Monday, June 29, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sexual Congress

The gayest town in America, according to Outrage, the new documentary by Kirby Dick, is not San Francisco, or New York, or even Fire Island. It’s Washington, D.C., the “most gay, most closeted place” in the U.S. Among the movie’s many revelations is that Capitol Hill is “packed with gay staffers.” Gay men, presumably because they have fewer family obligations, work around the clock to keep the nation’s capital running on time. (Dick previously directed This Film Is Not Yet Rated, an exploration of the movie ratings system.)

Outrage is about "outing" — the public exposure of the secret gay lives of public figures — and, and about rage, the deep well of anger among gay activists at the hypocrisy and betrayal of the closet. The film is a gutsy piece of advocacy, boldly detailing the private peccadilloes of closeted politicians, most of whom are prominent “family values” Republicans.

Most of the politicians are well practiced in deflecting and denying rumors about their sexuality, often waving them off by saying, "When you're in the public eye, people say things about you." (Yes, yes, people will talk and all that.) “I am not gay, I don’t do those kinds of things,” protests Larry Craig, the toe-tapping Idaho Republican senator after being arrested for soliciting an undercover officer in a Minneapolis airport restroom. For all we know he truly believes he isn't, despite the movie’s ample and rather tawdry evidence of Craig’s subterranean sex life. Outrage is unapologetically prurient. A leather-jacketed man recites the explicit details of his liaison with Craig, who picked him up at a gay club. After sex, Craig stuffed a $20 bill in the man’s pocket and growled, “Remember, you never saw me.” (Evidently, twenty bucks doesn’t buy everlasting silence.)

Among those interviewed are Michelangelo Signorile, the former OutWeek gossip columnist who launched the “outing” trend in the 1980s with exposés of closeted media and entertainment figures, including a famous postmortem outing of billionaire Malcolm Forbes; former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, who resigned after admitting an affair with an adviser, and who now lives happily with a male partner; McGreevey's wronged wife, who claims her husband ruined her life; openly gay Democratic members of Congress Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin; various bloggers and print journalists working to expose gay politicians like Florida Governor and future presidential hopeful Charlie Crist, who conveniently married a woman shortly before John McCain chose his vice presidential candidate; and ACT UP activist Larry Kramer, who calls living in the closet “collusion with genocide.”

The exposing of private sexual behavior is an uncomfortable and unsavory business, fraught with difficult ethical questions. Years ago, when I was editing news stories, I argued, mostly unsuccessfully, to prevent publication of a gossipy, and in my opinion irrelevant item about a local politician who was spotted at a gay club. But Outrage makes a strong case for transparency, arguing that when it comes to the law and human rights, the private is public, the personal political. The issue isn’t homosexuality, but hypocrisy; the closeted legislators under scrutiny are those with solid records of voting “No” on such issues AIDS funding, same-sex marriage, hate crime legislation and gays in the military. Barney Frank, who came out after 15 years in office, articulately explains why openness is essential to good policy: “People who make the laws should be subject to the laws.” Those who aren't, Frank says, tend to make harsh laws.

So why do these men, like the Roy Cohns before them, attack in public what they do in private? Denial, self-hatred, and an inclination, described in the film by a psychologist, to align oneself with aggressors. Signorile describes this well-known behavior as “bashing other gay people to prove they’re not gay.”

Outrage contains many sensational revelations, some of them completely gratuitous (was it really necessary to target Shep Smith, the one relatively moderate anchor on Fox News?). Sensationalism aside, the film is a well-argued, searing exploration of the pernicious effects, both personal and political, of the closet. It also raises the curtain on something we have long suspected: that politics and media are a façade, a pageant played out for public consumption. As one interviewee says, “Politics is like a Broadway show. Everything is scripted.”

Whatever you think about the practice of "outing," this is something you must remember, always.

Shorter version: Cleveland Scene.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Her Big Fat Greek Travel Movie

My Life in Ruins

There’s an episode of The Larry Sanders Show in which Phil, the head writer, sells a pilot for a sitcom about an indie band in Seattle. By the time the producers finish with the script, it has become a vehicle for Dave Chappelle, and it’s about a hip-hop group in Detroit.

I thought about this when watching the new movie My Life in Ruins. Mike Reiss, a talented writer for The Simpsons, wrote the original screenplay, based on his travel experiences. Nia Vardalos, creator and star of the 2002 sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, got hold of the script and refashioned it as a vehicle for herself. The result, directed by Daniel Petrie (Miss Congeniality), is a pallid, warmed-over romantic comedy that tries to recapture Big Fat Greek’s magic, but without its humor or charm.

The formula is similar: Vardalos plays an introverted Greek-American woman dealing with the exasperating eccentricities of her compatriots while looking for love. Here she plays Georgia, a laid-off college professor working for a shoddy tour company in Greece. She’s their least popular tour guide, boring the travelers with history lectures when they’d rather be shopping for tacky souvenirs and eating ice cream. Georgia is, in the parlance of the 1970s and this movie, “uptight” — unable to loosen up and needing more sex, as pointed out by her long-haired, bearded bus driver (Alexis Geourgoulis), oh-so-hilariously named “Poupi.” You needn’t be psychic to know that by movie’s end, Georgia will let her hair down, and with whom.

The movie pokes mirthless fun at tourists (infantile vulgarians uninterested in culture) and the Greeks’ carefree “Zorba” temperament (when things go wrong, Georgia complains, “What do they do? They dance!”). Fortunately for Georgia, her motley group includes an elderly British kleptomaniac, two man-hungry Spanish divorcees, a workaholic iHop executive (pancake jokes = not funny), and a magical retiree played by Richard Dreyfuss, who helps Georgia find her kefi (spirit). But Vardalos’ character is remarkably bland and subdued, so her transformation and nascent romance hold little interest.

Producers Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson were granted rare access by the Greek government, so the movie offers rare views of the Acropolis, Delphi and Olympia. Its minor travelogue appeal, however, is diminished by the nattering silliness of Vardalos’ script. I wish I could have seen the movie Mike Reiss had in mind.