Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: Gay Travels in the Muslim World

Gay identity is denied in most Muslim countries. That there are men and women within those areas who primarily love people of their own gender is a biological certainty. But most of them would not label themselves 'gay' or 'lesbian', they would see the attraction as just one small aspect of themselves that they try to fit into their lives while adhering to what is expected of them by friends and - especially - family. Family is very important, both caring for the current generation as well as raising the next one. Getting married before you are thirty and having children is the only accepted way to live in many places. Not doing so could lead to loss of honour for you and your family. This means that most gay love and lust takes place behind closed doors and isn't acknowledged even while everybody around knows it happens. As long as there are no witnesses and it isn't talked about, everybody can pretend that no social mores are being broken.

Considering that gay sex is officially frowned upon and even punishable by death in many Muslim countries, the casual intimacy between men is one that will surprise many tourists. Much more than in Western countries, men are likely to be seen touching each other in a physically intimate way or even walking around the city hand in hand. The 'Western' gay identity threatens this way of interacting with each other by making it look suspect and threatens the entire family-oriented society. It introduces new options and choices that could upset the basis on which the society is built. Gay Muslims may start to question things and realise that the way their heart is pulling them does not have to point towards certain doom, but could lead them to a happy, if alternative, family life.

Gay Travels in the Muslim World is a series of autobiographical short stories, edited by Michael Luongo. It gives an impression of the Muslim world as described above. The majority of them deal with contrasts and conflicts between Western culture and Muslim culture, from varied perspectives. Most of the stories were written by Western visitors, one or two by people within the culture. The style, tone and attitudes of the writers vary, and while some of the tales are likely to annoy you, you will find a couple that are touching and interesting. I liked the story of an American who starts a long-distance romance with a Turk, only to find out he is married and has children. Rather than break up with his long-term lover, the Turkish man integrates him as an 'uncle' into his family, where he is lovingly accepted.

Not all stories are sweet though; in several of them, local men desperate for money and tourists desperate for sex with locals meet each other on a sharp and uncomfortable knife's edge between two cultures, using each other for selfish purposes.

All in all it is an interesting collection, well worth a read for anybody interested in this different perspective on gay identity. And if you want to take a more academic look at the topic, you may want to pick up Unspeakable Love - Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.

Book Review: Wishful Drinking -Toasting Princess Leia

Carrie Fisher bares not-quite all in a funny memoir

Carrie Fisher's life was always an autobiography waiting to happen. As the daughter of the eccentric Debbie Reynolds - of Singing in the Rain fame, among many other roles - and singer Eddie Fisher, she grew up in a Hollywood family under great public scrutiny. Carrie compares their level of public interest to the Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie merger. Ms. Reynolds was soon dumped by Mr. Fisher for a certain Ms. Taylor, first name: Elisabeth. A merry dance of Hollywood relationships ensued, her parents making their romantic way among the famous and powerful.

Carrie meanwhile, landed a certain movie role that she would never live down, no matter how hard she still tries: that of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy. The silly 'buns on the side' hairstyle and golden bra from Return of the Jedi haunt her to this day. She embarked on an ill-fated relationship with Paul Simon and then on an equally doomed relationship with a Hollywood producer who left her for a man, but not before gifting her with a much adored daughter. During all of this, she battled with what was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and accompanying drug and alcohol problems. Oh, and I see I forgot to mention that one of her best friends died at her home one night.

Considering the large amounts of interesting material at her disposal, it is surprising how relatively thin the autobiography is that has finally hit bookstores: Wishful Drinking. When you also take into account its large black and white photo's and illustrations in combination with a large font size, it's no wonder that you will be able to go through it in a couple of hours. There are plenty of quotable lines to keep you entertained, but the book stays frustratingly close to the surface, skipping over interesting topics while hinting at untold depths. She allows the readers into her life, but only so far. She is admirably open, however, about her bipolar disorder and addiction problems. In fact, the reason for writing the book is supposedly that she is going through voluntary shock treatment to handle her condition and wants to capture her memories while she still has them.

