Life Movies Music I Like Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

On consumption and censorship

The recent news about Wikipedia being blocked in the UK (not totally but mostly) because of album cover art in an article about a 70s band being possibly child pornography got me thinking about censorship and consumption.

Generally, the debates I’ve heard about censorship are polarized. On the one hand, I hear the “decency” folks saying there are some things that cross the line and shouldn’t ever exist. On the other hand, I hear the “freedom” folks saying if you don’t like it, don’t look at it or buy it.

But what if you don’t like it and you still look at it? If I watch Deep Throat in a Women’s Studies class in college for the purposes of dissecting it and analyzing it, is that different from watching it at home for sexual stimulation… or laughs? This goes back to a debate I used to have with some of my fellow department members when I was an English teacher. Some English teachers think the job of an English teacher is to expose students to “great literature.” I disagree completely. I don’t think The Scarlet Letter, for example, is well-written or even interesting any more from a literary perspective. It is, however, historically significant, and it, like any work of fiction, can be analyzed and argued over. The point of teaching English is to get students to think critically about what they consume—not to consume blindly, but to see that every work of art (visual art, comic book art, music, film, novels, poetry) conveys its author’s worldview or agenda, even if the author herself is not conscious of that.

I like to think I can analyze and distance myself from anything I consume, but sometimes I can’t. I’m not a big fan of visual or audio displays of torture, for example. It’s very possible that these could be presented within the framework of a well-crafted artistic work with a good social agenda. Nevertheless, I am human and not an intellectual machine. I still experience human emotions and horror.

This is also why I find it hard to believe politicians (especially male ones) who actively campaign against pornography and even show “exhibits” in hearings on pornography are able to fully distance themselves from the material they’re criticizing, especially since they’re usually criticizing it by arguing that it affects people’s morality (so it affects other people’s morality, but not your morality?)

When confronted with works of art that are controversial, we all should remember that we are both human and intellectual. We can be subject to raw emotion and gut reactions but we can also distance ourselves and analyze what we see. I don’t see enough of that tension in discussions about censorship. I’d like to see it more often.

Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Not to discount your hard work…

I confess—I love watching the E! True Hollywood Story. I love seeing the stories behind the stars and watching their rises to fame and fortune.

I am baffled by one thing, though. Why do they (either the stars themselves or their friends, family members, managers and agents) keep trying to make it sound as if the stars got to where they are today through hard work and talent alone? Yes, I understand they had to work hard. Yes, I understand a certain degree of talent is necessary to succeed. Still, do you really want to tell me good looks or connections had nothing to do with the road to success? Being the child of another famous actor didn’t open any doors, really? Having perfect bone structure and facial symmetry didn’t do anything for their careers?

Now, again, I’m not saying that you can just coast on your good looks and family connections or money. You have to do something. The acting won’t come by itself. The gigs won’t fall into your lap. But how many good-looking children of famous people are there who tried to break into Hollywood and couldn’t get an audition? I can’t imagine there are that many. There are, however, tens of thousands of ugly people who have no connections but who have talent and probably cannot get an audition.

I’m not going to lie. I’m a child of privilege. My parents both have advanced degrees. I grew up in a rich suburb with a more-than-adequate education system. I know that I’ve been offered a lot of advantages most other people don’t have. Have I had to work? Certainly. I did all my school work and earned the grades I got. And at all the jobs I’ve had I’ve worked as hard as I could. Still, I know that if I had come from a family of poor uneducated parents who didn’t speak English and who brought me up in a neighborhood with a failing school system, I’d have had a lot more obstacles to overcome.

So, folks—don’t lie about the roles of privilege, connections, and good looks in your career paths, especially you Hollywood folks. Yes, I know you’ve probably had to work hard, probably had to work damn hard. But so do many people. Some people work hard all their lives to make minimum wage with no health benefits. Those folks also have talents. Not to discount your hard work…

Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Stupid husbands and smart wives on TV

If you’ve seen any American sitcoms featuring het couples in the past ten years or so, you’ll probably have noticed that it’s common for the show to portray the husbands as a stupid but endearing oaf who likes beer, barbecues, watching TV, hanging with the guys, and ogling women; and the wife as a smart, attractive, career woman who is also a housewife… and who generally just puts up with the man.

