What Jared Leto Brought to His Role in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

What Jared Leto Brought to His Role in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

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In a red carpet interview on Oscar night, Jared Leto mentioned that, prior to his winning
role in Dallas Buyers Club, he hadn’t been in a
movie in six years. He
started his cinematic exodus after Chapter 27 (January 2007), the
Mark David Chapman biopic for which he put 67 pounds on his lithe frame, an act
of near-superhuman binge eating that gave him gout, skyrocketed his cholesterol
so high that his alarmed doctors wanted to put him on Lipitor, and confined him
to a wheelchair during the last days of the shoot. Old acquaintances he
encountered during the shoot regarded him with pity, the looks on their faces
telegraphing loud and clear that, in their eyes, he’d finally let himself go.
It took him a year to “get back to a place that felt semi-normal,” as
he recalled in one print interview, and you can almost hear the shudder in his
voice as he declares  “I’d never do
it again.”

In the almost two decades Leto’s been making movies, his roles
have unavoidably been about the celebration and desecration of his unearthly
prettiness. Jordan Catalano, the crush “so beautiful it hurts to look at
you” in the TV show My So-Called Life (1994-95) got off scot-free
compared to the disfigurement and debasement that befell his other characters,
like the necrotizing heroin addict in Requiem For A Dream (2000) or
“Angel Face,” the pugilist who gets his face pummeled into hamburger
in Fight Club (1999), an act of brutality the nihilistic narrator shrugs
off by saying “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” Leto’s androgynous
pulchritude—and precedent of cinematic self-destruction—made him an obvious
choice to play
Rayon, the glamorous trans woman, drug addict
and AIDS patient who helps the
equally ill Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) run a guerrilla treatment clinic
in 1980s Dallas.

But no matter
how lovely his sapphire eyes look framed by false eyelashes—and despite
accusations of “transmisogyny” from activists angered by the casting
of a man as a trans woman—Leto didn’t win his Oscar for Successful Wearing Of A Dress. Consider the harrowing scene where
Rayon, gaunt and naked and
terminally ill, begs her ghoulish reflection “God, when I meet you, I’ll be pretty if it’s the last thing I do.” Critics have dismissed this clinging to beauty as a
caricature of trans women, portraying them as petty and narcissistic (Steve
Friess of Time Magazine warns that
“sad-sack, clothes-obsessed” Rayon will be seen as cringingly stereotypical
decades from now, in the same way Hattie McDaniel’s bravura performance in Gone
With The Wind
(1939) is similarly tainted), but I see it differently.
“Beauty” here is shorthand for “value,” for “power,”
for “dignity,” for all the other vaporous externals that we grasp
tightly and futilely in the face of death, and Rayon’s pain in this indelible
scene transcends all other externals like “race,” “class,”
or “gender” that also don’t outlive our bones.

As tartly satirized in Tropic Thunder (2008) with the adage
“You never go full retard,” Oscars for acting can be cynically considered
to be handed out for parlor tricks and impersonations—deaf, blind, autistic,
spastic, retarded, insane—as long as the actor is recognizable inside the role.
Gaining weight within reason for verisimilitude (as DeNiro did for Raging
Bull
[1980] or Charlize Theron did for Monster [2003]), is
appreciated, but it gets nowhere near the monomaniacal applause reserved for
losing weight. Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Leto’s co-star McConaughey, and, it
can be tacitly assumed, almost every actress currently working in Hollywood,
get accolades for the self-control and devotion to craft evinced by their
gauntness.

But fat is the worst thing you can be in Hollywood. And it can’t
be completely unconnected that Leto’s shocking fall from Botticelli pinup into
everyman loser for Chapter 27 has nothing to do with being box office
poison for six years hence. (It’s not like Leto had nothing to do in the
meantime—he toured with his band 30 Seconds To Mars during those off years—but
I can’t imagine any actor getting through half a decade of unemployment without
becoming a little nervous.)

Only an actor who’s experienced the ego whiplash of being valued
and devalued for your looks (as specifically connected to your weight), can
competently play a woman. And only an actor who understands how survival, not
just popularity, is on the line with those good looks can play a trans woman.
Leto may have lost, not gained, weight, to play Rayon, but the power of his
performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club is still informed by his previous
weight gain experience for Chapter 27. There’s still much more to be
said about the practice of cisgendered actors playing transgendered parts—and
the “parlor trick” novelty of same—but this woman says Leto
understands enough about the female relationship to beauty, weight and power to
take on roles like this with dignity and meaning.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

Paul Walker’s Los Angeles

Paul Walker’s Los Angeles

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I’m not surprised film noir is a California genre. The light is
hard and bright out there—all key and no fill, as they say on the backlot—and the eternal sunshine makes the shadows as dense and black as an agent’s
soul. The Paramount Studios backlot butts back-to-back against the Hollywood
Forever Cemetery, eternal resting place of Virginia Rappe and Lana Clarkson and
Rudolph Valentino, and just in case you missed the point, scrawled on the wall
outside the cemetery gates is this satanic graffito: “9/11 HA HA
HA”, the baroque strokes of the As jaunty like musical notes, left
by some flesh-crawling sicko, perhaps in memory of those California-bound
planes that never made it.

If you want to crash and burn, LA’s the place to do it. And I mean that rigidly
metaphorically, since I’m talking about Paul Walker, buried recently not at
Hollywood Forever but at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, an
equally prestigious post-mortem address. Because I’m East Coast brutal but not
sick like the cultists John Waters describes in his book Crackpot, who
gather at Mann’s Chinese at the crack of dawn to see the water fill Natalie
Wood’s footprints when they wash down the Walk Of Fame. Because Paul Walker
was, by all accounts, an utterly decent human being, as measured by all the
metrics one usually considers when measuring these things—charismatic and
pleasant-tempered and competent at his profession and god-fearing and principled
and generous (spontaneously and humanitarian/charitably) and devoted to
a teenage daughter who is capable of stumbling upon
irreverent-at-best-and-disrespectful-at-worst cultural dissections of her
deceased father on the internet all by herself.

