Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some of My Best Friends Are... 40

Little-seen film "Some of My Best Friends Are..." is 40 this year (download it here, and the soundtrack here). Set almost exclusively in the confines of a Greenwich Village gay bar called The Bluejay (actually real-life bar The Zodiac), the action happens over the course of Christmas Eve 1971, as the lives of the patrons and staff of the bar dramatically intersect.

The film could be seen as a companion piece to another film, The Boys in the Band, which features a birthday party at a gay man's apartment around the same time. Both have a party atmosphere, campy characters, a violent attack from a homophobe, a sympathetic black man and anguished queers coming to terms with their sexuality. Of the two, I prefer Some of My Best Friends Are... Boys in the Band has a depressing tone and ends in a downbeat way. In Some of My Best Friends... there is a better sense of a cohesive gay community, along with happy endings for most of the nicer characters. It also features a number of casting delights including, Rue McClanahan (who achieved fame as Blanche in the Golden Girls). Here she plays a bitchier younger version of Blanche.

There's also Gil Gerard (Buck Rogers) in the role of a gay butch pilot who Rue's character jealously lusts over.

And best of all is Warhol regular, Candy Darling, giving the most serious, strange and nuanced role of her career. Candy is one of the other girls who goes to the bar, and her storyline involves two important twists as it progresses. She also gets many of the good lines in the film: "They all heard him say I was beautiful! Prettier than she is. But I can't dance with them all!" and "Has anyone found a contact lens?"

There's a huge cast of characters, from all walks of life - a priest, a ski instructor, a perfume counter queen, a hustler, assorted actors, a frightened newbie, business men. One odd fish, referred to only as Miss Untouchable, arrives in a cape and never speaks, but manages to inject a lot of humour into giving archly prissy looks at everyone.

Another is called Giggling Gertie due to the fact that he finds everything hilarious. When someone accidently spills a Bloody Mary in his lap, he shrieks "Thank heavens! I'm not pregnant after all!" There are plots and sub-plots and characters who just seem to be there to add colour. As gay life increasingly happens online now, where it's easier to check out someone's profile and reject them if they don't match what you're looking for, I wonder how long the gay bar as an equalising all-in-it melting-pot will last.

The film has a great soundtrack, with two title songs - one is a down-and-dirty funk number by Novella Nelson called "The Bar", the other a plaintive lament called "Where do you go?" which plays at the start as the key characters are set up.

A few of the scenes seem to mingle shots of real-life patrons with the cast, and as a piece of history documenting New York's early '70s gay scene, the film is priceless. As with the orignal Stonewall Inn, the bar is owned by a small-time Mafiosa who regularly gives envelopes of cash to a corrupt cop so it won't get raided. A sign on the wall (mostly ignored) says that boys can dance in a straight line but not facing each other. At one point someone's mother turns up and publicy disowns him for being gay. Times have changed, though the types haven't.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Best Friends Wedding Proposal

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at another university and the lady who invited me offered to put me up for the night. That night, as I settled down on her sofabed, I looked through her DVD tower by the tv. All of her DVDs seemed to heavily feature the colour pink, with pictures of male-female couples, often in contrived silly poses and I realised her terrible secret - she was a romcom addict.

I shouldn't feel superior about anyone's film choices. I've pretty much lost count of the number of times I've shown one of my favourite films to someone at the start of a friendship, which has ensured they never invite me round again. Just coming out of the closet ? The self-hating gay men of Boys in The Band will send you right back in again! Fancy a fun lesbian romance? How about the kidnapping and religious rancour of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit? Are you recently pregnant? Well I'm sure you'll enjoy the abortion jokes in drag queen epic Girls Will Be Girls. Do you hate horror films? Well don't worry, retro-cult movie The House of the Devil isn't that scary at all. I'm sure you'll like it and not go upstairs halfway through, never to return.

It's only when I watch such films through the eyes of my friends that I realise that awful scenes of people being horrible to each other are not necessarily "read" as camp and hilarious but can be quite upsetting.

And actually, I'm not that picky when it comes to films. Despite a natural liking for some of the films I've listed above, as well as lowbrow nasties like Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, I'm also happy to watch something in Italian with subtitles, a rousing war film, a spaghetti western, a Disney film, a Bond film or even a romcom.

Although with romcoms they have to be enjoyed on two levels - first, as the creators would have you watch them - getting swept along by the story, caring for the characters and shedding a few tears when they finally get together. But also on a much more cynical, detatched, look how they are manipulating me level. All romcoms follow a formula - which can be reduced to: a heterosexual couple encounter various obstacles to love, then get over it and live happily ever afer.

