stories of floor staff at the Drafthouse being treated as “lesser than” because they were not within the upper echelon of the Who’s Who. And I get it: it’s largely impossible in a company that size to have some utopian vision where people are all partying together. But it is possible to have people feel appreciated and like they are part of an institution that is doing something amazing for the cinema community, which is the image that the Drafthouse outwardly projects. Bottom line: the party should never end up being more important than the people who decorated the room for the celebration.

As for Fantastic Fest… Tim League’s gotta be a little sad about that right now. His actions have put him in that funky little zone where moral values have impacted his Financial Value. Fox Searchlight pulled their film from Fantastic Fest. That’s kind of a big deal. While FF usually goes for more unusual fare, it could always use a big studio film for a bump, especially after recently launching new distribution shingle, Neon. Get rid of the testosterone-fueled boxing-matches, limit the VIP-only bashes that create such clear hierarchies and go back to what made the festival unique- its content.

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Boxing match from Fantastic Fest 2014, Photo: Alamo Drafthouse, September 21, 2014

 

So this may have been a lot to get through for many of you. And it may not have made sense or connected to the Cinefamily and Drafthouse situations for some. But please trust me- it all does. Obviously right now I don’t give a shit about TL;DR. Some will read this, others won’t. I’m really pissed off. I hate that it’s taken the devastation of two cinematic institutions and one film festival in order to knock some sense into dudes’ heads and make them remember that women are people too, with feelings and needs and all kinds of INSANE THINGS.

And please know- I never wanted Cinefamily to die. However, in the form that it was in, with that board of directors (some of whom are still very active in the LA rep theater scene), it was impossible. There were amazing people at Cinefamily and amazing people are suffering unemployment now due to its closure. I also do not advocate skipping Fantastic Fest (unless you feel you need to). I think that taking the discussion to the source and holding people accountable is key. But don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.

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An interesting ad from an anti-rape campaign in Missoula, MT.

I don’t want to see Drafthouse go down in flames but I would like to see its encouragement of White Geek Bro Supremacy stop. This will take more than a few professional sessions with a “crisis management” team. This will mean letting real people – women, POC, queer folx, trans/non-binary film lovers- talk to you, Tim League. And you need to shut up and listen.

Turn a new page. It’s possible, but it’s going to take work. It’s going to take a lot of listening and a lot of people are going to have to get really uncomfortable. A lot of people are going to have to do some major self-reflection. But as Amber Tamblyn wrote to James Woods, “What you are experiencing is called a teachable moment. It is called a gift.”

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Women and other marginalized groups are done being quiet. We know our value and our worth, even if rich straight white dudes don’t. For many of us, discovering intersectionalism has helped. Working together we can be more powerful than by focusing on just our own separate issues. Many of us have discovered new definitions of value and worth in community organizing. But that also means that structures of white supremacy and patriarchy are in serious danger. We’re only going to get louder and more powerful.

So White Male Geek Squad? Y’all should get your shit together and clean up your act. We’re coming for you. And that’s a promise.

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Still Here – World AIDS Day, 2013

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I’m 35 years old and I’ve been a HIV/AIDS activist since I was old enough to walk the AIDS walk in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. I think my first AIDS walk was around 1986-1987.

We met at Paramount Studios, up the street from my house, and I walked a 10K with my godfather, his friends, my family and thousands of others. I did this every single year. Including the year where I made absolutely sure that I made enough money that I could go to Disneyland with the rest of the people who raised enough money to go to Disneyland. My friend Elana and I, both 9 or 10 years old at the time (if you think that I try to enlist people into my work NOW, you shoulda seen me as a chunky little kid!!) each raised at least $1000 dollars so that we could go to Disneyland. At night. By ourselves. With hundreds of awesome gay men. Buying up all of the princess costumes and fairy wands. And yes, that was REALLY what they were doing. Also? They were the most excellent babysitters you could ever ask for, by the way. We had more fun that night than…who knows. I remember that night so well. It was 25 years ago.

The adult me remembers the laughter. The adult me also wonders how many of those amazing men and women who asked us, “Who are you here with? NO ONE? By yourselves? Wow!” are still alive. HIV/AIDS became a much more serious thing in my life than something you walk for as I got older.

A few years after that fabulous (in every sense of the word) Disneyland night, I became a HIV/AIDS peer educator for Peer Education Program Los Angeles (P.E.P.L.A) and beganpepla spending time speaking at a variety of youth institutions, educating kids my own age about HIV/AIDS. I was about 13 years old. I went to all-girls-private schools where girls were given SUVs for their 16th birthdays. I went to places like Children of the Night where kids were pimped out by their parents from the age of 9. I went to homes for pregnant teens, drug rehab centers in east L.A., elementary schools (yes, we had to completely restructure our discussion for the under-10-years-old-set), and a school where they knew that we were bringing a HIV+ speaker with us, so parents came and sat in a special section, wearing latex gloves and medical masks. Because the disease is AIRBORNE.

My mother let me skip Real School sometimes to go to do P.E.P.L.A events. It was pretty amazing. I met some of the most amazing people there. Some friends that I still maintain today. The structure was an amazing one: a few teens to talk to other teens about how they specifically are at risk. Because, well, teenagers are well-known for that whole “we’re gonna live forever” thing. So condoms, protection, diseases? Yeah, none of that really comes in. And in the 1990s? Fuggetaboutit.

PEP/LA changed my life. Before that, I had one experience with AIDS. I grew up in a highly gay/queer family landscape. My godfather is gay, a HIGH population of our family friends are gay, so on and so forth. I think I had more queer people around me when I was little than straight people, come to think about it.

So while my father died in the early 80s from a car accident, we were still very close with his musical writing parter named Marc Trujillo, and his “friend” named Frank (this was my interpretation. I was so very young). I have two very specific memories of these important men in my life: Marc and Frank passed away, and they were the first men I knew who were taken due to HIV/AIDS. And my mom told me this. My mother never lied to me and she was always very honest with me. I don’t remember who passed first, how it went, it’s fuzzy. But I do remember having this knowledge. And I recall going to the memorial with my mom. Marc’s family owned a flower store on the corner of La Brea and Fountain. And I think that’s where it was. I have no idea how old I was. But I could also  be mixing memories. What I am not mixing up is the fact that they were the first people I remember being close to me and being part of MY HIV/AIDS world.

