Monday, March 31, 2008

Stranger in a strange land

This past weekend I attended an engagement party for my friends Thom and Dana. Thom and I met when we were both New York City Teaching Fellows, and he's a great guy. Dana is very sweet, and I also got to travel to the party with my friend Chris, another former Fellow. (Of the three of us, only Thom is still teaching, bless his soul.) It was great to see them all, but this was decidedly not my scene: held at a function hall in Long Island, the event was the most spectacularly heterosexual thing I've been to in quite a while. While Chris scoped out the girls-- and there were some cute ones, since nearly all of Dana's former high school classmates seemed to be there-- I felt decidedly out place. I guess I should have known I was in trouble when our train passed the "Hicksville" stop, and no one else found this funny. I just felt awkward surrounded by all of these people I didn't know, and slowly but surely everyone I had been talking to either left or became unavailable to me. Thom's best friend Jacob headed out with his girlfriend after a couple of hours, and Thom's brother Sean and parents soon followed.
I had been chatting with Sean, who is in the seminary studying to be a Jesuit priest and seemed like a nice, interesting guy. My friend Patrick was also in the seminary for a time, but ultimately opted out-- in large part because he realized he was gay. (I decided not to mention this particular tidbit to Sean, but I did tell him I had a friend who had once been in the seminary.) It's apparently a long, drawn out process that can take up to twelve years. After all of them left, I went back to the function room and found Chris talking to someone else; before long he was flirting with one of Dana's friends and I didn't want to linger about and salt his game. After the cake, the dancing started, with a string of increasingly lame songs that did little to lift my spirits. It didn't help that there was no one to dance with; I didn't know anyone there except for Thom and Dana, who were constantly occupied, and Chris, who was otherwise engaged. I would have loved a girl to dance with, but I hadn't made contact with any of them and I'm a little rusty at approaching girls at this point. (I felt like I was in middle school all over again.) In the bathroom Dana's brother was on his cell phone inviting a friend, and raving about the free drinks. "Dude, come down here," he enthused. "There's an open bar and this thing's gonna go till, like, midnight." This same brother eventually took one of the massive decorative cups and filled it with beer. I wandered outside and called my friends. "I am a stranger in a strange land," I told Ashley. She laughed. I joked that I should try to find the house from The Amityville Horror. "Chris is macking on some honey, and I don't want to salt his game," I explained to Ed. "What, did you become black out there?" he teased. Eventually I decided I needed to escape. I used a partygoer's iPhone to find a cab. Just as it arrived, I saw Chris's crush leaving, so I told the cabbie to wait. I ran back inside only to see Chris dancing with *another* girl. Well, I had been trying to build up his self esteem; earlier I told him that in my qualified opinion, he was "not exactly a train wreck" in terms of looks or appeal. (I can't understand these straight girls who complain about the lack of good men. I meet hetero boys that I would date all the time.) So I went back to the cab. "He found someone better than me to go home with," I explained, and we were off. On the way we passed a street sign for-- you guessed it-- Amityville St. At the station I waited another fifty minutes for a train; once it reached New York I endured an agonizing wait for two separate subway lines. I got home around 4 in the morning. I was bemused and exhausted by the experience. All I can say is, I'm car pooling for the wedding-- and I'm taking one of my gays with me!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The ends [*Spoiler alert*]

Last night Patrick and I watched The Mist, the Frank Darabont-directed adaptation of Stephen King's novella. (Photo above.) The ending-- spoiler alert here, so stop reading if you plan on checking out the film-- is unbelievably bleak. As in horribly, I-need-a-hug bleak. The movie follows a group of characters trapped in a supermarket when a mysterious mist filled with ghastly monsters invades their town. After spending the entire film trapped inside with the other squabbling townsfolk, five characters decide to make an escape attempt in a van parked outside. They eventually run out of fuel, and-- still surrounded by the mist, and having just witnessed a beast the size of a whale lumbering past-- decide to end their lives rather than be devoured by the monsters. (It's not exactly the feel-good movie of the year.) Their gun only has four bullets left, so David (Thomas Jane) takes it