Tag Archives: film

Arabs in Hollywood are dangerous. Good! Punisher: War Zone director Lexi Alexander on AEWCH!

12 Dec
LISTEN HERE OR ON iTunesSpotifyOvercastSoundcloud
PATRONS GET ACCESS TO THE FULL YOUTUBE VERSION HERE
Friends,
Lexi Alexander is a heroic figure in Hollywood: She’s an incredible director, a fierce activist, and known for her generosity to marginalized creators. Lexi and I talk about themes that are considered dangerous in Hollywood, especially violence, sex, and Arabness. We also talk about violence and melodrama, men breaking down in movies, masculinity, why monogamy is perverse, age of consent laws, sex education and sexual imagery, slimy DMs, Arab representation in media and US culture, the construction of Arab identity, how Islamophobes exploit feminism and LGBT rights to attack Muslims, the benefits and problems of unions in Hollywood, and more!
* Note: Sorry about the sound on this episode, if you noticed. There was a huge hiss running through, which I remedied with help from the excellent folks at Nostalgia Trap. But the thing sounds a little, um, opaque and bass heavy. It gets a but better around 19:00. I suggest you turn the treble up on your settings for this, and then it sounds much better! And if you didn’t notice, well, then, thank you!
SHOW NOTES, as always, are free on my patreon.
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2015: The Best Stuff

3 Jan

Happy new everything, everyone!

Here’s a list of my best stuff from 2015.

I do this every year, and it’s just my best stuff. It doesn’t have to be anyone else’s, but I’d love to hear your stuff too. So feel free to comment with your favorite stuff at the end here.

Music:

DA.jpg

Blur’s Damon Albarn, praying to sound.

The album I enjoyed the most that actually came out in 2015 was Magic Whip by Blur; and I got to see them play this year too – something I though would never happen again since seeing them in the late 90s. No band creates such diversity of sound from album to album, while still maintaining the “oh-that’s-them” recognizability as Blur. Watching Damon Albarn laze across the stage, then pounce up with energy, only to stumble toward the crowd smiling and handsome in the atonal guitar grind…It’s still powerful, still amazing.

If you’d like to know what song was most blasted out my car windows this year, while like a moron I was singing at the top of my lungs, it was “This Is Not A Party” by The Wombats.

Other noteworthy albums – The Beauty Pill’s amazing and layered Describes Things as They Are, a John Zorn-worthy pop rock record. +Exit Verse’s self-titled debut left me wondering why I never felt so connected to guitar riffs before. I found myself singing, not just the choruses and verses, but the parts without words, too.  + Faith No More created a metal album, Sol Invictus, that rivaled the brilliance Angel Dust. + I listened to a whole lot of Death Grips this year.

SW

from Slow West

Movies:

Carol

Tangerine

Where to Invade Next

Slow West

In a sea (“sea” is a generous word) of mediocre LGBT-themed movies, obsessed with struggle or snark and not humanity, Carol and Tangerine are brilliant, powerful and lead the way forward, albeit on two very different paths. Real works of art. + Michael Moore’s excellent new documentary Where to Invade Next is an even rarer thing, perhaps: a work of optimism. + Slow West was not a perfect film, but it was a beautJBDiful one. I was excited by it and even more excited to see what writer/director John Maclean (this was his debut) does next.

Also, extra shout outs to: A forgotten slasher film from 1981 – Just Before Dawn screened at Los Angeles’s amazing vintage film house New Beverly Cinema. It’s a weird, unsettling, and gender-conscious horror movie. + The crazy, nonstop real-actual-blood fest of Roar, also from 1981 (what a year!) – a reality-meets-fiction movie about lots and lots of big cats. It’s fun and horrible.

Books:

Taussig

Michael Taussig

As usual, I didn’t mostly read books that came out this year, so these are the favorites of what I read, not of new releases. This year, I also lived out a lifelong dream of reading a book a day, every day. I lasted about six weeks. It was amazing; my mind felt like it was on speed, even as I’d slowed everything down to sit in silence and scan the symbols on the paper.

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and The Hare by César Aira

Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide by Franco “Bifo” Berardi

Our Lady of the Ruins: Poems by Traci Brimhall

Campus Sex, Campus Security by Jennifer Doyle

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy

The Joy of Revolution by Ken Knabb

The Corn Wolf by Michaeil Taussig

TB

Traci Brimhall

From top to bottom here: Discovering César Aira’s novels was a huge highlight for me – their insistence on the magic of thought is intoxicating and playful.+Berardi’s great book on why so many mass shootings are taking place as our society is translated into a spectacle. + Brimhall’s book of rich and terrifying poems, a cold light that will turn in you a truth you might not have wanted to feel. + Doyle has written the bravest book on sexual culture in the US I’ve read in a long time, with particular emphasis on how our views of sexual assault are intertwined with dependence on the state. + Eltahawy’s book uncovered the hidden corners of my own misogyny and challenged them with a body of work so powerful, I could not help but surrender. +Ken Knabb enlivened my sense of what is possible and why I would enjoy engaging. + Finally, Michael Taussig bonds together myth, magic, theory, and Walter Benjamin in a stunning exercise of style.

