In Michele Aaron’s essay “Towards Queer Television Theory: Bigger pictures sans sweet queer-after”, Aaron provides a means of analyzing ‘queer’ television. Through a discussion of current queer television Aaron labels a “New Queer Culture” described as being diametrically opposed to the foundations of the past New Queer Cinema. Gone is the “radical intent” and “anti-normative trajectory” that colored the New Queer Cinema, in its place New Queer Culture.
New Queer Culture is ubiquitous on television; nearly all current shows that can be labeled queer fall into this category. I attribute this to television’s hesitance to broadcast images that don’t fall into the ‘normal’ range of what is expected to appear on television. The queer displays that make it to the air and find success have undergone an intensive mainstreaming process to fit a certain mold. Aaron attributes this mainstreaming to television’s existence in the “realm of the everyday”, a space that strives to reflect the ‘everyday’. After all, consumers want to see themselves and their experiences in what they watch. And in order to draw in the largest possible viewing audience it behooves networks to reduce elements down to their simplest and most relatable components.
This desire to present material in a relatively predictable manner that appeals to a wide audience presents a unique complication for portrayals of queerness. How can an audience that is composed of (presumably) straight viewers relate to the experiences of gay characters? What does the married couple in the suburbs know about gay night club culture? How can the young male bachelor relate to lesbian relationship drama? In situations such as these it is often impossible to reduce the complex and multifaceted dimensions involved into relatable stories, so television’s solution has been to instead try and mold queer issues into a set of conventional storylines. Aaron describes these as a “range of narratives frequently follow[ing] normative developmental narratives of sexuality, which promote (heterosexual) romantic coupling and commitment invariably in the form of marriage and reproduction.” Even among the queer shows we have viewed in our screening there are examples of this normalization of homosexuality to fit the constraints of television.
The show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy follows “five gay men who specialize in fashion, food & wine, grooming, culture, and interior design [as they] go to the rescue of helpless straight men with no sense of fashion or anything else and do a complete makeover.” Through the course of the show the men essentially grant the subject access to a queer sensibility or a gay aesthetic, with none of the other associated marks of homosexuality. This leads to a show that while it is marked as definitively queer by effect of its cast, is not an essentially queer show by judgment of its critical content.
Rather the focus of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is built entirely upon the pursuit of heterosexual desire. The entire purpose of the show is to assist a heterosexual romance; be it through new dating opportunities, the re-kindling of a relationship, or the movement of a relationship to the next level. The main characters of the show may be the ‘Fab Five’, but the audience is always meant to identify with the straight male. Just like the borrowed gay aesthetics, the actual gay men are only there to facilitate ultimate heterosexuality. An especially powerful example of heterosexuality’s privilege on the show is found in the season three episode “From the Doghouse to the Altar”. In this episode the Fab Five go to help Joe U. win back his ex-girlfriend with a surprise wedding proposal. The crew goes all out in their mission to make the proposal a success; Joe is fitted for an elegant suit, given wedding books, put in contact with a wedding planner, and eventually toasted by all of the men before going off to propose and hopefully get the girl. The underlying irony is in the fact that the men that have all the plans and know the right steps to make an unforgettable engagement, would not be allowed to legally marry the man they love in most of the country. This emphasizes the way gay aesthetics are selectively co-opted without acknowledgment of the hardships that come with homosexuality in the New Queer Culture. Whereas New Queer Cinema was by its very nature against the privilege and entire institution of marriage, New Queer Culture allows homosexuality to become a mere tool of the dominant straight culture for its use in an institution homosexuals are barred from participating in.
A prominent example of the normalization of queerness on mainstream television is found in the show Will and Grace. Will and Grace is a sitcom about gay lawyer Will and his best friend the straight interior designer Grace, with regular appearances by his campy gay friend Jack. In the episode we screened, season 2 episode 14 “Acting Out”, there are several instances showcasing the privilege of heterosexual romance. The episode opens with Grace complaining to Will about the relationship problems between she and her boyfriend, from the start of the episode a heterosexual romance is pushed to the forefront. There is an undercurrent of heterosexuality that runs throughout the episode as Grace attempts to dump her boyfriend. Her numerous attempts eventually culminate in her declaration of (false) love for Will. Although the show makes no suggestion that this love is based at all in reality, the fact that one of the select occurrences of romance involving Will is with a heterosexual woman can be seen as a significant dismissal of Will’s sexuality by the show. Similarly to Queer Eye, in this episode homosexuality is once again used to further a hetero-normative narrative.
Though the vast majority of queer texts buckle under the intense normalization of television, I do not mean to imply that it is impossible to have a truly queer television program. I think it there are already some examples of shows that are working to provide a queer viewing experience unconstrained by televisions common narratives or working to destabilize the very narratives that could bind them. I plan to look more into this aspect of television for my final project.
