PlanetoftheapesPoster

“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

Review: “Interstellar”

This is not the 2001:  A Space Odyssey You’re Looking For

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.

I went into Christopher Nolan’s new opus expecting our generation’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, one of the most visually and philosophically profound films I have ever seen.  Indeed, there are only two films that have really come close to capturing (for me, at least) something of the terrifying beauty and force of the sublime (the other being the original version of Solaris).  Going into Interstellar, especially having paid extra to see it in IMAX (not, alas, on celluloid), I expected something similar, something that would challenge my sense of self, my subjectivity, if you will.

To my disappointment, I got a film that was beautiful in terms of its aesthetics and impoverished in its saccharine, trite narrative and overused trope that love conquers all.  To summarize briefly, Cooper (McConaughey), a retired NASA pilot, is called upon by his former employers to save mankind from an extinction caused by the growing levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere.  He sets off with a team, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), heading through a wormhole (created by 5th-dimensional beings) that will take them to a galaxy that may contain planets that can sustain human life, leaving behind his daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain).  Eventually, he is able to get in touch with his daughter and avert the extinction of mankind, and at the end of the film he sets off in search of Amelia, who may have landed on one of the other planets and begun a new colony.

There is much to like about this film.  The acting is solid (for the most part), and it seems quite genuine in its attempt to ask some of the larger questions about the nature of time and our relationship to it (see below).  At the same time, however, it relied on far too many irritatingly problematic cliches that Nolan of all people should be able to avoid.  At one point, for example, Hathaway’s Amelia breaks down into tears and explains that love is what has motivated her choice for which planet they should explore, not the objective science utilized by her male co-pilots.  The fact that we as viewers are invited to both question the validity of her emotionality and ultimately take it for granted (she is a woman, after all, and we know what emotional creatures they are), indicates just how shortsighted and annoyingly cliche the film’s gender politics remain.  And, of course, in typical sci-fi fashion, the only person of colour is killed off and forgotten (though this happens fairly late in the film, he’s never fully developed as a character).  White men, as always, get to save the human race, while the women and people of colour get to stand on the sidelines (or, in Amelia’s case, serve as the biological propagator of the new branch of humanity).

To be fair, though, Interstellar is a beautiful film, with absolutely stunning cinematography and composition.  It’s just that the beauty, unlike in 2001, doesn’t really serve to do anything substantive or meaningful, caught up (and bogged down) as it is in the ruthlessly heterosexual love plot that could have come straight out of a screenwriter’s how to manual.  I wouldn’t belabour the unfavourable comparisons to 2001 if the film wasn’t so insistent on drawing attention to that earlier work, but I suppose that’s unavoidable in a film of this scope and with this particular subject.  If you’re going to make an homage, however, you should make sure that it’s at least as good as the original, even if tackling different issues.

As I said earlier, the film raises some compelling questions about time and about our relationship to ourselves.  Perhaps the most fascinating instance of this is film’s use of excerpts from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl, which appear sporadically throughout the film.  For those in the know, this generates an uncanny frisson of pleasurable terror, as we gradually realize that the past and the present have come together and that this world, which lives in the terror of the growing power of dust storms, is what will become of ours.  In the end, however, the neat resolution of the plot undercuts the philosophical complexity that the film might have raised if it was willing, like its predecessor, to eschew the common expectations of what narratives do.  Perhaps, in this era of the blockbuster and the studio assumption that people are idiots who want mindless entertainment, this is all we can expect of a film of this magnitude.

For myself, though, I think I’ll go back to 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

Discovering the Wonder and Pleasures of Historical Television

At the recent Film and History Conference, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the renowned Tom Gunning deliver a compelling talk about the nature of wonder and cinema.  There was something charming and delightful about his obvious love of early cinema, a period that isn’t as sexy as, say, contemporary blockbuster film but which, perhaps surprisingly, shares a great deal in common with it.  While I would love to write about that issue, today I want to think through another set of issues that Gunning’s talk raised for me, namely, is there wonder to be found in television?  If there is, how does it differ from its big-screen counterpart?

