Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Secret Historian - The Amazing, Danger Filled Life of Samuel Steward

Samuel Steward lived a life few could imagine. From humble beginnings, he managed to obtain a PhD and a University teaching position. By choice he gave it up to become a Tattoo Artist in one of America's most dangerous neighbourhoods.

"The Question of Being Important Inside is One..." - Gertrude Stein in a Letter to Samuel Steward, January 12, 1938


It would be impossible to make up the life Samuel Steward lived in 84 years on planet Earth (1909 - 1993). From a modest upbringing by his maiden Aunts in a boarding house, he went on to attain a PhD, teach in Universities, and then perform a complete about face by becoming a full-time Tattoo Artist.

He was also, according to his own detailed records, an accomplished slut and an even bigger danger whore.

In pre-Stonewall America, when being gay could mean not just the loss of one's job, but also one's freedom, Steward kept a 'Stud File.' His Stud File consisted of neatly typed and cross referenced Index cards detailing his sexual adventures. He also sent handmade gay erotic stationary to certain pen pals - such as the photographer George Platt Lynes. This in an age where interception would have meant likely surveillance by U.S. Intelligence agencies, and possible imprisonment.

Sam Steward's risk taking started early. Growing up in the small town of Woodsfield, Ohio, he began initiating sex with older, well-built boys in his school. His own journal recollection of these early experiences is wonderfully candid:

"I figured I was put in that town just to bring pleasure to the guys I admired. In that small (about 350 students) High School the word got around quickly enough... and (I think) they all came to look on me as a dandy substitute for their girls. They treated me with a funny kind of respect - as if they knew that if they made me mad, they wouldn't get any more. I was not patronized or made fun of."

Justin Spring's fantastic biography Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade exists largely because Steward was so thorough about documenting his life - and not just the sexual adventures. He also kept detailed travel journals, and in later life various manuscripts, sexy photo albums, and correspondence. He regularly wrote Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Thornton Wilder - well known literary personalities during Steward's time.

This is not to say that Steward lived a charming, success-filled life with a constant upward trajectory. On the contrary - throughout his University career and beyond he faced addiction issues. Steward's struggle with alcoholism lasted more than 10 years. He only gave up the bottle following an aborted suicide attempt. In later life he would develop a Benzedrine habit (an early form of Amphetamine).

Steward struggled with his addiction issues despite being a published author, a respected teacher, and having a very active sex life that often included orgies ('Spintriaes' or 'Partoozies' as Steward would sometimes refer to these get-togethers in letters to friends). Steward's use of the word 'Spintriae' reflects a classical education - the term comes from the Ancient Greek word for anal sphincter.

Most remarkably for this reader was the discovery that at age 45, Samuel Steward decided to try his hand as a Tattoo Artist. At first he moonlighted, and eventually setup shop in the Sportland Arcade - a rather decrepit space that Steward nicknamed, "The Cage." He ran his Chicago shop under the pseudonym Phil Sparrow. Even so, senior staff at DePaul University, where Steward taught, eventually discovered his extracurricular activities and then fired him.

Part of the appeal in Tattooing for Steward was the access it gave him to lower class (and sometimes criminal) young men - his preferred sexual type. His appetite for risk was so great that when Steward moved to Oakland, California in the mid-1960s' he setup shop at 1727 San Pablo Avenue - an address very near the Hell's Angels' world headquarters.  

Spring writes of the location:

"Oakland, the city about which Gertrude Stein had observed, 'there is no there there' certainly lived up to that epithet in Stewart's new business neighbourhood, a commercial strip down which few pedestrians could venture, since it was essentially isolated by the convergence of two four-lane commercial highways. But the new shop was serendipitously just a five-minute ride from 4019 Foothill Boulevard, the world headquarters of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, a sprawling, loose-knit social club and criminal organization that was just then in the process of cornering the California drug trade, and whose members all regularly sought out new tattoos to define their status and accomplishments to other members of the gang." 

