Thursday, December 29, 2005

Start Off Easy, Then Get Rough

Did anyone else see the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Tina Turner? Queen Latifah and Melissa Etheridge sucked, but Beyonce made up for them.

Girlfriend was in charge and smokin' in her showy, spangly gown and full bodysuit. And George W. was totally feelin' it, in what has to be the best cutaway shot ever!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What Is the Price of Oil?

You hear that question a heck of a lot in the promos for Syriana.

However, it's a question the movie doesn't answer.

To be fair, I didn't like Traffic -- the American theatrical film version, penned by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote and directed Syriana. (The original British miniseries, and even the American miniseries, are much, much better.) There is more to film storytelling than having a lot of different things happening in succession -- and an audience needs more to tell characters apart than different color palettes for each story line.

Having lots of storylines isn't necessarily a problem. Crash was able to pull this off quite successfully earlier this year, although perhaps this is an unfair comparison, because Crash cut through to the emotional cores of its characters.

The actors in Syriana are not so much playing characters as embodying position papers, archetypes of various cogs in the military-industrial complex. Gaghan has big things to say about the big picture, and the primary focus is not the characters' humanity, but their politics.

As in Traffic, there are small touches to suggest that these are in fact people with some kind of personal stakes. George Clooney's middle-aged CIA agent has an earnest yet disappointed son. Jeffrey Wright's corporate fixer has an alcoholic father. Tragedy befalls Matt Damon's energy analyst's young family.

These shadings are, for the most part, incidental to Gaghan's big message, which is all about how the U.S. government and U.S. megacorporations may have their minor legal squabbles, but they are united in one goal: controlling the world's supply of oil, which these days means controlling the Middle East.

Now, here's where things start to get confusing, because the picture also seems to endorse the idea that the U.S. (for reasons that are not entirely clear or logical) benefits from having disorder in the Middle East. So we're controlling them, but we also want there to be disorder . . .

Gaghan's logic (or, rather, that of his position paper-characters) might leave you thinking that the U.S. and its corporate honchos are less than competent. However, in Syriana, they are, for the most part, astonishingly effective at manipulating each other and, most importantly, of course (to Gaghan's big message) at manipulating the Middle East.

[Now I'm going to say a few things about the ending -- stop reading if you don't want to know of it yet.]

I saw the film last Saturday afternoon, opening weekend here, and the theater was surprisingly packed with adults -- lots in their 40s and 50s. When the lights came up at the end, as we shuffled out, a lot of people were talking.

Before Gaghan delights, they were not talking about his big message. Rather, they were discussing how confusing the movie was. There are so many characters, so many scenes of action, that it is difficult to keep up. Then, all of a sudden, someone launches into a big speech -- Matt Damon's analyst, in particular, tended to bring things into focus -- and you tend to nod and go, of course that's right.

I can't help thinking of the tagline used to advertise Magnolia -- it will all make sense in the end -- because, here, little does. Shut out and shut down by the CIA, George Clooney concocts an elaborate scheme to get Christopher Plummer to bring him back online, and somehow Clooney then manages to travel to the unnamed Middle Eastern country where the prince Matt Damon is advising is about to have his caravan hit by a CIA missile. (The prince would throw the Americans out to democratize his country on its own terms, and so the CIA would rather kill him and let his pliable brother take over.)

How does Clooney know this is about to happen? How does he know, as he gets out of his car and consults a map, where the prince's caravan is? Visually, the sequence is exciting, but seen from anything less than a tight shot it makes no sense.

When Clooney stops the caravan, confronted by the prince's guards, the prince recognizes him in the moment before the missile obliterates them both. "You're the Canadian," the prince says. Of course, this is a false recognition, since Clooney lied to the prince when they rode in the same elevator earlier in the film, in Beirut. Clooney was in fact there to oversee the prince's abduction and murder.

Even more maddening is yet another story line, focusing on a young Pakistani oil field worker and his doddering father, who are deprived of their jobs, then ruthlessly beaten down for the offense of talking while standing in line to renew their work permits.