I have better intentions than that.

But now that we’re clear about the civilities, we can address the
elephant in the room, the same sardonic irony that also surrounded Mr. T when
he announced he not only had cancer but T-cell lymphoma (I pity the fool): how
we’re supposed to feel when an actor known mostly, if not entirely, for a
franchise of drag racing spectacles dies in a spectacular car accident. It’s
hard to think of a collision that incinerated foliage and blew debris into
windows hundreds of feet away as tidy, but there is something pat and
fitting and no-loose-ends about his demise. It’s more than just the morbid
clairvoyance that shades James Dean’s “chicken” scene in Rebel
Without A Cause
or how Bruce Lee’s final film was Game Of Death or
Marilyn Monroe’s final film was Something’s Got To Give. It goes deeper
than that, all the way down to the bones of Los Angeles and its heavy-laden
fruit trees and eternal sunshine, where MGM bragged it had “more stars
than heaven” but neglected to mention the first step towards heaven is
death.

The job of being a movie star is demanding, not only
logistically (prolonged location shoots, employment insecurity, punishing
physical maintenance, loneliness) but spiritually, in that once you submit yourself
to the intrusive machinations of 21st century fame, they will flay open any
remaining sense of selfhood as an offering to the slobbering masses. Displacing
one’s ego five paces to the left so it can weather the slings instead of
“you”, if there’s any “you” left by the time you get to the
top, is really your only recourse, and it helps if there aren’t any relatives
around to remind you of the sticky, pesky self you left behind. Lana Turner,
Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Charlize Theron: the people who can weather
the work it takes to become a star often already have family trauma that makes
it easier to flee their old life.  It’s
like the Pony Express: orphans preferred.

When you’re born into the machine, however, it’s a different story.
Walker, the son of a former fashion model, grew up middle class in the
euphonious Sunland neighborhood of Los Angeles, and had been working steadily
as an actor and model since toddlerhood: a company man making good in a company
town. He was acceptably eye-catching on screen, but unmemorable—I confess that
after a professional lifetime full of writing, thinking, and teaching about
movies, I could never remember “that Fast and the Furious guy’s” name
until I saw the CNN scroll announcing his death. His stardom wasn’t as transcendent as that of someone like River Phoenix or Heath Ledger, but someone
was watching his movies: It’s beyond me why they made five-going-on-six Fast
And The Furious
sequels, but they filled a need, and hundreds of drag
racers held midnight rallies in honor of their fallen golden boy.

Los Angelenos live and die by the car. Nobody walks in LA, not even a
Walker. The modern city was born around the same time as the automobile, and
their shared adolescence shaped the city’s sprawl. But surprisingly, for all
the gridlock, drivers there are overwhelmingly well-mannered. You won’t get
cursed out or cut off like you might in Boston or New York. Your daily commute
won’t be slowed to a molasses crawl because of yet another clot of
rubberneckers gawking at the latest smash-up on the Baltimore-Washington
beltway. They’re pros on the 405. And they have to be: the car and the city
need each other, like those birds that roost on crocodiles and peck food out of
their teeth. If the movies and a car are the two things that most shaped LA, it
seems fitting that in 2003 Walker was awarded an MTV Teen Choice award for
“Best Movie Chemistry” between him and his co-star, the Nissan
Skyline GT-R he throttled in 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Walker wasn’t a passenger in a Nissan Skyline GT-R on that fateful
November 30th, but instead a Porsche Carrera GT, a
notoriously treacherous make of muscle car. Maybe he and driver Roger
Rodas were drifting sleek curves too fast (one theory) or maybe the car hit a
coruscation in the road that made it jump out of the driver hands (the Walker
family’s theory). One thing’s for sure, it was only a matter of time before
amateur footage of the holocaustic crash site jammed itself next to our
memories of Walker’s movie crashes—a irreconcilable paradox made more
discomforting by news replays of Walker’s handsome face, a face that most
certainly was not currently in the same fine condition. Do you know what
happens when you burn? The soft fatty skin of your lips, unanchored to skeletal
muscle, shrivels first and pull away from your teeth. Go ahead, feel inside
your own mouth for the deep pockets that go down to the gums and imagine how a
fresh skull looks with all that labial flesh burned away. Smile for the camera.

Paul Walker alive, dead, fiction, reality—it’s a paradox, but it’s
only a paradox if we don’t remember the town that birthed him. It’s the land of
decay and loss, of quick-blooming life and just as startling death, where no
one ages and the seasons don’t change and oblivion is quick. This is how a
child of LA is supposed to die, in an onanistic immolation of a car crash that
would do J.G. Ballard proud, cradled in the combustible engine’s
gasoline-fueled embrace. The City Of Angels still whispers its dream to
millions of unhappy hopefuls: go on the big screen and you will become
something more than your flesh. It’s paradise, sure, but to placate the gods
you’ve got to throw a virgin into the volcano every once in a while. It keeps Los Diablos happy.
We shrug. It’s Chinatown, Jake.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

Kathleen Hanna Up Front: On THE PUNK SINGER

Kathleen Hanna Up Front: On THE PUNK SINGER

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This is what a feminist looks like: a young woman in a white
t-shirt at the center of someone’s crowded house party in Olympia, Washington,
1991, her dark hair tied back in a sloppy ponytail, all eyes on her; she
holds the room’s attention with the magnetism of a movie star as she chants a
poem in railroad-train rhythm, in the voice of a little girl realizing she’s
been sexually abused: “I am your worst nightmare come to life/I’m a girl
who can’t shut up/There is not a gag big enough to handle this mouth/Because
I’m not going to shut up/I’m going to tell EEEEVVVVVEEERRRYYYYOOOOONNNNE!”

