‘Stately Homos of Old England’ entry: The Naked Civil Servant

“I defy you to do your worst. It can hardly be my worst. Mine has already and often happened to me. You cannot touch me now. I am one of the “stately homos of England”.”

There is a moment in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant that beautifully summarizes the entire film.

John Hurt, playing English gay icon and protomartyr of pride Quentin Crisp, gazes into a mirror in his little flat, carefully prodding the bruised, beaten face that stares back at him. Caught unawares by himself in a rough part of London in the 1940’s, he was beaten mercilessly by a group of toughs when they spotted that he was a man dressed as a woman. He flags down a cab, but when the cabbie, too, realizes he’s a man, he throws Quentin out of the cab and leaves him to the roughs. As he looks over the bruises and cuts, the scene cuts to an earlier image of Quentin as a child dressed in his mummy’s fanciest clothes and waltzing alone before a mirror.

Loneliness only hurts if you know what you're missing out on.

The scene of the boy dancing was the real Quentin’s own suggestion to open the film. What better way to illustrate the inherent idea of the film–that the interior self is the only way a person should be judged, that the happiness of the individual (and by extension their friends, who are just as accepting) should be one’s only concern in life? That loneliness only hurts if you can’t be happy alone? What happened to the happy little dancing boy? Hurt’s soulful eyes wonder. Who could possibly do this to him over such a stupid thing?

In 1975, John Hurt (best known to American audiences, including me, as the guy whose chest exploded in Alien) won a Bafta for his portrayal of Quentin Crisp, one of the ‘grandfathers’ of the modern gay pride movement.

The made-for-TV movie would largely be forgotten if not for Hurt’s captivating and charismatic performance; although it had more flair and style in its direction than other films of the time, it is Hurt’s moving, soulful portrayal of a man decades ahead of his time that makes the film stick. Crisp, who realized from a very young age that he didn’t care for women (WAY back in the 1920s) was delighted when he found a group of like-minded fellows one night, all dressed in women’s clothes. Unfortunately, the group were mostly composed of rent-boys, and were treated as the lowest form of life on the London streets, beaten and attacked when they weren’t being solicited for sex by closeted gay and bisexual men.

As he grew older, Crisp realized he didn’t want to pretend he was something he wasn’t–it was a time where gay men’s options were either do as you please as a rentboy (and probably die of a venereal disease or violence), or marry a beard and then sneak out a few times a week for rentboys or to go dancing with other men at secret gay clubs. Crisp, with his garish red hair and penchant for women’s clothing and makeup, on being seen entering such a secret club, would ‘ruin it for the rest’ of the closeted men, and his membership card to the club is torn up and he is asked to leave. He attempts to join the army, but is rejected on the grounds of ‘suffering from a sexual perversion.’

His decision to live out of the closet as an effeminate homosexual (as he identifies himself) costs him very dearly,  in terms of friends, family, his job, and sometimes even his own safety and freedom as some officers accuse him of soliciting (he wasn’t, just saying hello to a friend).

It would be easy for the outre, witty, and fearless Crisp to overshadow the real man, with his fears, disappointments, and deep alienation from others. After all, with a sharp tongue and droll remark, he wafts through life as much as possible, even though he carries more than his share of the average life’s burdens.

And though Crisp was surrounded by friends his entire life, it’s entirely possible he never realized what loneliness felt like since he’d never been in a crowd of his own ‘kind.’ He had no kind, he was a singular individual ahead of his time, who never found his muse, his soul mate (or so the film would claim). Can one recognize true isolation if one has never known anything else?

'Never call the police liars.' - QC

This echoing division between himself and others is addressed–at the end of the film, he remarks that he was fabulously happy ‘just once.’ One night in his twenties, he was alone at the waterfront, and a group of sailors ran across him. Rather than brutalize him, they treated him fondly, flirting with him and making much of him, treating him as the lady he was while fully knowing he was a man, and this most heartbreaking of moments is beautifully played by Hurt, who is at the center of the group beaming with joy even as his eyes sparkle with tears–he’ll never be this happy again, he fears.