Wishful Drinking apparently ties in with her one-woman show of the same name and it seems a little more could have been done to convert it into a 'proper' autobiography. There are jumps back and forth in chronology, certain events being referenced a couple of times in different chapters and some of the jokes are repeated. With references to Sarah Palin and the financial crisis, the book does feel fresh, but it gives the impression that it was rushed to the printer without a good final polish. Her writing is less tight than in her previous works, the most famous one being the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. Often Wishful Drinking reads like a speech that has been transcribed: too much spoken language and not quite literary. Still, for anybody curious about Princess Leia in the real world - or Hollywood in any case - it is good for an entertaining couple of hours, even if you don't learn much about the behind-the-scenes at the Star Wars movies. But I did come away from reading this book with the knowledge that according to George Lucas, there are no bras in space. Which is important to know.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Movie Review: Wanted

Wesley Allan Gibson (James McAvoy) is a bit of a loser, to put it mildly; broke, working a soul-deadening job and too wimpy to confront his friend about regularly boinking his girlfriend behind his back. To his considerable surprise, he suddenly and violently gets drafted into a fraternity of assassins for paternal reasons. He didn't know his father when he was growing up, but he turns out to have inherited dad's ability to speed up his heartbeat, allowing him to experience time as if things around him are happening in slow motion. This device is used to great aesthetic effect throughout the movie, by showing the most outrageous action scenes at a crawl, giving the viewer a chance to chuckle at the fantastic absurdity of it all. The 'cool' dial is cranked up all the way to eleven. It almost makes you overlook the complete lack of stealth in the approach of the assassins, who are causing merry mayhem and riding around on metro trains without any regard for witnesses and security cameras.

Wanted is definitely a case of style over substance, but puts up such a strong, full frontal assault of it that you are likely to give in. You will smile as a car bowls over a bus and then drives off the side of it. And you will shake your head appreciatively when a lethal bullet is followed backwards in time across a cityscape to land in the gun that fired it. Winning the gold medallion of 'cool' in this movie is Angelina Jolie. I am far on the gay end of the Kinsey scale, but seeing her in this movie made me slide considerably towards the middle. She is ridiculously sexy, gliding across the screen in supreme femme fatale mode.

The phrase that kept going through my mind while watching Wanted was 'collateral damage'. The killers in this movie operate under the philosophy that by taking one specific life they are presumably saving many others. But they are not too concerned with the lives of any number of bystanders when the bullets and cars start flying. Even the good guys have landed a fair amount of innocents in the morgue by the time the end credits roll, and none of those who survived seem too concerned about that. Death is also being dealt to characters who simply seem misguided, without giving them a chance to reassess their situation. This is understandable in a movie that needs slow motion gunfights and therefore cannon fodder, but it makes the killing seem completely random for the most part.

The movie was based on a graphic novel written by Mark Millar. He has said he will not be writing a sequel to Wanted in comic book form, but one or more sequels are sure to hit the movie theatres, hopefully bringing back its few surviving assets.

Wanted, 2008. 110 min. Director: Timur Bekmambetov. Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman.

Movie Review: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy Trilogy doesn't seem to know when to quit. First of all, there wasn't any need to make it a Trilogy, discounting a financial one. Though the third movie attempts to freshen the formula by moving the action to China, it still feels too much like the previous two entries, in particular like the bloated special effects fiesta that was the second movie. It has been a while since I saw parts one and two. I remember that I found the first one charming, with a nice balance between action, romance and humour, while the second one was just a lot of noise and computer generated motion. It was okay as popcorn movies go, but did it really warrant another sequel, which recycles these thrills while piling on the silly pseudo-mythology?

The beginning of the third entry seems promising. There is the nicely Indiana Jones-esque uncovering of what looks suspiciously like the Chinese Terracotta Army. These scenes reintroduce us to Alex O'Connell (Luke Ford), the son of our couple of intrepid leads from the first two movies. He has aged alarmingly in comparison to his father (Brendan Fraser), who now looks more like his older brother. His mother has also changed; into a different actress (Maria Bello), as Rachel Weisz wisely bowed out of the franchise. That is addressed in an actually funny way, by suggesting that the previous flicks were film versions of two books the 'real' Evelyn O'Connell wrote, which in turn were based on her 'real life' adventures. You follow?

Though the adventurous family seemed happy at the end of part two, Alex is now oddly estranged from his parents, who for their part seem bored to tears in early retirement. When a new adventure beckons, transporting the Eye of Shangri-La to China, the couple eagerly jumps at the opportunity, leading them to run into Alex and to bond together once again through their adventures.