This clip of Kathleen Hanna mid-performance opens Sini
Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer, an unprecedented feature-length
portrait of the radical icon and “leader” of the leaderless ’90s riot
grrrl movement whose music, while spanning a range of styles from angry punk to
danceable electronica, has always been built on a core backbone of
no-compromise feminism; Hanna admits her impetus for pursuing an
audience is because “nobody has ever listened to me my whole life,” a personal manifesto balanced perplexingly with her 2005 declaration that she had nothing more to
say, ever.

That declaration was hard to believe. Hanna’s gift was
always her ability to distill feminist theory into accessible, chantable
soundbites: “I eat your hate like love.” “We are turning cursive
letters into knives.” “In her kiss I taste the revolution.” (She famously penned the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a
drunken graffito that became an anthemic catchphrase of the grunge era.). Those
soundbites sprouted barbs when flung out in her distinctive singing voice:
unpolished, babyish, high-register without ever becoming true soprano, and yes,
objectively, “shrill”, if there’s any objectivity left in a word
that’s to women what “uppity” is to African-Americans—I do not
like the timbre of your voice
disguised as I do not like the content of
your words.

Add to that Bikini Kill’s insistence that women come up to
the front rows of their shows, pushing men to the back, and Hanna’s
push-and-pull sexual presence onstage, luring and rebuking hungry eyes by
undressing and scrawling words like “SLUT” in black
Sharpie on her baby fat, doing bump and grind moves (learned during a stint
as a stripper, back in college in Olympia) with uncalculated, ungraceful
sprawls and tantrums as she caterwauled and grinned. You want me, you hate
me, you will listen to me. And there is nothing stopping you from being me.

This wasn’t an easy concoction to swallow. I’ll admit I choked
on it when I was a teenager in suburban Baltimore, a mere 50 miles up the road
from the place where Bikini Kill was carving out its revolution, grrrl style,  but ideologically many more miles away, our discoherent
punk scene forever in the shadow of uber-principled Dischord Records. I
rejected the reverse discrimination of pushing men to the back so that the
women could enjoy the music without being battered by the mosh pit they
dominated. How stupid. Women didn’t need someone to tell them to come to the
front. Wasn’t that the point of punk? That if you were a woman and wanted to
come to the front, you did it, with hard shoulders and gritted teeth, and you
took the consequences like the outlaw girl you were? In D.C., I slipped in the
pit and someone landed on my head. I got hit in the eyes and saw stars. In
Boston I got punched in the face so hard by some guy’s flailing fist I couldn’t
open my mouth for the next 48 hours. This is how I embraced punk rock’s
anti-pretty. This was its promise to me: eat our fists and you too can get
everything we do.

But isn’t that the nature of privilege? That those who don’t
fight for it get it anyway? Sheryl Sandberg wears the ethos in boardroom suits
that I wore in combat boots in 1991. “Lean in”, the argument goes,
“and you can run with the boys too.” Hanna saw it another way, a
smarter way: girls up front and boys in the back, even the timid boys who never
crowded anyone out on purpose but still managed to win without knowing. Try it,
just for tonight, so you can remember what it’s like to have someone’s bigger
(or smaller) piece of cake, while you hear a woman sing about how no one
believes what her body’s been through, a real-life version of Corinne Burns in Ladies
And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains
(1982). She warned the women in
the crowd, “They’ve got such big plans for the world but they don’t include
us.” Then carry that feeling, plus or minus, into the night air after you
leave the show, while your ears are still ringing, and let it change you.

When Hanna’s own ears began to ring, however, things began
to fall apart. After successful post-Bikini Kill projects The Julie Ruin and Le
Tigre, Hanna started experiencing baffling symptoms: numbness, fatigue, ear ringing,
and most traumatizing, loss of control over her singing voice. In a lifetime
full of brave gestures, The Punk Singer‘s second act may be Hanna’s bravest, as she drops the veil of her
own cult glamour and confesses that she lied to her fans about the truth behind
her 2005 withdrawal from music. Late stage Lyme disease, contracted after an
inadequately treated tick bite, was making her chronically ill. (Worse, again
no one was listening—her real symptoms were being dismissed as psychosomatic, with one nurse
dismissing her near-collapse at a rally as just a panic attack.) In the most
moving sequence, she allows her husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, to
videotape her as she’s taking some of her brutal treatment regime. The scene is
full of pathos, but its meaning cuts both ways. Is exposing her weakness (in
body and spirit) a penance, addressed to her fans, for not telling them the whole truth? Or
is it once again a rebuke to the doctors who’ve wronged the woman who once
shouted: “I’m not going to shut up/I’m going to tell
EEEEVVVVVEEERRRYYYYOOOOONNNNE!”

