Friday, February 28, 2014

My 2014 Academy Awards Wish List

When the 86th Academy Awards are handed out on Sunday, March 2, may second-time host Ellen Degeneres be at least as funny as Seth MacFarlene was last year, may we be spared any horrendously inappropriate "We Saw Your Boobs"-style numbers, may it be the shortest-ever telecast, and may my following Oscar dreams come true.

#1 Dream: a Best Original Song that everyone can sing along to Quick, sing a line, any line, from "Man or Muppet," the category's champ two years ago. Or U2's "Ordinary Love," which is probably this year's presumed frontrunner, if for no other reason than U2's rock & roll reputation.

Now get "Happy"!

How easy was that? The Pharrell Williams track from Despicable Me 2 isn't just the biggest hit to emerge from a movie in years; it's also a burst of euphoric infectiousness that delivers exactly what its title promises. "Happy," currently No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, caps what has been the standout year (so far) of Pharrell's already long and impressive career.

#2 Dream: 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle cancel each other out. I can't remember the last time Best Picture wasn't either a foregone conclusion or basically a two-picture show (Chicago vs. The Hours, Argo vs. Lincoln, etc.). Even when there's been a Best Picture upset in recent years (Shakespeare in Love, Crash), it hasn't been one that nobody saw coming.

In a rare twist of superior filmmaking, I enjoyed all of this year's Best Picture nominees (with the exception of 12 Years a Slave, which, to be fair, wasn't aiming for "enjoyable" and will probably take the grand prize for it), and if one of the two frontrunners must win, I'd like it to be American Hustle. That said, I'm secretly rooting for Nebraska. It may not have been long on plot, but that's life. It's the one nominated film that represented life as everyday people know it, and I'm still in awe of how Best Director nominee Alexander Payne managed to take a small story featuring minor characters and turn it into such a major movie.

#3 Dream: Jonah Hill pulls an upset in Best Supporting Actor. I'm sorry, but I just don't get all the love for Dallas Buyer's Club's Jared Leto this year. I generally appreciate his talent (Where was all his BSA buzz for Requiem for a Dream all those years ago?), but I thought his Rayon character in The Matthew McConaughey Show was underwritten, and Leto played her more like a highly effeminate gay man than a transgender woman. (See Jaye Davidson's Oscar-nominated performance in The Crying Game to see it done right.)

I'd prefer any of the other nominees to win over him. Michael Fassbender might actually deserve it for being brave enough not to give 12 Years a Slave's Edwin Epps either a heart or a soul, but I'd actually like to see Best Supporting Actor go to Hill. Even without his full-frontal scene (possibly the most unexpected thing I saw onscreen in 2013), he would have made a big enough impression as Leonardo DiCaprio's sidekick that when I think of The Wolf of Wall Street, I automatically think of the baby cub, too.

#4 Dream: People actually remember their manners and hold the applause until the end of "In Memoriam." I know it won't be easy. We've lost so many greats since the last Oscar telecast. I'd hate for any of them not to get their respectful due because the audience is too busy giving one final round to four-time nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died on February 2 of a presumed drug overdose.

#5 Dream: Before Midnight finally gets the trilogy some Oscar love. Best Adapted Screenplay is a tough one this year. At least three of the contenders are worthy, but only one could conceivably launch a semester's worth of discussions in a college philosophy course.

#6 Dream: Matthew McConaughey looks more like his old self again when he wins Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. Here's the difference between McConaughey's weight-loss shtick and Leto's. I spent much of Dallas Buyers Club squirming in my seat, wondering if Ron Woodruff wasn't the only one knocking on death's door. Judging from his string of recent awards-show appearances, I'm still not convinced that McConaughey's 100 percent okay. That's taking the Method approach to a scary extreme.

#7 Dream: Amy Adams doesn't ruin everything for Cate Blanchett in Best Actress. I know it won't happen, but if Dylan Farrow had her way, the fifth time would probably finally be the charm for first-time Best Actress nominee Adams, whose most impressive feat in American Hustle was looking as hot as she did in a plunging neckline.

#8 Dream: Blue Jasmine wins Best Original Screenplay, and Woody Allen shows up to accept the award. Blue Jasmine was more about Cate Blanchett's performance (and Best Supporting Actress nominee Sally Hawkins') than Allen's writing, and HerAmerican Hustle and Nebraska all would probably be more deserving of this award, but I can't resist a good old Oscar-night controversy, especially since what Allen may or may not have done in his personal life more than 20 years ago has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of his work.

#9 Dream: Lupita Nyong'o gives a shout out to Sarah Paulson while accepting Best Supporting Actress. Despite her Golden Globe and BAFTA wins, I don't think Jennifer Lawrence will be the first person to win two consecutive acting Oscars since Tom Hanks did it in 1994-95, back when Lawrence was still a toddler. But when Nyong'o, who turns 31 on Oscars eve, is handing out her thank you's on March 2, I hope she doesn't forget her most-underrated costar, the one whose Mary Epps gave Nyongo's Patsey hell (and a few scars to go with it), the one whose scalding iciness provided some of 12 Years a Slave's most electrifying moments.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Looking" for Truth: 6 Reasons Why Sunday's episode of HBO's Gay Dramedy Was Hard for Me to Watch

The truth hurts, and the sixth episode of Looking was loaded with harsh truths, most of them about being gay, but some about being human, too. The show continues to improve, episode by episode, and tuning in to Sunday night's was like watching scenes unfold in my own life, or in my head. This, folks, is reality TV.

The truth about threesomes I admire people who are secure enough in their relationships not to be bound by the principle of monogamy. I'm less likely to applaud those non-monogamous couples who pursue threesomes saying things like "But we only play together." They might think they're exercising sexual freedom, but in reality, they're only subjecting their relationships and their partners to a different set of rules, allowing both parties to experience new people while still monitoring each other's sexual behavior. That's liberation?

Unfortunately for them, you can't control how near-strangers connect, and the look of shocked horror on Agustín's face when he saw the powerful chemical reaction between his boyfriend Frank and CJ hooker as they gazed longingly into each other's eyes is exactly why I must insist on one-on-one. There's nothing like feeling left out in your own bed.

The truth about career obsession The conversation between Patrick, Richie, Patrick's boss Kevin and Kevin's boyfriend Jon (a doctor for the San Francisco Giants!) made me cringe for so many reasons. First of all, there's the hint of judgment on Kevin's face, in his choice of words, and in the way he says them whenever he interacts with Patrick. (Though that might very well be a British thing.) Second, what's with all the sizing people up by their jobs? The way Kevin asked "Like for a living?" when Richie revealed that he cuts hair said so much about the kind of guy he is (pretty but clearly soulless). There was no condescension in Kevin's tone, which made it worse, because it meant that he wasn't even aware of how insulting the question was.

I've never been the guy who had the boyfriend with an impressive job (I've dated a lot of starving artists, and in Buenos Aires, at least one guy who cut hair for a living, which was probably the coolest thing about him), and that's just as well. I've never felt the need to gain anyone's approval with the career choices of the people I date. That's between them and their bank accounts.