At first, I wasn’t sure that it does.  Television seems to work on very different logics—aesthetic, industrial, and political—from film, or at least it used to (though this point is, obviously, debatable, considering the long and intertwined history of the two media).  Then I began to think about historical drama television in particular, as well as recent discourses of quality and complexity (raised by such scholars as Jason Mittell), and I began to think that yes, television (and in particular, historical television), can offer us a particular type of wonder.

In her stunning essay on the Hollywood historical epic (which I highly recommend reading, even if you’re not particularly interested in that genre), Vivian Sobchack compellingly argues that these larger than life films offer spectators a means of being in time, of negotiating a particular way of experiencing ourselves as historical beings.  While the immersiveness and extravagance of a widescreen or CGI spectacle are largely out of the realm of even the most cutting-edge and high-end of TV drama (even Game of Thrones saves its CGI luxuriance for especially important moments), there are other pleasures of television that I think can engender in contemporary spectators a sense of wonder and sense of being-in-time.

There has long been a sense of immediacy to television, situated as it is within our homes, and to some this might suggest that television acts to tame some of the wilder excesses and pleasures offered by the epic film (one of the subjects of my dissertation).  At the same time, however, television also taps into a similar wellspring of libidinal energy and, as Amy Villarejo and Michele Aaron have recently pointed out in their work on the queerness of television, there is something increasingly promiscuous about the act of television viewing.  In an age of DVR and time-shifting, we in the audience are now invited to not only take part in the unfolding of the events of the historical past, but also to actually control how those events happen.

There is, however, still something of a resistance to seeing television in particular as capable of either conveying any sort of historical truth or engendering in audiences a sense of historical experience similar to that of, say, the epic (one of the most high-profile ways of representing past historical moments in the cinema).  Whereas epic films typically last upwards of 3 hours or more that one must watch all at once in a theater (if one wants to get the complete aesthetic experience), television’s narratives are stretched across several episodes (typically 10 in the case of cable, where most historical dramas go to live).  Whereas epics typically utilize all of the technological affordances of the cinema—widescreen technologies, long shots, casts of thousands, technological wizardry—television must make do with mostly indoor settings (though there are exceptions), as well as cheaper special effects.

And yet.  And yet I find myself increasingly drawn to the world of history brought to life on television, and not just because that is where decent storytelling has taken up residence.  Instead, it has something to do with the intermingled pleasure and embodied experience of watching television.  If epic films about the past engulf us as spectators, television history much more explicitly invites us to become a part of the workings of the past, through its evocation of the familiar genres of television, the family melodrama, the soap opera, the costume/heritage drama.  It is a mistake, I think, to dismiss these series as just more fluffy/soapy forays into the aesthetics of the past.  Instead, I would argue, they ask contemporary spectators to take a stance, to engage in exactly the types of unbridled sexual excess that makes so many series, from Rome to Game of Thrones.  I would even extend this to the violence on display on such series as Spartacus, as we as spectators are invited to understand the intertwining of sex, violence, and power in a world that is not our own yet is also a hyperbolized version of our own fraught sexual social world.

To experience the wonder of television is, in a sense, to give ourselves up to the jouissance of a different viewing experience of film.  This is not to say that one is better than the other, nor to suggest that there is not a relationship.  After all, part of what gives series like Rome and Spartacus their cultural capital is their reliance upon tropes and idioms expressed in their cinematic counterparts.  Nevertheless, as history becomes ever more prominent on our television screens, we would do well to consider what types of pleasures and wonders historical television offers us.  At the same time as we find ourselves drawn into the fraught worlds of politics, power, and violence, we must always be aware of our being in time.  We must always remain conscious of both our being in the past and our being in the present.  And that awareness, it seems to me, is one of the greatest of pleasures.

Are We There Yet? “How To Get Away With Murder” And “Post-Gay” Television

In case you missed it, Shonda Rhimes, the noteworthy executive producer of one of this season’s most popular new dramas How to Get Away With Murder, put the smack down on someone who suggested that the gay scenes in both Scandal and HTGAWM were extraneous to the plot, tweeting that “there are no GAY scenes.  There are scenes with people in them.”  The implication, of course, is that gay characters are people just like everyone else, a point driven home by Rhimes’ expressed belief that love is universal.

