Because I am still trying to get my head around A Single Man, I thought I would post a few thoughts on The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s attempt to re-energise their hand-drawn animation division.
I have always adored Disney’s animated films. Memories of them go down deep – Peter Pan is the first film I remember seeing in the cinema. Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi… I can remember each of these films intimately. I think their late 80s to mid 90s renaissance was an astonishingly successful creative run. Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are two of my favourite films – both of them are wonderful musicals, with great characters, and a great balance between drama, romance and comedy. Even in its twilight years, Disney could still pull off a wonderful piece of entertainment like Lilo and Stitch and criminally under-rated The Emperor’s New Groove.
I went in to The Princess and the Frog (hereafter referred to as TPATF) with high hopes, especially after the generally excellent reviews from the States. So it is with the tiniest bit of regret that I say that I wasn’t quite as blown away by the film as I hoped to be. It was surprisingly well written, featured some fantastic voice work and is one of the most beautifully animated films I have seen in years, but it feels like its missing some element that would elevate it to more than the sum of its parts.
A few quick notes;
- The central couple of Tiana and Prince Naveen is one of the most appealing in any of Disney’s films. Both characters are well written, have a believable and interesting dramatic arc and more importantly, fall in love for reasons other than “the script says so”. This has often been a problem with traditional Disney princess films which tended to bland out the male lead in particular. Tiana and Naveen reminded me of Beauty and Beast and Aladdin and Jasmine in the equitable way that their characters are treated by the film.
- While not exactly emphasising Tiana’s poverty, the film does an effective job of highlighting the very real economic and class distinctions which prevent Tiana from realising her ambition and potential. What the film doesn’t really address is race – it tends to use class as a signifier instead, which is understandable if also cowardly and unrealistic.
- The voice work is, as in most Disney films, first rate. The supporting roles are hugely entertaining. I particularly loved Jennifer Cody as Charlotte, who gave a breathlessly entertaining whirlwind of dizzy blond ambition. However, it's Anika None Rose, who was unfairly over-shadowed in Dreamgirls, who deserves the most praise and gives one of the strongest female vocal performances in any Disney film.
- Disney gets scary again – its about time. Dr Facilier and his Voodoo shadows are actually really creepy and recall such memorable Disney villains as Maleficent and Ursula.
- The two areas that the film stumbles on are the music and the comedy. Randy Newman’s score has some nice tunes, but I couldn’t hum a single melody coming out of the film and the lyrics are particularly weak. The animators make a huge effort to spice up the big production numbers with some gorgeous visuals, but they can’t do much with the actual score. Likewise, the comedy is surprisingly weak, despite the strength of the voice cast. I think it’s these two elements which prevent TPATF from soaring to the same heights as the greatest of the 90s output.
Despite these caveats, if you love Disney and love the art of animation, I think its definitely worth seeing the film. The Little Mermaid had a lot of problems too, but it still worked, and more importantly, paved the way for a significant advance with Beauty and the Beast. I think the elements that work for TPATF are those which are the hardest to get right, and I really hope that John Lasseter (aka The Pixar Genius) continued to develop the work of the hand drawn division at Disney
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Friday, 19 February 2010
Ray Gosling is a former TV presenter who, while appearing on a regional BBC show called Inside Out, revealed that he had smothered a male lover of his who was suffering from advanced stage AIDS in the late eighties. He refused to divulge any other details about the man, apart from claiming that it was done in a hospital, with the apparent tacit consent of a doctor and that it was because of a pact he made with the man that each would do the same if the other were in extreme pain and suffering. Gosling was arrested by police earlier in the week who held him on suspicion of murder and released him on bail last night.
This case obviously throws up an enormous amount of questions and issues, none of which Ray Gosling seems particularly interested in answering. He claims that he would never reveal the identity of the man (even “under torture”) but did characterise his relationship with him as just a “bit on the side”. The social pariah status accorded to those who suffered in this time should not be forgotten – not only were these men and women generally members of a marginalised and oppressed minority, but the disease itself was the subject of a constant stream of sickening and lurid stories from a frothing tabloid press. I am willing to bet that there were many men who faced the decision during the horror of the early years of the AIDS epidemic to end the life of a friend or partner who was in agony. It would not have been surprising if there were many ‘mercy killings’ during this time, and in circumstances where the immediate family would either be unwilling or unable to be included in the decision.
So, broadly, I would respect Mr Gosling’s decision. I believe that some form of euthanasia should be legalised – that it should be fully consensual and strictly controlled. This matters more to me than you might realise and the particular case of Gosling obviously hits very close to home.
