What Made Me Grin This Temperate Morning

The heavily tattooed guy with the powerful, and I mean POWERFUL, body odor waiting for the drugstore to open at 9 am. The doors swung open, I grabbed my gallons of water (they were having a sale, when can I say?) and brotherman jostled ahead of me to buy three tubes of KY jelly and an economy-sized bottle of Astroglide. The clerk and I could barely look at each other without smirking. Sexy sex sex.

My next-door neighbor, an Italian woman in her sixties, planting five pots of gorgeous purple morning glories in her tiny front yard. She was wearing a dress festooned with purple morning glories and, when she was done planting, swept her share of the sidewalk with a gorgeous purple broom. I think I love her.

You Got Served playing HBO on a seemingly nonstop reel. It's the perfect cable movie — a dull teen drama punctuated by awesome awesome awesome dance sequences. Click on, click off. Imitate the moves in the sanctity of your living room.

My apartment boasting not one but two air conditioners. Read it and weep. Or just read my electricity bill and weep.

Ah, summer soothes this savage beast.


Singleton Talks (and Money Walks)

John Singleton lays it down in today’s Times. The director of the groundbreaking Boys in the Hood and a long line of what-was-he-thinking ventures (Poetic Justice, 2 Fast 2 Furious are but a few) has produced — and largely bankrolled himself — first-time director’s Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, that which has set all kinds of tongues a-flapping. Basically, I like Hustle; it is formulaic but also large-hearted. But what’s most compelling about the story is that Singleton bothered to get behind it with such force — and a financial force at that.

In the interview today, he responds to interviewer Lola Gogunnaik’s implication that “he’s back” with a bit of bristle:

"My last film made $240 million," he quickly pointed out in a recent interview. He was referring to ‘2 Fast 2 Furious,’ the critically lambasted blockbuster he directed in 2003. "Hello, I've been here."

On one level, you’ve got to laugh. An imdb search reveals just the kind of no-goodnick Nick he’s been. But, then again, according to Hollywood standards, Singleton's been up to a lot. Just: financially. And why the "just," anyway?

With all respect to my Marxist friends, you could almost argue that financial success should matter more for a filmmaker of color (or a woman) right now than artistic merit. What most people of color don’t do is run things. (Oprah is a powerful exception.) They still rarely own sports teams though those teams are mostly comprised of brown-skinned men. They still, more to the point, don’t run studios. They still don’t have a say as to how things run and what gets made. Singleton having money means Singleton can bankroll the movie he thinks deserves bankrolling, practically Singletonhandedly (sorry). It's the same reason that Jay-Z jumped ship on his recording career to be president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings.

As Singleton himself goes on to say in the interview:

"Very few studios have people of color deciding what films get made," Mr. Lee said. "There's not one African-American at a studio in a position to greenlight a film. When that happens that will be landmark. That will have far more impact than two black people winning Academy Awards in one year."

It’s a complicated issue. The trick, of course, is not to make movies so problematic that your means don't justify the ends. But I think Singleton is right. Even just spending the little time in LA that I have over the last year, I believe that all the nefarious agendas that we leftists and conservativos alike assign to the Hollywood powers-that-be are off-base. The only color or party that matters to them is green. So Singleton is hitting where it counts when he makes a high-grossing (if crap) movie and then turns around and uses the cash he earned to bankroll a film that couldn't get a green light if green were the only color in the world. Obviously it would be preferable if all successful movies also boasted great integrity. And that's where we come in as audiences. We should remember that it is our dollar which speaks the loudest when it comes to expressing our political outrage in a daily way. And not only in terms of which movies we see.

*Also check out Can't Stop Won't Stop author Jeff Chang's two cents on the verysame topic over at the estimable alternet.


When One Odyssey Begets Another (She's Not There)

I’d been meaning to read Jennifer Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders for a dog’s age, but having detoured from memoir, I couldn’t find my way back for a while. As fate would have it, a copy’s been floating around at Oslo, Williamsburg’s best new coffee shop, and this morning I finally surrendered my day to reading it. I am so glad.

