Thursday, October 20, 2011

"A tendency to overpack"

From Kerry Weber's articlein America Magazine, "The Father's Way" about the new film by Emilio Estevez, starring his father, Martin Sheen. The film tells the storry of a man who loses his son and decides to walk the several-hundred-kilometre El Camino de Santiago between France and Spain.

Along the camino, the refugios, or hostels, often contain shelves of books in many languages, which people have left behind in order to lighten their packs on the road. Everyone has a tendency to overpack, Sheen said, but this unpacking can be not only a physical comfort but a spiritual one, as well.

“As you begin to let go of the material baggage then you begin to reflect on the interior baggage, and you begin the transcendence, the descent into yourself,” Sheen said. “As St. Teresa of Ávila tells us, in order to become free and to become ourselves we have to open the dungeons of our hearts and let go of all those people and those things that we’ve been hanging on to…. We’re hanging on to resentment, judgment, anger, jealously…. As we begin to descend in there and have an honest look at the baggage we’ve accumulated, we begin to let it all go and we become ourselves.”

In the end, Sheen said, it is important to remember that we are all on the same journey. “You can’t have anyone walk this walk for you,” he said. “But you don’t have to walk it alone.”

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Monday, October 17, 2011

Movie Review Series at Life as a Human

I have recently begun writing a regular series of film reviews for the online magazine Life as a Human. The films I review are for the most part not current but are favorites of mine that readers/movie lovers may not have seen or may have forgotten about.

There is a brief introduction to the series here.

So far I have reviewed Another Year, Tender Mercies, and Pelle the Conqueror. In the coming weeks reviews of Shall We Dance? (Japanese and American versions) and Cabaret will be posted.


Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Marilynne Robinson, Matthew 25, and the Neo-Fundamentalists

Since these folk [neo-fundamentalists] claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they woould have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, "I was hungry and ye fed me not." This is the parable in which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates "the nations." It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed, of purity, or of orthodoxy in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels." Neo-fundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language - more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another's care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge, to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous and, in effect, makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating.
Marilynne Robinson, "Onward, Christian Liberals" in The Best American Essays 2007

(I love Marilynne)


Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"How sweet it is to forget all that stuff..."

Noli vinci a malo sed vince in bono malum. [Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good (Romans 12:21).] The faults, imperfections, and weaknesses of people who are supposed to be holy! I have not been allowed to retain much of an illusion about the universal perfection of the house where I am going to make vows! But it is ceasing to disturb me. How sweet it is to forget all that stuff and to realize that it is none of my business to worry about the apparent faults of others outside of the simple means prescribed by the Usages. How many burdens there are that you don't really have to carry! In fact you sin by carrying them, and you give God much glory by dropping them! And so there is no need to make any decision about so many seeming imperfections in a community.
 From Entering the Silence: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Two 1941-1952

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival: Quickie Reviews (I)

I have seen six films at the festival so far and have enjoyed all of them. Here are some mini-reviews:

This is a documentary about the well-known Spanish flamenco singer Enrique Morente. I most particularly enjoyed the music in this film (for some reason, I slept through a good part of the biographical scenes); Morente’s brand of flamenco is moving and hypnotic.

The Front Line
This is a Korean film about a group of soldiers who spend most of the Korean War taking and retaking a single hill from the enemy. The film’s anti-war message is not very subtle and the life of the ordinary soldier is in some ways over-romanticized, so in spite of some excellent battle scenes, this was the least satisfying movie so far.

The Mill and the Cross
An imaginative and moving dramatization of the 1564 painting The Way of the Cross by Pieter Bruegel, this film is a gem. The cinematography is gorgeous and the story, like the painting, is fascinating and thought-provoking. If this film, which features Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and Charlotte Rampling, comes in to general release I recommend that you see it.

I found this film interesting because it gave me an insight into a side of Iranian culture that I did not know existed. The story involves two young women from well-to-do families who are brought up in a world that seems to have escaped the severe restrictions and punishments of Islamic law; the young women are in love with each other. Their cozy world begins to collapse, however, when the brother of one of the women returns to the family after undergoing drug rehab, which has clearly included some Islamic indoctrination. Thanks to the brother’s growing fundamentalism and his pathological need for control, the freedoms enjoyed by the family are going to be curtailed by a creeping and insidious orthodoxy. The only flaw I found here was what I consider to be the miscasting of the two young women.

Corpo Celeste
In Corpo Celeste a quirky and independent-minded 13-year-old girl has emigrated to Italy from Switzerland and is immediately thrust into the conservative, and clearly corrupt, Catholic world of her new home. In the process of taking preparatory classes for her confirmation, she discovers the nature of the Church, the confusing and disappointing world of adults, and most of all, herself. At the same time, her determination to see and express truth provide some lessons to those around her. Excellent film and wonderful acting from the girl, who is in practically every scene of the movie.

A Simple Life
This Ann Hui masterpiece is by far my favourite of the films I have seen. It is the story of Ah Tao, a maid who has served a Hong Kong family for sixty years. Most of the family has emigrated to the U.S. but as the film opens she is still looking after one of the grandsons, Roger, a movie producer. When she suffers a stroke she decides it is time to retire and to move into a long-term care facility. The rest of the film is a character study of this remarkable woman and of the love she has given to the family which is now returned by Roger. As her health gradually deteriorates, the movie reveals, through little incidents, more facets of her character—selflessness, independence, wisdom, dignity, humour.

I love this kind of film, where nothing really happens, where there is no major conflict, and no great revelation or surprise at the end, but in which so much is revealed. I am certain that a film like A Simple Life is far more difficult to make than big, expensive blockbusters like Titanic and Avatar, and Transformers. I am also sure that the making of A Simple Life is an act of love by an artist of great depth and exquisite taste.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"It's the luxury of the well-off to be depressed"

New York Times opinion and food columnist Mark Bittman writes in today's online edition of the paper that he is feeling pessimistic about the state of the world. So he called his friend Charles Kenny, "a Brit who lives in the District of Columbia and has a sharp mind, a quick wit and the fancy title of senior fellow at the Center for Global Development," to get an antidote for his depressed state of mind.

Bittman asked Kenny:

Is it, as I have long suspected, that we (humans) always believe that we (individuals currently alive) are experiencing the worst time ever?

No hesitation: "Yes. Certainly the Romans thought that, and there's a long tradition of pessimism, especially" - and he said this without cruelty - "amongst the writing classes. Nearly all really poor people around the world, those with the right to complain, don't; they say 'yes' when asked if life is going to be better for their kids. It's the luxury of the well-off to be depressed." (Italics are mine)

Charles Kenny wrote the book Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding and How to Improve the World Even More, which I have not read (because I had never actually even heard of Charles Kenny before reading Bittman's column).

Image Source

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Monday, August 29, 2011

Anonymous Authority

Every so often I run across something (usually in a book) that expresses perfectly thoughts that have remained rather unformed in my consciousness. I have just picked up A.S. Neill's Summerhill and have begun reading the Foreword, which was written by the socialist humanist Erich Fromm. Neill's book was published in 1961.

