May 15, 2013

Queer Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher

A lively adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Baz Luhrmann manages to energize the story without losing sight of the characters or essential themes. Furthermore, he manages to enhance several of the novels queer subtexts, creating a fantastic vision of a classic novel in the process.

Bonds salesman Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) has recently moved to the north side of Long Island, where he meets the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is famous for throwing gigantic parties, although no one knows his reason for doing so. It turns out that Gatsby is madly in love with Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and secretly hopes she will stop by one of the parties. Gatsby befriends Nick and eventually requests that Nick arrange a tea party so he can finally meat Daisy. But of course, there are complications as Daisy is already married to Tom (Joel Edgerton) a Machiavellian character and an extremely jealous man.

The Queering
When it comes to the history of civil rights, particularly LGBTQ rights, our culture tells us that there has always been a steady progress towards equality. A progress that has made no regression. If one were to only analyze back to the 1940's and 50's, it's possible to see how this perception might come about. Yet it is not a true vision of history. The roaring twenties saw perhaps, the first "coming out" so to speak, for gay identity, in which cultural acceptance for queer folks was very far ahead of it's time. Berlin for example, prior to the NAZI's taking over, became a gay cultural mecca, with Magnus Hirschfeld establishing Scientific Humanitarian Committee 1897, in order to advocate for LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, the NAZI's would later destroy much of his work. New York City during the gay 20's was also a cultural center for the newly evolving gay culture, with the Harlem Renaissance, featuring LGBTQ people of color, providing the backbone of the revolution.

It was into this gradually queering world that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby a novel with several obvious queer subtexts. Subtexts by the way, that Luhrmann has managed to expand upon. The most obvious is that of Nick Carroway is clearly in love with Jay Gatsby. While the hollowness of Gatsby's grand vision is gradually revealed to the audience, Nick's view of Gatsby remains untainted. Even after his lies have been revealed, Nick still calls Gatsby "the most hopeful person I have ever known". In the film, when Gatsby dies at the end, Nick becomes so miserable and morose, that he winds up in a sanitarium, which provides the framing device for the film.

There are other queer subtexts as well. In the opening scenes, Tom is unable to keep his hands off of Nick. When Daisy is first introduced, she admits that she had spent the whole afternoon on a couch, that also happened to have contained her friend, tennis champion Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) and the two share a low key, but rather obvious subtext.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel was primarily concerned with exposing the emptiness of the 1920's excess. The film also does this, but slightly differently, with more melancholy and less wit. Luhrmann also is not afraid of using modern music, which I didn't find distracting personally, although others might. The films' main strength lie with the way Luhrmann manages to capture the excesses of the 1920's before pulling back and gradually revealing how hollow the lifestyle is that Gatsby -- and everyone else -- is leading. Overall though, I think Luhrmann is faithful enough to the novel to avoid causing most English teachers from experiencing fainting fits, but I'm not sure what how many of them will view the rather significant shifts in tone.

Now in my opinion, this is a dream cast for this story. With the exception of Carey Mulligan, there is not a weak performance to be found. However, I blame Mulligan's work on the fact that the character of Daisy is poorly developed. While I understand the character's symbolic significance, she still ends up with little more personality than the green light that Gatsby is constantly reaching for. I could not tell if this was intentional or not on the filmmakers' part, but I found it distracting. Particularly during a scene where Gatsby and Tom talk about Daisy's feelings at length before they actually bother to ask her, even though she was present the whole time. Worse, Daisy does not even speak up for herself until she was asked. I honestly cannot think of a contemporary narrative where a female character was both A) designed to be the focus of the story and B) given so little agency. Jordan (played with flair by Elizabeth Debicki) fares a little better, although she was given little to do once she had finished introducing Nick to the high life.

As far as more technical details go, the opening scenes are poorly structured and edited, with an over-reliance on Nick's voice-over. Maybe it just took me a little while to get used to Luhrmann's style, for once Gatsby is introduced, I found the films' rhythm to be much more tolerable.

Overall though, this is a rather memorable adaptation of an American classic novel. Luhrmann provides a rather strong, and at times gaudy, visual style, but outside of the jumpy opening scenes, he knows when to slow down and focus on the narrative as well as the characters entrapped within it.

This Gatsby is worth going to extraordinary, I mean great, lengths to see, old sport.

The Rating
***1/2 out of ****


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 12, 2013

Queer Issue: Down With Mothers and Fathers Day!

There is an awkward cultural stereotype that gay men have obsessions with their mother. It is an image that shows up frequently in mass media and never in a good way. For the record, I do plan on calling my own mother today. I like to think that I have a relatively "normal" (whatever the bleep that means) relationship with my own mom.