Yet, there is something about this particular case which just smells funny. Firstly, Gosling seems to have revealed this on the spur of the moment without any thought to the consequences. He apparently did not think that there would be much of a fuss, which seems silly as he was admitting to a fairly serious crime that had received a huge amount of press attention recently due to several high profile cases and convictions. I don’t really fault the police here – Gosling admitted to helping to kill a man (whatever the circumstances) which is something they are duty bound to investigate. I doubt it will go much further, but they were put in a pretty awful position.
Secondly, Gosling’s characterisation of his relationship with the dead man as his “bit on the side”. There is something a little creepy and wrong about using such dismissive terms about a man you were supposed to be so close to that he would ask you to help him end his life. I would imagine that one of the reasons that those who support the concept of assisted suicide are reticent about coming to the defence of Gosling is that we have nothing but his word about the consent that was given for this action. The fact that he was smothered also inevitably brings up questions. Smothering would likely leave a pretty good indication that death was not caused by the disease. Would the tacit acceptance of one doctor be enough to prevent an investigation?
I don’t want to impugn the motives of Gosling for this revelation. It’s not like the man has a book to sell or a new programme to launch. But I can’t help thinking why he decided that now was the time to reveal it, and then to be so selective about the details that he does reveal. It does nothing to help the cause of those fighting for the right to end their lives with dignity, and creates a world of trouble both for him and the police.
In The Independent, Matthew Norman speculated that Gosling was really talking about the death of Gosling’s long-term partner Bryn Allsop of pancreatic cancer in 1999, and that this may have been a roundabout way of confession to helping to end Allsop’s life. He also charges forward in defending Gosling;
What, asked Miss Montague, gave him the right? "Human... rights," he answered. "I'm sorry.... If it happens to a lover or a friend of yours, a husband or a wife, I hope it doesn't... but when it does, sometimes you have to do brave things, and say, to use Nottingham language, bugger the law." What a glorious expression of personal liberty that is. What magnificent boldness publicly to make releasing another from unimaginable pain a noble act of civil disobedience as well as of mercy.
I’m not sure I buy this and it certainly isn’t as clear cut as Norman seems to believe. He ignores what could be the very relevant particulars in this case; of how consent is obtained and who should be trusted in each situation. If Gosling’s story is true as he describes it, then the most important voice in all of this, the man who tragically dies, the “bit on the side”, is silent. We can never find out the true situation.
Thursday, 18 February 2010
I’m sorry, I know I have been using less than delicate headlines lately on my blog, and I had promised myself that I wouldn’t do this again. But that is the only reaction that could properly sum up my feelings to the news that the Press Complaints Commission haven’t seen fit to issue the mildest of rebukes to Jan Moir for her poisonous, homophobic and nasty column on the death of Stephen Gately.
It’s worth going back a little and reading exactly what Jan Moir wrote about Gately. Moir. Aside from completely dismissing the evidence of the coroner’s report that Gately died of natural causes, Moir talked about the "ooze" of "dangerous lifestyles" which “seeped out for all to see”. She followed this up with the following quote;
"Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael. Of course, in many cases this may be true."
"Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships."
(h/t Malcolm Coles)
Now seriously, we’re all adults here. The PCC is made up of media professionals. They know precisely about using dog whistles to attack a subject while appearing to be in full concern troll mode. Moir is clearly trying to use Gately’s death (and the previous suicide of Matt Lucas’ partner) to slander all gay relationships as inherently sleazy and tragic. No amount of mealy-mouthed qualifiers can change the toxic homophobia of that column.
What followed was an enormous storm of protest, which extended right across to Europe and America. Moir’s article was passed around blogs, websites and Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people read that article who would not normally have read the glorified fish and chips wrapping that is the 21st century Daily Mail. Tens of thousands of people, including Gately’s husband complained. This wasn’t a mob out for Moir’s blood – this was a group of engaged citizens who were disgusted at her vile attack on Gately, his family and millions of gay people in loving relationships. There was hardly a single serious media commentator who didn’t think that Moir had crossed a line. That this is par for the course for the Mail and its ilk is no longer an excuse. Moir can bleat on all she likes about freedom of expression, but it cuts both ways. She doesn’t get the right to slime a dead man and skip away free from criticism.
So, 25,000 people complained to the PCC. Their verdict is yet another example showing what a spineless piece of shit the self-regulator has become. Despite the quotes from the article above, the PCC claimed that;
While many complainants considered that there was an underlying tone of negativity towards Mr Gately and the complainant on account of the fact that they were gay, it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article
Seriously, are they fucking kidding me? They read that article and couldn’t discern that Moir’s attacks on civil partnerships were an attack on gay couples? Civil partnerships are this country’s compromise for not offering gay people full marriage equality. Everybody knows they are only open to gay people. This is about the least subtle dog whistle you can imagine. Not to mention her constant stream of thinly veiled swipes about Gately’s homosexuality (“he could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk").