Some people have tried to use this as evidence that feminism has gone too far, but I have seen no indication from feminist writers or bloggers that they approve of this dynamic. Granted, I don’t hear a lot of feminist outcry over it either, but it is worth nothing that feminists do not celebrate the gender dynamic in popular husband-wife sitcoms like King of Queens, The Simpsons, George Lopez, or Rules of Engagement.

I do think the dynamic comes from a combination of sociological factors and political light-stepping, though. First of all, there are several types of humor—slapstick, irony, insult, shock… just to give a few examples. Sitcoms, especially those featuring a family, have decided to go the insult way. Slapstick humor still packs the theaters (think Will Ferell and Ben Stiller), but it cannot sustain a several-seasons-long show for adults. Irony takes too much set-up time, and my feeling is that people are sick of seeing too many Three’s Company and Golden Girls episodes to put up with more of that Shakespearean “smart” humor. Shock humor is better suited for stand-up comedy, and at least on American non-cable television (where swear words are verboten) cannot be utilized to its fullest extent… which generally leaves (with the exception of Seinfeld) insult humor.

Now, as we have seen on Will and Grace, insult humor can go multiple directions (basically come from any character directed at another character), but I think it isn’t feminism per se that’s informing studios’ choices about how that humor takes its form as the studios’ perception of feminism. They know if the woman insults the men that men will take it because they don’t want to be perceived as having thin skins or not being able to take a joke (after all, those would be “unmanly” reactions), and they know if a man insults a woman, women will find it ungentlemanly and feminists will be up in arms about the woman-hating on television.

I do think, to combat this notion that it’s feminism that’s behind this depiction of men as oafs, feminists should speak up in objection to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, I don’t believe feminism is responsible for this dynamic ultimately, for two reasons.

When is it “okay” to make fun of someone? I work in a school. If some students did a skit making fun of the faculty, I’m sure everyone would enjoy it, including the faculty. If some faculty, however, did a skit making fun of the students, no one would find that funny, not even the other faculty. That isn’t right, since the faculty are in authority and would be abusing their power. Likewise, we as citizens of our government can safely make fun of politicians and draw caricatures of them in cartoons. If a politician made fun of a political cartoonist or regular citizen, however, it would be viewed as being in bad taste, since the politician is in a position of power and is abusing that power. It’s the same reason kids can make fun of their parents and parents shouldn’t make fun of their kids. In other words, backwards as it may seem to some who would like to think of the poor husbands as victims, the husband-wife sitcom is about as antifeminist as you can get, since it still shows men to be the “head of the household” that can take a joke.

Also it is a traditional marriage (not one of equality or even of female domination), in which the men fit traditional gender roles (ogling women, drinking beer, sitting on the couch watching TV) and the women fit traditional gender roles as well (putting up with men, cooking dinner, shopping, henpecking). It’s actually the perfect situation for men, for several reasons.

  • It reaffirms traditional gender roles.
  • It allows for men to identify with the husbands as being henpecked.
  • It allows men to complain that feminism has made it so men look stupid.

If studios really wanted to take feminism into account, they wouldn’t make sure to have the woman be attractive (she could be, but she wouldn’t have to be), the marriage would be more evenly divided (the man could take care of the kids or cook dinner), either party could be ogling other people or actually be totally faithful (not just “I work up my appetite elsewhere, but I always come home for dinner” sexuality). Stop blaming the feminists for this one, seriously.

Life Movies

I guess she looks trustworthy

The other day, we were in the video store, and my wife gave her opinion to two random couples on Lars and the Real Girl (thumbs up) and Batman Begins (thumbs down), and I think their reactions went just a tad beyond mere politeness, especially the Lars couple. They actually seemed to really take her recommendations and opinions seriously. She’s a stranger. Why would they trust her?

For just about every movie I’ve hated, I know at least one person who loved it. When someone recommends a movie to me, I always am a bit cautious about taking her up on her recommendation unless I know what other movies she likes.

I suppose my wife just looks like someone you can trust. Or maybe the Lars couple was just being extra polite and later walked out of the video store and said to each other, “Do you think she’s right?” “I have no idea. This movie probably sucks.” I wish we could follow up with them and find out if they’ll ever trust her again.