The story starts to fall apart as the action revs up, getting too hectic to give the cast room to breathe and enjoy their characters. The mythology seems to be getting made up on the fly by an over-enthusiastic storyteller deathly afraid of boring his audience. But bored is what I was, as the story failed to pull me in, despite all the plot being thrown my way: "There is this Evil Undead Chinese Emperor brought back from the great beyond and now looking for eternal life. Oh, and what if he controls the elements? And what if he can change into monsters for some reason? Then throw in a few Yeti's? Maybe an army of skeletons?" The writers needed to ask themselves 'why' rather than 'why not' a bit more than they did. Action scenes are strung together with some clunky emotional ones painting the characters in broad strokes and resolving issues the movie did not make us care about in the first place. Most attempts at one-liners fall flat and the dialogue is often wooden to the point where it seems to have been ghost-written by George Lucas. All the charm from the first movie has evaporated by now; let's just bury this franchise and not dig it up again.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, 2008. 112 min. Director: Rob Cohen. Starring: Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh.

Movie Review: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files without conspiracies or aliens - I don't believe it! I watched X-Files regularly up to the point where Fox 'Spooky' Mulder (David Duchovny) was starting to turn into a guest star rather than being one of the leads. What made the series work originally was the core concept of a cynic and a believer investigating the paranormal, working as a sniffed-at-by-colleagues branch of the FBI. The chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson (as Dana Scully) was phenomenal even if they allegedly didn't always get along behind the scenes. They played off each other well, whether they were being action heroes, being funny or even being romantic. This chemistry unfortunately seems to have somewhat dissipated, going by the second X-Files movie. It's not the only element that is absent from the expected mix: I found myself missing the big-conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy angle that had started to bore and annoy me during the later seasons of the series. There isn't any international travelling, there aren't any aliens and there are no explosions of any kind. Unlike the first movie, the story feels very intimate and small-scale, like one of the stand-alone episodes featuring a case-of-the-week.

Scully is no longer with the FBI but working at a hospital. Her former employers reach out to her to contact Mulder. They need him to verify the authenticity of a psychic (Billy Connolly) who is helping them on a missing person's case, this person being an FBI agent who the psychic claims is still alive. The psychic is a former priest and a convicted paedophile who wants to atone for his sins. Is he working for God, the Devil or is he a con-man? Scully meanwhile has to decide whether to painfully treat a gravely ill young patient of hers or to let him die in peace. During all this, Mulder and Scully try to figure out their feelings for each other.

The location is a snowy town, used to great effect to create a feeling of cold, isolation and discomfort. Colours are muted and dark. The movie is about hope in the face of darkness and doubt, but the feelings it conjures up aren't upbeat, more ones of quiet despair. Apart from a hilarious use of the X-files theme in combination with a photo of George W. Bush and the occasional snarky line of dialogue, there isn't much to laugh at this time around. Seeing Scully defeated and Mulder as a slightly bitter, powerless recluse isn't the welcome reunion you might hope for. I'm all for introspection and reflection, but I expected something different from an X-files movie. More of a sense of fun and adventure.

If the story had been really strong, the movie could still have worked as an arty little thriller in its own right, but it builds on the theme of faith, using a psychic and religion, which means the writer gets a free pass to make unlikely things happen and hint that they were predetermined by a higher power. Which of course they were: by the writer, who is the God of the story after all. There is once instance in particular, involving a mailbox, which had me rolling my eyes. I also didn't like the way in which homosexuality was portrayed, in particular how it was dubiously linked to paedophilia. It seemed sensationalist, random and in bad taste. At least the explanation behind the disappearance of the FBI agent felt suitably X-files: far-fetched and appropriately gross. A short appearance by Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) also made it seem more like old times again for a moment. Here's hoping that in the next movie, they all find a nice big conspiracy to sink their teeth into and get to blow up some stuff real good.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe, 2008. 104 min. Director: Chris Carter. Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Billy Connolly.

A Call to Closure

From what I've been reading, serial storytelling on television is once again on the decline. A lot of scripted shows saw sharp drops in their viewing figures when returning this season. Reality tv shows, or what passes for reality on the idiot box, rule supreme. Audiences can't seem to get enough of fabricated conflict and people making a fool of themselves in a desperate bid for 15 minutes of fame. Producers are happy to cater to this need, as these shows are relatively cheap to produce. Shows that have episodes which are relatively self-contained, like those from the CSI stable, have been suffering less. These shows require no real commitment from the viewer: you can watch pretty much any episode and follow the main story without being lost and get a feeling of closure by the end of it, unlike when you watch one episode of - well - Lost, for instance.