Boylan, who used to publish under the moniker James Boylan, was already a Colby University professor and established writer of some repute when she started to transition from being a man to a woman. (People who are in or have completed this process are often referred to as MTF transsexuals.) She had two children; a real partner in her wife Grace; a strong, kind family of origin; and terrific friendships, most notably with the writer Richard Russo, who writes an afterword to this book. And she had a fairly killer sense of humor. Yet, as she conveys in her dry, spare style, she’d felt fairly sure that she was meant to be a woman since she was a young boy, and that feeling loomed as an enormous elephant right in the center of her life.

I majored in feminist/gender studies at Bryn Mawr College in the early ‘90s and, like the good postmodernist groupie I was, promptly dismissed transsexuals as the sorry victims of a world that conflated gender with sex. Long after I’d dismissed much of my academic studies as too facile, I’d always slightly turn off from FTM or MTF people I’d meet. "This is Gary," a friend would introduce a 5"1 obvious girl, albeit one with a crewcut and the beginnings of a beard, and I'd immediately channel my inner Andy Rooney. Lesbian, gay, bi: quatever. I'd decided I was a queer straight girl as soon as I realized I wasn’t going to fall into any normal heterosexual life trajectory. I could even get transgendered persons like drag queens or kings who switched back and forth; all that flipping the constructs on their head made sense to me. But transsexuals seemed so implausible. I thought people already wasted too much time being defined by their gender. Why make so much more of a fuss over whether you were going to going to wear pink or blue, be the mommy or the daddy, be (let’s face it) the financial or sexual object? Why try so hard to fit more neatly into a paradigm that limited us all?

Reading Leslie Feinberg’s affecting (if slightly wooden) book about her own gender odyssey only validated my biases. Born on what she calls “the anatomical sweep between male and female,” she spent the bulk of her young adulthood transitioning with the aid of hormones from a woman to a man. At a certain point, though, she opted out of the whole gender program entirely and has since lived her life as what she calls a she-he — someone who does not identify with the either/or gender assignment that most people adopt. Although Feinberg herself publically supports pretty much every path that transsexuals and trangendered persons take, I embraced her own path as the “right one.”

And ideology proved thicker than blood in this case.

During a Brooklyn visit a few years ago, my old man grew uncharacteristically absorbed in a book he pulled from my shelves. It was Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors.

Suddenly he jammed the book in my face.

“That’s my cousin Mahty!” he said. I looked at the page. It was a story I’d read many times about Martin, a Johns Hopkins doctor, husband and father who’d transitioned into a woman named Martine. Or Mahty, as we Massholes will always have it. She and her wife remained legally married, though Feinberg wrote they now referred to each other as “spice” rather than “spouse,” a bad wordplay that red-flagged this person as within my bloodline. (It's family legend that, when put on oxygen at the very end of his life, my grandfather began to sing, “Tanks for the memories…") A call to my dad’s sister confirmed it as so. Somehow, though, I avoided any further exploration, even avoided getting in touch with Marty when in Baltimore.

But reading Boylan’s book has given me pause about my attitudes. As a person who otherwise had found her way, Jenny had no reason to want to shake up her life to the degree she nonetheless felt she had to. She passed easily as a man, for example, unlike many of the he-shes whose testimony I’d read over the years. She just didn’t feel like a man. She didn’t even feel like a he-she. She felt like a woman, so much so that she always felt that an important part of her was held at bay while she lived her life as Jim. And being a highly developed writer and human being with many tools (pun intended) at her disposal, she managed to convey both her transition and its fallout with a wry, bittersweet evenhandedness that got through to me.

That is not to say that it took middle-class respectability to finally legitimize the entire spectrum of transgendered persons, although I suppose it didn't hurt Jenny's testimony that she possesses all the benchmarks that other artists can either relate or aspire to: the fucked-up NYC years, the travel abroad, the Johns Hopkins MFA, the plum teaching position, the movie-optioned books. Nor is this to say that reading this book magically erases my no-doubt still-ignorant assumptions. Just that I finally felt rather than intellectualized the reality some describe of being trapped in a body of the wrong sex.

She’s Not There isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, a little too careful on the topic of Boylan’s clearly now-fragile marriage, a little too removed from a larger context of transsexualism. But that detachment also serves her story well. She doesn’t come off as a particularly politically activated person before her transition, so it makes sense that she doesn’t become one afterward. Instead, she shows how her transition took place in her continued life as the wacky college professor, father and, er, spouse.