Here is what Fromm has to say about "our modern industrial society":

The change from the overt authority of the nineteenth century to the anonymous authority of the twentieth was determined by the organizational needs of  our modern industrial society. The concentration of capital led to the formation of giant enterprises managed by hierarchically organized bureaucracies. Large conglomerations of workers and clerks work together, each individual a part of a vast organized production machine, which in order to run at all, must run smoothly and without interruption. The individual worker becomes merely a cog in this machine. In such a production organization, the individual is managed and manipulated.

And in the sphere of consumption (in which the individual allegedly expresses his free choice) he is likewise managed and manipulated. Whether it be the consumption of food, clothing, liquor, cigarettes, movies, or television programs, a powerful suggestion apparatus is at work with two purposes: first, to constantly increase the individual's appetite for new commodities; and secondly, to direct these appetites into the channels most profitable for industry. Man is transformed into the consumer, the eternal suckling, whose one wish is to consume more and "better" things.


It is not that authority has disappeared, or even that it has lost its strength, but that it has been transformed from the overt authority of force to the anonymous authority of persuasion and suggestion. In other words, in order to be adaptable, modern man is obliged to nourish the illusion that everything is done with his consent, even though such consent be extracted from him by subtle manipulation. His consent is obtained, as it were, behind his back, or behind his consciousness.

This manipulation has been going on for so long now that the corporations have become country-sized economies, and the gap between rich and poor in the so-called industrialized countries and in the post-industrial economies has become nothing less than obscene. The question I ask is whether the manipulation of which Fromm speaks really does take place "behind our consciousness" and if it does, are we then victims of the system or are we responsible for a condition that has been facilitated by our own narrow consciousness?

Friday, August 26, 2011

War Minus the Shooting

If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score? Vince Lombardi

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting. George Orwell

Competitive team sport tends to stimulate certain behaviours, both on and off the field, rink, or court, that extend beyond the parameters of the purpose and the written and unwritten rules of the game. The worst of these behaviours—brutal violence and wanton destruction of property—lead one to wonder about the nature and the value of competition and about the evolution (or lack thereof) of human consciousness.

One only has to look to events of the recent past in professional and amateur sport to glean examples of the baser instincts overcoming the more refined and rational aspects of our nature.

  • In March of this year a San Francisco Giants fan was brutally beaten in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles during a baseball game. Two Dodger fans were charged with the assault
  • In June riots erupted in Vancouver following the defeat of the local team by the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final series. Youths roamed the streets of the city for hours, burning police cars, smashing windows, and looting stores
  • On August 18 a “friendly” basketball game in Beijing between the Hoyas of Washington’s Georgetown University and a professional Chinese team ended in a brawl when one of the Chinese players pushed a Hoyas player to the floor. Fans threw chairs and full water bottles at the Georgetown team members as they hurriedly exited the stadium
  • On August 20, two people were shot at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park following a professional football game

The majority of sports fans do not come close to this level of intensity in their support of this team or that team. Yet the questions I ask myself as I read of these incidents and as I reflect on my own reactions to the rise and fall of the fortunes of my favourite teams are these: Is there something essential missing in the life of a sports fan that causes him to project his expectations onto an athletic organization? Is the satisfaction I feel when my team wins in fact an affirmation to my ego, telling me that somehow I am better than everyone who supports the loser? Does society allow us to act out our disappointment with the performance of “our team” in a way that it does not allow us to do for other disappointments in our lives—job or relationship disappointments, for example?

Consider the fans of the San Francisco Giants, 2010 World Series champions. An article in the August 22 edition of The New York Times carried the following headline: “With the World Series Champs in a Slump, a City Suffers.” The Giants, in second place in baseball’s National League West (and still with a strong chance of competing in the playoffs), have not played well in August, and as a result the euphoria over last year’s surprising championship is quickly waning. The team’s current slump “has left its fans—and much of the Giants-crazy region—in a funk.”

The article describes the situation in the home of one devoted Giants fan. The fan’s wife says “she can gauge the mood of her husband…by the way the team plays. ‘He’ll be watching the Giants in his man cave and I’ll come in and I’ll look at the score’, she said. ‘And then I’ll sort of run away.’”

I recognize a version of this behaviour in myself. For example, I rarely watch on TV full games of the teams that I like because I find the experience too nerve-racking. I yell and curse at my team for their “stupid mistakes” or their “lousy play.” While this behaviour provides a source of amusement to other members of my household, I have to admit to myself that it is not the behaviour of a well-balanced, fully aware individual. Yet I do not behave this way when things do not work out to my satisfaction in other areas of my life (except perhaps when I am cooking).

And why is it that in other arenas of competition we do not see examples of extreme “fanism” resulting in incidents of violence or destruction of property? I have never heard of a brutal assault at the world figure skating championships (well, there was the 1991 Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident, but I’m pretty sure that was an anomaly) or of burned-out police cars and looted department stores following the Van Cliburn piano competition.

Curling is a competitive team sport, but as far as I know no one has ended up in the hospital as a result of a dispute between curlers or curling fans. One might argue that this is because curling is not a contact sport like football or soccer or even basketball. But baseball is not a contact sport either, yet the incident at Dodger Stadium mentioned above and at least one or two bench-clearing brawls per season show that the sport is no less immune to violence than more physical contests like hockey.

I have not seen psychological or socio-economic profiles of any of the actors involved in the above-mentioned incidents. Even if I had, I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, so I really wouldn’t know what to make of such profiles. Many will say that being a sports fan allows us to harmlessly vent our frustration with other aspects of our lives. Others will claim that watching sports and everything that goes with that pastime are nothing more than innocent fun. They may have a point.

Yet I do feel a sense of disquiet about how we allow our emotions to be manipulated by organized sport. This permitted manipulation says as much about us and our level of consciousness as it does about the big business of sport. If we sat back and non-judgmentally observed our reactions to the wins and losses of our teams (or to the performance of our children at the rink or on the field), we might in fact learn a great deal about ourselves. What do these reactions tell us about how happy—or more important, how unhappy—we are? What do they tell us about how we function in other areas of our lives? Perhaps they are pointing to issues that we need to deal with.

Competition pervades our everyday lives. It is present in the I’m right/you’re wrong scenarios that constantly play themselves out between spouses, partners, and friends, in the urge to get ahead of all the cars on the road in front of us, in the need to impress others with our grades, our salary, our beautiful significant other. That the thrill of winning or succeeding in all of these competitions is temporary and often comes at a cost should tell us something about the nature of competition and of our apparent need to win.

Is there something wrong with organized competitive team sport? I am not sure. But I do wonder if we’d be able to sit down at a baseball game or a football game simply for the pleasure of watching a group of highly trained athletes perform the magic of executing a play that no ordinary human could pull off, for the thrill of seeing a beautifully choreographed double play or a successful thirty-yard pass and run, regardless of which team produces the goods.

Or maybe I’m just an old spoilsport.


Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Midnight in Paris": A Review

I have seen this movie twice this summer and have been moved each time by the beautifully imagined and realized journeys into Paris of the 1920s and, more briefly, of La Belle Époque taken by the protagonist Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), a screenwriter and aspiring novelist with a strongly romantic bent. How seductive the salons, bars, nightclubs, and cobbled and gaslit streets where a writer can commune with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein and listen to Cole Porter play and sing the music that became standards of the American songbook. The seduction becomes more intense when Gil meets the classically beautiful Adriana, lover of Picasso, Modigliani, and others. It is no wonder that he sits on the church steps night after night waiting for the bell to chime midnight and for the ancient cab to pull up and transport him to another encounter with his literary and artistic heroes or with Adriana, who is drawing him away from the increasingly distasteful present-day prospect of marriage to a woman entirely unsuited to his nature.

Gil Pender is a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He is also a very unhappy Hollywood screenwriter; he has long wanted to write a novel and is currently working on a story about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. Gil has come to Paris with his fiancée, Inez, the shallow, snobbish daughter of rich, conservative, and shallow, snobbish parents. It is clear from the start that these two are absolutely not meant for each other. Gil adores Paris and wants to stay; he loves wandering the streets—even in the rain, perhaps especially in the rain—exploring the little shops, watching people in the sidewalk cafés. He believes that Paris is where he can finish his novel, completing the transformation from Hollywood hack to true writer. Inez, on the other hand, is the stereotypical philistine American tourist: Paris is okay but…. When she meets up with another American couple, she is immediately taken up with the excruciatingly pedantic Paul, who knows everything about everything French. Gil is repulsed by the falsehood of this little circle and begins spending more time on his own.

One night when Gil has once again opted out of spending time with in the tedious company of Paul and his girlfriend—and Inez—Gil gets lost on his way back to the hotel. He ends up sitting on the steps of a church just before midnight. As the church bell begins to chime the hour, a gleaming 1920 Peugeot Landaulet pulls up to the curb and stops. The cab’s passengers, clearly in a festive spirit fuelled by champagne, urge him into the car. Gil quickly gives in to their exhortations to join them in their revelry and is whisked off to a lively party at a timeless location in the City of Light.

At the party Gil soon becomes aware that the company is unusual. The fellow playing the piano and singing is remarkably like Cole Porter and a young woman introduces herself as Zelda Fitzgerald; when she learns Gil is a writer she calls out to “Scott” to come and meet him. The look on Gil’s face when he realizes where he has landed is worth the price of admission alone. The romantic young novelist is soon swept into the literary world of the Fitzgeralds. He meets Hemingway, then Stein, then Picasso. And he meets Adriana (gorgeously and deliciously played by Marion Cotillard), the wistful romantic who mirrors his own character.

Night after night he returns to the church and to the literary and artistic world of the twenties to which he has become so romantically attached. It is interesting that screenwriter/director Woody Allen has made all the great figures into caricatures: the self-absorbed Zelda, the party-loving Fitzgerald, the cliché-spouting Hemingway, the grandiloquently vapid Dali. When Gil asks Hemingway to read his manuscript, the great man defers to Stein, who offers the most unhelpful advice—in fact, it is no advice at all.

It is only Gil’s mirror image, and his love object, Adriana, who is a fully developed character. Gil of 2010 loves the 1920’s; Adriana of the Jazz Age is drawn to La Belle Époque. And when an elegant carriage conducts them to Maxim’s and they meet Lautrec, Degas, and Matisse, who offer Adriana the opportunity to remain in the golden age of Paris, Gil realizes the folly of trying to live in a past era and spurns her offer to remain with her.

Meanwhile in his daytime wanderings, Gil has met Gabrielle, the proprietor of a shop that specializes in old records. He is drawn to the shop one day when he hears the singing voice of Cole Porter—the same voice he heard at the magical party. He chats briefly with Gabrielle, who is attractive and warm but definitely not the siren that Adriana represents. Nevertheless, the viewer senses a certain wisdom in Gabrielle and the vague initiation of a kinship between them.

I will not reveal the final unfolding of the plot although the astute reader will likely have guessed. Suffice it to say that Gil not only recognizes that we must all live in the now, but more important, we must all be who we really are; as long as we continue to deny our true nature, our true path, our true bliss, we will remain in a confused and conflicted condition.

Wonderful performances by all the players, including the caricatured jazz-age celebrities. My personal favourites are Marion Cotillard (you cannot take your eyes off her when she is on screen), Kathy Bates (a favourite in everything she does), and Adrian Brody as Dali. I wonder how long it will take viewers to realize who Owen Wilson is channelling as Gil.

All in all, this is both a charming and deeply meaningful film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Plumber and the Lawyer

I'm reading Anthony de Mello's book Awareness again and last night came to the chapter entitled "Obstacles to Happiness." Here de Mello says:

You're a success in life when you wake up! Then you don't have to apologize to anyone, you don't have to explain anything to anyone, you don't give damn what anybody thinks about you or what anybody says about you. You have no worries; you're happy. That's what I call being a success. Having a good job or being famous or having a great reputation has absolutely nothing to do with happiness or success. Nothing! It is totally irrelevant.
As he does so often in this book, he tells a humorous story to illustrate his point:

Did you hear about the lawyer who was presented with a plumber's bill? He said to the plumber, "Hey, you're charging me two hundred dollars an hour. I don't make that kind of money as a lawyer." The plumber said, "I didn't make that kind of money when I was a lawyer either!"

Image by

Keith Williamson @

Some rights reserved

Robert Duvall's "The Apostle": A Review

When Robert Duvall tried to get financial backing to make his film The Apostle, he was turned down. Executives told him that there was too much dialogue. Duvall’s reply was that if there was one thing that characterized all preachers, it was their ability and propensity to talk, from morning till night; Jesus talk was a preacher’s stock in trade.

The idea of playing a “holiness”—or Pentecostal—preacher came to Duvall some twenty-five years before he actually made the film; he wrote the screenplay fifteen years before The Apostle became a big-screen reality. The project had become such a large part of his soul that he ended up putting up five million dollars of his own money just so that he could get it done. Praise the Lord and thank him for inspiring Robert Duvall to make this movie. From those who have seen it, let me hear an “Amen.”

I love Robert Duvall. One of my favorite movies is Tender Mercies, for which he won the Oscar for best actor. The subtle evolution and partial redemption of the country singer/composer Mac Sledge was masterfully portrayed by Mr. Duvall and the award was richly deserved. I recently watched The Great Santini, in which Duvall plays the role of Lt. Col. Bull Meechum, the tough, deeply troubled commander of Marine unit and family unit. Duvall was brilliant. Of course, his performance as the subtly humiliated consigliore to the Corleone family in The Godfather was remarkable for its understatement. I have already talked about his role in the remarkable True Confessions (here).

The first time I saw The Apostle I would have agreed with those movie executives: too much preaching—so much Jesus talk from Duvall’s character that it simply overwhelmed the story. I thought that Duvall, who appears in nearly every scene (quite a feat, actually, given that he also directed the film), was being somewhat self-indulgent. Duvall’s 1998 interview with Charlie Rose and a second viewing of the film caused me to change my mind.