My favourite romcom is 27 Dresses. As Stefon from SNL would say "It has everything!" I think it might be the most perfect romcom ever. You can tick off the bits of the formula.

  • A heroine who lives in New York and has a glamorous job (Katherine Heigl is Jane, a wedding planner.

  • A gorgeous leading man who despite his obviously contrived flaws that any normal person would be prepared to overlook, it will take the heroine the WHOLE FILM to realise she loves him. In this case it is James Marsden who is a bit grumpy and writes a slightly mocking article about the heroine. My personal favourite is Ryan Reynolds (Definitely Maybe, The Proposal).

  • A Distractor Male. This is usually a less famous actor who the heroine will think she is in love with but actually isn't. In 27 Dresses it's Edward Burns (who?)

  • A sassy "supportive/supporting role" best friend who hangs around on the sidelines and doesn't really have much to do except act as a cheerleader, make witticisms and be quirky. Margaret Cho sums up this character well in one of her routines "Hey, I can't get a man, but I got a lot of good advice!" The character has been around forever - Eve Arden made the wise-cracks to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, while Corale Browne did it for Rosalind Russell in Aunt Mame. In 27 Dresses, it's Casey, played by Judy Greer. In one scene, on seeing Jane, she tells her "Ooh, you clean up good. *I* might even be into you." But towards the end of the film, when Jane has humiliated her OWN SISTER by revealing her to be a meat-eating, dog-hating slut at her wedding rehearsal in front of the groom (and now "the wedding's off"), Casey tells Jane "You could have told him face-to-face. I mean, I know my moral compass doesn't exactly point due north, but... if I say something's wrong, something's wrong... What you did was unleash twenty years of repressed feelings in one night. It was entertaining, don't get me wrong, but if it was the right thing to do, you'd feel better right now. Do you feel better right now?" Oh the wisdom of the sassy best friend.

  • A love rival. Jane has her trashy sister Tess (Malin Akerman) who may as well be the devil in this film. Her most serious crime? She pretends to be a vegetarian to get Edward Burns into bed. Seriously - who hasn't told a few lies in the name of love? If we didn't hide all of the negative aspects of our personality at the start of a relationship, the human race would have died out long ago.

  • A musical number. At some point, the main characters will give a pitch-perfect rendition of a slightly naff pop song. In My Best Friend's Wedding the whole cast suddenly started in on "Say a Little Prayer" with no warning at all. Here, they sing Benny and the Jets by Elton John.

  • Declarations of love in public. Because these films are American, where everyone shouts and there is no concept of "private", nothing really counts or means anything unless it has been witnessed by a group of complete strangers and all of your friends. Therefore, romcoms frequently feature large parties where someone will grab a microphone, climb onto a stage and spontaneously announce that they loved Mary-Sue all along. Then everyone will go "ahh", smile and applaud, and the couple will have a passionate kiss, smug in the fact that they are the centre of attention, now and always. My favourite take on the public declaration of love is in "Failure To Launch" when, somehow, the crucial love scene plays out while the main characters are being watched on webcam by an entire COFFEE SHOP of hip Americans.

    There can be variations on a theme - poor old Julia Roberts ends up all alone (apart from her sassy (gay) best friend Rupert Everett in My Best Friends Wedding (there's two variations for you!) And I always like it when the romcom does "foreign" which means that the American characters wind up in London (as happens to Debra Messing when she hires a handsome male escort in The Wedding Date). It's a London that I have no experience of - everyone live in huge houses, goes to even huger country houses for the weekend, the males are all sporty and ruddy (sometimes they play rugby and wear rugby shirts constantly), it never rains and there are no poor people or black people anywhere. But really, Jane Austen wrote the original romcom - and give or take something disastorous happening with a pair of big pants, the winning formula hasn't changed since then.

  • Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Is your life so interesting you should write a novel?

    Thanks to the accessibility of the internet, I recently read a novel that I enjoyed, found the writer's website, emailed him to tell him how much I'd liked it, and a couple of weeks later spent a nice afternoon in a Cafe Nero in London chatting to him about all sorts of things. I'm guessing that not all writers are as friendly towards random people. The guy already vaguely knew of me, due to the fact that the historical setting of his book was something I've written about in the past also, though, being a stuffy academic, my books are always non-fiction. Writing in academic style is something which you partly pick up as you go along, being improved if you do a PhD and have a good supervisor. The first time I submitted an academic paper, back in 1995, the reviewer, who was a very prickly old man, said something like "The content is fine but it needs to be edited by someone who can write English." He had a reputation for being a bit of a bitch, but I'm sure that if I was to read some of my earlier stuff, I'd cringe at it.