When I read her response, part of me was exhilarated.  “You tell ’em!” that part of me shouted, grateful that another homophobe had been shot down.  Another part, however, was far less sanguine about Rhimes’ comment, wondering, “Are we now just people?  Are we truly living a post-gay world?”

Some time ago, while reading through my comps list on feminist and queer theory, I came upon two books that would substantially shape how I think of the way that sexuality works within the realm of media representation.  One is perhaps the seminal text on queer representation, Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet.  The other, more recent work is Patricia White’s rigourously argued and researched book Uninvited:  Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.  Ultimately, Russo urges his queer readers to stop looking to Hollywood for valuable and or positive representations of queer folks, because the very signifying system is itself so thoroughly and irrevocably heterocentrist that anything resembling a nuanced portrayal of queer love or identity is practically out of the question.  White raises an even more complex (and in some ways infinitely more vexing) question, when she suggests that “the oft-heard desire for non-stereotypical, ‘well-rounded’ gay and lesbian characters in film [and I would extend this argument to TV] may go against the very conditions of our visibility” (146).  In other words, the very fact that a character appears as gay renders her, by definition, a gay character, one who is at least to some degree defined by their sexuality.

Now, there has been a growing tide of voices, and Rhimes’ is among them, calling for a universalizing “love,” for moving away from an identity-politics mode in which one’s political and social identity remains defined at least in some degree by the positions that one occupies within one’s society, e.g. race, sexuality, gender, etc.  We saw this with Raven Simone’s declaration with Oprah that she now longer sees the need to be defined by or identify as her African American identity.  And I hear all the time about how millennials disavow all of the political identities that characterized their generational predecessors, including environmentalist, feminist, queer rights activist, the list goes on and on.  Perhaps no other cultural sign indicates the ubiquity of this mindset more tan the plethora of -posts that litter the mediascape:  postfeminist, postmarxist, post-closet, post-gay, post-race, blah blah blah.

But are we really there yet?  Have we really reached a state of queer utopia in which all manner of sexualities and genders are fully recognized, when it no longer matters whether you’re gay or bi or trans, when any of those sexual characteristics become just another aspect of a TV character’s personality?  Have we really reached a point where the norm no longer exists and we can just do what we please in terms of sexuality in gender?  Is TV, in other words, really queer?

To put it bluntly, of course not.  Cam and Mitch of Modern Family are certainly the most visible queer folks on TV right now, and they’re about as normative (and largely asexual) as you can get, still striving toward that middle-class, white, heterosexual norm that is really what most people mean when they say they want to be like everyone else (or “normal”).  Queer sex is okay, this seems to suggest, as long as its done in the safety of the bedroom or on those sexy and deviant pay channels like HBO and Showtime, away from the innocent eyes of the children.  If anything, Connor (the gay character from How to Get Away with Murder) is such a pleasure to watch precisely because his desires are untamed and unapologetic, that they refuse to be channeled into appropriateness (although, alas, it seems the series might be trying to put him into a monogamous relationship).  Gay sex is on screen on a network TV drama; far from being irrelevant, it’s an incredibly important moment in queer representability, and we should be open about accepting that fact and shout from the rooftops that queer sex is not just like every other kind of sex and that that’s perfectly okay.  It’s past time that we stop being ashamed of queer sex (especially promiscuity) and, for crying out loud, stop labeling it as deviant.

I fully recognize that we have come a long way from the bad old days of TV, where a gay character’s narrative (when it appeared) would center around his struggle with AIDS (which almost always ended tragically), his coming out (which would shock everyone including, presumably, the audience), or around a hate crime (another form of tragedy).  Nor am I suggesting that there is an easy answer when it comes to the thorny question of queer visibility and representability (and it’s the latter that poses a particular problem).  However, what I do want to suggest is that we stop pretending as if being just like everyone else is the panacea for all of our social and cultural woes, because it isn’t.  Not really.  Monogamy is just one of many choices one can make as a queer person, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  What I’m asking for is to move away from the universalizing discourse, precisely because it pretends as if there is a universal that we can strive for.  What’s wrong with being queer, anyway?  To put it bluntly:  NOTHING.