Years later, I became such a heavy-duty advocate for HIV/AIDS education that I would start arguments with people (me? no, never!) in my all-girls-Catholic school after ACT-UP was handing out condoms outside one day about how great they were and so forth. I made sure that I always attended the PEP/LA events at Children of The Nightchildren_of_the_night_logo

This was always one of our most difficult events. Many of these kids didn’t stay there and protection on the streets isn’t always an option. Sometimes we would have to talk about how to “fool a trick” into using protection or things like that. WITH YOUNG KIDS. I was 13 and they were my age. And white. And privileged. With a supportive loving family. What right did I have? Except that I cared. Also, some of the kids were already positive. So did it matter at that point? YEAH, it did. We had the information to talk about how the hell to take care of yourself and that there is HOPE. The idea that AIDS is not a death sentence was pretty damn revolutionary in 1994.

I remember the weddings and the funerals. The weddings were amazing. The funerals were fucking crushing. I had more dead friends before I was 16 than any of my other friends in school. But why count? It’s not a competition. I’m just SO MASSIVELY lucky that I got to know them before they left. And for the record, they were not all gay. My first friend who died when I got to PEP/LA was Gary- a gorgeous guy that I had a huge crush on. He had a model-type girlfriend. I used to carry the picture of him & his girlfriend around for a long time. I think that in all my moves it may have gotten lost. But I think I still have the invite to the memorial. The church is in West L.A. He was great.

However, I am deeply grateful to have been a part of my friend John Scott’s life. I was there when he married his beautiful partner, way before legal gay marriage seemed a possibility in anyone’s mind. When he did so, I was a freshman in high school, and all I remember thinking was, “I’m going to an awesome wedding,” and….not even knowing that there were things about getting married THAT WERE ILLEGAL.  My mom drove me all over town when he got sick. I visited him in the towers in Century City, at a few different other places, and at a hospice somewhere too.

But he kept coming out and speaking with us. And he was the “no-bullshit” artist. He would talk about what it was like to end up at the corner near a stoplight and not remember where you needed to go. He would talk about what it was like to always carry an extra pair of underwear with you in case you shit your pants without any warning. He would do this to little spoiled girls at Marlborough school or gangbangers in East L.A. With a smile on his face. Because he would also talk about the fact that these kids had the power not to be in his shoes. tcell1

He spoke with us on a regular basis. I spent so much time with him. I remember his laugh. His smile. These things ring on my ears, my eyes. My John Scott. He was devoted. Until he got really sick. To give you an idea of who my beloved friend was, I need to tell you one more thing. One of the things that I loved the most about John Scott is the fact that he named his T-Cells.  tcell count By the very end, he was going down from 7 to 5 to 4. He would say, “Oh, well!  We’re down to Marlena, Joan, Bette and Judy, now! But they’re tough gals! They can handle it!” I may be a little off on the names, but I am 100% certain on Marlena and the idea that he chose tough film stars to name his T-cells after so they could fight for him. John Scott. I have yet to meet his equal in my lifetime. That was 20 years ago.

I left to go to Israel for high school in the spring of 1994, and that April I got a phone call from the head of my program, Wendy.

“John Scott died this morning, Ariel,” my body went cold. He was supposed to wait until I got back so we could talk about cute Israeli boys. I didn’t know what to do with this. I was a world away with people who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, even if we had been climbing mountains together and traveling through deserts for months. “Hey Ariel, did you hear me?”

“Yeah, Wendy, I heard you.”

“I was there with him at the end and he wanted me to tell you goodbye. Specifically.”

“?”

“John wanted me to say goodbye to a few people. He said to say goodbye to Erin and to you. So I want you to know that. You were important to him.”

My 15-year-old-self was numb. My now-35-self still doesn’t know how to process that kind of statement. I mumbled thank you, that I would write (there was no email or cell phones…Imagine THAT, y’all!) we both knew how expensive the phone call was, and hung up.

So here we are, and I still feel a responsibility to my dear friend to remind the rest of the world that AIDS still exists. It may be a more manageable condition here in the US and North America, but it isn’t in many places in the world; places where sex education is a privilege not a right; places where protection isn’t even an option. There are many places in the world where masculinity, war landscapes and other ugliness takes precedence over health concerns. In addition, in any country (our own included), anal sex still leaves women “virgins” in many cultures and anal sex is the most at-risk sexual activity when conducted in an unprotected manner. Think on that. So this is most certainly not a gay disease. It is blind to color, race, sexuality and age.

It doesn’t care. But I still do.

AIDS hasn’t gone away. And it’s not like migraines or a bad knee, either. This is still here and it still needs to be attended to. Because I spent most of my young adult life watching my pals die and speaking to kids about it and hoping that someone listened. Because I have friends who still are HIV+ for 20 or 30+ years. Because we want to stay happy and healthy and we don’t want to be the last name on someone’s lips before they are really really really old. Because this is a subject that requires our continual attention- for our health and for the health of those we love. So that next year we will ALL be Still Here.

 

There Never Were Any Snakes: St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland

So I’m not Irish. Not even a teeny bit.

I’ve never even dated an Irishman, as much as I may have wanted to. I dated a guy from Boston once. Turns out his origins were Eastern European, like mine.

But I have been to Ireland. Multiple times. I’ve even been to Belfast and other areas in Northern Ireland, which, by far, was once of the most intense experiences of my life.

I have also been to Ireland during St. Patrick’s Day. It was, simultaneously, one of the most enjoyable and most chaotic experiences of my early twenties. It was also one of the first things I ever wrote about in this blog (albeit not very well). To this day, it is still the most time I have spent in a police station.

However, after reading this excellent piece on Cracked.com, I thought that if we have ONE day that we’re going to think about a country that I love so much, then I’d like you to consider 3 aspects about Ireland that have absolutely nothing to do with green beer, puking in the streets, or saying that you’re Irish if you’re really not. If you love Ireland like I do, that’s super cool. Why not love it 365-days-a-year? There’s no reason in the world you should select only one day to listen to The Pogues. And trust me- Christy Moore sounds good ANYTIME, not just when you’re feeling like you need to have a connection to some kind of history.

History is important and essential. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be going into the field I’m going into. But always consider the kinds of activities that you engage in, as they sometimes effect other people and their cultural sensibilities. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go have a beer or even corned beef and cabbage. But…maybe hold off on the green food coloring. For me, eh?

1) Literature OK, for those of you in the cheap seats, Oscar Wilde was as Irish as it gets. Which I find awesome. I spent multiple days sitting by his statue in Merrion Square park writing in my journal, while 6 and 7-year old Irish kids skateboarded over and around me. Witty, smart and incisive, Wilde represents some of my favorite aspects of Irish culture: a sensibility that varies from dark to light at the drop of a hat, yet never drops the ball on staying smart.