This is a quote from it that I’ve always loved–in the scene, some kids are harassing the now-middle aged Quentin, threatening to tell a policeman he’s been ‘fiddling’ with them if he doesn’t give them money–middle-school extortionists.

“I defy you to do your worst. It can hardly be my worst. Mine has already and often happened to me. You cannot touch me now. I am one of the “stately homos of England”.”

Though disappointment and tragedy follow Crisp wherever he goes, the film itself is lighthearted most of the time, almost a romp. Most of the ugliness occurs off-camera, which does sanitize the story much of the time, but also gives Crisp his dignity–not necessarily a bad thing, but also very progressive for the time it was being filmed.

After all, in the US our movies about gay culture were forward-thinking, open-minded projects like  ‘Cruising.’

Yeahhhh..... No. Just. No.

‘I was surprised by how much I hated this’ entry: St Elmo’s Fire

First and foremost, I am totally a child of the 80’s. There are a lot of Brat Pack movies I missed the first time around, wholly because they were about people coming to terms with things and not little monsters who ruin things, unicorns, or singing and dancing magic men. I did see The Breakfast Club in high school, so I’ve got that going for me.

I am not fit to be a parent because I would spend all my time saying 'I wish the goblins would take you away right now' in hopes of meeting this man.

That said, I’ve slowly been catching up. When I saw that St. Elmo’s Fire was on instant watch, I thought ‘well, I guess now’s the time.’

And let me absolutely crystal clear–I am not posting this negative review just to bash the film–I was genuinely surprised by how much I didn’t like it. I usually like all the actors appearing in it–but in this case, the sum was somehow less than its parts.

From the very first few seconds, as all the recent graduates walk along with their arms slung about each others’ necks, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. There’s no more facile way to show ‘We’re all friends!’ than the ‘let’s all walk together with our arms around each other’ walk.  No one does that except in photo opportunities and movies. It always comes across as fake to me, so my very first read on these people is that they are fake.

Then comes the opening scene in the emergency room, and I sort of already didn’t like anyone–especially when it turned out one of the friends was responsible for the accident. There was a little too much quipping, and the dialogue had that overly-rehearsed feel.

The rest of the movie went about the same–when Billy is on the roof of Wendy’s parents’ house and the whole family is outside clutching their pearls in shock it felt like overwritten, overwrought hysteria. Billy was less a badboy than a needy douchbag, Alec an entitled prick, and Kirby was just plain psycho. The female characters didn’t fare much better–I would have been more interested in Wendy’s arc if the film hadn’t tried to convince us she was overweight by having her wear bulky sweaters and embarrassing old-lady drawers. Mare Winningham is one of those actresses whose appearance always has me wince a little and say ‘Jesus woman, it’s called protein–make friends with it,’ so casting her as a ‘fat’ girl just felt like an insult. I’m 5’2 and go about 160–by this movie’s logic I would be a bedridden monstrosity, a human waterbed, and have to exit my house through a hole cut in the wall.

Leslie was a little more sympathetic, but felt like such a bland doormat that her epiphany towards the end of the movie felt less like her own doing than Kevin’s and Alec’s. If Alec’s infidelities hadn’t been brought to light, I doubt she would have refused his offer of marriage.

(That’s another reason I’m not crazy about this movie–relating all this bullshit makes me feel like I’m watching paint dry. I hate that I have to describe all this boring pap.)

Jules’ portrayal was a step in the right direction, but her asinine behavior at the homeless shelter (SEE? PAP!) completely negated any goodwill I had towards her. She’s an independent woman with a good career and her own apartment, when two of her male counterparts are sharing a little crappy apartment–except her Daddy’s rich, she has a severe coke habit and she’s sleeping with her married boss. See girls? Career women are never happy.

I’m glad I checked Rotten Tomatoes–apparently I’m not the only person who hated this movie. Even Ebert put it on his ‘Worst of 1985’ list, and if you’ve pissed off Ebert, you’ve seriously, seriously fucked up as a filmmaker.

The problem with this movie is that the problems these people are facing are the kinds that other people WANT to have. ‘I’m a privileged white person in the 80’s who is afraid of the possibility that the rest of my life won’t be as awesome as being a kid was. I’m going to bitch about it and make a few missteps but then everything will turn out okay.’

