Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Were the World Mine (Response to a Response)

David: [commenting on the “Were the World Mine” post] Is popular entertainment now doomed to follow a pattern of High School Musical/Butlins sing-a-longs which as well as having tediously predictable plotting are curiously removed from any kind of erotic feeling, gay or straight? Children in eyeliner dancing around to the musical equivalent of a Steps B-side do not provocative and mature entertainment make… All in all, not a patch on The History Boys, although, alas, it features no hot pants.
Author: Hmmm. Well, I might agree that it’s not a patch on The History Boys -
Jack: Which is not a patch on Lindsay Anderson’s If….
Puck: Which is not a patch on Wes Anderson’s Then…,
Author: Um, what?
Puck: That’s the sequel where, years later, Malcolm McDowall and his comrades-in-arms have turned the school into an anarchist commune, and they all live together as one big quirkily dysfunctional family. With Bill Murray.
Jack: Which is not a patch on Wes Craven’s Den, the sequel to Dead Poet’s Society, where the ghost of Robert Sean Leonard haunts that place the kids used to hang out, and comes out at night to murder bearded English teachers in bloody revenge!
Puck: Which is not a patch on John Craven’s Pen, the Christopher Guest style mockumentary set behind the scenes in the cut-throat world of competitive sheep-dog trials, fronted by the UK’s favourite children’s news presenter. And zombie Shep.
Jack: Which is not a patch on John Carter’s Ten, the Barsoomian remake of the Dudley Moore / Bo Derek classic of 70s sexism, but with the one-to-ten scale relating to the number of limbs rather than girly-hotness.
Author: Guys. Guys. If you’re going to defend the film, you might actually address the comment.
Puck: Why? It’s silly. An Allan Bennet play versus a gay teen musical. That’s apples and humblebees!
Jack: Mate, it’s the sorta tosh Joey would come out with. Except with more of a sneer on “popular”.
Puck: And some eye-rolling on “doooooooooomed”.
Jack: And you know that little snorty-sneer thing he does, yeah? That on “tediously”.
Puck: Oh! Oh! And he wouldn’t have been able to say “High School Musical”, “Butlins” or “Steps” without a “fucking” in front of them. Joey would have been all like, “fucking High School fucking Musical fucking Butlins shitwank, motherfucker!”
Jack: He’d have probably used the same examples, right enough. Let’s face it, four chords or more is fucking prog rock to Joey. He thinks Leonard Bernstein equals Leonard Nimoy because neither of them is Leonard Cohen.
Puck: Oh, man, they should totally collaborate! The three Leonards! Together for the first time! That would be awesome!
Author: You are both disturbed individuals. Seriously. You are deeply, deeply disturbed. But, OK, I do think the comparison is… strange.
Puck: Strange? It’s like saying West Side Story isn’t a patch on Last Exit to Brooklyn.
Jack: It’s like saying Escape From New York isn’t a patch on Manhattan.
Puck: It’s like saying -
Author: Yes, we get the point. They’re different idioms, with different aims. If you prefer a thematically rich play to an unashamedly fun musical, that’s fair enough. If you don’t like musicals at all -
Puck: Then you have no soul.
Author: - that’s fair enough -
Puck: Says you.
Author: - but if you treat Were the World Mine as a musical? Even aside from the songs taking their lyrics from sodding Shakespeare, rather than having all the linguistic artistry of your average Eurovision novelty entry, the music in Were the World Mine is quite unconventional compared to the crime-against-humanity that was Steps. (No, I don’t care what you say, Puck. You know I’m with Joey and David on that one.) Or compared to the fairly traditional song-structures of your average Disney or Lloyd Weber. Certainly it pisses all over that “Zack Teflon” vehicle’s sub-Disney croonings. It’s not Sondheim, but it’s not… well… pretty much all the ultimately rather dull songs in Rent, the ones that aren’t “La Vie Boheme”.
Puck: I love that song. [sings] To sodomy! It’s between God and me!
Jack: [sings] To S&M!
All: La Vie Boheme!
Author: Ahem. Yes. Well.
Puck: You know, there could have been more sodomy in it. And maybe some S&M. I mean, Jack fancied Tanner Cohen, and I liked the silver hotpants, but it’s not… you know… steamy.
Author: See, now, I actually quite liked that it wasn’t your typical gay buttonpusher. In fact, I believe the director’s said that he didn’t want to do another queer fleshfest that got most of its entertainment value from the novelty of watching homoeroticism outside of the confines of gay porn. I mean, have you seen Eating Out? No — on second thoughts, let’s not go there. Anyway, the dreaminess rather than steaminess seemed pretty apt to me given the Shakespeare schtick. Slighty artificed in places, slightly stagey.
Puck: It was moonlighty.
Author: I’m not entirely sure what that means, but OK. If there is a “curiously removed” feel, an emotional distance at times, I think it largely comes from the film stock used, to be honest, and maybe from filming in Chicago. Outside the musical numbers, it often has that micro-budget indie movie vibe that comes when you can’t afford the warm-hued locations at the perfect time of year, or the expensive film stock, lighting rigs and post-production — all those things that add up to the super-saturated Hollywood sheen and the immersive engagement it invokes.