My experience with Irish cultural fare (plays, music, books, film) is that it has always maintained a strong intellectual sensibility. Even comedy, which many people interpret as being a “lower” form is intelligently done within Irish literature. Wilde’s comedy was (of course) beyond compare, but writer Roddy Doyle has also shown himself to be highly capable of providing off-beat and wonderfully rewarding comic writing in pieces like The Van, and the rest of The Barrytown Trilogy. If you haven’t read Doyle, I highly suggest his work. Another rarely read Irish writer that I enjoy on a regular basis is Patrick McCabe. Dark and definitely not for people who can’t handle a bit of harshness, his work, much like Doyle’s reflects a quirky unusual lyricism (even in the violent sections) that I enjoy far more than most American literature. Obviously you have James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. But you also have Brendan Behan and a man who changed the way I saw comic books forever, Garth Ennis. Not that I should have to say this, but yes, comic books are literature. By the way- did you know that Bram Stoker was Irish? No joke. So, when you move forward to that next round of Guinness with the pals, think on drunkenly hopping on to Amazon and grabbing a book to nurse your hangover with. It’ll be worth it.

2) FILM  Yeah, now we’re cooking with fire. Go look at my shelves. Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) gets played quite regularly in this apartment. C’mon! Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Sure it’s a McCabe adaptation (it’s the film that got me interested in his literature, incidentally), but Neil Jordan’s film making is exquisite. Having won an Academy Award for The Crying Game (1992) he’s also responsible for a good chunk of other films. I even liked his film In Dreams (1999), but I also have a massive, Godzilla-sized crush on Irish actor and Jordan-stand-by Stephen Rea.

Stephen Rea was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Crying Game

In addition to Neil Jordan, there’s John Ford, who, while American-born, counts in the Irish-filmmaker set. And if you’re a film fan and you didn’t know Jack had the big Irish-pride going, well…shame on you. No, just kidding. But he did. He was first generation, so it meant a great deal to him and it can certainly be seen in his cinema. So, go out, rent The Quiet Man (1952), fall madly in love with Maureen O’Hara like every other opposable-thumb-having person with reasonable vision, and be done with it.

More recently, we have had some absolutely exquisite Irish cinema. While amazing Irish actors have been a constant through the ages, the film work has been especially great as of late. It is very likely that this  recent growth has been due to the fact that funding for Irish cinema has gotten better thanks to the Irish film board, and, as an archivist-in-training, I know that funding is essential for any kind of success and growth. One of the best films of 2008 was a phenomenal piece that I own and sob and laugh over regularly called In Bruges  by Martin McDonagh. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this film. The acting, the writing, just amazing. I have also heard that 2011’s The Guard blew its audience’s out of the water. I’m pretty devastated that I missed that one. Due to my adoration for, and faith in, Brendan Gleeson’s skill as an actor, I may just buy this one sight unseen!

Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson inIn Bruges. This may be one of the most watched films in my whole collection. I have upwards of 700+ films. I last counted a few years ago.

Irish Cinema, much like literature has a flavor that is singular, original and entirely its own. There is no mistaking an Irish film from any other cultural product. Even films that deal in and around “The Troubles” like Long Good Friday (1980)  were British cinematic product, regardless of the fact that John Mackenzie was actually Scottish and had a reasonable history working in politically-aware material. Irish cinema is one of my favorite genres due to the fact that even when it’s light, it’s dark. Waking Ned Devine (Kirk Jones, 1998) is a comedy but…about a death. On the other hand, what can you really expect from a country that has had to endure some truly hellish experiences over its history? I love Irish cinema because while you have the darkness and the historical “never forget” films like In the Name of the Father  (Jim Sheridan, 1993), you can have a pint and sing along with the celebratory ethos of The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991). In summation, Irish cinema is a genre that takes itself seriously yet celebrates every bit of that to the nth degree. I love that.

3) Community  I loved Ireland because I got to sit on the docks in Galway and listen to the Pet Shop Boys, write in my journal, and see a father and son in a boat in the distance, returning to the mainland, waving at me, a perfect stranger. You know what I got in other countries? Some really weird looks and guys thinking that I would automatically go home with them because I have a few tattoos. All I received in Ireland was pure, unadulterated warmth, from every single person I met, young and old.

Oh, and the honesty! If only we were more like that here! I loved the older man in Kilkenny who looked at me, squinted a little, put down his beer and said “What ya got all that shit in yer face for?” We proceeded to have an extensive conversation about my various piercings, his granddaughter, he bought me a drink, and we laughed. A LOT. He hated the way I looked, but he was so genuine, inviting and nice.

This was what I received from everyone I met. I may have smiled more and enjoyed myself more with Irish people than I did with anyone else in any other country. I traveled alone for three weeks and people talked to me, asked me about myself, my life, bought me drinks, took me places. People took me to their houses! I remember one night in Galway, after hanging out at Sally Long’s (which might be my favorite pub in the world, by the way) the folks I was chatting with simply invited me to their place to hang out for a bit.

But with all of these amazing warm fuzzy moments, I was especially struck by the way that Belfast was constructed. As someone who has been dealing in the visual for the better part of her lifetime, Belfast became burned into my brainscape due to its visual dynamism. If you are unaware of the conflict that has been going on between England and Ireland for an unprecedented amount of time, you are either a) too young to remember the “big” stuff or b) don’t do a lot of time with international matters. In either case, Belfast is best told by pictures and not by words.

Not unlike the infamous one that separated the two portions of Germany for years, there is a wall in Belfast. It's called the Shankill Peace Wall. This is a picture of a youthful me, writing a message for peace.

This is also part of that same place, Shankill Peace Wall. "Before the video game..."

Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger striking, at age 27. He is commemorated here. He was a political activist, poet, and was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, where 9 other Irish republican prisoners besides himself died, attempting to fight for Special Category Status (essentially POW-type privileges).

This mural commemorates the Great Hunger which took place between 1845-1852, and most people know as the Irish Potato Famine or something similar. A terrible tragedy, it affected the whole country forever.

I never went to the Louvre, but I saw this.

Then there's the UFF murals. Scary, intimidating, also intense. It was a real distinct change to go from one type of mural to the other.

I suppose it was inevitable that I ended up going into the field I'm going into. Instances like Bombay Street and the visual outgrowths (murals) that were resurrected to commemorate it fascinated my. In August of 1969, Northern Ireland EXPLODED. Bombay Street, part of a residential area in Belfast was burnt to a crisp, and approximately 1800 families were left homeless. This mural commemorates those riots...