I do, however, know what it's like to have to justify what you do to status- and career-obsessed people, especially being an independent journalist who has the financial freedom (for now) to do what I do because I love to do it and not because I have to do it to pay my bills. Some people think you, your life, and how you spend it are legitimate only if you're bound to a job, and the better said job sounds on paper, well, the better. Kevin must be one of those people. Or maybe he just thinks that hair cuts itself.

The truth about insecure people I hate Agustín's nasty critical streak (especially since he can't get as good as he gives), but I think he nailed what Patrick is doing with Richie, whom I probably dislike even more than I do Agustín. Let me count the ways:

1) He uses language, in his case Spanish, to build a barrier between himself and Patrick and also to make himself feel superior.

2) He blasted Patrick for not defending him when Agustín accused Patrick of slumming with Richie, but he didn't even give Patrick a chance to defend him. He walked in on the conversation just as Agustín was landing the slumming punch, so he had no idea what had been said before his arrival. That's some major insecurity masquerading as righteous indignation.

3) He says things like "Now I got me a boyfriend and shit -- and a WASP, too. Score! Want some [pretentiously pronounced Spanish dish]... boyfriend?"

4) He says "tweaking out" instead of "freaking out."

5) He tries too hard to play it cool (it's in his walk, it's in his talk, it's in the ambivalent way he initially responded to Patrick calling him his "boyfriend"), and when he's not, he goes way over the top. ("I take this boyfriend thing very seriously"? Really?) And about that cheap $4 necklace (yes, necklace!): The only time couples need to start wearing matching jewelry is after exchanging wedding vows.

The truth about mixed signals Scott Bakula's Lynn is an interesting character, but he's also full of it. He's giving Dom mixed signals, but don't they all? (Gay men, that is.) He had his flower delivery guy track Dom down in crowded Dolores Park to present him with a bouquet on his 40th birthday, he tried to drum up interest in Dom's culinary enterprise, and then he offered to invest in it himself when his friends weren't interested.

Would he have done any of that if Dom wasn't possibly the best-looking guy in San Francisco who just turned 40? Most of what Lynn says makes sense -- no, it's not a good idea to mix business and romance, and yes, most gay guys Dom's age are looking for guys 20 years younger -- but I think he's playing a game: hook Dom by turning down his advances and making him think he's not interested. "Not all of us keep our phones on twenty-four seven," Lynn said when Dom asked why he hadn't responded to his texts. Please. He got those messages. Gay men -- hell, everyone -- always get their messages. And gay men -- hell, everyone -- have been playing cat-and-mouse with the telephone forever. Score!

The truth about sibilant S's Yes, gay people are also guilty of subscribing to gay stereotypes, using them not only as a means of categorization but also regarding them as a way to elevate their own "straight-acting" status and as something to avoid adopting if they want to remain gainfully employed. When Doris said, "Oh my God, you're so getting fired," after Kevin spotted Patrick's queeny B act from afar, she was only joking, but she may have been unintentionally voicing a pretty common fear.

The whole gay camp thing is probably as phony as the macho-man pose (I'd say most of us, in totally unaffected moments, fall somewhere in the middle), but why is the latter more acceptable than the former? Patrick, who I'd say has a natural way of speaking that's neither masculine nor feminine, is hardly what they (gay people) would call a flaming queen, but his gentle delivery might still give off "gay" to a stranger over the phone (as might yours, Agustín!). Is that really such terrible thing?

The truth about guys on Grindr When the cute, bemuscled twentysomething approached Dom in the park and asked if he was the hot guy on Grindr, it was almost like deja vu. A similar thing happened to me last week while I was having dinner at Beefcakes with Rob and Sam.

"Hey. Aren't you on Grindr without your shirt on?"

The guy who was asking me was tall and handsome, much like Dom. I'd had my eye on him for 30 minutes, and I was so stunned that he'd actually stopped at our table to chat with me that the only response I could muster was a wan "Yeah, that's me."

I probably should have been less flustered and more flattered that he'd picked me out of the Beefcakes crowd, but frankly, how could he not? There wasn't a lot of color there, and there certainly isn't much on Grindr in Cape Town. Despite the fact that I'm in Africa, the guys in Grindr's photo display are overwhelmingly white. I might as well be back in Melbourne!

I think it might have something to do with the cultural differences between gay blacks and gay whites in Cape Town and perhaps in South Africa. Homosexuality is still frowned upon in black communities here, so gay black Africans are probably more likely to be closeted and therefore not have a public photo on apps and websites like Grindr. Of all the black men who have messaged me since my arrival in Cape Town -- and there have been a considerable number of them -- less than a handful have had a picture in their profile.

But getting back to my tall, handsome Grindr guy, when Rob and Sam went out to the smoking patio, he returned to our table and sat down. His name was Louis, he was 34, he was from Durban, and he was in town for a few days for his best friend's wedding. I told him that I hadn't been to Durban yet, but I was familiar with the town via Elton John's song "Durban Deep" (from his Sleeping with the Past album). Then I gave him the Cliff Notes version of my life story.

Subtle innuendo followed, culminating in a not-so-subtle invitation, from me to him.

"Well, next time you see me on Grindr, feel free to say hello."

Unfortunately, he accepted. Within minutes of my arrival home that night, he sent me a message that's too crude to repeat here. (Hint: It involved Agustín and Frank's new sexual obsession.)

"Sounds like you were talking to the wrong guy," I responded. I was surprised, not because I'm not accustomed to brutal sex talk on Grindr, but because nothing in our conversation earlier, where the subject of sex hadn't even been broached, suggested that it was okay for him to go directly there. But I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Grindr brings out the worst in gay men. I suppose you can't be horny and respectful.

The next morning, Louis returned, hat in hand.

"Hey man. I was totally out of line last night. I'd had too much to drink, and what I said to you was completely inappropriate. I hope you will accept my apology."

"No worries, man. We've all been there."

That was the last I heard from him, but if life really is like Looking, I'll probably run into him again an episode or two from now. I hope they give him better lines next time.

Cover Girls: 5 Remakes Everyone Should Know (But You Probably Don't)

In pop music, there are two ways to tackle a cover: Re-make or re-model, to borrow the title of my favorite song by Roxy Music, a non-remake (and non-remodel) that was the opening track on the band's first album.

To simply re-make is to offer a relatively faithful rendition that underscores the timelessness of a classic. Most of the cover girls below opted for this approach and reaped creative rewards for it, which they passed along to us, the listeners. Add these to previously covered (on this very blog) covers by Maria McKeeBarbra StreisandSinead O'ConnorVanessa Williams and Mayssa Karaa, whose Arabic cover of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" provided the soundtrack for one of American Hustle's best scenes, and you've got a covers mix tape that reinforces the power of straightforward reinterpretation (give or take a change of language).

To re-model, is more or less to reinvent the wheel. That is, it's to turn an old song into a brand new one. This is what Marvin Gaye did to The Beatles "Yesterday, and what Al Green did to Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," and Bee Gee's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," which I heard last night for the first time in ages during my favorite part of the 1999 Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy Notting Hill (when Grant is walking through the seasons).

That's how Aretha Franklin claimed songs by Otis Redding ("Respect"), Simon and Garfunkel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector ("Spanish Harlem"), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("I Say a Little Prayer"), all of which were hits before she got to them, as her own.

Regardless of which route is chosen, just because you didn't write it or record it first doesn't mean you can't sing the hell out of it.