Puck: Like Forrest Gump is eye-snuggly-warm.
Jack: Even though it’s shit.
Author: Um, yes. Quite. Sometimes that can make a movie feel… I don’t know… understated, under-directed or under-produced in places — I had the same feeling with “But I’m a Cheerleader” — but I tend to cut a movie like this a lot of slack in that department. I’d rather have an honest labour-of-love like this than the real Hollywood “gay High School Musical” that would have had that gloss.
Puck: There’s a reason I call him Zack Teflon, you know. I think he might have been created by NASA.
Jack: Tell you what though, authorman: I’ll buy the “predictable plotting” thing. As I said… could have used more explosions. More fucking chaos, mate, that’s what it needed.
Puck: Hello! A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gayboy playing Puck finds real love potion. Shenanigans and high-jinks ensue. But all’s made right in the end, just like Bill the Bard would have it. Jack, you just think every high school movie should end with Malcolm McDowall machine-gunning parents and teachers.
Jack: And your point is? I mean that’s what I call provocative.
Authorman: To be fair, I would say the story pretty much writes itself from the central premise and the idiom it’s in. So, sure, there’s a number of ways you could have turned the narrative into something more meaty. If Timothy had accidentally used the flower to make himself straight, say, fixated on Frankie, the Zelda Williams character.
Puck: Ick! Breeder cooties!
Author: Or if he’d tried to sort out his hetero friend Max’s accidental enchantment with him, but just made things worse. Or if it had all turned into a terribly serious exploration of sexual politics, with the love potion as a metaphor for rohypnol. But, well, some stories have space to sprawl into sub-plots and subtexts, and others just know where they’re going and go there. This is maybe not the most complex -
Jack: Oh, bollocks to complex! Fuck that shit. Who wants another fucking sensitive, fucking intelligent, fucking complex, fucking arsey realist study of the trials and tribulations and all the terrible terrible ordeal involved in coming-of-age as a gay kid in a small town dealing with blah blah fuckety blah? Kill me now. Honestly. You’re the author, so I know you can do it — you’ll just bring me back anyway — so please, fucking blow my fucking head off now, ta much. Who watches that shit?
Author: Well, some of us do actually appreciate more sophisticated treatments of such subje-
Jack: Well, some of us say bollocks to that!
Puck: Some of us want dancing boys. In silver hotpants. Who live happily ever after.
Jack: Yeah, so deal with it, authorman.
Author: Chill, sparky boys. Chill. All I was going to say is that I happen to like works that take a more subtle approach, exploring their themes with more reflection and, perhaps, more relevance in terms of exploring what “is” rather than what “could” or “should” be. The point is, I also think there’s a lot to be said for unashamed diegetic fabulation.
Puck: Diuretic what?
Author: Story with a capital S. Appreciating the intellectual doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the sensational. Not only do both have their place, but the latter is, I would argue, criminally undervalued. Indeed, the argument against the abjection of “shallow sensationalism” — “muso” aesthetics and suchlike — is such a recurrent theme on this blog, I find it surprising that anyone would make a comparison of Were the World Mine and The History Boys, couch it in a rhetoric of “popular entertainment” being “doomed” by its unconscionable disregard for what constitutes “provocative and mature” entertainment, and expect me not to say, Huh?
Puck: “Huh” is the word. Do you have any idea what he’s on about?
Jack: Fuck no. He lost me at “diogenic fabrication”.
Author: Look, the “mature” approach is all very well. You can take a gay kid’s unrequited crush on a straight friend and explore it more subtly, create a work with more thematic complexity. You could even use it as a relatively minor aspect of a work with far wider scope, as Bennet does in The History Boys. The result may well be not just intellectually interesting but honestly affecting. It could be done with as much wit as sensitivity. Being smart doesn’t mean it can’t be accessible, entertaining. But in some respects it will still be, arguably, safe.
Jack: All movies are safe. It’s not like they explode in your face. Or fire chi-blasts at you.
Puck: I don’t think that’s what he means by “safe” here.
Jack: Yeah, cause authorman here knows all about what’s “not safe”. He’s not the one gets blown up whenever -
Puck: But you like getting blown up, Jack.
Jack: Oh, yeah, fair point.
Author What I mean is, that realist idiom is where queer central characters have largely been exiled to in mainstream cinema — for as long as I can remember at least. To the arthouse and indie flicks and the Oscar-loving serious dramas about closets and AIDS and all those Terribly Important Things. See, we can be protagonists (though it took us a good while to even get to that,) but we can’t be heroes.
Puck: Jack’s my hero.