It’s worth noting here that the PCC, as I mentioned above, is a self-regulator. It is made up of the very media figures and owners that people will be complaining about. Paul Dacre, the loathsome editor of the Daily Mail and Moir’s boss is actually head of the PCC’s Editor’s Code of Practice (which just makes me want to cry). Baroness Buscombe defended the ruling by saying that columnists had to be free to print material which may appear to be distasteful or challenging to readers.
That is clearly not what Moir did. Moir decided to ignore the facts of the case as established by the coroner’s report in order to imply that it was Gateley’s lifestyle (ie his gayness) which caused his death. I would argue that it was linking the death of Matt Lucas’ partner which should have been the final nail in her coffin. There was no reason to include him unless she were looking to make a point about gay civil partnerships in general.
I think there is something deeper going on here and it is well articulated by Anton Vowl. I happen to suspect that this complaint may actually have been upheld if it had not been generated by outrage on social networking sites. I think this was the PCC circling the wagons against the type of user-generated storm that can easily erupt now when an article touches a deep nerve within people. Moir’s spitefulness and homophobia, wedded to the death of a much-loved pop star, released at a time when the ability for people to share articles and encourage action is at its highest created a perfect set of circumstances and a real challenge to the PCC. I think they failed spectacularly and have done more to undermine their own organization and the concept of press self-regulation than any other issue in the last couple of years.
Its worth noting just quickly the context of Moir's remarks. At the time, there was a spate of hate crimes directed at gay people around the UK, with one older man being kicked to death by a gang of teenagers in Trafalgar Square. There was a pretty clear continuum between the type of gentle but still pernicious homophoboa that Moir demonstrates and the violent attacks on gay people. But the PCC likes to think that freedom of expression exists in some kind of apolitical bubble. Idiots.
Wednesday, 17 February 2010
This, my friends, is the new Greatest Quote of All Time.
As said with exquisite comic timing by Captain Hammer to his lovelorn arch nemesis Dr Horrible, it may be the crowning achievement in Nathan Fillion’s under-valued but wonderful career so far.
I don’t know why it took so long for me to see Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. I mean this is a Joss Whedon musical. The last Joss Whedon musical was so good, I cried a little while watching it (and am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that). It stars Nathan Fillion who really can do no wrong at this stage. And while I have never seen How I Met Your Mother, I have always admired Neil Patrick Harris as a thoroughly modern gay celebrity. Like Ellen and Portia de Rossa, there is something refreshingly ordinary about his success and his gayness which probably does more to help kids come to terms with their sexuality than any number of earnest platitudes.
Yet I only for to see it for the first time last night. Dr Horrible isn’t perfect. I found the time constraints to be particularly irritating – each act is less than a quarter of an hour long which means that brevity is one of the show’s main characteristics. This plays very well for the comedy and musical sequences, but it’s a problem for the more dramatic and romantic elements of the story. The turn into darker territory in the end could have used some more time to develop, as could the earlier scenes between Horrible and Penny which sets up Horrible’s desire for her. Just making her sweet and nice to the homeless isn’t quite enough to sell the tragedy of the last act.
This is sort of important, but they ensure Dr Horrible is only a minor piece of brilliance in the Whedon pantheon. But minor key Whedon is still better then most of the shite out there and as a piece of short-form storytelling, Dr Horrible is certainly a weirdly perfect incapsulation of much of what makes Whedon worthwhile. It is consistently funny, likes to mess with genres to create something organic and sweet and it is a constant whirling-dervish of invention. Whedon writes great dialogue, he always has, but there is something surreally wacky about the elements of the Dr Horrible plot which display a new side to his writing. He takes the idea of a deconstructed comic hero-world and twists and enriches that vision with additions from Python, musical romance and soap opera.
And the cast… oh lordy the cast is wonderful. Felicia Day is luminous as Penny – it’s a shame that she isn’t given much to work with (this is one of the very rare instances of a Whedon show where the female role feels distinctly undercooked). Nathan Fillion looks like he is having insane amounts of fun as Captain Hammer. He gets most of the really funny lines and it helps that with his square jaw and (ahem…) rippling muscles, he looks like he stepped out of an old-fashioned comic book.
And as Dr Horrible, Neil Patrick Harris took the slightly under-written elements of the plot and characters and sells them completely. He is funny, sad, romantic – he sings, he dances, and he takes a beating with aplomb. He proves himself a natural at Whedon’s particular brand of stylised dialogue and he is spectacularly good at the pissy, dead-pan humour of Dr Horrible’s blog entries.
