Monday, December 8, 2008

Ken Park (2002)


This movie hasn't been officially screened or released in the US, except for its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. There are a few PAL DVD's floating around out there, but North Americans are pretty much shit out of luck. And we aren't the only ones who have trouble getting a copy of the film, as it's been banned in countries like Australia and Singapore (anything banned in Singapore is almost always worth doing).

Ken Park presents a group of scrappy but mostly likable California skater punks, who, like any good teenagers, find themselves struggling with their abusive/crazy/absent/disconnected parents. Each of the four main characters has his or her own story, and the narrative progresses through a series of parallel episodes as directors/cinematographers Larry Clark and Ed Lachman jump back and forth among the lives of their various protagonists, much as Clark does in his other films like Bully and the seminal Kids.

And just like with Kids, Clark turned to Harmony Korine to pen the script for Ken Park. This is probably the film's greatest strength, as Korine imbues his characters with an instantly palpable sense of sincerity and mundane beauty. These characters feel most authentic in their moments of embarrassing normalcy, like when one boy trims his pregnant mother's toenails, or when a sullen teenager plays jumprope with a group of neighborhood girls. Particularly poignant are the scenes at the beginning of the film in which the teens introduce introduce each other through a series of personal anecdotes and still photographs.

So why exactly did people make such a big fuss about this film? It's chock full of murder, suicide, drug use, and curse words, but there's plenty of that in R-rated movies already, so I'm gonna figure it's the many scenes hot adolescent sex that prevented this film from being released in so many countries (though it couldn't have helped that Clark punched one of his distributors in the face at a party). Of course, there's plenty of lovemaking in other movies, too, but the sex in Ken Park seems to have freaked people out because it 1.) involves characters who are underage (the actors are not), and 2.) is obviously real. That's real, as in real penises going into real vaginas (good heavens!). Of course, this kind of thing immediately prompts cries of pornography, and this reaction alone is a big part of what makes the film's "unsimulated" sex so interesting.

Movie sex scenes have become almost painfully cliché, as filmmakers rely on the same tame and overused shots whenever portraying any kind of erotic content. In order to avoid the kiss of death that is an NC-17 rating (such films cannot show in major theater chains and will not be carried by big box retailers), many otherwise brilliant directors find themselves relying on visual techniques that the MPAA star chamber has traditionally awarded R ratings. While any imaginable form of violence qualifies a film for an R, a single flash of pubic hair is often all it takes to merit a financially disastrous NC-17. Clark and Lachman's sex scenes are therefore extremely powerful not only because they're hot (which they often are), but also because they so boldly and shamelessly dare to buck the societal hysteria over sex, pornography, and the seldom discussed difference between the two.

Despite these forays into the realm of cultural and cinematic taboo, Ken Park nonetheless utilizes a fairly conservative aesthetic. With few exceptions, the narrative remains clean and straightforward, and most of the characters never achieve the depth or nuance hinted at in the film's opening sequences. The adults feel particularly stilted, and few of them come across as more than caricatures of various types of bad parents. The film's narrative likewise fails to live up to its potential, as Ken Park's disparate episodes never come together in any satisfactory manner. Furthermore, the end of the film features perhaps one atrocity too many. I don't consider myself squeamish, but I found the film's authenticity began to wane as it lined up successive scenes of autoerotic asphyxiation, incestuous sexual assault, parricide, and a parent-child wedding ceremony. The earliest of these events pack quite a wallop, but Clark and Lachman allow for such little breathing room in between their sensationalist outbursts that the routine quickly becomes stale. I'm left to wonder if Clark made the right move in rewriting the end of Korine's script.

I would like to be able to further discuss Ken Park's strengths and weaknesses with my friends (and readers), but the film's "pornographic" nature and resultant lack of distribution have made this extremely problematic, if not impossible. Tracking down a copy of the film has actually become more difficult than buying a copy of just about any flesh flick. As it is, I can't even effectively debate Ken Park's merits or its status in relation to "pornography", as the film remains unavailable in most countries, including the one in which it was produced. That's some pretty fucked up shit right there.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Things I Only Now Realize About Television Shows I Enjoyed as a Child

While I was home for Thanksgiving, my father presented me with the amazing discovery he had recently unearthed in our garage: a (mostly) functional Panasonic AG-170 VHS video camera. He had actually been planning on throwing it away, and I'm so happy that he didn't. We unpacked it from its carrying case (a thick plastic valise), plugged it in, and managed to coax it back to life. And it turned out to be pretty damn awesome.

My father pulled out a few old video tapes to see if we could get them to play back, and they ended up being full of footage of me and my brother growing up (which is kind of funny, seeing as I don't remember my parents ever using the video camera). We started going through all of our VHS tapes, and one of the first ones we put in was of me as a newborn with my grandmother shortly before she died. I don't have any memories of her, so it was really a wonderful discovery.

I borrowed my dad's VCR and went through the rest of our unmarked tapes. I found a bunch of these old home movies, and I've been working on digitizing them so I can create DVD's for my parents. I figure they'll make good Christmas gifts.

However, most of the tapes were of TV shows that my brother and I had recorded at some point. It was strange for me to scan through all these old shows and remember a time in my life when I regularly watched television (I haven't had cable since I graduated high school). Scanning through excerpts from these shows, I found myself remembering the reasons why I had found them so enchanting when I was younger, but I also discovered tons of stuff that I never noticed when I was a kid. For example:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
This 1964 TV special is more or less entirely based on the Christmas jingle of the same name. I know, eww, right? It's also a musical. However, coming in on the awesome side is that it's done with stop-motion animation, and it features an waistcoat-wearing snowman storyteller, a murdrous yeti, and a place called The Island of Misfit Toys ruled by a lion king. For some reason, most of my punk rock high school friends had never heard of this show before. Did we grow up in parallel universes? Or was it because they were almost all Jewish?

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently from the 1960's. When I was young I had absolutely no concept of time or way of telling the difference between shows that were brand new and those that were decades old, especially when they were cartoons. This is probably why Looney Tunes and Scooby Doo can play on TV forever and still seem fresh to the latest crop of American children. Nowadays it's just the opposite: I freak out if I watch an old movie and am off by more than one when I guess the year (something my boss teased me about this week when we were going through archival materials for our documentary). This goes to show that advances in special effects mean nothing if the story isn't any good.

Still Enjoyable Today? Mostly. It's cheesy in just the right ways, and even though the song numbers are a little grating, the stop motion animation is totally fucking charming. Plus it's full of unironic sexism (the young bucks all train to fly for Santa while the does watch and daintily flutter their eyelashes) and incidental violence (an elf revenges himself on a yeti by yanking its teeth out) that would never fly on today's children's programming. The Island of Misfit Toys is pretty damn wonderful, too (like, I kinda want to move there).

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Definite no. Maybe I'm just turning into a queer media studies douchebag, but I couldn't help but find gay subtext in most of these shows from my childhood. Seeing as this one is all about outsiders who get rejected from society for being different, but whose differences actually serve to make that society stronger, I'm going to give it a big gay thumbs up. Plus most of the main characters are clear stand-ins for homos: the overly sensitive blond elf and the rugged but friendly mountain man look like regulars from any queer watering hole.


Nick Arcade
Between the ages of 6 and 16, I was more or less completely obsessed with video games. They had a certain pop-culture cachet of cool in the late 80's and early 90's, resulting in TV shows based on Mario, Zelda, and Sonic the Hedgehog, and movies like The Wizard (which I used to watch religiously). Another offshoot was the game show Nick Arcade, which rewarded teenagers for being good at video games and knowing trivia. It also allowed its contestants a chance to go inside a video game (via some surprisingly convincing green screen).

What I Only Now Realize: This show was apparently made by lunatic crack addicts. The host looks like he's anxious to get the hell off the set and can barely read the cue cards. Based on his in-your-face dance moves and barely hidden contempt for the contestants, he really, really wishes he were a VJ instead of some guy who gets paid to watch teenagers lose at video games. The challenges involve backwards-playing videos and acid-trippy "robot vision" puzzles that seem to reinforce the notion that drugs and video games were meant to be consumed together.

Still Enjoyable Today? Not really . Except maybe the parts where the contestants lose at video games (I'm such an asshole).