Once Duvall had secured the funding to make The Apostle, he visited large numbers of holiness churches, white, black, and integrated, in the southern United States. He met preachers famous and unknown. In nearly every case he was impressed with both the sincerity and the preaching skill of these men of God (I don’t think he mentioned any women) and imbued the character of Sonny Dewey, also known as the Apostle E.F. in the movie with these characteristics, which come out not only in Sonny’s preaching—and yes, there is indeed a great deal of it—but also in his love for the little church he establishes and for the community that grows within and without its walls.

Euliss “Sonny” Dewey’s roots are deep in southern evangelism. In the opening scenes of the film we see him as a four-year-old sitting in a black church with his nanny listening to an old blind preacher, who is shouting, stomping, prancing around the pulpit at the front of the church: “Can you say ‘Yeah, Lord’? Yeah, Lord! Yeah Lord! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Jesus!” Later we see him as a twelve-or thirteen-year-old prodigy preacher, delivering the fiery message himself in another black church.

Sonny Dewey is a good man, a man of God. But he is not without flaws, some of which are serious. After he discovers his wife having an affair and after he is voted out of a church he created, he commits a terrible act and is forced to flee and to live life in a far-off town not as Sonny Dewey but as “the Apostle E.F.”

It is impossible for the Apostle to remain hidden, however. He needs to preach, he needs to praise the Lord in a loud voice, and he needs to create and lead a faith community. With the help of a retired local pastor, he renovates an old church and through radio sermons, charity work, and the sheer power of his belief and his charisma, quickly builds a devoted congregation.

Even after he is found and goes to prison, he continues to preach. In the final scene of the film he is leading a road gang of convicted criminals in a litany of praise to Jesus.

The Apostle/Sonny Dewey is a complex man—a man with a big heart, a big ego, big desires and appetites. He can beat the daylights out of a cracker who acts disrespectfully in his church and be as tender and as forgiving as an angel when that same man comes back with a bulldozer to knock the church down. He is clever and resourceful, impish and cute, passionate and explosively violent. He knows who he is and never pretends to anyone that he is a saint.

Robert Duvall lived with Sonny for twenty-five years before making The Apostle. It is impossible to imagine any other actor who could play this role with the same power, the same nuance, the same conviction.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? (A sort-of) Conclusion

As I was re-watching these films it quickly became clear that I had rendered a rather harsh assessment in my brief introduction to this series of reviews. Obviously I had not watched the movies carefully and thoughtfully the first time around (I guess the reason for that is rather obvious), so I am now quite prepared to eat a little crow.

While coughing up feathers in the most dignified manner possible under the circumstances, I will point out that four of the movies reviewed are romantic comedies, and IMHO, this genre does not, by its very nature, produce cinematic masterpieces. Indeed, while rom-coms like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally are memorable and even support a re-watching every few years, they do not fit into the category of thought-provoking or artistic cinema.

Three of the films are what we might call straightforward dramas, although the stories are vastly different. I do not think that I would be interested in seeing or writing about Food of Love or Boys Love again; I suspect that two viewings have pretty much exhausted the nuance of both the story and the characters in each of these movies. Mysterious Skin, on the other hand, offers depths that I have not yet explored, so horrifying as it is to watch, it is equally fascinating and definitely worth further study.

Lilies defies classification for me at this point. As I said in my review, there may be no subtext at all and what we see in terms of story may be all we get. I am certainly willing to give this movie another look and even more looks after that, just for the sheer pleasure of it if for no other reason.

What about other gay movies? I have seen a few online, including several shorts. None has impressed me as “great” or memorable. I have been intrigued by some that I see listed on but they have been too expensive for me to justify purchasing on my limited budget.

And just what is a “gay movie” anyway? At least two of the directors, perhaps three (I am not sure about Ventura Pons, who directed Food of Love), of the eight films I reviewed are straight. Many of the actors are straight. Taiwanese director Ang Lee has demonstrated that a straight man can make a powerful, beautiful, and sensitive film about gay men; Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal showed that two straight men can make us believe that they love each other in the way that gay men love each other. In fact, we would never have been able to see the film if “Brokeback Mountain” had not first been a heart-wrenching short story written by (straight) novelist Annie Proulx.

Then we have the gay writer Paul Rudnick who penned In & Out, a movie I would gladly pay not to have to see again.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 8: Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin
This is a harrowing, moving, brilliant film—a film I find more difficult to watch with each viewing. Director Gregg Araki has adapted Scott Heim’s novel (which I have not read, but it is in my cart at into a nuanced visual tale of child abuse and its effect on two boys and the young men they become.

That Neil and Brian are both outsiders is clear by the time they are eight years old, which is where the film begins. Neil, whose single mother courts a steady succession of boyfriends, drinks too much, and dreams of her ship coming in while holding down a job as a supermarket cashier, already knows that he is gay. When his mom, obviously looking for a way to fill the child-care gap she has created by her lifestyle, enrols him in little league baseball, he is immediately smitten by the coach, a handsome Robert Redford type. Coach is a virtuoso pedophile who quickly recognizes the perfect victim in Neil and begins abusing him. He abuses other boys as well, but Neil, whose need—apparently both sexual and emotional—for a man’s love makes him believe in Coach, is his favourite.

Brian is a different story. A sensitive boy who is scorned by his father and overprotected by his mother, he is abused by Coach on two occasions, one of them when Neil is present and a participant. Brian is profoundly traumatized by the incidents and is plagued by fainting spells, bed wetting, and nightmares. The blackouts and the nightmares—and his highly active imagination—lead him to believe, even as a young man, that he was kidnapped by aliens at the age of eight. A series of meetings and small epiphanies result in the realization that another boy was somehow involved, and that boy was his baseball teammate Neil McCormick.

As an adolescent, Neil begins a career as a hustler. He starts out in the small town in which he grew up but eventually follows his childhood friend Wendy to New York, where the money is better but the “clients” are more sophisticated and more potentially deadly. Wendy finally convinces Neil to get a “normal” job at a sandwich shop, but one night on the way home from work he is accosted by a john and takes the bait. The john takes him to his apartment in Brighton Beach where he beats him savagely and rapes him. It is two days before Christmas. Neil’s mother has bought him a plane ticket to go home to Kansas the next day.

Meanwhile Brian has met Neil’s mother and Neil’s friend Eric. Eric and Brian become close (and some of the most touching scenes in the film involve the sensitive straight boy and the outlandishly gay Eric) and both await Neil’s return. Brian and a somehow changed Neil meet and Neil agrees to tell Brian what happened on that night at Coach’s house. In the final scenes of the movie Neil and Brian are in Coach’s house (now occupied by a “nice, normal” family, who just happen to be out on Christmas Eve so the boys can conveniently break in). They are on the living room sofa, Neil sitting and Brian with his head on Neil’s lap and Neil tenderly stroking his hair as he relates the horrifying details of the night of abuse a decade earlier. Neil does not dilute the story, nor does he have any expectation that the revelation will be cathartic for Brian. But we know that from this moment, the boys’ journey will perhaps begin to take a slightly different direction.

Apart from the cinematically beautiful telling of the story itself, the acting in this film is outstanding. Joseph-Gordon-Levitt as Neil is tough, tender, and sexy by turns and always believable. Brady Corbet as Brian is note perfect: confused, lost, angry, loving, determined, his character is revealed beautifully in all its touching complexity. The friends Wendy and Eric are also delightful.

