Archive for October, 2012

Free at Last, Free at Last

At XSport, the hyper-masculine gym I go to, I was amazed at the gumption of one of its members.  A white-haired man in his sixties or seventies was talking about his life to a virtual stranger, a man who appeared to be about fifty.  The fit, trim, white-haired man mentioned how his partner died at age 62. 

Whenever someone mentions a partner, not a husband or wife, my ears perk up. 

Then the man elucidated, saying when He died, the older gentleman had to reconstruct his whole life.  His message seemed to be:  indeed life goes on, and we are richer for the experience of knowing someone extra special to us, someone who has made an indelible mark, but there will always be a sense of loss and a certain type of mourning.

Despite the sadness that this man had lost his husband, I for some reason thought of that Virginia Slims cigarette commercial, some of you may be too young to remember, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”  Gay men have come from a place of shame to forthrightness, an “honest-ness” about our loves and our lives.  There was a time in Chicago and many other places where one man was not allowed to buy another man a drink.  Busts of gay bars were a regular occurrence where patrons were rounded up and arrested; then, their names were unceremoniously published in the paper. 

Then the Stonewall riots lit up New York. 

Even many young gay men and women who take their civil rights for granted don’t know about Stonewall.  It was a bar in the Big Apple frequented by gay men, lesbians, and drag queens.  On June 27, 1969, in New York’s Greenwich Village, after the Stonewall bar was busted, as had happened so many other times, in so many places, the patrons this time resisted and fought back.  It was fairly common in that era for the mafia to control gay bars, and these mafia members quickly removed the cigar boxes that served as money tills, but then something highly unusual happened.  It’s unclear whether a lesbian dressed as a man was the first one to resist arrest, or whether a defiant male in drag posed in the doorway, rallying the other people in the bar.  Whatever actually happened, the crowd decided they were not going to go quietly.  What is clearer is that the patrons began throwing coins at the officers, mocking them for the system of payoffs, commonly referred to as “gayola.”

That moment in 1969 marked the start of the gay movement.

We still have much left to do, “miles to go before we sleep,” but Stonewall changed the way gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals let people know what they will and will not tolerate. 

Now the marriage issue, along with its attendant rights, is squarely front and center in our minds, and we still fight for our civil rights, but I think it is a victory that we have come so far.  Now a sixty year old man at a gym in a conservative suburb can tell his story and let people around him know that he is gay and has had a life that matters.




The End, Begin Again

While Judaism emphasizes actions over beliefs, there is some evidence, according to my very well-informed Orthodox Jewish creative writing instructor at Northwestern, that Jews do consider reincarnation a possibility. The brilliant film “Cloud Atlas” tackles this theme and explores its nuances, weaving its story around six reincarnations of the individuals it follows, including storylines featuring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, and even Hugh Grant. The villager that Tom Hanks plays in the not-so-distant future starts the film, saying, “I’ll yarn you about the first time we met.”

I found it interesting that two of the directors, Lana, born Lawrence Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski are Jewish-Polish Americans while the other director, Tom Tykwer, is German. I felt the pull as to how their lives, their upbringing, their ethnicity, their experiences and unique outlook informed the making of “Cloud Atlas.” Previously, they directed the Matrix films. It seems fitting that Lana Wachowski, is, in fact, a male-to-female transsexual while Tykwer is gay. One focal point in “Cloud Atlas” is that our role in determining who we become is the major task during our lives.

Author of the 2004 book, David Mitchell, originally told the story chronologically, then circled back over his tale at the end. The movie directors made a conscious decision to interweave the six reincarnated stories throughout, making it much more difficult to follow, but it more poignantly draws together the interconnectedness each of us feels to the others around us, and the influence of our past lives on the lives we lead now. I found myself wondering if all of us, in fact, re-experience trauma from former lives. One of Berry’s characters says, “Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over?”