What doesn't change, no matter what country you are in, is the children. These little boys followed us around a bit, playing football, curious about what we were even doing there. I think I loved that more than anything. These boys are now young men, maybe married, who knows? That child-like playful innocence so far gone. It's hard to believe that this was 12 years ago.

My time in Ireland and especially Belfast was well-spent, and I would highly advise anyone and everyone to visit or at least investigate the cultural riches that the country offers, whether it is through its history, theater, cinema or literature. As an archivist, I am dying to return to Dublin so that I can go to Trinity College again and ask for a tour of their archives!! I think Trinity College library is where they send all good little librarian type girls when they die and go to heaven. No, really!

Trinity, will you marry me???

In any case, I hope that you all have a lovely St. Patrick’s Day. If you are in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend going to see the band Ollin. You honestly cannot get much better than that. If I didn’t have finals, that would be precisely what I would be doing. If you are not within Los Angeles-area, just take Ireland into consideration as a real country, with a real history and a real culture and not something to be reappropriated as Super Party Day. I like to have a drink or two just as much as anyone else, but hey- isn’t that what New Year’s is for?

*this message brought to you by someone who thinks Guinness tastes better in Ireland than in England*

So hoof and mouth was HUGE when I was living in the UK. So much so that they cancelled the St. Patrick's Day parade (the animals), they refused to bring any tourists to Stonehenge, and when you flew you had to do a MASSIVE foot wiping when you got on/off the plane. Thus...this graffiti. And, if you were curious, the advert above it? It's an advertisement reminding you to making sure to check yourself for testicular cancer. Out of all the photos I have ever taken, this is one of my absolute personal favorites.

We Are Nobodies: 13 Assassins and the Elegance of Miike

Elegance of Miike?

The hell you say.

The man who gave us Ichi The Killer? The man who shocked people’s delicate sensibilities with Visitor Q? No, surely no. You must have the wrong guy. You mean to say that he made a film that gestured with grace and style towards the works of Kurosawa? Are you…saying that a Takashi Miike film was…restrained?

Yes. That is precisely what I am saying.

While other posters exist for this film, I actually prefer this one. It seems to express the duality of Miike perfectly.

Is that what I liked about it. YES. Is that what I loved about it YES. Did I miss all the usual “Miike-isms”? No, because they were absolutely there, you just had to look a little harder for some of them. They were studied, intentional, and entirely present. Yet, during the course of the film, I came to believe that  it was entirely possible that some of the things that we have come to take for granted as being part-and-parcel of a Miike film have been subsumed into this film under the guise of narrative and character development.

13 Assassins is not just a good film, it is a wise film that pays homage to Japanese cinema on the whole and yet also makes raging commentary on it and it is not in a soft voice. Miike can be accused

of many things but having a soft directorial presence on-screen is not one of them. People know who the man is and not only that…they know what he is capable of. In a sense, Miike is like one of the characters within his own film- but not the reserved, trained, samurai variety. No. Miike is the loose cannon-character.

The character of Makino almost seems to serve as Miike's surrogate within the film, commenting on various situation in a beautifully challenging manner.

He is the one who, when you see him on-screen, your first thought (if you’ve seen a couple of samurai epics from the “good old days” of Japanese cinema) is: Ah hah! This would be the Toshiro Mifune role!

Now, due to my stubborn refusal to give away spoilers, I don’t want to go into too much heavy detail on the actual narrative. Details-wise, this film involves samurais, the shogunate of feudal Japan(in particular the Edo period), and a future leader of the shogunate who is relentless in his sadism.

Lord Naritsugu- historically based upon Matsudaira Narakoto, the 25th son of the 11th shogunate, Tokogawa Ienari. While I'm only assuming the same about Matsudaira, I can tell you this much for certain: Lord Naritsugu is *not* the guy you wanna bring home to dinner.

Here is the story’s bottom-line: Dear awesome samurai guys, please get rid of the raging prick who will be taking over the country in a few years. Regardless of the fact that we’re in a “time of peace” and your samurai-status has been rendered practically irrelevant, we know you can do a good job…or at least die trying? OKTHXBYE.

So you have your standard underdog samurai picture. However, this film is far from standard. While it may rely on the well-worn path of honor and the Samurai Way, it deals in issues that are much further reaching. Upon viewing 13 Assassins, I was honestly blown away due to the shattering number of things that it tackles without being preachy or hitting you over the head.

While Miike can place politics in his films, they are, many times, too balls-out crazy to grab them on the first (or fifth) go around. And, unlike many of my good friends, I’m not always in the mood to watch and/or study Miike. Thus I will openly admit: no, I have not looked for political insignias in Dead or Alive and I have not done a full psychoanalytic and historical perspective run-through of Visitor Q. I honestly have no doubt that the stuff is there. But it is much more…well…subtle. Due to the high-shock and/or hyperbolically violent nature of his films, any substantial messages seem to be the subtle aspects in a non-subtle text. But that’s Miike. He’s not a stupid man.

Not only does is this film displayed in a manner that is breath-takingly gorgeous and intensely well-constructed, it is a high-adrenaline ballet that will leave you gasping for air, and prying your hands from the seats. Tension, drama, EPIC (and I’m not using that word lightly) action, all condensed into a historically-based Japanese samurai film.

While ideas of war and peace are investigated, there are other concepts that are even more fascinating. Miike uses the rhetoric of the samurai film to investigate the state of Japanese cinema today. Wildgrounds.com quotes Miike as saying that “Maybe older japanese films have much more energy and are just much more interesting than films that are currently being made now (…) When it comes to making movies, we [Japanese people] sort of lost a lot of things over the years and we had a feeling that if we try to get back to, try to make movies the way they used to make them, we might learn, gain something.” In a sense, what Miike does through various character compositions and structures is rip apart modern Japanese cinema and let us know exactly what he thinks. In order to do this in the most effective manner, he chose to use the samurai film to do so.

Miike is not a fan of standard/traditional cinematic tropes, so one might find it curious for him to do a picture like 13 Assassins. But looked upon more closely, this seemingly traditional film plays more like Yojimbo with a machine gun. Not literally, of course, but in the content. Every choice that Miike makes in this film is careful and considered, meticulous and studied. However, he seems to be attacking more than just the fictional enemy in the narrative.

