Tuesday, June 27, 2017

But I’m A Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

I wrote this review for In Step (I think), a Milwaukee gay magazine/bar rag, at the time of the film's release. That "where else would we go" line really got under my skin. To quote Homer Simpson, I will *never* tire of the bar scene. But I did have friends who could not imagine life outside of it and by my late twenties when this was written, it became oppressive. In retrospect, the review captures that Midwest sense of inadequacy whereby you imagine a more varied life on the coasts when you were already living a perfectly fabulous one with cheap rent and great coffee. I'm sure I'd be more charitable to the film now (as I am to Milwaukee) but doubt I'd still like it much. D-minus. Wow!

But I'm A Cheerleader 
     Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is on the cheerleading squad in high school. She has a dreamy boyfriend, lots of friends…everything seems so sugar and spice. But both her friends and her parents (Bud Cort and Mink Stole) suspect that she is a lesbian and send her off with former homosexual Mike (RuPaul out of drag) to True Directions – a homosexual rehabilitation clinic run out of the home of its homophobic director Mary (Cathy Moriarty). Megan goes along with all the comic counseling and ridiculous programming until she meets fellow inmate Graham (Clea DuVall), a butch dyke who resists all of Mary's gay reversal techniques.
     Director Jamie Babbit's feature film debut, But I'm A Cheerleader, uses this backpatting framework for a putatively satirical investigation into stereotypes and how they smother us. To this end, she paints True Directions with vivid, hyper-real, even Lynchian colors…you know, to deconstruct what's considered normal male and female behavior and stuff. But because heterosexuality is presented as a pea-brained idealization in pink and blue, Babbit never gives you the impression that she has any idea how it's actually lived, e.g. in the lives of Megan's high school friends. It's a measure of how glib her conception is in that we never get to see Megan apply the lessons she's learned (and unlearned) back at school. By ignoring this site of the origin of normalization, Babbit never brings her "deconstruction" full circle which would have aimed it right back at heterosexuality where it belongs.
     Instead, we get a flabbergastingly impoverished view of homosexual resistance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Graham and some other inmates escape after lights out. Megan reluctantly joins them but freaks out when she discovers that they took her to a gay bar to which Graham replies "Where else would we go?" Where else, indeed! The only thing this scene accomplishes is the reinforcement of a tired myth – the bar/club as actually constitutive of gay identity. Watching it in Milwaukee is doubly depressing given how so many gays and lesbians in this city do not even feel gay or lesbian if they haven't sufficiently barhopped over the weekend. I dig RuPaul and, especially, Mink Stole and do not have such a jaded view of gay bars as to ignore their frequently positive impact on political mobilization or education or emotional strength in numbers, etc. But the impossibility of imagining gay life outside of these smothering (that word again!) bearers of gayness is a formidable obstacle for queer identity politics. That But I'm A Cheerleader steers clear of this confrontation shows up its utter conventionality and ultimate uselessness.

Grade: D-

—Kevin John

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Louie Louie and Jaws (Pazz & Jop essay)

Robert Christgau picked my 2004 Pazz & Jop comments as the lead essay, after his, for the Village Voice's Pazz issue that year. They've since disappeared from the interwebs. So voila!

"'Louie Louie' and Jaws"

My most shocking musical moment of 2004 came at the end of Todd Snider's "The Ballad of the Kingsmen." "I'm not trying to preach to ya," preaches Snider, and his recitative is stilted here, self-satisfied there. Evil music from "Louie Louie" to the collected works of Marilyn Manson and Eminem doesn't cause evildoing, it seems. But then Snider cuts the sermon off and croons a message to the kids courtesy of that famous perv Marvin Gaye (and don't think Snider chose his inspiration arbitrarily): "Let's get it on." And in that moment, he turns his sermon on its head. For if Snider could inspire the youth of America to start fucking, maybe he could inspire them to go on a shooting spree in high schools here or Iraq over there, end of song. And it's because Jack Ely jumbled the lyrics to "Louie Louie" in his jaw that anyone can bend it to their own agenda, even the FBI.

Kanye West managed to enunciate with his jaw wired shut. He needs clarity because The College Dropout is gospel music for the here and now consumer culture. West is here to remind us that in Dick Cheney's America, transcendence can only be had through money. Now that he's finally got some, the hyped-up Chaka and Luther samples testify to his giddiness as the Sunday morning choirs do to his thankfulness. And both will power our attempts to grab a little bit of that same kind of freedom. But unless you're Bill Gates and a few other lucky fuckers, transcendence is not eternal in this world. When the hits start drying up, Rocafella will remember the time when West was courting Capitol and proceed to kick him unceremoniously to the curb. That's why West asks Jesus to walk with him. Me, I don't have Jesus. I have this record. Around the time it came out, I learned that I'd been accepted as a PhD candidate at UT-Austin. You bet I was giddy and thankful. But I'm also terrified at the gamble. Sure, I have a better shot at freedom than the Gap workers of The College Dropout. But there's never any guarantee and not since Livin' Joy's "Don't Stop Movin'" have I heard such a thrilling articulation that hard work and brains (even genius) may not pay off.