Steward named the new location, 'The Anchor Tattoo Shop' so it would be the first entry in the phone book. At this location he survived three robberies, witnessed the death-by-shooting of the Pawn Shop owner next door, and somehow managed a friendly relationship with the Angels. From 1967 through 1971 he was even their official Tattoo Artist.

After leaving the Tattoo world around 1970-71, Steward would have yet another career in his later years. This time as Phil Andros, writer of homoerotic fiction.

Sam Steward's success at adapting to so many worlds (university teaching, tattooing, and writing - both erotic and for mainstream publications) is worthy of the respect and recognition he is given in Justin Spring's thoroughly researched biography.

The real significance of Steward's accomplishments - in spite of his alcoholism and later Barbiturate addiction, is summed up nicely in the book's 'Afterword: The Steward Papers.'

"Steward suffered an enormous amount of artistic and professional rejection throughout his life. Though a writer and scholar of proven talent, he could find no comfortable place for himself in the literary or academic worlds. For nearly two decades the impossible situation in which he lived prompted him to escape into self destructive alcoholism...

It was Steward's lifelong struggle with self-esteem - in other words, his lifelong search for pride, dignity, and self respect, or what Gertrude Stein had so once plainly described to him as, 'the question of being important inside of one' that was clearly his central life issue. That question of self respect (or the lack of it) was, of course, intimately connected to his sexual identity." 


I highly recommend this book; especially to other gay men, who will likely find a little bit of themselves in Sam's life story.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Few Good Men - The State, Secrecy, and One Man's Quest to Do the Right Thing

The Lives of Others is a Subtle, Sincere Drama About Life Behind The Wall

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) observes Stage Actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) from afar in a depressing DDR-era watering hole somewhere in East Berlin.

I recently finished re-watching the excellent 2006 Thriller Das Leben der Anderen for a second time. The award winning film, both written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, both pulls at the Heart, while at the same time being a cautionary tale about the dangers of Dictatorship - in any form.

The movie is set in East Berlin during November 1984. During that time Die Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) would still be around for another few years. In service of high minded ideals Neighbor spied on Neighbor, and children turned in their parents. Nobody felt safe to voice their true opinions lest the Ministry for State Security, known colloquially as the Stasi, come calling. An Eye was always watching, and an Ear always listening.

Berlin itself was the central point for Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States. Rather than fight a war of mutually assured destruction, the two enemy powers fought proxy wars, used propaganda, and of course eyes on the ground in the form of Spies.

The DDR's spying on its' own citizens concerns the plot of Das Leben der Anderen. Successful Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his Actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) become the Stasi's targets, subject to a wiretapped apartment and 24/7 surveillance. Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) wants Koch imprisoned so he can have Christa-Maria to himself.

Of course, even in the DDR one couldn't be imprisoned without cause. Enter Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) and his team of spooks. With piercing German eyes and a Poker-face demeanor, Wiesler is introduced to us as a bloodless enforcer of the State's will. In an opening scene he is shown in flashback interrogating a man to the point of exhaustion and tears in order to extract the information he wants. This interrogation is then used to teach a class of Stasi Officers to be the finer points of how to extract a confession. 

Once Captain Wiesler and his team successfully plant listening devices throughout Georg Dreyman's apartment, he takes position in the Attic above, listening in on the lives of others.

There are several scenes throughout the film that pointedly touch on the choice Captain Wiesler must make. Is he truly acting as the Communist Party's 'Sword and Shield' by doing the bidding of Minister Bruno Hempf - a man with less than honorable motives?

Perhaps most striking for me is the scene pictured at the beginning of this entry. Captain Wiesler has finished his shift and gone to a depressing East German watering hole to drink Vodka. By chance, Christa-Maria enters the bar, her eyes hidden by large, dark sunglasses. She orders a Cognac. Wiesler knows she is wrestling with a tough decision.

Does she continue an affair with Minister Bruno Hempf, a man she finds repulsive, to save her (and Georg's) careers? Or does she return to Georg secure in the belief that she is a formidable Artist in her own right - with or without the State's support?