What are your thoughts?  Are we living in an “post-gay” era of television?  Are there actually queer characters in the television landscape?  Should there be?  Feel free to share in the comments!

Why We Still Need Queer Communities

The other day, while going for my run around the neighborhood, I decided on a whim to go down a side street I had not explored before.  While running, I happened to notice a rainbow flag hanging outside the back of a home.  Curious, I ran by the front to see if there were any other signs of queerness and, to my delight and surprise, there were several other homes with rainbow flags flying proudly.

Now, I had known for some time that I supposedly live in Syracuse’s “gayborhood” of Hawley Green, but until that day I had not seen many signs of queerness.  As I continued my run, I felt an astonishingly powerful feeling of peace and calm—and even a little joy—settle over me.  I was, I felt, somewhere I belonged.  It was a unique feeling for, while I have lived in queer houses in undergrad (often dubbed “The Big Gay House”), I had never known what it was like to live in a truly gay neighborhood.

I’m sure that you’re probably wondering why I’m spending so much time rambling on about my run (and probably thinking that I sound like one of those pretentious fitness nuts who always prattle on about their most recent physical accomplishment).  Well, it’s because of what that incident brought home to me, namely the continuing importance of queer enclaves in urban places.  Now that marriage equality has taken the nation by storm and we can finally see ourselves portrayed at least somewhat sympathetically in the mainstream media, it might seem as if the bad old days of oppression are over and we can live our lives thoroughly integrated into mainstream society and neighborhoods.

But is that really the case?

If nothing else, the recent brutal beating of two gay men in Philadelphia reminds us of just how precarious queer life still is in these United States.  For all that we have gained, there are still places and spaces where we are not welcome and where we are most definitely in danger.  And, unfortunately, sometimes those spaces are the streets that we walk down at night, holding hands and attempting to take advantage of the fact that we have become, so we are told, just like everyone else.

The fact remains, however, that we are not, in many ways, just like everyone else.  There are still a lot of very narrow-minded people in this country, and many of them, unfortunately also tend to be quite violent in their condemnation of what they see as a threat (to their religious faith, to their masculinity, take your pick).  Often, far too often, they lash out in violence like what occurred in Philadelphia.  Or that happened 14 years ago in rural Wyoming to a young man named Matthew Shepard.

Sure, we have gained a lot in the last 12 years.  As an adolescent and even as a college student, I would never have dreamt that we would have made it this far, that I would no longer have to scour the television for even a tantalizing glimpse of queer people.  Nor would I have dreamt that I could find other men like me with the ease of an app on an iPhone.

And yet, as scholars such as my own idol David Halperin have noted, this hookup culture (so easily facilitated by apps such as Grindr) has in many ways supplanted and rendered obsolete the old ways of forming queer communities.  After all, why bother forming your own neighborhood if you can find others like you (or, as an extension, exclude others not like you) on the dating app of your choice?  There’s no need for community when everyone is simply an individual, interacting with other individuals.

So, in my view, there is still a need for spaces that are specifically queer, where we can explore what it means to be queer in this brave new world of marriage equality.  We still need gayborhoods in which homes and families proudly fly the rainbow flag, serving as beacons of encouragement and peace to those young people still struggling to find themselves.  We still need spaces where we can proudly say, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

Gay Assimilation and the Burden of Being Queerly Different

Recently, during a meeting of a queer studies reading group, I engaged in a spirited debate with a colleague about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation.  He was not convinced that assimilation poses the dangers that many queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and David Halperin have argued that it does.  Another colleague, one whom I know to be tremendously affirming of queer lifestyles, worried that it was unfair to expect her queer friends to continue to shoulder the burden of being different, wondering if it would perhaps be easier if, indeed, they were allowed to assimilate peacefully into the mainstream fabric of American culture.