So what caused this decline in ratings for serials? Most of the blame has been directed at the writer's strike which took place about a year ago. Supposedly people felt betrayed by the sudden discontinuation or their favourite shows, or just lost interest in them over time. I think, however, that a growing frustration on the part of the viewers is the cause, and it goes back further than the last curtailed season.

My personal experience: once upon a time there were two new shows: Surface and Invasion. I gave both shows a chance, invested my time in them and grew to appreciate them, if not love them. I would have been fine with it if the shows had ended after that first season, but because both of them went out on a cliff-hanger, I felt betrayed rather than just disappointed: someone had just made me waste a lot of time watching a story without an ending or a real point. When the next batch of new series rolled around, I made sure to just tape the first few episodes of anything that seemed promising and check for rumours of cancellation before I started to watch them. This saved me from getting frustrated about The Nine when it was axed and made me pass on Drive, even though that seemed like a very interesting series, starring the deeply charming Nathan Fillion.

My point is: before viewers become invested in a story, they want to know that the people telling it will care enough about it to guarantee that there will be an ending. Due to the fickle gods of circumstance, the ending might be rushed or not the ending that was originally intended, but there needs to be a sense of closure. I don't start reading a book unless I am fairly certain that the author will have a go at wrapping things up nicely in the final chapter. This can also take the form of an intentionally open ending like they used for The Sopranos or Angel (well, Joss Whedon has claimed that it was intentional in any case). Both the creators and the television studios are to blame for the frequent absence of a proper ending to serials. Creators want to draw people back for the new season or when there is a short hiatus and therefore prefer to keep their audience hanging. They might also figure that an unsatisfying ending is more likely to get fans rallying for renewal, should the show be cancelled. Unfortunately, they are probably right about that.

The television studios keep their eye one the financial bottom line: how much does this show cost and how much money is it likely to make us. Going by this reasoning, I am surprised that Pushing Daisies lasted as long as it did: very expensive to make by the looks of it and likely too quirky and whimsical to reach a very wide audience. The 'throwing good money after bad' attitude is understandable: profits have to come from somewhere. But I think that the decisions are being made by a confused industry which is forgetting about DVD sales and a possibility to monetise a series on the internet, by way of (legal) downloads. The studios only seem to look at the initial viewing figures, which are somewhat outdated and not a real measure of a series' popularity anymore, factoring in the new media.

It seems to me that a series with closure, a story with an actual ending, has much more lasting value and is a lot more marketable than one that simply stops. Whenever I spot the DVD set of Invasion in a store, I can't help but think that any buyer will feel duped and betrayed by the - lack of - outcome. I can't imagine that the series would get a lot of good word of mouth these days: 'Yeh, it's kind of slow at the beginning, but then there is a nice build-up and then it is, like, you know, over.' Therefore it puzzles me that not a little extra time and money is put into finishing the final chapter, making the product a much more marketable package after the initial television airing.

I can see that in some instances, such as with Drive, which barely made it out of the gate, this would be virtually impossible. But a show such as Pushing Daisies, like a lot of other serials, had a couple of ongoing storylines which could have been tied together with a bow given the budget for an additional two or three episodes and a notice to wrap things up. Not being an industry insider, I am not sure if it would be wiser to air these final episodes or to only release them on DVD as part of the box set - holding them ransom in a way. Either way, it would make the series as a whole an easier sell

It seems to me that all parties concerned - viewers, studios, creators - would end up happier if a fairly standard clause in contracts for a television series would be that the moment a series is officially cancelled, a budget is cleared to produce two or three additional episodes under the explicit mandate that these should be used to leave the viewer with that sense of closure, the warm, fuzzy feeling of not having been screwed over by yet another serial of which the last chapter will never be told. It would leave people feeling better about the series that was cancelled and create good will towards the studio that cared enough to not leave them hanging. It would also, crucially, make viewers more likely to recommend the completed series to others, making for higher long-term profits.

I am curious to hear what other people think about this and if I am perhaps misinformed about the inner workings of television. Would this work? As a fan of big story arcs that you can invest in for a deeper emotional pay-off, I dó want to keep loving serials. But the television industry is making it hard to do that and I have been tricked too often. Don't make me watch reality tv. Please don't.