After approaching Christa-Maria and breaking the Ice, she lets her guard down with Wiesler. She asks him, "(would someone) sell herself for her Art?" Wiesler responds: "Sich für Kunst verkaufen? Das wäre ein schlecht Verkauf. Du bist ein sehr großer Künstlerin." (Sell yourself for Art? That would be a bad deal. You are already a great Artist).

Captain Wiesler's intervention helps Christa-Maria make a decision. A decision that is not without consequences.

And what of Captain Wiesler himself?

We are afforded glimpses into his private life a couple times during Das Leben der Anderen's 137 minute running time. Coming home, alone, he makes some horrible looking Rice dish with Ketchup squeezed from a Toothpaste tube. He then proceeds to eat his dinner, alone, while watching a DDR approved News program.

In one scene Wiesler hires a Prostitute. His hunger for basic human contact is obvious; it's a very hard scene to watch. Of course he receives some of that contact - but only as much as he paid for. As she leaves, the Prostitute's parting line is: "Book me for longer next time. Bye." The robotic, by-the-book Stasi man Captain Wiesler is not; he's as Human as the rest of us.

The movie's plot builds to a choice. Will Captain Wiesler find a way to imprison Georg Dreyman - thus furthering his own career and that of his immediate superior? Or is he motivated by a more human impulse to protect Dreyman from the State?

I highly recommend Das Leben der Anderen. It has so much to say about love, human nature, and the tough choices we all face in life. If you have someone special in your life, don't watch this movie alone.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

On Values - The Need to Find Common Cause and Shared Values to Solve Our Problems

The 'Trump Baby' Blimp from the U.S. President's July 2018 visit to the United Kingdom. Seen here in a Photoshopped image leaving Air Force One with Melania Trump.

On Values


SCENE (from Terminator 2):



Somewhere in the U.S. mid-west. A young John Connor and his Mother Sarah are waiting while the Terminator, a machine with human appearance, works to repair their vehicle. While they watch the Terminator work, two young children, no older than 6, fight each other with realistic looking toy handguns.


JOHN (to The Terminator): "We're not going to make it, are we? People I mean."

THE TERMINATOR (to John): "It's in your nature to destroy yourselves."

*

The above scene is one of the better known from Terminator 2, a classic North American science fiction movie from the early 1990's. Perhaps just as well known is the ending monologue, where Sarah Connor's voiceover intones: "No future but what we make."

At present, world leaders would do well to heed Sarah Connor's advice.

In North America

Donald Trump and his administration continue to rip up environmental regulations at a time critical for the fight against global warming. North of the U.S. / Canada border, Doug Ford's Conservative government in Ontario is following suit.

Europe is having troubles of its own. Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union in early 2019, deal or no deal. Tensions about immigration and border controls also pose a challenge to the European Union.

To deal with these challenges the world's democracies must find common cause and values again. Things that unite neighbours across party lines - things we can all strive to be, and to achieve. Only by doing so can we avoid repeating the past, and head off permanent climate change with unpredictable effects.

*

Donald Trump's administration has been the focus of much news coverage. Not only for the widely acknowledged interference by Russia in the 2016 Presidential election, but also for numerous scandals and an exceptionally high staff turnover rate within the administration.

The New York Times recently published an excellent in-depth recap of the 2016 election, and Russian involvement. Without question there were multiple contacts between Trump's team and the Russians. As an openly pro-Russia candidate, Trump was an obvious choice for Putin to support. An inquiry led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller continues to this day. The President's former Lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been providing information to Mueller's inquiry.

The Environmental Protection Agency has recently proposed to weaken rules regulating the release of Methane from Oil and Gas operations. America's government has also rolled back automobile fuel efficiency standards, which it announced in August 2018.

Of course, none of this is good news.

It is my hope that Democrats make gains in the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States. There need to be proper checks and balances on the White House's power. Given America's influence in the world, this helps people worldwide.

As for the man in the Oval Office, his pettiness and cruelty are well-documented. His own Twitter account provides enough examples for those who haven't already seen the President's tweets splashed across the news. 

Trump personifies the pursuit of money without values. It's very sad to me that he still has admirers. His focus on 'Winning' will produce short term gains for a limited number of people, and long lasting consequences for everyone else.