However, there are plenty of people out there who do not have "normal" relationships with their parents. It goes without saying that there are more than a few individuals out there who have not been raised by kind loving parents, but by absentee, neglectful, if not outright abusive parents.

No, not all parents are abusive fucks. Not all parents are absent or neglectful. There are many who are kind, nurturing, and loving. Who teach their kids to be strong in a dark world by setting examples of proper behavior.

But what about those parents who are not? What are Mothers or Fathers day like for those who were raised by parents who were the opposite of loving and kind? Heck, what is Mothers/Fathers day like for those who lost their mother or father in a particularly tragic manor?

Not to mention, there is the issue of parents who are trying but are otherwise unable to conceive a child. I imagine days like Mothers and Fathers day might be a little tough to navigate. Admittedly, I can't speak for anyone here, I'm just speculating.

Then there is the issue of that even with Mothers and Fathers day, there are those parents who identify outside the gender binary. And let's face it, having a Mothers and Fathers as separate days is designed to normalize heteronormative relationship styles where Moms and Dads fill vastly different parenting roles. If Moms and Dads are not supposed to fill different roles, why would they need separate days to be honored? Admittedly, while it wouldn't solve the other issues, I sometimes wonder if it might not be a bad idea to have a gender neutral Parents Day for those individuals who might wish to show some gratitude for those responsible for their upbringing.

On a more philosophical note, I really cannot think of any other widely celebrated holidays that are designed to focus our attention on a specific relationship. Is their a spouses day? Friends day? Uncles or Aunts day? All other holidays are relationship neutral, so to speak. The exception might be Valentines Day. One can celebrate them (or not) with those families and friends that one chooses. In other words, there is no other holiday where one needs to have a living individual who filled (role X) in our lives before the holiday can be celebrated. Which does in fact make Mothers and Fathers day, kind of, well exclusive.

Just some food for thought.

May 11, 2013

Queer Review: The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988)

The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad!
Director: David Zucker
Writers: Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft
Cast: Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Nancy Marchand, Raye Birk, Jeannette Charles

The Naked Gun is an absurdest parody of film noir and detective stories, featuring the bumbling antics of Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). Beware of the naked homophobia and racism in this one.

When LAPD Detective Frank Drebins' partner, Detective Nordberg (OJ Simpson), is nearly killed by a gang of thugs, Drebin begins his investigation by interviewing the wealthy Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban). Drebin uncovers clues that lead him to believe that Ludwig is behind a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles) while she is visiting Los Angelos. Meanwhile, he starts an impromptu romance with Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley). However, no one will believe Drebin and after a series of mishapes, he finds himself without a job. Can Frank Drebin unmask who is behind the plot to assassinate the Queen of England and save the day?

The Queering
The opening scene for The Naked Gun features a white cop beating up a bunch of ethnic (and stereotypical) terrorists. The next scene has a black cop getting his ass handed to him by a bunch of white thugs in a sequence straight out of a Looney Toons cartoon. Later, there's a sequence where a black man menaces the Queen of England.

...racist subtext? What racist subtext?! I don't see no stinking racist subtext!?! Where is D.W. Griffith when you need him?

And I haven't even gotten to Vincent Ludwig, who happens to collect Ming Vases, expensive artwork, and also likes "German boys". I cannot honestly recall a film that wore it's homophobia and racism so openly. Granted, the The Naked Gun is able to get away with a lot due to this being a comedy, but after so many years of watching and reviewing films, there are certain things that are hard to simply ignore.

Now admittedly, there are bits where Drebin commits egregious acts of gender transgression that are rather funny. For example, there is a shot where Drebin lifts his leg up while he kisses Jane. In the scene where she takes her top off, he takes his shirt off in a manor that is visually very similar. And when he goes to break up with her, he claims that he "faked every orgasm".

But there comes a point where I cannot find too much of a silver lining in any film. Yes, Drebin gets to commit gender transgressions and act gay at times, such as when he feels up two baseball teams trying to find a would be assassin. But I cannot help but feel that this is all okay, not just because this is a comedy, but because Drebin is presented as being completely incompetent and bumbling. That is the whole joke of the film. The inadvertent mayhem that Drebin frequently causes, is the result of the same forces that makes it appear that he is about to sodomize an unconscious baseball umpire. The subtext here is that if Drebin were competent, he would not be making these gender transgressive "mistakes". Nope, only competent men act like men, not women, even in comedies.

Overall, the humor is occasionally able to redeem the film... sometimes. I laughed here and there at bits like when Drebin looks up at Jane on a ladder in front of a bookshelf and he says, "Nice beaver." It turns out it was an actual beaver when Jane hands him one that's been mounted and stuffed. But funny or not, there is no getting around the rather horrible bigotry on display here.

