Just a Question…

2010/05/26 Comments off

How is it that Glee, arguably today’s most watched, highest praised prime-time television show with out queer cast members (Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer) consistently disappoints me with its insistence on heteronormativity and then (sort of) wins me back by the end of each episode? Particularly this week’s Lady Gaga themed episode, “Theatricality”, which had the highest potential to date for radical queer politics. Half of the show relied entirely on reenforcing gender norms, with “the girls” (including Kurt, the young gay teen character) dressing like and performing songs by Lady Gaga. “The guys”, however, uncomfortable with the idea, don KISS costumes and rock out in a more “acceptable” version of glam. I suppose painting a lightening bolt on your face is femme-y while painting on cat whiskers is butch?

Meanwhile, Finn struggles to cope with the idea of sharing a bedroom with Kurt, the result of their parents moving in together. He is troubled by Kurt’s omnipresent queerness, claiming he “puts [his] underwear on in the shower every morning” because he’s uncomfortable with Kurt’s sexuality. Finn is even physically repulsed by Kurt’s attempt to help him remove his KISS make up with a moist towelette. While Finn’s reaction is probably a realistic representative of how many highschool boys would respond to queerish contact, it’s a story we’ve all heard ad nauseum.

Unfortunately, however, Finn can hardly be blamed; Kurt’s character has taken a rather creepy turn in the past few episodes, concocting a scheme that pairs up their parents in order to position Finn as a kind of brother/room-mate/ object of desire. The whole dynamic has a problematic incestuous vibe to it. Kurt is simultaneously the creepiest and the most emotionally realistic character in the show; his coming out to his father was one of the most emotional scenes of the entire season, but his continued efforts to get Finn into his bedroom are borderline disturbed. And, again, isn’t the story of the gay boy hopelessly infatuated with the straight jock another narrative past its expiration date?

Conversely, the scenes with Kurt’s father have continued to be heartwarming and reasonably progressive. When Finn refers to Kurt’s choice of decor as “faggy”, Kurt’s father bursts on to the scene demanding that Finn leave his house immediately and reassuring Kurt that the room looks great. It’s standard fare, yes, but it’s about as good as I’ve come to expect from the average television show. The episode concludes with Finn defending Kurt’s right to be different from a pair of football players, wrapped in a red shower curtain (which I guess is the straight boy version of a Lady Gaga outfit).     

So my question is, it is alright to be completely essentializing and heteronormative on the one hand, and moderately progressive on the other? Is Glee giving viewers the queer-lite version of progressiveness (“Being different is fine! We’re all different!”) while continuing to propagate what it means to be a “real” man/woman? And perhaps most importantly, am I asking too much from a television show that one can watch on basic cable?

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Categories: Television Tags: ,

See: Exit Through the Gift Shop

2010/05/22 Comments off

I learnt a few things from watching Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The film documents the eccentric Thierry Guetta (AKA Mr. Brainwash) in his rise from vintage clothing store owner to street art videographer to economically successful street artist. Along the way, the audience gets exposed to many street artists and their history, and are offered a rare inside glimpse at the politics of their world. 

Within the first few minutes of the film I learned that I really like street art. I actually wouldn’t mind it if all of Montreal’s metro system was covered in *quality* street art. (DISCLAIMER: this post, like the film, is engaged in the tricky rhetoric of “art” “high aht” and “quality” all of which mean different things to different people). A lot of our alleyways are filled with some really nice stuff actually, and I wouldn’t mind more of it, instead of those graffiti tags that no one can read all over the place. I particularly like the tiny T-Rex wearing gladiator high heels on the Redpath Library. Street art must be contagious, as my companion and I both left the cinema wanting to do nothing else but develop artistic skills so that we could climb up tall buildings and leave our mark.

I also learnt that you can apparently get everything you need for street art at Kinko’s. It seems you can go get  your enormous Andre the Giant faces printed off there no questions asked. And this is a good thing. I think I’d have some major qualms if Kinko’s could arbitrarily decide that your printing needs did not meet the standards of decent society. Still, before seeing Exit I kind of figured there were secret underground places to get street art supplies or something.