Something must be done.

The real questions Trump voters need to be asking when looking at the man and his actions, are:

"What kind of people should we be? How should we treat each other?"


*

In Europe
A recent article from The Economist titled: 'Life in the Centrifuge: Lessons for the EU from the Austro-Hungarian Empire' caught my eye. It compares the current situation in Europe with the Austro-Hungarian Empire that fell apart in the early 1900s'.

A key paragraph reads:

"The fate of Austria-Hungary showed that multinational units cannot survive times of hardship without a sense of common purpose. Thanks to the rise of English, budget airlines, the Internet and University exchanges, today’s young Europeans live much more “European” lives than previous generations. But politics is not keeping up. Nurturing a clearer European identity is not just a romantic goal; it is the only way to make the project sustainable in the long term, hard though history shows this to be."

From this writer's current station in Berlin, I see the point. Cheap EasyJet flights from within Europe do not a Union make.

A few weeks ago, I made a trip to an Ikea store near Berlin's Schöneberg district with a German friend. While we waited, and waited some more for the M48 Bus to make our return trip, he had a temper tantrum.

"Nichts in Berlin funktioniert mehr! Nichts ist pünktlich! Was ist mit dieser Stadt passiert?"

I paraphrase here, because I don't remember his exact choice of words.

While Berlin is a fantastic city, and my favourite place in the world, the transit system is obviously under strain. U-Bahn doors not closing, and complete line shut downs because of power failures, are things I have seen in the city's Untergrund Bahn system. Other insights I will leave for a later blog entry.

At the time I thought my German friend was just letting off steam; I now see that he has a valid point.

*

So what does this all mean for the world we live in?

It means that governments and individual citizens must re-dedicate themselves to the most pressing world issues. Climate Change, immigration issues, and the like can only be solved through compromise and working together.

We all need to buckle up and get ready for some serious work ahead of us.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Everything You Want is on the Other Side of Fear - A Review of Atomic Blonde

A still from the nightclub scene in Atomic Blonde. Here, Lorraine Broughton makes contact with Delphine Lasalle, a French operative.

Atomic Blonde is a Spy Thriller that delivers; it portrays Berlin during a time of Great Change


The music is pounding. The dancefloor is packed with swaying bodies. And the drinks are flowing. Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) Atomic Blonde's protagonist, orders a Stoli on Ice as she meets Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) a French intelligence operative with key information.

Or so it seems. Nothing is straightforward in David Leitch's expertly crafted spy thriller set during the dying days of the Cold War on the conflict's front line - the divided city of Berlin. The plot is set in motion by the death of James Gascoine (Sam Hargrave). At the time of his death Gascoine is in possession of a very special watch containing the names of Secret Agents working for the East and West.

Said watch also contains the identity of Satchel, a double agent who has been playing both sides. As 'C' (James Faulkner) head of MI6 and Lorraine's boss, points out, "If the Russians get that list we're all buggered. Sideways."

This exposition introduces us to the plot's Maltese Falcon. The thing that everyone is after, no matter what side they're fighting for. As the characters work to recover the watch from a rogue Stasi officer who killed Gascoine to acquire it, they show why the spy business is such brutal, unsentimental work. I lost track of all the lies and double crossings by film's end. Even the relationship between Lorraine and David Percival (James McAvoy) is not what it seems. And they both work for the Brits.

Looming tall over the plot is the impending Fall of the Wall. The American intelligence community, portrayed here by John Goodman's character Emmett Kurzfeld, seem particularly certain that Berlin's hated divider is just days away from being torn down, piece by piece.

It is the nearness of this event that motivates the characters to double cross and / or kill each other to obtain the watch and uncover Satchel's identity. At one point Lorraine is followed into a movie theater in East Berlin's Alexanderplatz. As Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is screening she works to evade the Stasi's thugs. The violence in this scene and others is pulpy and visceral. Blood is spilled, people are maimed. Lorraine Broughton has more than her fair share of brushes with death.

Atomic Blonde's violence is the most American aspect of a movie set in Europe's new Capitol of Cool. Surprisingly there is only one sex scene. Which is a shame because enjoying sex is a very Berlin thing; shootouts in apartment stairwells much less so.