Author: Yes, Puck. True. Not entirely relevant, but true. The point is, we get to be the female lead’s Gay Best Friend in rom-coms and other chick-flicks, maybe even the male lead’s faggot-puppy-in-tow a la Rebel Without a Cause. At most we can maybe flounce around centre-stage in a camp farce like The Birdcage, if we flap our limp-wristed hands amusingly enough. But forget the gay Sam Spade, the gay Wyatt Earp, the gay Dirty Harry, the gay Luke Skywalker, the gay Danny Zucco, the gay romantic hero in any popular idiom you care to mention. Oh, you can have the gay cowboy in a poignant tearjerker about how fucking miserable it is to be a homo in Wyoming, but he’s not gonna be gunning for the guy who shot his Paw. I mean, it’s nice to see gay themes treated seriously and all, but… well… Jack, what do you think of Maurice?
Jack: Maurice?! Maurice is the fucking gay Mandingo!
Author: Me, I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly, but… yeah, there’s an extent to which as soon as the camera puts the queer character centre frame, suddenly it’s all terribly polite and proper, even when its foul-mouthed and filthy-minded. Alan Bennet, Joe Orton, Derek Jarman and such are provocative as fuck. But, you know what? They’re exactly the stuff of cocktail party conversation. A few Telegraph readers might still consider their works inappropriate discussion over the port, but the battle for the bourgeoisie has largely been won. So some latter-day, pill-popping, poppers-snorting Maurice In Massachussets is just going to be a “terribly interesting and insightful” — “edgy, even” — worthy work for the middle classes to fanwank over. And for all its edginess, it’s going to carry the same reactionary message as all the rest: queers can’t be heroes. Jack?
Jack: Fuck that shit.
Author: Thank you, Jack. That’s why movies like The Curiosity of Chance and Were the World Mine are a breath of fresh air, far as I’m concerned. Sure, with both you probably do have to like the idiom itself, and neither is going to give the chattering classes much complexity and subtlety to waffle over, but both are pushing the boundaries far more, I’d argue, than movies which are kicking back in the territory won for them by a previous generation. Sure, from My Beautiful Landerette to My Own Private Idaho and on through to Brokeback Mountain, it’s great to see those serious gay movies that have stomped out into mainstream attention, but I’m damn certain that when I was fourteen I’d have much rather seen a gay Ferris Bueller being the coolest kid in school EVER. Or sung along with a gay Danny and/or a hot male Sandy as they belted out “Summer Nights”.
Jack: You know, some might say homophobia is a good thing if it spared us from that. Didn’t you sound like Tom Waits being tortured even at that age?
Author: Yeah, when people talk about voices breaking they don’t usually mean like Jack Bauer breaking a prisoner. The thing is, both The Curiosity of Chance and Were the World Mine start by dispensing with one steaming big pile of gay cinema cliché, by having their protagonist fully out at the start of the film. They’re gay coming-of-age movies so they do deal with some of the — what did you call it? — “blah blah fuckety blah”, but they refuse to be bound within the (drearily overdone) coming-out narrative. Instead they seek to carve out a queer space in idioms that are overwhelmingly straight: the former is the best 80s high school movie John Hughes never made; the latter is a wonderfully enjoyable teen revenge-fantasy cum rom-com musical. Both with gay heroes. Whereas I can’t remember off-hand a single gay character from any other movie of those types. I mean, I’m trying, but… guys, help me out here.
Puck: Um...
Jack: Eh…
Puck: Um...
Jack: Eh… hey, hang on a fucking minute! Mate, I just googled “gay kid” with “high school movie” to try and help you out, and your blog post on The Curiosity of Chance was the first hit. That’s fucked up.
Author: My post. Seriously?!
Jack: Seriously.
Author: Shit, that is fucked up. Those aren’t… you know… particularly idiosyncratic phrases, are they? I mean, I didn’t miss a memo where everyone decided to use the phrases “queer youth” and “teen film” instead, did I?
Jack: Mate, we’re figments of your imagination. How the fuck should we know?
Author: Fucking hell. “Gay kid.” “High school movie.” Surely those strings should be splattered all over the interwebs, with the combination used, here and there, in relation to this movie or that. There’s got to be some high school movie with a gay kid in it that rates a write-up on some page with a higher fucking profile than my frickin blog. No?
Puck: There’s a whole four pages of hits.
Jack: And you at the top.
Puck: Maybe Google just likes you.
Author: I know what my hit stats are like. It shouldn’t like me that much.
Puck: Maybe it likes The Curiosity of Chance.
Author: And maybe we need more reasons to use the strings “gay kid” and “high school movie” together. Like maybe we need more high school movies with gay kids. In roles worth noting.
Jack: Maybe you need to write one.
Puck: With us in it.
Author: You never let up, do you?
Puck: I’m persistent.
Author: No, you’re fickle and flighty, easily distracted.
Puck: Am not.
Author: Look! It’s the Goodyear blimp!
Puck: Where?
[Exit author, while the exiting's good.]