    One of the questions that my novelist friend asked me was "Have you ever considered writing a novel yourself?" I lied and said I hadn't.

    During 1990 and 1991 I wrote a novel, using my mother's type-writer. I don't remember very much about it, except that it was set in Blackpool and involved a group of teenage friends who felt superior to everyone else around them. It descended into violence and tragedy at the end. I had only ever been to Blackpool twice and had no experience of violence, so having finished it, I had the vague feeling that it was awful, and I put all the pages in a green folder, relegated it to a box in the attic and have never looked at it since.

    On and off, I've attempted to write novels or short stories since then, with varying degrees of failure. My most fruitful attempt, still ongoing, is 40,000 words - and is set in the early 1990s, loosely based on a summer I spent in London when I worked for a down-market gay magazine.

    If I had a penny for the number of times I'd heard someone say "My life is so interesting, I should write a book about it," I'd have about 37p. I freely admit that my life is not interesting at all (and is getting less interesting the older I get), and that one summer was the peak of excitement in the life of a person who has never taken any risks, normally tried to do the right thing, and at the age of 20, opted for quiet domesticity in a small, respectable town in northern England.

    The story is narrated by the rather mean-spirited best friend of the main character. He is not an "unreliable author" (which recently seems to have been a fashionable device) but he is a spiteful author and is often critical of the main character. Unlike earlier attempts, it is based on events and people who I have experience of, and that probably makes it more authentic. It is also fun writing about that period before the internet and mobile phones. However, I am unlikely to try to get it published because I don't have a very good writing style for fiction. When I read it back it sounds like it's written by Enid Blyton. I read a lot of Enid Blyton between the ages of 6 and 13, and her moralising, simplistic style has become indelibly imprinted upon me. Even when I am writing a sex scene, it comes across as Enid Blyton. This was also a problem when I worked on the gay magazine and was asked to write erotic stories. All of the characters in them spoke like they were in The Famous Five. Worse still, I am hopeless at providing descriptions. My novel is all about plot, character development and things happening. I rarely bother to take the time to describe what a room looks like, or put in stuff about what someone is thinking as they're walking down the street. When I write dialogue, it ends up looking more like a play. The characters seem to stop what they're doing and only use their mouths. Proper novellists manage to let us know what characters are doing as they're speaking, and the really good ones are clever in that their actions or objects that they're holding are somehow symbolic of their emotions at that time. It's all too clever for me.

    Even if I was able to resolve the problems with my writing, I don't think I'd be able to publish it anyway - the subject matter is so personal that I would never be able to show up at work every again.

    Tuesday, August 09, 2011

    London's burning

    Watching London burn while rioters break windows in shops and loot sports clothes, blingy watches and widescreen tvs, you can't help feeling that you're watching some sort of dystopic film about civil breakdown. Unfortunately, this is one bad movie we can't switch off.

    What the riots seem to be teaching me, is who, among my Facebook friends, is right-wing and who is left-wing. Some of my friends are calling for the rioters to be neutered so they can't have any more children. Some are wanting the army to be brought back from Afghanistan to deal with the rioters in the most violent way possible. Some are writing about "lazy benefit grabbing sloth". Others are blaming poverty, inequality, institutional racism, the police, the cuts. Some people are blaming the Lib-Dems, or Mrs Thatcher, saying it all started in the 1980s. Others are blaming the Labour Party, either for being too free and easy with giving out benefits to "scroungers", or for furthering the inequality program which Mrs Thatcher started. Some people are blaming all the political parties (that's about as left-wing as you can get).

    Attempts to explain the riots and looting largely fall into two camps - there's the view that the looters are mindless scum - a kind of essentalist argument. It's their own fault, they are bad, evil even. There is no point in reasoning with them, they must simply be locked up or met with even greater violence. The opposite argument, often heavily prefaced with the view that violence is never justified or a successful strategy, then goes on to look at the wider social context, pointing out the widening inequality gap between rich and poor, especially in large cities. For example, the website poverty.org.uk gives the following facts about UK inequality from 2009.

    •The gini coefficient measure of overall income inequality in the United Kingdom is now higher than at any previous time in the last thirty years. 1
    •Inner London has by far the highest proportion of people on a low income (29% in the poorest fifth) but also a high proportion of people on a high income (28% in the richest fifth).

    This argument points out that if you see rich people all around you, yet you know you will never be able to get a job and better yourself, then what do you have to lose.