What I found the most attractive in this film is that while he celebrated the Old Guard, he ripped it apart. 13 Assassins felt to me like a type of Trojan Horse of Japanese cinema. While Miike certainly wanted to bring a reverential treatment to those that went before him, he also wished to inspire critical thought. But this is being done by working from inside the system.

The juxtaposition of older and younger samurai within the picture and their individual experiences underscores this intention quite nicely. In what I see as one of the most seminal sequences, some of the elders look on as the younger men deal with their first kills. The pregnant pause that follows this action is telling. Not only does it speak of the older men’s high level of experience and familiarity with the act of killing (they are clearly more seasoned professionals at the task) but it also illuminates the position and mentality of the younger men. While these young men may be good at what they do and brave as hell, they have not yet had to, as they say, “withstand the slings and arrows” of Real Action. Facing the reality of what they were about to engage in was a very important feature of this film. It is almost as though Miike was making a kind of commentary about older/younger filmmakers. Both are strong assets to the film community as a whole and bring essential components to the “film battle.” But if we follow Miike logic, the younger filmmakers take some influence and what they need from the elders but will still do it their own way and manage to kick the living crap out of the enemy, no matter how scared they are to do so.

For Miike, film is not a light, airy subject. It is not simple entertainment to be tossed off in the manner of an overblown comedy or a fluffy melodrama. His take on cinema is not unlike that of the Russians in the late 1920’s. What I’m about to say may seem far-fetched, but work with me a little. If you know your history, Russia in this period was a slightly crazy place to be. They were moving and shifting a whole lotta stuff around, and one of the things that they had to make some decisions on was the film industry,  a very popular part of Russian culture. The politicians were no dummies. They knew what they

Anatoly Lunacharsky, art critic, journalist, all-around pretty neat guy!

had. But how to figure this out? What was crucial for them was the technological aspect that was coming into play alongside their incessant politics. They realized that with sound pictures, they could get the message across with more fervor and, to be frank, easier. In addition, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who, as the People’s Commissar for Enlightment from 1917 until his forced resignment (yes, due to the very same lovely politics) in 1929, recognized one of the other major Catch-22 issues about film that we still deal with today. He stated, “Cinema is an industry, and, what is more, a popular industry.” (1)

Additionally, at this same time, in March of 1928, part of the Soviet desire to get things “together” with the cinematic world was to construct some kind of set of rules and regulations (they were into that kinda thing- then again, seeing the Hayes Code in the USA a few years later, seems like we were too…). So a bunch of folks, including industry professionals such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, went to the Party Conference on Cinema and tried to participate. They were able to do so…but only to an extent. Due to the Soviet way of thinking about the film industry, it became a full-on policed machine, commercialized and propagandized mercilessly.

One of the key sentiments put forth within the statements that evolved from this Conference was what cinema was really for and what it really did. While the Soviet mentality geared it towards political intent, the facts, as stated, were not entirely incorrect. As Richard Taylor writes, quoting some of the Soviet documentation, “Party leadership had been determined to develop a Soviet cinema that was ‘the most powerful weapon for the deepening of the class-consciousness of the workers, for the political re-education of all the non-proletarian strata of the population and above all the peasantry.'” Cinema for the Soviet Union was a weapon. But it wasn’t just the Soviets who then realized this. They were just some of the first to put two and two together. Say what you like about communism and the rest of it, but they were no fools when it came to media practice.

So I’m sure you’re wondering at this point what any of this has to do with Takashi Miike and/or 13 Assassins. I argue that it all does, in some funny way. Perhaps not down to political detail, but on a larger scale. See, Miike is down with Lunacharsky’s struggle. He gets it. To date, Miike has directed 83 films in 20 years. That’s off the charts. He knows he can make a bit of change making movies, so he does. But he also has the mentality that was sculpted from all of the different filmic and political practitioners of Soviet Russia: film is a weapon. And he can wield it any way he wants. And he does exactly that.

When asked about making the audience happy, Miike was quoted as saying that he doesn’t even think about it. He said, “there’s no way for me to know. To try to think of what makes for entertainment is a very Japanese thing. The people who think like this are old-fashioned. They think of the audience as a mass, but in fact every person in the audience is different. So entertainment for everyone doesn’t exist…” (2) He also added that even as hard as he works, it is that hard work that motivates him. It doesn’t necessarily wear him out. He sees it differently. He states,

We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget, that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie. There are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren’t interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like. Some films venture outside those expectations a little bit, but I feel we should break them. (3)

Miike’s philosophies on the audience and the Japanese film industry are the essence of 13 Assassins and why it is so beautiful and why it works. He went into the film to do a remake, an undergoing he had taken on before with Happiness of the Katakuris (and possibly more- I will openly admit I have not seen all 83 things the man has directed!), but did it his way. What was his way? Traditionally bound, with a heavy Miike visual lens and narrative cradle.

I refuse to use the word “mature” here (it’s condescending- that phrase “his most mature work to date” makes me want to throw things). But I’ve seen it used in other reviews and I wish that people could see what his actual point in creating this masterpiece was. There is no maturity here. He didn’t all of a sudden go from a kid to a grown-up due to a FILM. And frankly, Audition is a quite lovely film, Katakuris is incredibly skilled and Ichi‘s chaos requires a very defined sensibility. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a mess of costume dramas out of Miike anytime soon. THANK GOD.

See, 13 Assassins requires that you look a little closer. This film has teeth- and they’re sharp. Like the Soviet Party in the late 1920’s, Miike has a cinematic gun and he knows how to use it.  This film’s careful deliberation was like a slow-acting poison that was more of a commentary on the pretentiousness of modern “art” cinema or any overdone/overpriced cinematic exploits than anything else. I have a feeling he’s not a fan. While there was clearly money spent on this film, none of it was wasted. Which makes me even more glad that there’s a guy like Miike around to show us how to do things right and properly, while everyone else is failing so miserably.

If you can see this film on the big screen PLEASE DO. It is way more affective. Laugh, hoot, holler, JUMP UP AND DOWN IN YOUR SEAT!! I know I did. In fact, I will probably go see it again just to get that same adrenaline rush. 13 Assassins– the samurai movie that provides your body with the same endorphin-like energy as heavy exercise and sexual attraction. Yeah, I liked this movie.

(1) Anatoly Lunacharsky as quoted in Taylor, Richard. “A ‘Cinema for the Millions’: Soviet Social Realism and Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 3.  Historians and Movies: The State of the Art: Part 1 (Jul. 1983). p439-461.

