The Films of 2013: The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola has yet to make a film I haven’t liked, and her latest, The Bling Ring—based on a real-life incident in which a group of L.A. teenagers burglarized the homes of local celebrities, making off with over one million dollars in stolen jewelry and clothesis one of her most effortlessly graceful.  Don’t be fooled by the tabloid-flavored subject matter: this is, like Coppola’s previous efforts, an exercise in minimalism in which the pleasures of style and tone trump those of a tightly constructed plot.  And what pleasures!  In her hands (with the help of her cinematographer, the great Harris Savides, who died during the production; he was replaced by Christopher Blauvelt) the gaudiest Hollywood mansions come to look downright spectral.  (See above.)  There’s a quiet loveliness to the scenes in which the intrepid Rebecca (Katie Chang) and her partners-in-crime raid the closets and bedrooms of the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan; even as they resound with the girls’ gasps and giggles, the empty, dimly lit houses feel eerily calm and quiet.  Once again, Coppola has succeeded in perfectly evoking a sense of place.  If The Bling Ring seems like something of a departure for Coppola, her shots of Hilton’s labyrinthine home decked out with images of Hilton’s own face—a Warholian hall of mirrors—should remind us of the Versailles of her Marie Antoinette (2006).  Both films take opulent settings and render them with an otherworldly charge.  It should also be noted that both are primarily concerned with young women caught up almost unconsciously in routines of excessive, scandalous consumption. 


The pornographic canon: "The Bigger The Better" (1984)

Mike Ramsey and Buster as "straight" buddies in The Bigger The Better.

A while back I wrote a post in which I mentioned the hand-wringing that goes on in the gay community over the fetishization of straight men in gay porn.  A huge percentage of gay pornography advertises straight models, often amateurs or non-professionals, being initiated into the world of gay sex.  Of course, since many of these models are only passing for straight, much of this pornography involves considerable suspension of disbelief.  Sometimes the scenarios are explicitly presented as fantasy, as when well-known gay porn stars appear in videos playing straight characters. In Matt Sterling’s The Bigger The Better (1984), for instance, gay porn actors Mike Ramsey and Buster play a pair of horny straight buddies out on the town trying to pick up women.  After they’re rebuffed, they head to Mike’s brother’s apartment to crash for the night, whereupon Buster, aroused by the sight of Mike sprawled out on the bed in his tighty whities, initiates sex with him. 

The Bigger The Better: "Cruising for babes"

The scene belongs to a subcategory of the straight-guy fantasy that we might call the “buddy” scenario (the seduction of one straight guy by a closeted friend, or mutual experimentation by two equally curious friends).  The powerful appeal of these scenarios rests on their acknowledgment and transgression of the taboo against homosexuality.  They imply that to indulge in gay sex, especially with one’s frat brother or football teammate, is to cross a serious boundary.  The fantasy is enhanced by performers whose hypermasculinity acts as a signifier for their seemingly infallible straightness.  Some thoughts, lines of dialogue, and unspoken responses around which such fantasies coalesce: “this is my first time”; “will he reciprocate?”; “this is so wrong”; “no one else can know”; “we can make each other feel better than any woman could”; “he likes it”; “I always suspected…”; “just try it”; “a guy knows what a guy likes”; “boys will be boys.”

Straight-guy fantasies thus play scintillatingly on the tropes of closetedness, homosocial bonding, and sexual repression, and become ways of exploring darker, potentially more latent feelings of homophobia, shame, or misogyny.  The persistent popularity of straight-guy fantasies therefore haunts the desire of the gay pride movement to demystify and de-stigmatize gay sex, to untether it from associations with shame or disgust, and to insist that gay sex is, at bottom, loving, natural, and deserving of social sanctioning.  It comes as little surprise, then, to encounter backlash against porn that makes the seduction of straight men the stuff of sexual fantasy (especially considering that gay rights activists have continually worked to convince homophobic straight people that we are not trying to “recruit” them).  But why should porn participate in this process of demystification, assimilation, and respectability? If I’ve taken anything away from my study of hard-core pornography over the past two months, it’s that porn lends itself particularly well to diving headlong into the unconscious muck of sex.  (This, more so than its explicit images, may be why it makes so many people uncomfortable.)  Its greatest strength lies in its dredging up of ugly feelings, its playing on the knife edge of pleasure and shame, desire and fear—in short, its freedom from the tyranny of “positive representation.”  The making of a sex-positive society must involve not only bringing historically maligned sexualities into the light but also keeping in touch with sex’s thick darkness.


The pornographic canon: "Taboo" (1980)

Sons and lovers: Kay Parker and Mike Ranger in Taboo. P.S. OMG that bed. 