Christopher Nolan finally living up to the hype

I remember when Memento came out and everyone was telling me how amazing a film it was. I was sorely disappointed. I found it trite, and the whole film-in-reverse-chronology gimmick’s novelty wore off quickly.

Then Batman Begins came out. Same deal. Everyone said it was amazing. I thought it was a disgrace to the Batman legacy. The 1989 Batman kicked Begins‘ ass. Begins was just so hokey, in almost a 1960s camp way, except that it took itself too seriously.

The critics didn’t play up The Prestige too much, but it did still get overall positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I found the film engaging, but the plot was silly.

And that was the problem. I always knew way back from Memento that Christopher Nolan had potential, but he never lived up to the hype. Yes, Memento was a stupid movie, but it was engaging. Same deal with The Prestige. Christopher Nolan knows how to create engaging scenes. He can juggle a lot of cinematic elements without dropping the visual ball. But the stories in his movies have always been weak.

Finally, with The Dark Knight, his writing chops are beginning to match up with his directorial flare. If you, like me, hated Batman Begins and thought it made a joke of Batman, you should give The Dark Knight a go. Yes, some parts of it are still cheesy, but those parts are overshadowed by the intensity of the movie’s suspense and chilling nigh-realism amongst insanity. And Heath Ledger’s joker is the best joker I’ve ever seen. If you, too, were a bit skeptical of this latest venture, based on Nolan’s previous work, you should give the guy just one more chance. I have to say I’m now a convert and am looking forward to the third Batman movie of this series. I’m really hoping they adapt Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but we may have to wait until Christian Bale’s 60 years old. Maybe by that time he’ll have figured out the raspy voice bit isn’t working.

Life Movies

In Praise of Captions

Maybe chalk it up to how, when I was a kid, my mom used to walk up to me as I was watching TV and just start asking me things (at which point, I would miss whatever was being said on TV, because I was hearing my mother instead), but I’ve really grown to love captions. Of course, what’s been said on TV is really important. Whatever my mom was saying must not have been. And back then you couldn’t pause live TV.

Well, it’s decades later, and I don’t live with my mom any more, but I do appreciate those captions. A loud banging comes from our neighbor’s yard while I’m watching TV. A plane flies overhead. People upstairs are yelling about God knows what. The character onscreen is mumbling. No sweat. I still know what they’re talking about on my favorite show of the moment, all thanks to captions.

Of course, captions are not without their faults. First of all, some people think my wife and I are freaks for liking captions. Uh, we’re not deaf. And the captions take up a huge amount of screen space on the TV. We’ve also kind of become dependent on them… at least I have. If I’m watching a show that doesn’t have captions I’m like “What? I can’t understand what they’re saying. What’s going on? It sounds as if they’re speaking English, but what are they saying?” Worse yet, sometimes the captions are just wrong. Wrong word. Wrong foreign language.

My favorite caption screw-ups for foreign language are when they guess the wrong foreign language (in Pretty Woman, when the valets are speaking Cantonese and the captions say they’re speaking Japanese, for example) or don’t know a foreign language that should be fairly obvious (in a Dexter episode, when someone is speaking Spanish, and instead of saying Speaking Spanish, the caption says Speaking Foreign Language).

Well, Mom. Thanks for making me appreciate captions.

Christianity Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

For the Bible Tells Me So documentary is subversive

As you may know if you’ve read my post from four years ago “Subversive” Saved!? I get annoyed when people use the word subversive inappropriately.

Well, I just saw a movie called For the Bible Tells Me So, and I have to say it’s pretty subversive. Unlike Jesus Camp and Hell House, this film doesn’t have as its primary purpose the making fun of “those crazy Christians.” In fact, rather than seeking to appease anti-Christian non-Christians, For the Bible Tells Me So seeks mainly to educate Christians about Biblical interpretation and the theological dangers of selective literalism.

And where it doesn’t get you on an intellectual level, it also presents the real humanity of the situation: even if you do want to be anti-gay as a Christian, how can your heart not cry out for people with gay children having rocks being thrown in the windows of their houses? How can you not feel compassion for gay people being beaten to death?

But, apart from one badly written and juvenile animated segment, the film really is quite educational and should be a must-see for any Christian who is anti-gay. I can’t guarantee you’ll change your theological views on sexuality after seeing this movie. You should still see it, though. It’s great exercise for the mind and the heart.