Harris is a rarity – one of the very few publicly out actors who has continued to have a thriving career playing very straight roles. Perhaps it is the public’s memory of him Dougie Howser and the affection they feel towards his sitcom stardom which makes this possible. But his class, and talent are hugely important in their own ways to helping breaking barriers and misconceptions about the ability of gay actors to become genuine stars.
I am still slightly unsure if this is the marker for a new way of artists working cooperatively. One of the aspects of Whedon’s creative career which I have always liked is how he seems to gather about him a large group of collaborators that follow him from project to project. With Dr Horrible, you have a some of his ex-writing staff making cameos all over the place. Both Fillion and Day have worked with Whedon before. It’s produced by James Contner. His brothers worked on the music and script. You see the same thing in Dollhouse. I don’t know why, but the idea that Whedon honours those who have helped him, and that he remains in this kind of contact with them is the sort of thing which makes me feel all the more thankful towards the end product. That he financed it himself and then shared the profits with cast and crew, just gives me warm and fuzzies..
I would be fearful for Whedon that if he started to go down this path it would further ghettoise him as a niche artist. I he has never quite been a JJ Abrams type, and his experiences with Network television haven’t been smooth, but Buffy and Angel became pop cultural phenomenons that expanded far beyond their initial viewings. I am not quite sure if the web would provide the same opportunities, particularly with the ADD way we all tend to consume media online. Dr Horrible already felt slightly constrained by the brevity of form – I want to see an expanded Dr Horrible world, not another few episodes chopped to fit into short bursts.
But that’s just me. I am greedy when it comes to Whedon’s work.
PS - SpellCheck weirdness – whenever I type Whedon in MSWord, it wants to change it to Théoden. Considering I have just finished the Helms Deep section of Two Towers, this tickled me.
PPS – If anybody wants to buy me a Captain Hammer t-shirt, I will love you long time
Monday, 15 February 2010
I am slightly ahead of schedule with the Lord of the Rings. I had given myself until the end of this weekend to reach the breaking of the fellowship at the end of book two but I was too engrossed in the whole thing and flew right into The Two Towers at some point yesterday afternoon. I am now with Merry and Pippin and the Ents, staring down at the murk of Isengard.
I think most people would agree that Fellowship is clearly the best of the books. Tolkien is obviously in complete romantic abandon with the world of The Shire, the Old Forest, The Barrow Downs, Bree and Rivendell. The pace quickens once the Fellowship is formed, but it feels organic as the story turns into a propulsive set of confrontations; The Fellowship v Caradhras, Gandalf v The Balrog, Frodo v Galadriel and finally, and most tragically, Frodo and Boromir. And while the second half of the book was as fresh and vivid as I remembered, I found the early part of the journey, up to the Weathertop to be much more immersive and entertaining this time round.
I think this is a function of being so familiar with the films. In Fellowship, the events after The Council of Elrond follow the course of the novel pretty closely. The deepest cuts are in the earlier part of the journey, and its not just Tom Bombadil. For example, I had forgotten how eerie and tense the whole Barrow-Wight section was (and am sorry to never get the chance to see Jackson visualise that section). And the development of the bond amongst the hobbits is also something which is sort of ‘assumed’ in the film, but is a delight to follow. This isn’t a case of the novel necessarily being better – due to length, the film had to often work in shorthand. Luckily the actors were excellent and had enough chemistry as a group to sell you their bond without it needing to be spelt out.
One of the areas that feels strange in the book is the lengthy time-frames. Once Gandalf confirms that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring, the film barrels forward with breathtaking momentum, pausing briefly for breath at Rivendell and Lothlorien, but otherwise driving relentlessly forward to its epically emotional climax with the death of Boromir. The book… not so much. For a start, about 17 years or so passes between Bilbo and Frodo’s departure. And even when Frodo learns about the One Ring, he still takes months to leave The Shire. I think this is a story point which Tolkien never finds a particularly good excuse for – the idea that Frodo has to be careful about just disappearing is pretty weak tea when it’s the Root of All Evil that is in his possession. The delay doesn’t serve any kind of story function and really makes Gandalf and Frodo look more than a little idiotic. Though this doesn’t take away form how enjoyable the story is when Frodo finally decides to leave The Shire, it does make the opening a little clunky.
I was also sort of surprised at how the novel, and in particular the dialogue stood up. I don’t think anybody would argue with the idea that he isn’t the world’s most elegant writer of dialogue. It’s often stiff and bland, particularly with some of the more noble characters of high-born Elves (who I find tiresome and dull). Tolkien is at his best when writing Bilbo, Gandalf or Sam – they seem to have the more character and life to them then anybody else. But despite the fact that his style has been imitated and hilariously parodied for almost half a century now, The Lord of the Rings manages to flat above the fray – there is an aura of complete self-possession about the book which make it very easy to get swept by. Tolkien’s own deadly-serious belief actually works in the books favour – it gives it the feeling of revealed history rather than silly fantasy and allows the reader to glide past the awkward plotting and dodgy episodes (Tom Bombadil is just as irritating as I remembered).