While I respect these points of view and can even understand where they come from, I want to argue against them, and vociferously so.  In my view, the mainstream of American queers has not only resulted in a perilous amnesia about the queer past, but also a vehement disavowal of everything that once made queer life so vibrant, messy, and exciting.  As the great Michel Foucault reminded us so long ago, repression tends to beget the very instances and behaviours it seeks to repress.  Thus, it is almost as if, now that the tools of repression have begun to lose their edge and queer life has become for many much less overtly perilous, there is no longer an implied imperative to live queer life as if it may end in the next moment.  Without repression, it would seem, there is no longer an imperative to live and resist queerly.

The other danger that I believe exists in the very marrow of assimilation is the denial of the acceptability of any difference, even among those who ostensibly share one’s sexual orientation.  The same-sex marriage movement continues to organize its rhetorics around an implied “other,” the sexual deviant, the non-monogamous and sexually promiscuous homosexual that must be disavowed in order for same-sex marriage to gain much-needed credibility and acceptability among the straight, white, middle-class citizens who continue to be the arbiters of public cultural and political taste.  When queer people, especially queer couples, proudly announce that they are just like everyone else, what they really mean is that they are buying into the system of monogamy and all of the trappings that go with it, while simultaneously disavowing the acceptability of those who do not.  Even queers, it seems, create their own hierarchies of acceptability.

Of course, perhaps the most pernicious effect of assimilation is the ways in which it manages to convince its adherents to buy so completely into the logic of neo-liberalism and late capitalism.  If only, the logic goes, gay people can become consumers and participants in patriarchal capitalism–settle down, raise children, work hard, buy goods and services–then they will be fully accepted into the fabric of American society and all will be well.  Of course, the things that make American society so deeply divided, rampant and systemic racial and economic inequality among them, remain crucially un-examined and de-emphasized, precisely because those are nodes of crisis where the logics of of neo-liberalism that undergird assimilation are most clearly laid bare and made susceptible to critique.

All of this is not to argue that queer life was somehow better under the former repressive regime.  Certainly, there have been many gains that we should not give up, especially the ones that make queer life infinitely safer than it was even when I was growing up a decade and a half ago.  Even I, cranky radical queer that I am, would not give away the hard-earned legal gains that have made steps toward seeing queer people become equal citizens under the law (though the questionable status of the law itself is worthy of its own blog post).  However, I do want to argue that we should not so easily give up the practices of queer life–resistance to normativity, sexual, economic, racial, and gendered–that so many queers throughout the last century have developed.  Being accounted as “just the same” as everyone else is, in the end, just another form of oppression, however affirming it may appear.  Rather than seeing difference and resistance as a burden that only some have to bear, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity in which we can all share.

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.

“Outlander” and the Gendered Branding of Starz

There has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding Starz new series Outlander, based on the bestselling series of historical/fantasy/science fiction/romance novels written by Diana Gabaldon (the question of genre is a vexed one where this series is concerned). Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed and Willa Paskin of Slate have both pointed out that the series, unlike other high-end cable productions, actually seems to cater to a female spectator.  This is no small thing in the cable world, which is regularly saturated with fare that, while offering some pleasures to women, is very obviously created for and consumed by an assumed (straight, white, middle-class) audience.  At the same time, however, Starz’s executives and the series’ showrunner have also made it clear that they want to appeal to more than just the female components of the audience, with a concomitant desire to distance this novel from the romance appellation into the more esteemed (and less critically derided term) “great drama.”  Heaven forbid that we have a series that is a straight-up historical romance (one need only look at the critical reception of CW’s Reign or Showtime’s The Tudors to see what happens when a series does that).

And this desire to make a great drama, it seems, poses somewhat of a problem for Starz which, along with Showtime, has always occupied the enormous shadow thrown by the heavyweight HBO.  Few of its original series have lasted more than a season, two notable exceptions being Da Vinci’s Demons and Spartacus (both of which, it should be noted, focus heavily on male exploits and gazes).  For all that Spartacus was a ratings success for the network, it never quite managed to get out of the trap of being largely derided as low-brow, frothy entertainment, due in no small part to its pandering to the perceived lowest common denominator through a great deal of explicit sex and violence.  It would seem, then, that Outlander is Starz’s attempt to harness a presold commodity and, utilizing its own branding efforts, finally break free of its low-culture efforts into the genuine realm of quality TV.