I will not spoil how the movie ends, suffice to say that all the crossings and double crossings prepare you for a big reveal before the credits roll.

For me, the three best things about this movie are: Theron's acting, the music, and the 'wow' effect of Berlin bathed in cool neon. The colour scheme is consistent throughout - everyone immersed in vivid blues, purples, and reds. Contrasting with London, where Broughton's debriefing is taking place while she recalls the events of days earlier. That city is depicted in cool whites, deep blacks, and greys that make London appear antiseptic. Especially when contrasted with Berlin's colours and rocking 80s' soundtrack - pure ear candy.

You will enjoy this movie if you're a fan of action flicks and 1980s' pop music. (I particularly love how Re-Flex's The Politics of Dancing is used). You'll really love it if you enjoy being in Berlin, a city about to go through another period of great change.

In Oktober werde ich in Berlin leben. Ich sehe eine gute Zukunft in Deutschland.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 - Welcome to the Future

Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is singled out for seduction by a larger-than-life size hologram. Blade Runner 2049 takes the original's dystopian future and makes it relevant to the here and now.


Blade Runner 2049 Expands on the Original's Big Question: "What does it mean to be Human?"

"The World is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there's no wall... You bought a war" - Lieutenant Joshi, AKA: Madam (Robin Wright) to K

Blade Runner 2049 is nothing short of spectacular. A dystopian science fiction updated for the future humanity is creating for itself. It simultaneously pays tribute to the original while expanding on the key themes of climate change, concentration of corporate power, and what it means to be Human.

We enter the story in Los Angeles, circa 2049. There is fog, endless rain, and snow. As with the 1982 original, a pulsing electronic soundtrack sets the mood. Everything is meant to ratchet up feelings of dread and a loss of control. The fact that Blade Runner's sequel depicts snow in Los Angeles shows just how much irreversible damage human beings have done to Earth, to say nothing of the damage people deal each other here. 

Many of the elements from the 1982 original are faithfully recreated here and updated accordingly. The taciturn Detective whose body language and facial expressions do most of the talking. Dialogue straight from one of the old school hard boiled Detective novels. A Villain who represents the monolithic power corporations have in this future world. And the settings - the golds, yellows and deep shadows of his stronghold recall the Tyrell Corporation of old.

In the first few minutes of Blade Runner 2049 we are introduced to Agent K (Ryan Gosling). He is one of a number of new Nexus 8 Replicants. These obedient models were created after corporate food titan Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) salvaged the Tyrell Corporation's remains. Apparently Tyrell went bankrupt after too many of the original Replicants - sent 'off world' to do slave labour - killed their masters.  

There are still a few of the older model Replicants out there. Creations that look human, but were created in laboratories. Some of them come with pre-programmed expiration dates, after which they will die. Others have no such date and can live on indefinitely.

Like Rick Deckard before him, Agent K is a Blade Runner. A division of the Los Angeles Police Department whose members are assigned to track down and kill rogue Replicants. K doesn't speak very much, though as brought to life by Ryan Gosling he doesn't need to. Sadness is written all over his face. Loneliness too. 

K's girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is a 2-dimensional hologram. We learn from seeing advertisements later in the movie that Joi is just one of thousands of such programs. No real lovers for the working man in this darker future - the idea of one will suffice. 

This review will not give much of the plot away, save for a bare outline. In pacing and structure Blade Runner 2049 hits a home run. There are 3 Acts:

Act 1) Introduction of the Problem (involving Replicants, of course) and the Principal Characters

Act 2) Fleshing out the Characters - their wants, needs, and what makes them tick. Main characters begin trying to solve the central Problem

Act 3) Action building to the climax and denouement

Of course, there would be no problem or dramatic tension without a worthy villain - and Blade Runner 2049 gives one to us.

Niander Wallace is a man of incredible wealth who, the plot suggests, helped save humanity from starvation after he patented new ways to farm food. Mainly protein in the form of Worm farms. After buying up what remained of the Tyrell Corporation, Wallace set about creating his own Replicant workforce. With his beard and soft speech, Wallace could be the anti-Jesus. He who gives life, and just as easily takes it away.