Hanna’s recovery is messy and uncertain, and The Punk
Singer
doesn’t tie things up in a neat bundle. But director Anderson leaves
an optimistic gap that suggests there is room for a third act in Hanna’s life. At the end of the film, she’s steeling herself to perform again with
her new band The Julie Ruin. Offstage she’s nervous and frail, waiting in the
wings while Bikini Kill tribute bands perform her songs and friends like Kim
Gordon praise her spirit. There’s a stiffness in her stride that makes it look as if her
joints hurt. But onstage, something in her bones uncoils, and she is once again that fearless
girl with the mic in her hand, right where she belongs, where people
listen.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

Why DEEP THROAT Should Be Placed in the National Film Registry

Why DEEP THROAT Should Be Placed in the National Film Registry

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It’s almost that time again. Every December, the National Film Preservation Board, with the sheltering authority of the Library Of Congress hovering benevolently over its shoulder, announces the twenty-five “culturally, historically,
or
aesthetically
significant”
movies
that
will
join
the
honor
roll
of
American
cinema
enshrined
in
the
National
Film
Registry.
To
the
Board’s credit, the list is startlingly egalitarian and unfussy, honoring not only obvious contenders like Gone With The Wind (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941) but also representatives from every corner of American movie-making: independents like El Mariachi
(1992) and
Night
Of
The
Living
Dead
(1968), masterpieces
both
sung
(The
Godfather
(1974), and
unsung
(Daughters
Of
The
Dust
(1991), Killer
Of
Sheep
(1977)), technological
watermarks
as
far-ranging as The Jazz Singer (1928) to 
A
Computer
Animated
Hand
(1972), and
unique
visions
like
Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and The Matrix (1999).

But, despite the Board’s inclusion
of up to fifty nominations suggested by the American public into its deliberations each year, and a curatorial eclecticism that honors diversity as far-ranging as Dog Star Man Part IV (1964), Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s), and Lets All Go To The Lobby (1957) ( you know, with the dancing popcorn and hot dogs — “to get ourselves a treat!”), one essential American movie keeps getting unfairly overlooked. It’s a movie no less essential to the trajectory of American film than Dickson Experimental Sound Film (c. 1894). In fact, it’s another early sound film, if one considers all meanings of the verb to sound: to test the depth of a hidden space. It’s Deep Throat (1972).

Gerard Damiano’s semi-surreal porno-comedic fantasy about an anatomically irregular woman (Linda Lovelace) and her search for unorthodox clitoral stimulation isn’t more cinematically interesting than other features from the so-called “golden age” of porn. (Behind The Green Door [also 1972] is the most
visually inventive of the bunch, with an aesthetic borrowed from video art of
the era—Nam June Paik, with cum shots.) Deep Throat, by contrast, is
poorly directed, scripted, shot, and “acted,” and almost as dull as Warhol’s experimental movie/endurance exercise Empire (1964), with about the same level of phallic obsession. (Empire is enshrined in the Registry. Perhaps tellingly, Warhol’s Blow Job [1964] is not.)

But all aesthetic shortcomings aside, Deep Throat certainly qualifies as a culturally significant movie. Much has already been written about how its ensuing multiple legal battles carved out First Amendment rights for all cinema to splay whatever sort of grotesque delight it saw fit across the screen, to say nothing for the
way its “four quadrant” success set in motion the current mainstreaming of pornography in American culture. In her memoir Post-Porn Modernist, porn star turned performance artist Annie Sprinkle remembers working as a popcorn girl at an Arizona theater during the height of “porno chic”, amazed at the cross-section of American humanity lining up to see Linda Lovelace “untangle her tingle”, as promised by the poster’s tagline: “[The audience was] young and elderly, couples, singles, groups, college students and teachers, blue- and white- collar workers, all types of people. I sold tons of popcorn.” (Let’s all go to the lobby, to get ourselves a treat.)

Deep Throat‘s historical importance is also undeniable because of its connection to the Watergate scandal. Disgruntled FBI agent Mark Felt was willing to confirm details for journalist Bob Woodward about the Nixon-backed burglary of Democratic National Committee offices, but only in secret.  Woodward’s mysterious source, who would only meet with the journalist in Beltway parking garages at 2 am, was given the nickname “Deep Throat” as a smirking play on the journalistic phrase “deep background,” meaning a never-quoted source who will secretly confirm confidential information obtained elsewhere. The investigation brought Nixon down, but not before revealing all sorts of unsavory tidbits about the commander in chief to the American public. (For example, Nixon’s preferred term for double-crossing was “ratfucking”—an activity Lovelace never got around to, despite the dog-on-woman action displayed in the stag loop Dog Fucker [1971] she made before Deep Throat.)

What hasn’t been acknowledged is how, despite its failures of craftsmanship, Deep Throat is not an artistically devoid movie. Its success is in the realm of theory and criticism, in providing the mathematical proof to Godard’s theorem that “film is truth 24 times a second”. While it’s laughable to think that Deep Throat invented pornography, or even the pornographic film, the fusion bomb it created by merging the tropes of Hollywood film (and all its attendant unspoken eroticism) with the animal reality of intercourse was a Manhattan Project moment. Imagine what that first vaginal penetration, twelve
interminable minutes into a previously quite dull movie, must have looked like in 1972, as big on screen as
the thrown animal bone that becomes the space station in 2001:
A Space Odyssey (1968), or the parting of the waves in The Ten Commandments (1956). And the sacred waters keep rising: semen, snot, vaginal secretions, spit, and, holiest of American elixirs, Coca-Cola, in the scene in which it is poured into a glass dildo inserted into Lovelace’s vagina.

And there are tears, too. Later in life, Lovelace maintained that she was violently coerced into a pornographic career by her abusive husband Chuck Traynor. There are bruises visible on Lovelace’s thighs, and, while her acting is uniformly quite cardboard, the frightened tears she summons instantly in the scene where her doctor informs her she has no clitoris are startlingly real. The National Film Registry has seen fit to include important documentation of many atrocities, including Hindenberg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937) and the Zapruder Kennedy film (1963). Lovelace’s disavowal of her “performance” as a documented rape can’t be ignored, but it shouldn’t disqualify Deep Throat.