OH MY GOD! SOMEONE ALERT OSKAR SCHINDLER TO THE PLIGHT OF THESE PEOPLE!

'Some privileged white people in the 80's need help? That is truly a crime against humanity!'

I tend to think of the 80’s as a very good time for fantasy movies. But while some fantasy movies were overt about their messages and at least had the balls to have a few monsters or something to illustrate their point that you know, this was not based in reality, there’s another form of 80’s movie altogether that offered the same escapism but none of the honesty. I can’t help but think of St. Elmo’s Fire as an example of this latter–while the nation battled a recession, political scandals with the whole Iran-Contra thing, soaring rates in illiteracy and drug use, and a host of other REAL problems, the characters of St Elmo’s Fire dealt with some major First World Problems. You know what, not even First World Problems, because people in the first world can still experience racism, homophobia, mysogyny, anti-semitism and economic disenfranchisement.

These people are experiencing the horror of not having their Upper Middle Class dreams come true. Meanwhile, the real horrors of adulthood are things like compromising your dreams to support your family, having a child you can’t afford, taking care of an infirm family member or parent, or being passed over for promotions at work because you don’t know how to play office politics.

You know what this movie needed to give these people some perspective?

Principal Joe Clark.

'What's that? Becoming a grownup after you've graduated from Georgetown University is scary? WELL MY GOD, GET THIS BOY A BLANKIE AND A THUMB!'

In a Nutshell Entry: Bubbles from ‘The Wire’

Sometimes in media, one component stands out from the whole and is deserving of its own little examination, for many reasons. It might act as a microcosm for what the whole is about, or it might stand in stark contrast to the rest of the whole–‘In a Nutshell’ entries explore some fascinating component of particular interest without losing focus, or in the case of something that’s really good overall, doing a disservice to the rest of the whole. It’s also a way to introduce a possibly unfamiliar audience to some small piece of an otherwise unwieldy and daunting subject; it’s a ‘way in,’ if you will.

In a Nutshell: ‘Bubbles’ from The Wire

In acclaimed HBO series ‘The Wire,’ which I’m viewing for the first time on DVD, there is a small galaxy of amazing characters. The show has a metric shitload of other great reasons to watch, but for me one very special reason is mumbling heroin addict/police informant Bubbles, so called for the spit bubbles he blows when he slams junk.

Take a moment to verbally express your disbelief and possible disgust; I’ll wait. Bubbles is worth it.

The Unlikeliest of Heroes

As a homeless addict, Bubbles exists at the lowest caste of the Baltimore Street world. Gangbangers and slangers largely ignore him, and so he is able to move freely through their world, collecting bits of information and storing them in an almost photographic memory. His assistance on various operations–everything from helping identify members of the gangs and their hierarchy, to actually wearing a wire, to making phony buys–is pivotal; without him the detectives would be utterly and totally shit out of luck.

According to David Simon, show creator and a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Bubbles was based on real life informant ‘Possum,’ who had a gift for names and faces and was a police informant for over 20 years–think on that a moment. People are proud these days if their careers last over 15, and that’s usually not in a field where you can be shot for looking the wrong way at someone’s shoes. Simon wanted to do a feature story on Possum, but when he went to the man’s apartment for a last interview, Possum had died from complications with HIV. And now, the legacy of an HIV-infected junkie has informed a character within one of the most memorable television shows of our time. Funny old world, that.

Although there are roughly eight billion great moments and characters in The Wire, Andre Royo’s portrayal of a charming  junkie steals nearly every scene he’s in. I would personally like to recommend to filmmakers that he act in more stuff.