One of my favourite scenes in this film occurs when Neil is in New York. He is in a bar where he usually picks up clients. The bar is dark and Neil is standing in a deliberately nonchalantly provocative pose. A man at a corner table lights a cigarette and approaches him. As he comes into the light we see that he is a Native American and that he is obviously not well. He takes Neil back to his room, which is all in white except for a large print of Vermeer’s Girl with the Golden Earring above the bed. The man is clearly of a highly sensitive nature, perhaps an artist himself. He undresses Neil and remarks on his beauty: “You are exquisite.” Then as he undresses himself, we see the lesions that afflict victims of AIDS (the setting was 1991). He tells Neil not to worry, that “This is going to be the safest encounter you ever had” and asks only for a backrub. Like Viola Davis in Doubt, this actor is only on the screen for a few moments but the depth of his portrayal -- of a man with AIDS so desperately in need to simply be touched -- is profound and unforgettable.

Mysterious Skin is a must-see.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 7: Lilies


This is a very different “gay” film. Having watched it twice now, I cannot help thinking that there is some kind of political subtext going on but I don’t know enough about Quebec history and culture to be able to figure out what it might be. Then again, I may simply be imagining that there is more to Lilies than comes off the screen. At any rate, I think it is an example of wonderful filmmaking.

The story begins in 1952 as the local bishop arrives at a prison to hear the confession of a dying inmate, a man that His Excellency apparently knows from the distant past. It soon becomes clear that this will not be a routine confession as the bishop finds himself confined to the confessional and forced to watch a drama enacted by the fellow inmates of the penitent.

The drama, in which all the characters are played by the inmates, and are all therefore played by males, portrays events in the lives of three Quebecois adolescents that occurred in 1912. It begins with the rehearsal of a school play, “The Death of St. Sebastian,” in which the role of the nearly naked, about-to-be-martyred saint is played by a youthful version of the penitent, Simon. Sebastian’s friend, who has been ordered by Caesar to kill him, is played by Simon’s classmate Vallier, a young man who is clearly in love with Simon. Into this highly erotic scene enter the young Bilodeau, who professes to be disgusted by this display of perversion but who is actually also in love with Simon. Simon prefers Vallier. He mocks Bilodeau’s scorn by tying him up and kissing him passionately.

The drama proceeds, seamlessly moving between the setting of the prison chapel and scenes in flashback to the village where the real-life drama took place 40 years before. Vallier’s mother, an impoverished French countess (gorgeously portrayed by Brent Carver), mentions the kiss in front of Simon’s father and the boy is beaten so severely he renounces his gay affair with Vallier and takes up with a visiting countess from Paris. It soon becomes apparent to the countess that Simon does not love her, but to preserve her dignity, the engagement is formalized and the couple plan to travel to Paris.

Meanwhile, Vallier confesses his love for Simon to his mother, who takes it upon herself to test Simon. She crashes the engagement party, followed by Vallier dressed as Caesar. Forced to choose between the countess and Vallier (in the presence of his father), Simon obeys the countess’s order to prepare for the next day’s departure for Paris. Vallier returns home defeated but finds the birthday gift his mother has rescued from the purgatory of rejected household items: an old bathtub. He strips naked and soaks in the tub, finally opening his eyes to see that his beloved has returned to him. In a touching and erotic scene the two make love in the bathtub.

Throughout all these events Bilodeau has been hovering, all the while displaying his jealousy and attempting to influence Simon to favour him. When he is finally and firmly rejected by Simon, he commits a horrendous act of murder and blames it on Simon, who of course ends up in prison for forty years.

Bilodeau becomes a priest.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Henri Nouwen: Competition vs Compassion

I am reading Michael Ford's Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen. Ford notes that when Nouwen was at Notre Dame, a professor in the newly formed psychology department, he wondered how the apparent obsession with football at the university "connected with the Christian message."

In a book co-written with fellow priest and Notre Dame faculty member Don McNeill (and Douglas Morrison), Nouwen had this to say about competition:
This all-pervasive competition, which reaches into the smallest corners of our relationships, prevents us from entering into full solidarity with each other and stands in the way of our being compassionate. We prefer to keep compassion on the periphery of our competitive lives. Being compassionate would require giving up dividing lines and relinquishing differences and distinctions. And that would mean losing our identities! This makes it clear why the call to be compassionate is so frightening and evokes such deep resistance.

This fear, which is very real and influences much of our behavior, betrays our deepest illusions: that we can forge our own identities, that we are the collective impressions of our surroundings, that we are the trophies and distinctions we have won. This, indeed, is our greatest illusion. It makes us into competitive people who compulsively cling to our differences and defend them at all cost, even to the point of violence.

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 6: Jeffrey


Maybe we are too far away from the days when the AIDS crisis was the number one topic on the gay community, but watching this film just did not strike me as an experience I would want to repeat—ever.

Jeffrey loves sex. But it seems that every time he is having sex with someone or is about to have sex, the disease gets in the way in the form of over-the-top caution resulting from extreme paranoia. So sex has simply become too fraught with frustration for poor Jeffrey to be willing to engage in any longer. He decides to give up the activity he loves best.

Then he meets Steve at the gym (where Jeffrey is working out, an activity he has decided is a decent replacement for sex), and there is instant chemistry. But as Jeffrey has vowed not to have sex, there is a bit of a cat-and-mouse game as Steve—along with Sterling, Jeffrey’s best friend (played by Patrick Stewart) and Sterling’s ditzy lover, Darius—tries to convince Jeffrey to jump into the sack. Things seem to be progressing nicely in this direction until Steve informs Jeffrey that he is HIV-positive. Suddenly Jeffrey has become the paranoid one and immediately backs off. Steve is hurt and offended and abandons the chase.

Meanwhile we learn that Darius is also HIV-positive, and ends up dying of AIDS. Jeffrey recognizes that he wants more than sex but is now afraid to make a commitment for fear of his partner dying. In his struggle with this dilemma he attends a workshop run by a self-obsessed New Age guru, played by Sigourney Weaver, and goes to a Catholic church to seek answers, only to be hit on by a horny gay priest obsessed with Broadway show tunes (played by the always perfect Nathan Lane).

But it is Sterling and the deceased Darius who finally convince Jeffrey that the experience of truly living life and truly loving another person is worth the pain of seeing them suffer and die. About to enter heaven, Darius tells Jeffrey, “Hate AIDS, not life.”

In its online review, calls Jeffrey “surprisingly lighthearted and witty.” The film just didn’t strike me that way. Apart from a funny scene with Jeffrey’s parents and Nathan Lane’s antic priest, I found it flat, self-conscious, and forced.

And it was narrated.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 5: Outing Riley

Outing Riley
This film is slightly different from the others in that I find none of the characters particularly attractive—i.e. cute. So why did I buy it? Well, there seems to be another attraction for me….

Bobby Riley is the youngest of four sons (he has a younger sister) in an Irish-Catholic family in Chicago. Like his brothers, he is a bit of a redneck—he is chronically sartorially challenged, loves his sports, loves his beers, has a distinct tendency toward sophomoric language and behaviour. He is also gay and very much in the closet with his brothers.