Then what’s left? Is the Board’s sheer unwillingness to address Deep Throat‘s ultra-sexed subject matter what keeps it from having its lovingly restored negative swaddled in a temperature-controlled vault in the Library of Congress for all perpetuity? Maybe. But to acknowledge Deep Throat as a benchmark of American cinema would mean acknowledging the bigger genie we can’t put back into the bottle. Deep Throat and “Deep Throat” put an end to the idea that anything is private. Sex tapes, Wikileaks, an intern’s navy blue dress spattered with presidential semen, yawn. It’s hard to believe there was a point in time when Americans could be shocked to the point of national paralysis over a piddly dirty trick burglary and the slobbery reality of a blow job. Those crowds lining up in 1972 couldn’t conceive of the day Deep Throat could be enshrined in the Library of Congress as a testament to our naivetë and innocence. We take in the whole truth now, up to the tonsils, without a thought.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

On Hollywood’s False Nobility, and the Growing Power of Hype

On Hollywood’s False Nobility, and the Growing Power of Hype

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Hollywood has always thrilled at its power to pluck a Lana Turner from the
soda fountain at Schwab’s, but it takes onanistic pleasure in the dark side of
its hype machine, too: how believing too much in Tinseltown’s promises can transform
nobodys into somebodies—Monroe, Harlow, Dean, and, even worse, poor
anonymous never-weres like Peg Entwhistle, the frustrated actress who
suicidally leaped off the H of the Hollywoodland sign in 1932. (Rather than die
instantly, she bled to death from a broken pelvis. This town doesn’t cut anyone
a break.)

Most movies about Hollywood’s illusion factory lie somewhere between
self-flagellatingly critical and winkingly celebratory:The Player, Sunset
Blvd.. Get Shorty, Barton Fink, Boogie Nights, Ed Wood, The Stunt Man, Singin’
In The Rain, Tropic Thunder, Bowfinger, LA Confidential.
There are some
notable exceptions, such as Adaptation (reality can’t be shoehorned into
art, and certainly not into movies) or Sullivan’s Travels (legitimate pleasure
in movies is a noble pursuit), but most others hold true to playwright Wilson
Mizner’s adage that life in Hollywood is “a trip through a sewer in a
glass-bottomed boat.”

Despite its ambiguity about the Hollywood hype machine, the Academy’s
sentiments about the hard work of making art is completely unambiguous. Ray,
Shine, Precious, Atonement, Hustle And Flow
—it celebrates films affirming
the redemptive power of creative craft, and how devoting oneself to its
difficult demands is a way into a better life. (Part of the 2010 Oscar Best
Picture race was between films declaring that devoting oneself to a difficult
craft will save you (The King’s Speech) vs. devoting oneself to a
difficult craft will destroy you (Black Swan). The King’s Speech
won.)

In 2012, both Silver Linings Playbook and Argo
were up for Best Picture, and any smart bettor would have fingered Silver
Linings Playbook
as the shoo-in because of its “art saves all”
theme—how a recently released mental patient (Bradley Cooper) and a grieving
temptress (Jennifer Lawrence) heal themselves through ballroom dancing. Argo‘s got no art, just a bunch of hype conjured up by a CIA agent (Ben Affleck) and a pair of weary Hollywood
old-timers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) looking to spring some hostages with a
story about a non-existent movie. “Art saves” vs. “Hype
saves” is no contest—but, strangely, the Academy didn’t see it that way.

Wink-wink movies about the illusory nature of Hollywood are nothing new. When
Gene Kelly crows at the end of Singin’ In The Rain “Stop that girl! That girl running up the aisle! That’s the
girl whose voice you heard!” it’s a moment of triumph: the illusion
factory drops its veil to celebrate the creators at the core. However, when you
drop Argo‘s veil and there’s nothing there. We’re
not even going to pretend anymore, the Academy announced. Sixty years after Singin’, Argo‘s
Best Picture win legitimized the triumph of hype over art. It announced a new
era of Hollywood sociopathy, where not even style replaces substance: lies
replace style replace substance, and you’re expected to nod and smile all the
way to the box office as your hand closes on a fistful of air.

But come on, you say, lives were saved. Doesn’t that justify a certain kind
of noble falsehood, like in 1997’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Life
Is Beautiful
, where a father’s perverse recasting of a concentration camp
as game show enables his son to escape with hope unscathed? Or Schindler’s
List
, where a German businessman conceives of a semi-truthful scheme to
save Jews in his employ? Or The Counterfeiters, where a group of
concentration camp inmates survive by making fake money? Or Jakob the Liar,
where a Jewish man keeps hope alive in the ghetto by making fabulous stories
about the messages he hears on a secret radio—and then succors the audience
with an alternate, sunnier ending?

The common denominator of all those movies is that they are Holocaust
survival stories. When Argo shamelessly borrows
that “noble falsehood” genre blueprint, it brings the same invisible
weight to a story completely unconnected to the Holocaust. It makes clear
exactly what we’re supposed to think about the movie’s Middle Eastern villains,
while deftly sidestepping any accusations of making a movie about Nazis in
keffiyeh.

But if the villains in Argo are really Nazis,
then what does that make our heroes? Argos borrowing
of the “noble Holocaust deception” genre requires the appointment of
Hollywood as a sovereign Jewish nation, a connection that’s irresponsible at
best and slanderous at worst. And in addition, the surrogate Jews escape at the
end because of cunning, justifiable lies, and the illusion-casting power of
Hollywood in their back pocket—an unflattering toolkit that harkens back to
anti-Semitic canards about how Jews do business and who really runs Hollywood.