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Yes. Marriage should only be awarded to homosexuals if they can touch all three power crystals before time runs out (read: never).



Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
OK, so this is probably the only uber-fad I ever really got into. I can even remember playing Power Rangers outside of an Oscars (before it was Pat & Oscars) with friends and having to be the pink ranger because all the boy rangers had been taken already (I sign of things to come?). I also remember calling 911 from the pay phone in front of the restaurant for no apparent reason. In conclusion, I did a lot of crazy shit I didn't really understand when I was 8.

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently Japanese. Was this point completely lost on the rest of America? The show had been on in Japan for years, and all the action scenes were taken straight from the Japanese production. The Japanese rangers (who fly away to heaven at the end of the series) were replaced by a multicultural cast of American teenagers, and the whole thing was repackaged for an English-speaking audience. The really weird part is that the American version ended up being more popular in Japan than the Japanese version.

Still Enjoyable Today? Hardly.

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Yes. I only scanned through a few episodes, but sample plot points included how gross and silly it is when a boy accidentally kisses another boy, how the hunky boy wants to go on a date with the cute girl, and how awful it is when a man becomes trapped in a woman's body.



The Adventures of Brisco County Jr
This show was about bounty hunters, time-travel, cowboys, robots, and a magical orb. Basically, it was every 9 year old's dream come true (there were even ninjas in one episode). Plus, it stars Bruce Campbell as the titular badass. However, it only managed to last for one season before mysteriously disappearing.

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently much less enjoyable for me as an adult than it was for me as a boy (sad!!!). The jokes feel cornier, the twists much more predictable, and the action more hackneyed. All in all, the whole series comes across as a great idea that had been watered down to make it more family friendly. Ugh, do I officially not have a soul anymore?

Still Enjoyable Today? Sometimes. Despite the flaws listed above, it still has some nice moments, especially between Brisco and his con-artist pseudo-girlfriend, Dixie Cousins. There are some nice instances of future technology combined with wild west cowboy action, and the shows strongest thematic moments come in its extremely self-conscious reflections on what it means to live in an era of dynamic change.

How would it have voted on Prop 8? No. This show was way too forward thinking and ahead of its time to settle for the shitty status quo.



X-Men
I regularly sat through several hours of Saturday morning cartoons that I actually kind of hated just because X-Men was part of the lineup. Words can't describe how badly I wanted to be an X-Man growing up. Probably because I got him in in my first pack of X-Men trading cards, my favorite was Cyclops. It was fitting, though, because he was such a straight arrow boy blue prepster type. It's who I wanted to be when I was a kid, but since then I think I've become more of a Gambit type.

What I Only Now Realize: This show is apparently actually a soap opera disguised as a superhero cartoon. So much of the action revolves around love triangles, hidden agendas, and complex webs of secrets and lies. Yeah there are super powers too, but those end up serving mostly as filler in between the diabolical plot twists.

Still Enjoyable Today? The soap opera parts definitely. The action not so much.

How would it have voted on Prop 8? A resounding no. As Bryan Singer showed so well in X2, the mutant struggle bears striking similarities to the LGBT rights movements: mutants, like gays, are special members of the population whose true nature manifests itself during adolescence and who are persecuted by civic and religious figures because of their innate identities. The core theme of the show- outsiders finding power in their special status- speaks to a much broader human experience, which is probably one of the reason why the X-Men have remained so popular over the past 40 years.



Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (& also Xena, duh)
This is one of the only TV shows I ever used to watch regularly with my dad. Like most of the other genre-busting shows I enjoyed, it managed to feature all kinds of crazy shit like vampires, deities, and wizards all packaged into one delectable program. I seem to remember that the Xena spinoff was actually better than Hercules, especially during Herc's later years, though I might have been swayed because Lucy Lawless was such a badass.

What I Only Now Realize: These shows were apparently made by porn stars. The women are all ridiculously hot, and Xena spends most of her time in a bondage outfit. Looking back, I can remember feeling extremely uncomfortable when my middle school gym teacher would tell us that he wanted us to keep doing situps until we looked as good as she did.

Still Enjoyable Today? Surprisingly, yes. I guess gods and monsters and warlords and moral dilemmas still manage to hold my attention (I'm kind of a sucker for mythology). The special effects are totally ridiculous and shitty looking, but both shows have a really nice, clean 35mm look and a spot-on blend of action, romance, comedy, and pulpy goodness. (Tesla, if you're reading this, I think we should invest in some VHS copies of these series if I ever move up to San Francisco.)

How would it have voted on Prop 8? Most likely yes. This is supposed to be ancient Greece- where are all the homos hiding? And Xena and Gabrielle remain trapped in the closet for six fucking seasons?? Still, the show wins points for having gay subtext long before it was in vogue to have a token transgender character on your weekly drama.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Attention Heterosexuals

I see you've been celebrating today. It appears that your marriages are safe once again. But you also seem to be worried about what the gays are going to do next.

It turns out your fears are well founded. Just as you had anticipated, we are coming for your children. We will convert them. We will recruit them. And we will teach them to love.

You have the tiger by the tail, bitches.

Hugz + Kisses,
-The Queers

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Death by Stiletto

Chère Dominique,

I found myself thinking about 11th grade French the other day. "Thinking about" might not be the best way to describe it, though. It was more like I was struck by an uncontrollable torrent of memories that suddenly and uninvitedly came flooding over me. The deluge was heavy with the detritus from that time in my life I spent so many years trying to erase. But by that point, I had taken to writing in pen, which could be crossed out but never deleted. No matter what, there was always something left underneath, muted as it might have been. It was forever etched in thin lines of ink that flowed from the expensive pens I would buy with my parents' money at the office supplies store. I often chose black ink because I thought it fit my temperament, but sometimes I used blue because Monsieur permitted it and I was eager to take advantage of any flourish or excess that was allotted to me.

We shared stick figure cartoons between the two of us back then. The stick figures carried knives or guns or sex toys and flew with angels' wings or crawled on the ground or erupted in flames. We would challenge each other to put order to these random acts of salvation and despair. The figures were given voice bubbles or thought bubbles- the trickier ones were already partially filled in with words or phrases or stray punctuation marks. Perhaps a stick woman shackled to a dungeon wall would be saying something that contains "World Trade Center" and ends in a question mark. Nearby, a stick vampire would be beginning his thought with "Banana pudding...".

I can't remember for sure, but maybe there was one particularly cocksure stick figure with spiky hair. If so, I wonder what mad twists of fate we threw in his path. Did we heap misfortunes and embarrassments on him before consigning him to the cannibals or the serial killers or the hyenas? Or perhaps he made it through unscathed, despite our attempts to rid ourselves of him. He would have been skilled in this regard.

We shared other things as well: make believe crushes, suburban misadventures, and industrial gothic battle cries (the kind that get banned from the so-called Free Speech Wall at the library). We would occasionally trade short stories back and forth, to be completed in alternating bursts as quasi-exquisite corpses. I remember one involving a thief traipsing through a moonlit glen before arriving at a well-preserved manor. Inside, things turned sinister and culminated in death by stiletto heel- this was definitely your touch, as it was the first time I had ever encountered the word, "stiletto".

There were poems, too. These were the kind that were often doomed to be ignored by the faculty-endorsed literary clique. Ours were too full of passion and energy and rage, and they lacked the slowness and rhythm and nature imagery that was required for publication in the literary journal.

Passing these X-rated missives could be hazardous, as Monsieur had keen eyes that were full of doubt and judgment. Exchanging bits of paper under our desks would have been obvious and therefore foolish, so we would instead loan each other binders, having tucked the latest edition of whatever story or cartoon safely behind their laminated covers. I remember one crisp winter morning when you passed me your thin black binder right at the beginning of class. I removed a sheet of lined paper that had been torn from the inside of a spiral notebook. It featured several short, neat rows of confident and precise words. It was obviously a poem you had copied- perhaps from memory- and you had included a short note near the top of the page: "This is the only one I ever wrote."

There was no need to ask what the subject was. Even before reading the hallowed words that followed, I knew there was only one thing that would merit having a single and most serious poem composed in its honor. Volumes more could have been written, but too much ink had already been spilt in my journal- probably in yours as well, if you kept one. And after all of the things that you had explained and I had left unsaid, there was precious little left to be discussed. As it was, we both knew that there was so much that we couldn't explain or understand, and so we ventured no further than that solitary poem.