Wall-E doesn’t live up to Pixar’s usual standards

I know I’m in the minority opinion on this one, but I found Wall-E disappointing. It wasn’t a bad movie. I don’t think it’s possible for Pixar to make a bad movie. It was, however, disappointing.

See, what’s great about Pixar movies is the whole package. Pixar movies (Wall-E excluded) tend to have it all. They have a good story, engaging scenes, refreshing humor, appeal to all age groups, stunning animation, character development, and proper pacing. When I see a non-Pixar movie, I expect something to be sacrificed. If the special effects and pacing are good, maybe the dialogue is awful or the jokes unoriginal. If the character development is good, maybe the plot is disjointed or the pacing is off.

Whether it’s only great movies (Cars, Monsters, Inc.) or amazing movies (Toy Story 2, The Incredibles), Pixar never sacrificed anything… until now. Wall-E is engaging. It’s funny. It’s cute. The animation is the best I’ve seen yet. That’s about all I can say for it, though. It isn’t a typical Pixar movie. The character development, almost nonexistent. The plot is lopsided and resolved too quickly. The conflict is mainly an external one. There is too much suspension of disbelief required (yes, even within the framework of the story) of the viewer.

Well, will people care? No, they’ll still see it. I still saw it. I still enjoyed it. I just hope that it’s a blip on the otherwise clear radar of Pixar greatness. I’m hoping the next Pixar movie won’t sacrifice plot and character development for special effects and humor. They’ve shown us many times that you can have your cinematic pie and eat it, too.

Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Raping 13-year-olds is now okay. Thanks, Roman!

The New York Daily News recently published this article: ‘Wanted’ man Roman Polanski dodges legal bullet. Let me translate some chunks for you.

Polanski was, and remains, a brilliant film director. But to many people, particularly in America, he is most famously remembered for fleeing the country after pleading guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl who was modeling for him.

In case you’re wondering, the pedophilic rapist in question only pled guilty to this “crime,” and it doesn’t matter anyway, since he’s good at his normal job.

The original judge, Laurence Rittenband, was a publicity hound and celebrity sniffer who cared more about how he looked in the press than what happened to either Polanski or the 13-year-old girl.

Both the lead prosecutor and the defense attorney explain in great detail how the case was about to be resolved, with a guilty plea and no hard jail time. But Rittenband thought that might make him look bad, so he ignored judicial protocol and went back on his own promises, declaring instead he wanted Polanski in prison.

Ordinarily society will let someone who’s good at his normal job off the hook for raping a 13-year-old, but one judge decided a rapist of young girls should get some kind of actual punishment. He must have ulterior motives for doing so.

The fact that this film focuses more on the court than the crime will understandably bother some viewers, since offering drugs to naked 13-year-olds and having sex with them is conduct the average American finds repugnant.

Perhaps to balance this, the film talks extensively with the victim.

Her biggest frustration, she says, is that no one believed her, or that people felt she or her mother, who set up the photo session, must have done something wrong.

Yet the case clearly didn’t break her. She’s frustrated with the system, but she settled a civil suit against Polanski and publicly forgave him. She’s a mother of three who’s been married for 18 years. She seems OK.

In case you’re tempted to have a normal reaction to this horrendous crime and don’t really care for Roman Polanski’s films, let me try to justify the crime. It’s not really a crime. After all, the supposed victim seems okay. Life went on. It’s not like she committed suicide or anything. Geez.

It does note, however, that many of his greatest films, like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” suggest there sometimes is no justice. Which would be a curiously dispassionate coda to a case and a life marked by so much fire.

C’est la vie.

Poor, poor brilliant pedophile rapist filmmaker. No justice for him. People should just leave the poor guy alone.

If you’re a rapist, you’re a rapist. If you’re a pedophile rapist, you’re a pedophile rapist. Or that’s the way it should be. Perhaps we should go find all the sex offenders in prison and see which ones of them might be brilliant performing musicians or innovative entrepeneurs if we just let them out of prison. After all, their victims might seem okay. Their victims, after thirty years, might be married and have kids. Right? And the judges in their cases might have had ulterior motives for sending them to prison. After all, raping 13-year-olds isn’t an offense that warrants a prison term… at least not for people who are good at their jobs.