Most of us try to make the gamble pay off by keeping the stakes low. Not Stephen Foster, who lost big time. Foster was stretching democracy to its limits in fancying himself a songwriter. If Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster were a testament to that spirit, it would have included contributions from Gino Washington and Biz Markie, Boy George and Iggy Stooge, Courtney Love and Axl Rose. Instead, Foster's anti-crybaby "No One To Love" could almost be conceived as an attack on the sensitive singer-songwriters assembled to reupholster his glory - Ron Sexsmith and David Ball, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Grey DeLisle, Raul Malo and Judith Edelman. But the utter safeness of these artists lends a mild yet undeniable drama to Foster's gorgeous melodies. This is an album for those of us who don't spend our lives grabbing at transcendence. It imbues playin' it safe with a sense of wonder and excitement indie whiners couldn't even begin to imagine.

Outside the US, nothing represented transcendence better than the funk carioca that hit these shores in 2004. From here, the snippet of "Louie Louie" heard on "Pique Ta" only deepened the winning chaos of . But a Brazilian friend tells me "favela" means "slum" and it’s my hope that the inexhaustible beats and rainbow samples lifted dancers up out of there, spiritually if not literally the Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats compilation. And for MIA, favela funk is literally a matter of life and death. Diplo sprinkles bits of the stuff in between her tracks on Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1 and it plays like a frightening extension of the pain of Claudine Clark's "Party Lights." Because here, mom has been replaced by a bank of faceless terrorists.

First Broadway Show Enjoyed, Loved Even!

I've always preferred the film musical over the stage musical for good old fashioned communist reasons - it's buckets cheaper and you can share it with more people. Vagaries of context can undoubtedly inform film reception. But in general, the 1962 film version of Gypsy you saw is the same one I saw and we can discuss it accordingly. When you tell us you had the privilege of seeing Ethel Merman in the original Broadway production of Gypsy, all we can do is hang on to your memories and maybe utter a bitter "jerk" under our breaths.

So I wasn't excited when a friend offered me in a block of tickets to see (it better be) Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre. The few touring shows I'd managed to take in around 2000 in Milwaukee (Cabaret, Sunset Boulevard with Petula Clark, and, was it?, The King and I) left me underwhelmed at best. And I despised the grotesquely distended 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly! featuring a ridiculously miscast/shoehorned-in Barbra Streisand. But I'd never been to a Broadway show. And I adored Midler's early 1970s pomo rewiring of popular music history even though she quickly abandoned this project for the schlocky half-measures and compromises of El Lay. So I went in expecting to get all haughty about a moribund art form and two and a half hours later left with tears in my eyes.

First, the bad. $152 for one ticket. Go around the corner to the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. and you can pay about $18 to see a first-run movie. Still a despicable price but you can see eight movies for one Dolly. Or better yet, trek down to my favorite movie theatre in New York City, Anthology Film Archives, and purchase a general admission ticket for $11 and see some of the greatest films ever made. As much as I loved my time at Dolly, it cannot match the out-of-body experience I had watching Mosaik Im Vertrauen (Peter Kubelka, 1955) at Anthology in September last year.

Also, the seats. We were in the last row of the mezzanine (my seat was K 23) and had a remarkably unobstructed view for such a thin field of vision. But we missed some action on the upper floor of Vandergelder's Hay and Feed Store and, worse, Dolly's entrance at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. And the standing ovation completely obstructed the curtain call. But I followed the Broadway veteran (of several shows just that week!) in K 25 down the aisle to at least Row F to get a better view.

Overall, though, I remain stunned by how moved I was. It had little to do with Midler. I teared up when she asked her dead husband Ephraim to give her a sign that it was okay to marry Vandergelder. But the moments that really choked me up were, well,  good old fashioned communist ones -  ensemble numbers like "Before the Parade Passes By," "Hello, Dolly!," the finale, all amplified by Warren Carlyle's choreography, built on Gower Champion's original work, no less astonishing in the serpentine movements throughout the Hay and Feed Store during "It Takes A Woman" than in "The Waiters' Gallop." If we cry at melodramas because of the impossibility of communication, we do so at musicals for the opposite reason - that disparate people can come together like rama lama lama. And Midler's star wattage is crucial for this effect. Donna Murphy, whom I never even heard of until this weekend (chill, theatre queens), will no doubt sing the role better on Tuesdays as Midler herself would probably concede. But the ensemble effect of the musical subsumes even a supernova like Midler and for an overwhelming moment, we are all one.

It's a fleeting moment for sure, especially with $59 for the cheapest ticket. I certainly don't want to make common cause with the audience if they agree with Ben Brantley's contention in a depressing New York Times review that there was "a more innocent age of American history" or that camp doesn't exude "bone-deep affection and respect." And I definitely want to avoid the two psycho fans I encountered afterward whom I tried to convince that Midler had left the building and was whisked away in a car the nanosecond she left the stage. But the show taught me what it might feel like to make common cause with them and I am privileged to have witnessed it.

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