Time is supposed to do a lot of things, but it certainly hasn't healed my wounds or shed any light on the situation. I find myself turning to distorted memories when I try to piece together what might have been really going on with the three of us, and I'd like to search for any clues that I might have left in my high school journal, but that burned last year in the fire. At first this loss infuriated me, but I've come to appreciate the freedom with which I am now able to romanticize the journal's contents. Instead of pages of bad poetry, sullen diatribes, and furtive attempts to explain away my desires, I can imagine an epic journey filled with melancholy beauty. Moments of darkness and banality can be replaced with the unspeakable fantasies I was too afraid to commit to words. If I try hard enough, I might even be able to give it a happy ending.

How deceitful I've become.

Amitiés,
-G

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mysterious Skin (2004)


Greg Arraki's Mysterious Skin hovers over those bittersweet and languid teenage years- that time when life seems ruled by a complicated matrix of desire, ambition, and boredom. It's a world where the everyday comfort of mom's apple pie meets the mundane pleasures of the jaded, adolescent prostitute. Arraki's misfit teens long to escape from these small-town banalities, but even in their moments of triumph, they find themselves drawn back to the meandering joys and sorrows of their suburban upbringing.

At the heart of the film lies the troubling decade-old legacy of sexual abuse secretly inflicted on several young boys by their little league baseball coach. For sullen Neal, these events served as a sexual awakening, and he eventually finds himself working as a hustler- partially as a big "fuck you" to society, but also as a mechanism through which he attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings about the unspeakable bond he shared with his coach. Prone to nihilistic angst and random acts of self-destruction, his devil-may-care attitude nonetheless endears him to his fellow teenage outcasts, a motley crew who hopelessly lust after the affections that Neal is only able to share with older men.

Meanwhile, geeky Brian leads a sheltered life at home as he prepares for community college. His seemingly quiet demeanor hides a roiling psyche, for his dreams abound with haunting visions of the sinister moments of darkness that he has repressed from his childhood memories. After watching a television special about UFO's, he becomes convinced that he has been abducted by extraterrestrials, and he sets out in search of the truth that only Neal can help him discover.

The film's exploration of child abuse is terrifyingly powerful, and Arraki boldly chooses to present this subject without the shrill menace that dominates more traditional after-school-special approach to such issues. Instead, he coats his scenes in a glossy, almost romantic sheen, and the result feels much more true to the nightmarish fantasy world into which young Neal and Brian have been shepherded.

The film abounds with such darkly romanticized imagery, and Arraki uses these moments of to construct a mythic cycle of boredom and cruelty that fuels the American youth's Promethean yearning: a young boy is left without a ride home after his little league baseball game is cut short by a massive downpour; trick-or-treaters kidnap and torment a developmentally disabled child; two teen boys kiss in order to antagonize the grizzled truck driver sitting next to them at a stoplight. Through episodes like these, Mysterious Skin transforms suburban America's treasured icons into sinister pressures that compel the adolescent outsider to abandon his small-town roots in order to construct a more desirable identity. However, such efforts at cultural betrayal are doomed to fail, and Arraki's characters must eventually abandon their fantasies and confront the internal forces that have shaped their troubled worldviews.

At times, the film's dialogue and scenario begin to feel a little hokey, but Arraki manages to get away with it because this kind of melodrama makes sense in a world framed by teenage insecurities. The mostly age-appropriate actors are fittingly awkward, and their moments of unabashed rage and desire feel true to life. Or at least they did for me. Watching Mysterious Skin, I found myself drifting back to those pointless teenage years, that first time getting drunk, those gothy posters in the attic hangout, and that desperation to become somebody else. I can only hope I haven't been too successful.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Myth of America

I first noticed the Myth of America a few weeks ago, when I was home in San Diego. It came to me while I was jogging around the neighborhood where my father has lived for the last 20 years. As I made my may towards the local elementary school, I passed a middle-aged woman chatting happily with friends as she pushed a trash barrel down her driveway, a group of children on rollerskates who were shouting to another group of kids who were up in a tree, and a lanky teenage boy washing an old car in front of his garage. Touring the neighborhood like this reminded me of so many seemingly similar episodes from my own upbringing , but something about about still struck me as strange. I kept thinking to myself, this can't possibly be real. It was almost too perfect in its encapsulation of the America that's packaged and sold on television and in movies (and in dreams). It's the suburban paradise that is as inescapable and tragic as it is stirring and romantic.

I recently had three back-to-back encounters with this Myth of America. The first was during a sunny afternoon at Disneyland, where I met my old friend "Samantha" in front of Pizza Port in Tomorrow Land. She just graduated from college and has been living in Canada with her boyfriend, but she was in California with her family, who had been on a cruise down the coast for the past week. We talked briefly about art projects and old friends, and she showed me some of her new watercolors- there were some really lovely landscapes, which surprised the hell outta me because her old stuff had been so dark (it's probably why we had become such good friends in the first place).

We met up with Samantha's brother and father, and got in line to ride on Space Mountain. Samantha's brother started talking me up right away about politics and film and all the other wild things going on in the world. He was opinionated but also very affable and inquisitive- he reminded me of myself in his eagerness to argue issues both profound and mundane. His unabashed curiosity, happy-go-lucky demeanor, and "Bank of Dad" t-shirt all made him seem like a kid stuck in a grown man's body, though this effect was probably heightened by the fact that we were at Disneyland. This certainly isn't to say that he was childish- it was more like he reminded me of yet another Myth: that apparently ordinary youth who makes striking brilliant remarks without seeming to recognize the impact of his words. Or maybe his underlying maturity had something to do with the fact that he was a few days away from leaving for a tour of duty in Iraq.

Samantha's father was a also an army man, though his fighting years appeared to be behind him, and he stopped every half an hour to buy one of the crusty $3 churros from the colorful carts strategically positioned throughout the park. I used to love the things as a kid, and I can hardly remember a trip to the zoo or to a baseball game that does not involve me immediately begging my parents to buy me one. I've gotten over them, though (along with most other processed sugar injections), but I certainly appeared to be in the minority at the park. I know it's a cliche that American has gotten so incredibly fat, but it was still eye-opening to be surrounded by people who were from outsdie of image-conscious California. I made me wonder when I abandoned dreams of cotton candy and churros and cinnamon buns and instead started to see a single piece of chocolate or a plate of fresh fruit as dessert. Had I bought into some other Myth of eating "just right" and depriving myself of the good stuff, or had the wool really been pulled over the eyes of the many people lumbering after the disgustingly sugar-coated, fried wads of fat that had been squeezed into the shapes of various Disney heroes?

I drove Samantha back to her hotel room after it started to get dark. We were both pretty exhausted from walking around the park all day, and we agreed that it wasn't as fun as either of us had remembered. Samantha's brother and father stayed behind to watch fireworks and have a father-son moment that Samantha said would probably turn out to consist of the two of them talking about guns for an hour. She told me that things had been tough on her brother for a while, as he had learning disabilities and had struggled through college. He was struggling now, too, though that was mostly because he was queer but had stopped dating because of the whole Army thing. It's this inevitable melancholy that is probably the most terrible- and the most beautiful- thing about The Myth.

I had my second Mythic encounter the next day at Hansem Dam Park in Los Angeles. I had just gotten out of my car and was looking for some friends amongst the various picnickers who were tending barbecues and kicking around soccer balls. As I made my way out of the parking lot, I heard a scream and watched as a pair of horses raced across a dirt trail. A man in a cowboy hat was on top of one, trying desperately to catch up with the young girl on the horse in front of him. She had apparently lost control and was holding on tight and screaming bloody murder as her horse thundered through the park. An older man- her father?- started shouting to her in a frantic mix of Spanish and English, and at one point he told her to let go. She obeyed and was immediately thrown beneath the horse's hooves. She didn't move or scream anymore after this, and a delirious woman ran to her side, shrieking like a banshee. I thought I heard the little girl groan as I approached, but I couldn't be certain.