Finally, its also clear what an amazing adaptation the movie was. It keeps the emotional and spiritual core of each character, deftly weaves in monumental amounts of exposition and still makes for a hugely exciting and ultimately heart-breaking journey. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens knew perfectly which of Tolkien’s dialogue needed to be kept and the subtle manoeuvrings of plot and character elements is beautifully done.
Onward to Rohan, Helms Deep and Emyn Muil
Friday, 12 February 2010
For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the very best bloggers out there, has often written movingly about the conflicts within the larger American black community and the difficulty of airing those conflicts, which encapsulate class, race and gender, in the glare of the disapproval or bigotry of the white population.
For the gay community, one of those 'unmentionables' is monogamy, specifically (and I am probably laying myself open to all sorts of biases here) gay male monogamy. It's no secret that one of the claims that gets thrown round about gay men all the time is that they are incapable of forming deep, emotional bonds with one another – that their relationships are based on nothing but sweaty sinful fucking and therefore they don't deserve the respect that 'normal' straight couples are accorded. Marriage is too 'sacred', even in its civil state, to be sullied with the association of a little groom on groom action.
The thing is, there is a much wider and more accepting attitude towards open relationships in the gay community. I think this is a healthy thing – the open relationships that I know of tend to be stronger, more trusting and more likely to last then the closed ones. I realise that this is not a hard and fast rule, but I think that many straight relationships would benefit from being more honest about their desires. I think a good open relationships forces all parties to be more honest about their emotions and desires.
Remember, I said that a 'good' open relationship works that way. By good, I mean one that is based on trust, respect, decent communication and love. It can help to remove the pressure that sex can often create between two people and allow something deeper to develop.
Clearly though, this isn't for everybody, or even for most people. The idea of a one true love that you can share your physical and emotional life with is too ingrained in our culture. The disapproval and even disgust that these couples will inevitably encounter if they 'come out' as being in an open relationship will also be painful.
The prevalence of couples who sleep with people outside the relationship or marriage within the gay community is not something that we like to talk about in polite society. That's because so many of the fights that we are currently engaged in come down to trying to pass as 'normal', And normal in this case isn't exactly normal within the gay community (which would mean acknowledging a more diverse ran ge of relationship options) but normal as prescribed by the more conservative straight elements in society. There are a lot of people within the gay community who believe that the fight for marriage equality is a sad attempt to ape a tradition which is based to some degree on oppression.
I think this is blinkered view but it gets at the complexities that the marriage debate throws up within the gay community, complexities which many straight people either wouldn't understand or would use against all gay people in an attempt to deny them equal civil rights. So we like to keep these debates on the down low and pretend that we really are the same. When I honestly don't think that we are, at least not at this stage. The legacy of the closet overshadows everything.
This was prompted by a post at Box Turtle Bulletin about a piece of research which was reported as proving the existence of widespread open relationships amongst gay people (not a total shock) snd which was picked up by the religious right and used to demonise all gay couples and argue against gay marriage (also not a shock). So this will once again mean that the debates will go underground, 'just between friends', and it poisons the well for promoting more honest dialogue which could also help straight couples.
This post had a point – good luck finding it
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
This is a bit of a difficult and stressful week for me. I have two interviews (one of which was today and the other on Friday), both for jobs I really want. One of them even includes an exam, something I thought I was done with a long time ago. I am using parts of my brain this week that I mothballed sometime in 2003.
With that in mind, I knew I wouldn't be much good in trying to take on a new book this week. Even though I currently have Wolf Hall, A Little Stranger, Nixonland and The Gun and the Olive Branch all sitting by my bedside table begging to be read, I have chosen instead to immerse myself into re-reading The Lord of the Rings. This is the ultimate in comfort reading.
I first read LotR when I was 12. I needed a book to do my first book report in English when I started secondary school. Goaded on by my brother and dad, I decided to read LotR in two weeks. Predictably, I didn't actually sleep for that entire fortnight. It was worth it however when I presented my English teacher with a 40 page fully illustrated and bound book report, earning her eternal devotion as a teacher, and my classmates eternal derision. Pretty much from that moment on, I was tagged the class swot.
Luckily, the horror of secondary school fades after a bit, and I am still left with a life-long love of LotR. I can still remember the feverish intensity with which I read it the first time and the unadulterated pleasure of re-reading it many times since. It's been a while since I read the entire thing in one go - I have often just picked up one of the books, or read certain sections. The last time I read the whole book was abut seven or eight years ago when I was ill over Christmas (and yes that does include the Introduction and Appendices!).