(2) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

(3) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

Wonderwall: The Red Chapel and the Principals of Cultural Exchange

The Red Chapel is not what you would call a typically Korean film. I am using it for my first entry in the Korean Blogathon because I feel like it is far too important to go unnoticed, especially amongst people who have more than a passing interest in Korean Cinema.

The identity of Red Chapel has a semi-permeable membrane. Sometimes identifiable as a Danish picture, sometimes Korean, sometimes an amalgamation of both, this film has nationalism floating in and out of it like rubber toys in a kid’s swimming pool, creating a piece that is, above all, complicated as hell.

Directed by Mads Brugger (a caucasian Dane), and starring Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell (two adopted Korean Danes), this documentary tells the story of how the group of them traipsed into the hermetically sealed, totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea to perform a comedy bit/routine.

“Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” says Mads’ voiceover during the first 10 minutes of the film, and he is not incorrect. It is common knowledge that Hitler himself owned a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, and was said to have loved it, and that was the film that made fun of the man himself! However, as Red Chapel moves forward, it becomes a harder and harder film to watch, and the comedy drains from it.

Reviews called this film a “more intelligent Borat,” and one of my best friends even acknowledged that, essentially, North Korea gets “Punk’d” within these somewhat harrowing 87 minutes. But I have a difficult time with either of these simplifications (even though I realize that my pal’s comment was just an off-hand remark). The reasons for my discomfort have to do with what I feel is a very tenuous situation that evolves within the film between the filmmaker, his actors (friends?), and the North Korean company that they keep/situations that they are in.

Jacob and Simon are young men who have been raised in Denmark virtually all their lives. It seems that they were given up for adoption by South Korean parents when they were extremely young, and have grown up in Denmark. While they are aesthetically Korean, they speak Danish and are, more or less, culturally Danish as well. In addition, Jacob is a self-described “spastic,” making language even more of an issue (even his English is subtitled).  Upon being approached to do this project, one could see how these young men would find it appealing. While North Korea has clearly not been even slightly part of South Korea for 50 years and counting, it is still close enough to these boys’ heritage for them to want to go back and want to investigate, dictatorship or not.

Oh North Korea…what a place! The Red Chapel is an incredibly important film because it goes behind the scenes of North Korea in a way that nothing has in many years. It is also crucially important because it dissects Korean individuals who have been once removed from their home country, and are asked to revisit not only their originating culture but also come to grips with aspects of their history that they didn’t necessarily know that would have to face or want to face.

While Korea was split into North and South in 1945, and the two locations could not be more distinct at this point, the simple fact is that the country used to be one and it is the location that Simon and Jacob both hail from originally. The most fascinating element of the entire film was that, while skewed to “expose the evil of the system” (as Mads’ voiceover states), the most evil was revealed through the smallest and most seemingly insignificant details. While we are told about people starving by the millions and the various tortures and death camps, it was actually Jacob’s total experience and the reappropriation of the comedy show that truly seals the deal.

While discussing all the North Koreans that they have been dealing with throughout the film, Jacob says sadly at one point in the film, “It’s psycho, cuz they’re all really nice to me.” While he’s right, it also made me wonder what his treatment in Denmark was!

The North Korean treatment of Jacob was gut-wrenching. First of all, they wanted to look good in front of the camera. Not only did they want to look good so that they could make their Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) happy, but they did so in order to make North Korea look less like the totalitarian regime that it is. According to Mads, had he been born in North Korea and not in South Korea, Jacob would’ve been aborted or killed due to his disorders (spastic/cerebral palsy). His “specialized treatment” by their “handler” Mrs. Mak was not only completely unusual but also basically impossible in the Kim Jong Il Reign.

As the film progressed, and we were introduced to the comedy routine that Simon and Jacob were to perform, we were also introduced to what North Korea actually was. It became clear to me that the voiceovers by Brugger that told us of all the Kim Jong Il horrors were almost unnecessary when we saw what became of the show: it was ripped to shreds. The “cultural exchange” that Brugger kept discussing with the North Korean handlers that had been assigned to Simon, Jacob and Brugger became nothing but another form for North Korean propaganda. Big surprise, eh? Not only that, but they managed to marginalize Jacob’s character as well, frustrating the young actor and depressing him even further than he already was.

Mads Brugger commented over some stock footage of North Korean dancers that people in North Korea lost their identity to the totalitarian government of Kim Jong Il, their Dear Leader, and were nothing but pixels. This analogy fit the bill just perfectly. Within the new show, Jacob lost his voice and his agency and Simon became nothing but a robot for political discourse. Pixels, when put together, fit into a picture. This is exactly what the North Koreans were hoping to see happen. There was to be no cultural “exchange” within this particular experience. In a way,  the most disturbing part of the film was that Mads Brugger knew that this would happen and Jacob and Simon did not. Not only were they pixels for the North Koreans, but they were pixels for Brugger’s own political agenda.

At a particularly painful section in the film, Jacob spits out at Mads, “You have no moral scruples, do you Mads?” and, at that point, it is quite clear that he seems not to. There is always the chance that when they get back to Denmark it will be fine and good, all will be explained, and things will be peaceful again, but in a sense the director seems to be as much of a totalitarian as Kim Jong Il, just with Leftist ideals. Jacob spends a good amount of the film in pain, and is the one person who points out that the North Korea situation is not as simple as we think it is.

The beautiful thing about this film is that we are able to view the film through the eyes of two young Korean-Danish boys and one Caucasian Danish adult, and it seems that the outcome is more deftly complicated than when we started. One can argue that a totalitarian government is always wrong, and politically that is 100% correct. But what about the people?

Mads Brugger’s voiceover seems to be intentionally black and white, so as to lay out the “evil vs. good” arguments that many people in the world seem to be obsessed with. What balances it out is Simon and Jacob, the Korean youth, who see that experiences with human beings in a country make any black-and-white argument problematic and place it into a state of grays. North Korea has never been seen in this way due to the political nature of the country, and it is a groundbreaking move.

While it did not take place within the confines of the country itself, there was a cultural exchange that took place within the context of this film and the participants in it. When Jacob and Simon sing Oasis’ Wonderwall with a group of North Korean schoolkids you can see that these two young men have broken free of what they previously were in Denmark and reached a new identity that encapsulated their Korean-“ness” as well as everything that they were before. They regained whatever agency that the North Korean “handlers” had attempted to remove from them and reinstated it within themselves. The two young men that returned to Denmark were not the same men that went to North Korea, and that in and of itself is a big deal.