As the film opens, the Riley patriarch has just died and Bobby’s sister is reminding him that he promised he would come out to his brothers after the parents were gone (the mother died some time before). The “boys” decide to go on the annual fishing trip even though their father will not be with them this time. Bobby’s sister tells him that if he does not come out to his brothers on this trip, she is going to out him herself.

The trip is a litany of adolescent pranks and activities that highlights the closeness of the brothers and only serves to deepen Bobby’s dilemma. There is simply no way he can come out to them in this environment.

On their return to the city the siblings meet at the parents’ house to divide up family possessions. The sister has suggested to Bobby that a “family” slide show will do the trick, and she includes slides of Bobby and his partner in obviously “gay” poses. The brothers are not impressed. The eldest, who is a priest, is disgusted and storms out of the room. The other two—one is addicted to Internet porn; the other to pot—believe that Bobby and his sister have pulled some kind of prank on them. It is simply not possible that their baby brother is gay.

Once the truth begins to sink in, the brothers’ reactions range from outrage to disgust to bewilderment, all of these emotions accompanied by the usual plethora of homophobic jokes and remarks. When they realize that this little family “crisis” is not going to go away, the two middle brothers decide to meet Bobby’s lover, who happens to be a smart lawyer. Of course, he turns out to be pretty much like them (except for the fact that he doesn’t follow the Cubs) and he makes them look like the boorish fools they are.

The two brothers eventually come around to accepting Bobby back into the fold: he is their family and they cannot escape the simple fact that they love him. So in typical over-the-top fashion they hold a surprise coming-out party for him, complete with a large hand-written “Bobby’s Gay!” sign and a couple of hot strippers.

On the serious side, the eldest brother is unable, as a priest, to accept Bobby’s “active” homosexuality. He appears to truly buy the teaching of the Church on homosexuality and experiences great difficulty reconciling his love for his younger brother and his moral distaste for what he does in the bedroom. To the film’s credit, this conflict is left unresolved.

Outing Riley is a sweet and touching film. The family dynamic is truthfully played out, and the siblings, as well as Bobby’s partner, are lovable, distinctly individual, and believable.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 4: Boys Love

Boys Love
The next film in my collection is quite different from the ones reviewed in the three previous posts. First, it is Japanese. Second, although it is a gay-themed movie, the writer-director and the principal actors are all straight. Third, this movie has a distinct psychological edge to it.

The movie begins with a good-looking (of course) young magazine writer-editor, Taishin Mamiya, visiting the art studio of Noél, a (similarly good-looking) senior high school student, who also happens to be a celebrity model. The magazine is doing a series on the avocations of celebrities and this is the young writer’s first major assignment.

Both parties are surprised during the course of the interview. The artist does not get the usual stupid interview questions (“What’s your favourite food?” What’s your favourite colour?”) but rather pointed, knowledgeable questions about his art. The reporter soon realizes he is encountering real art and that in this case the “avocation” is of more interest and value than the vocation. The pair quickly establishes a kind of offhand camaraderie.

After the interview, Mamiya and Noél go out to an expensive restaurant/bar for dinner. Somewhat tipsy from polishing off a bottle of Dom Perignon, the young reporter heads to the washroom. To his shock and horror Noél has followed him and soon has his way with him in one of the stalls. Much confusion results for Mamiya.

Not so the artist. He cunningly arranges to have Mamiya visit his apartment, appearing at the door clad only in a loose sheet. The writer instantly realizes he has been deceived and tries to flee. Before he succeeds, however, Noél drops the sheet, exposing his naked body to the horrified young man.

Mamiya is becoming drawn in, however, and ends up making another visit to Noél’s apartment. But this time, it is not Noél he finds there. Instead it is the young artist’s classmate, Chidori, who suspects that Mamiya is just another of Noél’s apparently constant stream of sex partners. When he finds out that Mamiya wrote the magazine article about Noél and his art, he launches into a tirade about how he is the only one who understands Noél and his art, that he is the only one who really loves his classmate, and that Noél will eventually come to his senses and choose him as his partner. The young man (who bears an amazing physical resemblance to a brilliant and funny and lovable homestay student we once had) is clearly disturbed.

Chidori explains to Mamiya that Noél does art as a distraction, just as he engages in promiscuous sex, because he is sad. He alludes to a childhood friend of Noél, Ken-chan, who appears in the only painting that shows the artist’s feelings. “He’s more fragile and weaker than anyone.”

Mamiya employs a trick to get Noél to promise to quit sleeping around, but it is Noél who is smarter: he gets Mamiya to fall in love with him. The relationship changes them both. Noél becomes a conscientious student (and stops sleeping around) and Mamiya becomes his true self.

Chidori soon realizes what is going on between Noél and Mamiya and that his dream is about to fade. In a fit of jealousy he shows up at Mamiya’s apartment at one in the morning, expecting to find Noél there; he tells Mamiya that he will never allow him to have Noél. And in a pivotal scene, Chidori is waiting for Noél at his apartment when he arrives home. To get Noél’s attention he has removed the beloved painting and an argument ensues. Chidori forces Noél to confess his love for Mamiya and then tearfully begs him to realize that he, Chidori, is the only one who loves him. Noél replies that they are friends—no more and no less—and leaves the apartment.

Following this exchange, Noél gets very drunk and ends up nearly passed out in a seedy area. He is accosted by a man who beats him badly and rapes him. As a result of his severely messed-up face, Noél’s modeling career is on hold; meanwhile Chidori arranges for Mamiya to be implicated in Noél’s predicament and thus to lose his job at the magazine.

The two young men wait for each to text the other, until finally Mamiya sees a newspaper article explaining what happened to Noél. He rushes to Noél’s apartment after work and finds that the young artist has broken his promise and resumed his dissolute lifestyle: he is in the middle of another anonymous sexual encounter. Mamiya confronts him, calls him stupid. Noél responds that he does not believe in promises and tells his childhood story of his love for Ken-chan, an older boy who protected him from bullying and who encouraged him in his art. When Ken-chan was in the hospital and Noél was visiting him, Ken-chan promised to go to the sea with him as soon as he got better, as neither boy had ever been to the seaside. A week later Ken-chan died, and Noél realized that he loved him. The painting that Chidori took was of Ken-chan standing on the shore.

“But if loving someone is so sad, and if loving someone hurts me so much, I no longer want love. I’ll never believe in promises.” Noél starts to cry, and for the first time, Mamiya embraces him.

In the next scene they are lying on Noél’s bed together, fully dressed and chastely holding hands but obviously in love. Enter Chidori, returning the painting he stole. He sees the couple and the look on his face makes it clear he is about to go off the deep end.

Spoiler alert! Noél and Mamiya are in the artist’s apartment, celebrating Mamiya’s new job. In comes Chidori with a knife. He stabs Noél to death.

Mamiya takes the body to the seashore and carries it into the water until the lovers disappear.

One of the big problems with gay movies is that you get distracted by how cute the guys are. In this case, both Noél (who actually appears much older than a high school student; in fact, he looks older than Mamiya) and Taishin Mamiya are extremely easy to look at (especially for an old rice queen like me). The story itself is also quite gripping; it moves along quickly and the viewer is really wondering what will happen next, both in terms of the love story and of Chidori’s reaction to it.