Jenny moves me to confront my bullshit assumptions by deploying all them writerly tricks that actually work: through showing-not-telling, through specifics that render her story more universal, by writing herself as a person rather than a symbol. When Russo tells Boylan, for example, that he finds her newly constructed identity as Jenny to be “implausible,” the very word that I so often apply to transgendered persons, I started with recognition. And finally felt ashamed at how emotionally shut-down I'd been on this subject for years.

I should note that, though she doesn’t really get into an extended discussion of the cultural implications of gender-sex assignment, Boylan hardly refracts an uncomplicated notion of gender. She writes that, like many newly transitioned MTF transsexuals, when she first completed her gender transition she behaved like a 40something girl. At an age when her wife had largely dispensed already with all the obvious earmarkers of gender that younger females sometimes glom onto when they’re still sorting themselves out — the nail polish, the coquetries — Jenny was ecstatic to try it all on. Only now is she transitioning from a girl to a woman, someone who has successfully integrated traditionally male and female attributes in a way that works for her adult persona. (It's a transition too few American females undergo for, oh, a bevy of reasons.)

So often memoirs about a personal odyssey rely on the import of the story itself to carry all the dramatic heat. Here we’ve got Boylan, a person who obviously has never sought to ruffle a feather except through laughter her whole life. But ruffle she does, merely by being specifically herself not only in her life but in her writing, too (perhaps for the first time). This is how memoir and social change most effectively entwine.


Lady Be Goode

Last night, I saw Lady Sovereign at the Knitting Factory. Like MIA, Lady Sovereign is a fierce lil Britgirl rapper. There are so few American female MCs living in any kind of limelight these days (fewer than there used to be, even) that I am tres curious about these girls. Also I have not been able to stop singing "Ch Ching," her Little Engine That Could single.

Jostle and I drove over the Williamsburg Bridge at an hour already past our bedtime and parked right around the corner from the club like true suburban haufraus. Then girlfriend didn’t come on until after what may have been the longest DJ set ever to precede a live act. So long that I nearly drowned in the showkid culture that doesn't even proliferate Williamsburg in such volume: The girls growing out their bangs by combing them into poofy pompadours; still rolling up their jeans too many times. The boys in their goofy railroad conductor hats. The dancing, ever more white. I nearly decked a guy who poked me hard "as an experiment to see if I would fall." Why not dip my braid in the inkwell, you Tom Sawyer douchebag?

But it turned out Lady Sov was worth it and then some. Tiny with a braided side ponytail and big-boy basketball sneakers and jeans, she came off like the improbable love child of a ménage a troi between the Little Rascals, Tintin and Punky Brewster. All small useless limbs and cockeyed grin and accent. Ch ching. Reeling from bad McDonald’s, she had to fit her set in between vomiting sessions, and her deejay's equipment kept malfunctioning so badly that she stamped her tiny foot. But stylishly. If she could pull her set out from under those bad stars, she's already a star herself. And she did. She charmed the shite out of all of us with her oddly easy chatter. Like Dean Martin she was. Even standing in the queasy upper section, far from the madding crowd, her charasma bit me pleasurably in the assma. So that I got asthma. Oy. After a while, I barely even noticed how everyone around me was dancing like they were knee-deep in aerobics class.

I mean, really. Really.


On Walking Out: Not So Keane

Last night I walked out of a screening of Keane, due for release in late September. It wasn’t the worst movie, at least what I saw of it. Represented by one of my favorite publicists, one known for her choosiness, and executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh (which doesn’t automatically recommend a film; see Criminal or, rather, don’t), I’d been anticipating Keane with some low-level excitement. But 30 minutes in, I knew I had to leave. The story of an obviously mentally ill man seeking a daughter abducted from NY Port Authority made me wobbly: crampy, headachey, feverish, dizzy. Made me like him, in other words; him, as he spun in circles and hissed at himself and pulled anxiously at all his layers of clothes.