I cannot recommend that anybody play either naked or clothed with this particular weapon.

The Rating
*1/2 out of ****


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 8, 2013

Queer Issue: Politifacts' Rating System is a Lie (By Their Own Standards)

In an interview with CBS Face the Nation, Martina Navratilova made the claim that "In 29 states in this country you can still get fired for not just being gay, but if your employer thinks you are gay."

In response, Politifact rated the claim as being half true.

To justify their claim, Politifact points out that while 29 states do not have legislation at the state level to protect against discrimination, there are exceptions, such as those that exist for government employees, or in local municipalities that have passed anti-discrimation laws, in addition to specific employers which may also have anti-discrimination protections in place.

Politifact also points out that according to the deputy director of Lambda Legal, Hayley Gorenberg, a 1989 Supreme Court Case based around Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins) *might* have set a precedent that could bar discrimination based upon an employer believing an employee is uh... "gay" (more on the word choice in the article here later).

So Politifacts' arguments boil down to two main points. One is that exceptions exist within the 29 states that do not have legislation at the state level to offer protection against discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The second point revolves around the possibility (offered up by Gorenberg) that the Civil Rights Act might bar discrimination based upon an employer merely believing an employee is uh... "gay".

The first part of Politifact's argument holds some water. Even though Navratilove never said that "no protections exist" in 29 states, the fact that a certain number of protections do exist for certain uh... "gays" might have justified rating Navratilove's claim as "Mostly True" rather than "True".

However, the second part is complete horseshit. There has never been an actual case before a court in which an individual has successfully used the precedent set by Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins to argue against discrimination based upon an employer's belief that an employee was/is uh... "gay". So any lawyer who argues that it might be *possible* that such protections exist is simply offering up an opinion on what *might* happen if a fired employee were to use it in a court trial.

This is but the first error that Politifact makes in their use of Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins. In their article, Politifact states:
Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, cited the 1989 Supreme Court case Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins. In that case, a woman sued the accounting firm where she worked because she was not offered a promotion after a senior manager told her she should "walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry." The plaintiff convinced the court that sex stereotyping constitutes sex discrimination, Gorenberg said. This precedent could protect a straight person who appeared to an employer to be "gay" and suffered discrimination as a result.

Let's break this down:
1) Navratilove used the term gay in her original claim, which is problematic in it's own right since it ignores transgender and transsexual identities (along with lesbian, bi, pan, etc...)

2) However, the number of states that do not offer up legislation that protect specifically against discrimination based upon gender identity is much larger than the number of states that protect based upon sexual orientation. Which means that to acknowledge gender identity would require a much wider analysis than what Politifact offers here.

3) I have seen it argued in the past that anti-discrimination laws for sex/gender might also apply to gender identity.

4) Since Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins dealt with discrimination based upon gender stereotypes (not on sexuality) it seems like it would be the sort of test case one might use to expand protection against discrimination based upon sex/gender to discrimination based upon gender identity.

5) It is therefore possible that this is what Gorenberg was refering to when she cited Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins as a precedent that might offer some protections to those who are uh... "gay".

6) Gorenberg, being deputy director of Lambda Legal should know the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.

This all leads to the conclusion that Politifact, in order to apply Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins to Navratiloves' claim, deliberately conflated sexual orientation with gender identity. I'd also like to point out the fact that while Politifact does not quote Gorenberg directly when they say "This precedent could protect a straight person who appeared to an employer to be "gay" and suffered discrimination" they do put the word "gay" in scare quotes.

In any case, this all makes Politifacts' arguments here really, really screwy. Navratilove makes a claim that applies solely to sexual orientation. In analyzing it, Politifact brings in a case that might apply to gender identity, yet continues to use the term "gay" for unknown reasons. Furthermore, Politifact makes *no* mention of the current state of anti-discrimination laws based upon gender identity, which have a completely different status from those that apply to sexual orientation.

This is a *gargantuan* omission. One which makes Politifact's use of the sin of omission against Navratilove extremely hypocritical.

However, even if they are correctly representing Gorenberg's citation of Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins, Politifact is still relying on an expert opinion (which they have done in the past) as a key part of their ratings process. So even if they are correctly citing Gorenberg, they are still committing the logical fallacy of appeal to authority in order to justify their rating of Navratilove's claim.

In the grand scheme of things, I have no problem with Politifact or any organization wishing to present contrary opinions to publicly made claims. But in attempting to clarify the situation in this case, Politifact only managed to further muddy the waters. Combine this with their repeated use of the appeal to authority fallacy and it becomes clear that it is Politifact and their rating system which is misrepresenting the truth.