The Red Chapel is a wonderful film and, while it is alternately disturbing and emotionally wrenching at times, I found it to be highly worthwhile. If you get a chance, please please please put this on your “to see” list.

Silence=Death (to Feminism & Sexuality)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to share a dinner table in Santa Barbara, California with many amazing women who were, like me, presenting at the Console-ing Passions conference. We had phenomenal discussion, some laughs, and great times. Over the weekend, I was incredibly impressed with many things, but that meal stood out in my mind as it drew me to some incredible panels and introduced me to intensely interesting new scholarship I was previously unaware of.

One of the primary figures at that meal was a woman named Tristan Taormino. Not only was she well-spoken and funny, but she was quick, smart and incredibly incisive when discussing issues in and around feminism and sexuality. I remember sitting across from her and thinking, “This is what a successful woman looks like.” It was a fabulous time, as right beside her sat another woman who I have greatly admired throughout my academic career, Constance Penley. Needless to say, the fact that I didn’t sound like a babbling idiot would have been enough for me, but we ended up having some very intriguing conversations on the projects that Taormino was working on and the state of the adult industry  in general. I learned quite a lot. I would like to think I contributed, but who knows?

Since then, I have followed Taormino’s career in earnest, having seen her presentation at the conference and found it to be like her: bold, intelligent, and necessary. While being a feminist does not mean that you have to be interested in pornographic content or the film work that she does, I feel that her work is incredibly helpful on many levels to many groups of people. She is sex-positive (refreshing in a world that seems to hate the body and sexuality so very much), and has made the attempt to use that in a very productive way to help others, through books, articles, and cinema. This is a very basic and shallow description of her, and I would ask you to inquire further into her career if it seems like something that would be of interest to you. Be warned, it is all adult-themed (not work-safe), but it is all worthwhile, as is she.

So why this article? Well, this morning I awoke to some rather disconcerting news. Taormino, who had been scheduled to be the key-note speaker at Oregon State University’s Modern Sex Conference, was “uninvited” due to her resume and website.

Um, excuse me? So, let me get this straight- you booked her, knowing full well what she does for a living (which extends so far beyond pornography it’s laughable), confirmed the date, agreed to fees, did all the business-y type stuff, then you looked at the resume and website? And, OSU, I hate to split hairs, but I looked at your Modern Sex Conference and…you have some panels there that seem decently risqué. So can you explain to me why you are tossing Tristan Taormino, former editor of On Our Backs, the nation’s longest running lesbian-produced lesbian magazine, a woman who has been on a multitude of television channels discussing sexuality, a woman who lectures at universities from the east to the west coast (ones WAY more highly regarded than you), and (not that this matters, but if a pedigree means something to you) the niece of Thomas Pynchon??

They said something about fearing that they would have the university’s budget cut as it was being used to support pornography. Um, ok. Interesting that Tristan’s response to the entire debacle was:

“I’m extremely disappointed that OSU has decided to cancel my appearance. I’ve been protested before, but never uninvited. I have never misrepresented who I am or what I do. I am proud of all the work I do, including the sex education films and feminist pornography I make. The talk I planned to give at this conference, titled “Claiming Your Sexual Power” has nothing to do with porn, but the porn is such an easy target for anti-sex conservatives and censors. I find it ironic that one of the missions of the conference is to understand diverse perspectives of sexuality. Apparently, my perspective—one of educating and empowering people around their sexuality—isn’t welcome at OSU.”

I have two words for you Oregon State University: not cute. And actually I have one more word: CENSORSHIP.

See, here’s the really sticky part. And this is the part that got in my craw the worst. On Tristan’s twitterfeed today, she wrote:

“Several OSU staff have contacted me w/support but won’t support me publicly for fear of losing their jobs, they say.”

WOW. I don’t know about you, but that got me. As someone who got laid off from a job I liked, in a bad economy, I know how much a job means. So this is no joke. But I’m not going to mince words here: this is some fucked up shit. My gut reaction made me ill. Why? I didn’t know what I would do if I was in the position of one of those staff members. I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I realized that there was no way in the world that if I worked at OSU, I would ever pussyfoot my way around the situation.

What if this weren’t about sexually charged subject matter?

Would we allow censorship to take hold of us that hard that we would not stand up for ourselves and what we believe in? And if so, what will we become? I know that we have families, children, friends, lovers, pets, responsibilities. Hell, times are tough. But do tough times mean that we sell out each other? Some may say I cannot equate what happened today with Tristan Taormino/OSU to historic events like McCarthyism or Germany in WWII. And yes, it seems like hyperbole. Maybe it is. I haven’t eaten a lot today. But when I sit here, and think about the situation, it scares me. This is a mild situation. What if it were something larger?

The concept that fear overrides personal values frightens me. If every one of those staff members publicly came together in support of this women, they would not be afraid of losing their jobs. Yet, losing one’s job in this economy is a fate close to death it seems. Unemployment is an endless void that one does not want to fall into. “Keep that job at all costs,” the voice says, “even if it means sacrificing your own belief system.”

ROUGH.

In truth, the fact that they are not letting Tristan Taormino speak at a MODERN SEX CONFERENCE means that they are not so modern after all. Instead, she will be appearing at a place called She Bop in Portland, a female-friendly adult shop. Preaching to the converted, I guess, but at least still doing it.

If any of this bugs you the way it bugged me, please read this note from Tristan and respond in kind:

Note from Tristan:

Don’t Let the Anti-Sex Conservatives Win!

If you support free speech and my mission of sexual empowerment, please voice your opinion about OSU’s decision to cancel my appearance at the last minute (and not reimburse me for travel expenses) to the following people. I would really appreciate your support —Tristan

Larry Roper
Vice Provost for Student Affairs
632 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2154
541-737-3626 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: larry.roper@oregonstate.edu

Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi
Dean of Student Life
A200 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2133
541-737-8748 (phone)
541-737-9160 (fax)
email: deanofstudents@oregonstate.edu
twitter: @deanmamta

Dr. Edward J. Ray
President
600 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2128
541-737-4133  (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: pres.office@oregonstate.edu

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Killer (Prom) Queen

So, pun intended, I suppose, let’s get something straight: I fully support gay rights, k?

But I am also a critical thinker and so when I see or read something that catches my eye and makes me think “Hrm, I dunno…” I gotta say something. Especially when no one else really seems to be doing so. In the Proposition 8 melee, we cannot afford to lose our critical thinking skills simply upon hearing about something that seems celebratory within the gay world, correct? If we do, then we become sheep and vegetables with opposable thumbs, clapping and saying “Hurray!” at anything that seems like it might be progress. Because, see, what if it really isn’t progress? And even morese, what if it isn’t progress in the way that we would like it to be? Kinda like a ballot measure that hides its true intentions underneath a whole lot of political mumbo jumbo and gobbledy-gook that the average person cannot understand, some things really need to be looked at under a much higher lensed microscope.

