Thursday, January 31, 2013

To Clean Or Not to Clean: What Is it with Bathrooms and Me?

Oh, how I miss the ablution chamber at the Pullman Bali Legian Nirwana, which came with daily cleaning service!
Shower in an outdoor bathroom? No problem — as long as I don’t have to clean it!
I just don't get it.

I must be the world's most anally retentive neat freak. The only thing I spend more time doing than writing and running is probably, possibly cleaning. At the end of my life, if someone adds up the time I spent making the bed/vacuuming/wiping kitchen counters and tables, it will probably add up to more time than I wasted on slumber.

As soon as anyone enters whatever abode I happen to be calling home at the moment, they notice the tell-tale signs: perfectly made bed, floors you can practically eat off of, a place for everything, and everything in its place. Until the day I stopped talking to him, the ex-husband of my best friend used to marvel at the wonder that was my bed, so painstakingly prepared that there wasn't a single crease in it.

"I wish you were my son," the head of housekeeping at Seasons Hotel in Melbourne announced as she entered my room to clean it for the first time. "You made up that bed even better than I probably will."

The long-stay resident manager at the Anantara Bangkok Sathorn had a similar reaction the first time she entered my suite there. "I don't think I've ever seen an apartment here that was this clean before," she announced as she removed her shoes. It's probably why the housekeeper who came by on Tuesdays and Fridays to tidy up loved me so much. I made her job ridiculously easy.

My mother -- the cleanest woman alive, from whom I inherited my neatness -- likes to tell a story about the time she visited me in New York City and stayed with me for a few nights in my studio apartment on 34th Street. I had an ionizer that I kept on the floor by my bed, right next to the cactus. I'm still not 100 percent sure what it did, but I figured it would do it even better if I kept it perfectly aligned with the borders of the hardwood floorboards.

"I kept moving it out of the way, so that nobody tripped on it," my mom would say while recounting the funniest story ever. "I'd go to the bathroom, and by the time I came out, it would be back where it was before, exactly where it was before, as if Jeremy took out a ruler and lined it up perfectly." Everybody would laugh, and I'd sink further into my seat. If my mother, who taught me everything I knew about tidiness, was making fun of me, I must really have had a problem.

It's not all my mother's fault, though. I'm a minimalist by nature, and I think it's influenced my approach to cleaning. I run partly to clear my head, to keep it uncluttered, and I clean for the same reason, too. I feel better, behave better, sleep better, write better when both my mind and my surroundings are free of clutter. I always think of the "White Box" episode of Absolutely Fabulous where Edina goes around clearing surfaces in her home in order to impress her interior-designer friend (played by Miranda Richardson), who has embraced minimalism in the most over-the-top way. That's so me!

If I'm so obsessively neat in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom, though, then what happens to me when I get into the bathroom? Of all the rooms in the house, it's the one that's most likely to make or break it. On the road, I've moved out of hotel rooms because the bathroom wasn't to my liking. Only functioning Wi-Fi is as important.

When I interviewed Kristin Scott Thomas in Bangkok last year (in her suite at Hotel Muse, which I'm pretty sure had the most amazing bathroom ever), and told her about my bathroom thing, she nodded in agreement. She understood exactly what I meant. I kept thinking of the scene in The English Patient with her and Ralph Fiennes in the bathtub, wondering how clean it was.

But then, I didn't tell her how far my bathroom obsession goes. (BTW, have you ever noticed that it's the room where you're most likely to find a giant cockroach -- dead or alive?) I spent a month in the summer of 2011 living in an apartment in Bangkok that was almost perfect. It had a nice balcony off to the side of a fully functioning kitchen, a spacious living room and bedroom (both of which had large, flat-screen TVs in them) and two full bathrooms. When is the last time you've been in a one-bedroom apartment with two full showers?

It would have been the perfect pad, except for one thing: a spot of rusted-over mildew on the floor near the door of the shower stall in one bathroom. I couldn't get rid of it with a sponge, so I covered it up with a floor towel. Still, I knew it was there, and I thought about it every time I entered the bathroom and even when I didn't, regarding it in my mind as some unwanted visitor that might rise up from under the towel and come after me. I'm sure I must have had a few nightmares about it, too.

Now here's where my bathroom obsession gets really strange. For all my anal leanings when it comes to them, I can't bring myself to clean them. They're just so disgusting. I've always thought it ironic that the room we use for ablution is often the filthiest one in the house, and it gets that way with so little effort. Luckily, over the last two years of living in hotels and serviced apartments, I haven't had to make any effort to clean them.

Until now. The South Yarra apartment I've been calling my home in Melbourne for nearly three weeks would fall somewhere near the bottom of the middle on the list of the places I've lived in since leaving my last apartment in New York City (which was perfect in every way, except for the hideously outdated bathroom, which, in the only fixer-upper move of my life, I paid my aforementioned friend's ex-husband to redo while I was on holiday in London). But even worse than the erratic Wi-Fi, the lack of direct sunlight and the carpet (an interior design faux pas that's still surprisingly common in Melbourne) is the bathroom. Not so much because there's anything wrong with it, but because there's no weekly maid service.

If I want to get it clean, I'll have to do it myself. Unless, of course, I don't mind forking over a hundred bucks or so on a cleaning service (we're not in Buenos Aires anymore for sure -- I used to be able to pay cleaning ladies there under $20 to spend several hours scrubbing my pad spotless). Or I can let the dirt continue to sit and settle, or I can buy some sponges and disinfectant and do the job myself. (Speaking of Buenos Aires, I wonder if one of the after-effects of being attacked in my bathroom there was an intensification of my neurotic response to them.)

I have better uses for my hundred dollars, so I've spent the last two weeks and five days choosing the sit and settle option. I know I can't go on much longer like this, though. I have a stronger than average sense of smell, which might also partly explain my overboard cleanliness, and it's gotten to the point where I have to keep the bathroom door closed at all times.

And when you start having nightmares that you're trying to scrub something in the toilet that just won't go away, you know it's time to take action. But maybe tomorrow. There's a crease on the bed sheet, some lint on the carpet and a crumb on the kitchen counter that requires my immediate attention today.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Should Exes Live Together?: The Dangers of the "Relationship Visa"

On my master list of things that I just won't accept in a potential new boyfriend, for a long time, chief among the no-nos has been these: You can't live with mom and dad (a prerequisite that I temporarily suspended while I lived in Buenos Aires, where no one seems to leave home before the age of 35), and by God, you can't live with your ex.

Maybe my hard line stance has something to do with the fact that I've never ever lived with a boyfriend, which is as much a symptom of my loner ways as my fear of rushing into things. As far as I'm concerned, people move way too fast in modern relationships -- like my last ex, whom I recently learned moved in with his last ex and five other people (in separate bedrooms, he was sure to tell me), though they couldn't have been a serious couple for more than several months! But if my last ex can proudly announce to me one month after breaking up with his last ex that he moved out ages ago, why can't all exes cut the cohabitation ties just as quickly?

I already went there once before with a guy I dated for a year and a half in the mid '90s. For the first few months that we were together, he was living with an ex in Harlem. Surprisingly (to me now, though not at the time), I didn't really have a problem with it. I didn't think he and I were going anywhere yet, and it never crossed my mind that he might be getting a little on the side on the nights when he slept at home. I wasn't sure if they had their own rooms -- or beds -- and that never crossed my mind either. In fact, the ex and I became pretty friendly with each other (on neutral turf, since I never visited their shared apartment) and remained that way long after the ex (my ex) had exited the picture (our picture).