Thirdly, I got to see first hand how difficult it is talking about yourself as an artist without sounding like a pompous jerk. Banksy, the sometimes narrator and creator of the film, claims the film is about Thierry, because he’s “more interesting”, but the actual mystique of “legitimate art” is reserved for Banksy. Banksy is the holy grail of street artists that Guetta wants to film, the one who makes real statements, the king of the streets. And in a way, he is: his street art is fantastic, he is politically minded, and is really the most recognized name in street art to date. The problem is, in a movie made by Banksy, it comes across as self-aggrandizing to talk about how marvelous Banksy is. At one point, just before Guetta finally gets to meet with Banksy, the music becomes reminiscent of a choir of angels. I get it, it’s playing off the idea of Banksy as Guetta’s holy grail, but having a beatific soundtrack to your own introduction is a bit… well, high and mighty.

Bansky is a little critical, too, of people who don’t “get” his art. Specifically, one section of the film follows the development of Banksy’s first L.A. exhibition. It features a real elephant in the warehouse space painted with litres and litres of children’s face paint to match the space’s wallpaper. The piece was titled “the Elephant in the Room”, and was supposedly meant to make literal our metaphorical elephants in rooms.  News casters and activists, however, were critical of using a live animal in a not-enormous space and of painting it (I presume children’s face paints are regulated to be non-toxic). Banksy lambasts them for being unable to see past the easy critique and really think about what he meant to say. Well, yes, there is a message behind the piece, but that also doesn’t negate the fact that an elephant was transported in a tiny truck and subjected to presumably hours of people taking pictures of it, shoving video cameras in its face, and — worst of all — talking incessantly about how wonderful art is and how they by extension are good people for seeing it. But at least Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were there, that must have made the elephant happy! 

I left torn, having enjoyed the film but also recognizing it as a character assassination piece. Or, at least, cinematic bullying. Exit does not offer a sympathetic or unbiased portrayal of Guetta; instead he is made out to be a joke, a wannabe, a fraud, and a plaigarist. Exit, at least, never claimed to be a documentary. The film, which begins by making Guetta seem a harmless, quirky Frenchman, depicts him by the end as a pathetic, desperate poseur. The thing is, the film’s argumentation is well made enough that one can hardly help but agree with Banksy that Guetta/Mr. Brainwash really isn’t making art, nor should he be dubbed an “artist” (whatever the heck that means).  Exit shows you the worst things about the man, and then asks you “he’s terrible, isn’t he?”. It’s difficult to argue with that reasoning. My companion argued that you are technically given a choice as to whether Guetta makes legitimate street art (no one holds a gun to your head and makes you agree with them); basically, it is never outrightly stated that Guetta is a fraud, it’s just implied over and over again. To come to any conclusion but Banksy’s means you have to willfully ignore the context and subtext of the entire film.

Personally, I think the film could have taken a more sympathetic approach to its subject without detracting from its central themes or even argument. Guetta, who compulsively videotapes everything he sees for hours on end, clearly has some sort of hoarding complex.  The film hints at this, stating that Guetta’s mother died when he was young and now he tries to capture his life on film so nothing will suddenly disappear on him, but more could have been made of it. Guetta had thousands of hours of footage of street artists at work, and though he was unable to compile them into a coherent documentary, Banksy could have easily created a comprehensive piece about street art instead of undermining one slightly unwell but well-intentioned man.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is definitely worth the time to see it, if you live in one of the select Canadian cities it’s playing in. When viewed with a critical eye, the film offers up a new appreciation of the art we walk past everyday and the hidden politics behind it.

Categories: Film Tags: ,

Read: The Bedwetter

2010/05/15 Comments off

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee

By Sarah Silverman

New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

pp. xv + 240. $28.99

Despite being best known as an edgy and sassy comedienne with a taste for blue language, Sarah Silverman’s autobiography, The Bedwetter, is surprisingly serious and tender. The stereotype of comics having hard lives holds true for Silverman, which quickly becomes evident in the first few chapters of the book. That’s not to say the book isn’t funny. In fact, it is borderline amazing the way Silverman weaves humor and spunk into every memory, no matter how tragic.