So it is easy (for me at least) to miss the movie’s shortcomings. One wonders, for example, why Noél got so drunk after rejecting Chidori’s tearful supplication; he has appeared quite capable of chilliness throughout the story so far, and it is clear that he is in love with Mamiya. One also wonders why he didn’t go to Mamiya after he was traumatized; surely by that time there was enough trust between the two men. Also, Noél and Chidori were childhood friends. Chidori claims he has been in love with Noél since they were kids. Would he not have long ago realized that Noél did not love him romantically? And finally one wonders if it is realistic that experiencing the death of a beloved friend at age eight or so would on its own precipitate such a long-term cynical, self-destructive reaction.

Nevertheless, I do like this film.

Oh, and the title is quite clever. No doubt Boys Love refers to the love between Noél and Ken-chan, which Noél found again with Mamiya. But it also works well from a marketing perspective….

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 3: Trick

Now this one is really pretty fluffy. Aspiring young Broadway song writer and his semi-hysterical aspiring actress BFF (nicely played by Tori Spelling; it seems that women in these movies actually act while the boys just look pretty-kidding! (maybe)) present his new song at a songwriters workshop and it flops. So young composer ditches BFF and heads for a gay bar where a very hot nearly-nude guy is dancing go-go. Writer is clearly attracted but too shy/naïve/nervous/whatever to make a move.

Well, guess who gets on the same train as Young Writer is on his way home. They trade looks and Go-Go Boy follows Young Writer off the train at his station.. They go to YW’s room, which he shares with a straight guy. Straight Guy has claimed the room for the night as his girlfriend is returning from six months in France and well, they just have to get it on right away. So GGB and YW have only an hour to do the Big Deed.

Sadly, time is wasted because BFF actress happens to be in the room when they arrive; she is printing 150 resumes on an old dot-matrix printer. When she finally shoves off, YW is too nervous to get it on without all kinds of weird stimulation. And then just as things are slightly kinkily heating up, SG and France Girl show up early ready to do the BD. GGB, who lives in Brooklyn, cannot offer up his digs because he lives with an older woman who does not like him to bring guys home (Older Woman happens to be his mother, we discover some time later).

Thus the night is spent in a futile attempt to find a place to get it on. Naturally several misadventures and small crises occur along the way, all of which threaten to extinguish the possibility of a consummated tryst. But to our surprise, and no doubt the surprise of YW ad GGB, they realize that they like each other as people and do not really need to have sex right away in order to enjoy each other’s company.

They finally kiss as they are about to go their separate ways. GGB gives YW his phone number and heads for the station. YW immediately runs over to the very conveniently located bank of payphones immediately behind him and dials the number. He hears GGB’s voice on the answering machine and skips down the street singing the tune that opened the story: “Enter You.”

Sweet but not too deep. The only reason to watch it a second time is to ogle GGB.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 2: Food of Love

Food of Love
This one starts out quite well. An aspiring young pianist, Paul Porterfield, is asked to be a page turner for Richard Kennington, a major name, in a concert in San Francisco, near where the young man lives. Before the concert, Kennington’s manager, Joseph Mansurian, who, we discover later, is also his lover, tries to put the make on Paul. There is obvious attraction between Paul and Kennington (who is approaching 40) but nothing happens and each goes his separate way.

Some time later, just as Paul and his parents are due to leave for vacation in Europe, the boy’s rather hysterical mother discovers that her husband has been having an affair. Mother and son end up traveling to Spain alone, and in Barcelona, Paul discovers that Kennington has just given a concert there. He manages to locate the pianist’s hotel and pays a visit, which leads to Paul being seduced and quickly falling in love with Kennington. There is a brief fling in Barcelona under the nose of the unsuspecting mother, until Kennington gets guilt pangs and heads back to New York.

Mansurian, in the meantime, has hired a male hustler to have sex with him while his lover is away.

Six months later, Paul is in his first year at Julliard and living in a very posh apartment with his new lover, an older artist. The apartment happens to be in the same building in which Kennington’s manager/lover, Joseph Mansurian, lives. A classmate of Paul’s is signed by Mansurian and Paul is asked to be the young pianist’s page turner at a party given by the impresario. Paul agrees, recognizing that his hope of becoming a concert pianist has just been extinguished. After the party Mansurian, clearly a calculating predator, seduces Paul, with Scarlatti playing in the background.

At Christmas back in California, his teacher confirms his fears; she suggests that he pursue another career, as an accompanist perhaps, if he can bear to stay in the world of music. On this same visit, Paul’s mother discovers that he is gay and that there is something between her son and Richard Kennington. She keeps this information to herself but there is almost unbearable tension between her and Paul over his desire to quit Julliard and the piano altogether, her paranoid suspicion that Kennington has exerted some pernicious influence over her Paul, and her continued depression and hysteria. Paul’s attitude toward and treatment of his mother lead one to suspect that he may be a reflection of his father.

After Paul returns to New York, his mother attends a PFLAG meeting, which only manages to fuel her rage at Kennington for his “negative influence” on Paul. After the meeting she decided to fly to New York; she ends up in Kenington’s apartment in the middle of a surprise 40th birthday party for the pianist, who is on his way from Chicago. After Kenington’s arrival she confronts him and Mansurian, demanding to know the whereabouts of her son and accusing Kennington of lying when he claims that he has not seen Paul since Barcelona.

Paul is finally located in the apartment of his lover and he and his mother meet. He is horrified that she found her way to Kennington’s place and is enraged at her seemingly ridiculous accusations against Kennington. He treats her very badly.

But in the midst of her pain and her hysteria, Paul’s mother has intuited the truth about Kennington and Mansurian: that they are lovers and that they have both deceived Paul. Paul is chastened by this revelation and realizes that his mother is not a fool, after all. They are reconciled and the viewer suspects that Paul will be that much wiser in his relationships in the future.

Damn again! There is more to this movie than I saw when I watched it the first time. It does have a kind of logical structure and a kind of theme to it. And I have to say that Juliet Stevenson (loved her in Truly, Madly, Deeply, with Alan Rickman) is absolutely brilliant as Paul’s mother.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

What's up with Gay (-themed) Movies? Part 1: Introduction and Under One Roof

Over the past few years I have purchased several gay-themed movies, like Under One Roof, Outing Riley, Trick, and Food of Love. Of course, I have to be honest and admit that a (significant) part of the attraction of these films was the degree to which I felt the principals were cute. In this regard, I have not been disappointed. And perhaps I should have just been content with that bit of gratification and not harboured any other hopes or expectations—I mean in terms of dramatic interest, thematic depth, quality of writing, and so forth.

Of the six or seven films I have in my collection, I am afraid that across the board the cinematic quality is just not there. The stories are generally sweet (read, therefore, predictable) and/or marginally funny, or dramatically promising at the outset, only to lose their way in the middle.

And do all these films have to be narrated?

These are movies made for a gay audience. Surely we are capable of making and appreciating films of more depth and relevance than these. Or maybe I have not yet seen the “great gay films” of our age. So far, in fact, the most powerful “gay” movie I have ever seen is Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story written by a straight female author, directed by a straight, Taiwanese film maker, and acted by straight actors. WTF?