My problem with the scenario ended up being that I constantly had to listen to all the stories, about how inconsiderate the ex was, about how the ex was too needy, about how the ex was always borrowing money, about how the ex once cheated on him and punched him in the face when he confronted him. The ex this, the ex that! Thankfully, before I had a chance to file a complaint, my now-ex but then-BF moved downtown to the East Village into an apartment a few blocks away from mine, with a cranky girlfriend whom I eventually grew to despise. I liked it better when he was living with the ex!

Last night I had the strangest feeling of deja vu, sitting across the pub booth from this really cool guy, an expat from Monterrey, Mexico, now living in Melbourne with -- you guessed it -- his ex. They'd been a couple for two years until December, when they took a trip from Melbourne to Monterrey to meet the friends and the parents of my date. Within the first week, after a minor disagreement that escalated into something grander scale because it was actually over two years of pent-up frustrations, they broke up. The holiday continued as planned, and after they returned to Melbourne, so did their living arrangement.

As I listened to his story I was incredulous. Did he really still introduce his now-ex to his parents after they'd split up? How did he manage to sit with his now-ex on the 20-whatever-hour flight back to Australia -- and on his 30th birthday no less -- without committing murder in the coach cabin? Did they really still sleep in the same bed?

I flashbacked to boyfriend No. 2. Then to the Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn movie The Break-Up. Then to the most recent episode of Happily Divorced, the new Fran Drescher sitcom on TV Land about a woman whose husband of 18 years comes out as gay, and they are forced to continue living together for financial reasons. I always thought I enjoyed that show a lot more than I should, considering how unrealistic it is, or so I thought.

Boy was I wrong. Sitting across from me was living proof. And Fran and Peter (played by John Michael Higgins, perfecting a certain fortysomething brand of gayness) sleep in separate rooms! The guy sitting across from me had better have an even better excuse than Fran and Peter. (Since we're not on the subject, can someone please give Fran's latest sidekick, played by Everybody Hates Chris mom, the beautiful and talented Tichina Arnold, her own show and a recording contract? Please?)

He did. He's in Australia on something he called a "relationship visa," meaning that he and his ex are as good as still-legally married (without the actually "married" title since gay marriage remains illegal in Australia). And if they don't at least appear to be a couple (which means living together), he'll have to return to Mexico, plus they could possibly face legal action. If my date wants to continue calling Australia home, they're stuck together -- in the same house and, for now, in the same bed, too, at least until they find a bigger place, a search now in progress.

I didn't ask him what's wrong with the couch. I was too busy thanking my lucky stars that my crusade to live and work in Australia never reached such a fever pitch that I even considered entering into such an unholy union. Then I thanked my lucky stars again: If a reluctant romantic like me ever had a perfect excuse to "keep it light," this was it. What happened between my date and his ex (or "husband" or "partner" or "flatmate" -- he's still not sure how to refer to him, since they remain legally bound) in that apartment was between them.

If last night was any indication, though, I'd be certain to keep hearing about it if we continue to hang out, which I think I might be able live with. As long as I get to go on living alone, and they don't expect me to come over for dinner.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Makes Me Think He's the One?: In Praise of Lindsey Buckingham

It hit me on Sunday evening, right at the moment that my friend introduced me to Lindsey Buckingham. Not "What an odd name for a fish!" (Nemo and The Incredible Mr. Limpet aside, I've never really understood the practice of naming fish.) Sure, that thought did cross my mind, but it was totally upstaged by another one: Is there a more underrated rock & roll multi-hyphenate than the singer-songwriter/producer/guitarist of Fleetwood Mac for whom my friend's fish is named?

When people think of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks is generally the first bandmate who comes to mind, but Buckingham was just as much of an FM (as in Fleetwood Mac and FM radio) MVP in the '70s and '80s. More than any other member, his creative stamp dominated the group's '77 best-seller Rumours, as well as FM's three follow-ups (the 1979 masterpiece Tusk, 1982's Mirage and 1987's Tango in the Night). When he began a decade-long hiatus from the band in the late '80s, FM had to hire two new members to replace him, and his absence was all over the band's Buckingham-free 1990 album Behind the Mask.

Contemporary monsters of pop-rock never list him first when they rattle off the names of their greatest influences, but for decades now, the relatively unsung hero has been inspiring scores of younger acts (largely through his extensive contributions to Tusk, the weirdest follow-up to the biggest album ever ever, for which he received a bold-print "Special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham" credit): R.E.M., the Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, the Jayhawks, Matthew Sweet and fun., among so many others. More recently, This Is 40 director Judd Apatow used three of his songs on the soundtrack of the recently released film, which was scored by Jon Brion, Fiona Apple's sometime producer who, along with Apple herself, probably owes a major artistic debt to Buckingham.

On the best of Buckingham, he masters the art of melody laced with madness (or of finding the tension inside the sweetness, as Terence Trent D'Arby would say). Often favorably compared to the Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson for his melodic gifts, he can both unsettle and soothe, sometimes within the same verse. This may not be the stuff that solo pop hits are made of (on his own, Buckingham has had only two Top 40 singles, including the 1981 Top 10 "Trouble"), but it's rock for the ages.

I've already written the praises of "Tusk," the Buckingham-penned first single from the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name (read all about it here), and "Holiday Road," his solo single from the 1983 film National Lampoon's Vacation (check it out once and twice), but here are 10 more reasons why Buckingham deserves to be a fish's namesake and so much more.

"Never Going Back Again" (Fleetwood Mac, from Rumours, 1977)


"Second Hand News" (from Rumours)



"Walk a Thin Line" (Fleetwood Mac, from Tusk, 1979)


"That's All for Everyone" (from Tusk)


"Trouble" (from Law and Order, 1981)


"Empire State" (Fleetwood Mac, from Mirage, 1982)


"Can't Go Back" (from Mirage)


"Slow Dancing" (from Go Insane, 1984)


"Big Love" (Fleetwood Mac, from Tango in the Night, 1987)


"Walls (Circus)" (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers featuring Lindsey Buckingham, from Songs and Music from "She's the One," 1996)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Another Contemplation on Getting Older

"People don't change. They just get older."

This morning I quoted General Hospital's iconic Luke Spencer in an email to a friend in which I was trying to explain why sex with an ex is best when it ends there. If you broke up with him, or her, for a reason, chances are that reason hasn't stopped being an issue just because the sex was great. It was probably great because it was so familiar and comforting, so if things haven't really changed in bed, why make the leap to thinking they'll change outside of it?

But I'd rather not dwell on negatives. One of the biggest positives of my own recent encounter with an ex whom I hadn't seen in 11 months had to do with the way he thought I had changed. In the nearly one year since we'd last been face to face, he insisted, I hadn't gotten older. If anything, I looked younger than the last time he'd seen me. "I'm going to start calling you Benjamin Button," he said, to which I replied, "Go right ahead, mate!"

It was just what I needed to hear a month after being labeled "old" by Bart, the 30-year-old Melburnian acquaintance whom I ran into in Bali in December. "We've got to stop meeting like this," I said him when he pulled me into a bear hug on Saturday night at the Peel Hotel. It was great to see him, but by the end of our brief conversation, I had become Benjamin Button in reverse, feeling even older than I had after Bart and I had hung out in Bali.