Her family gathered around her, and everyone was shouting at each other in Spanish, though they still said "911" in English, and a few of them quickly pulled out their cell pones. Lifeguards arrived in pickup trucks, and there were ambulances, firetrucks, and police cruisers too. One of the firetrucks made its way down a baseball field, and the fireman got out and cleared the area so a helicopter could land right in the middle of the outfield. My friends and I watched as the ambulance rambled down to the baseball field and the girl was rolled out on a stretcher before being whisked off into the sky. I checked the news for the next couple days, but I couldn't find anything about what had happened to her.

My met The Myth for a third time amongst the rolling canyons northwest of the city. My friend Ryan had been trying to get me to go riding with him for the past few weeks, as he has also just bought a motorcycle. I'd been feeling much better about my bike ever since I finally took it to a mechanic for an overhaul, so I shot up the 134 to meet him in Calabasas near where his parents live. He led me through a series of winding country roads where motorcycles outnumbered cars 10 to 1. The dusty hills reminded of the ones that I had spent so many hours staring at during my youth, whether it was hiking the trails near my father's house, traveling down the lonely stretches of the Del Dios mountain highway, or on trips to the apple orchards of Julian or the sweltering paradise of Palm Springs.

We stopped for a break at a little biker grill along the main passage through the canyon, and it had that same hardy roughness that I would expect to find at Robin Hood's den of thieves. It was a place for tough-guy types and their badass middle-aged girlfriends to eat burgers and throw back beers and relax to classic American rock music. I remember wondering to myself, is this America through Republican eyes? The mix of easygoing comfort and exotic beauty reminded me of the times I've visited my family in the South.

We eventually shot off on our bikes again, this time racing towards the Malibu coast. When we emerged from the canyon, we were hit by a blast of crisp ocean air that rushed off the various beaches and coves. We stopped to eat lunch at Neptune's Net, where I ate the "famous" fish and chips and Ryan had the fried calamari. We sat outside and watched as suntanned surfers emerged from the coast with their longboards and other bikers arrived and dismounted from their steeds, which came in so many beautifully different colors and sizes and styles. In a very anti-Mythical moment, both Ryan and I agreed that Japanese and European bikes are much more elegant than their American counterparts.

The whole time, I kept asking myself where this other America hides. Is this land of surfers and motorcycles and glorious meandering hillsides still there when I go back to my little apartment in the city? Does it vanish when I look away, or when I wake up in the morning? I also wondered if this Myth shares in the same sadness that hangs over the other Myths I encountered that weekend. Perhaps I've sacrificed something to maintain this bikers' paradise along the coast. Or maybe- and this seems much more likely- someone else has.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Poison (1991)


Since discovering my awesome local video store, I've been eagerly snatching up the titles that are too X-rated/obscure/avant-garde for Blockbuster or Netflix. It's been really nice to go somewhere with distinct sections for "Documentary", "Cult", "Gay", "Martial Arts", "Adult", and "Alfred Hitchcock" (to name a few), and I think I finally understand what my college film theory professor meant when he said to never trust a video store without a healthy porn selection.

I checked out a copy of Todd Haynes's Poison, which I knew nothing about except that it supposedly started the whole "New Queer Cinema" movement that was hot in the early 90's. I generally feel iffy about the American independent resurgence from this period; while I think films like Slacker and Sex, Lies, and Videotape are interesting and inspiring for young filmmakers like myself, I also have to admit that I don't find them terribly compelling. However, watching Poison has given me a much stronger appreciation for why this kind of work got people so damn excited in the first place.

Haynes's film unfolds through three interwoven narratives. "Hero" presents itself as a contemporary news documentary investigating the strange case of a young boy who has murdered his father and mysteriously ascended to the heavens. This segment employs a mix of archival photographs, stylized re-enactments, and faux-interviews with local citizens who knew the boy. What emerges is a troubling story of domestic violence and despair, and while it is certainly a "fake documentary", it never feels like a "mockumentary". This is partially because the the subject material is so dark, but it's also because Haynes avoids taking cheap shots at his characters or flattening them into simple caricatures. He instead creates a complicated portrait of a family torn apart by desire and shame, and he leaves it to his audience to decide if the patricidal child is indeed an outcast turned "Hero" or a monstrous killer.

"Horror" mimics the style of a sensationalist 1950's science fiction flick and tells the story of a scientist who accidentally consumes a draught of pure human sexuality that causes him to develop a disfiguring disease. In his madness and sorrow, he finds himself brooding in dark corners of seedy bars, picking up women and infecting them with his fatal sickness. This vision of a nightmare sexual illness was most surely influenced by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, though Haynes seems to be invoking the promise of a post-AIDS world by staging his scenario in with such a pronouncedly retro style; the film-noir lighting, antiquated camera techniques, and hammy dialogue all hammer down the idea of a more primitive time that needs to be left behind. However, Haynes takes precious few chances to violate or complicate these old-fashioned conventions, and at times he seems to have less control of the genre than the genre has over itself.

The final story, "Homo", crafts a stylized tale of tortured romance in an early 20th century prison. Drawing heavily from the writings of Jean Genet, this sequence delves into the psyche of career thief John Bloom who finds himself infatuated with fellow prisoner Jack Bolton. The two men had known each previously at a boys' reformatory, which Broom recalls as an idyllic garden of homoerotic love and violence. However, these halcyon memories stand in sharp contrast to the men's adult penitentiary, which Haynes presents as a cold labyrinth of melancholy repression. Broom and Bolton struggle together against these oppressive surroundings, and they become ambiguously intimate, though neither expresses the kind of open affection that might incur the wrath of their peers.

In one of the film's most powerful scenes, the two men lie next to each other, apparently asleep amongst several other prisoners. Broom is roused as Bolton's leg falls across his own, and Broom begins guardedly exploring his friend's body as he nervously attempts to determine if Bolton is asleep or secretly conscious. This charade is brought to an abrupt end by a disturbance in the cell, and despite the feelings that the two men obviously harbor for each other, they remain unable to verbalize their desires.

This scene strikes me not only because of its beautifully charged eroticism (and it does get pretty damn hot), but also because it so perfectly captures that core experience of the homosexual coming to grips with forbidden lust. This unfulfillable yearning is certainly at the heart of the many bittersweet moments that tormented me throughout so much my young adult life, and I must believe that the same is true for most other gays as well. When I was still in the closet, one of my college professors (different from the wise porn shop one) remarked to me that the great tragedy of homosexuality was having to be near someone that you loved deeply while being unable to say or do anything about it. This has stuck with me, probably because I immediately recognized it to be the awful truth.

I suspect that Poison will likewise stick with me for years to come, though hopefully for less damning reasons. Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about the film is the way in which it so earnestly addresses the fundamental issues facing the homosexual/outsider figure who wishes to integrate with the rest of society. In doing so, Poison pushes aside the marginalized or two-dimensional homosexual that was (and still is) the Hollywood norm, and it simultaneously elevates the queer film beyond the furtive celebrations of unseen pleasures that had so long characterized the genre. Haynes also makes good on the stylistic promise of his avant-garde lineage, as Poison freely borrows various elements from narrative, documentary, and experimental styles of filmmaking in order to create a new voice that is entirely and authoritatively its own.

In rejecting old forms and striving beyond surface issues like AIDS, sex, and family strife, Haynes turns his attention to the existential problems and possibilities facing the homosexual in the modern world. With Poison, he heralds the coming of a new gay consciousness that looks beyond sexual politics to the much more fundamental questions concerning the problematic role of the outsider in today's America. A bold and exciting New Queer cinema indeed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Under the Knife

I went back to San Diego last weekend. I had a dentist appointment, and it worked out that I could see my brother right before his birthday and also hopefully get some filming done for the documentary project I have(n't) been working on.

Incidentally, I was also there a few days after my mom underwent a sudden and unexpected knee surgery. This is the third or fourth time she's had it worked on, and she actually seems pretty chipper about it for once. She swears that it's kept her from having knee replacement surgery, and she's looking forward to getting back on her feet so she can swim and play golf again.

I saw her a few days after her surgery, but she was already barely even using her crutches. Half the time she put them down and made a big show out of how she could walk without a visible limp. She's eager to show this off, as her surgeon has told her it's a sign that she's recovering well. She puts a lot of faith in this doctor, and she proudly tells people about how he's the top rated surgeon in all of San Diego.