Take, for example, the chapter about her relationship with her Nana, entitled “My Nana Was Great But Now is Dead”. She beautifully unravels her Nana’s complicated relationship with a cruel and senile husband without becoming either too romanticizing or trying too hard for pathos. Similarly, she recalls her teenaged years and a struggle against depression, including a shocking period of being prescribed 14 Xanax a day, with the same aplomb. Silverman skillfully navigates the fine line between telling a sad story and digging for sympathy.

Bedwetting, however, is the main trope running through most of the book, both as a source of shame and of strength.  Silverman was a bedwetter well into her teen years, despite the efforts of her parents and the medical establishment.  Being a bedwetter becomes the way through which Silverman comes to define herself, even through the death of a sibling, her parents’ divorce, clinical depression, and aspiring comic. Later, having conquered bedwetting, Silverman cites it as the reason she is able to do standup:

“But maybe my lack of stage fright was the upside of years of nightly bedwetting. Maybe that daily shame had ground away at my psyche, like glaciers against the coastline, so that somewhere in my consciousness , I understood that bombing on stage could never be as humiliating. My early trauma was a gift, it turned out, in a vocation where your best headspace is feeling that you have nothing to lose” (74).

 Thankfully, like with most people, blossoming out of the awkward highschool years was a transformative time for Silverman. She moved to New York City, and pursued comedy stardom. She details her one year stint at Saturday Night Live, her film Jesus is Magic, and the resulting creation of her Comedy Central show The Sarah Silverman Program. She lovingly describes her relationships with co-stars and writing team, blending into the narrative commentary on censorship, racism, and equality. She never becomes too preachy on these subjects, but nor does she shy away from making her political positions known.

Those unfamiliar with Silverman’s stand up routines or her show should be warned: Silverman’s persona deliberately takes on the most ignorant and racist stances possible in a complexly ironic form of social critique. It is easy to fall in to the trap of mistaking the context and subtext of her jokes. Plus, she has a penchant for bawdy humour and relishes fart jokes. Those who do not care about the struggle to get the word labia past Standards and Practices will probably find little to laugh at. Furthermore, Silverman omits practically all mention of her former relationship with Jimmy Kimmel; her fans will be left wanting much more in this regard, as a noticeably large chunk of her life seems to be missing. Of course, Silverman gets to decide how much of herself she reveals to the public, and is perfectly within her rights to stay silent on her very public breakup. That doesn’t mean readers won’t potentially be disappointed.

The Bedwetter will probably take readers by surprise: it is strikingly sincere and insightful, while simultaneously laugh out loud funny. Silverman’s casual style makes for a quick easy read, and though she is not the most articulate author to ever pen a book, her personality and charm shine through.

Categories: Books Tags: , ,

TLC: Traumatizing Little Children?

2010/05/13 Comments off

I love reality television. I truly do. But I have come to one conclusion over my years of couch surfing: TLC ruins lives.

I‘m not saying anything new, I don’t think. I, like everyone else, is sick of hearing about John and Kate Gosselin and their babies, and I don’t quite understand TLC’s recent obsession with little-people families. What started innocently enough as Little People Big World has blossomed into The Little Couple and most recently The Little Chocolatiers (personally, I would like to see a show based on little person construction workers. They could call it From the Ground Up). But that’s all beside the point; regardless of height, TLC provides our daily dose of Schadenfreude via the slow demise of its “stars”.

This piece isn’t particularly invested in defending the “family unit”–people get divorced and families fall apart,oftentimes for good reasons–but rather questions the ethics of filming, editing, and airing a family’s downfall. More concisely, I worry about how the children of TLC families will be effected by their participation on the show. (I know, the “what about the children?” card is a cheap one to play, and I’d typically avoid it. But I happen to find this situation one that warrants it). First of all, the notion of informed consent gets thrown right out the window when it comes to children on these shows. I understand that parents have the right to speak as legal guardian for their children in certain situations, and I’m willing to bet that many of the kids in TLC are excited just to be on television, but the boundaries of consent seem awfully iffy to me. Most of the nineteen Duggar children (from 19 Kids and Counting) have no choice as to whether they appear on our television screens, and though they don’t seem to mind it, I wonder how they will feel when they’ve all grown up and they realize that their fondest childhood memories all involve television cameras?