The wide array of shows HBO offers gives insight into the things people really want to see, but are too afraid to admit. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “Glee” pale in comparison to HBO’s “True Blood” and “Big Love” in terms of the racy issues they are not afraid to bring up and the gross things they are willing to show. Yes, HBO inherently allows for more controversial topics to be brought up because it is a cable channel, as opposed to part of network television, but this being said, a lot of what makes HBO different is the staff they draw in. Take for example, Alan Ball, the creator and producer of the popular HBO series “Six Feet Under”. As an out, gay male he incorporates homosexuality into his show. However, rather than subjecting us to yet another flamboyant homosexual character, as so many shows do, he uses this to his advantage and challenges the ideologies we have in our mind about what it is for someone to be gay with the character David Fisher, played by Michael C. Hall. The character of David Fisher is what Michelle Aaron describes in her article, “Towards Queer Television Theory”, an example of new queer culture. It is by embracing this idea of new queer culture that “Six Feet Under” departs from mainstream representations of queer television and creates a whole new definition of the concept.
After growing up in a small, rather whitewashed town, I am assuming that for many people film and television are the only door they have to queer culture. This is not to say I had never met a homosexual person before I came to Stanford, but definitely not one who was out and willing to talk openly about their experiences. For me, television was all I had, and only mainstream television at that. I was bombarded with stereotypes and what I consider to be negative images, but after watching “Six Feet Under” I realize it is possible for queer television to push against these boundaries.
“Six Feet Under” is an HBO drama centered on a dysfunctional family that owns and runs a funeral home. Immediately we are bombarded with images that do not make sense to us. The series opens with the father, who clearly acts as the glue of the family, being hit by a car while a jolly Christmas carol plays. Ball plays with societal norms to encourage viewers to question what it is they are really seeing. While most people are offended by the lightheartedness he gives to death, others are intrigued by the way he creates such powerful cognitive dissonance. He employs these same techniques when dealing with issues of queerness as well, bringing the new queer culture, “the mainstream embrace of a certain kind of queerness as a departure from the radical intent of queer texts, in particular those of the so-called New Queer Cinema”, to the show (Aaron 65).
Ball questions the assumptions widely held about sexual norms in “Six Feet Under”. The character of David Fisher appears to be the only “normal” character in the entire show. While Ball reveals David’s homosexuality to the audience in the first episode, we are still left to question just how gay he really is. He does not fit the mold we have become used to and therefore we do not know how to handle this information. Consequently, we are forced to just think of him as another member of the family – the only strong, centered one at that. In comparison to his other family members, David appears to be the only grounded one. Ball constantly experiments with sexual norms, giving other family members issues like sex addiction, adultery, toe fetishes, and intergenerational relationships, rendering these things everyday. He does so in order to show that the heterosexual ideals we are raised by are rarely strictly followed. Viewers are forced to ask themselves, is homosexuality really that strange? Do gay people exist that are like David, “normal”?
Another way that Ball contests the “old queer” is through the use of camp. Ball utilizes camp in an uncommon way, putting camp features on heterosexual characters. “Six Feet Under” intersperses musical numbers, a traditionally queer genre, into various episodes. Most of these musical numbers feature straight characters in flashy dress making loud gestures. These numbers, performed by straight characters contrasted with the dead pan of the queer character, attempt to give a new definition to camp, one that is not associated with homosexuality and instead with simply bad taste and irony.
“Six Feet Under” is an unprecedented show. Not only does it center on a taboo topic, but also it raises issues of representation of homosexuals, heterosexuals, and even the in-between. Ball gracefully redefines queer television as Aaron argues, creating a forum for reinterpretation and new definitions. While mainstream queer television has its place, it is nice to know that shows like “Six Feet Under” do exist that do not play directly into the political economy of television. We need more shows like this for people like me who grow up unable to form their own attitudes towards homosexuality without the influence of television and cinema. Is it possible that with “Six Feet Under” a new genre of queer television, post Aaron’s new queer culture, will arise? I sure hope so.
Camp is one of those words that get thrown around a lot without any really thought. You could be watching some film or listening to a new song and when somebody asks you what you thought of it, you say that it was campy or campy. Sometimes that is really the only word that you can use to describe a situation. But, we don’t really think about it. Until recently I had never thought about what the word camp or “Camp” actually means. I use it, but I’ve never taken the time to dissect it. “Camp” is like a drunken girl at a frat party. It’s there for the taking so you use it and then toss it aside. Then, there’s a situation a week or so later where you have the opportunity to use it again, and you do. But, you never really sit down with it and get to know it, you just use it. The purposely of this blog essay and ideally my final paper will be for me to use the John Waters film Pink Flamingos as well as the Nicholas de Villiers article “’The vanguard—and the most articulate audience’: Queer Camp, Jack Smith and John Waters” and the John Waters episode of The Simpsons in an attempt to define my ideas of what “Camp” is as well as develop a broader definition of camp that I feel most people would agree with, at least in part.