Argo is dishonest and shameful for the way it
privileges hype over art. But its willingness to cloak itself in the horror of
the Holocaust for sheer narrative convenience, as well as to milk racist
reactions on both sides of the conflict between the Jewish and Muslim worlds
for emotional resonance, proves it’s the most morally bankrupt movie to ever
win Best Picture. It’s more than dishonest. It’s dangerous, and awarding it
Best Picture showed a lack of concern about the parallels Hollywood is drawing
when we’re at war with the Middle East. Worse, it remains to be seen if
upcoming releases like Edge of Tomorrow, Elysium, or the reboot
of Robocop—all pure entertainment, none legitimized as lauding true
historical events like Argo—are going to play faster and looser with those
parallels in their own metaphorical war landscapes. And considering the
vociferous response to Argo in Iran (the movie is banned, and a feature The
General Staff
 is being planned as a
rebuttal), those won’t go ignored, either. The only response to the poisonous era
Argo’s Best Picture win has possibly ushered into American moviemaking is its
own oft-repeated refrain: “Argo fuck yourself.”

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

Quid Pro Quo: How THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Has Informed Our Attitude Towards Chelsea Manning

How THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Has Informed Our Attitude Towards Chelsea Manning

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There’s no precedent for
what we’re supposed to think about the story of Chelsea Manning. In the absence
of an easy answer, our response resembles a replay of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of
The Lambs.
The facts run as follows: In February 2009, an army intelligence analyst named
Bradley Manning turned a vast amount of damning classified documents over to
Wikileaks, including a video of a Baghdad airstrike that killed two unarmed war
correspondents, as well as a video of an even more grotesque Afghan airstrike
that killed between 86 and 147 civilians, mostly children. After spending more
than 1200 days in several solitary confinement facilities—including a cell
in Quantico where he saw the sun for 20 minutes a day and was forced to sleep
naked because of potential self-harm concerns—his case went to trial, he was found guilty,
sentenced, and then  the condemned
soldier turned whistleblower (or traitor) turned icon announced to the world,
“I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”

The media can’t get a
handle on what feels like double treachery on Manning’s part: just when justice
closes in on a traitor, the traitor changes shape. America is choking on
Manning’s metamorphosis just like the moth chrysalis shoved deep into the
throat of Buffalo Bill’s victims in Silence—another narrative about
secrets, justice, and perverse transformations. To really understand Manning’s
story requires subtlety and nuance: a deeply unhappy and conflicted young
soldier, motivated equally by moral imperative, deep personal dissatisfaction,
and a profound identity crisis, laid bare our military’s most brutal failings.
But why strive for a true understanding of reality when our pop mythologies
will address our unease?

It’s not an unthinkable
parallel. The Silence Of The Lambs, made in 1991 at the advent of the
first Gulf War, is a movie full of American flags—some where they’re
expected, like courthouses and government buildings and on the uniforms of law
enforcement personnel, but many more in unexpected places. Flags manifest in
violence and cloak its aftermath: peeling back a gigantic flag draped over a
car in a storage unit belonging to Hannibal Lecter reveals a decapitated
mannequin and a head in a jar. A pool of blood left after one of Lecter’s
killing sprees reflects the light glinting off prison bars, cutting the gory
puddle into red and white stripes. Bright muzzle flare from Starling’s gun
reveals how Buffalo Bill’s underground lair is full of stars and stripes,
including a tiny flag at a jaunty angle that suggests the raising at Iwo Jima.
(A vintage poster on a door nearby reads “America—Open Your
Eyes.”)

The first Buffalo Bill was
an American hero, too: Medal of Honor recipient William Frederick Cody, hunter,
showman, slaughterer of buffalo. Not the villain of our movie, the monster we
meet first in a bold headline (“BILL SKINS FIFTH”), then as a stranger ensnaring
a young woman (she’s listening to Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on her
headphones), and then, in all his perverse, naked glory, croaking “I’d fuck
me” while swooning over his own castration. This is what many shamed
transgendered people recall from childhood as their first vision of
“someone like me”: It rubs the lotion on its skin or it gets the hose
again. The script makes clear Buffalo Bill isn’t a transsexual (“his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more
terrifying,” assures Lecter), but this is an empty reassurance that one
forgets with a nauseous shudder after hearing the first bars of Q Lazzarus’s
“Goodbye Horses.”

Buffalo Bill wants to
become a woman by donning a home-sewn “woman suit,” but he’s not the
only yearning butterfly (or death’s head moth) in a movie full of
transformations.  Starling sheds her
trainee sweatpants to become a full-fledged FBI agent. Lecter teases Starling
with clues tucked inside anagrams, the verbal equivalent of a caterpillar
inside a cocoon, and flays impostors attempting the same masquerade (his catty
rejoinder to the mother-turned-senator: “Love your suit”), but
he too escapes from his own prison by skinning a man’s face and wearing it as a
mask.

Did Manning think about
this when she borrowed another face to try and escape from a military tour of
duty full of harassment and abuse? Sending a photo of herself in a blonde wig
and makeup to her master sergeant in an email entitled “My Problem” is a
desperate act. It’s true, she was disturbed. There’s no shortage of documented
violent incidents spanning her troubled life, including one in which she was
found curled up on the floor of a storage room, a knife at her feet, the words “I want” carved into a nearby chair.
(“What do we covet, Clarice? That which we see every day.”) The desire to correct one’s gender—or to take a stand
against unjust military secrecy—isn’t stimulated by something as simple as
knowing about a fictional character. But if the virulent legacy of Buffalo Bill
still floats through our culture, making life hard for transgendered people,
maybe it also keeps the unusual, positive example of Starling’s feminine
heroism fresh in our collective mind.