Leto's character is a symbol of the concentration of corporate power. In 2049 the very few have so very much. Wallace lives in a temple-like structure complete with a showroom packed with older Replicant models. His focus is on giving Replicants the ability to procreate - thus giving humanity a disposable workforce to take it to the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond. He refers to his creations as Angels - making explicit what the original only hinted at. Think along the lines of Satan being tossed from Heaven and falling to Earth.

Like any evil boss worth his salt, Wallace leaves the work of maiming, killing and intimidating to his Personal Assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). She is herself a Replicant. There is something unsettling about watching Luv do her evil creator's bidding. There is a sense of steely control, and also a simmering rage barely kept in check. 

If the character of Luv represents hate and all its associated negative emotions, then Joi represents what is still right with the world. During one scene she and K share a moment in the rain. K has bought a device to liberate Joi from the confines of their shared apartment. For all of Joi's 2-dimensionality, there is real feeling whenever these two share the screen.

Which brings me back to the movie's central question: "What makes us Human?" Do memories make it so? Or is it in our Genes? Or is it simply as Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) says near the film's end: "I know what's real."

I won't give you any of the answers here. Though Blade Runner 2049 certainly guides us toward them in a more definitive way than its predecessor. Go see this one. It's a special sequel indeed to equal the power of its namesake.

Welcome to the Future.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Darkness without Light: House of Cards Season 5

Frank and Claire Underwood's scheming in Season 5 begins to feel meaningless. The viewer is left wondering why they should still care.

"With all the foolishness and indecision in your lives, why not a man like me?"


Season 5 brings the return of Netflix's first original series, House of Cards, into our living rooms and bedrooms. The show continues to chart the political rise and schemings of Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), though this season felt tired and un-anchored the closer I got to the final episode.


Perhaps the best example of this is a speech by President Underwood announcing his resignation to Congress in the second last episode of the season. It starts off strong - Spacey's monologues have always been a high point of the American version of House of Cards. However, by the end he is going on about the, "end of the age of reason." Spacey's saucy humor (it's in the smile) and steely aggression are both evident - yet something feels off.

It probably has to do with the departure of Beau Willimon, the writer at the helm for House of Cards first four seasons. Without his writing, I sometimes found myself wondering why I should care about the characters. Frank and Claire's plotting, Doug Stamper's (Michael Kelly) covering his boss's evil tracks, and a host of supporting characters sometimes left me shrugging and saying, "Meh..."

The dramatic tension evident in the first four seasons is noticeably missing from large parts of Season 5. Another reason for this is because at five seasons, House of Cards has clearly outlived the Shakespearean frame it was built upon. Our anti-hero's journey was supposed to fall into three distinct stages. 


First Stage: coveting power from afar and scheming how to obtain it. We saw this in Seasons 1 & 2 when Frank and Claire worked to pull the rug out from underneath President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill).

Second Stage: Obtaining power. This happened in Season 3 when Frank Underwood assumed the Presidency. Here the character's weaknesses start to become apparent as they deal with the burden of power. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown," as Shakespeare would have put it.

Third Stage: The Fall from Grace where the protagonist loses their power. This third and final stage has been delayed, by necessity, from the series long run. Instead of being dragged down, Frank and Claire just keep on winning. 

In the current season, there is no better example of this than when the Underwoods take down Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). As Frank's Republican rival for President, he has the election yanked from underneath his feet when Frank orchestrates the closures of key polling stations. Having his prize stolen works a number on the Governor's mind, causing him to lose mental stability. Eventually, leaks of the Governor's private meltdowns make their way to the Underwoods - who then use this evidence to finish what they started.

I hope House of Cards can finish strong on its Sixth Season. If the show goes on for too much longer, more viewers will be left wondering why they should still care.