Cover Girl: Chrissie Hynde (with Moodswings)
Song: "State of Independence" (retitled "Spritiual High [State of Independence] Pt. II, for Moodswings' Moodfood, 1992)
Original: Jon and Vangelis (Yes's Jon Anderson and the Chariots of Fire composer, 1981)

Of all the excellent covers of songs made famous by Donna Summer (which would include Marc Almond and Jimmy Sommerville's "I Feel Love," Heart's "The Woman in Me," and this rendition of her 1982 single), this is the only one that ever became 100 percent definitive for me. Leave it to Chrissie Hynde, who managed the same feat with The Kinks' "Stop Your Sobbing," Pretenders 1979 debut single.

Cover Girl: Pebbles
Song: "I Can't Help It" (from Straight from the Heart, 1995)
Original: Michael Jackson (1979)

If you know Pebbles only for her two-album heyday and that mess with TLC, you missed out. Her flop final pop album was a lost gem that contained three tracks that rank right up there with "Girlfriend" and "Giving You the Benefit": the originals "Happy" and "Soul Replacement" and her unexpected cover of a song that Stevie Wonder co-wrote for the future self-proclaimed King of Pop's breakthrough solo album, Off the Wall.

Cover Girl: Miki Howard
Song: This Bitter Earth (from Femme Fatale, 1992)
Original: Dinah Washington (1960)

It's too bad that no one thought to do with Miki Howard and Dinah Washington what 1972's Lady Sings the Blues had done for Diana Ross and Billie Holiday 20 years earlier. (Howard also offered a cover of "Good Morning Heartache" on Femme Fatale that was so haunted by the ghost of Lady Day, it made Diana Ross's Lady remake irrelevant in my music collection.)

Cover Girl: Lisa Stansfield 
Song: "When Love Breaks Down" (from The Moment, 2004)
Original: Prefab Sprout (1984)

The greatest blue-eyed soulstress of the last 25 years (sorry, Adele) remade one of my favorite British bands of the '80s/'90s for her sixth album. (Her seventh, Seven, was released last month.) Prefab Sprout has always exuded a certain asexual innocence, and Stansfield brought to one of their better-known songs an earthy sensuality that didn't cancel out the forlorn essence of the original. That new verse that Prefab frontman Paddy McAloon wrote specifically for Stansfield's cover certainly didn't go to waste. (Honorable mention: Kylie Minogue's torchy reading of Prefab Sprout's 1992 single "If You Don't Love Me.")

Cover Girl: Ann Wilson
Song: "Immigrant Song" (from Hope & Glory, 2007)
Original: Led Zeppelin (1970)

I probably considered it near-sacrilege to redo Led Zeppelin until I heard track 5 from the overlooked solo debut from Ann Wilson, the frontwoman for 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Heart. If anyone could have pulled it off, I should have known it would be her.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

6 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Philomena"

1. What a shocker! Judi Dench owns another onscreen character based on an actual person (following England Queens Victoria and Elizabeth I and Dame Iris Murdoch) and gets an Oscar nomination for her effort. She was Philomena Lee, a woman searching for the son who was taken from her and put up for adoption by a group of duplicitous Irish-Catholic nuns nearly 50 years earlier. On a list of 1 to 5, I'd put her at No. 2, right behind her Notes on a Scandal costar Cate Blanchett as my favorite of the five Best Actress Oscar nominees, though I wouldn't be surprised if she was actually the fifth-placer who cost Emma Thompson her nomination for Saving Mr. Banks by nabbing the British-thespian slot.

But for all her Philomena-ness, I still had trouble buying Dame Dench, who exudes intelligent, knowing, savvy and upscale, as a "little old Irish lady." Every time Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, holding his own with the legend, but much like Will Forte opposite Bruce Dern in Nebraska, not receiving enough critical credit for it), the journalist assisting and covering Philomena's search, referred to her thusly, I found myself thinking, Who's he calling old?

At 79, Dench has an unmistakable spring in her step, and she could still pass for at least 10 years younger, which I suppose is around the age that the real-life Philomena Lee, a former teenage mom, must have been in 2002, when the film is set. Compared to jaded Martin, who is decades younger chronologically, Philomena, despite the hard knocks that life had handed her, still had a youthful sense of wonder and a capacity for enthusiasm and finding joy in the smallest things. I'd so go on holiday with her.

2. And clearly she'd go on vacation with me. I loved her reaction to finding out the sexual orientation of her biological son because it was "Why, of course!" matter-of-fact acceptance rather than PFLAG-waving or the expected "Would he have turned out differently if I had raised him?" angst. "Well, he was a very sensitive little boy," she recalled. "And as the years rolled on, I always wondered whether he might be. When I saw a photograph of him in the dungarees, there was no doubt in my mind." All mothers of gay sons should be so observant.

3. Have you noticed how more TV shows (Girls and Looking, to name two that are continuing the Desperate Housewives-launched TV trend of the last decade or so) and movies these days are combining comedy and drama in such a way that makes categorization a near-impossible task? Was Nebraska a comedy or a drama? What about The Wolf of Wall Street? American Hustle? Of the nine Best Picture Oscar nominees, I'd say that only three -- 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips and Gravity -- struck me as being full-on dramatic films.

Philomena often walked a fine line between tear-jerking and laughter-inducing. But unlike a funnyish drama like Her, which was beautifully written but whose characters spoke the way complicated fictional people talk, as if they're forever reclining on an analyst's couch (sort of like the Girls girls, who are always navel-gazing and saying the sort of clever things that people never say in real life), the conversations in Philomena sound like ones earthlings actually have, sometimes clumsy, sometimes pointless, sometimes just intended to fill empty silences (which is one of the few things I like about Looking).

4. Restrained direction (by Stephen Frears, who previously directed Dench to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 2005's Mrs Henderson Presents), a moving Oscar-nominated score (courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, who seems to have been behind every film score I've noticed over the last few years, with the exception of All Is Lost's), and an exceptional supporting cast, especially Mare Winningham, who really ought to be working in films more.

If I hadn't gotten the movie's subtle and not-so-subtle points about the differences between Americans and Brits (yeah, we get it, Americans are obese!), Winningham's terse but unsophisticated cordiality, her flat, slightly dumpy disposition (it's as if her personality, like the woman herself, is dressed for casual Fridays), would have told me everything I needed to know: No need for stuffy, artificial formalities, let's just get to the point. That's so American.

5. Ouch. The movie was almost as tough on journalists as it was on judgmental, hypocritical nuns. The fine folks of my profession were characterized as arrogant, pretentious and entitled nobs who throw our job title around as if that somehow makes us better people or who wear false modesty on our sleeves. "That's BBC News, actually -- but not anymore," Sixsmith says (when Philomena dares to associate him with News at 10), as if to really say, "Please, no autographs." Hmm... I've known a few like that. Maybe I've even seen one occasionally when I look in the mirror. When Martin dismissed the waitress in the hotel restaurant for interrupting his "private conversation" with her entirely unnecessary "Can I help you?" phoniness, I thought, That's so me.