"What are you doing on this side of town?" I asked. He lives in St. Kilda, and I never took him for being much of a Peel person. After all, considering how I'd run into him in two different Southeast Asian countries but not once before at the Peel, it felt safe to assume that he wasn't a regular. "I'm here for a 30th birthday party," he slurred, wobbling to the side and flashing a sweet grin that made me want to pinch his cheeks.

Hoping that none of my wrinkles were visible under the Peel's lighting, I stared at Bart, who didn't look a day over 23 (ah, the miracles of shaving), and glanced at his friends off to the side. I could remember when 30 seemed like such a big number. I must have been 27 at the time. But he and his friends looked like such babies, not unlike how I imagined the invitees at those 21st-birthday parties that my 24-year-old ex used to always go to must have looked.

When did 30 get so young? Probably around the same time that 40 stopped being scary. I'm now far enough away from the four-decade milestone to read the Facebook status update of a friend who recently was bemoaning turning 39 and find myself saying out loud, "Give it a rest! Give it a big fucking rest!" That's exactly what Cher told me in 1995 when I interviewed her and complained about how scary it was to be about to turn 26 and a half. I shudder in embarrassment every time I think about it. Only someone who is 26 and a half going on 19 would even consider the "half."

As I creep closer to Cher's age at the time (she was 49), the younger just keep getting younger. I recently read a message-board comment on Silver Linings Playbook in which someone alluded to the age difference between the movie's romantic leads, Jennifer Lawrence, 22, and Bradley Cooper, 38, not referring to the years that separate them but rather to how Cooper comes across like a "creepy older dude" beside Lawrence.

Older dude?! Last year's Sexiest Man Alive (according to People magazine)? I wasn't even going to touch the idea that he might be too old for Lawrence. When I turned 38, I was dating Leandro, an Argentine university student who was 22 at the time, and I've since continued to plunder the cradle regularly. Bradley Cooper has always read much younger to me. Maybe those frat-boy antics in The Hangover Part 2 had rendered him forever young ever since. I'd figured he wasn't a day over 35, though probably closer to 30.

Armed with the knowledge that he's actually pushing 40 (after consulting his IMDB and Wikipedia pages), only five years younger than me, my impression of him didn't change. He certainly was no creepy older dude. He still seemed like a kid to me, as much of one as Bart and his 30-year-old friends. Will I still feel the same way about Bradley Cooper when I'm 64, and he's 59? Does what one considers to be "old" get older as one gets older? That's a question for the aged, if not the ages, and frankly, I'm in no great hurry to find out for myself.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Black and White, Republican Vs. Democrat: The Last Episode of "Girls" Really Got Me Thinking....

If I wasn't completely convinced of Lena Dunham's prowess as a writer, a scene in the second season-two episode of Girls that premiered on January 20 -- an argument between Hannah and her new boyfriend Sandy, a black Republican -- sold me on it 100 percent.

I still have no idea if Hannah can even write, though. Unlike Sex and the City, which was grounded by Carrie Bradshaw's literary musings, Girls has kept its heroine scribe's written word mostly a mystery. But I'm still marveling at how much ground Dunham the writer covered in the space of about four and a half minutes.

My internal debate continues over Sandy's comment about white girls who come to New York City and date black guys, treating it as something merely to be crossed off their bucket lists. I've met guys like that, and I've dated a few of them, too -- in and out of New York City. Interestingly enough, just the night before I watched the episode of Girls, I saw a gay Australian stand-up named Nathan doing a routine at the Laird in Melbourne about the Monday night he and his friend wandered into a black club in New York City, and for the first time, he hooked up with a black guy -- or rather, as he put it, "a black bear."

"Oh, I see there's one out there in the audience right now," he said, pointing in my direction before beginning his story.

"Who me? I am not a bear." I was annoyed. I hate stand-up as it is, and now I had to suffer through it while everyone kept glancing over at me to check my reaction. And furthermore, I was no "bear" (gay slang for a hairy guy). Didn't he see my hairless face? I considered doffing my shirt just to show him and everyone else in the bar that the rest of my body was similarly groomed.

As I listened to Nathan tell his long, pointless story, I wondered how much different it would have been had I not been in the room. It wasn't a particularly racist tale (though he could have skimped on his overuse of the term "black bear," which sounded so pejorative the way he kept saying it, possibly because of his strong Aussie accent). It wasn't particularly funny either -- he received only a few polite laughs -- but I wondered how many first-timers I've hooked up with who were secretly so acutely aware of my skin color and maybe even turned our tryst into a comedy routine. I've gotten pretty good at fending off chocolate queens (the ones who only date black men), but those bucket-list queens -- far more prevalent in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok than they ever seemed to be in New York City -- are impossible to avoid.

In Hannah's defense, she had the perfect comeback to Sandy's complaint. Since he's had so many of these experiences with white girls, maybe he should consider the possibility that he fetishizes white women. Score! Thank God nobody has ever presented that argument to me. It would certainly be an appropriate one.

Although I have no ethnic restrictions when it comes to dating and hooking up, my serious and semi-serious boyfriends all have been white and Latino. I can't say that it's by accident either. I completely own my double standard, and I have several reasons for it (my own insecurity, childhood issues with black bullies, not wanting to compete with my boyfriends for attention in public) that I may expound upon in a future blog post.

I also thought this part of Hannah vs. Sandy was intriguing because of how it reflected Dunham herself. She fielded a lot of criticism last season for the lack of black characters in the New York City depicted in Girls, and giving Hannah an instant new black boyfriend in this season's first episode seemed like her way of making amends. Now both she and Hannah could cross it off their lists at the same time.

Some other interesting points were made during the argument regarding gun control, the death penalty, mixed marriages (Republicans vs. Democrats) and Missy Elliott, but it was the one that kicked it off that really struck home with me. "If he's not reading your essays, he's not reading you," Jessa told Hannah (so true -- I've always judged boyfriends by how interested they are in what I write), leading Hannah to confront Sandy about why he hadn't read the essay she'd given to him.

Newsflash!: He'd already read it, but he just didn't know how to break the news to her that he didn't like it. As I watched the beginning of the fight unfold, I thought of an uncomfortable conversation I once had with my first boyfriend, a German-American artist named Derek, after he slammed a review I had written on Enya's Shepherd Moons album. (Give me a break: It was 1992, and Enya was huge!) He criticized my overuse of adjectives and my mannered writing. I was trying too hard. He said that in writing about the album, I didn't come across the way I did when I talked about it. The review wasn't conversational enough.

Derek's critique was hard to hear, and I'm pretty sure I didn't reward him for his honesty at the time. But in hindsight, it might have been more constructive than any criticism any of my editors ever gave me afterwards. It certainly influenced my writing (in a positive way) more than any negative review I've gotten since. I gained a lot from my year and a half of dating Derek, but his honesty and bluntness about that Enya review, and my writing in general, might have been the best thing he ever did for me.

Hannah pretended to take Sandy's critique better than I initially took Derek's, but she really didn't. By the end of the scene, they'd broken up. I hope it's not for good. Their mixed relationship might ultimately be a lost cause, but what dramatic/comedic potential!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Is Jessica Chastain the Best Actress Oscar Frontrunner for "Zero Dark Thirty"?

Before all you overzealous Jessica Chastain fans (Are there actually any out there?) start hurling rotten tomatoes in my direction, please hear me out: I like her, too. She seems like a lovely person, and she's certainly a capable actress. There's no question about that.