These discussions, particularly the commentary from the executives at the network, also highlight the ways in which TV remains a highly-gendered medium, both in terms of the stories told, as well as in how they are marketed and understood by the executives who approve them.  Almost every major TV series that has gained the distinction of quality–Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Fargo–has focused on the alleged trials and tribulations of white men, and the networks on which they are found, AMC, HBO, FX, have also accrued a reputation for catering to male audiences.  With rare exceptions, it is only when series and networks cater to the fears and anxieties of an assumed male audience that they are able to break away from the low-culture stigma that continues to cling to the medium.  To dare to focus on female subjectivity, still less to make a woman the central character of the drama, threatens to alienate male audiences in a way that focusing on a male character does not, it seems, run the same risk of alienating female spectators.  As we continue into the alleged golden age of TV, it’s worth noting that, in that age, it is men who, at all levels, get to call the shots.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Starz, in its attempt to solidify its brand identity and create a competitor for Game of Thrones, has decided to cater to this male audience, especially by making such public statements about its desire to draw in those same viewers.  This is, of course, no surprise, considering the desperation with which Starz wants to reach the same level of cultural esteem of its competitors.  What better way to do that than to try to cater to both the built-in female audience for Gabaldon’s work and also the allegedly pickier male viewers that certainly won’t tune in to watch a woman’s story, no matter how compellingly or lushly told.  Now, if there were boobs and political intrigue involved (Game of Thrones style), then presumably they would.

What makes Starz an especially interesting case, however, is the way in which it also utilizes history as a means of granting to itself the gravitas necessary to elevate itself to the upper echelons of premium cable programming.  The representation of history itself has a vexed relationship to quality and to masculinity–one of the key ways in which historical films and TV series are denigrated by the critical public is by branding them melodramatic, a sinister and sly way of denigrating femininity–so it should come as no surprise that Starz has attempted to beef up the first few episodes of Outlander by focusing more on the politics and scheming, in addition to the aforementioned emphasis on female subjectivity.

It remains to be seen whether Starz’s experiment in genre-blending will succeed in its desired goals of gathering in a male audience and setting the brand apart from, or at least being able to meaningfully compete with, that already established by HBO.  Even if it fails to draw in the male audience, if it manages to woo the female (and, I might, add, gay male) audience demographic that makes up so much of Gabaldon’s fan base, that should still garner the series’ enough ratings to make the adventure worth it.  Given critical predilection for male-centered dramas (and general dismissal of romance, especially its historical strain), it remains somewhat less certain that it will manage to gather the same accolades (Emmys and whatnot) that have been showered upon its male-drama counterparts.  One need only look at the continually-snubbed The Good Wife to see what happens to series that dare to focus on women rather than men.  Hopefully, however, Outlander will be a game changer in more ways than one.  If we are lucky, we might finally get a top-notch premium cable drama that is not only quality, but also manages to remain tightly and insightfully focused on the historical subjectivities and experience of women.

“Broke Straight Boys”: The Intersection of Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Amateur Gay Porn

It’s no surprise that many gay men (and much gay male pornography) is obsessed with straight men.  There are many reasons, both historic and cultural, for this long-standing erotic attraction for, as David Halperin has eloquently argued in his book How to Be Gay, part of what constitutes contemporary gay male identity and sexual desire is precisely an erotic attraction for the masculine, and in our culture nothing represents masculinity better than the machismo-enshrouded figure of the straight man.  Love or hate him, he remains a haunting presence in the American cultural and social imaginary, infusing even the gay community with a sometimes-noxious and toxic infatuation with masculinity and a concomitant rejection of the feminine.

This emerges quite clearly in the world of so-called amateur gay pornography, of the sort produced by such much-vaunted and celebrated studios as Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, as well as some of the lesser luminaries such as Broke Straight Boys.  What makes the latter studio so compelling is the way in which it manages to encapsulate and draw upon so many different strands of gay erotic desire (including the rough trade figure that has long been a staple of gay pornography and erotica of various kinds) as part of its brand identity.  What emerges from this gay pornography studio is a compelling, and slightly disturbing voyeurism of the vexed figure of the straight male willing (and able) to do anything for the right amount of money.