The easiest way to start defining what camp would be in a broader sense is to go straight to de Villiers and see what he has to say. Much of de Villiers’ discussion of “Camp” seems to focus on what I have deemed merely a “cousin to Camp,” which is referred to by de Villiers as Camp’s “mummified form: kitsch.” To support this, de Villiers brings up the episode of The Simpsons that John Waters appears in. In the episode, Homer’s Phobia, Waters’ character (also named John) is a gay man that owns a novelty shop. This shop, Cockamamie’s Collectible Shop, specializes in vintage collectible items. Old political campaign pins, lunch boxes from cancelled television shows, back issues of TV Guide, etc. De Villiers sees this as kitschy, which it obviously is. Kitsch is about cute little collectibles that aren’t in vogue but when combined with other kitschy objects can be stylish. The issue arises when de Villiers tries to transition this into “Camp.” Nobody that watches that episode can deny that it is very kitschy. The episode is actually campy as well, but not for the reasons that de Villiers believes. He feels that on some level, “Camp” is about a great appreciation for artifacts from a bygone era. He does make a somewhat convincing argument about how this is all connected to “Camp” but I tend to disagree. I do feel that the episode was campy, but not because of the kitsch aspect. The episode was campy because of John Waters. The way that John Waters acts, the way that he presents himself, even when portraying a character, that is what’s “Camp.” The fact that he owned a novelty shop did lend itself to better help him play stereotypical John Waters, but the kitsch was not camp in itself.
This is why I see kitsch as merely affiliated with “Camp.” An appreciation for novelties and antiques isn’t inherently “Camp” but it is definitely something that makes the presentation of “Camp” easier. I feel that “Camp” is all about presentation, an object in itself cannot be “Camp,” however, if it is performed with or used by a person presenting themselves in a particular way then it can take on some “Camp” aspects through its connection to the “Camp” artist. De Villiers and I are doing the same thing; we are defining our ideas about what “Camp” is through the lens of another author. I am using de Villiers and he is using Susan Sontag. Some of what he quotes from Sontag’s work actually fall into line with my thoughts about performance and identification being at the heart of the “Camp” ideal. De Villiers quotes Sontag as saying that “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’: not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” At first, I took the inclusion of “objects” as going against my belief on “Camp,” but the more I thought about it, the more it actually fell in line. “Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” During the “Camp” performance of a person, the objects around them also take on a role and become part of that performance. This transition to my ideas about the performativity of “Camp” seems a perfect time at which to move into the filmic aspect of my discussion.
It is with the discussion of Pink Flamingos that we reach the point in de Villiers argument of “Camp” that I begin to agree with him. While I’m not in line with the broader definition of “Camp” put forward by de Villiers as involving objects, he later discussions the politicization and queerness of camp. The way in which de Villiers presents his arguments invites some agreement on my part, but not in full. At its base, de Villiers’ discussion of the politicization of “Camp” seems to suggest that it is inherently critical and political. He feels that “Camp” “critically [engages] bourgeois and aristocratic ‘taste,’ confronting and subverting it in a way that is in fact political.” While I agree that “Camp” most certainly has the potential to critique and engage in a politicized fashion I don’t feel that criticism is necessarily the main purpose, or at least not all the time. Some people see things too critically and become incapable of understanding that sometimes there is really nothing to critique. Sometimes “Camp” really is just about fun. It’s not always about satirization and can often just be an escape with no hidden intent. Looking at Pink Flamingos, there is some obvious criticism going on. During a scene mentioned in de Villiers, the gargantuan goddess Divine is filmed prancing down some grungy Baltimore street in her Sunday best. As she walks by, the camera catches the reaction of some of the onlookers. Whether intentional or not, this is a not-so-subtle critique of modern standards of beauty and acceptable physical appearance. Traditional standards would not laud Divine as a modern beauty but she is. When she’s not yelling or stealing flank steaks, she has great poise and grace. Silently walking through the crowds she holds her head high and has an almost presidential carriage. And that’s what I feel “Camp” is all about, this performativity. Just looking at her as she walks, it’s very obvious that she really couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of her. She lives her life fully aware of her divinity and gives no credence to those that would think otherwise. Not caring what people will think of her provides this liberation of body and mind. She can live however she chooses. Tight dresses, a mile-high bouffant, eyebrows that intersect with her hairline, the works. She seems to silently be mocking something that she sees with her third eye: this horrible future where heroin chic rules the runways and women are made up to look like fragile porcelain dolls.
But, not all of the glory presented by Waters’ is a criticism against something. Crackers and Cookie fucking while killing a chicken is pure shock. It’s there to make the audience uncomfortable. Waters’ gets off on that. It’s not some high art critique on any issue. Nor is the orgiastic pleasure that we see Miss Edie getting from eating eggs. It’s simply a person taking a great deal of pleasure in one of their simple enjoyments in life. There’s nothing political about it. That is why I’m in only partial agreement with de Villiers when it comes to his ideas that “Camp” is political. I feel it has the ability to be but that it isn’t always so.
I’m much more in agreement with de Villiers when it comes to the way that he handles queerness and its relation to “Camp.” He tries “to stress the specifically queer tradition in which camp emerged” while conceding that a purely queer reading of camp “is not without an equally problematic essentializing impulse.” “Camp” is most certainly something that has queer roots. De Villiers beautifully describes it as praxis as well as a “queer survival tactic.” It is something that we made, but simultaneously something that can be of use to anyone, queer or not. Marking something as “queer-only” is no way to move forward towards a more accepting world. That is done through the creation of ideas, art, film, literature, etc. by queers that is accepted by the world at large. While there is something very “gay” about Pink Flamingos, most of the characters are actually marked as heterosexual. It is a film meant to empower sexual deviance in all its forms, not just homosexuality. Foot fetishists, bestiality enthusiasts, coprophiles, and many other sexual deviants can find strength through this film. “Camp” offers the ability to comfort and reassure a great many people. While initially invented as the aforementioned survival tactic for queers, it’s blossomed into something much more far-reaching.