    I guess I'm more inclined to fall into the latter camp. I'm from a working-class background - one of the poorest areas in the UK. All through the 1980s, I felt I was missing out somehow, especially when I watched tv and saw southerners in nice big houses, but because everyone around me was also poor, it was a very intangible abstract sense of inequality. I also had it drummed into me that education was the answer to success - my aspirational mother paid for piano lessons, a set of encyclopaedias and lots of books. Duly enough, I was shown a track to a better life, pass lots of exams, don't get involved in crime, and you'll be OK. And it worked.

    But I was one of the very few kids on my council estate who took that path. Two doors away, from the house where I spent the first 18 years of my life, a young girl died of a drug overdose recently. In my street, disputes were "resolved" by a brick through a neighbour's window in the early hours of the morning. There were plenty of problem families, break-ins and drugs. It is one of the few areas where it is easy to afford a house, because nobody rich wants to live there. Had I not been the sort of kid who likes reading, and had a mother who encouraged it, I wonder whether I would ever have left that world.

    And when I see people looting on the tv, I wonder if, I had had their upbringing and life experiences - that sense of failure, that nothing you do will ever change anything, whether I would join in. And I think I probably would. Because I don't think most people are born especially good or bad, but they can be made good or bad by the things that happen to them.

    What's ironic is that the rioters and looters are attacking their own patch. They are helping to make their own areas worse than they already are. Shop-keepers and the upwardly mobile will move out, house prices will go down, the price of insurance will go up. If the rioters were educated, if they had a proper understanding of the wider picture, of some of the reasons behind their own social inequality, they wouldn't be attacking Tottenham, they'd be going over to Belgravia, Chelsea and Hampstead and setting fire to a Waitrose. But if they were educated they wouldn't be rioting in the first place, because they'd have been able to take the traditional route to success.

    And as for the view that violence is never justified or never solves anything - I suspect that politicians are so eager to tell us this precisely because it is untrue. Violence was clearly justified and was the only effective solution during World War II. Riots have been occurring all over the Middle East, and have been effective in changing Egypt's political structure. And it is also ironic that government ministers tell us that violence isn't the answer while they conduct a war in Afghanistan. The votes for women's movement began with acts of violence - and perhaps it was not the violence itself which acheived women's suffrage, it certainly got them noticed. The violence of the Stonewall riots was a trigger which coalesced into the American gay rights movement. The horrible truth is that violence sometimes is the answer.

    Is the violence justified or effective this time? I don't know. The rioters' goal seems to be simply to get stuff. Which seems to be exactly the message which everyone in Britain has been told for the past 30 years.

    And rather than this being an opportunity to make Britain a better place, I suspect we will all just lurch even further to the right. Bring out the hoses!

    Monday, August 01, 2011

    Goodbye Habitat

    Passing through Bristol last week, I stopped into the Habitat at the top of Park Street. When I lived in Bristol, I loved Park Street - there is a lovely quality of light there just before dusk, when all the buildings look especially Italiante and sepia-toned. Sometimes, after going to the posh gym, I would hang out at the Starbucks in Borders Books, then browse the DVDs and books. Borders closed last year and is now opening as a Wilcos. I guess it's better that it opens as something, but there's no fun in browsing a Wilcos. I should know - I used to work nights stacking shelves in the Preston branch, back in 1992. And apart from being the fastest (price)-gun in the (north)west, it was the most dreary job I've ever held. You could never really shift the smell of the place off you, and during Christmas, I must have heard Johnny Mathis's When A Child Is Born hundreds of times. Which tested even my love of irony and kitsch to its breaking point.

    To make Park Street even sadder, the Habitat right at top of the street has "closing down sale" signs over everything. All over the country, the Habitats are closing down. Where will the 20 and 30 somethings from social class AB shop now?

    I've been shopping in Habitat for the last twenty years. I bought my first lot of proper plates and stuff (the Nil range which still seems to be going strong). I've had a Habitat bed (blue metallic thing which looked like a hospital bed), Habitat garden furniture (not very good quality), Habitat modular sofa (still in my office), Habitat rugs (not good quality), Habitat pictures (Chinese poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also in my office at work), Habitat dining room table and chairs (twice). I think Habitat's success is probably down to me buying all my stuff there, and it's because I switched to John Lewis in 2008 that it's closing down.

    With the news showing massive job losses every night, while the cost of living goes up and up, I can only feel hugely lucky that my own experience of the recession is to do with losing some of my favourite shops. And I wish that was the experience of everyone else.