And what about their not so favorite memories? My beef isn’t the fact that some families on TLC are falling apart (Jon and Kate plus Eight has now become Kate plus Eight, and the Roloff family of Little People Big World has not been the picture of domestic bliss in its fifth season) but that we and the entire family will have audiovisual documentation of the entire affair. Imagine! The ability to watch your parents fight and divorce each other on a deluxe DVD box set and in off-season syndicated reruns! I have always had respect for parents that know how traumatic these kinds of things can be for children and so go off and fight in the car, or attic, or wherever, but life in front of the camera doesn’t exactly have room for private drama.

I wonder what will happen when the kids on TLC shows, even those from stable, loving families, have the cameras taken away? Our culture’s past treatment of child stars has shown that when you grow up in the public eye, it has an effect on you when the cameras get taken away. Will we reach a point when audiences no longer care about the Gosselin children (if we aren’t already there), and does someone have to tell the kids “you aren’t cute enough anymore”? Will we soon after get a spree of Duggars on reality game shows in desperate attempts to be famous forever? (You could cast a whole season of Survivor just from that family. Now wouldn’t I watch that!) I’m merely hypothesizing, and may be completely off base. It’s possible that when their show is cancelled the children will heave a sigh of relief, and go off to leave perfectly boring lives.

Ten years from now, or however long it takes, we’ll find out exactly how our relatively recent obsession with TLC families has affected these kids. I propose we name whatever it is they’ve got Post-Reality Stress Disorder (trademarked) or PRSD. It can be the big thing of their generation, like the phantom vibrations I suffer from due to my constant carrying of a cell phone. 

I think I’ll leave you with this tidbit from the Discovery Network’s (the monolithic parent network of TLC) ethics statement. It has that wonderfully vagueness all businesses have:

Discovery is committed to managing its business activities in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and to ensuring honest and ethical behavior by its directors, officers, employees and contingent workers.  To facilitate and encourage the prompt reporting of suspected events of non-compliance, and to provide employees and contingent workers with a confidential, anonymous, toll-free avenue for reporting suspected events of non-compliance, Discovery has established a toll-free Ethics Hotline, operated by a third-party provider, The Network.

Don’t you feel better now?

Categories: Television Tags: ,

Read: I Drink for a Reason

2010/05/11 Comments off

I Drink for a Reason

by David Cross

New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009.

pp. xv + 236 $23.99

When I purchased David Cross’ book from my local Chapters/Indigo store, Darlene* commented happily, “Oh! It’s Tobias!” She was referring to Cross’ role on Fox’s critically acclaimed show Arrested Development as the laughably pathetic Dr. Tobias Funke. “I saw an interview with him once. He was really mean actually.” Yes, Cross is a mean guy, as those of us who are familiar with his long-lost HBO show Mr. Show with Bob and David or his standup comedy can attest. He is a scathing critic of politics and popular culture, as well as a staunch atheist. His standup tackles right-wingers and P.C lefties alike.  He is mean and crass, yes; but he is also smart, funny, and usually spot-on.

I Drink for a Reason is essentially a collection of Cross’ short standup bits transcribed into book form.  52 of them, to be precise.  They run the gambit from simple absurdity (“Didja Know?”) to cultural commentary (“A Non-Sponsored Look at Holidays in America”), stopping occasionally to be poignant and sincere (“Breaking Up”).  Each is piece is about 4 pages long, lending itself easily to several short bursts of reading rather than two or three extended sittings.  It’s a more enjoyable book if read in shorter sessions, as Cross’ acerbic wit can become overwhelming if taken in all at once. He’s angry, and rightfully so, but its tonal nuance can get lost through overexposure.   

The book is hilarious though, and fans of Cross’ standup will definitely not be disappointed. While there are traces of Mr. Show throughout the book, in I Drink for a Reason Cross eschews character pieces and opts instead for his own voice. But even readers new to Cross’ style of comedy will appreciate his blend of cultural critique, absurdist humor, and guttermouth. He blends true stories seamlessly with outrageous comedic fantasies; oftentimes it is not entirely clear whether or not Cross is regaling you with a humourous anecdote from his own adventures or if you’re reading complete hogwash.  It’s usually an unknowable combination of both.   