The young man and his friend are easy prey for the blue-eyed Egyptian (who Clooney sells a contraband weapon in the film's first scene). He plays soccer with them, hangs out with them for several very homoerotic moments before taking them to the local madrassah for lessons in how the West is decadent and to blame for all their problems.

I was hoping that the film would end with him blowing up Jeffrey Wright and Chris Cooper in their smarmy story line, but no such luck. Instead, Gaghan has them heading out in a flock of fishing boats, veering away from the pack and toward an enormous oil processing facility on the water, as the young Pakistani spreads himself out over the weapon, barely concealed under a fishing net.

There is a moment of haunting beauty -- helped by the score -- as the young man is almost soaring against the light sky until the moment of impact, at which point the film fades to white. The aftermath of the attack is never shown.

What is the point of writing about suicide bombing if you don't deal with the consequences? In life, there is never anything so pure and clean as a fade to white. What is visually stunning here is morally and emotionally dishonest. I stress the emotional as well as the moral because Gaghan's overreaching film leaves the experience of the young Pakistani man -- the deeper psychological, emotional experience of this particular character -- completely inscrutable.

In the young man's entire appearance in the film, no one speaks English. Everything is subtitled. Now, this is realistic, of course, but it makes his experience all the more foreign to those of us (surely some 99% of the film's audience) who don't speak his language.

This challenge could be overcome through incisive writing and directing, by drawing out why this particular young man is susceptible, the struggle he undergoes -- it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine at least an intense inner struggle, especially as he did not appear to be particularly observant of his faith in the early part of the film.

Instead, Gaghan gives us a paint-by-numbers story of how Islamist radicalization works, no doubt well backed up by crib notes taken from various articles in The New Yorker. The point is not that the story line is not factually accurate, or possible; the point is that Gaghan has forsaken humanity for process. He razzle-dazzles with the machine, but the only rage he supplies is his own.

The most fitting moment in the movie comes in the corporate corridors of power, when Jeffrey Wright sells out the high-powered lawyer he's been apprenticed to in order to seal the megamerger. Even this is very Glengarry Glen Ross -- except at a Hyatt -- and with a black guy!

I take Gaghan's point about capitalism always moving forward, always crushing the competition. He took my money. So let's call it even.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Everybody Has AIDS

[More comments on Rent here -- if you haven't seen it, you might not want to read on just yet!]

The movie's great delight, and the reason you really must see it, is Rosario Dawson's sublime turn as Mimi. Now, I always hated Mimi in the original. I found myself annoyed whenever she was onstage (or the original cast recording), with the exception of a few songs -- in particular, "Another Day."

Rosario Dawson is spunky, irreverent, and can that girl sing! For the first time, I loved "Light My Candle" and "Out Tonight," which works marvelously with the transition into "Another Day." Perhaps it's telling about this film (and what Dawson adds to it) that one of the strongest moments (that was so annoying in the stage show) is "I Should Tell You," at the end of the first act, when Roger and Mimi discover they're both on AZT, and it's okay for them to love each other completely. This never moved me before, but it was utterly gorgeous in the film (even though Adam Pascal is so much older than her).

This leads to the major problem with the film (other than the inept treatment of musical numbers). For some reason, the filmmakers decided to set the movie in 1989. The original took place in the present day (1996), at the moment when finally there were meds that were very effective and widely available. In the last chapter of his excellent book, Acts of Intervention, David Roman talks about this moment -- 1996 -- and the shift in AIDS theater and performance from talking about people with AIDS to people with HIV.

The only deliberate reason I can come up with is that in 1989, we had a president named Bush. In one scene in the loft, someone (I believe Collins) is reading a newspaper with a negative headline about Bush the father.

1989 makes a lot of the references in the lyrics anachronistic. How can Angel sing about the Akita, Evita, making "like Thelma and Louise did when they got the blues" if that movie won't come out for another two years? Would someone really be building a "Cyberarts" studio in 1989 -- when for most people (other than a handful of computer science geeks) anything "cyber" was the realm of science fiction?