In a scene in the second season, McNulty (Dominic West, one of the main characters), who has been busted down to Marine Patrol, reveals how little he gives a shit about his new position by his utter refusal to learn how to tie a simple knot. Each time he docks his patrol boat, he wraps the rope clumsily around the pylons before abandoning the whole thing, probably hoping the boat will just drift out to sea and he can finally be fired and drink himself to death as he secretly wishes. The camera pulls back to reveal a visiting Bubbles, who has tied a perfect maritime-regulation knot, and calls McNulty out on his half-assed attempt. Bubbles the heroin addict chides McNulty the self-destructive drunk police officer on his knot-tying. That’s the perfect summation of the character–drugs don’t waste people, they waste lives, time, potential, jobs, relationships, but the user is still alive. With his charm, intelligence, and ability to ‘talk a cat off a fishcart,’ Bubbles is a walking reminder of how easy it is to just give up, and certainly how hard it is to get it all back–but also that there’s always hope. Which is possibly the cruelest truth of all, sometimes.

There are countless moments like that with Bubbles throughout the series. He’s at heart a good person and definitely cares for others, but at the bottom of everything is his addiction, driving him along like a dog being used by a  bad master. Occasionally he climbs out from under it, and does well for a stretch, but being homeless isn’t exactly ideal for kicking an addiction and cleaning one’s life up. He’s paid about 30 dollars a day to be an informant, but cheerfully and unself-consciously asks Detective Kima Greggs to keep his money for him; the reason is obvious: if he didn’t, he’d just spend the whole nut, overdose, and kill himself.

Watch this moment from the first season, where Bubbles goes ‘fishing,’ and see if you aren’t a little charmed by his audacity and caginess.

We only just finished the 3rd season, so at the time of this entry I’m still not sure what the future holds for Bubbles.  I’d sure like to see him get out of the game and clean himself up, since the show has a high bodycount when it comes to dead dreams.

A New Cult Movie: Black Dynamite

Shockingly, Black Dynamite has not yet received its seating assignment in the Halls of Cult Films; it’s also entirely possible that I am not frequenting the right internet forums or attending the right kind of parties. Either way, it is this blog entry’s intent to spread the word about Black Dynamite and get people watching it, but more importantly, talking about it.

Every few years, the Canon of Cult Movies opens its doors to a new entry; that entry then receives the highly-sought honor of being constantly brought up in Internet film forums, quoted at parties, and turned into memes or Halloween costumes.

Shockingly, Black Dynamite has not yet received its seating assignment in the Halls of Cult Films; it’s also entirely possible that I am not frequenting the right internet forums or attending the right kind of parties. Either way, it is this blog entry’s intent to spread the word about Black Dynamite and get people watching it, but more importantly, talking about it and getting OTHER people to watch it.

This. This here is the movie. It's awesome.

The blaxpoitation genre is one that lends itself to parody almost from its inception: while some lauded Hollywood’s attempt to create entertainment aimed solely at a black audience, many within that audience deplored the stereotypical world of pimps, hoes, drug dealers, violence and bitches depicted. For some, it seemed an attempt to create a ‘get out of white guilt free’ card by filmmakers who wanted to reach an African American audience without actually doing anything different.

But whatever its intent, blaxpoitation films have created an indelible mark on American cinema, love it or hate it. In the case of Michael Jai White (best known for his portrayal of Al Simmons in 1997’s apt Spawn adaptation),  who plays Black Dynamite, it’s roundly a labor of love to spoof the genre. Before the film, he regularly held blaxpoitation-viewing parties at his house, and the film was inspired by his listening to James Brown’s Superbad on his iPod.

There is NOTHING to dislike about this film. Although it explores similar territory as 2003’s Undercover Brother, the latter was based on an existing webcomic; in retrospect UB (though I LOVE IT) felt like an attempt to create an Austin Powers analogue for African American audiences. The modern setting severely limited the possibilities for lampooning the blaxpoitation genre, although the film was entertaining enough in its own right.(I’ve seen ‘I’m Gonna Get You Sucka’ but don’t want to get too far off track–this review is more about Black Dynamite than the blaxpoitation-parody microgenre).