She told me the same thing when I was in high school and was having mysterious shoulder problems, and I took her advice and let him operate on me. The surgery didn't do much about my pain, except that most of it was now concentrated more severely in my back and neck instead of just in my shoulder. The surgeon said he had cleaned out some scar tissue, but even then I knew this was general medical bullshit meaning that he hadn't been able to find anything wrong with me. I was left with three bulbous, itchy scars that didn't fade or diminish with time, and my back and shoulder pain just became worse and worse. I was in a sling all fall and couldn't even get in the pool to play water polo, and I tried my best to swim in the spring, but I had to quit halfway through the season.

I saw a bunch of different specialists, but none of them were able to help me get over my pain, so I eventually gave up. It still hurts a lot, and I feel it almost every day, but I've learned to ignore it the best I can. My bad experience has left me fairly mistrustful of the medical industry, seeing as it sucked thousands of dollars out me and my parents while I got worse and worse. It's just the opposite for my mom, though. Every time she finds a new doctor or top rated specialist, she seems so aglow with the promise of doing new things with her life. I don't know if she's a little nuts for being so optimistic about these expensive cures, or if I'm the crazy one for giving the health care industry the cold (and wounded) shoulder.

Sometimes I think about giving it another shot. I'm often tempted to imagine life without the constant stiffness and pain, but I'm more than a little afraid I'll just get jerked around again. I'm not sure what's worse: suffering in silence or wasting my time and money to end up feeling used and humiliated.

The last time I saw my mom before I left, she already had the bandages off her knee. She was powering along on the stationary bike in her exercise room. She says the bike is safe because it doesn't force the knee to bear any weight, though she admitted that her surgeon has chastised her for trying to do too much too soon. She asked me about my plans to find a new job, and she advised me to try to find a consulting job. She forwarded me a list of the top rated firms in the industry, and she told me I should work for one of them. They're the best, she said. I smiled and shrugged, not knowing what else to say.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gummo (1997)


When I was a teenager, Harmony Korine's Gummo was whispered about as the holy grail of disturbing youth culture films. My friends and I had eagerly and nauseatingly consumed the dark fantasies of movies like Kids, Bully and Spun, but Gummo remained a legend that perhaps an older brother had seen or which was hiding in some mythical video store far, far away (it certainly was never carried at my local Blockbuster). We all assumed that it was basically a snuff film and that most of the existing copies had been destroyed by parents, priests, or the MPAA.

Now that I'm older and I have my own accounts at Netflix and Video Journeys (an amazing video store in Los Angeles), I find that Gummo isn't nearly as elusive as it seemed to be when I was sixteen. Hell, back then, "independent" and "foreign" existed only as tiny and hopelessly disappointing sections in the way back of Tower Records. Furthermore, I'm willing to bet that Gummo's scarcity has more to do with its avant-garde leanings than it does with the film's content. It unfolds as a pastiche of tragicomic episodes that flirt with narrative while never fully embracing it, and while the film is often sad, it is just as often exuberant and uplifting. Certainly, it has nothing on the tragic hopelessness of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream or the nihilistic emptiness that haunts Larry Clark's Kids (which was incidentally written by a 19-year-old Korine).

Gummo follows the exploits of a group of teenagers and young adults who inhabit the dregs of a Midwestern town that has never recovered from a terrible tornado. These kids hunt cats, sniff glue, tape their breasts, and wrestle with furniture. They crave excitement, sex, freedom, money, power, and beauty, and their lives intersect but seldom too deeply interweave as each pursues his or her dreams. Even the film itself exists as an intersection of various styles and themes; carefully scripted scenes are blended with improvisational snippets, found footage, and 8mm material shot by Korine and his friends.

Gummo thus leads us on an odyssey through the fantasies and nightmares of middle America, simultaneously blurring distinctions between documentary and fiction, narrative and poetry, and shameless exploitation and earnest regard. Throughout, Korine maintains an unwavering sense of conviction and sincerity, and his film has left me with a litany of unforgettable moments, though I am partial to the breathtaking conclusion in which the film's characters rampage through the heavy rain as they are all but drowned out by Roy Orbison's "Crying".

It's a shame that I let something this beautiful elude me for so long, though perhaps my appreciation for the film's dark romance is only possible now that I've gained some distance from that confining world of adolescent angst and madness. The teenage me who couldn't rent Gummo at his local video store probably would have shrugged at the film's strikingly singular characters, and he definitely would have yawned at its lyrical anti-narrative. I guess these tragic kids have to grow up sometime.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Inspiration


Am I the only person who gets unbearably depressed when watching the Olympics? The past two weeks have been like torture as the NBC and its various affiliates stick me with that bittersweet blade of envy that fills me with the most potent mix of desire and hatred whenever I watch those enchanting, athletic creatures as they flicker across the television screen. Desire because I lust after their glory- I want to compete at the highest level, become master over my field, and be young and beautiful and perfect forever (athletes may grow old, but the aged are perpetually washed away by new crops of the youthful). Desire also because Olympians are hot, and I wanna look like that, fuck like that, and fuck people who look like that. But then there's the other side of envy- the hatred. I hate these people for having something that I can never have, and I hate myself even more for not being able to have it. These have been perhaps the most painful Olympic Games for me because, at 24, this is pretty much the climactic moment at which I could have been able to compete like that if only I'd lived my life a little differently. Or a lot differently, more likely.

So instead of inspiring me by making aware of the human potential, the Games depress me by making me aware of my own failures and insecurities. I look in the mirror and I see a tall, skinny kid who might've actually made something of himself if he had gotten into sports instead of video games when he was growing up. Or maybe he could've gotten somewhere in college sports if he hadn't quit swimming after just one year. But he didn't try hard enough. Or maybe he just didn't care. He doesn't know why he wasn't able to push himself to this level, and- this part burns the most- he knows that no matter what it's too late. He can't capture the transcendent glory and beauty of those other kids on the TV screen.

It's for this reason that I'm not inspired by Michael Phelps's eight gold medals. On the contrary, it pisses me off because I know that I'll never be as good. And what exactly is supposed to be so inspirational about that guy anyway? He's a 23-year-old with a perfect body type who has trained extensively and is now- surprise!- dropping records like flies while he's in the prime years of his life.

The knife digs deeper when I watch the younger kids- the ones who are 16-20 (or potentially much younger in the case of some scandalous Chinese gymnasts)- and I marvel at how well put together they are at that age. I think back on what I was doing during those years and it's a terrible mess. I was still struggling to figure out who I was, where my values were, and what I wanted, not to mention whom I wanted. Thinking back, some of my first pangs of boy-love sprung up while watching the divers at the Games of the 1990's, and I actually harbored a secret desire to become a diver for a while but never went anywhere with it because I feared it would make me gay (Dear Past Mike: it's not the diving that'll do that to ya). Nowadays, the jealousy squeezes me the strongest whenever I see Matthew Mitcham. He's young and beautiful (and blond) and so damn OK with his sexuality (even if NBC isn't). Makes me wonder: if I had been smart enough to come out at 14 instead of 23, would I have more of a grip on my life now?

I worry that this is indeed the prime time of my life, and that I'm letting it waste away. Watching these Olympian gods as they fulfill their full potential makes me realize how little I've managed to accomplish. I moped around as a kid, moped around as a teenager, got into a decent college where I mostly moped around some more, and now I'm a mopey 20-something who's buried his dreams and ambitions. Makes me wish I could lift myself up, do something great, and prove myself/my friends/my parents/the world wrong.

Maybe this is what inspiration feels like after all. At first, I thought I was only really inspired by Dana Torres, who picked up three silver medals in swimming at the tender age of 42. But her story just made me relax because it seemed to promise that I still had another 20 years to achieve glorious things. This is uplifting, but it also threatens to make me complacent for the next two decades. Instead, I'm more spurred to action by the athletes who have already tasted perfection at such a young age. I'm intimidated, jealous, and totally bummed, but I'm not out yet. Not until I give up on myself.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

My boss has been asked to write an op-ed about the new Batman movie for the New York Times, so I've spent the last week helping him research his article. After several days of digging through tantalizing reviews and letters from concerned parents about the film that many of my friends have described as the best ever made, I found myself so totally compelled to do a little research screening of my own. I couldn't help but feel like I was failing myself, as I had actually been somewhat proud of the fact that I had not seen a single film in a Los Angeles theater since first moving here last fall.