Though I think she was nominated for the wrong movie last year (her work in The Tree of Life was more worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nomination than her performance in The Help), she deserves her rapidly bulging filmography. At the very least, I'd been expecting her to become the next Amy Adams, one of Hollywood's most highly employable actresses who gets Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations just for showing up in Oscar-bait movies. But Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role two years into her breakthrough?

I'm not even sure Chastain was the right actress for the potentially grand prize-winning role, Maya, the CIA officer whose fierce determination and persistence led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. My favorite aspect of Chastain's performance was the fragility and vulnerability she gave Maya, particularly at the beginning of the movie when Maya was first exposed to the CIA's use of torture tactics to coax intel out of prisoners (she seemed so thoroughly sickened by the process, I half-expected her to quit on the spot), and once the deed was done and her emotions poured out, literally.

(BTW, I don't understand the charges that the film glorifies torture. Depicting is not glorifying, otherwise Django Unchained and pretty much every slavery-related movie since Gone with the Wind -- with the exception of Lincoln, which pretty much swept it off-screen to focus more on political process -- has glorified that abomination. Zero Dark Thirty presented the torture without graphically violent details and in a neutral enough way that I actually felt sympathetic for the first detainee, who was nicely played by Reda Kateb, and so, I suspect, did Maya.)

Chastain, though, has a harder time selling steely. The screenplay (via numerous characters) tells us that Maya is strong-willed, combative and exceedingly annoying, but I don't think Chastain really nailed these crucial qualities because they didn't come across as vividly as they should have in her performance. She gave us obsessive and hard-working, yes, but I kept wanting her to go farther with the material, make Maya unforgettable, the kind of lead character that causes a movie to suffer when she's not onscreen. She needed to own Maya, but she merely inhabited her.

Her performance ticked all the boxes -- clenched jaw when appropriate, raised voice for dramatic emphasis, tears when necessary -- but the character remained more a sketch than a distinctive woman. It certainly wasn't as specific a characterization or performance as those of the three leads in Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow's last film, The Hurt Locker, a Best Picture winner that made Bigelow the first woman to win Best Director. I felt that I knew Jennifer Ehle's supporting character better than I did Maya, despite Ehle's truncated screen time.

Perhaps the film should have given Maya more back story, or Chastain should have filled in more blanks. (At times she didn't seem to know what to do with her hands, but I couldn't figure out if it was a Chastain character trait or Maya's.) While watching, I kept wondering what a force-of-nature actress like Angelina Jolie or Laura Dern would have done with the material.

Since the movie presented Maya as the woman responsible for the capture of Osama Bin Laden (from behind the scenes, not during the actual raid on the terrorist's hideout compound), she deserves to be iconic, like Alien's Ripley, without the sequels or the action sequences. But as a character, she wasn't nearly as standout as Quvenzhané Wallis' Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook or Emmanuelle Riva's dying octogenarian in Amour, all of whom dominated their films and probably wouldn't have made nearly as much of an impression in the hands of different actresses. Though Naomi Watts' Maria Bennett in The Impossible, like Maya, was based on an actual person, the character herself left less of an impression on me than Watts' ferocity, which was a quality largely missing from Chastain's performance in Zero Dark Thirty.

Still, judging from the reaction of the Academy and most of the critics groups (she already has a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award), you'd think Jessica Chastain was the only person in the film. I certainly wasn't expecting such great, mostly unheralded performances from Ehle and Jason Clarke (two of a number of British and Aussie actors donning American accents) as well as Kyle Chandler. (I swear, the Friday Night Lights Emmy winner, who also had a supporting role in Argo, must be Best Director poison, since both of his 2012 big-screen bosses, Bigelow and Argo's Ben Affleck were snubbed by Oscar.) But several years from now, who will be talking about that badass Maya from Zero Dark Thirty?

Maybe I blinked and missed something in the performance or about the character, but it's going to take a lot more than what I saw over the course of Zero Dark Thirty's two and a half hours to convince me that a relative newcomer deserves to win the Best Actress Oscar before Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julianne Moore and Sigourney Weaver get theirs. I still predict that Watts will end up besting the competition, but I'm secretly hoping that Hushpuppy's bark is even stronger than her bite, and she ends up crushing them all.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beyoncé and the National Anthem: It's Time to Give "The Star Spangled Banner" Singers a Break

I've had it with "The Star Spangled Banner." Nothing against the U.S. national anthem -- though it's never been one of my favorite songs -- but what is it about the tune that brings out the worst in some people? It seems like every time anybody dares to sing it in commemoration of some momentous occasion, the media (aided and abetted by Twitter, the source of too much of the news that's fit to print these days) concoct a brand-new controversy.

Ever since Whitney Houston turned a live Super Bowl performance of it into a pop hit in 1991 (the same version would make the national anthem a Top 10 single for the first and only time 10 years later, following the 9/11 attacks), "The Star Spangled Banner" has become a song that you touch at your own risk. So Christina Aguilera flubbed the lyrics and didn't give the live performance of her career when she performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 2011. Though that was hardly her worst public offense ever, it was treated by some as a high crime on par with treason. Then last year when country singer Luke Bryan used his hand as a teleprompter while singing the national anthem at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, he was branded "unpatriotic."

Seriously? Because he's human and gets nervous when performing live in front of an audience of millions and probably didn't want to become the next Christina Aguilera for messing up the lines? How many patriotic Americans can sing the entire "Star Spangled Banner" without mangling or forgetting some of the lyrics? Bryan also was criticized for checking his watch during his performance, which is right up there with First Lady Michelle Obama rolling her eyes during a Presidential inauguration luncheon on January 21, among things that frankly, my dears, nobody should give a damn about.

In recent years, Steven Tyler and Jesse McCarthy also have joined the dishonorable list of singers who supposedly didn't give "The Star Spangled Banner" its due, and now it's Beyoncé's turn to join the club. She's getting some of the worst reviews of her career because she may or may not have been singing the national anthem live at President Barack Obama's second inauguration.

I never thought I'd agree with Piers Morgan about anything, but there's always a first time. Who cares whether she was lip syncing or not? Even if she was miming to a pre-recorded track, Beyoncé did sing the song. That was unmistakably her voice, and regardless of when she actually sang what we heard, she handled the challenging material extremely well.

Furthermore, it's not like the Francis Scott Key composition is "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" (a gospel standard that it would be foolish and completely beside the point not to sing live). Despite its political and social status, "The Star Spangled Banner" is simply not that deep. Were it not the national anthem, its lyrical content certainly wouldn't inspire such solemn reverence and devotion. Would it move mountains and hearts the way "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" does without the benefit of national-anthem/treasure status?

Having been publicly performed by everyone from Roseanne Barr (who grabbed her crotch, skipping the reverence and devotion) to Michael Bolton over the years, "The Star Spangled Banner" has become more pop song than political statement. When we listen to famous people singing it, do we even pay attention to the message, or are we too busy critiquing the performances (or wondering if they're live or Memorex) to care anymore?

A Presidential inauguration is not American Idol, though much of the coverage of the latest one treated it like a season finale. It is, however, basically a celebrity spectacle masquerading as a political occasion. Why else would as apolitical an artist as Beyoncé be invited to perform at it in the first place? Mahalia Jackson (who sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," flawlessly and indisputably live at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral) she is not. As with any Beyoncé singing engagement, her earnest gestures and soulful poses were performance art, not genuine emotion, so does it really matter what, if anything, was coming out of her mouth in that moment?