Let’s take a look at the girl Polanski raped thirty years ago. From a 2003 article:

“Everything was going fine; then he asked me to change, well, in front of him,” she says. “It didn’t feel right, and I didn’t want to go back to the second shoot. But I didn’t at that time have the self-confidence to tell my mother and everyone, ‘No, I’m not going to go.'”

During that second shoot, Polanski’s motives became apparent.

“We did photos with me drinking champagne,” Geimer says. “Toward the end it got a little scary, and I realized he had other intentions and I knew I was not where I should be. I just didn’t quite know how to get myself out of there.”

Polanski sexually assaulted her after giving her a combination of champagne and Quaaludes.

Let’s see. It didn’t feel right, but she lacked the self-confidence to refuse (maybe this is why statutory rape laws exist?), and then he gave her alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulted her. What’s not wrong about this? Seriously.

I’m a male who is more than a decade younger than Polanski was at the time of the rape. I’m not a brilliant film director, but I’m pretty good at my job. I work in an admission office at a high school. Can you imagine if I told a 13-year-old applicant to take off her clothes, gave her drugs and alcohol, and then raped her? That would be awful. Since I’m not an Academy Award-Winning director, I’ll tell you what would happen. I’d be fired immediately, or at least temporarily suspended pending further investigation; ostracized from my church, family, and friends; given divorce papers immediately by my wife; and probably sent to prison for over a decade if not several decades, during which time I’d be tormented and raped by other prisoners. Yes, that’s what happens to pedophile rapists. And I doubt anyone would believe my defense if I said, “Uh, she seems okay now.”

Much as I loved Death and the Maiden, I can’t believe that not only is Roman Polanski walking free, but the the media is defending him. Yes, of course, the woman he raped when she was only 13 has been unbelievably strong and managed after thirty years to move on with her life, but that doesn’t make what he did any less wrong.

Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

A straight guy at Sex and the City

Ever since I saw the first preview, I’d been dying to see the big screen version of Sex and the City. My wife wasn’t that excited, but I was. And the friend we saw it with yesterday told people she was going to go see it with her married straight male friend just to amuse them. I didn’t realize what a novelty I was, of course, until I went to the bathroom after the movie was done—women’s bathroom across the way, totally full; men’s bathroom where I was, totally empty.

Granted, I’m a bit more “sensitive” than most straight males I know, but if women can see a male-targeted film like Iron Man, why can’t men see a female-targeted film like Sex and the City? I’ve never drooled over Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Manolo Blahnik. I’ve never had the kind of dating drama these women have had. I’m not white. I’m not rich. I don’t live in New York City. I’m not a woman. I’m not in my 40s.

Then again, I’ve never been captured by terrorists in Afghanistan and forced to make weapons in a cave. I’ve also never been an archeologist professor adventurer.

Contrary to what the lackluster reviews might have you think, Sex and the City was an entertaining movie, one of the most engaging I’ve seen all year. I don’t have to relate directly to it. It’s funny (yes, even with its bad puns) and involvingly dramatic.

Maybe I’m just coming from a different place. I know some people (both male and female, of various sexual orientations) can directly relate to a lot of movies. I don’t think I ever have. First of all, as an Asian-American who enjoys movie-going, I usually have to force myself to identify myself with main characters who are White or Black Americans or with main characters who are Asian (as in, from Asia). And, no, I didn’t feel as if the nerd-thugs from Better Luck Tomorrow were like me at all. Never have I come across characters who are feminist Christian males. Rarely have I come across slightly effeminate straight males. I’m okay with this, though.

I know for some others, movies are about speaking for the speechless, offering a voice and identification to various groups. I applaud these efforts. I’d love to be more represented in films (independent or mainstream), but I go to movies for the same reason people went to them during the Great Depression: I go to escape. Movies, for me, are about entertainment. I like a good explosion and chase sequence. I like a good joke or gag. I like relationship drama and yelling. I like some good character development and maybe even a little tragedy. I like to think. And I even appreciate a bad pun every now and then (Sex and the City, both movie and TV show, has this in spades).

I may have been the only straight guy at SATC yesterday, but it was a good movie, and I think a lot of guys missed out on some fun.