This blog post is not the entirety of my thoughts on “Camp,” but I do feel that it will be a good jumping off point for further discussion. De Villiers ideas about “Camp” seem to be a bit broader than mine. He feels that it is a form of criticism that incorporates people and objects in a queer-based setting that is not entirely “gay.” I feel that “Camp” is more so a mode of performance that has the flexibility and reach to include objects as well as offer up critique when it so chooses in a mode that while queer at its source is not strictly homosexual. It seems that my view is merely a shrunken down, slightly altered view of de Villiers’, but I feel that there’s more to it than that. It’s something that I’ll most certainly need to elaborate on in my final paper.
By its very nature, pornography connotes vulgarity and licentiousness in mainstream American society. Queer theorists such as Gayle Rubin and Eve Sedgwick have discussed in the past how America’s fear of sex and sexuality in general is not only potentially harmful to developing youth, but also is evident in almost every component of our lifestyle. This latter point is apparent in America’s treatment of pornography. Because pornographic media contains illicit sexual material, legislators and conservative activists have for decades attempted to rid the country of all things pornographic. While this treatment of pornography was (mostly) reserved for America’s more religious, socially conservative, ‘family-oriented’ population, the culture wars that sparked this debate anchored in most peoples’ minds that pornography was something to feel guilty about, something to be disgusted at watching. Thus while the porn industry still thrives today, recently individuals have attempted to create a type of pornography that displays pornographic images while simultaneously removing the obscenity that is frequently associated with sex. This subgenre of pornography, independent porn, has garnered a large market and has become surprisingly popular in certain communities.
In this essay, I will argue, however, that while independent porn uniquely approaches sexuality and portrayals of sex in general, it is misdirected. Mainstream porn, even if it is unrealistic, does have inherent value in displaying fetishized sex and appealing to a large consumer base. Additionally, mainstream pornography has value in its ability to display the awkward, the gross, the inappropriate, the unacceptable, etc. and not co-opt it as something more acceptable. I assert that mainstream pornography thus has artistic value in its ability to display the obscene for what it is, and this, in the long run, will help end the unfortunate stigma that is attached to sex in this country.
In her article Sodom Blogging: Alternative Porn and Aesthetic Sensibility, Florian Cramer discusses the paradox inherent in independent pornography. According to Cramer, independent pornography is a venture that is meant to legitimate pornography, to have good sex without the taboo and negative connotations associate with porn. As Cramer writes, “the independent pornography which has recently established itself as a genre…can be the subject of a discussion free of bad conscience because, among other reasons, it presents ‘good’ sex without obscenity” (173). However, this desire to remove the obscene from porn is fundamentally pointless, for “[t]he contradiction of all pornography is that it destroys the obscene” (171). Because pornography displays the obscene in media (images, videos, etc.), pornography cannot in and of itself be obscene. In other words, exhibiting supposedly obscene images removes that very quality. What need is there to present more ‘acceptable’ sex, then, when porn by its very nature is not obscene?
By attempting to create more ‘realistic’ or acceptable sex, something more is lost when compared to mainstream pornography. Let us take for instance scenes from the film Shortbus, which can be analyzed as an example of independent pornography. In one scene, the protagonist, Sofia, is observing a roomful of people – gay, straight, attractive, unattractive – having sex. She stares at them not with lust but with awe, even though the scene before her is obviously very erotic. For about two full minutes, the camera shifts from showing the sex to showing Sofia’s face. The film in this way qualifies the pornographic images. Sofia is acting as the audience; she assumes the potential guilt associated with viewing these pornographic images. To the actual audience, then, the scene is removed of all obscenity and members are free to enjoy it, for we are not watching the sex, we are watching Sophia watch the sex (Shortbus).
This stands in stark contrast to mainstream porn. Whereas independent pornographic films mostly feature believable performances by legitimate actors, well-crafted scripts, and realistic sets, mainstream pornographic films are usually very cheaply created and universally unrealistic. In this way, independent pornography removes the veil of artificiality and portrays sex in a more ‘authentic’ way than mainstream porn does. Because the sex does not seem forced or staged, it is thus more believable and less awkward than the sex featured in mainstream pornography.
Because it is more realistic, many would then argue that independent porn is superior and more valuable than mainstream porn. I fundamentally disagree with this argument. I feel that much of independent porn in a way desexualizes sex by rooting it in reality and actively removing its obscenity. Take again the scene from Shortbus. As discussed, the audience does not feel uncomfortable viewing the explicit material because it is contextualized and because the audience is not the primary observer. However, while this very evidently detracts from the scene’s awkwardness or unacceptability, I believe that it also takes away much of its provocativeness. To many, reality is essential to getting off from pornography (i.e. one must feel like the sex he or she is viewing is real in order to feel turned on by it), but to others, the point of porn is to escape from reality to a place where your pool boy wants to suck your dick. Realness has its value, but when it comes to sex, fetishes oftentimes cannot be represented in realistic portrayals of sex; they must be shown in unrealistic, cheaply produced mainstream pornography. In a way, elevating independent pornography above mainstream pornography promotes more ‘conventional’ sex practices and subverts the fetishized, unrealistic sex that is featured in mainstream porn.