I'd rather read inauguration "news" about Michelle Obama's new bangs and her trendsetting style than one more word about this latest "Star Spangled" controversy. It's become as tiresome as the song itself.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

10 Reasons Why The Cure Ruled the '80s

For a good chunk of the late Reagan era (1987 to 1989, arguably three of the best years of my life), my two favorite bands in the world were The Smiths and The Cure. My love affairs with both began shortly after I arrived at the University of Florida and developed an obsession with alternative rock that would span my entire college career. They didn't call it "college rock" for nothing.

The Smiths had the good sense to split up officially weeks later, after only three years of recorded output, but The Cure, which was actually my favorite band of all time for several months before being overtaken by The Smiths, carried on well past its prime. Like so many great bands before and after have done a decade or so in, the guys started to lose me after its 1989 masterpiece Disintegration. Meanwhile, R.E.M. flipped the 10-year rule as it entered its second decade, soaring with a holy triumvirate of college rock: Automatic for the People (1992), Monster (1994) and New Adventure's in Hi-Fi (1996).

I'd actually discovered R.E.M. three years before I stumbled upon The Smiths and The Cure (while rifling through a neighbor's cassette collection in UF's Hume Hall dorms) when I first saw the video for the Athens, Ga., band's 1984 single "South Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" on Night Tracks. Although I bought my first R.E.M. album, Life's Rich Pageant (the band's third), the following year, my love affair with R.E.M. had a slow and steady build. It would be another seven years before they pushed The Cure to No. 3, becoming my second-favorite band of all time.

Lately, I've been revisiting The Cure on my iPod and wondering what might have been if, like The Smiths, Robert Smith (no relation) and the boys (an ever-changing cast over the decades) had bowed out earlier, before the '90s rolled around. I had to force myself to sit through 1992's Wish the few times that I did, and I still cringe every time I hear "Friday I'm in Love," the album's second single that ended up being the band's second-biggest U.S. hit.

The previous decade, though, pretty much belonged to The Cure. From "Killing an Arab" (which was released in the UK in 1978 but didn't appear in the U.S. until 1980's Boys Don't Cry) to "A Forest" to "The Hanging Garden" to "The Caterpillar" to "Close to Me" to "Fascination Street," the band's greatness spanned the entire '80s. I can't think of a UK band that's represented by a more stellar string of '80s singles.

Then came the inevitable decline (it happens to the best of us -- see Virginia Madsen's speech in Sideways for details). Everyone talks about the "crap" that R.E.M. put out from the late '90s on (most of which I loved), but aside from The Cure's cover of "Purple Haze" (from 1993's Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix) and "Watching Them Fall" and "Maybe Sunday" (from 2000's Bloodflowers), if the band hadn't released anything after 1989, I wouldn't have missed any of it. Nothing else that The Cure did after Disintegration even warrants taking up space on my iPod, which recently has reminded me nonetheless of The Cure's peak-era (1979-1989) greatness via 10 key tracks (not the best, just the best this week).

"Killing an Arab" (from Boys Don't Cry, 1980) More pop singles should reference the literary genius of Albert Camus ("Arab"), Emily Brontë (Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights) and James Joyce (Bush's "The Sensual World," incidentally, one of Smith's favorite songs when it was released the same year as Disintegration). It's hard to fathom that Bush was Justin Bieber's age (18) when she wrote "Wuthering Heights" and Smith only one year older when The Cure released the Smith-penned "Arab"!


"Other Voices" (from Faith, 1981) Eighties music might be most fondly remembered for giving us, among other things, MTV, new-wave and Madonna, but The Cure offered three post-punk classics (1980's Seventeen Seconds, 1981's Faith and 1982's Pornography) before Michael Jackson even got around to Thriller.


"M" (from Seventeen Seconds, 1981) My favorite use ever of the 13th letter of the alphabet. (No offense to Fritz Lang and Dame Judi Dench!)


"Splintered in Her Head" (B-side of "Charlotte Sometimes," 1981) She wasn't the only one! I used to go to parties during my freshman year at UF and entertain fellow revelers by singing Cure B-sides, including "Throw Your Foot," "Mr. Pink Eyes," "A Man Inside My Mouth" and this, despite the fact that I didn't know -- and still don't -- what the hell Robert Smith was singing.


"One Hundred Years" The Cure (from Pornography, 1982) Nearly seven minutes of pure musical catharsis that, unlike any man I've ever known and probably ever will, still makes my heart beat faster every time it re-enters my life, more than a quarter-century after the first time.


"The Figurehead" The Cure (from Pornography, 1982) The fifth track on The Cure's fourth studio album (my favorite until the arrival of Disintegration, which was the second part of an unofficial trilogy that included Faith and Bloodflowers), this is also notable for forcing me to consult a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word "figurehead."


"The Top" (from The Top, 1984) The title track from the Cure's least-celebrated '80s album, the first one I heard in its entirety after getting hooked on the 1986 best-of collection Standing on a Beach. It's plodding and dirge-like, recalling the best of The Cure before the group discovered pop melody with 1982's "Let's Go to Bed."


"Close to Me" (from The Head on the Door, 1985) I recently listened to this about five times on repeat on my iPod, and I was blown away by the intricate and sophisticated musicianship. (Smith's layered vocals, the horn arrangement on the single remix, and the way the woodwinds echo his voice for the first time at 1:36 was musical nirvana half a decade before the real thing.) I felt like I was truly noticing it for the first time. I still wish Adele had covered this and not "Lovesong" on 21.


"Like Cockatoos" (from Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987) A tribute to my favorite bird (currently my playmate in my Facebook profile photo) and rocking proof that pop and musical complexity need not be mutually exclusive.


"Plainsong" (from Disintegration, 1989) Inspired by the way Sofia Coppola incorporated it into her 2006 film Marie Antoinette, my best friend used the intro for the opening track of The Cure's most accomplished album in her wedding last year. I once read a review that described it as sounding "like glass breaking in motion." How I wish I'd written that first.


Monday, January 21, 2013

"Google Me!": The Hot New Pick-Up Line?

Recently, I've developed a terribly annoying habit -- probably less so for myself than for the people who meet me, though I've yet to get any complaints. It's the Z-list equivalent of celebrities talking about themselves in the third person. I've always hated when they did that. It's like, who does she think she is? Mary J. Blige?

(Oh, wait! She is...)

When I meet new people, and they get to asking all of those pesky introductory questions -- Where are you from? What do you do? A journalist? What kind? -- sometimes I scribble down my first name and surname (or write it, if we're online), and say, "Google me."

I always expect them to be appalled and come back with some cutting remark: "Who do you think you are? Mary J. Blige?" But most of them do as they're told and come back with words of encouragement. I think I've even gotten a few dates out of it. ("Oh, so he's not always a drunk exhibitionist," I imagine them whispering to themselves as they scroll down.) "Google Me": the hot new pick-up line!

Last year, one guy in Bangkok who'd already gone out with me twice before he Googled me (per my instructions, of course), spent a half hour on the phone with me raving about the amount of space I took up in the search engine. "Twenty-two pages!" he marveled over and over, as if it was as note-worthy as winning an Oscar.

I tried to explain to him that any blogger who produces as much content as I do would get tons of Google mentions. It didn't make me a better, or more impressive, person. It's not like I'm Mary J. Blige or something. He wouldn't budge. It took a trip to the hospital later that evening for a dislocated shoulder (something for which I accepted full responsibility -- but you won't find that on Google) for him to change the subject.