Leave all your P.C notions at the door however; Cross revels in using every racial, religious, and sexual epithet he can. He mocks individuals with religious beliefs, republicans, as well as flower children and hippies. If you’re easily offended read this book with caution: I Drink For a Reason is not for everyone. For example, one chapter entitled “A Short List of Videos with Babies in Them that I Have Not Seen on the Internet but Most Likely Exist and I Would Like to See at Some Point” lists progressively grotesque scenarios involving infants, including “a drunk baby trying to stand up and walk across the room” (170). If you cannot see the humor in that image, perhaps you should skip I Drink for a Reason and instead opt for the far more family friendly Arrested Development.

Although Cross’ book is far from perfect (it tends to lose momentum in the final third), it operates successfully as both comic relief and as an investigation of what’s wrong with our Western culture. There’s even supplementary video clips and sketches available online at www.idrinkforareason.com, which functions as a nice bonus for readers and as a good measurement for potential book buyers. If you can laugh through “Gay Canada Part II” then you should probably buy this book as soon as possible.

*Not Darlene’s real name

Categories: Books, Uncategorized Tags: ,

Why do I love “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life”?

2010/05/09 Comments off

No, I’m really asking you. Why do I love to watch Kirstie Alley’s newest reality television offering, Kirstie Alley’s Big Life? I can’t figure it out. The show isn’t good, or even bad-good enough to enjoy for its bad-goodness. I’m usually pretty skilled at affecting that irritating-in-other-people ironic enjoyment at these type of things. Heck, I kept watching Grey’s Anatomy even after it got all terrible and such. But when it comes to Big Life I manage to derive a genuine sense of satisfaction.

And there’s a lot to hate about Big Life. Besides the fact that it’s basically one big advertisement for Alley’s new weight loss product, Organic Liason (the show constantly references the product, and the product’s offical website refers back to the show), there are some problematic representations of queer people, and, uh… fat people. The show isn’t exactly fat phobic; after all, Alley doesn’t claim to speak for all fat people, just herself. She says that she feels less confident and sexy at her current size, and wants to help others who want to lose weight. However, and I feel this way about most weight-loss shows, there is a certain element of fatsploitation present. I get it, I get it, the show is about being fat, so I can’t complain that the show subjects the large body to our gaze, but that doesn’t mean I have to feel good about it.

Equally worrisome is how Alley’s personal assistant’s personal assistant Kyle is edited. Kyle’s character on the show seems to fit the mould of the stereotypical gay boy. No, not the fabulous kind, the other kind: he’s the sassy sidekick, a little bit dumb, and safely asexual. In one episode, he talks about going to his high school reunion and asks Alley if she’ll be his date. This conversation took place during a couple’s massage he shared with Alley, perfectly playing the role of surrogate boyfriend. Naturally, he’s single and never displays any desire to actually be with a man… at all. He spends all his time in the company of women, and never really has any meaningful interaction with the show’s other male characters. During the latest episode in April, a rather hunky (or at least hunky because he’s from exotic Australia) male joined Alley’s team, and Kyle’s reaction was a mix of hostility and jealousy. Fortunately, the show is sympathetic in its portrayal of Kyle: he’s a lovable doofus rather than an incompetent screw-up. 

My main issue with Big Life, however, is the fact that it’s even on. Didn’t we already watch Alley be fat on Fat Actress? How many times can we watch one person lose weight? Once, I get (kinda). But twice? How many times does Alley get to be famous for hating her body? Is it really all that different from us gawking at Heidi Montag’s multiple cosmetic surgeries? I really don’t mean to go on a diatribe here, but I really don’t see the difference between Alley being famous for being fat and Heidi being famous for being famous. At least Alley got famous beforehand for actually doing something.

But  all of that doesn’t even come close to answering my question: why do I love to watch Kirstie Alley’s Big Life? Why am I willing to overlook what I hate about this show? Alley’s voice-over narration is contrived, and can’t help but show how the show is that awful “scripted but pretends not to be” style of reality television. But for some reason, unbeknownst to me, I will be tuning in for the ONE HOUR SEASON FINALE in about one hour’s time.  I’m hoping the clouds will part and suddenly all will be revealed to me, but I somehow doubt it. Instead, I will probably watch it, laugh occasionally, and then forget about it after the season is done.

Categories: Television Tags: ,