Mainstream pornography does not attempt to purport itself as anything other than what it is – portrayals of sex that gets people off. I believe this should be respected, and perhaps even revered. Yes, mainstream porn is often cheap and humorously unrealistic. However, that does not mean it has less value, or even less artistic merit. To me, mainstream pornography is promoting a progressive agenda, for by presenting the obscene in its most real form, it is chipping away at society’s aversion to sex. Pornography is continuously problematized by critics. However, perhaps this is simply because America is too uncomfortable with sex in general. Mainstream pornography, by not buying into this dialogue, is thus rebelling against these normative values and promoting sexual liberation.
I pose questions to the class: what do you think of this analysis? Do you individually feel an inherent desire to view realistic pornography? Also, at the risk of beginning a debate about capitalism, what effects do you think marketing pornography has on its problematic aspects? In other words, if porn production companies were not solely out to make a profit, do you think that mainstream pornography would be as problemitized or fetish-based as it is today?
CRASH AND CRAMER'S NOTION OF THE OBSCENE (title in progress)
Siskle starts by saying “It's pretty hard to watch this and not say 'oh come on this is ridiculous!'” But what makes it ridiculous? Is it the idea that these people exist? Is it the ridiculousness of closely associating death and sex? If sex represents a liberation, la petite mort, then ...why does 'crash' threaten us with such 'ugly ideas'?
For one, it's so 'ugly' in that it involves sex - not just 'normal' sex - but "sex involving wounds and blood and scabs and braces." After all, we see blood and wounds in every war movie since the dawn of time. But suddenly when we combine sex with amputees and body casts, fantasizing the victim becomes not only difficult but repulsive. What is it that makes sex and gore such a disgusting combination? If it can be acknowledged that sex can be an abusive or physical act, not a passionate surrender, why is this so disturbing? People injure themselves all the time, what is the specific combination about the link between pleasure and pain (and the degree of pain) that makes this crash fetish so repulsive, so obscene?
"The contradiction of all pornography is that it destroys the obscene," argues Cramer (1), "Like the beautiful for classicism, the sublime for Dark Romanticism and the ugly for the grotesque, the obscene is porn’s aesthetic register, its aura and its selling point..." If pornography proposes the false promise of obscenity, does "Crash" do so genuinely? Cramer assumes that after we gravitate to pornography, we are surprised to find it pleasing - resting on the assumption that because we find it pleasing, it is still not obscene (...trusting that we would never find something actually disturbing pleasing). This is an absurd definition of 'obscene'. It connotes that simply because we are in the process of looking, we must by nature of looking, find something, anything. It implies that there can be no obscene because once we interact with anything, said interaction will inform how we feel about it (consciously or subconsciously). What happens when we watch something that does not gratify? When we watch 'obscene' pornography and are left not pleased, rather confused or still repulsed?
Ebert brings up and interesting point (2 mins in) in the discussion that "[Cronoenberg]He's trying to make a pornographic movie without pornography. He's taking the form of a pornographic movie without the function or the content..." Meaning that this movie isn't about actual car fetishes, rather the mental processes that inspire and provoke such obsessions. In Ebert's view, "Crash" substitutes car crashes for normal addictions. Ebert takes us away from the issue whether or not something is obscene, but how something obscene can be birthed from normal cognitive process. It's not what we think but how we've come to think of it. And here lies the obscenity, there no inherent perversion in fantasy. If fantasy exists as part of the normal sexual libido, how can we ever claim one fantasy is just slightly too distorted and is thusly perverted? Where do we draw the line? How does being gay, bisexual, pansexual, hell sexual, intersect with this notion of 'normalized' sex?
"The “exploitation” of the porn viewer consists in the false promise of obscenity," Cramer continues, "or its simulation... through the aggressive penetration and protrusion of bodies..." Here Cramer relates that is the destruction of the body (it's no coincidence 'aggressive penetration' and 'protrusion' even sound like a car crash) is linked to the obscene. To deform the body, to violate or demolish it, is grotesque. When earlier Cramer comments that we relish in this definition of obscenity, does she realize the gravity of her words. Whether for poetic prose or to further her point, Cramer implicates obscenity as a threat to the body, and our quest for this 'danger' in porn as a coveted desire.
In the 1996 trailer when Vaughan (played by Elias Koteas) asks "are you coming?" we want to say 'yes'. An intimate obsession for more, to push the boundaries of sexuality and of the physical body. An orgasm represents a poetic moment of transition, from one state to the next. "Crash" represents this obsession with coming and going, fast cars and no breaks, live fast die young, in this romanticized fantasy of the next state.