I suppose as pick-up lines go, one could do a lot worse. ("Top or bottom?" and "Is it true that when you go black you never go back?" come immediately to mind -- and yes, I really did get the latter one the other day.) But then, there's something to be said for the old-fashioned way of getting to know somebody, slowly peeling away layers, until the core in revealed. Of course, Facebook and Twitter have already taken most of the mystery out of new relationships, so one doesn't even need to have a major Google presence to overshare too fast.

I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an ulterior motive besides my not wanting to explain the intricacies of what I do for the zillionth time. I figure Googling me is sort of like running a background check. Afterwards, a stranger whom I might want to be something more will know I'm legit and not a deranged ax murderer. I can't say I've never resorted to Googling a new acquaintance myself; nor can I say that a new acquaintance has ever suggested I do so. I wonder how turned off I'd be.

I once worked with a guy at Us Weekly who told me that every time a new employee reported to work, he did his homework by Googling them. That was why on my first day, he already knew way too much about me. And this was in 2002, well before people regularly went around doing things like Googling each other. If I hadn't liked my new colleague as much as I did, I probably would have thought he was kind of creepy (which is a realization I eventually came to, about a year into the gig). But I was kind of flattered that he'd taken the time to get to know me before actually getting to know me -- even if he did it for everyone in the office.

As far as I know, it's the last time anyone's ever Googled me unprompted -- which might be even sadder than using "Google me" as a hot new pick-up line. I'll have to remember to Google another one.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Silver Linings Playbook," "The Sessions" and the Cinematic Power of Modern Love

This Oscar season we've got history lessons, tear-jerking requiems and lots of deadly water, but for me, as usual, it's all about amour. Not the tear-jerking requiem that goes by that French title, but the living, breathing thing. Not Les Miz's at-first-sight brand of period-piece love between characters who barely speak five words to each other, but the crazy, stupid modern kind that binds beautiful losers.

If I had been an unbeliever in love before I watched Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence would have turned me around. I wasn't interested in the movie's sports stuff -- though it represents a different kind of love, the tie that can bind family members -- but what really drew me in was the look I saw in the eyes of Lawrence's character Tiffany whenever they were trained on Pat (Bradley Cooper). How is it that an actress who was born in the '90s has learned to master the art of emoting like a grown-up, when most people her age (22, 21 when she made the film) are still stumbling through expressing emotions like kids?

There's a scene in Silver Linings Playbook that reminded me of why I so admired Jennifer Lawrence in her small supporting turn in 2011's Like Crazy. In the earlier movie, when her boyfriend lets her down easy, telling her that he's still in love with his ex, Lawrence's character takes it all in stride. In fact, we might not know she's even heard him at all if it weren't for a tear stream that quickly and unexpectedly shoots from her right eye.

That tear stream returns near the end of Silver Linings Playbook -- in a happier moment, when Pat, no longer in love with his ex, is pledging his love to Tiffany, not rescinding it -- and if I hadn't already been completely aboard the Jennifer Lawrence love train, by then I would have been buying my ticket. I enjoyed all the performances in the movie, and I think Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and even Jacki Weaver are deserving of their Oscar nominations, but it was Lawrence, alternately cocky and vulnerable, angry yet bitingly funny, who kept me invested in it.

A love story anchored by a manic-depressive asshole is a hard sell, even when toplined by the increasingly bankable Bradley Cooper, who is nice to look at and excels at playing the charming semi-rogue. He navigates the film's emotional territory well, but he alone can't make Pat likable, or even tolerable. It's less Cooper's fault than the screenplay's, which is more interested in the manic (read: aggressive) side of bipolar disorder than the depressive side that would have made him more sympathetic. Tiffany brings out the best in Pat and in the movie. She made me believe in her love -- not the neat and tidy kind that we usually see in romantic comedy-dramas, but the messy sort that happens in real life.

Love comes quickly (for Mark O'Brien, a real-life poet and journalist) and unexpectedly (for Cheryl) in The Sessions. For me, the most interesting aspect of The Sessions is how it plays with love's traditional gender roles, at once reinforcing and reversing them. In one corner, you have a guy who falls easily and hard (a role usually reserved for the woman) and a lady who is detached and clinical (a role usually reserved for the man). For Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, her relationship with Mark (John Hawkes, previously seen scoring an Oscar nomination opposite Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone) is a business transaction, no emotions or personal entanglements involved. What's love got to do with it? Absolutely nothing.

Slowly, she starts to come around, and the way Hunt plays it -- rigid and tightly wound but gentle and caring, eventually letting flickers of feelings show -- might be the first time she's ever moved me as an actress. Despite her relegation to the Best Supporting Actress category, The Sessions is as much her story as it is Mark's, and her emotional arc is the movie's primary one.

While it's reversing gender roles, The Sessions also reinforces the traditional flip side -- the expected behavior of both sexes. Throughout the movie's 95 minutes, Mark falls for three different women, and in a voice over, he brags that they all loved him back and will no doubt show up to mourn him at his funeral. He knows he'll die relatively young, and one of my favorite things about Mark, the film and Hawkes' performance is that none of them plays the pity card. You'd imagine a movie about a man with polio who lives as a quadriplegic because his body's muscles don't work and spends most of his life flat on his back inside an iron lung to be full of tears and angst, but it's not.

Maybe it's because we meet Mark when he's 38 and has had 30 years to come to terms with his situation. Whatever the reason for the lack of storm and stress, taking away both the use of his limbs and his angst means Hawkes has that much less to play with, yet he still manages to give such a full-bodied performance. It's restrained and internal, the opposite of Cooper's physical one in Silver Linings Playbook, which might be why Cooper got the Best Actor Oscar nomination and Hawkes didn't.

Mark is sweet and tender and surprisingly funny, but in the end, though he can't walk like a man, he acts and thinks just like one. The movie goes to great lengths to play up his virility despite his physical limitations (yes, it still works, and judging from Cheryl's reaction, it's pretty sizable, too), and one gets the impression that if it weren't for those physical limitations, he might be a typical male, the kind who feels deeply but never lets you see him cry. If he could walk like a man, he'd probably be hopping from bed to bed. He's certainly got the manhood for it.

Note his non-reaction when Cheryl, who is married, exits his life two sessions early. Clearly he has real feelings for her, but it's not long before he's falling again, making a play for another woman he barely knows (the third over the course of the movie), moving on decisively without any grand displays of emotion. Because of his physical condition and Hawkes' approach to the material, he comes across as sensitive and endearing. He latches onto the constants in his life (especially when she's beautiful) and gives them his all, but he's the kind of guy who would send a "Love Poem for No One In Particular" to one love and share it with his next one.

Maybe it's because he knows he doesn't have much time, so why waste it crying over lost loves? Or maybe, like the traditional he-male, the one who gets to sleep around outside an iron lung, he's mastered the art of emotional survival: Love 'em, leave 'em (or in Mark's case, watch 'em leave), don't cry. There's always another love right around the corner.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Justin Timberlake Brings Sexy Back (Again) -- But It's Just Not the Same in a "Suit & Tie"

Talented and entertaining as he is, Justin Timberlake has never been a particularly innovative or revolutionary pop star. He's good at what he does (with excellent taste in producers -- take a bow, Timbaland), but years from now, long after that other Justin (Bieber) exits puberty, we'll all remember Justin No. 1 as the guy who once brought sexy back, but not necessarily as someone who ushered in a truly future-sex-love sound (not the way Burn-era Usher did), or the once-greatest dancer/inspiration for millions of young Americans who got talent.