upon himself to shoot and kill his own son and the three other "survivors." Anguished and desperate, he gets out of the car and screams for the creatures to come get him. But what should emerge from the mist? A tank, followed by a convoy full of survivors. The military has overtaken the mist and its freakish inhabitants; David killed three friends and his own child moments before they all would have been rescued. He collapses to his knees and screams in agony. It's a gutsy ending to be sure, and one that packs an enormous and deeply disturbing emotional punch. The conclusion-- which was dreamed up by Darabont but approved by the somewhat more hopeful King-- got me thinking about some other less-than-happy endings over the years. While I'm hard-pressed to think of one as utterly bleak and nihilistic as The Mist's, a few similarly downbeat denouements do spring to mind. In making this list, I stayed away from "twist" endings in the vein of he's-really-dead! or the-Apes-took-over-America!; rather, I tried to think of films that end badly for their characters in a more straightforward way. (Alhough there is the occasional ironic twist in the selection that follows.) In the last minutes of George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), the lone survivor, Ben (Duane Jones) is mistaken for a zombie, shot, and killed. (See above.) It's a heartbreaking but fitting coda to a film that emphasizes humanity's inability to work together for its own survival and benefit. The zombie genre that Romero more or less created with his film tends to produce films with dour conclusions: witness the closing credit footage implying that none of the survivors will live in the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead, or the rage zombies storming Paris at the close of last year's 28 Weeks Later. (Right before we see them racing towards the Eiffel Tower, an ominous shot of a crashed helicopter strongly implies that the two children we've been following for most of the film perished-- along with every other character.) Horror master John Carpenter was admittedly influenced by Romero, and he has a knack for endings that are dubious at best and hopeless at worst. His breakthrough classic Halloween (1978) leaves us with an unstoppable bogeyman still on the loose and a hapless doctor who seems to have known he'd get away all along. Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) ends in particularly dismal fashion: Kurt Russell's hero MacReady has managed to slay the monster but will surely freeze to death once the fire dies out at an isolated research station. (Appropriately enough, the key art for that film appears in The Mist; it's probably a nod to Carpenter and his similar movie The Fog.) The director's 1994 chiller In the Mouth of Madness gives us a meta-mind fuck ending that's in keeping with the rest of the film. Sam Neill's John Trent stumbles out of a mental hospital to find a deserted world, seemingly decimated by the supernatural forces of sinister author Sutter Cane. He enters a movie theater where In the Mouth of Madness is playing: it is, of course, a recap of the harrowing narrative he's just lived through, and as Trent watches he begins to laugh hysterically and go completely out of his mind. More recently, Neil Marshall's excellent The Descent (2006) had an uncompromisingly grim ending, but only in its native UK: the lone survivor thinks she's escaped from a cave where monsters have killed all of her friends, but in reality she's still back inside, hallucinating a happy ending. The American release opted for a lame gotcha!-scare that still allowed the heroine to make it out alive. Clearly, Hollywood executives aren't comfortable with truly bad endings; Darabont reportedly had it in his contract that Dimension wasn't allowed to change The Mist's ending in any way. Marshall's original coda echoes that of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a short film that ran as The Twilight Zone's final episode in 1964. The film follows a convicted man who miraculously breaks loose when he is hanged and makes it back to his loved ones. In the last moment, the viewer sees that he never escaped at all and has in fact imagined the entire preceding narrative in the instant before he is put to death. While horror has produced many of modern film's bleakest endings, there are, of course, exceptions to this. Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000) ranks as one of the most horrifying films I've ever seen, and its final moments depict what is unquestionably hell on earth. The saga of drug addiction closes with nightmarish fates for every single character. Ellen Burstyn's Sara has been commited to a mental institution after losing her mind to over-medication; her son, Harry (Jared Leto) is imprisoned and has lost his arm to a grotesque infection; and Harry's girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly) has been forced into demeaning prostitution to pay off her drug debts, made to perform sex acts while a crowd of jeering men watch and taunt. (You might think this last bit could be kinky-sexy. Trust me, it's not.) These endings get under the viewer's skin precisely because they offer no happy outcomes or tidy resolution; in their unrelenting bleakness, they suggest that sometimes life is brutal and hopeless, and safety and solace aren't always attainable. While I wouldn't want to spend all my time watching films like these, I respect them and their fearlessness in telling honest and frank stories. At its best, film can be provocative and thought-provoking, and the filmmakers above and those like them are committed to that standard.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I know what you did last Saturday

"Life in the great suburban outback sure is fraught with peril, isn't it?"--Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes
Last weekend I went home to western Massachusetts for a belated birthday party with my family. My mother and I stayed at my grandfather's house in West Springfield, where, I joked at one point Saturday, "five minutes feels like four hours." Still, it was nice to hang out with Mom and just watch TV and have a nice, quiet evening ...or so we thought!! Around 11:30 or so Mom was upstairs changing into her nightgown while I looked at my new Enchanted DVD. (What? I loved that movie.) Suddenly there was a loud booming sound, and the whole house shook. The lights flickered on and off. I looked up and saw debris land on the street outside. It was like something out of a disaster movie. I ran and opened the front door. A minivan had been totaled across the street from the house. A man was staggering out of it. "Sir, are you okay?" I asked. I was already on the phone with 911. "I'm okay," the guy said. "I'm okay." He kept repeating it. He was young. I told the operator what was going on. "Is anyone hurt?" the woman asked. "No, he seems fine," I said. "I think he's lucky to be alive." After all, the minivan was trashed. It was tilted sideways, windshield smashed, both airbags deployed. The front was wrapped around a tree. The guy had managed to snap a telephone pole off its base and upend a fire hydrant in the collision. He came up onto the porch, rambling about how he "works on cars for a living" and was going to lose his job. "Fuck!" he said. My mom was here by this time. He said he needed to call his parents, so Mom asked me to find the portable-- she was afraid of him running off with her cell phone. But my grandfather (who inexplicably slept through the earth-shaking crash; he said later he heard it but thought it was thunder) seemed to have gotten rid of it. Mom finally just handed him her phone, and he had just dialed his dad when the first officer approached him. He flashed a light in his eyes, asked him if he was okay and said, "I'm going to have to ask you to hang up the phone." "I'm calling my father," the kid explained. "I'm still going to have to ask you to hang up the phone," the officer said. I must have gone inside at this point, because Mom was the one who heard the kid say he'd had "four or five" beers. No surprise there; my mother and I had surmised pretty quickly that the kid was "drunk as shit" (as Ryan Phillippe up there would say). But he'd also said he was eighteen-- ruh-roh. (Making matters worse, the mini-van was apparently his uncle's. Um, awkward.) Mom went back upstairs to change into a T-shirt and sweats. Meanwhile, a crowd of onlookers had formed and I overheard one of them decide he'd seen enough and leave. Referencing that night's showing of The Ten Commandments on ABC (this was the eve of Easter, after all), he declared, "I'm going home. Moses is about to part the Red Sea!" Most of them stayed behind the power line that was hanging low over the sidewalk; it stretched right past the house and anyone passing it had to duck underneath as they did so. The officer asked the kid, who said his name was Nicholas something-or-other, how much he'd had to drink and this time he replied "seven or eight beers." The muscle-relaxing effects of all that alcohol were probably what helped him walk away from the crash with barely a scratch on him; of course, if he hadn't been drinking so much he never would have gotten into the accident in the first place. The cop put him through a sobriety test, which consisted of Nick standing on one foot and counting to 10. He only made it to 7 before putting his foot down and starting over again. "Alright, son, you're under arrest," the cop said, slapping cuffs on him and leading him away. Mom came down right after that. "You got your phone back, right?" I asked. "Yeah," she replied. "Good," I said, "'cause they just arrested him." Mom said he'd been saying "I gotta get outta here" before the cops showed up, but I doubt he would have gotten very far, anyway. Not on foot, at