The Silence
Of The Lambs
is ultimately
the story of a woman who penetrates a world of underground chambers—basements, storage units, detention blocks behind endless locked doors, wells
dug into dirt floors—because  that is
where the secrets are kept.
Manning is tiny, elfin, 5
foot 2 and 105 pounds: birdlike, a Starling. She knew how it felt to be crowded
in rooms full of uniformed men towering over her, harassing, bullying,
badgering. Her fragile mental state notwithstanding, she felt the same dogged
imperative to expose secrets in the name of justice, after finding out American
soldiers were killing noncombatants with the same breezy impunity (“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards . . .,”
“Good shot,” “Thank you.”) with
which William Cody killed buffalo on the American plains. And she, too, knows
what it’s like to be imprisoned in small, dark spaces. Turning documents over
to Wikileaks was the end of one cluster of secrecy, but unlocking Chelsea from
the prison of Bradley—a transformation that was much longer in the works
than its sudden public manifestation would suggest—was really the
penultimate secret she needed to set free.

The media
could have seen this parallel and cast her as a Clarice Starling.  But that didn’t happen. The aftershocks of a
character as powerful as Buffalo Bill means her male-to-female transformation
is met with exceptional revulsion. She is a turncoat monster, a shapeshifter so
dangerous she must sleep, like Lecter, in solitary confinement, not even
allowed flip flops or underwear because she could turn them into lethal
weapons. Even when she refused to testify against Wikileaks in exchange for a
plea deal, rather than honoring her courage the headlines essentially screamed
BRAD PLEADS FIFTH.

To her credit
she’s not accepting this narrative. She issued a graceful public statement: “I hope that you will support me in this transition . . . I look
forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to
write back.” She seeks a dialogue, not the recursive, narcissistic
“I’d fuck me” of Buffalo Bill. William Cody was a hero in his time,
but now we lament the slaughter of the buffalo. It’s funny how our heroes rise
and fall as our perspective changes. Manning got 35 years, but there’s hope
she’ll be the hero whose pop culture example can replace the anti-transgender
legacy of The Silence Of The Lambs. Buffalo Bill’s defunct. How do you
like your blue eyed girl?

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and
media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in
the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection
I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

Old Man, Look at My Life: On NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS

Old Man, Look at My Life: On NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS

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In 1971, Neil Young played two triumphant homecoming concerts at Toronto's Massey Hall. He was twenty-six years old, a formidable talent parlaying acclaimed stints with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into an even more noteworthy solo career. Yet this young artist packed his Massey Hall set list with songs like “Old Man” and “Don't Let It Bring You Down,” obsessively touching on aging in lyrics like “Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/when you're old enough to repay/but young enough to sell?” It's as if he knew he'd be standing there on stage, forty years later, in the Jonathan Demme concert documentary Neil Young Journeys, released this month, and he wanted the ghost of the young man he once was to welcome his future self.

Young didn't get around to listening to the original Massey recordings for twenty-seven years, and no wonder: he was a very busy man in the early seventies. That first concert was a stop not only on Young's solo tour (a US/Canada/UK commitment spanning four months in 1970-71, including stops at Carnegie Hall and an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show) but on a merry-go-round of activity that included a 1970 tour with Crazy Horse, the release of the “Ohio” 45 single (boosting sales of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Deja Vu), as well as the release of his own solo album After The Gold Rush. (Much of the delay about the Massey recording also stemmed from Young's decision to release new songs he performed that night as tracks on Harvest rather than on a live concert album.) By the time of the Massey concert, he was suffering from severe back problems (from a slipped disc incurred while fixing up his newly purchased ranch a ) that necessitated he sit, rather than stand, through his acoustic set.

However, Young doesn't seem pained or fatigued in Neil Young: Live At Massey Hall (2007), a “concert” film assembled by Young from dark and grainy footage shot in 1971 at another performance with the Massey Hall master tracks dubbed underneath, but there's a moment when he drops a guitar pick and laments, “Bending over is not so much fun.” Maybe the freshness of the material kept his spirits up, as much of the now-canonical songs on the set list (“Heart of Gold,” “A Man Needs A Maid,” “Old Man”) had not yet been released on the album Harvest, and their elemental renditions here are bright, pure, and steady. The film's a time capsule of a newly minted solo artist stretching his wings at the height of his youth and resilience. Only his remark about his back injury, first sign of the body's slow treachery, gives any indication of clouds gathering overhead.

Young's decades have been full of professional and creative successes, but good health has been a struggle, both for himself (the aforementioned back problems, epilepsy, an aneurysm) and his children (his two sons Zeke and Ben have cerebral palsy and his daughter Amber is also epileptic). As a film, Neil Young Journeys is not in peak condition, either. Demme's previous Young concert film Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006) is sleek and well-lit, and while the follow-up Neil Young Trunk Show (2009) is grittier, it's still considerably more polished-looking  than Journeys, a documentary that looks as though it was shot in two weekends – one spent at the concert, and one spent with Young driving through his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, pointing out childhood landmarks.  The grainy, shaky footage from both shoots crosses over from low-fi into amateurish. More perplexingly, during the concert, Demme places a camera just below the microphone, not at Young's mouth but at his stubbly, wattly neck, and lingers on those shots for unclear reasons, as if he wants the audience to have the experience of being pressed into Young's adam's apple.

But where the visuals are lacking, the music is strong. Young's guitar, as bright and pure as a castrato in the original Massey recording, has now gained a yowly patina of feedback and reverb, like a voice made smoky by hard living, and its muscular feedback fills every crack in the theater. The two concerts share only “Ohio” on the set list, but the difference between the acoustic and distorted versions lays bare Young's changes. In the 1971 concert, it's a protest song, a young man taking a slight personally. In 2012 it's a father railing against a world where children can die, a point Demme underscores by intercutting family photos of the deceased students.