I used to believe that anything that evoked such a strong physical reaction shouldn't be dismissed — the first 10 minutes of Leaving Las Vegas were at least as harrowing as this film, for example — but the last two films that I’d found as nauseating (Demonlover and Irréversible) didn’t exactly inspire me to stay yesterday. Both ambushed my senses merely as a crash course in their stunted nihilism. Keane's payoff for all this physical misery wasn’t clear enough; I could see stretching ahead another whole hour of a wild-eyed, tight-mouthed man inadvertently bungling all the lives all around him. So I grabbed my purse and hustled out in search of some Advil.

Back before I mostly attended press screenings, I walked out on films all the time. It was a lavish, dramatic gesture, almost like paying for a bad date’s meal with your last 50 bucks. It was my way of claiming my time as important, of also (I must confess) peeving my then-boyfriend, who insisted on catching not only every trailer but every final credit. Looking back, skipping out really was a luxury. As a paying audience member, I had a right to walk if the movie wasn’t holding me in its grasp. These days, I’m a cog in the film industry machine — albeit a small cog. (Right now I’m mostly doing listings for the estimable flavorpill. ) I still feel lucky to be invited to screenings, and, especially in the case of indie movies, I feel a responsibility to the filmmakers who’ve likely invested a few years of their lives and their resources to at least watch the whole damn thing. What if the film is great and just hasn’t inspired the right critics so far, hasn't been accepted by the right festivals? (The terrific Funny Ha Ha is a prime example.)

Honestly, I’m not proud of what I did yesterday. I'm thinking of seeing the film again in penance. And of pleading heat exhaustion.


Color Me Curmudgeon (Miranda July, Paul Haggis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Stiller and His Lost Boys)

I seem to be slightly immune to the charms of Miranda July and her much-vaunted first feature Me and You and Everyone We Know. Something about its careful creepiness sticks in my craw — and not in a good way. July and her characters’ quiet peculiarities — the dowry-obsessed preteen; a pair of sexed-up neighborhood vixens seducing the blank-faced new kid; July herself as an art naïf busy mucking about with slide projectors and stalking the shoe salesman who lights his hand on fire in response to his divorce — just aren’t my cup of tea no matter how original they may be. Yes, July strips her film of the misanthropy that often sinks Solonz’ films (to which Me and You has been rightfully compared), but a teeth-decaying preciousness takes its place. Her movie may touch on the many mottled ways that humans strive for true communion with each other, but not with as shattering an impact as it’s been credited. It’s hard to distinguish exactly what sets her film apart from a bevy of other small movies slated for release this summer: The estimable Happy Endings and Junebug poke into some of the territory with a greater fierceness if perhaps less vulnerability.

I am willing to admit that some of my beefs simply aren’t fair, that I always read July's sort of morose whimsy as passive-aggressive. But if July's film were as overwhelming an achievement as it’s been touted, wouldn’t it render sympathetic even characters to whom I’d be disinclined in real life? Isn’t that one of the points of character-driven film in the first place? Or am I just (back)lashing out? I can’t quite decide.

Here’s the kit to go with that caboodle:

1. I was restless as all get out during March of the Penguins. It’s typically true that humans only focus on aspects of nature that suit their own agendas (the upcoming Grizzly Man does a fine job of proving that), but an usual amount of anthropomorphizing goes into projecting that those penguins were laboring hard for love. Since when is good-old species survival conflated with romantic pursuit?

My resistance may stem from a resistance to Morgan Freeman's hypnotic narration. His sonorous voiceovers actually work sometimes — most recently in Million Dollar Baby — but there are other times when his magnanimous smile is just too audible. Which reminds me that:

2. Paul Haggis really is overrated. Million Dollar Baby is great, but that is because Haggis adapted that script from F.X. Toole’s terrific book, and because Clint Eastwood is a great director and actor who surrounded himself with an able cast and crew. The over-the-top portrayal of Hilary Swank’s female boxer’s lazy, poor family smacks of the kind of demographic shortcuts that comprise the whole of Haggis’ too-pat LA ensemble film Crash. The (limited) success of that movie (and of Me and You) shows just how how hungry American viewers are for bigger topics and bigger emotions. Which brings me to my last point:

3. Reading, of all things, a copy of GQ on the can, I came across an article calling to task Ben Stiller and his gaggle of boys-will-be-boys (no link available, sorry). Much has already been written about Stiller’s vainglory, about how he struts his strangely overdeveloped little Cro-Mag bod around even when it's plot-inappropriate, about the fundamental mediocrity of his mainstream comedies. But this piece nails what it dubs his “fratpack,” the group of male comedians who claim vaguely hipster status without remotely ruffling the status quo.