Of course, the website’s agenda is spelled out in its very title, which draws explicit attention to the indigent status of its stars.  This attention to the financial vulnerability of its performers–many of whom are both explicitly and implicitly coded as traditionally masculine–seems to undermine the very stability of the masculine attributes that it otherwise fetishizes.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, and I would argue that it is precisely the confluence of gender, class, and sexual desire that comprises the visual and fantasy pleasure to be gained from this particular website.  Though its models are not as uniformly muscular or gay-clone-esque as those of some of the higher end studios (such as the aforementioned Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher), that actually works to make BSB’s models both more “realistic” and, perhaps surprisingly, more desirable.  To paraphrase a clutch of comments on various message boards, most of the models look like actual boys that you might pick up at your local gay bar.

Due perhaps in no small part to its own branding efforts–and in spite of its own claims to being the web’s #1 gay porn site–Broke Straight Boys has gained something of a reputation for producing and featuring pornography that, to paraphrase commentators at the WayBig Blog, looks like it came out of a trailer park.  The comment threads attached to the website’s updates frequently contain derogatory remarks about the studio and the quality of its products, and yet, it has clearly managed to gain a substantial enough following to warrant the forthcoming TV series that purports to offer a reality-TV perspective on the internal workings of the studio and its stable of stars.  I would argue that this can at least partially be explained by the particular niche that BSB seeks to fill, one that is studiously underserved by both Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and other more self-consciously high-level studios.

This niche is one in which Broke Straight Boys provides the pleasure of the attainable and the everyday, while also drawing upon those things that gay pornography has always attempted to provide for its ever-diversifying consumers.  In an era in which what constitutes gay culture and gay identity is, like many other categories of social identity, increasingly fractured and in flux, BSB also highlights how unstable even gay desire can be.  What’s more, it also illuminates the ways in which studio branding in the gay porn industry can have a significant and potent effect on the types of erotic pleasures being mobilized by these purveyors of visual erotica.  Not all gay pornography, it would seem, is made equal.

At the same time, however, there is a darker side of this branding identity that needs to be acknowledged.  While there is something seemingly perpetually appealing about the straight-to-gay transformation (commonly referred to as gay for pay within the industry), it also caters to a slumming mentality among gay male audiences that is worthy of sustained attention and critique.  What the comments sections on discussion boards call attention to (among many other things) is the unfortunate appeal to a masculinity made vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic privation.  While this may be appealing as fantasy (and we can fervently hope that it is, though the unfortunate statistics regarding porn stars, economic instability, and suicide paint a different picture), we should also be aware of the disturbing contours and drives that undergird those fantasies.  Is it really so appealing to see financially strapped straight men paid to perform sex acts?  How is this any different than the economic exploitation that occurs when women are engaged in pornographic exploitation?

What emerges from this website, therefore, is an uncomfortable reminder of the contradictions and strains that continue to operate at the heart of gay male pornography and gay male sexual desire more generally.  In order to gain a more complete understanding of the complexities involved in the pleasures offered up by different pornography studios, we need to also understand the intertwining of class, gender, and sex that constitute those pleasures.  While many such entertainments attempt to make us forget what goes into their production, BSB is often forthright, actually making a point of mentioning the amount of money being offered.  In addition to seeing this as part of the fantasy scenario being constructed by the studio, as audiences and spectators we should also use this as a valuable opportunity to think about our own complacency in the exploitation of male sexual labour, as well as the consequences such exploitation has for an understanding of gay male culture’s contradictory relationship with hegemonic masculinity.

What Can “Game of Thrones” Tell Us About History?

By now, it’s well-known that George R.R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the HBO series Game of Thrones, draw liberally from our own world and its history.  Most obviously, Westeros resembles England, with the rival houses of Lannister and Stark paralleling the feud between Lancaster and York that tore England apart during the conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses.  Events such as the Red Wedding, likewise, have real-world analogues.  Aside from inspirations, what else does Game of Thrones have to teach us about history?  Can it tell us how history works?  The short answer is that yes, it can, in sometimes quite startling and unexpected ways.