6. But there's no denying the power of the almighty word. I was incensed by Philomena's willingness to forgive -- my friend Nancy, who loved the movie, complained about the screenplay's problematic sanitizing of poor people, and this might qualify -- but I believe her motive in eventually allowing Martin to tell her story was purely punitive. Thank God for the emergence of a vengeful streak, or we wouldn't have this quietly powerful movie.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

So Is That What White People Say to Each Other When Black People Aren't Around?

Now that I have your attention, let me begin by saying that the title of this post is not a rhetorical question. I'm being partly sarcastic and partly tongue-in-cheek, referring to a recent post about the things white gay men say about gay men of color when they're talking amongst themselves.

I certainly don't believe that white people sit around all day making disparaging comments about people of color. Even on 19th-century U.S. slave plantations, the white masters must have had plenty of other things to talk about, and if they had something racist to say, I suspect they wouldn't have had a problem spilling it to a captive (literally) black audience.

In 2014, racism, even when it burns just as intensely as it did 150 years ago (and believe me, for many people, it still does), is less likely to be flaunted vocally in certain company. Political correctness rules, and as the phrase suggests, it's more about show than it is about sincerity. There are some conversations that are simply less likely to happen when a person of color is within earshot.

Like the one Rob told me about at dinner last night. As terribly disturbing stories go, it would have to be No. 1 with a bullet among all of the ones I've heard in the last few years. The last time I cringed so hard when hearing about something that had happened to someone else was when Rob told me what his ex-girlfriend, who was white, said when he broke up with her: "I should have known this would happen if I dated a nigger."

That one still gets a "Wow!" from me.

What could possibly be as bad as that? Or what could possibly even begin to approach its vicinity of heinousness? Frankly, a lot of things, including what happened the night a female friend of Rob's was talking to a guy in London with a hard-to-place accent.

I've been that guy, the one whose geographical origin nobody can quite figure out. "So where are you from?" people ask me all the time as they struggle to place the slight Caribbean accent that I never lost completely, not even 40 years after leaving the Virgin Islands at age 4 and moving with my family to Florida.

"I'm from the Virgin Islands," I always answer, having outgrown my old impulse to come up with some unexpected place, like Sweden, just to mess with their heads. If only the leading man in Rob's story had just stated his home country and left it at that. Instead...

"Let's put it this way: I hate black people."

"Things a South African would say???!!!"

Oh, wait. This isn't Dick Clark's $10,000 Pyramid -- though the sentiment sounds about as antiquated as that 1973 cash prize!

Now this is the part of the story where I was so shocked, nearly chocking on my lamb burger, that I didn't get all of the extraneous details that any decent journalist would have demanded. Did the woman he was talking to guess South Africa? Was it her first choice? Her second? Her third? What other countries did she offer?

Or did he just follow his very inflammatory and offensive comment with the right answer because even he knew that it wasn't as obvious as he was making it out to be. After living in South Africa for more than three months and witnessing the complicated racial politics here firsthand, that would not have necessarily been my first response. While I listened to Rob's story, I must admit the first thing that popped into my head -- Was he from Alabama? -- had nothing to do with my own reality, as I have never spent any significant time in Alabama. Frankly, that silly guy could have been from anywhere.

Once I'd gotten over the shock of such brutal honesty -- in this day and politically correct age, it's rare to find anyone so willing to proudly own his racism -- I started thinking about the implications. I wasn't sure which was worse: his suggestion that white South Africans are inclined to hate black people, or his suggestion that it should be a given around the world that South Africans hate black people.

Or maybe he was being ironic, like Eminem, using a politically incorrect statement to underscore the political incorrectness of others. Irony is a tricky thing, very hard to get right when the subject is race or sexual orientation. But even if I were willing to extend the benefit of a doubt to someone who would dare say, "I hate black people," by accepting the irony card, who gave him the right to speak for an entire country of white people? Despite South Africa's relatively recent political history, to suggest that all white South Africans hate black people would be as lazy as saying that all black people are lazy.

Once I lost interest in trying to figure out this person's motivation (which I gathered from Rob's description of him, couldn't have been positive anyway), I wondered why he would choose to live in London, a city with a not insignificant black population, when he could go to some Scandinavian country and live out his days unsullied by the presence of black people. I imagined that he must have left South Africa to get away from them, after all.

I'm not going to take what he said as being indicative of where white South Africans stand on the subject of black people any more than I'd would want someone to apply the misdeeds of one black person to the entire race. But if nothing else, a statement like this, so casually offered by an average guy not unlike the one in the cubicle or office next to yours (plus or minus the spectacularly racists streak), should tell you just how much we have yet to overcome, here (in South Africa), there (in London) and everywhere. That guy who hates black people may not have been speaking for all South Africans, but he was speaking for more people in more countries than most of us even realize.

Monday, February 17, 2014

12 Reasons Why I've Never Felt Older Than I Did Last Week

1. I finally had to break out the eye glasses yesterday in order to read the DStv channel guide on the TV screen. I hadn't used them in three months -- not since my arrival in Cape Town on November 16, 2013 -- and for four weeks, they'd been tucked away in a travel bag in the upstairs closet, from where I'd been too lazy to retrieve them. Then I got tired of squinting to barely read the fine print on the TV (and that leaves wrinkles that will only make me look more wizened than I already do), so I sucked it up, pulled out the specs and put them on. Wow. Clarity is a beautiful thing. And Cape Town is even more breathtaking when it's not being viewed through a slight blur.

2. My twentysomething friends all seem to be getting younger. My buddy Rob is visiting Cape Town from London, and when we were out on Saturday night, we met a girl who demanded to know how old we both are. I was expecting Rob to say that he'd finally turned 30 or that he was about to, but he's not even close! "Twenty-seven." Twenty-seven?! I asked what year he born in just to make sure, as if that might magically and miraculously make him a year or two older. "Nineteen eighty-six." How is that possible? Wasn't he 27 when we met forever ago? (He was 22.) Why does time seem to fly for me and my peers but crawl for everyone who's still under 30?

3. People who are complaining about how old they're getting were born in the decade when I graduated from high school. The girl who asked our age wouldn't tell us hers, but that flawless skin and Saturday night fever (you know, the contagious kind commonly found in rambunctious kids the first time they get to stay up past their bedtime) suggested that she couldn't have been a day over 30, even though she was putting a lot of her youthful energy into bemoaning her supposed vintageness. Ah, I got it! I understood exactly how people who are 10, 20 years older than me felt 15, 20 years ago when I used to do the same thing. Cher, my apologies.

4. Speaking of the decade when I graduated from high school, last night during one of my semi-regular Wikipedia sprees, I discovered that many of the musical icons whose cassettes and vinyl LPs provided the soundtrack of my teens are now pushing 60 hard. Dennis Quaid, who didn't appear on any of those records but represented my masculine ideal back then, will turn 60 on April 9, and in the next two years, Annie Lennox, Reba McEntire, Rosanne Cash and Paul Young are just a few of the singers that provided the soundtrack to my 1980s who will join the sexagenarian club. Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper were already inducted last year.

5. Now when I stay out until the morning after, as I did on Saturday night for the first since Tel Aviv last year, I do it not with a bunch of twentysomethings that I met on the dance floor. Instead, my after-party involved hanging out by the swimming pool of a real-estate agent (the one who rented me the apartment that will be home for the next year), who has a grown daughter (who wasn't there) and a best friend who is the editor of a South African magazine (who was there), and watching the sun rise over Cape Town. At least after having too much whiskey and tequila, I'm naturally gravitating toward a more sophisticated crowd.