Stiller started out his career working with gays and feminists (the aborted Ben Stiller Show contains his funniest work by far) but, along with the likes of the Brothers Owen, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell (whom I do love), he has found his footing making the kind of movies that challenge nothing but patience. I’m as much a fan of simply retahded as the next girl, but therein lies the problem. There ain’t no girls to speak of in these stickly-dickly vehicles except as objects of humor or lust. Given that Chappelle is now on a seemingly permanent hiatus, that Kudrow's show is an enormous disappointment, and that the Stella boys may be nerdier but are certainly no more progressive, what does it say that the only true social satire taking place right now is in more straight-on media knock-offs like The Onion or The Daily Show?


The Word Is Oy

Mimi Cues Us All

Last weekend, Yancey and I were talking about the oh-so-BK phenomenon of the summer anthem. It’s not like certain songs don’t drop big all over the place, but it sure is something to watch a Hot 97 hit spread Brooklyn-style: thumping out of cars, earphones, boomboxes propped precariously on garbage cans, stoops, shoulders, even; everyone stopping in their tracks to nod heads, shuffle a few steps, shimmy hips and shoulders, mouth lyrics at each other laughing, whisper lyrics alone. There’s nothing like that song we all know will get us out on the dance floor and through washing dishes, will inspire us to schlump a little faster (wiggle even) in the mad, sultry heat to the deli. Sssssummer summer indeed.

This year it’s “We Belong Together.”

Just as we were walking down the street saying, “Can a ballad really be the summer song?” a moving violation (glossy black BMW, massive tires) rolled out those first few measures of tinkling piano, and we cracked up. Mariah dangled her apologies over that simple bass, three knock-kneed six-year-olds in too-big shorts danced by us singing,“Turn the dial/Try to catch a break/Then I hear Babyface,” and we knew we had a winner. ‘Tis Little Miss Comeback — Emancipated Mimi, of all people.

Ruth, it’s the truth.

A few other Rosmanias (all substantially older) during this fucked-up, funky-ass season:

Sweet Thing—Mary J. Blige
Ain’t No Way—Aretha Franklin
Here I Am—Dolly Parton
These Days—Nico
I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl—Nina Simone
A Mistake—Fiona Apple
Coffee and Cigarettes—Otis Redding
Heard It Through the Grapevine–The Slits
All in Love Is Fair—Stevie Wonder
Que Sera Sera—Sly and the Family Stone
Got to Give It Up—Marvin Gaye (for that patented Felix Hernandez experience)
Under Control—The Strokes
Human Nature—Michael Jackson
Tezeta—Mahmoud Ahmed

P.S. Let the record show I still need a new gig. As if this list doesn't make that patently clear.
P.P.S. I'm afraid to write about movies right now lest my antipathy for Miranda July and marching penguins leak out. Done done and done, I spose.


O Me of Little Faith

I would never describe myself as a fan of the clunky clunker Next Stop Wonderland, but I do really love the quiet, wistful moments in which Hope Davis screws her eyes shut and selects a quote at random from a book she pulls. Sometimes I do it too, and not only to assert my theory that anything can serve as a divining rod if we assign it the power.

Today, so aptly, my finger landed on this:

The specious, the unjust, the cruel, and what is called the unnatural, though not only permitted but in a certain sense, (like shade to light,) inevitable in the divine scheme, are by the whole constitution of that scheme, partial, inconsistent, temporary, and though having ever so great an ostensible majority, are definitely destin’d to failure, after causing great suffering.
--Walt Whitman


Sandra's Swan Song

I interrupt my thummery thilence to throw out two more cents about Sandra Day O'Connor retiring whilst George II still perches on his too-big throne. Ah, but if you think it might not impact Roe v Wade, you're as wrong as me in a thong. Which is to say: really, really wrong and really, really unnecessary. Get up stand up, already. If the current administration hasn't already hit you where it hurts (and who amongst thee can say that, really?), it certainly threatens to now. We've been taking a lot for granted.