This decrepitude is the undercurrent of Journeys. All things fall apart: the rip in the hat Young wears onstage, the childhood places that aren't there, the death of the earth and the way life snatches health out of our hands. (Maybe that's why Demme wants to shove Young's grizzled jowls in our faces, to remind us everything's sagging and going gray.) Songs like “Peaceful Valley” and “Love & War” mourn a world out of kilter, and “Walk With Me” is less an invitation than a plea. But closing “Hitchhiker” with a new coda where he reflexively repeats he's thankful “for the wife . . . for the wife,” Young shows all is not lost, that what remains is an old man still dizzy with gratitude for when life has been sweet. It's important to note that, as a young man hobbled by back problems, Young had to stay seated onstage at Massey Hall. Here, forty years older, he's standing.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

The Amazing Spider-Mensch

The Amazing Spider-Mensch

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Spider-Man is great at saving the world, but somebody please save Andrew Garfield from himself—judging from interviews, the poor guy's an ulcer waiting to happen. His quotes page on imdb.com is a minefield of self-deprecation: “I'm very neurotic and self-conscious.” “I think too much.” If I watch myself, then I suddenly have a bunch of things that I'm scared to do. It just upsets me.“ “I'm probably going to be the guy in the movie theater shouting abuse at myself.” “I was genuinely expecting 'You're just a shit actor' instead of 'We want you to [play Spider-Man].'” Where'd this guilt complex come from, Rob Carnevale of IndieLondon asks in an interview? Garfield doesn't mince words: “Being Jewish.”

Yes, Garfield is the first Jewish Spider-Man in movies, a fact that's not gone unkvelled over in publications like The Jewish Journal and the Jerusalem Post. (Naomi Pfefferman sums it up in the former by observing how Garfield “reminded me of the kind of gangly geeky-cute guys you’d develop a crush on at Jewish summer camp.”) While Garfield makes a serviceable action star (his wide-shouldered yoga teacher physique, sleek underneath Cirque du Soleil-designed spandex, certainly sweetens the deal), his best moments in The Amazing Spider-Man could only befit a Nice Jewish Boy—hypochondriacally fretting over his spider bite welt, stammering out his secrets to Gwen Stacy before tangling her up in a kiss, abjectly apologizing after laying waste to an entire subway car because of Spidey-sense jumpiness. He, more than any other Spider-Man—and certainly more than Tobey Maguire—understands the joke-away-the-guilt core of Peter Parker's uneasy being.

As conceived in the early ‘60s by writer Stanley Lieber (known professionally as Stan Lee) and artist Steve Ditko, that part of the character was right there from the beginning. Lee was a New York-born Jew, and Spider-Man was a new breed of superhero  – utterly urban, exiled, neurotic and conflicted, subject to all of the Age of Anxiety's assaults that rolled off the back of less complicated, more assimilated heroes such as Captain America. Also, since Spider-Man had no sidekick, he talked to himself, rendering the reader privy to an inner monologue full of doubt, fear, and insecurity. No wonder he's so full of jokes when he's doing away with bad guys: we laugh to keep from crying. (Lee originally worked on the character with Jack Kirby, a Jewish artist born Jacob Kurtzberg, but grew dissatisfied with Kirby's designs and turned the nebbish-y character over to the non-Jewish Ditko. But it's Kirby's pencils on the cover of Spider-Man's first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, swinging across the New York skyline with a rescued man in his arms, a pose we still see as prototypically Spidey.)

That's the thing about Spider-Man: his considerable gifts are only as good as his surroundings. Sure, he can cling to walls and swing on webs, but how impressive is that against the skyline of Omaha or Peoria? Sure, Superman left Smallville because Metropolis offered more opportunity to do good, but he'd still be perfectly superpowered back there. Spider-Man, on the other hand, reaches his full potential only in synergy with the hospitable habitat of the endlessly tall buildings of Manhattan.  He’s not even operating at his peak in his home borough of Queens. How many other superheroes are “bridge-and-tunnel”?

Spider-Man’s story is similar to the great exodus of Jews at the turn of the century, fleeing shtetls to flourish in New York City, a city whose Jewish population is still second only to Tel Aviv. (Israel has its charms, but for many American Jews the real Holy Land is a place where you can find a decent bagel on any corner.) The Jews’ impact on New York's culture and history is so great that Lenny Bruce said it best: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish." (Indeed, Peter Parker wears a Ramones t-shirt in his first big fight scene, invoking another game-changing group of Jews from Queens who also besieged Manhattan.)

Judaism reveres the tenet of areivut: the onus of mutual responsibility, spelled out especially in Shavuot 39a:  Kol Yisroel areivim zehl'zeh, translated as “all of Israel (meaning, all Jews) are responsible for one another.”  That concept of “responsibility” is crucial to Spider-Man: it's what accompanies great power, whether you like it or not, a guiding aphorism with much greater moral subtlety than “Hulk SMASH!!”, and near-Talmudic in its grace and simplicity. If Spider-Man's Jewish, then he's looking out for other Jews—and, like Lenny Bruce said, that includes everyone in New York City. Don't worry, five boroughs: Spider-Mensch has your back. His tikkun olam is defeating Doctor Octopus when needed.

An actor can't play Spider-Man without understanding areivut in his gut, without understanding that heady brew of neuroticism, guilt, humor, social responsibility, and a symbiotic love for big cities where reinvented exiles can thrive, swinging free. Even though a UK-raised actor is an unconventional choice for an American icon, Garfield's tribal memory extends deeper than his passport. His Jewish roots inform the truth of Peter Parker, and his portrayal conveys Spider-Man's essence more than any other actor's has previously. In that same IndieLondon interview, Garfield was quoted as saying, “I feel like I have a really big guilt complex, and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being.” Peter Parker would say the same thing. Mazeltov, webslinger. Today you are a Spider-Man.

Thanks to Adiel Levin, Jessica Leshnoff, Ben Korman and Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin for contributions to this blogpost.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.