least-- and driving was clearly out of the question. By this time there was a new drama: one of the telephone poles up the way had caught on fire. It started booming and shooting sparks like a fireworks display. A young couple came down the walk, each carrying a baby wrapped in a blanket. They explained that they lived in the house across the street from the blazing pole and were too afraid to stay. We offered to let them come inside-- it was cold out-- but they declined. I think they ended up getting into the father's car and driving away. They should have stuck around a bit longer: the firemen soon put the fire out. After a while, most of the neighbors went inside and it was just Mom and I out on the porch. Mom was on the phone with her sister telling her what had happened. A lone police cruiser sat on the edge of the street, blocking it off from traffic. Then another young guy came walking up in a bathrobe, munching on a pop tart and surveying the damage. "Hey buddy, watch out for that wire," Mom said before he could walk into it. "I don't want you to get electrocuted." He walked over to the car and got close to it. A cop came on the loud horn and told him to get away. I walked down the steps and chatted with him for a bit about what had happened. Mom had wondered what he was doing wandering around in a bathrobe, but I told her he was probably just curious like us. He didn't look much older than Nick; maybe they'd gone to the same school. He was probably watching The Simpsons or something, getting stoned, when he heard the fuss outside and decided to go check it out. After all, there aren't a whole lot of options for diversion on Saturday night in West Springfield. In any case, I'm glad the kid didn't die, and I hope he learns his lesson-- though who knows if he really will. It's a good thing he didn't hit anyone else, or the whole thing could have had far more tragic consequences than a downed telephone pole and an upended fire hydrant.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mean Boys

Last night my friend Sarah and I went to see Never Back Down, the new ultimate fighting movie starring Sean Faris (Life As We Know It, one of my fave canceled series), and Cam Gigandet (The OC, one of my fave series, period). We were prepared to revel in campy badness-- we were there to see sweaty half-naked boys pummel each other, not great cinema-- but the film was surprisingly decent. It's like a good B-movie, essentially. Faris stars as Jake Tyler (a made-up name if ever there was one), a troubled teen who moves with his family to Orlando and finds he can't escape his fight-heavy past. In one of the film's more amusing touches, a video of his opening tussle with a football player has already made the rounds at his new school-- seen in a montage of wired teens watching it on their laptops and iPhones. (After Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, I think it's safe to declare 2008 the Year of the YouTube Movie. What's next, Hamlet as shot on a cell phone camera?) Jake is invited to a party by a non-descript blonde cutie (Amber Heard) named Baja (?!), but it turns out to be an ambush: Ryan McCarthy, a popular blonde Nazi with abs of steel, wants to beat the shit out of Jake in front of half the school. Jake decides he can't give up the fight, so to speak, and takes the advice of adoring would-be heavyweight Max (Evan Peters) to join up with wise trainer Jean (Djimon Hounsou). Jean teaches Jake how to tame his emotions and improve his fight skills, leading to a final showdown (naturally) with the beyond-maniacal Ryan. Along the way, Jake begins a romance with Baja (she's got curves to spare, but there's zero chemistry between the two and it's one of those underwritten we-have-to-have-something-with-a-girl things) and tries to come to terms with the death of his father. Through it all is, naturally, an undercurrent of simmering homeroticism, from the moment early on when an announcer proclaims, "These two have been going at it all night!" to Ryan stripping off his shirt and pants for he and Jake's first match to the scene in which Ryan holds Jake down and growls that they're going to "get it on" soon. Other than these amusing double entendres, there's not really anything new here, but the cast is likable (Oscar-nominated Hounsou naturally out-acts everyone else) and the cinematography, production design, and music are all polished. The fight scenes are effective and well-edited without falling into that MTV/ADD style that plagues too many action flicks these days. Gigandet has a real knack for playing Adonis-type sociopaths; as Sarah remarked, "He can do that smile where he's almost sweet, but then he's not." He's the type of guy who could convince your mother he was an upstanding young man, then turn around and knee you in the groin. Hard. The only aspects of the performance that rang hollow were essentially the writers' fault: one lame scene with a domineering dad isn't enough to humanize or explain Ryan, and a moment late in the movie would seem to imply that he's actually learned some sort of lesson, and that he and Jake now have a mutual respect for each other. (Yeah, right! This ain't Mean Girls.) Of course, you have to wonder what it says about today's youth culture that there's such a ravenous, file sharing audience for Ryan's demented bloodsports. But that's a matter for another, deeper movie. This one is for those of us who are fight fans-- or who just like hot, sweaty men.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jude Law responds to Anthony Minghella's passing