Blogger David said...

Maybe gay people aren't often in the role of typical straight heroes, but nor, if most modern cinema is anything to go on, would they want to be.

Carving out a queer niche in genres that are already palpably shit isn't going to make for good queer cinema, or good cinema that happens to feature gay heroes, it's just going to make more of the same rubbish being churned out at the moment. So what's the point?

And I'll be sure work on my sneer, if that's what you'd enjoy.

10:49 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

…genres that are already palpably shit…

Sorry, but I just can't be arsed defending popular idioms from all-encompassing dismissals that boil down to snootcocking snipewankery; like a muso mocking Motown, I find it tediously churlish and ultimately callow. If you see zero value in the genre of high school movies — or romantic comedies, musicals, fables, sonnets, rondeaus, zombie movies, sit-coms or whatever — that’s your prerogative, but there’s really little point in us debating it here, as I doubt either of us will make the slightest dent on the other’s opinion. I’m with Dennis Potter in terms of my love and respect for a lot of populist “low art” others would disregard as trite and banal sentimentalism.

On a purely pragmatic level though, in terms of what “the point” is in carving out a queer niche in such idioms, for me it’s largely a matter of not preaching to the choir in terms of age, class and sophistication of taste. That gayness is acceptable in serious films for the chattering classes is nice, but ultimately insufficient. I’m far more interested in speaking to the sort of folk I grew up among.

12:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The world at large may not be ready for a gay hero but it is also true that the world at large doesn't know what the fuck it truly wants. So we are fed baby food palatable by most, and retchedly disgusting to some. Those of us who find regurgitated cliches and nauseating sentimentality weak and narrow minded to say the least are completely ready for a "Jack" to come on screen and kick ass. Why is all the blood and gore and acts duty, selflessness and heroism saved for the straight guy? Might I also add that said "straight guy" usually gets to bone some "hot chick" in a demeaning way at the end of the movie. What message are we sending? (I digress)The point is that being gay "IS" a cliche in Hollywood with the resultant stereotypes attatched. Until there is a Terminator that is gay, or a Dirty Harry (how cool would that be,Jack) people will continue to expect gay people to prance around and if they get to be a hero its because they sprinkled the enemy in fairy dust. I would say that the first step is to create a character a gay person would want to be. Someone they would be proud to see on screen. The "build it and they will come" plays aptly here. Make an engaging film with characters of depth and the brain-dead teeming masses just might get it! If not "fuck 'em! It really wasn't for them anyway.

1:08 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Thanks for another installment of the Jack & Puck Show. Just watch out for Puck - he's a sneaky fuck - he's always trying to fulfill some archetype and get killed...even to the extent of begging you to do it.

I've watched the clips and I'm going to get my hands on the movie.

Regarding the previous comments, I think the extent to which we kick against the gay stereotypes might sometimes be self-defeating (Gay hero in a Die Hard movie?). I often think we fail to recognize sometimes that aspects of the stereotype (wit, culture) might - if embraced - make for a far more interesting story. (Funny gay hero quoting Shakespeare in a Die Hard movie). There's no point in having a gay hero who, ultimately, conforms to every *heterosexual* convention. It's the same a slapping a "gay" label on Bruce Willis in one line of dialog in Die Hard. If he doesn't *do* anything gay with it, it's just a label - tokenism.

Because, y'know, we're fabulous. Who wants to give that up?

7:55 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I can see both sides of the argument here. I mean, the "straightwashing" of Brad Pitt's Achilles in Troy drives me crazy. "This is my *cousin*, Patroclus. Hey, have you met my *cousin*, Patroclus? He's my *cousin*, you know." The greatest homo hissy fit in history ("You killed my boyfriend, bitch. Now I'm going to cut you down like the dog you are and drag your corpse ten times around the walls of the city.") and it's totally castrated, neutered, sanitised. No need to have Achilles going all Queer as Folk, but I absolutely think that character would have been a perfect place to make the point that us faggots are just as capable of Dirty Harry/Terminator style *utter fucking ruthlessness* as anyone.

And I totally think you could do really interestng things with the classic macho hero (a Bond type? a Sam Spade type?) just by having him, oh, utterly impervious to the classic femme fatale. (Which could have a knock-on effect in reconfiguring such female characters so as to comment on the misogyny of the "honey trap" stereotype too.)

But at the same time, I may be -- like Jack -- the kind of gay who wouldn't let his punk ass be caught dead in silver hotpants. Hell, if Joey would sneer at that sort of shit, that's because the character does reflect a curmudgeonly aspect of me that bridles at the fabulosity of it all even while other aspects revel in it. But I do think those other aspects need to be owned. So, yeah, while I want the Jack-style ass-kickers to be blowing shit up without even an ounce of flounce (a twinkle in the eye a la the quip-chucking action hero, rather than in the toes,) I do want the Puck-style fairies, shameless in their disdain of heteronormativity.

Which is, I suppose, partly why those two keep cropping up in my work.

5:03 pm  
Blogger David said...

Never have I been so thoroughly done over by one man and his thesaurus. I'm not sure what "snootcocking snipewankery" is but it does sound very gratifying. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, my objection is to the cynically marketed and often emotionally vapid world of the modern teen movie, not created to provide glowing role models for anxious teenagers (a spurious intention for art in any case) but to relieve them of their (parents') cash at every available opportunity. I don't see how changing the names of the lead characters will improve things much on this score.