I went to the Arclight, which I chose mostly because it is next door to Amoeba records, which I had been wanting to visit so I could pick up the new Ratatat album. I paid the painful $14 ticket price (mere pennies cheaper than my new CD), and I settled into my assigned (?!) seat to watch the film. Refreshingly, there were no commercials or advertainments before the film, and there were an appropriate number of topical trailers. That alone was almost worth the ridiculous price of admission.

I had largely enjoyed the franchise's last incarnation, Batman Begins. It was a welcome departure form the Batman movies of the mid-1990's, which I remember enjoying when I was a kid but now strike me as totally unmemorable. Batman Begins was dark and different and psychological, and it came around at a point in my life when I thought that those things were all very important. It was also full of psychotropic drugs and ninjas, both of which surprisingly worked in the film's favor. I also remember thinking that Christian Bale made for a pretty good Batman and that Christopher Nolan had regained his cool "guy who made Memento" status that I had started to question after Insomnia .

While researching The Dark Knight at work, I had come across a bunch of articles that mentioned Heath Ledger's death. The ones that went into any detail seemed to always use the exact same phrase: "accidental prescription drug overdose". I think this is a little silly - after all, overdoses are generally assumed to be accidents because when they happen on purpose, they are more accurately described as suicides. As far as the "prescription" drugs are concerned, I don't see how it makes a difference that his drugs originally passed through a pharmacist's hands. People who misuse these kinds of rich white people drugs are not any better than those who struggle with meth and heroin; all are equals beneath the specter of drug abuse. Furthermore, Ledger's fatal cocktail included Vicodin and Oxycontin, two drugs for which he did not have a prescription. I don't bring this up to besmirch Ledger- his death is very sad, and he will be missed and remembered by friends and fans alike (myself included). However, sugar-coating it as an "accidental prescription drug overdose" suggests that Ledger's demise is some big cosmic mistake that is somehow different and more wholesome than the fates that have met others who struggle with addiction. Prescription drug abuse in no more wholesome than controlled substance abuse, and it is only by putting this attitude aside can we fairly address this issue as a universal problem that continues to affect so many people from all walks of life.

My semantic nitpickings aside, I can at least agree with all the critics who have lauded Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. His crusty, reptilian, anarcho-punk Joker is right on, and he fills his scenes with an intense, comic insanity. He is the modern nightmare terrorist- he's oblivious to death and danger (but miraculously resilient), he can constantly and secretly rig explosives throughout Gotham every few hours, and he kills indiscriminately and without any rational rules. We don't have to ask why he incessantly needs to recite inane monologues or how he manages be in any and all places at once. He can do all this because he's the fucking Joker- no further explanation is needed.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't get off so easy. As some others have pointed out, the Joker isn't the only character with magical teleportation powers or over-written, dialogue. Furthermore, The Dark Knight is jam-packed with twisty little moments when the film seems to either scream or menacingly whisper, "Surprise!". The first few of these are fun, but after a while they start to become cheap, predictable, and increasingly unintelligible. The film can only foil our expectations so many times by with tricks like "this seemingly unimportant character is actually someone else in disguise!" or "this good guy is actually evil!" before we give up any attempts to invest ourselves in the narrative. It's that old Alfred Hitchcock rule: instead of letting the bomb explode and surprise everybody, it's better to show the ticking bomb under the table and let the suspense build as the audience agonizes over what they know but the characters on screen do not. This is seldom the case in The Dark Knight, which allows its onscreen characters hold their cards close to their chests before suddenly throwing them in the audience's face. Consequently, hardly any of these characters seem to grow or learn or change- they're too busy lurking in the shadows until they can jump out and shout, "Gotcha!"

The only exception to this trend is Gotham District Attorney Harvey "Two Face" Dent, played by a soon-to-be-hideously-scarred Aaron Eckhart. Dent begins the film as proud force of chivalry and justice, though he quickly abandons his principles as he attempts to protect girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Batman's ex-sweetie, inhabited this time around by Maggie Gyllenhal) from the Joker's reign of terror. Dent's transformation for paladin to maniac is inevitable, but it never feels convincing. Painted in broad strokes, he appears as too much of a caricature both when valiantly riding his high horse and when wallowing in villainy after he has fallen. Throughout this process, we watch as he fires off strong bursts of emotion, but we are seldom given the opportunity to understand the conflict and struggle that will lead him to betray his ideals. Presumably, the filmmakers had hope to pin this on Dawes's death, but even this proves problematic- Dent and Dawes hardly seem passionate, let alone intimate, and while the film is largely silent on issues of chronology, it appears that the two have been together for perhaps a year or two at the most. It must hurt terribly to lose someone like that, but Dawes's death feels like an overly dramatic attempt to justify the reason why Eckhart spends the film's final hour with half his face melted into a cartoonishly hate-filled CGI mask.

The film itself is filled with similarly overwrought yet ultimately shallow contrivances. The Bruce Wayne/Rachel Dawes/Harvey Dent love triangle occupies far too much screen time without producing any satisfying payoff, and the same can be said for a painstaking interlude that brings Batman to Hong Kong for a drawn out spy game and corporate infiltration sequence. Many action scenes follow rote, mindless, and blitzy cutting, and the finale amplifies this visual headache by presenting much of the battle as an x-ray vision clusterfuck. All this hot air swells the film's thin skin, eventually ballooning it to an overlong two and a half hours.

In its finer moments, The Dark Knight features compelling and often pleasantly subtle performances from Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman. It also achieves many admirable victories in its attempts to reground the superhero film in the realm of the real, but these are matched evenly with the film's many moments of bombast and incredulity. Also unfortunate are the film's attempts to blink away moments of ultra-violence; undoubtedly choreographed to gain a wholly undeserved PG-13 rating, The Dark Knight quickly cuts away from many of its most sadistic episodes or otherwise allows these moments to occur unseen. In one scene, the Joker slides his knife across a rival gangster's quivering lip as he recounts a story about how he received his own facial deformities. However, the climactic face-slashing is never seen, heard, or even cinematically articulated; the mob boss simply falls to the ground, leaving us to wonder, after all the wonderful buildup, whether we've missed something. Incidentally, this is exactly how I felt as I left the theater.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Scar Tissue

This Art school guy that I've been kinda dating invited me to join him and his friends for frisbee and tree-climbing last weekend. I thought it would be nice if I made us some snacks, so I packed bananas, apples, trail mix, Martinelli's apple juice, and peanut butter and jelly as well as roast beef sandwiches. I wore my ragged pirate shorts because they would be fun to play in, and I was eager to ride my motorcycle to the park, mostly because I thought it would make me look cool to the art guy. This ended up being an awful idea because I got lost and tried to do a U-turn on a hill and almost put my bike down. I caught it with my body, but the hot engine was pressing into my exposed leg, and I ended up burning myself pretty badly. I finally made it to the park, and I was getting frantic and also a little pissed off because nobody seemed to care that I'd burned myself. I managed to cool it down with the cold Martinelli's bottle, but I still found myself pretty pissed off for the rest of the day.

We went to this funky little art gallery where I found some ice that I wrapped in a bag and placed on my burn. Apparently ice is bad for burns, but it felt good at the time. One of the artist guy's teachers was leading a meditation, which I had thought was corny but actually found to be very relaxing. It was a little weird as he guided us through it, though, because he kept mentioning our anuses and telling us to visualize ourselves inside of them. He was at a party at art guy's house the weekend before, and he had abruptly kissed me on the lips as he was leaving. I didn't say anything about this to anybody, but it definitely weirded me out.

Later that night, we went to Roscoe's Chicken Waffles in Hollywood. I'd never been before, and I was kind of surprised to learn that the restaurant did indeed serve fried chicken, giant waffles, and very little else. I didn't try the chicken, but my waffle was pretty wonderful, and their biscuits were good, too. Art guy ordered an "Eclipse" to drink, which was orange juice, fruit punch and lemonade, though it was served so that the three layers remained distinct, at least when it arrived at the table. He let me have a sip but gave a stern warning not to let the flavors mix.