For me, its like a warm blanky, the same way that I feel about the films. That's not to say I consume it passively. I am already at Weathertop with Frodo, Strider and the other hobbits and I have barely been able to put it down. Its fun also to read it with the films so firmly ingrained in my mind, to wonder once more at the incredible job that Jackson and Co did in adapting the books. I picture the actors in my head now as I read, but this hasn't narrowed my enjoyment of the books, but made them more vivid and enjoyable.
I will probably wrap up the Fellowship sometime at the weekend when I may get the chance to write a longer piece before delving into The Two Towers. Its one of the few things that has successfully distracted me from the job hunt.
Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Steven Sodebergh is directing a film called Contagion which is sort of like Traffic mixed with Crisis in the Hot Zone (one of my favourite ever non-fiction books). It stars Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, and My Straight Wife, Kate Winslet.
Luckily, knowing the speed that Soderbergh works at, this should be out in about 4 weeks time
Monday, 8 February 2010
This is a film whose raw elements work brilliantly. Mo’Nique is as good as I have been hearing for close to a year now. She is terrifying in the film – her scenes were some of the tensest, most unpleasant things I have sat through in a long time, mostly because she was utterly convincing and real. I was expecting her to be much louder, more extreme presence but her quieter, more contained venom was much more chilling.
Her big break-down scene is an excellent example. I figured this would be the moment where the film would try to ‘humanise’ her, make her a bit more sympathetic. To some extent it did, but not in the way I was expecting. Mary starts out trying to sound contrite about how she has treated Precious, but under the relentless prodding from Mariah Carey’s special worker Ms Weiss, she breaks down and explains exactly why she allowed Precious to be abused by her father and why she herself then continued the abuse. It’s a terrifying, sad, pathetic scene and Mo’Nique is fearless, laying bare this woman’s twisted, ugly soul, making her both more believable and more shocking. She deserves every single award she has received for her work.
The rest of the cast aren’t too shabby either. Gabby Sidibe gives one of those performances which doesn’t feel like acting so much as simply being. The fact that she is nothing like Precious in real life is just a marker of the brilliance of her work. Paula Patton is lovely, grounded and sincere as Ms Rain but she has one of the more problematic roles (more on that later). Mariah Carey has received a lot of enthusiastic reviews, and while I think she is does good work, the role itself doesn’t really go anywhere.
I do want to give a special mention to the actresses who play Precious’ classmates. Whoever put that group together should get a special award – what a superb bunch of performers. Effortlessly natural and funny, they made the film a much warmer and funnier experience than I expected. And Lenny Kravatz looks very pretty…
Director Lee Daniels ramps the melodrama up pretty high (a friend of mine called it bathos and I think that’s a perfect description). He gets a lot of mileage out of rubbing our noses into the grime of Precious’ life but I actually think this is quite honest in its own way. Melodrama wants to evoke strong emotions in people and I respect his stylistic decision. I think he mostly manages to stay on the right side of sentimentality throughout, and he generates some pretty unbearable tension in the scenes with Mo’Nique. More than that, Daniels seems to love all his characters – he likes to hang out with them, especially the girls in the class scenes and this lends the film a vibrancy and humanity that helps it overcome some of the trickier tonal inconsistencies.
Because those inconsistencies are right there in the script. I haven’t read Sapphire’s novel and I have no idea how close to reality the film is. But we should be clear about one thing – this is a film, a piece of fiction and as such, it should be judged about how well it shapes its material. I think it is all a bit of a mess, veering quite wildly between horror, goofy comedy, inspirational drama and intense tragedy. Some of these parts work much better than others. Anything with Mo’Nique is superb and the scenes between the girls in the classroom have an easy, unforced warmth. But the character of Blu Rain, as played by Paula Patton, seems to have been dropped in from another film. I don’t deny that great teachers like her exist, but her dialogue was often trite and ridiculous and the film suddenly seemed a bit like typical Hollywood schlock. This inconsistency didn’t really bother me as I was watching the film but I think it did contribute to my ambivalence about the ending.
There has been a lively debate about the film, the most recent being David Cox’s screed published in The Guardian. I think Cox is wildly over the top in denouncing the film, and is guilty himself of the same crime he accuses other viewers of, of universalising Precious’ experiences to all poor black people. I don’t doubt that there are people out there who will sit in smug satisfaction in the cinema while their worst prejudices about tenement life are realised. I don’t think this is fair – the film never tries to portray Precious as emblematic of an entire gender, race or social class. Her life is too specific for that and I don’t think the filmmakers should be criticised for the reaction of lazy, selfish viewers.