In other words, he's not the next Michael Jackson -- nor will he ever be.

Lately, Timberlake seems to have given up on that anyway, spending more time making movies than music. His last studio album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, came out way back in 2006, before the world had even heard of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Adele (or Bruno Mars, One Direction and Justin Bieber, for that matter). Since then, Timberlake has been mostly focused on acting. Despite an auspicious Hollywood breakthrough as Napster founder Sean Parker in 2010's The Social Network -- I'll excuse the Academy for overlooking him in the Best Supporting Actor category since they passed over his far more deserving costar Andrew Garfield, too -- and a steady stream of work, including a role in the upcoming Coen Brothers film, Inside Lewyn Davis, his Hollywood career still feels mid-level at best.

I mean, what has he really done for us lately? The Trouble with the Curve? A Coen Brothers film is always an event, but is anyone really looking forward to the next "Justin Timberlake film"? Not the way we've been anticipating the next Justin Timberlake album. Since he's no Ryan Gosling in the acting department, and he lacks Channing Tatum's sexy back (and front), what this guy needs is a hot film franchise to call his own in order to make his movie career worth shoving his music career so far to the sidelines for.

Now would seem as good a time as any to return to his presumed first love, music. He has a new solo album, The 20/20 Experience (how Prince, whom Timberlake might do well to emulate in other ways, too, now that he's apparently moved on from his Jacko-like aspirations), on the way, and a first single, "Suit & Tie," that could use some flashy accessories. Unfortunately, in this case, that wouldn't be Jay-Z, on out-of-nowhere and out-of-place guest rap duty. My initial reaction as I listened to the horn-laced mid-tempo come-on, which is similar in musical spirit to the old-fashioned soul of Mrs. Z (that'd be Beyoncé) on 4, was mild disappointment: We impatiently waited all these years for this?

It's a solid song, by no means a dud, but if Timberlake is never going to be an innovator, he at least could have bought sexy back with a little bit more swagger. He sounds strangely muted on "Suit & Tie," as if he's testing the water, dipping in one toe at a time, rather than just diving in and making a big ass splash. He's going to have to work a lot harder than this to make me stop playing Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' 'Bout You" on repeat all day.

It sounds as if Timberlake's approach to acting -- capable and professional -- has crossed over into his approach to music. As a songwriter, he's never dug deep, but his fellow singing-thespian Jennifer Lopez can massacre lines like "My killer, my filler, yeah, you're a classic/ And you're all mine tonight" in a deep diva sleep. If only "Suit & Tie" were half as exciting as "On the Floor," which has been in heavy rotation in my head, on my iPod and in Bangkok's DJ Station since the summer of 2011.

Despite its decided lack of wow!, I imagine "Suit & Tie" will have a short trip to No. 1, which might not be such a bad thing. God knows I'm sick of seeing Bruno Mars there! Meanwhile, though, I'll be waiting (still impatiently) for Timberlake to doff the formalities and slip into something more comfortable and, well, hot, than a "Suit & Tie" on his next single.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

7 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Django Unchained"

1a. I'm on the fence regarding the whole Spike Lee vs. Quentin Tarantino drama. I completely understand Lee's gripe. Slavery is the black Holocaust, and it's uncomfortable to watch it being played for laughs by a white director. At least Roberto Begnini made the comedic aspect of Life Is Beautiful integral to the plot. On the other hand, though, I get Tarantino's vision. He wanted to create an amalgam of Spaghetti Western, '70s blaxploitation flick, historical period piece and buddy movie, and he did succeed on all those counts.

1b. Most of all, though, Django Unchained succeeded as the ultimate black male revenge fantasy, with Django as a sort of fictional Nat Turner, leading the charge against the 19th-century white devil. Aside from the bit with the pre-KKK hoods, which made me giggle on the inside, the comedy in Django Unchained fell flat for me, but who would have thought I'd ever find myself cheering on the black side during a movie depicting the horrors of slavery and actually get my wished-for outcome? It's hard not to appreciate Tarantino for making that particular fantasy onscreen reality.

2. Here's the biggest problem with Django Unchained (aside from the running time, which at nearly three hours was at least an hour too long): Django was not particularly likable. I'm not sure if it was the way he was written, or the way Jamie Foxx played him. He was a man of few words, seemingly more concerned with freeing his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) than the larger historical picture at hand. The scene where he stopped Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) from buying the freedom of the slave who was about to be ripped apart by wild dogs was the hardest one to watch, less because of the actions of those hungry canines than Django's. That said, it was the one where I think Waltz really earned his second Golden Globe and Oscar nomination.

3. But what is he doing in the Best Supporting Actor category? Like Helen Hunt in The Sessions (I promise, more on that soon), he was the very definition of a co-lead in Django Unchained. I know he didn't stand a chance of getting an Oscar nomination in the crowded Best Actor field, but his demotion stood in the way of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson getting well-deserved nominations. In a less competitive year, Don Johnson even might have been part of the Best Supporting Actor conversation. His performance started off a little too campy and hammy, but by the time he was shot off his horse, he'd won me over. I wonder if Tarantino got the neat parallelism of casting Crockett from the old Miami Vice TV series opposite Tubbs from the recent big-screen remake. Of course, he did!

4. Speaking of DiCaprio, what an interesting career he's had. He's still an attractive guy, but there's hardly a trace of the teen-idol pin-up he was during the Romeo+Juliet and Titanic days. He made Calvin J. Candie despicable and irredeemable without resorting to the sort of moustache-twirling villainy of slave owners in '70s and '80s TV miniseries about slavery and the Civil War, like Roots and North and South. I still shudder at the campy memory of David Carradine in North and South, stomping around his plantation, terrorizing everyone in his path, especially poor Maum Sally and Lesley-Anne Down.

5. I guess I must continue to wait for a big-screen role substantial enough for Kerry Washington's talent. Broomhilda was the only significant female character in Django Unchained, with an interesting back story and a nicely fleshed-out personality, despite her limited screen time and minimal dialogue (a testament to Washington's skill as an actress). Aside from Dr. Schultz, she was the one truly sympathetic character. I recently watched a documentary on YouTube about a female black slave who ran away to avoid being separated from her kids and spent years living in what was basically a box, apart from her children anyway, while they were raised by relatives. I found myself thinking about her while watching Django Unchained and wishing it were Broomhilda Unchained instead.

6. I admire Tarantino for casting way-past-their-prime-time TV stars in pivotal small roles (Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, who also appeared in 1985's North and South), but he really needs to stay out of his own way. He was far less cringe-worthy in Django Unchained than he was in Pulp Fiction (where, astonishingly, his character came across as even more of a racist), but the show most certainly would have gone on without him in it.

7a. It's always good to see Samuel L. Jackson -- even when he's barely recognizable. His character, ancient house slave Stephen, was an interesting, though infuriating, one. It was the most I've enjoyed a Jackson performance since he blew me away more than 20 years ago in Jungle Fever, another racially charged movie directed, ironically, by Tarantino's philosophical nemesis Spike Lee. Watching Stephen in action, I kept thinking of Tilly, the maid played by Isabel Sanford in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Remember how she scoffed and scowled at the arrival of Sidney Poitier's character, who had the nerve to show up as the fiance of her employers' daughter? Why do uppity black people always have it in for fellow uppity black people?