There's also the not-small problem of NYC gentrification, a major theme of the stage show and the film, with the police and city government implicated in Disneyfying the city. There's one word associated with that: Giuliani. Yet 1989 takes us back before Giuliani, back when the city was dangerous and country boys like me were not allowed to set foot on the island.

Setting the film in 1989 turns Rent into a kind of AIDS nostalgia. I hate using that phrase, but unfortunately it's very apt. Rent was really a transitional work, one of the last big AIDS plays to play in New York (I believe Love! Valour! Compassion! was later that year). To my knowledge, there has not been a major AIDS play since. In a way, this makes sense, as what we would have now are not AIDS plays but HIV plays.

Pushing Rent back into 1989 locates it firmly in the era before protease inhibitors, when there were still funerals every week and a lot of young people died painfully and horribly, as Angel does in the film. I'm not saying that people don't still die of AIDS in America, but those deaths are now rare, a miniscule number compared with those at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s.

Setting Rent in that era -- rather than in its own time, or in the present -- lets it join the company of all the plays and movies about AIDS from that era of the late 80s/early 90s. I'm thinking, perhaps first and foremost, of Angels in America, and also Longtime Companion. We can let that latter film off the hook, seeing as it was made in 1990 -- of, and about, its own time.

But what does it say about HIV/AIDS in America when two of the landmark works of 1990s American theater -- Angels in America and Rent -- are made into movies (ok, one a TV movie) in the 2000s, with both set in the 1980s and both incredibly reverent of their stage origins? There is a nostalgia for the stage originals, of course, but certainly in the case of Rent (and I dare to say for Angels, too) a nostalgia for that earlier era of AIDS, when the epidemic was far-reaching and seemingly insurmountable, when it seemed the conservative government was at best united in its indifference to the sick and dying.

This nostalgia disgusts me. It's a nostalgia of old men, and this is a not insignificant thing, since it is in large part the absence of elders in the gay community that has led to our present circumstances, where the virus keeps spreading. Perhaps I shouldn't even say "community," since in addition to the lack of leadership from the elders, there's also a massive failure of community. We could stop the spread of HIV today if we all accepted responsibility for ourselves, and for the way we treat other people. But that would require a real sense of something greater than the self -- and it's hard to see how our gay culture, in its present state, could ever accomplish that.

So, instead, we get occasional blasts from the past, the voices from earlier days returned with the same old sturm und drang. Last year, Larry Kramer wrote a column in the Advocate celebrating the death of "Adolf Reagan," who he called "our murderer." This is nostalgia as historical amnesia, and utterly misses a key point: how can we start to build a responsible and engaged community if we go around calling people murderers?

Last year also saw Kramer's wonderfully angry play, The Normal Heart, revived at the Public Theater in New York. His play was a key work from the early moments of the AIDS epidemic, when it seemed like the only responsible thing to do to stop from killing each other was to stop having sex. Kramer's play is an important historical artifact. Yet it is as relevant to the present cultural moment as Oedipus Rex. With the realities that young gay men are facing -- in a world of Internet hookups, where it seems no one actually has AIDS, and HIV is a very manageable disease, compared by some to diabetes -- telling them not to have sex (or calling them murderers) is about as useful as telling them not to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers.

One of Rent's most celebrated lines -- and its last lyric -- insists upon "No Day But Today." To deal with the problems and realities of life today, we need to talk about today. Now perhaps it's too much to expect Rent to do this in any kind of way, though I don't see why the filmmakers couldn't just as easily have moved the musical forward, from 1996 to now, as they pushed it back into 1989.

When the film ends, the characters are singing "No Day But Today," but they are entombed firmly in the past. Perhaps the most jarring insistence of this is an establishing shot, midway through the film, of the Twin Towers, office windows here and there glittering against the night sky. Rent is all about Before. Now we live in Another Day -- and a brave new world.

I'll Cover You

I've held off long enough -- now it's time for my writeup of the new film version of Rent.