***

Fiction vs. Reality


Perhaps the problem is that House of Cards can no longer compete with the grim reality of the world. I'm not just referring to Donald Trump's presidency when I write this. For too long in the developed world we've had so much (materially) and given each other so little in terms of human warmth and love. In this way House of Cards no longer feels like a fictional show, but one that is in lock step with the place we wake up in every morning.


A personal note to end this blog entry - I will be finishing a second draft of my fictional novel of short stories over the fall. It is my intention to share excerpts of the first chapter of that book here on my blog when it is ready to publish. The book will be darkly humorous with a moral core. More or less my version of Larry Kramer's Faggots.

I look forward to sharing it with all of you. Until next time.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

On Berlin

Berlin has Risen and Fallen More Than Once. We're About to See it Rise Again. 


Sunset over Schlüterstraße. Berlin, Germany. 01.19.2017
Germany has come a long way since the days of Otto von Bismarck and his famous, "Blood and Iron" speech. If one were to trace Germany, and Berlin's, history on a graph it might resemble a Sine Wave. 

Going up with Bismarck's unification of Germany, and then down with Kaiser Wilhelm II and the First World War. With the ascension of Hitler and the Nazi Party a brief period of economic growth followed by the destruction and death of World War II.

Having just spent a month in Berlin, I think it's safe to say the city is coming 'up' once more. There are construction projects underway in several neighbourhoods, and Germany can only become a more desirable place to do business in. Particularly with the United States under Trump being so unpredictable for at least the next 4 years.  

Fragments of Berlin's history can be found everywhere; sometimes you almost trip over them because there are so many. It's almost impossible to understand the Berlin of 2017 without knowing something about the city's long and sometimes dark history. Reading Rory MacLean's Berlin: Imagine a City sheds light on this history by using each chapter to tell the story of a person who did something of consequence while living in Berlin.

Many of MacLean's subjects are famous - Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, and to a lesser extent Christopher Isherwood are all household names. 

Dietrich made her career as a film star who fled Nazi Germany for the United States. You can still find plenty of artwork, including one of Berlin's famous bear statues, devoted to her at the Intercontinental Hotel on Budapester Straße

David Bowie arrived in Berlin in 1976 to kick a Cocaine addiction and re-energize himself creatively. The result was his 'Berlin Trilogy' of Low, Heroes, and Lodger. At the Hansa Studios located at 38 Köthener Straße he made wonderfully edgy electronic music with Brian Eno and others that has stood the test of time.

My personal favourite chapter of Berlin: Imagine a City is devoted to author Christopher Isherwood. While in Berlin he lived near Nollendorfplatz, now one of the city's defined gaybourhoods. There Isherwood wrote Goodbye to Berlin, which depicts a city on the edge of becoming something else under the Nazis. Much is hinted at, and deeper meaning is left for the reader to piece together.

Part of the point of coming to Berlin for Isherwood (and many other gay men) was the opportunity to act on his desires and live the life he wanted for himself.

As MacLean writes: "Isherwood didn't want to live forever in his head. He wanted to touch, and be touched. He was a sensual boy, hemmed in by an English timidity of physical contact... (In Berlin) Isherwood could touch and be touched, stroke and sink into surrender." 


Today Berlin is still a place where you can do this, regardless of whether you're gay or straight. The wonderful directness of many Germans, together with the existence of certain clubs and venues, is a gift. The emphasis here is on having sex and a good time - not on endless game playing. Which is as it should be.

Even with the armies of tour guides and pieces of history all around you, what's worth paying attention to most is Berlin's future. 
Having been there for a month, it`s not hard to imagine a time when Berlin is the beating heart of Europe. A capitol for tech savvy, open minded, curious people to grow and thrive in. 

To all the Earthbound Extraterrestrials and Misfits reading this - take note. 

Berlin is a place for you. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Closet Monster is the Best Movie of 2016 - Warm, Sensual, and More than a little Freaky

Closet Monster's Hero Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) and Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) share an intimate moment.

I first noticed posters for Closet Monster around downtown Toronto in mid to late July. Vividly colourful, it features the faces of the film's three principal characters overlapping each other in red, blue, pink, and green tones. My decision to see the movie was made by gut instinct and some chatter among my friends.