At the level of narrative, both ASoIaF and GoT are immensely complex, with literally dozens of characters with substantial roles to play.  However, it is the relationships among these characters–often inscrutable or obfuscated by the characters themselves–that encourage a reflection on both how we think of the past as a discrete entity from the present and how we make sense of multiple series of events that may seem at first glance to be utterly unconnected.  For example, Petyr Baelish convinces Lysa Arryn to poison her husband, setting off the chain of events that ultimately leads to the events of the first novel and first episode of the series.  Can all of the deaths and destruction thus be laid at his door?  The question is a troublesome one to answer, for though one line of thought certainly leads to his door, one could also argue that the seeds for the current political crises can be traced back even further, to Robert’s Rebellion, or further still to Rhaegar’s kidnapping of Lysa.  The process could go on indefinitely; the series suggests, then, that while historical causality does exist, it is never as straightforward and uncomplicated as we might like it to be.

Furthermore, this tying together of disparate events encourages viewers to conceive of events and individuals as intrinsically connected to one another.  Even the most seemingly unimportant of events can have far-ranging consequences that often exceed the the purposes of those who perpetrate them.  What’s more, even those not directly involved in the action (or involved at all) may still feel the effects, both positive and negative, of the acts undertaken by someone hundreds and even thousands of miles away.  There is, then, a sense of historical vulnerability and of precariousness, as the characters (though not we, the readers) often perceive their circumstances as arbitrary, rather than as caused by an individual agent.

Just as importantly, however, both series feature seasons that can last decades. Now, this might seem like nothing more than a fantasy conceit, but it actually influences how characters within the series conceive of themselves and of the world around them.  When such a fundamental aspect of the measurement of time as a season exceeds the bounds of the usual means of measuring time (in this case, the year), one is forced to think of time itself, and one’s experience of its unfolding, quite differently.  Again, this is not something that the characters themselves might be acutely aware of, but we in the audience are encouraged to think about the ways in which we make sense of our daily experience through the unfolding of both natural and constructed time.  Game of Thrones potently reminds us that not only do we owe something to those who have come before, but they also owe something to us, for we are, for better and worse, the inheritors of the wrongs of the past.  These series reminds us that the question of what to do about that debt is one that is not easily answered, though in the end we have no other choice but to find some kind of solution.

All of this brings an awareness to readers–and perhaps, though this is less certain, to some of the characters themselves–that they are immersed in a world that is on the brink of great change.  Seldom do those who live in such times recognize it, but Martin’s opus, much like Tolkien’s before it, self-consciously provides readers with an opportunity to see how history is made, both in action and in remembrance.   Although we often do not realize it, we are all of us in the midst of history being made; we only come to realize it is history after the fact (and often when it has been enshrined by trained historians).  History in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones works in a multitude of complex and often contradictory ways, and this is one of the greatest sources of pleasure to be derived from these sources.  However, we should also be aware of the potential political ramifications from such an understanding of the unfolding of history, as well as the relationship between

Clearly, there is a great deal about this particular fantasy series that can have significant consequences for how we conceive of history in our own world.  Though the world that we constantly see is full of the most unimaginably heinous acts of violence and destruction, there is a moral lesson here nevertheless, and it is that each individual must constantly be aware of the law of unintended consequences.  When the laws and foundations that undergird the orderly working of society–which, in essence, are based upon an idea of history as progress, that the world is getting better–are discounted in favor the needs of the individual, then society itself begins to unravel.  It remains to be seen how both Martin and the showrunners will ultimately bring everything to a conclusion.  However, even if all of the plot lines are eventually neatly tied up (which is itself open to a great deal of doubt), the fact that there will be any measure of conclusion is itself a claim upon history.  In the end, the people of Westeros and Essos may finally learn the truth of the old adage that those who do not learn from history (and, it might be added, the heinous acts committed in the past) are doomed to repeat it.