6. I didn't get out of bed until the 2.30 the afternoon after. So much for that run along the pier, or pretty much anything that required more than a minimum of physical exertion.

7. For the second time in six months (again, since Tel Aviv), my lower back is killing me. In fact, extreme lower back and neck pain kept me out of the gym and off of my Cape Town running tracks for five consecutive days. I used to be able to work out normally with bruised ribs and a dislocated shoulder, now all those years of not stretching unless it was at the end of Pilates class seem to be catching up with my poor aching pack.

8. May-September/December romances are kind of appalling to me for the first time ever (though I wouldn't rule out having another one). I recently listened to a TV dad (Sonny Corinthos on General Hospital) complaining about his 19-year-old son (Morgan) dating a 40ish-year-old cougar (Ava, who also happens to be Morgan's former mother-in-law), and despite the fact that my ex-boyfriend was a mere 21 years old when we met three and a half years ago, and I consider the aphorism "Age is nothing but a number" to apply equally to the old and to the young, Sonny actually made a lot of sense.

9. I now realize that all of my life routines have an expiration date. Last week while I was trying to decide what to have for lunch, I panicked. If only there were a pill to keep us nourished, I thought. Might someone invent that in my lifetime? Otherwise, how many more meals do I have to plan before I die? As I did the math in my head, I realized that the good thing about possibly never living to see that magic food pill is that I'll probably only have to spend a few more decades having to struggle to include a little variety in my daily meals.

10. I read a story about a colonoscopy and thought, This is my near-immediate future. I also now regularly write about death for fun.

11. Now that I'm nearly half a decade removed from it, 40 really is the new 30. The other day I watched Nick Lachey talking about recently turning 40 on The Talk, and I found myself thinking, What a baby!

12. Friends and former colleagues who once seemed so young suddenly aren't. A longtime girlfriend turned 38 last week, and as we reminisced about celebrating her 24th together in New York City, it didn't feel anything like only yesterday.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Whatcha Say?: 11 Great and Utterly Perplexing Pop and Rock Classics

Kids today are so literal. And nobody caters to that common denominator quite like the modern pop star. The committee-style songwriting that produces most contemporary pop hits doesn't leave much to the imagination. The first time you hear Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" or Katy Perry's "Roar" (both written by gangs of five that include Lukas Gottwald, aka the guy whose alleged fat-shaming of Ke$ha allegedly caused her eating disorder), you pretty much know everything you need to.

We're a long way from the golden years of enigmatic pop and rock hits (the '70s and '80s), when songwriters and performers seemed to live to perplex music lovers, or at the very least, keep them guessing. If they weren't offering up big hits about space oddities (thank you, Bowie -- twice!), they were going on about strange reptilian bedfellows (Duran Duran's "Union of the Snake") or using German to create lyrical images of bombs bursting in air set to a nursery-rhyme melody (Nena's "99 Luftballoons").

I'm convinced that sometimes they didn't know what they were singing about either. Radio was a virtual land of confusion, but as these 11 head-scratchers prove, the art didn't always suffer for it.

"Virginia Plain" Roxy Music The song that inspired a future generation of new-wavers, via Roxy Music's performance of it on Top of the Pops in 1972. Is it about the state or about a girl (or the state of a girl)? And what was a largely British musical movement doing hanging on a song with such an American title? The third-line reference to U.S. Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, suggests the former, only for the final line -- "What's her name Virginia Plain" -- to seal it as the latter while confounding us even more.

"Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" Carpenters It's a long, long way from "They long to be close to you" to "Please interstellar policeman/Oh won't you give us a sign." What a way to rock the love boat.

"Tusk" Fleetwood Mac Elephant parts and romantic suspicion make strange bedfellows indeed in one of Fleetwood Mac's greatest hits.

"Rapture" Blondie When I was a kid, the "man from Mars" that Debbie Harry rapped about scared me more than any other alien brother from another planet. I mean, who eats guitars?

"The Clapping Song" Pia Zadora The 1982 Golden Globe winner for "New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture - Female" had her lone Top 40 triumph (No. 36 in 1983) with a cover of a pop classic that made as little sense as the rest of her career. It was perhaps the guiltiest pleasure of my early teens.

"Iko Iko" The Belle Stars The British girl group scored a UK hit with its version of the "The Clapping Song" (No. 11) the year before Pia Zadora sent it into the U.S. Top 40. Some seven years later, The Belle Stars landed its lone U.S. hit when another cover of another nonsensical pop classic, the one that had preceded "The Clapping Song" as a 1982 UK single, went to No. 14 after being featured in Rain Man in 1988, two years after The Belle Stars split up.

"The Dreaming" Kate Bush No singer dead or alive has carved out a greater career producing arcane art than Kate Bush. Her 1982 single (my favorite song in her entire canon) has something to do with human conflict in Australia, of that I'm sure, but her lyrical imagery completely loses me ("Dangle devils in a bottle and push them from the pull of the bush"? Huh?) while thoroughly thrilling me.

"Burning Down the House" Talking Heads A four-minute stream of consciousness that miraculously -- and deservedly -- became Talking Head's biggest U.S. hit.

"Big Log" Robert Plant He's all out of love, so lost without her (cue Air Supply) and on a road to nowhere (now cue Talking Heads). That much I know for certain. But what does the title, which doesn't appear anywhere in the lyrics, have to do with any of it?

"The Caterpillar" The Cure Leave it to that other legendary frontman named Robert (Smith, along with bandmate Lol Tolhurst) to forget about the butterfly (such an overused lyrical metaphor) and focus instead on its larval form for the only single from The Top, The Cure's difficult 1984 album that bridges Gothic Cure with the poppier late-'80s/early '90s incarnation.

"Faron Young" Prefab Sprout What does an '80s alternative-pop band from Witton Gilbert in County Durham, England, know about country great Faron Young and his 1971 classic "It's Four in the Morning," which is also named dropped in the band's 1985 single? That's the question I always keep asking myself while I'm playing it over and over, again and again.

The Confusing Pop Songwriters Hall of Fame

Stevie Nicks Does anyone actually know who "Rihannon" and "Sara" really are? And don't get me started on the gypsy that remains.

Jim Kerr "You write the beautiful songs," The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde sang, presumably to her then-husband, Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr, on her band's great 1987 single "My Baby." Clearly she wasn't referring to Simple Minds circa 1979-81, the period that produced such near-cacophonous (lyrically and musically) masterpieces as "In Trance As Mission," "Thirty Frames a Second" and "Premonition."

Michael Stipe There's something about Stipe's voice, the band's musicianship and the meeting of the two that touched me enough to make R.E.M. my second-favorite band of all-time (after The Smiths). Stipe is one of music's great poets, and like the greatest poets, he defies semantic logic while stringing (and singing) words together in ways that create images as vivid as any hi-res photo.

Music by Enya, Lyrics by Roma Ryan If you haven't heard of Ryan, you've heard her words. She's the Bernie Taupin to Enya's Elton John, the woman who writes most of Enya's lyrics (and the husband of Enya producer Nicky Ryan), which are in various languages, including English, Gaelic and Loxian, a J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired language that Roma invented herself.

Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J and Kevin Haskins New Order's 1983 single aside, confusion never sounded so good as it did coming from Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets and all of its members' various solo incarnations.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

10 Great Romantic Movie Moments for Valentine's Day

Coming up with a list of 10 romantic anything in movies was a tougher task than I thought it would be. Although I consider myself to be a diehard romantic in everyday life, I prefer my onscreen experiences to be darker, midnight blue over Valentine red (unless the latter is the color of a bleeding, broken heart). So with the exception of Pillow Talk, my all-time favorite films -- Trois couleurs: Bleu, Interiors, Dangerous Liaisons, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Central Station, The Heiress, Room at the Top... -- tend to take a bleaker, blacker approach to life and love than your average rom com.

I guess Oscar and I have that in common. Of this year's nine Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, only one, Her, would qualify as being anything resembling romantic, and its central love story is between a lonely guy and a computerized voice. Thankfully, Hollywood has had a long enough tradition of being in love with love that I did eventually manage to pull out 10 favorite movie moments where red-hot romance reigns supreme, even if they're often painted black.

Richard Gere carries Debra Winger away in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) At age 13, I was as susceptible to the power of love and a classic Hollywood ending as the next future existential angst-ridden adult.

Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" in Top Gun (1985) The perfect marriage of love, movies and '80s pop.

Sean Penn + James Franco in the subway entrance in Milk (2008) Boy meets boy has never seemed so sweet, so erotically charged, so the way it would actually happen when boy meets boy in real life.

The fight club in Women in Love (1969) "Love is a battlefield," Pat Benatar once sang, but if you think about it, sex is the part that looks most like war. Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) may not be engaging in coitus in Women in Love's most famous nude scene (imagine Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy in a modern remake!), but it looks an awful lot like foreplay, and the aftermath is unmistakably afterglowing. Mmm, yes. True bromance indeed. And the way Reed pinky-fondles Bates shoulder sends a chill down my... (Watch it here.)

Edward declares his love to Elinor in Sense and Sensibility (1995) Someone recently told me the story about how he proposed to his girlfriend while they were climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town. As they neared the top, her fear of heights kicked in, and she couldn't go any higher. No problem. He pulled out the ring and popped the question right there, just a few scary ladders from the summit. High as his new fiancee was (literally) and must have been (figuratively), as stunned, violently happy new brides-to-be go, I imagine that Emma Thompson's Elinor still had her beat.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy dance in Pride and Prejudice (2005) I can't say I was so quick to buy into the attraction of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in the Oscar-nominated remake of the Jane Austen classic (Matthew Macfadyen's wiggy-looking hair and the 11-year age difference between him and Best Actress Oscar nominee Keira Knightley, then 20, was too distracting), but we've all been there, so into loving the one we're with that everything and everyone else in the room just disappears. Poof!

Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas wash each other clean in The English Patient (1996) I didn't care much their epic romance the first and only time I saw Oscar's 1996 Best Picture (it was all about Best Supporting Actress Juliette Binoche), but the one love scene that still stands out in my mind is Fiennes and Scott Thomas in the bathtub. There's something so subtlely sexy in the way they switched expected positions -- woman in back, man in front -- that made the idea of being straddled by your lover while soaking in both of your own watery grime almost appealing for this die-hard shower person.

Meg Ryan's final words to Nicolas Cage in City of Angels (1998) Sometimes in fiction, the best way to achieve romantic immortality is to die before the end of the final act. Look what death did for Romeo and Juliet! If it weren't for what Maggie says to Seth as she lies dying on the side of the road -- "When they ask me what I liked the best, I'll tell them it was you" -- I'm not even sure I'd remember the movie today. (Watch that scene here.)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche achieve romantic nirvana in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) Speaking of death becoming lovers in the final act, the exchange between Tomas and Tereza in the last frames never fails to kill me. Tereza: "Tomas, what are you thinking?" Tomas: "I'm thinking how happy I am." That's love, the kind that can move mountains, if not quite cheat death. (Watch it here.)

Venice in Summertime (1955) Not to be mistaken for Venice in summertime, which, as I witnessed firsthand for the first time last year, has very little to do with romance.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

5 Things Gay Men Do in "Looking" That I'd Never Try at Home

If you've seen any of the first four 30-minute episodes of Looking and/or read the reviews, you're probably familiar with all of the comparisons, maybe even made a few of them yourself. You can't create an HBO series about a small circle of friends in a big city and expect people not to mention Girls and Sex and the City. Make the gang gay, and get ready for references to Queer As Folk, which aired on Showtime, not HBO, from 2000 to 2005.

The latter comparison is actually the one I'd object to most, if only for the structural differences (QAF episodes ran at least 15 minutes longer) and the fact that the Pittsburgh-set (and Toronto-filmed) Queer As Folk felt almost defiantly white, middle-class and middle-American. QAF was also more of a traditional nighttime soap, featuring a larger principal cast and overlapping stories, while the core characters of Looking, Girls and SATC (the series, unlike the two feature films) mostly inhabit/inhabited their own storylines, coming together mainly to catch each other up.

On a purely aesthetic level, Looking has the more naturalistic feel of a talky big-screen indie, particularly Weekend, the 2011 gay romance directed by Looking co-executive producer Andrew Haigh. It's a whitewash, for sure (though less of one than the blindingly Caucasian QAF), but it also scrubs away San Francisco's picturesque polish to reveal the inner-city grit that lies beneath (by contrast, Girls' New York City is whitewashed in the opposite direction, to a shiny, happy sheen), and the episodic, plot-free structuring reeks of meandering reality.

But oh, those characters!

Sex and the City inspired endless conversations about which lady you are (me: Miranda with a Samantha rising), but I can't imagine anyone watching Girls or Looking and claiming any of the character types. I don't believe I've ever come across a TV show so full of unlikable people as Girls. The series regulars in the titular quartet are so self-involved it's a wonder they were able to pull themselves away from the Me! Me! Me!-obsessed drama swirling around in their heads long enough to become friends. I could do without the men in their lives, too. Now that Charlie is gone, there's really nobody to root for.

Looking's trio of gay friends fare better, but I don't find any of them particularly appealing or relatable either -- at least not in any way that doesn't involve how they look. I can imagine getting a kick out of Hannah at a party, and I'd go to lunch with Jessa, if only to rip her apart, but I probably wouldn't want to hang out with Patrick, Agustín or Dom in real life. And those things they do!

I would never just show up at the flower shop owned by a guy I met in a sauna -- looking for business advice! In these modern times of texting, emails and online stalking, when you no longer even have to call someone up and leave a message on an answering machine, why would anyone opt to make second contact in person anyway (which might have been the tell-tale sign that Dom wasn't looking for sex)? You don't even have to have sex in person anymore!

I would never fall for my boss who has a long-distance boyfriend one state away. Though I did sort of fall for my personal physician during my last decade or so in New York City. He looked great in a long, white cotton coat, which couldn't hide the bulges in his upper torso. What a dreamboat. I hope he's not reading this. I'm still not sure how I kept myself from getting, um, aroused during check-ups. Or maybe it would have been just what our doctor-patient relationship needed. Of course, it wasn't until I moved to Buenos Aires that I realized just how much size matters.