J.G. Ballard ends the second chapter of "Crash" (first published in 1973) where his narrator, James Ballard (named after himself), is in the hospital staring at an injured passenger whose husband has just died in the crash: "Already I was aware that the interlocked radiator grilles of our cars formed the model of an inescapable and perverse union between us...Across them [her thighs] the grey blanket formed a graceful dune. Somewhere beneath this mound lay the treasure of her pubis. Its precise jut and rake, the untouched sexuality of this intelligent woman, presided over the tragic events of the evening." Here we see the fantasy of the unknown. Eroticism is so far away from the torment of this widows mind, it like her pubis, is hidden, dormant. Ballard acutely notes it, and we can't help but revel in his reveling. For we are not fantasizing, rather fascinated by Ballard even thinking of sex after killing a stranger's husband in a car crash - how could he? What a monster...
(The book however poses an interesting juxtaposition in the viewers' affiliations... when we read the book we begin to fantasize as Ballard does, whether it is through the novel's prose and/or our investment in the plot, the narrator walks a fine line - he wins us over by starting as one of us and transforming into this sex demon, who we judge but can't bring ourselves to despise. Like a voyeur, we love being able to see the twisted ways of others. Here lies the overwhelming intrigue of seeing people behaving badly when they think no one is watching.)
“Obscenity,” Kerstin Mey writes (2), “is bound to conventions of representation as much as art of any form is. These cultural codes and rules… affect our ways of seeing, thinking and judging what is aesthetic and what falls outside of its… flexible parameters.” Obscenity is a collective idea. Collective ideas are subject to the collections that define them, composed of people, cultures, but most importantly values. Value, what makes the 'good' good and the 'bad' bad, is cruel in it's ability to be both finite and ambiguous. We all have some idea of what is good and what is bad, whether society breeds us to or we have an evolutionary survival response, in general, we do all respond to certain objects/events in like manners. The problem with this value is two-fold. What objects/events have an undisclosed or contrasting public value? How deviant must one individual's values be from the normative response to make it bizarre or unfeasible?
Sam Francis writes of Ballard's novel (3) "Crash remains problematic. Much of its power to fascinate resides in its uneasy positioning beyond the pale of everyday experience, its unsettling refusal to operate within an explicit framework of morality. One begins to wonder about how far one can justify the text as a subversion of pornographic voyeurism..." Francis probes at the larger issues of pornography and collective decency. How far can we subvert sex before it crosses this unseen line? This liberation of "crash" would have us believe we should revel in being deviant, yet as Mey implied before, there is a point where one crosses from 'good' into 'bad'.
Francis brings up another interesting point - that perhaps our fetishization of the fetish is simply a product of our want to understand something that we cannot. Were we to be the type to fetishize such things, would we do so knowingly, deliberately? Why do we want to know more about what seems beyond us? Is the grass always greener on the other side? And what of Ballard's characters, so intrigued by the aftershock and the mysterious calm that comes after the climax? This is the entire meta-debate surrounding 'Crash'. 'Crash' is about our want to make the obscene less grotesque, to somehow tame it in our understanding, when the reality is we're just grasping at straws. Perhaps 'Crash' is about the futility of speculation? Perhaps it's a call to live now, think later.
(1) Cramer, Florian. "Sodom Blogging - "Alternative Porn" and Aesthetic Sensibility." Gmane -- Mail To News And Back Again. Dec. 2006. Web. <http:/
(2) Mey, Kerstin. Art and Obscenity. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
(3) Francis, Sam. "‘Moral Pornography’ and ‘Total Imagination’: The Pornographic in J. G. Ballard's Crash" Oxford Journals | Humanities | English. 2008. <http:/
Here are the video clips I will use during my presentation on Thursday, February 24:
Clip 2 (1:28):http:/
Clip 2 (0:42) :http:/
III. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
Clip 3 (2:38):http:/
IV. The Advocate for Fagdom
I screened 34 films at the Berlinale, 18 of which were in contention for the prestigious "Teddy Award," the official queer award given to "the best in international queer cinema" at the end of the Berlinale film festival.
Here is a list of all the 18 Teddy films I watched during the Berlinale along with my very short screening notes and links to the official Teddy plot summary. In my presentation, I will focus on TOMBOY (Teddy Award Winner: Jury Prize), THE ADVOCATE FOR FAGDOM, THE BALLAD OF GENESIS AND LADY JAYE (Teddy Award Winner: Best Documentary) and AUSENTE (Teddy Award Winner: Best Feature Film) but I would be more than happy to answer questions or provide additional information about any of these films.
Ausente (Absent) (TEDDY WINNER: Best Feature Film)
Powerfully nuanced film about forbidden desire and longing, as seen through the relationship between a 16-year-old boy and his swim coach.
How Are You
Documentary about Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the Danish-Norwegian couple, both artists, who created the memorial in memory of homosexual victims of the Nazi regime, and who represented the Danish and Nordic Countries at the Venice Biennale in 2009. While the subjects are interesting, the documentary lacks focus and does not succeed in providing a well-rounded, nuanced perspective on these two artists.
La Ducha (short)
While I didn't find the story particularly compelling, I was very impressed that the entire 10-minute short was one continuous shot. Very well-choreographed.
Drama about the decline of a closeted gay rapper and his tumultuous relationship with his younger brother and family. The characters are all unlikable so it is hard to fully experience the emotional roller coaster of the film when you aren't rooting for anyone...