"(I'd) come to value him more as a friend than as a colleague. He was a brilliantly talented writer and director who wrote dialogue that was a joy to speak and then put it onto the screen in a way that always looked effortless. He made work feel like fun. He was a sweet, warm, bright and funny man who was interested in everything from football to opera, films, music, literature, people and most of all his family."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Talented Anthony Minghella

Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient, died this week at age 54. Minghella had surgery to remove a growth on his neck, but was killed by a hemorrhage early this morning. My thoughts go out to his family, friends, and colleagues. I felt compelled to write today because one of Minghella's films is particularly important to me: 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. I was essentially dragged to this movie by my mother, who was attracted by the pedigreed cast and the 1950s costumes and sets, but walked out loving it. Adapted from the novel by master mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, the movie tells the story of Tom Ripley (Damon), a young man struggling to make ends meet in working class New York. Mistaken for the friend of an aimless Princeton grad named Dickie Greenleaf (Law), Tom is offered money by Dickie's father to travel to Italy and convince the son to come back to America. Using his considerable skill as a liar and a mimic, Tom convinces Dickie the two knew each other in school and gradually insinuates himself into the other man's life. Tom covets Dickie's status and picture perfect life: beaches, jazz clubs, and a circle of friends including caring girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Critics made much of this "class envy," but any reviewer worth his or her salt knew their was something else going on here, too: lust, even love. Tom becomes completely infatuated with his new friend, underscored by scenes in which he gazes longingly at Dickie while signing "My Funny Valentine" and plays chess with Dickie while the other man is in the bathtub. The story struck a particular cord with me, as I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality at the time. (I would come out to myself and to friends and family just months after the film's release.) In fact, Law's Oscar-nominated and supremely sensual performance contributed to my own growing sexual panic. I could hardly deny that I was strongly attracted to the actor, even as I tried to maintain a "straight" identity. As the film progresses, Tom is rejected by Dickie and kills him violently; he then subsumes his identity and tries to evade capture and suspicion through an ever growing number of tricks and lies. When the film was released on video the following year, I had already come out of the closet and could more fully acknowledge how the film's themes resonated with me. While my feelings were hardly as violent (thankfully!), I saw a parallel between Tom's crush on Dickie and my own fixation on Matt, a classmate in my high school. (In fact, when I wrote a coming-out play the summer before my senior year, I named the character based on Matt "Tom Greenleaf.") The mix of tenderness and eventual guilt Tom feels prevents him from being an "evil" gay caricature, as some viewers suggested. Rather, he is a complex and misguided man whose unrequited feelings overwhelm and nearly destroy him. Tom attends an opera in which one man shoots another dead, then cradles him as a fan of blood spreads beneath them. Tom has tears in his eyes, and I felt I had been in his place before: lonely, isolated, denied the love I that craved so much. Minghella did an excellent job directing this film, with uniformly outstanding performances and superior cinematography, music (both the score and the selection of jazz classics), production design, and wardrobe. I have revisited this film again and again in the nearly ten years since its release, and it remains a powerful and revealing look at the dark side of human nature. In my own life I have witnessed the devastating consequences that can result when we deny who we really are; The Talented Mr. Ripley is both a crackling thriller and a haunting cautionary tale.