He has something of a devil may care attitude about the things he does and the adventures he goes on. It's one of the reasons why I like him, but I also get worried because he's so loose with his money even though he has so little. I've bought him dinner and ice cream a few times, which I don't really mind, but it surprises me how often he eats out, seeing as he's always complaining about how hard it is for him to make ends meet. Once when I was staying at his house, the power went out and he started lamenting how he hadn't paid the electricity bill. Luckily, it was just an outage, but it was still pretty scary. He can't afford to fix his car or go to the dentist, and he scrambles to make rent. He asked me if I would cosign on a loan, and I felt rude saying no, but I realized it was the only sensible thing to do.

After Roscoe's, we went back to his place with some of his friends and watched The Golden Girls on DVD. He figured out a function on his remote control that let him zoom in and loop certain clips from the show, which was way funnier than it sounds here. I'd never seen the show before I met him, and I guess it's a good part of my gay education, but I don't think I'm set to become a super fan. Maybe I'm just biased against TV, but I couldn't totally get over all the conventional sitcom stuff. Still, I can see how it's so popular with the gays- it's hard to put into words, but I think the lives of those four old ladies are something of a fantasy version of what some guys hope their lives will be like later on.

My own fantasies have already gotten me in enough trouble. My burn wound bubbled up and blistered. I foolishly sloughed off some dead skin right after it happened, and it looks really awful right now. I'm worried about it becoming infected or causing some kind of permanent damage. I'm also worried about what kind of scar it might leave. I guess I shouldn't be freaking out about this- after all, it's on the side of my leg, not my face. Still, it makes me sad to think that I've somehow ruined a little part of myself. In fact, permanency scares the hell out of me, and I'm not really sure why.

Art boy told me he thought a scar would be sexy. Then again, he said the same thing about a beard, glasses, and long hair- but still it made me feel better knowing that the burn didn't weaken my image for him. I feel stupid trying to impress him by riding a motorcycle, and I haven't been able to get back on my bike since the burn. I keep wondering if I should regret this bike- only after buying it do I realize all of the other things that I could be saving my money for. I wonder why I give into these impulses and why I can't actually make my life work out the way I want it to. Instead, I somehow always end up getting burned.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Thing that Goes

I bought a motorcycle on Craigslist this week. I still don't know exactly why I did this. I already own a very reliable car (which I often need for transporting video and sports equipment), I don't exactly have a steady paying job, and I otherwise try my hardest to avoid doing rash, potentially life-changing (or life-ending) things like this. Besides, I'm half scared to death of motorcycles. But I'm also half in love with the things.

I think my infatuation started last winter when I bought a collection of Kenneth Anger films on DVD. I had seen a clip of Scorpio Rising once before, but watching the whole thing touched some strange nerve deep inside me. I watched it again and again and again, which is strange because I almost never feel compelled to watch anything- even movies I love- more than once a year or so. But something about Scorpio demanded repeat viewings, if only to solve the mystery of why I found it so affecting.

And I'm still not sure I can put my finger on it. It might be the beautiful but almost naively simplistic cinematography. Or the amazing and ironic pop music. Or the conflation of James Dean, Jesus, and Hitler. Maybe it was just the biker boys.


Scorpio was one of the first films I saw after coming out, and I think this set me up to identify with Anger's cinematic fascination the male body. Scorpio's bikers preen and polish themselves just as they do their motorcycles. The bikers' existence draws structure through costume and ritual and subcultural mythology- they are their own self-perpetuating gods, just as magnificent and tragic in genesis as they are in death.

A few months later, I met up with one of the subjects I've been following for my surf documentary. We had gone to high school together but had never really been close friends, and I hadn't seen him in five years. His footage ended up being pretty amazing, as he was emotionally sincere and unafraid to bear his soul. He had great stories and uncanny camera sense. And he was gorgeous and rode a motorcycle.

Four months later, I find myself looking over a 2001 Suzuki 500E: midnight blue, 487 cc engine, standard bike. The owner is a musician who works from home, and I find myself nervously questioning his thinning hairline, goatee, and olive-skinned complexion, as if any of these things should serve as a dire warning, but I get the impression that he is just as nervous about the whole thing as I am. I feel funny negotiating a price with him- it's the type of thing that I relished doing when I was traveling in Asia, but it feels strange doing it in America. It probably makes me uncomfortable because I have so little experience bargaining, and I'm afraid that I'm doing it all wrong. Is my first price too low? How am I supposed to read his response? Haggling is a skill that has more or less been bred out of us polite, upper-middle class America (does that even describe me anymore?), but this is a deficiency that I so badly want to fill. Kind of like how I feel about motorcycles.

I come back a few days later to pick up the bike, but it starts giving me trouble, and I find myself regretting taking three months to buy a bike since finishing my safety course. The motorcycle lurches and sputters but doesn't really go anywhere. I start getting frustrated, and eventually get it moving, only to have the bike stall out as I stagger forward, and I struggle for a few seconds before the bike falls to the ground. It's not a bad fall, but the cap at the end of the handlebar is a little bent. Much worse, the bike won't start. The engine whines and gasps, and slowly gives up. I push it back to the sidewalk, afraid that I've tragically broken the thing already, and soon the bike won't even respond to the starter button.

This is exactly the embarrassment that I had been dreading, and all the discouraging words of my friends start come back to me. But I pull myself together and go get the old owner out on the street with his voltmeter. Turns out the battery, like my ego, is totally shot, which explains a lot of things and actually makes me feel a lot better. I want to be pissed at the guy, but I figure he's more dense than dishonest, so I don't bother with it.

A fresh battery improves things greatly, and I take the bike around the block a few times to get a feel for it. I start remembering how to work the clutch to shift gears, and it all feels pretty good. This lasts for about five minutes before I manage to drop the bike again. After propping it back up, I quickly realize that there's no longer a brake lever on the handlebar. A trip to the dealer (new brake lever), the grocery store (WD-40), and my roommate's toolbox (metric-size socket wrench), and the bike is functional again.

I ride the bike around the neighborhood where I bought it, and I notice a lot of the residents are Hispanic (the types that conservative talk radio is always warning me about). There's a family talking in Spanish as they pack their SUV for a picnic, a group of people who have taken over a large chunk of one street with an RV and a table full of delicious smelling foods, and a young man selling oranges and water on a street corner. I see a piñata set up on the side of the street, and I wonder if it's someone's birthday. It's my birthday in a few days, but I don't have any plans other than going to work. I want to have a party, but I don't know enough people in Los Angeles to invite over, which makes me kinda sad.

Eventually, I decide to ride the bike to my apartment, even though it means leaving my car behind to pick up later. The ride back is something I had been dreading, as I've been deathly afraid of being too incompetent to operate the motorcycle outside of residential streets. To my surprise, everything goes really well. I don't stall at traffic lights or have too much trouble shifting gears. I also get going fast- up around 45mph- and it feels great. Or at least it does until I get to the main street near where I live. Without warning, the engine stops turning over and the bike dies while I am in the middle of the street. Somehow, I manage not to panic as I walk the bike over to the side of the street.

I open up the fuel tank and find that I can see the bottom pretty clearly, which I take to be a bad sign. I'm frustrated because the old owner told me there was enough in there for the bike to go another 125 miles, and I haven't even taken it 50. I walk a few blocks to a gas station. There's another biker there, a stocky Hispanic guy with a chin beard. He looks at me walking up there with my helmet under my arm and right away says that it wasn't my fault and that his bike ran out of gas just one week ago in Long Beach. His friendliness makes me feel better, and the attendant is nice too, though the gas canister he sells me is the most complicated piece of cheap plastic I've ever encountered.

I ride back to my place, but it's not easy going. It takes a little while for the gasoline to start flowing again, and then I can't keep my engine properly revved. I stall the bike and lose power at least half a dozen times on the way back- it's a wonder I don't cause any accidents. I eventually get home in one piece, but now I just keep worrying about what I've gotten myself into. What exactly made me think this was a good idea in the first place? What could I have done during all these months when I've lusted after a motorcycle that doesn't fit my needs or lifestyle? Does this have anything to do with why I find myself so isolated from everything and everyone around me?