Porno Melodrama (short)
During the dramatic climax at the end of this short--which I am guessing was intended to create a sense of panic and fear in the spectator--the audience started laughing. The short was way too dramatic and unrealistic, even for a self-described melodrama. Maybe that was the point? If so, it didn't work for me...
Interesting look at the struggles of a FTM transgender person and the challenges of "passing" in his pursuit of a romantic relationship.
Sala Samobojcow (Suicide Room)
Fascinating cinematography -- the "Suicide Room" was a space in Second Life that was depicted through hauntingly vivid anime-style animation. The film was too heavy for me, though. I needed a few hours afterward to decompress because the ending was so upsetting and tragic (the protagonist does indeed commit suicide).
The short shows a young college student's first S&M experience, highlighting both the restrained pleasure and inherent fear from the experience. It kept me on the edge of my seat.
The Advocate for Fagdom
Documentary about Bruce LaBruce. I had never heard of him before and was not familiar with his work, so seeing it all edited together was quite overwhelming. It definitely opened my mind to a different interpretation of what art can be, though I had to continually fight my first instinct of being disgusted and offended by much of his work.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (TEDDY WINNER: Best Documentary)
Highlights the quirky (and that's an understatement) relationship between performance artists Genesis and Lady Jaye and their never-ending quest to merge into a third "pandrogynous being." A bit too "out there" for my taste.
Tomboy (TEDDY WINNER: Jury Prize)
A touching, honest and innocent story about a young child's gender identity.
Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (short)
Visually interesting for the first few minutes, but the typewriter conversation format got old pretty quickly and the conversation became annoying between the two ex-lovers as the audience was not provided any sort of background information to engage us in the quibble.
Warum Madame Warum (short)
My favorite short. Fabulous social commentary on wealth, class, gender and materialism all condensed into a simple, well-executed concept. Zazie de Paris is a treat to watch!
Official Website and Trailer (with English subtitles!):http:/
Official Berlinale Description:http:/
Romeos tells the story of 20-year-old Lukas (formerly Miriam) who is in the midst of hormone replacement therapy and on the path to fully transitioning from female to male. Lukas has just moved to the big city to complete his civil service, but from the very beginning of the film, his new life is peppered with difficulties as a result of his gender identity. To start, he is placed in a young woman’s hostel because the institution refuses to accept him as a male. From that point forward, he must obsessively focus on his gender presentation as he makes new friends and begins to explore the gay nightlife in his new environment.
Romeos presents the constant inner turmoil and anxiety that many transgender people face about their biological sex being discovered, as seen through the eyes of Lukas. Initially a film about “passing,” Romeos develops into a love story after Lukas meets Fabio (Maximilian Befort), the quintessential hyper-masculine gay guy whose every move exudes confidence and a rugged sexuality. Lukas becomes deeply attracted to Fabio, though it is unclear whether his admiration for Fabio is out of a desire to be him or be with him.
While Romeos generally presents an honest, authentic glimpse into the struggles of a transperson, I found the depiction of Fabio to be off-putting. In a movie that strives to present an honest, authentic portrayal of the pursuit of acceptance and love for a young transgender male, Fabio sticks out as incredibly stereotypical and cliché. His every move reflects the almost universally celebrated and admired image of the idealized (and indeed caricaturized) gay male; in turn, the character lacks a sort of humanizing emotional depth or meaningful back story. The romance between Lukas and Fabio also seems unrealistic. Fabio spends nearly the entire movie shirtless, flaunting his masculinity for a sea of eager admirers, and mentions on more than one occasion that transgender people disgust him. Why, then, does he have a very sudden and drastic change of heart near the end of the movie after discovering Lukas is trans? This attitude change is not developed and hardly shown; so in the end, Fabio’s decision to pursue romantic relations with Lukas comes across more as an important plot point to give the story a “happy ending” as opposed to an authentic depiction of a traditionally "unconventional" budding romance.
I was also intrigued by director Sabine Bernardi’s decision to cast a biological male (Rick Okon) in the role of Lukas/Miriam. The trope in many transgender movies (such as in Boys Don’t Cry or Tomboy, which also debuted at the festival) is to cast an actor with the sex of their trans character pre-transition (that is, a female for a FTM transgender person). This can help make the challenge of “passing” appear more authentic, since the actor is the sex that is trying to be “covered up.” As a result of Bernardi’s casting, I sometimes forgot Lukas was transgender and started viewing the movie as a gay love story. Perhaps this was her intention in this casting decision...
In all, Romeos is a fascinating story. The concept and plot is strong, but the character development leaves some room for improvement.
Official Berlinale Description:http:/
View scenes from the film and an interview with the director here: http:/
The brilliance of French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy lies in the innocent simplicity of the story: when her family moves to a new apartment complex, a young tomboy seizes the new opportunity to present herself as a boy. Of course, the implications of this decision are much more complex and far reaching than the young girl comprehends, and this tension is what contributes the nuance, depth and humor that made this story worthy of opening the Panorama section of this year’s Berlinale.