I would never have a threesome with my boyfriend and a co-worker. Back when I was more inclined to indulge in such sport, I had the same strict rule as Samantha Jones on Sex and the City: Only the guest star, never a series regular -- with an extra emphasis on guest star.

I would never go out in public wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath it. It's not that I'm modest or prudish. After all, I once entered a shirtless contest in Melbourne (and won!), and I met my last boyfriend (again, in Melbourne, which seems to bring out the exhibitionist in me) because his then-girlfriend couldn't believe that I was wearing a pullover with no shirt underneath. How scandalous. I still have that pullover, and I'd still wear it without a tee, but nowadays, I'm wary of going sleeveless, unless I'm running or at the gym. At least then the sweat dripping down my arms will deter people from touching me. Otherwise, bare arms are like baby bumps. People seem to think sleevelessness gives them the right to reach out and feel you without asking.

I would never seriously consider selling access to my private body parts (or paying to handle someone else's). Several years ago, a friend and I took a Christmas road trip to Cordoba, Argentina. After our second night out, my friend ended up back at our rental with a guy that his wingman -- yours truly -- had scored for him. My helpfulness was quickly rewarded: I left with a with tall, handsome Argentine who didn't speak a word of English.

I wasn't thrilled when his roommate got into the taxi, too, but it ended up being for the best. I'd run out of money at the club, and I'd left my ATM card at the rental, so the roommate dutifully paid the fare. I figured that would be the last I saw of him. If only it had been.

A few hours later, as I was preparing to leave, he was the bearer of bad news. I was much farther from home than I thought, which was complicated by the fact that I had no cash and no map, and I was wearing boots that definitely were not made for walking. As I weighed my options in my head (make that option: enduring blisters and asking strangers to guide me along the way, as GPS-equipped mobile phones were still not commonplace then), the roommate, who had been feasting on me with hungry eyes since the taxi ride, made a seriously indecent proposal.

"I'll give you fifty pesos for a taxi, if you let me give you a blow job." His ponytail, his exposed pot belly, and the way he was dangling the money like it was a bag of cocaine made him look like a pimp. And a cheap one that: The then-exchange rate made 50 pesos less than $15!

"En serio? No way. Even if I was that desperate for money, fifty pesos wouldn't be enough. I'd never take less than one thousand!" It had to be a game, so I decided to play along to see how much I was worth.

"Okay, I'll give you one thousand, as much as you want." If I thought he was joking before, his desperation was now obvious. If I had the time, he had the money.

"No, I'm not actually for sale."

"Can I just touch it?"

"Um, no, you cannot touch it. Thanks for the offer, but I'm not a prostitute. Now explain to me again how I get home." I was relieved that the one I had come there for was preoccupied with a text and probably couldn't understand a word of our conversation. But I wasn't naive enough to expect him not to spill all the details of our tryst in Spanish and give his roommate a vicarious thrill as soon as I departed.

"Can I just look at it then? Please? I really want to see it."

It took me an hour to walk home. My feet may have been killing me, but what was left of my virtue remained intact. Had his first offer been $220 (the amount that CJ on Looking charges for one hour of his time), might I have reconsidered? Of course, not. But it's always nice to know that your value is closer to air fare than the cost of a 15-minute taxi ride.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Oh, Father: Why I'm Now Rooting for "Nebraska" to Win the Best Picture Oscar

Nebraska is no longer just a U.S. state I've never been to. Nor is it merely the title of a critically acclaimed 1982 Bruce Springsteen album. Now first and foremost for me, it's a beautiful love story about a son trying to reach his elderly father. Every middle-aged man with a distant but loving dad who was there but wasn't will get Nebraska, which I finally got around to seeing last night, even if he hasn't spoken to his own dad in years -- especially if he hasn't spoken to his own dad in years.

I admit that I groaned on the inside when the plot introduced itself early on: Cranky father and earnest son embark on a road trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, so that the dad can claim a sweepstakes prize there. "Another parent-child road/guilt trip," I said to myself. As much as I enjoyed the one Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen took a couple of years ago in The Guilt Trip, did I really need/want to sit through another one? That's the last time I judge a two-hour movie based on the first few minutes.

There is an episode of The Golden Girls in which Dorothy lies to Sophia and makes her believe that she's been hired as the new activities director of a Miami retirement home because Dorothy knows it's the only way to admit Sophia as a daytime resident. Otherwise, she'd never go willingly. When the ruse is eventually revealed, as they almost always are on The Golden Girls, Sophia gives Dorothy and the head of the retirement home a speech about how elderly people want to be treated like vital, still-living-and-breathing human beings, not museum pieces. It's a recurring theme in Golden Girls episodes that revolve around Sophia.

Unlike the loquacious Sophia Petrillo, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) doesn't say much in Nebraska. Best Actor Oscar nominee Dern's portrayal here is as physical as the ones I know him best for (in The Great Gatsby and Coming Home, for which he earned his previous Oscar nod, for Best Supporting Actor), but for all that he communicates through Woody's labored old-man movements, this performance is quieter, more lived-in. (I would give him an Oscar nomination solely for the way his face lights up when David, the youngest of Woody's two sons, suggests that they go and look for the stolen sweepstakes letter.) If Woody spoke up more, I'm pretty sure he would say the same thing as Sophia.

I haven't spent much time in the middle of the United States, but Nebraska director Alexander Payne (who turns 53 today, so happy birthday to him!) certainly has a knack for capturing what I imagine must be the rhythm of middle-American life. His specialty is middle aged-to-elderly men whom life has left weathered and disappointed, just short of bitter. In a sense, Omaha, Nebraska's Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election, Omaha's Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) in About Schmidt, San Diego's Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, Honolulu's Matt King (George Clooney) in The Descendants (my least favorite Payne film), and now Billings' Woody Grant in Nebraska are all in the same boat, row, row, rowing, and sailing slowly to nowhere.

Payne's films are about resignation, too, realizing your lot in life and coming to terms with it. Election's Tracy Flick and perhaps Sideways' Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) aside, there's nothing particularly aspirational about Payne's people, not in the Type-A, go-getter sense of the word. They're filled with regret, and though they're often struggling to connect -- with estranged wives, as Jim McAllister and Miles Raymond were, with sullen daughters, as widowers Warren Schmidt and Matt King both were, or with an alcoholic dad, like Nebraska's David Grant (ex-SNLer Will Forte, more than holding his own) -- there's no flame of hope, no rays of light. Even Payne's version of Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places on earth, looks kind of dark and foreboding.

I understand these sentiments all too well (they were perhaps most eloquently expressed in Virginia Madsen's haunting speech about the life span of wine in 2004's Sideways and in Jack Nicholson's tears at the end of About Schmidt), but being an East Coaster, I find Payne's favorite setting strange and unfamiliar, all flat, expansive plains and even flatter, plainer people. His Nebraska-based movies almost feel like foreign films in English to me. Never has this been more the case than in the case of Nebraska.

This could be About Schmidt 10, maybe 15, years later, if Warren Schmidt had been an alcoholic with two sons instead of a daughter, and if his wife (June Squibb, who is also Bruce Dern's wife in Nebraska) had lived. Or maybe The Last Picture Show: The Twilight Years, detailing what happened to those beautiful losers in director Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 classic -- which, like Nebraska, was filmed in black and white -- in their final days.