I suppose I'm supposed to give you my disclaimer about the stage show. I saw the original cast on Broadway in May of 1996 -- before they won the Tony Awards. That day-trip (part of one of my best friend's birthday gift from his parents) was the first time I ever set foot in New York City. (When I was growing up, my parents thought it wasn't safe -- that was before Giuliani, mind you. When we went on our vacation to Philadelphia and Boston when I was ten, we managed to go to the Statue of Liberty on a ferry from New Jersey, and then took a route far to the north around the city.)

So Rent was my first Broadway show, and it's always been tied up in some way in my thinking about New York City. The energy and excitement of that cast -- and that theatergoing experience -- is something that's stuck with me. Most memorable, perhaps, was Jesse L. Martin's soul-stirring reprise of "I'll Cover You," where I totally lost it. This was before I had started going to gay movies, and it was the first time I'd ever heard a man express a deeply felt love for (and loss of) another man. I was very sheltered growing up in Ohio, where it seemed like we only heard about gays when they were doing drag or dying of AIDS. They might as well have been from another planet.

Now, nine years later, I was dreading the movie version of Rent. I was put off by the previews, which seemed to focus on the cast -- mostly consisting of the original stage cast, a decade older -- lined up in their original costumes in a warehouse, singing "Seasons of Love," as if they'd been put in storage back in 1997 waiting for this moment.

I know more than a little about movie musicals, having taught a class and done a lot of research on the subject. In my view, the most successful ones are those that reinvent the stage show for the medium of film. Chicago did this delightfully, reconceiving familiar musical numbers for the camera.

[At this point I am going to start getting into specifics -- so if spoilers will offend you, see the movie and come back and see if you agree with me.]

Chris Columbus does his best to reinvent the musical numbers. The most successful is "Take Me or Leave Me," which is set at Maureen and Joanne's engagement party at her parents country club. The action moves the song seamlessly from the party itself, where Maureen flirts with a female bartender and dances on a table next to an ice sculpture, out to the hall, where Joanne unleashes herself on the stairs, then into a booklined room where the two face off over a pool table before heading their separate ways -- out separate doors. This number makes sense -- it starts diegetically (that is, directly and believably from the non-musical story line) and its end flows right back into a dialogue scene.

Contrast this with any number of the other numbers, which are less successful at fitting themselves in. During the song "Rent," Roger and Mark light their posters and screenplays on fire because the heat has been turned off. Then they take the giant wastecan out to the balcony and, rather confusingly, pour the fire out into the street, where Benny has pulled up in his Range Rover. On all the balconies of their building and the one across the street, other East Villagers are raining fiery debris down on Benny. It's a visually effective (if realistically incoherent) ending to the number. However, in the scene that follows the number, the fiery debris remains in the street, and cars drive right over it. Wouldn't that be incredibly dangerous -- even for a New York City cab?

This is a recurring problem in the film -- the transitions between many of the numbers and the non-number scenes are stilted, at best. "I'll Cover You" (the original) is one of the lightest and most delightful moments in the film, there's an extraordinary tight shot of Angel and Tom running down the length of a city block, holding on to each other. But the setup is so very stilted: they come out of the subway, having just finished "Santa Fe," Angel says "Come on," and they started walking and singing.

Probably the most unfortunate musical number is "Tango: Maureen." I so wanted it to work -- and it was delightful, at first. But then Mark falls and hits his head, and that's what sets us into the fantasy number -- with dozens of black clad man-woman couples tangoing, and Maureen in a red dress, taking turns dancing with a man, then a woman, then both, as Joanne and Mark join in.

Now this was a great way to introduce Maureen. However, it is a total and direct ripoff of "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago -- so many hot bodies suddenly on the screen, dancing! -- and an unfortunate reminder of how deft Rob Marshall was at handling the numbers there. One of the most painful moments of the movie (for someone who's always enjoyed the original cast) is when the number ends, and the camera cuts to Mark on the floor, opening his eyes and rubbing his head. Ouch.