Now I am gay but not really engaged in gay culture, so I am humbly willing to be educated here; in fact, I beg enlightenment.

In the meantime, here is a sampling of what I have seen so far:

Under One Roof
This is the first gay movie I bought. Again, a big reason is that I was attracted to the main actor, a rather cute Asian guy (Okay, I get the feeling I am going to be—justifiably accused of hypocrisy here, or at least of wanting my cake and eat it too). The story is of a lonely young gay Chinese-American, Daniel Chang, the only son of a widowed mother, who lives with her and his grandmother in San Francisco. His mother is desperate to get him a wife so she can have grandchildren and he is desperate to tell her he is gay so she’ll get off his back. Neither has been successful and the resulting tension is palpable; it only increases when the new tenant for their downstairs suite moves in. His name is Robert. Robert is good-looking, gay, and available, and Daniel is immediately smitten, cranking the tension up another notch or two.

The boys do their clumsy and tentative mating dance in the “forbidden palace” while the “evil empress” continues to plot wedding scenarios unawares. Until a convenient sewer back-up makes the basement suite uninhabitable and pretty-boy Robert is consigned to Daniel’s room while the very-long-term repairs take their course. Daniel is determined, however, to keep his home life separate from his “homo life” and sleeps on the couch. In the meantime, Robert is ingratiating himself further and further into Mrs. Chang’s affections.

Well, Mom finally gets tired of missing her favourite night-time TV shows and Daniel is forced into bed with Robert. And after a few more steps of the dance, the boys finally get it on. The scene is actually pretty hot, and quite tender.

Anyway, they carry on this affair under the unsuspecting mother’s nose until Daniel is forced to make a choice between Robert and his mom after the city declares the basement suite illegal and Robert is forced to leave the Chang household. Ever the dutiful son, Daniel elects to stay with his family.

After Robert is gone, Daniel recognizes that the problem is not his mother; it has been him all along. His love for Robert makes him realize that if he does not close the gap between his family and his friends and boyfriends he will end up alone for the rest of his life.

Finally, Daniel tells his mother that he wants to be with Robert—“the same way that you and Dad were together.” His mother is scandalized, but Daniel stands his ground, telling her that he wants to look after her but that he will not pretend any more, not for her and not for his dead father.

Mrs. Chang invites Robert’s mother over for tea. Robert’s Mom tells her that she too was “heartbroken” and “confused” when she found out her son was gay. But then she met a friend who told her that her son had left home and never returned, and Robert’s mom realized that nothing would ever come between her and her son.

Mrs. Chang: I know Daniel is hurting. I just don’t know how to help him.
Robert’s mother: Would a second son be so bad?

Daniel is hanging out with his friend Amy when he gets a call from his Mom, telling him that she’s set him up with someone to meet. He immediately heads home in a snit, determined to set her straight once and for all.

Of course, we all know who is waiting for him when he gets to the house.

Damn! I have been watching the movie again as I write this and, well, it doesn’t seem so bad after all. In fact, it is rather touching and entirely believable (to a gullible romantic at least). I can actually imagine a Chinese only son facing a dilemma like Daniel’s and choosing family over romantic love. I’m just not so sure the real-life dilemmas are resolved as happily as Daniel’s story is.

But then it is San Francisco.

To be continued…

Henri Nouwen: Gifts

From Life if the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World:
It is worthwhile making a distinction between talents and gifts. More important than our talents are our gifts. We have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: Friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness. gentleness, love, hope, trust, and many others. These are the true gifts we have to offer to each other.

Somehow I have known this for a long time, especially through my personal experience of the enormous healing power of these gifts. But since my coming to live in a community with mentally handicapped people, I have rediscovered this simple truth. Few, if any, of those people have talents they can boast of. Few are able to make contributions to our society that allow them to earn money, compete on the open market, or win awards. But how splendid are their gifts! Bill, who suffered intensely as a result of shattered family relationships, has a gift for friendship that I have seldom experienced. Even when I grow impatient or distracted by other people, he remains always faithful and continues to support me in all I do. Linda, who has a speech handicap, has a unique gift for welcoming people. Many who have stayed in our community remember Linda as the one who made them feel at home. Adam, who is unable to speak, walk, or eat without help and who needs constant support, has the great gift of bringing peace to those who care for him and live with him. The longer I live in L'Arche, the more I recognize the true gifts that in us, seemingly non-handicapped people, often remain buried beneath our talents. The so-visible brokenness of our handicapped people has, in some mysterious way, allowed them to offer their gifts freely and without inhibition.

More surely than ever before, I know now that we are called to give our very lives to one another and that, in so doing, we become a true community of love.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"God is a foolish farmer"

I don’t often go to church these days; about the only time I do attend Mass in a Catholic church is when I visit my Mom in the small town of Chase, BC, as I did this past weekend. We usually go to the small church in Chase that is administered from the diocesan seat of Kamloops. This is the church where I first encountered Father Bob, whom I have blogged about in the past.

In spite of my disenchantment with the Roman Catholic Church and my recent ambivalence about attending church services period, I am still fascinated (for some reason) by priests and the priesthood. In my limited experience and observation, there appear to be two general kinds of priest. One of these is the cookie-cutter variety, which tends to follow a standard orthodox path in the celebration of liturgy. I usually find Masses celebrated by these priests, characterized either by excessive piety or a lack of sincere piety, singularly uninspiring. The homilies are boringly pedantic, patronizing and condescending, or simply incomprehensible. I cannot help but feel that these men are priests for reasons other than the desire to be loving and faithful servants of the People of God.

The second type of priest is the one who is truly himself. Orthodox or progressive in outlook, he simply loves being a priest, loves God, and loves the People of God. This love is apparent in all that he does, but especially in the celebration of liturgy. It is so rare to find such a priest (at least this has been my experience) that when one does encounter a man belonging to this second category, the occasion is memorable.

On Sunday, Mass in my Mom’s church was celebrated by Father Vincent, a young priest on loan to the diocese from Nigeria. The Mass was late beginning and when Father Vincent explained to us that this was because “several of our brothers and sisters needed to reconcile,” I could immediately feel genuine warmth radiating from the man. His voice was loud and strong, and he sang much of the Mass, in a powerful and beautiful baritone.

Father Vince’s English is flawless in every way except that it carries a pronounced African accent, making it, in my view, all the more charming and compelling. His homily was on the topic of the parable of the sower and the seed and was delivered without notes and without a pause or a mistake. It was also beautiful in its immediacy, its passion, and its use of imagination (“God is a foolish farmer: he sows his good seed even where he knows that it is not likely to grow”).

It is incredible to me this man could come from a country like Nigeria to the Interior of BC, where the culture is so radically different and the winters can be so bitterly cold, and pour out his love for people who must at times appear as if they came from the far side of the moon.

During the Prayers of the Faithful we learned that Father Vince’s father had just died, and at the end of Mass, he told us that he was going back to Nigeria in a couple of days to bury him.

Father, you are truly a man of God.

The photo above is not of Father Vince