I saw hard-core pornography for the first time the summer I turned twelve, after one of my childhood friends and I discovered an unmarked VHS tape in his father’s garage.  It turned out to be a bootleg copy of two vintage hard-core features: N*U*R*S*E*S of the 407th (dir. Tony Kendrick, 1983) and Taboo (dir. Kirdy Stevens, 1980).  N*U*R*S*E*S was a light-hearted, and frequently absurd, M*A*S*H parody: porn in the comic mode.  Taboo was a different animal entirely, an erotic drama about a jilted housewife played by Kay Stevens, who, after being abandoned by her husband, finds herself increasingly attracted to her hunky teenage son (Mike Ranger).  As it happens, the attraction is mutual: although he enjoys a healthy sex life with a girlfriend who’s more than willing to put out, the son's eye keeps wandering to his mother’s bedroom.  Taboo culminates in two scenes of incest, both of which cause the mother considerable guilt, though the son is less repentant (“I don’t think any less of either one of us," he tells her.  "It happened…and I want it to happen again”).  While the film momentarily leads us to believe that our heroine has succeeded in transferring her attraction to a new beau (Michael Morrison—who, it should be pointed out, doesn’t hold a candle to Ranger, attractiveness-wise, even if Ranger’s eyes are set too far apart), it ends by suggesting that she will continue to find sexual satisfaction in both her son and her lover. 

The Films of 2013: Before Midnight

There have been no massive ad campaigns, no promotional tie-ins, no midnight screenings to kick off the recent premiere of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.  Yet for loyal fans (like myself) of its predecessors Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), it may be the cinematic event of the summer.  And just as Trekkies can be counted on to scrutinize every detail of Star Trek: Into Darkness to see whether it passes muster—proving that die-hard fans are often the harshest of critics—devotees of Linklater’s quietly brilliant romantic dramas may find themselves both excited and nervous to sit down with this latest installment in the saga of Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), who met by chance on a train to Vienna nineteen years ago and who are still struggling to stretch the limits of time and space in order to maintain a relationship.  Just as Celine and Jesse are forced to consider whether the connection they first shared together two decades ago is still there, we find ourselves looking anxiously to Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke to make us fall in love with these characters yet again. 


The pornographic canon: "A Night at the Adonis" (1978)

“Roger” (billed elsewhere as Paul Malo) catches up on his reading in Jack Deveau’s A Night at the Adonis (1978), one of the canonical gay hardcore films, shot on location at Times Square’s Adonis Theatre.  His boyfriend out of town, Roger has told his co-worker (Jack Wrangler) that he plans to spend the weekend reading Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.…but, as one thing leads to another, he finds himself cruising the Adonis instead.  “So this is Gay American History, huh?” Jack asks Roger with a smirk after they find themselves in the middle of the same orgy in the theater men’s room. 

It’s obviously meant as a joke.  But A Night at the Adonis seems to engage the issue of gay history quite explicitly, as if to suggest that the elaborate cruising rituals that go on (went on) in the balconies, hallways, and men’s room of the Adonis, along with the hard-core films it screens (screened), along with the theater as a whole and even A Night at the Adonis itself, are all part of gay American history—albeit a very different chapter than the one that Roger reads aloud to himself in his apartment, in which Katz recounts the punishment and torture of men and women found guilty of sodomy.  Deveau makes the claim that pornography plays a key role in gay history insofar as it dares to represent and in some cases inspire the kinds of sex acts that have been traditionally marked as deviant, obscene, criminal.

Today, as gay men are increasingly assimilated into straight culture, it has become unfashionable to raise the specter of gay sex, gay pornography, and gay promiscuity of the kind that flourished in the 1970s—which is to say the very things to which A Night at the Adonis pays homage.  Celebrating or even invoking such aspects of gay life now risks reaffirming negative stereotypes about gay men.  But, as Heather Love argues in Feeling Backward, we need to be very careful not to censor our own cultural history by writing out the chapters that don’t jibe with our current sensibilities.  In some sense, this blog project is motivated by a desire to memorialize the cultural dirt that risks being washed away under the auspices of creating a more equitable social field.  Yes: A Night at the Adonis is gay American history whether we like it or not, and our responsibility to our history requires that we continue to remember that.

Historical monument: The Adonis Theatre, as seen in Jack Deveau's A Night at the Adonis.


The Films of 2013: Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, currently playing on HBO after a Cannes premiere, confirms that some of the most interesting filmmaking these days is being done for the so-called “small screen”: after Hollywood studio executives refused to greenlight the project, which examines the years-long relationship between Liberace and his partner Scott Thorson (it was apparently feared to be “too gay” for the cinema-going public), Soderbergh took it to HBO, where it promises to be a major success.  The film also feels strangely right for cable TV, which has long specialized in this kind of tabloid-flavored biopic, although it’s rarely given such A-list treatment.  Soderbergh’s film is just about as good as anything he’s ever done and promises to be one of the best films of the year—it’s certainly better than just about anything else currently playing at your local theater.