Luckily, I'm too worn down to worry all that hard.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Secret Lives

I moved back to Los Angeles this week. I'm living in the same house, working a few streets away from my old job, and doing pretty much the same thing, too. Even though I ended up hating all of this the last time I was here, I'm actually kind of optimistic this time around. I felt really bad when I was leaving San Diego- like I was abandoning this fantasy low-key surf lifestyle that I'd been chasing after, but I guess LA is a pretty good place to be for building new fantasies.

My first day on my new job, I meet up with Bob, the assistant editor for the documentary I'm gonna be working on. He's excited to show me all of the footage he's been fooling around with lately, and he starts going through the sequences. They're obviously rough cuts, but I'm still pretty impressed by our interview footage- we've managed to get a lot of big name subjects, plus there are some amazing soundbytes in there. We get through most of the footage early on, so Bob spends the rest of the day playing clips he's grabbed off of Youtube- there's a lot of silly stuff relating to our subject, and it's looking like we might actually use a bunch of it for the final cut.

I know this all sounds vague, but I guess it has to be because I was barely in the office for an hour before they had me sign a big confidentiality agreement. And even though this blog has a readership of approximately zero, I'm still not wild about writing anything that could get me fired. Even though I'm not getting paid anything and I'm sort of a peon in the company, I still strangely enjoy being a part of this project. Everyone else at the office is pretty easygoing, and I actually feel like people are willing to listen to what I have to say, even though I'm an intern. Plus, the office is full of free food- mostly vegetarian entrees- and I can usually milk this for 3-4 reasonably sized snacks/meals per day (I like to eat a lot). Plus I can pat myself on the back for getting all the vegetables I'm not putting on my plate at home.

Probably the coolest part about this secret documentary that I'm working on is that I'm lined up to go on some stake-outs in the future. I get sent to various undisclosed locations all over the country to watch certain people (hopefully) do certain things while I spy on them with video cameras from behind tinted windows. Bob tells me that this is actually pretty boring- he's done it before, and he's always ended up spending hours in his car, only to have nothing actually happen. Still, I'm pretty amped for when it's gonna be my turn to be behind the darkened glass.

On Saturday, I went to a block party in Venice with Jenny, my roommate, and one of her friends. Right away, one of Jenny's friends hands us these crazy drinks full of fruit that had been soaking all night in various kinds of alcohol. The drink is pretty good, but the fruit is among the more disgusting things I've ever put in my mouth. While we're standing outside, some random guy calls me over and starts telling me about how the house we're standing next to is the ugliest he's ever seen. I think it actually kind of works in a funky ugly LA kind of way, but I don't think I'd want to pay the $2.9 million that the realtor is asking.


Jenny gets drunk and adventurous, and she starts wandering all over the little street where the party is happening. Somehow, she ends up on a third floor balcony, and we climb the stairs to meet her in this cozy little beach apartment where people are listening to remixes and watching surf movies and smoking pot. There's a pretty neat fish tank, too.

We go up on the roof and watch planes landing at LAX and in the night sky they look like UFO's. I meet the guy who owns the apartment with the fish tank. He had a copy of Some Like It Hot sitting in front of his TV, and there are magnets on his refrigerator with 50's era caricatures of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe. I ask him about these and he seems super excited that someone actually recognized them. We start talking, and some girl I met earlier breaks into our conversation to ask this guy if he's gay too, and he immediately disappears into another conversation and we don't see him again. I take this as a very closted yes.

Eventually, two police officers show up and try to break up the party, but there's at least 300 people around, and they don't have much luck. I eat Mexican food with Jenny and her friends, and then she falls asleep in the car on the way home. I have a really good conversation with Christina, Jenny's friend, on the way home, and I wonder why I often wait so long to come out of my shell when I meet new people. I hope I'm not the same way with Los Angeles this time around.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

California Gothic

I watched The Third Man on DVD the other night. Photographically, It was a really beautiful film, but I have to admit that I didn't care for the story. Everything was very tight and interesting for the first half or so, but then it sort of lost its momentum and the characters became uninteresting. Still, it had in spades that undeniable romance of postwar Europe and film noir. It makes me wonder where in the world that magic might be hiding today. Maybe in Uganda, or so I once believed.

A month before I graduated from college, I applied for a fellowship that would have sent me to work as a photojournalist for The New Vision, a state-controlled newspaper based in Kampala. I was asked to submit a small, relevant portfolio, which was tricky because most of recent stuff was edgy graphic design work that I had heavily Photoshopped . I eventually settled on some photographs I had taken at a skate park during the summer after my freshman year, when I was first becoming interested in photography.


The photos were for a class I was taking through UCSD Extension. My final project was a series on skaters, surfers, and other punk kids hanging out around the various concrete jungles that comprise San Diego. I called the series "Youth Culture", which pretty much just meant that I had wandered around town taking pictures of people who were roughly my age. Still, I remember selecting these images because they all shared a certain feeling of stillness and sadness- a California Gothic, if you will. In retrospect, this sentiment was likely a projection of my own longing to break out of the isolation I found myself in at the time. I had (and often still have) a desire to decode the enchanting bits of knowledge that skaters share and surfers share but the uninitiated can only dream about.

I knew the portfolio I had submitted for the photojournalist position wasn't very strong, so I was very surprised when I learned that I had got the job. In fact, I was happier than I had been in a very long time- photojournalist in Africa is one of those dream jobs that goes right up there with astronaut or rockstar or president. It was a chance to escape the banality of doing something awful and ordinary. It was an opportunity to travel and meet people and have my mind blown. It was exactly what I'd been needing and wanting for a very long time.

A few days later, my mother threatened to sue the people who had awarded me the fellowship, so I lost the job. I was furious at the time, and I still get a little crushed whenever I think about it. I remember being somewhat consoled when a wise and venerable professor told me that it must have happened because the fates had other things in store for me.

I'm still wondering what those other things might be.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Maria

I crawled out of bed this morning to find my father's golden retriever lying next to a puddle of his own vomit. It was mostly brown goo, but there were a few chunks in there as well. At first I yelled at the dog, but I think this just confused him. It's not like I was going to be able to shame him into not throwing up all over the floor in the future. The thing already has enough trouble with "sit" and "stay"- I'm doubtful that it could learn "don't vom", or even, "stop rolling around in that," or "don't eat your own puke". I took him outside, hoping he might realize that it would be a far better place for him to wretch up anything left in his stomach, but he just sat there and stared at me.

Back inside, I grabbed a wad of paper towels and started mopping up the mess on the floor while the dog raced to eat as much vom as possible before I had wiped it all away. Afterwards, I splashed some Pinesol on the floor, and I was immediately hit by that pungent smell that always filled our house after Maria made her bi-weekly visits. It was a little surprising for me to realize that I had never before identified what produced the "Maria smell" that indicated that the house was at least temporarily sanitized for the 24 hours that the smell lingered above the tile floors.

Maria was a strange figure during my childhood. I rarely ever saw her, but her presence was noticeable in so many ways that she became an almost supernatural figure, like the wind or the sun or a bolt of lightning that cleaned the house every week (she had come more frequently when my mother still lived with my father). Maria was the reason why a toy or a magazine would suddenly go missing, only to appear in a completely foreign drawer or cabinet. She was the reason why the water in the toilet became blue and bubbly and lightly fragrant. She was the reason why I had to pick up all my toys once each week and the reason why the stuffed animals on top of my bunkbed needed to be rearranged so that they could return to their proper positions. She made my sheets change colors, produced arcing patterns in all the carpets, and left that sickly sweet Maria smell to let me know she had visited.

Once when I was very young, my mother told me that Maria had promised to give back all the money that she made cleaning houses after she became a millionaire. I can't remember if my mother also told me how Maria was planning to make it big, but I often think of this story and it always makes me a little sad. I think it's one of the reasons I try to avoid Maria whenever she's cleaning my father's house. A few years ago, she approached me while I was eating breakfast in my father's kitchen and asked me to say hello to my mother for her. I eventually passed along the message, but my mom just rolled her eyes and said that Maria must have been looking for work. At first I was angry at my mother for being so callous, but I've come to realize that she was probably right. And now it's become another reason why I get a little sad whenever I smell Pinesol.