That said, I’m not saying that this issue is evil or like one of those measure. FAR from it. It is a very simple everyday type thing. However, the way I see it, it should be at least gazed at a bit closer due to the simple fact that it IS such a simple local “nothing” issue.

So I opened up my Facebook today, and I noticed that a few of my friends were posting this article about Sergio Garcia, a Senior at Fairfax High School. Apparently, this young man was just crowned “Prom Queen.” Um, OK, no big. Kinda cool, right? I went there, I know what that school was like when I was there, so I was excited in a way to have this occur. So I posted it. But….I took it down within 2-3 minutes.

Houston, we have a problem.

Should’ve been fine. Should’ve been great. Should’ve been able to just add this to the list of the pro-gay equality stuff that I post on the ol’ social networking stuff. Except…I couldn’t. Whether it was due to the writers or due to his own speech decisions, what was within the article made it impossible for me to get behind this issue. As a woman and as a woman who has been a significant gay-rights advocate for her whole life. See, the byline underneath his picture in the LA Times quotes him as saying, that he “felt invincible after beating out the female candidates.” OUCH. Then, to add to that, within the article he states that he doesn’t want to be a girl, reiterates that he will not be wearing a dress, and that the whole thing began as a “stunt or a challenge.”

promqueen

Perhaps if they had not postured the entire thing as Sergio having “beaten out” the female candidates. And perhaps he was misquoted. But I bristled a bit. I really did. I asked myself, “Would a woman have been able to run for prom king?” And………..I got a resounding NO WAY, JOSE. So, I ask you, is this progress? I suppose it is in a way, but most of us recognize that the younger generation really could care *less* about sexuality. It’s even stated in the article.

See, there’s also this historical dilemma about women and the gay community, too. When the AIDS crisis was at its height, an incredible amount of women’s health groups and lesbian groups supported this issue, marched and helped out, even though it wasn’t even “their issue” at the time. In countless documentaries that I have seen, and people I have spoken with, these same women have expressed a sad sentiment that they do not feel or have that same support from the male gay community. (*disclaimer: this is not meant to be a statement about all gay men, btw*) As a woman who can (and has) go to (male) gay leather bars and usually exchange phone numbers sometimes more often than in a straight bar, I very clearly have a wonderful relationship with the male gay world. However, there is a certain misogyny that exists. There is a prejudice against men that exists within certain areas of the lesbian community, as well, I have seen that too, but…in a world that already predicates itself in a manner that does not necessarily favor those of the XY-chromosome persuasion…..well? It can be tough.

At any rate, back to prom, right? Look, I’m excited for this kid. He made headway in something that made him feel proud and happy, he feels like he did good for his gay community and made strides or whatnot, and I do support him in his struggles. He’s a latino kid in LA who is openly gay and proud, which is problematic in and of itself. I mean, his homelife can’t necessarily have been a picnic, right? Add gay archetypes to the mix and, well, we have something else entirely. In this way, I believe that Sergio is taking it to the next level. Applying an aspect of gay culture to high school culture, in a way, enmeshing the two into one. However, I do not believe that this is a necessity nor do I believe that it is a positive or a progressive stance to take, for women or for men. In fact, I feel it is quite self-centered and selfish. However, as we all know, high school kids are some of the most self-centered people in the universe so this is no big surprise. But it is by no means a malicious act, and I do want to be clear about that as well.

The issue comes from not thinking ahead and not listening to his peers and not thinking about what the effects of this act could be. Sure, it’s cute enough, have a prom “queen.” But the LA Times positioned it poorly- they (whether he intended it or not) made it sound like he was quite pleased to have won over the girls, which sounded pretty nasty to me, although not to the immediate reader, still reeling from Prop 8’s fucked up repeat beatdown the other day. Most everyone these days is looking for something-anything-positive to hear/post/know about how people are reacting to the gay world. But the problem is, this isn’t the thing. And we really need to take a closer look at what would have made a real difference.

Wouldn’t it have been more effective to have him be the prom king and come with his male date? Wouldn’t that be more of a fuck you in the face of the masculine-defined idea of “prom king” a la films like Carrie? He states that he does not want to be a girl and that he’s a boy with a “different personality.” So how does “different personality” all of a sudden equal prom queen? He’s not a tranny, nor does he express the desire to be one, he seems to be quite secure in being a gay male of the most average variety. What was wrong with running for prom king?

I’m just not sure how to place this one. And to an extent, writing this makes me feel like I’m a hater, which I know, full well, that I am not. I know that this is a messy and tricky situation that puts women in a precarious situation where they get to play second fiddle. And while I do love my gay boys something fierce, I think I’d be pretty pissed if a guy won for prom queen and I was running and had a chance to win. ESPECIALLY if they were initially just doing it for a lark, and then the idea got unintentional momentum.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that this situation is quite a bit more complicated than just posting the article on Facebook. I couldn’t do it. It is not 100% celebratory for me. I support, but I question. It may simply be prom, but hey- prom means a great deal to a lot of folks. Look at Carrie. That’s a perfect example of how that event can be so momentous in one person’s life. Also good example of why you should treat people better in high school, but that’s a WHOLE different blog.

While I congratulate you Sergio, I would ask you to take a closer look at what your royalty has actually given you. Publicity, sure, yup. You got your 15 minutes. But where does it go from there? Please think about what equal rights means, not to mention the progression of archetypes and stereotypes. Is a “queen” what you wish to represent? Is that who you are? Is that what you are? Does that actually do much for the positive progress of the gay community, let alone this marvelous program that you seem to have been a part of at your school?

As for me, I find it disappointing and disheartening. Until the day comes when we can have a prom king who is a female, I think the idea of a prom queen who is male and does not consider himself to be transgendered is a bit more than frustrating and a bit head-shakingly irritating, to be perfectly honest. And accompanying that is the passion and fervor with which people seem to overlook these issues in favor of positive stories about gay issues. Hey! Newsflash! Positive stuff happens all the time and always has! Even before Prop 8! Hard to believe, I know, but true. Either way, keeping your eyes on the prize also means keeping your eye on the ball and staying critical. So long as we do that, we should be fine. For now, I hope the young man enjoys his tiara.