Black Dynamite is ALL blaxpoitation: roundly set against the original 70’s backdrop and even utilizing the same crappy stock footage many of those films used, it indicates an encyclopedic knowledge as well as a love of the genre and distills both into a marvelous recreation. Black Dynamite, with its visible boom mikes, mind-blowing dialogue, gratuitous titties, and sinister plot by The Man could have sprung wholly-formed from the afro of Richard Roundtree. But it’s more than that–it’s a brilliant adult comedy the likes of which I thought weren’t even made any more: one that assumes the audience isn’t just in on the joke, but is smart enough to figure the joke out if they aren’t. It offers a sharp, never-slow take for an audience increasingly numbed by dull entries in action and comedy films.

Black Dynamite bids his bitches adieu.

It’s a joke that doesn’t get old for a minute. Each gag is as unpredictable as Black Dynamite himself, and the cavalcade of supporting characters is perfectly cast. There’s not a weak performance to be seen, and some characters like Honeybee leave you wanting much more from them. Even the action scenes, when they aren’t played for laughs, are meticulous–since White has no less than SEVEN black belts in various disciplines he has entirely earned the right to show off. Also, he’s hot.

Although the idea of an action hero being a closet psychopath has been explored to the point of exhaustion, there are a few scenes that get mileage even from that tired old trope, like this one where Dynamite is leaving new girlfriend Gloria in the care of some hoes he looks after.

The whole movie is a treat. From ‘Who the hell is interrupting my kung fu?’ to Roscoe’s Chili and Donuts to ‘First Lady, I’m sorry I pimp-slapped you into that china cabinet,’ there is nothing to dislike. Just remembering scenes I saw two days ago is making me laugh all over again. That and looking up clips, both original and fan-made, on Youtube.

The only weakness of Black Dynamite is that no one is talking about it.  A few more high-profile cameos might have raised its profile a little, and perhaps spending more than 2 weeks in the theater might have drummed up more buzz about it.

I can’t tell you how often I see a comedy that ‘everyone’ agrees is hilarious and I barely crack a smile–I have an odd sense of humor and I also can’t stand comedies where everyone is an asshole; Tropic Thunder made me laugh, Pineapple Express stole two hours of my life and left nothing in me but hate, and the trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine makes me cringe and wonder if John Cusack owes someone money. So when I find a new comedy that actually makes me laugh, it’s a cinch that it’ll entertain even the most dour of viewers.

Watch the trailer (and other goodies!) here.

Flying Fiery Feets of Fury: Ong Bak & Ong-Bak 2

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

When it came time to make another Ong-Bak movie, Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkeaw had a unique problem: how do you top a martial arts movie whose penultimate stunt has the lead fighting in burning pants.

Tony Jaa FIREPANTS!
Take a moment to savor it

Here’s a link with the aforementioned scene; Fast forward to 1:30, and you might want to mute it too as there’s some kind of annoying music playing. But still–a crazy airborne spin kick with your PANTS ON FIRE is pretty hard to beat.

(Also–Tony Jaa lost his eyebrows during the filming of this scene, and nearly caught his entire head on fire. Also also–Googling ‘Tony Jaa Fire Pants’ did not net the comedy gold I was hoping for.)

In 2003, Thai actor Tony Jaa appeared in Ong-Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior and was touted as the next heir to the Bruce Lee throne. While his actual training background is unclear, what is known is that he taught himself acrobatics by somersaulting off the family elephant (!!!!) into a river, and is credited with bringing awareness of muay thai to a bigger audience than just Asian action movie enthusiasts. And he’s really, really good at what he does.

The story is about Tien, a martial arts-practicing country boy who must retrieve the sacred Buddha head of his middle of nowhere village. The trail leads  him to Bangkok, where he meets up with George, a monk who spurned  rustic village life in favor of drugs, sluts, and betting money he doesn’t have on underground boxing matches. Tien wanders into one of the matches and goes through a giant Aussie competitor as though the latter were made out of fresh creamery butter, and little dollar signs light up in George’s eyes at this walking windfall. Tien doesn’t want to fight though, he just wants to find the missing Buddha head.

Some more stuff happens, Tien’s journey takes him through the seedy Bangkok underworld, which is all filmed to resemble the basement of a Las Vegas bowling alley, he retrieves the Buddha head and finally he finishes his task and attains enlightenment as a monk at the end of the film. Like most Asian action movies, which are much more honest about their purpose,  the story is really just a vehicle for showing off the lead actor’s fighting and stunts prowess.