It's a shame that Oscar couldn't make room for Will Forte in the Best Supporting Actor category, especially since he's technically a lead and does the bulk of emotional heavy lifting in the film. (Best Supporting Actress nominee June Squibb brings the comic relief, and she brings it broadly, like BSA nominee Kathy Bates did in About Schmidt.) In a way, Nebraska is really Forte's film, since we see it through David's puppy-dog eyes, and his emotional arc is at its center. David is a sad, sensitive soul with commitment issues (his inability to commit to his estranged girlfriend is juxtaposed nicely with a couple that's reluctant to commit to a set of speakers at the electronics store where he works as a salesman), and Forte nails that aspect with minimal fuss. I haven't connected with my own dad in years, but through Forte, I feel like I connected with David's.

The film makes a tough but insightful statement about how relatives are basically like strangers, passing in and out of each other's lives, without actually being a part of them. The extended Grant family in Nebraska sits around watching TV and eating, making small talk about old times, going on and on about the way things were, reconstructing the past in order to benefit financially from it in the present, but they never discuss anything quite so meaningful as the way things are. David clearly wants to connect with his parents, both of whom are remote in different ways, but it's like he's pounding on the door and nobody can hear him knocking.

One of the most telling scenes in Nebraska is the one where the elderly Grant brothers -- David's dad and uncles -- as well as a younger cousin are all sitting in front of the TV. As they're making small talk, their eyes rarely leave the screen. The sequence is filmed from the point of view of a pastor (the TV?) surveying his congregation. It's like Payne is looking (slightly) down on them and saying, "Check out these zombies." The men's mouths occasionally move to release a brief statement, but the rest of their bodies remain frozen. Who hasn't been in a room full of people just like that?

To the right, David sits, uneasily, clearly uninterested in what's on TV, his eyes darting to whoever is speaking, as if he's hoping to discover something, anything about this company of strangers and by extension, something, anything about himself. He observes and listens silently, never saying a word, yet speaking to me, for me, about me in a way no other film character has this Oscar season.

Scenes from a Restaurant: Why Eating Out Can Be Challenging When You're Black (It's Not What You Think!)

If I were to compile of list of things that make me uncomfortable enough to squirm in my seat during a meal, near the top of it would be when white people start policing each other's behavior in regards to race relations. (It appears to be a favorite pastime here in Cape Town, by the way.)

Not too long ago, I was having lunch with a white American in De Waterkant, a predominantly white, upscale-ish and touristy area in central Cape Town, when a large group of patrons arrived and joined the group that was already seated at the table directly behind us. I prepared myself for the worst, for I've spent enough time in restaurants to know that nothing good comes from the arrival of a large party that has nothing to do with you.

Apparently, they were so excited to see each other that they forgot they weren't the only people on the terrace. They started hugging and kissing each other, rubbing their butts into the back of my chair and practically sending me face forward into my burger. I turned around and shot them a WTH glare, which they were too busy fawning over each other to notice. My lunch date, however, couldn't miss it.

"You know, that's a race thing," he announced, his tone halfway between sympathetic and accusatory. "They're doing that, treating you like you aren't even there, because you're black."

"Oh. Really?" I know what it feels like to be invisible in an all-white crowd, but race couldn't have been further from my mind. "So how do you explain that black people in Cape Town do that sort of thing to me all the time, too, probably even more than white people?"

He couldn't. The large party with their behinds right behind me probably didn't even realize that there was a behind in my seat, much less a black one. To instinctively chalk up their ignorance as racially motivated would be like saying that the negligence of the driver who recently ran a red light at the corner of De Waterkant and Buitengracht and hit a black man on a bicycle was driven by some racist impulse. He probably was just being a typically reckless and impatient Cape Town driver.

More recently, I was having dinner with another white expat, this one from Scotland, who made an observation of his own about everyday white-on-black social crimes. He said he used to witness them firsthand every time he went out to dinner with his ex, who was black. From his point of view, the waiters and waitresses always seemed to hand the bill to my dinner date, not to his ex, because they presumed that the black man, no matter how finely attired he might have been, wasn't paying.

It's a familiar story that I've been told so many times by white men with black exes that it's almost become a cliche. Every time someone else tells it, I try to remember my own personal brushes with racism in restaurants. To be honest, I can vividly recall but one.

I was in high school, and I was a host at Red Lobster, Kissimmee, Florida's premiere "upscale" seafood restaurant circa 1986-87. One night a man of about 60 and his wife walked in, and I greeted them half-way between the front door and the host/hostess podium.

"Good evening. Welcome to Red Lobster. How many are in your party?"

Silence and a blank stare.

"Will that be smoking or non-smoking?"

More silence.

By this time Sue, one of my colleagues, had returned from the dining room. The man looked past me, still saying nothing. "We're a party of two, smoking," he said to Sue.

Okay, I thought. It's not like I was dying to seat them anyway.

"What was up with that guy?" I asked when Sue returned.

"Oh my God," she said, still in shock. "After I sat him at the table, he said to me, 'I didn't want that Jamaican nigger seating me." He couldn't even be bothered to place my Caribbean accent accurately.

There was no denying that particular man's agenda that evening, but I'm not sure I'm ready to lump the waiters and waitresses of Cape Town in with him. I've been eating out in restaurants around the world for years, and in my experience, the bill is rarely, if ever, handed to a patron. The waiter or waitress usually places it on the table in front of a party of one, or between the patrons for parties of two or more. If it ends up being closer to one over the other, it probably has more to do with whomever was closest to the server's reach. Most of them are too busy to exercise such subtle, subconscious forms of racism.

My friend Rob must have heard some of the stories. He's arriving in Cape Town from London with his boyfriend next weekend, and the other day, he asked point-blank what it's going to feel like as a black man in Cape Town.

"I'm curious to see how I deal with the whole race thing there. I really don't want it to give me a sour view of the city. I just imagine eating at some Camps Bay restaurant and someone refusing me service or something."
"No, that would never happen," I answered. "Apartheid was only 20 years ago, but they've come a long way in a short time. It's definitely not the Deep South in the 1960s" - which was an entire century after the Civil War but was much closer in racist, segregationist spirit to the 1860s than to the 2010s.

As far as I can see, as an outsider in South Africa looking in from the inside, a lot of damage has been done, and reparations should be made that likely never will be. I appreciate the sympathy of white people, but I don't mistake it for empathy. No matter how enlightened they might think they are, or how outraged they are by the evils or racism, they don't know how I feel. It doesn't matter how many black men they date. If they must pontificate, I'd rather it be about their own experience than someone else's.

The racial politics here are complex and intimidating, but I don't want to fall into the trap of assigning a white-black angle to everything. Isn't assuming that everything that happens to a black person happens to them because of their race, isn't that tiresome over-awareness that the person sitting across from you is black, exposing a bit of one's own racism? The great irony is that race sometimes seems to be more of an issue with the white people sitting across from me than it is with the white people handing us the bill.

I told Rob to relax and bring a big appetite. He's going to eat better in Cape Town than he's ever eaten anywhere else.