7b. Then and now, in many ways, the black man's (and woman's) greatest enemy was/is the black man (and woman). Ultimately, Stephen was the biggest villain in Django Unchained. Though he neither killed anyone nor did he raise his hand to another living soul, he set into motion the final act's bloody chain of events. If anyone should have known better, it was him, an old man who had spent his entire life under the control of white men. Though Calvin J. Candie treated him with a glimmer of respect, the way a master would handle an old faithful dog, he was still private property. Forget the violence in Django Unchained (which, to these eyes, was more comedic than graphic) and the incessant use of the N word. Making a fellow black man Django's -- and by extension, the black man's -- biggest enemy actually may have been one of Tarantino's ballsiest and most telling moves yet.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Dangers of Being “Out” in the Open


If we've learned to keep our expectations modest to low when two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is playing herself, it's because the fiercely private star has trained us not to expect bombshells from her. She didn't really drop any at Sunday night’s Golden Globes telecast, but her acceptance speech after being presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award still ended up being one of the most talked about parts of the evening. As usual, what she said seemed to be most notable for what she didn’t quite come out and say.

"Did she or didn't she?" pundits everywhere seemed to ask in unison afterwards.

"Did she or didn’t she what?" you wonder? Well, if you have to ask, then good for you. Maybe Foster's lifetime achievement in film matters more to you than whether she's a lesbian. At this point, I'd say Foster's sexual preference is a pretty moot point. After so many years of speculation, if you still care, you probably already know. From a political or social standpoint that doesn't take tabloid value into consideration, at this point, it would seem fairly pointless for her to make a grand gesture of a statement or start waving a rainbow flag.

There are some who argue that with so many young gay men and women struggling with their homosexuality, celebrities should feel compelled to step out of the closet and live and love in the open. Although I have a problem with bulldozing people out of the closet, I do understand the value of having positive role models, especially when most of the world is telling you what you are is wrong.

But in Foster's case, I wonder, just what would the message be to a 22-year-old to have a screen icon finally reveal, at age 50, that she is gay. From a social or political standpoint (and even from a tabloid's) wouldn't it have been more effective 20 years ago when she actually had a hot career to lose?

I don't mean that as a dis to Jodie Foster. I think she's a beautiful and fantastic actress, and I have no problem with how she's chosen to live her life, openly to the people who are close to her, but not hanging her laundry (not dirty laundry, just laundry, because there’s nothing dirty about sexual preference) out on the clothesline for all the world to see. As she explained in the Golden Globes acceptance speech in which she came out without actually coming out, she's lived in the public eye since she was 3. Hasn't she earned the right to guard her privacy even more fiercely than most famous people do? (Her implied question, not mine.)

Maybe so, but I suspect that her years of silence has had more to do with concern about her professional standing -- or what would happen to it, if she were to come out -- than any burning need to guard what should belong solely to her. (And is saying "Yep, I'm gay" invading one's own privacy anyway?) Although I think staying in the closet to protect your professional standing is a pretty cowardly thing to do, I understand why anyone who wants to remain bankable as a movie star would do it.

Although I can't say that I've suffered on a regular ongoing basis from being out since the moment I launched my own professional career at age 22 in New York City (where it's much easier to be out and gay, even if you're singing and dancing on Broadway, than in Hollywood), I'd be lying if I said it didn't sometimes work against me. And just because the Obamas support gay marriage doesn't mean the times they are a-changing as much as we'd like to think. Despite the ongoing proliferation of gays, both real and fictional, in the public eye, being gay and out continues to work against me in ways both subtle and glaring.

Sometimes the main offenders are people who aren't necessarily homophobes and don't realize the fine line they're crossing. Recently I received a message from an editor for whom I was writing several freelance travel articles about luxury hotels, and he made the strangest, most unexpected request: He didn't want my work to be too gay.

He said he didn't have any problem with gay content personally, but some of his ultra-conservative readers might not understand -- as if being gay is something that must be understood. That's as ridiculous as when straight people give gays a pass by way of saying things like "I don't judge." Does that mean only gay people are eligible to be judged based on whom they sleep with? By bringing judgment into it (even to say that you won't go there), the implication is that there's actually something wrong with being gay.

I bristled at the editor's suggestion that I'm an obsessively gay man first and a professional writer second, and I let him know how insulted I was by it. Does he warn his straight male writers not to include the best places to pick up hookers? Does he instruct his straight female writers not to write about the best lobbies for public breastfeeding? Of course not! He knows he doesn't have to. So why did he feel like he had to tell me not to write a review of a five-star luxury hotel from a non-gay angle?

"Why would I even do that unless I was writing about about a gay hotel?" I asked. "'Gay' doesn't permeate and influence every single aspect of my life." (Which seems to be what many straight people, even the ones who are accepting of gays and don't "judge" them, seem to think.) Was he afraid I would throw in a first-person account of some trick I might bring back to my room? How unprofessional did he think I was anyway?

It wasn't the first time I'd been warned about "gay" content. Among the overly cautious, it's right up there with the "black" angle as a must-avoid. I've been told by a number of people -- including my mother, who, apparently, is more savvy about these things than I thought – that I should consider removing the word "black" from the title of the book I’ve spent the last year working on. Publishers, they reason, won't touch a book about the "gay" experience, much less the "gay black" experience because they don’t think it will sell. So far, that does seem to be the general consensus among publishers and agents, none of whom would actually come out and say that.

I suspect that my book would be an easier sell if I were a more neutral gay black man and wrote about uncontroversial and non-threatening things like teenage vampires, or the escapades of a straight white man in Provence, or even a gay white British expat couple living in Turkey. But "gay" and "black" are like double shots of publishing poison.

I'm not crying woe is me -- not yet. Maybe my proposal needs more work. Or perhaps my book is a crashing bore. I know I'd better prepare for more pointed negative feedback because once it's out there, my critics will be merciless. But if people end up hating it, they'll be hating not another Twilight knockoff (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine there must be tons of them out there) but a book about a gay, black man written by a gay, black man for people of any race or sexual orientation who are interested in the human experience.

"Write what you know." That's one of the first lessons I learned in journalism school. The most valuable advice I've received (from several people) since I embarked on this particular project is to be completely honest and not hold back. I've got to put myself completely out there, get emotionally naked, so to speak, to pull in readers (at least the ones who can get past the "gay" content and the word "black" in the title). How can I do that without being overtly gay and black? They are to me what Barbra Streisand's nose is to her -- not everything I am, but essential to who I am. And despite being urged to snip it at the start of her career for the sake of superstardom, Streisand has never changed nor has she hidden the nose she had at birth.

Actors like Jodie Foster get to spend their professional lives hiding behind characters, sometimes ones that aren't even scripted (while walking the red carpet, doing interviews, or giving acceptance speeches). I'm no good at acting (believe me, I've tried). I'm much better just being myself. I'm happiest when writing what I know, and right now, I know nothing better than what it feels like to be a gay, black man living abroad, far from home.

"Black" and "gay" don't define me any more here (in Melbourne, at the moment) than they did there (in New York City, in Buenos Aires, in Bangkok), but they're significant parts of who I am and who I will continue to be. They may be difficult and unbankable in terms of publishing, but they've been that way in my life, too. I've never taken the easy road most traveled in that life, so why start now?