The story hinges on the exploration of what happens in in the 1970’s between a reporter, played by Berry, as she investigates a corrupt businessman, Hugh Grant, who plans to create a nuclear meltdown. In that life, she once again bumps up against Tom Hanks as they work to overthrow a corrupt system. The point made over and over: “separation is but an illusion.”

A futuristic South Korean, taken advantage of the system, highlights that same idea, saying, “From womb to tomb, we are bound one to another.” We can always work toward and hope for a better tomorrow based on the little steps, the ripple effect, of the lives we lead here and now. The search for all the characters is a search for freedom.

The number six is especially important: six lives each, and the most important musical composition in the story, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. In the bible, the number six is thought to represent man’s rebellion and imperfection. This number once again reinforces “Cloud Atlas’s” reaching out and longing for freedom. It seems no accident that in the bible, humans were created on the sixth day.

I end with my favorite quote from the movie, as it reverberates throughout the entire story. “The half-finished book is, after all, a half finished love affair.”

Argo Sets Pace For the Oscar Race

The year is 1979. The American embassy in Iran is being stormed and taken over by Iranian radicals who resent that the US is giving the ousted Shah of Iran sanctuary. The radical Iranians, who support the Ayatollah Khomeini, capture 52 Americans. In the midst of the chaos, six Americans escape and the Canadian ambassador hides them at his residence.

To get them out, Ben Affleck’s character hatches a plan to make a space fantasy movie, Argo, a la Star Wars, while issuing the fugitives Canadian passports, and helping them escape.

The fake movie Argo will never actually be made, but it serves as a cover for the motley crew of US citizens. The morass of Hollywood is spoofed, and there is great fun and many humorous moments as a make-up artist, played by John Goodman, and a film producer, Alan Arkin, set up the appearance of an actually movie that is in production. They even go so far as to host a script reading by actors at the Beverly Hilton. The comedic moments serve as a momentary rest from the tension and drama as the audience hopes, but is unsure, whether the plan will succeed.

This is a true story which was kept secret by the CIA for eighteen years, and in my mind, this is the best film of the year so far. I predict it will be a front runner for Best Picture in the Golden Globe and Oscar season. Despite Hollywood’s penchant for happy endings, I was unsure how the story was going to turn out, and I found myself nervously shifting in my seat, completely mesmerized by the story. It would have been tempting to slap-dash together and toss off a thriller without the depth and richness of Argo, but director Ben Affleck is not satisfied with taking the easy way out.

Despite the many years fraught with conflicts in the Middle East, I don’t believe the average American truly cares much about what is going on abroad. This movie will make you care for the safety of the characters, and may even inspire interest in understanding how tension in the Middle East affects everyone.

Look for Argo as one of the films to watch this award season.

Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s somewhat rare for a novelist to direct and bring his novel to the screen, but with the film “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Stephen Chbosky does both, and succeeds brilliantly. I’ve just ordered the book; it’s that great a story. The main character Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, is an outcast as he tries, sometimes better, sometimes worse, to manage his mental illness. Charlie makes friends with his English teacher who gives him seminal works of fiction to read and discuss, but Charlie is not happy with his one friend, simply because his only friend is a teacher and not a fellow student. Charlie is slow in learning the lingo that would help him fit in, but two seniors, Sam and Patrick, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, befriend him, and his world opens up quite suddenly and dramatically. It is a story jam-packed with teen angst and crushes, yet the movie is careful not to wallow in a mode of alienation. Charlie’s life becomes a lot more complicated with his new friends, but he finally finds happiness of a sort. One of the characters at one point says directly, “Don’t make yourself small.” The message: we accept the love we think we deserve.

The characters attempt to navigate and float above the murky waters of adolescence. Patrick gets into a gay relationship with the captain of the football team, and things start to go badly because their two worlds are so far apart. In frustration, Patrick announces, “My life is officially an after-school special.” Basically, the movie reinforces the notion that we all just want to be loved. The implicit thought asks the question as to why we pick people who treat us as if we don’t matter.

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” proves that we cannot choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go from there.

Depression: How To Feel Like A Loser.