Personally I do not hold much stock by high or low art, only good or bad. And most art, both high and low, is very bad. If that makes me an unbearable snob, so be it. However, I certainly do not believe that some art is fit for the Guardian reader and the rest for the folks back home. This is categorising not the art but instead an audience as unfit or unwilling to receive it (I know, very Educating Rita), and on the face of it is surely deplorable.

The popular success that Potter received as a writer came not because he was derivative, formulaic or seeking to appeal to the lowest common denominator (as many films do, you must agree, in order to maximise profits and avoid too much controversy) but because he was an innovative and challenging writer both within and outsides the confines of what would be considered 'pop' culture. Now, you may see replacing straight characters with gay ones as just this sort innovation, but I disagree. You are absolutely justified in highlighting the lazy and often inaccurate presentation of gay people in popular (and unpopular) media, but I do not think the solution is replacing one ill with another of a very similar hue.

There’s really little point in us debating it here, as I doubt either of us will make the slightest dent on the other’s opinion.

Persuasion? Such Ciceronian ambition! Is rhetoric not an exercise in self-improvement?

6:18 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

David, I haven't seen the movie in question, but I would say that replacing straight characters with gay ones and treating Shakespeare's words as lyrics is definitely subversion (which is a valid, valuable function of art) rather than the simple mimicry you seem to be annoyed about.

Plus, in case it escaped anyone's attention, those actors are just hot.

6:53 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

And sometimes it's precisely the "lowest common denominator" you're trying to reach with your art. I'd argue that's where true change starts.

6:58 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Is rhetoric not an exercise in self-improvement?

Well, it can be fun and all, but it can also be an exercise in self-gratification if you’re not at least getting a nice dialectic going. If all that you're improving is your articulacy, well, I’d generally rather polish my rhetoric skills outside a debating society game of point-scoring.

That said, (see, I’m wary of rhetoric cause it is hard to resist,) my point about Potter is that for all his radically innovative approach, he recognised that the pop songs he used so often — and it’s hard to find a more “cynically marketed” form(ula) than the utterly commercial music he wove through his work — were trite and banal sentimentalism, cliché upon cliché, but not “emotionally vapid” for all that. That sort of “bad” art does speak to people in ways that a lot of “good” art simply doesn’t. Besides, remember, I'm arguing that from a musical theatre perspective Were the World Mine is head-and-shoulders above High School Musical; and I'd similarly argue that The Curiosity of Chance is head-over-shoulders above most modern teen movies, in the league of John Hughes at his best.

I’d say Potter understood that there can be a truth in what appears trite, and strove to express that and to make his work more powerful by wiring in tricks and techniques more usually in the province of crassly commercial art — and succeeded particularly well in something like The Singing Detective, with a series that was hugely popular when it aired partly because he understood how pulp fiction and pop music can get under people’s skin, hit them in the guts and balls rather than the head or even the heart.

Anyway, with regard to the categorisation of audience, note that I place “sophistication of taste” as a factor here precisely because, yes, there’s nothing to say a working-class kid will prefer Billy Elliot to The Long Day Closes simply because “that’s what people of that class and age like” — and nothing to say that he/she won’t like it without any need for a nice middle-class Michael Caine to educate him/her in the finer qualities of art. But there’s more than a tautologial “unsophisticated art is more fit for unsophisticated tastes” argument here. The bound relationship of anti-intellectualism and homophobia in working-class culture is a harsh reality I’m not going to dance around just because it might sound like I’m dissing the proles. It’s a systemic problem that’s partly (self-)perpetuated by the reification of abjection in work aimed at the mass market of casual readers/viewers. It’s not just about role models for angsty gay teens, but about getting non-angsty straight teens to happily munch down the popcorn while the Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson characters in a latter-day The Breakfast Club get it together, and Ally Sheedy gives Molly Ringwald a makeover.

8:33 pm  

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