I was not disappointed. Director Stephen Dunn's movie about Oscar Madly's coming-of-age in small town Newfoundland is 2016's best movie. It takes you like a street fighter while dispensing with the genre's tired clichés in favour of something more aggressive and visceral.

We are introduced to a very young Oscar, who has just received a talking Hamster (Isabella Rossellini) from his parents, who are divorcing. Mom we never get to know very well. Peter Madly (Aaron Abrams), Oscar's father, is a charismatic fellow with dark emotions he keeps in check - just barely.

Soon after his parents separate, Oscar witnesses a gay bashing near his school. Of the most brutal kind. The victim has a metal rod shoved up his ass. We are left to surmise that, if he survives at all, he lives on as a paralyzed wreck.

Sitting at home with his Father, Oscar watches a news report on the bashing. He asks Dad why this happened. Peter tells him it's because the kid is gay. He follows this up with a suggestion that young Oscar cut his hair - the idea being that long hair is effeminate. Something only a queer would have.

Then we fast forward in time. An 18-year-old Oscar played by Connor Jessup is applying to schools to further his budding interest in monster makeup. Best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) doubles as Oscar's model and muse.

Here is where reality begins to bend in the film - to wonderful effect. Oscar's interest in Monsters goes beyond a desire to photograph Gemma when she's done up like a Sea Creature. In Oscar's mind homosexuality and monstrosity are intimately linked. His fear of the gay beating he witnessed as a young child is holding him back from finding true connection and intimacy.

Oscar's work at a local hardware store brings him into contact with Wilder (Aliocha Schneider). Wilder is the most deliciously blunt of free spirits. At one point while Oscar is stocking shelves, Wilder taps him on the shoulder and asks: "How much for a blowjob?" This blond haired Adonis is only in town for a summer. Beyond that Wilder's future will take him to the sensual overloads of Berlin - or so he claims.

Things only become more intense from here on in. I won't give any more away. It's best experienced by watching the movie.

Director Stephen Dunn has done such a wonderful job on so many levels that it's difficult for me to overpraise this film. When Oscar finally maneuvers Wilder into bed (or maybe it happens the other way around) there is one of the most satisfying, sensual scenes I've ever watched.

The central question Closet Monster asks the viewer is this: How do you unfuck yourself after a difficult experience?

Rest assured, the question is answered in a powerful, definitive way.

***

Musings on 2016 - The Death of David Bowie and Rise of Donald Trump


For me, personally, 2016 has been a mostly good year. I'm very much looking forward to moving ahead with various projects in the New Year. Projects that include finishing a long delayed first draft of my novel Marginal People.

2016 was a crappy year if you believe all the memes floating around on Facebook and other social media platforms. It's easy to see why, given all the deaths of important artists and cultural figures. As well with Donald Trump's election - it's hard to stomach the fact this orange haired, spray tanned carnival barker will be the next President of the United States of America.

There is so much I could say about why Trump's election does not bode well for the world. I'll leave it with re-posting a quote from an older blog entry that was spoken by Trump's former rival in the Republican primaries, Marco Rubio.

"The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party. They're going to leave us a fractured nation. They're going to leave us as a nation where people literally hate each other because they have different political opinions."

If only Rubio had stuck by those words instead of changing his mind and endorsing Trump. So many Republicans did - men whose careers would suggest they have principals. People you would think are capable of standing up to the Cheshire Cat smile of the Donald. Apparently not.

A second event that marked 2016 for me was David Bowie's death on January 10 in Manhattan. He was a singer, songwriter, actor, painter, and earthbound extraterrestrial to be reckoned with. Even today much of his music still feels like the future.

Particularly the 1977 album Heroes. It was Part 2 of Bowie's Berlin Trilogy. Tell me that you don't feel the future coming at you, head on, in the crisp mix of pianos and synthesizers on Beauty and the Beast.

"Nothing will corrupt us, nothing will compete. Thank God Heaven left us, standing on our feet. My, my... Beauty and the Beast."

Have a wonderful New Year's Eve - make sure the people you love know it. We have an unpredictable year ahead of us.

See you all in 2017.