Tomboy is a film about growing up, sexual identity and the performance of gender – all as seen through the experiences of 10-year-old Laure. The film provides a genuine, rare and, above all, touching look into issues of transgender identity as they pertain to young people, a demographic that is not frequently represented in media. Actress Zoe Herran is quite convincing in portraying the subtleties of gender for both Laure and “Mikael,” the young boy she strives to become upon moving to her new neighborhood. Through her quest to “pass” as Mikael and join the swarm of hyper-masculine prepubescent boys in her neighborhood, Laure is faced with a series of challenges: hiding her new identity from her parents; wearing a boy’s Speedo when she goes swimming with her group of friends; and dealing with the flirtatious advances of Lisa, her neighbor. All of these challenges are depicted honestly and with a compelling youthful innocence. For example, Laure manufactures Mikael’s Speedo “bulge” out of Play-Doh.
The primary strength of the film lies in its casting. The film centers on a group of 8-10 year olds, all of whom deliver authentic, honest performances. It truly feels as if you are a fly on the wall to summer playtime among the neighborhood kids. Laure/Mikael’s 6-year-old sister, Jeanne, is a special delight in the already strong cast. The epitome of all things girly, Jeanne provides a stark comedic contrast to Laure’s masculine behavior and ultimately becomes an earnest ally of her older sister, proudly bragging to all the neighborhood kids that she has the “best and strongest older brother in the world!” The dynamic between the two sisters is touching; Laure/Mikael fiercely protects her younger sister from the bullies and still (albeit begrudgingly) participates when Jeanne wants to play house and do girly activities.
While the film was practically flawless, there were a few moments that made me uncomfortable. At the beginning of the film, it is unclear whether Laure is a boy or girl. Sciamma daringly reveals Laure’s identity through a bathroom scene in which the audience sees Laure’s full-frontal naked body getting out of the bathtub. In further scenes, Laure takes off her shirt while playing soccer with the boys, and later examines her naked body in the mirror while trying to figure out how she will wear her male Speedo to go swimming the next day. As an American viewer, I was not at all accustomed to seeing childhood nudity. However, Sciamma treats the subject with sensitivity and discretion, and ultimately these scenes productively contribute to the film’s overall discourse about gender identity.
Tomboy is a delight – a simple, honest story that leaves you thinking about the complex fluidity and construction of gender. The film establishes Sciamma as a master of evoking honest, natural performances from her cast to achieve a genuine, heartfelt narrative.
Trailer (unfortunately, I could not find a version with English subtitles): http:/
Official Berlinale Description: http:/
Die Jungs Vom Bahnhof Zoo tackles the topic of “rent boys”—or male prostitutes—in Berlin. The documentary, directed by Rosa von Praunheim, provides a sobering look at the various social and personal contexts that can lead to prostitution. The film’s lead protagonist is Daniel, an earnest yet damaged young man who began working as a prostitute when he was sixteen and struggling to make money to get out of the foster care system. Daniel’s story is representative of a larger general narrative about the background of a rent boy that von Praunheim develops in the film. Like most of the rent boys featured, Daniel came from a broken family where he was the subject of abuse. His first sexual experiences were very early in life, and he turned to prostitution as a quick way to make a large sum of cash, unaware at the time of the profound personal, professional, health and psychological impacts of such a decision.
Many of the other rent boys came to Germany from Eastern Europe in search of a better life. We meet three “Romas” who hail from villages in Romania that largely survive off of the money sent home from rent boys in Berlin. Most of the men featured don’t identify as gay; one has a wife who recognizes his work as the only way to earn enough money to feed their son and another was sent to Berlin by his family because he had “the perfect body and face” for the “grandpas” (a “euphemism” used by the Romanians to refer to the older gay male patrons of the rent boys).
Rosa von Praunheim does an excellent job of providing a well-rounded overview, commentary and perspective on “the rent boy.” In addition to meeting the men themselves and hearing their (often heartbreaking) stories, the audience is also introduced to social workers and groups who are striving to improve the physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of these rent boys. The cameras also take you into popular “hustler bars” known for facilitating “transactions” between rent boys and “johns,” their patrons, to provide a better sense of the business of male prostitution. And perhaps most surprisingly, the film also presents the vulnerability and complex motives of the “johns.” One of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments in the film is when von Praunheim features Austrian actor-director Peter Kern, who regularly hires rent boys. Kern is interviewed alone in his bed in an opulent hotel suite and speaks openly about his profound loneliness and longing to simply have a man rest his head on his shoulder, look into his eyes and have a conversation. “Who would want to be with a monster like me?” Kern asks, referring to his extremely overweight appearance in response to the question of why he pays for sex with these rent boys. In turn, the “patron,” who one might be inclined to vilify after learning more about the plight of the common rent boy, is instead treated with equal sympathy and compassion.
Die Jungs Vom Bahnhof Zoo is not a light or uplifting film. It tackles heavy issues like poverty, pedophilia, sexual abuse, homophobia and HIV/AIDS all in an attempt to shine light on the complex collection of factors that create such a thriving largely underground industry in Berlin. Just as he did with Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt, Rosa von Praunheim will continue to shatter stereotypes and open up minds with this important documentary.