For me, there was nothing particularly ‘ennobling’ about watching the film. I didn’t get a vicarious thrill out of the grime, sweat, blood and tears. In fact, I got a sense of ultimately how precarious Precious’ hope was at the end of the film. I left the cinema still not quite sure if Daniels intended the final moments as some kind of bitter irony or not. Yes, Precious had faced down her mother, but she was still a poor, ill-educated, HIV positive teenage mum. Her decision to look after her kids seems to have been treated as a brave, necessary decision, but I can’t help agreeing with Ms Rain (in the one bit of complexity her saintly character is allowed) that Precious’ best option was to give the children up for adoption. The HIV situation just seemed thrown out there as well. Considering this was set in 1988, when a HIV diagnosis was still considered a short-term death sentence, the lack of any impact her status, age and education levels would have on her being allowed to keep her kids is a little mystifying.
In Cox’s article, he criticises the film thusly;
The picture painted presents 16-year-old, 25-stone Precious as the victim, not of social and economic conditions, even partially, but solely of the behaviour of her kind. Nonetheless, she must somehow show she can blossom and inspire us. The film-makers don't give her much of a helping hand… Their betters can pity them, but they're required to do little else. Routes out of disadvantage have been made available. Unfortunately, most of those who need them won't be taking them. Still, that's really the fault of their own incorrigibility. What a shame.
I call bullshit on this. I can’t believe that Cox sat through the film and came out thinking that it had not shown exactly how social and economic issues conspired along with the abuse and horror of her own family life, to severely limit Precious’ options. I actually thought that the film was quite subtle about showing the cycle of poverty which conspires to keep women like Precious in ghetto life, without ever feeling like it was a polemic. Either Cox wasn’t paying attention or he went in with his mind already made up.
So yes, I had some quite serious problems with the film. Those problems do become more serious the more I think about them so I can’t really jump on the rave bandwagon. However, I do think it will well worth watching for the strength of the acting and for Daniels go-for-broke direction.
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
First, we had the British Special Attitudes Survey which said that almost half of those surveyed thought that homosexuality was wrong at least some of the time (see previous posts for more info). Then, The Independent published a report from a gay journalist who went undercover in the burgeoning industry of ex-gay therapies in the UK. Though some of these sessions are apparently are being paid with NHS funding, they are based on either an entirely religious foundation, or use offensive, out-dated and damaging theories which could cause serious mental anguish to those who turn in desperation and unhappiness to their services.
Last year a British Medical Council survey found that 1 in 6 psychiatrists had attempted to change a person’s orientation. This is frightening enough, and becomes more so when coupled with a growing number of charlatans or religious whackos who are out to fleece troubled, vulnerable people or proselytise for their particular brand of sky fairy. These things don’t work, because they are predicated on a view of human sexuality which is completely unrealistic and based on nothing more than prejudice, ignorance and faith.
Finally, we have Pope Razi and Nazi giving his fellow bishops a pep-talk, telling them to stay the course in campaigning against the new Equalities Bill which would seek to extend employment rights to gay people working within the Church. Essentially, if a religious organisation was taking public funding for its work, it would be unable to discriminate on the bounds of orientation except within a very prescribed group (ie priests and bishops). The current Bill is simply trying to further define what these limits are in an effort to avoid costly litigation and give everybody a clearer sense of boundaries.
But that’s not how the Church saw it. In a hysterical, pearl-clutching hissy fit, they made a series of false claims in an effort to whip up public opinion against the Bill, for example, claiming that it would force churches to hire women priests. As a result an amendment was just barely passed in the House of Lords, significantly weakening the Bill with the support of Bishops and despite assurances from legal experts that this was a simple case of clarification to make the situation clearer for all parties.
It seems clear that the various denominations feel that they are increasingly being marginalised in British society. As they shrink down to an ever more conservative and fundamentalist rump, they also appear to become far more politically active, using their power in the House of Lords to vigorously push back against equality legislation, much of it aimed at helping gay people.
If religious denominations want to access public money then they should be made to comply with the laws of the land. If they are so concerned about their freedom of conscience (which often feels like a simple desire to discriminate against those they disapprove of) then they should rely on the donations of their flock to keep them afloat. Religious institutions constantly use the same rhetorical gambit – whining about giving ‘special rights’ to minorities at the expense of their own bigotry, while at the same time insisting on their own ‘special’ place within society.
A good case can be found here. A Christian woman was suspended form her job of teaching maths to seriously sick children because she caused significant distress to a young girl suffering from leukemia. Jones on several occasions tried to push her religion on the girl, even after her parents made it clear that they were a non-religious family. They complained and, instead of speaking to the Council, Jones ran off to the generally loathsome Mail on Sunday to whine and moan. The Mail didn’t bother to check out her story or speak to the family, but merely printed her drama-queen sob story. And the Christian Legal Centre, a group modelled on fundie legal outfits from the States, were only too happy to help Jones peddle her bullshit. Right-wing press, only too happy to play the PC-Gone-Mad card one more time, hyped her lies and distortions.