Which is why the second Ong-Bak was such an unexpected treat: it is actually a prequel which functions as a karmic set up for the first Ong-Bak. OB2 follows the story of Tien, the karmic predecessor to modern day Tien, again played by Tony Jaa and his crazy-ass physical ability, but sets up a plot arc that is one part Thai history lesson and one part sweeping fantasy epic.

Previous Tien is the son of a deposed king, who escapes his father’s murderers only to wind up in a slave camp, fighting a giant crocodile for the entertainment of a crowd with incredibly poor dental hygiene.  He escapes by killing the crocodile, and his prowess as a fighter is admired by Chernang, the pirate king of Garuda Wing Cliff. Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and the latter learns a metric shitton of martial arts and battle tactics from the multicultural crew of pirates and fighters Chernang keeps: everything from Muay Boran (an antiquated form of Muay Thai) to Hung Gar, with weapons training as well. He uses these tactics to become the second-in-command of the pirates, but a memory from his youth of a young girl he became friends with at school makes him realize he has unfinished business in his life. Stuff happens, adventures are had,  but ultimately the story ends unfulfilled–I won’t spoil it, but I found the ending strangely satisfying, if a little abrupt.

People get dirty in this movie. I mean *really* dirty.

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

If the first Ong-Bak introduced an unfamiliar Western audience to modern Thailand, the second was a celebration of Thailand’s cultural and historical heritage, even down to the elephants–there’s a scene where showing mastery over elephants proves Tien’s training is complete, and elephants are intertwined with Thai history and culture. The King of Thailand still keeps a herd of ‘war elephants,’ and the great beasts are to be found all over architecture and artwork. Since Thailand was a large nation near the ocean, it has a diverse population, which is reflected by the varied nationalities of the pirates who train Tien–there’s a Japanese guy who trains him in katana and swordfighting, Chinese fighters, and an Indonesian guy. There’s even a scene taking place in the evil usuper’s court showing Thai dancing and pageantry. Which is kind of beyond the scope of the usual action movie–Thailand isn’t just a setting, it’s a costar.

Apparently, the answer to the ‘firepants’ quandary was ‘Elephants.’ This scene was amazing and there was no CG or wires. Just Jaa and his magic powers.

When viewing a foreign film, I tend to take a passive role . Since I’ve never even been out of my home country I assume there is a lot I don’t know about the world and that the film might function as a source of information as well as entertainment. I realize and accept that I am not the intended audience, even if the film has been repackaged and distributed overseas to a foreign audience–sure some stories cross cultural barriers, but ultimately you are viewing the film as a ‘guest.’ Just as you wouldn’t go to a foreign country and bitch that they don’t do things just like at home, why would you hold all films to the same cinematic standard? The Western movie industry might have informed many other nations on filmmaking, but ultimately ours is not the only way to make a film.

The marvelous thing about the Ong-Bak films and part of the reason they’re so popular are the lack of CG and wire stunts. All the stunts are practical, meaning a real dude (usually Jaa since he does almost all his own stunts) is performing. The fight scenes look rough as people really get kicked in the face or chest–sometimes you can see the opponent’s torso folding around Jaa’s foot as the opponent’s body recoils from the impact and you know that poor bastard got hit hard.  Apparently though, there are almost NEVER any serious injuries on the films.

Here’s a completely gratuitous shot of Jaa in the ‘riding the elephant herd’ scene, in which he hops several times from one elephant to another.

This is known as ‘elephant surfing.’ Or it should be.

Note: Tony Jaa’s film career is kind of up in the air, as he became a full-fledged monk in May 2010. I hope he continues making films; he has a real charm and presence on camera. And he’s also just precious–he has a fairly wide acting range, and can either seem like a hardass or a sweet, vulnerable country boy, a necessary part of being an action star; otherwise they’re just a terrifying psycho with superhuman abilities.

He also isn’t a huge guy, so it’s believable when his opponents massively underestimate him–and therefore is so much more satisfying when he effectively ‘bags the trash.’

Photo taken from Cute Overload Martial Arts Demo.