This is something of a microcosm of what Britain can expect as religious denominations who have more evangelical and fundamentalist collide with an increasingly and openly secular society. Its what happened thought the late fifties and early sixties in the States which led to the flowering of the current Christian Right. I don’t believe that Britain is in that much danger, but we should all certainly get used to treating tales of religious ‘persecution’ with a great deal more circumspection.
Monday, 1 February 2010
Seriously. Take a look at what Vanity Fair deems as the Fresh Faces of 2010. All young, pretty WHITE women.
And this in a year where two of the most acclaimed performances were given by young black actresses. Zoe Saldana's work arguably matches the historic achievement of Andy Serkis in marrying a new type of technical work with a full blooded emotional heart in the biggest grossing movie of all time. Not only that, but she took on the iconic role of Uhura and made it her own.
Meanwhile Sidibe came out of nowhere and took on a monstrously difficult role with intelligence and empathy. Sidibe, and possibly Saldana could get Oscar nominations tomorrow. But that, apparently, isn't enough to get you on the cover of an edition of Vanity Fair devoted to rising young actresses.
Fuck them and lazy, racist bullshit. I won't be buying the magazine again.
Update: Eeewwww... there's even something creepier about this shot then the Aryan 'purity' of the starlets. Vanity Fair refers to them as "dolls"... That is wrong and creepy on so very many levels (not least because of the association in my head with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse). You'd think after the disaster of the Tom Ford cover from a few years ago they might have learned a lesson, but obviously not.
It's LGBT History Month. I'm sure you're all excited about this.
I always feel slightly conflicted about the Month. I have written repeatedly that the lack of avenues for younger gay people to learn about their history is a major problem. Because of political, social or religious constraints, teachers simply aren't comfortable talking about gay rights as one of the major civil rights movements of the last forty years.
This is changing – schools are being encouraged to be more open and accepting of gay students. Just acknowledging the complexity of human sexuality in schools is a major start to opening up the curriculum to examining how things have changed for gay people over the years and why it is important to continue to be vigilant. After all 36% of people still believe that homosexuality is almost always wrong. That number will only change if people of all ages are exposed to sexual diversity and encouraged to be comfortable with their own desires.
LGBT History Month should be an opportunity to fill in the blanks for gay people of all ages. To learn that their story is not just about oppression and discrimination but also about bravery, generosity and conviction. That there are other heroes apart from Harvey Milk and Oscar Wilde. And more importantly, to educate both gay and straight people that human sexuality is something far more malleable than we like to admit, and that this is something which be encouraging people to explore their sexuality, rather than repressing it.
However, looking over the programme of events in London for this year,. I can't help thinking how parochial, unfocused and small-scale the entire endeavor feels. In past years, I have tended to forgive this. Everything has to start somewhere and I have enjoyed a couple of the events in the past. But I guess I keep on waiting for the Month to step-up and develop into something more ambitious.
This year there are a couple of really interesting looking events – I am particularly looking forward to the programme being offered by THT and the British Library. But the rest of it is seems rather haphazard. Without a strong centralising force, the month just feels like a collection of small scale, quite esoteric little events without any attempt to tell any kind of larger narrative. While I think its a good thing that individual boroughs have the freedom to create their events, you do end up with a much more atomised and diffuse programme. It also leaves very little space for telling less mainstream stories.
If LGBT History Month is ever going to grow, I think there needs to be a stronger, more centralised approach to planning a programme which can run on a larger national or regional basis and which the smaller, more local events can link in to. Pick an overall theme and ask organisations, community groups and individuals to try and link their efforts into this. It would provide a more cohesive programme, which would also provide a clearer focus for larger scale media activities.
A quick example. Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby star who recently came out, is the new patron for LGBT History Month. There is also a major event during the month about homophobia in sport. It seems like there is an opportunity here to get a conversation going about areas of modern life which still retain an suffocating accommodation of the closet. Indeed, once you dig around their site, you realize that sport is going to be their major theme in the next few years. But you wouldn't know that from the website, which is the main promotional tool for the Month. It's flat, cheap-looking and exceedingly difficult to navigate around. I realise this is a funding issue, but I find it hard to believe that this is the best that they could come up with (I have worked on a variety of web projects and there are lots of cheap ways of getting decent design and programming).
I don't doubt the hard work that many have done to make the programme as diverse and interesting as possible. But the whole thing stills feels a little half arsed - and that is a real shame