Two books I need to give special mention to – Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been SOTLPublicly Shamed and Dr. Chris Donaghue’s Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture. I make small appearances in both. The former is a book on the reemergence (and pitfalls) of shame as a social strategy. It is funny, light, and still profound. + Chris Donaghue is one of my closest colleagues and best friend. His book is a stirring look at sex in our personal lives. He utilizes his years of clinical experience with a radical outlook. It’s the perfect book to change your life.

***

All right, folks, that’s it for now. Let’s hold hands into this new year. Much love,

CH

The Question of Light: Tilda Swinton’s speech at the Rothko Chapel

27 Jan

tildaBelow is the only place to read Tilda Swinton’s moving and radiant speech at the Rothko Chapel in Texas.  

Why do I have it?  A brief explanation.

Last year, actress Tilda Swinton was presented with the Rothko Chapel Visionary Award at the The Rothko Chapel, which is home to fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings.  It’s also a spiritual and human rights center whose mission is “to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.”

One of her friends (writer William Middleton, mentioned in the unabridged version of the speech) sent the speech along to me and my boyfriend.  We read it aloud to each other, we paused, we marveled at the wisdom: art and light and compassion.  Then we read it again, inspired by its unfolding grace.  

When I tried to locate a link to the speech online, it was nowhere to be found.  I found photos of the event, the celebrities there, the gowns and the expressions.  But Swinton’s words, like many of the most beautiful words, were spoken, alive in the world, and then invisible again.

Below is Tilda Swinton’s speech.  The original version begins with words of gratitude,

“I had a dream last night that my brother told my father why I am here tonight and my father misheard the name of your most generous prize and declared those who honour me highly perceptive to be recognising me with a Contrary Award. I am sincerely humbled by any honour you do me.”

For the purposes of offering it to an audience not in the Chapel that evening, I’ve edited it slightly, removing parts that are directly referential to the event. The integrity of the speech remains, and it is an illumination.

***

“Discovering the landscape of a world inhabited by artists has been one of the miracles of my life.

I was brought up in a world where art was something owned and insured – usually inherited: but seldom if ever made by anyone I knew.

I had an early inkling that there was fun to be had over the hill, like the feeling when faced with a sunset that someone’s throwing a mega awesome party just beyond the nearest cloud, and I set off to join the caravan. Let’s just say I was in search of company, headed towards the glow, and I found it.

I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.

Art is good for my soul precisely because it reminds me that we have souls in the first place.

We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it: amazing that someone is like us! We stand before a work of art and our spirit resists: amazing that someone is different!

It occurs to me on a regular basis that the cinema carries the potential to be perhaps the most humane of all gestures in art: the invitation to place ourselves, under the intimate cover of darkness, into another person’s shoes, behind another set of eyes, into another’s consciousness.  The ultimate compassion machine, the empathy engine.

Here is the darkness.

Here comes the light.

No8

– Rothko, Mark. No. 8. 1952. Private Collection.

When my children were ten, they came back from school elated one day to tell us they had started the supremely grown-up business of learning science.

When we asked them about their first lesson, they proudly announced they were addressing the study of light.

When we pressed them to describe how their teacher had approached the topic, with the bemusement of those genuinely unaware that there could ever be any other way, they told us that she had closed all the shutters and that they had sat in the dark for an hour.

Where I live in the far north of Scotland, the question of light is an axis central to every season, to every day.  In the topmost branches of June, the skies turn navy blue just before midnight and hover there until about 3:00 when the sun comes blooming up again.

At the turn of the year, on the other hand, a long lunch folds itself into the evening before you know it, and then into night-night blackness until way after the school bell in the morning.

A fisherman I know from a nearby village told me one day that he and his brothers had long ago pulled up a massive turtle, far from its tropical home, onto the deck of their boat in the North Sea off the east coast of Scotland.  He described how it lay there, unfathomably exotic and helpless amongst the mackerel, and that he would never forget their discussion about its fate.

‘What is it? No idea. Let’s kill it.’ Which they did. He said he had never regretted anything so much in his life, that he knew something failed in them at that moment.

We know what threatens our humanity the most; we shouldn’t need reminding.

The capacity to project our own shadow onto others, to edit our understanding of our own frailty, to hold it at bay, to play tag with our vulnerabilities.  You’re It, don’t touch me.  Our attachment to an idea of malevolent foreignness, of malign darkness: this is our Kryptonite… we know this well.

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Over the weeks that my mother was dying, the year before last, I went out into the nights and trained my eyes to see in the dark.
It provided a particular kind of comfort undiscovered anywhere else at that time.  By then I had sat in the Chapel and the serene witness of Rothko’s velvet abyss accompanied me on those nightwalks. The truth is, it’s never been very far away, ever since.

The last feature film my friend Derek Jarman made before died of AIDS in 1994 was Blue.  For many, his masterpiece – an Yves Klein- blue screen and a soundtrack.. a work made just as his sight was leaving him as he became blind.

Maybe most of all great art encourages us, as does this film, as does Rothko, not to stop at opening our eyes, but to go on to close them, as well.  To go to what we know deepest, earliest and most clearly: that we humans are, in essence, humane, fair, kind.  Gracious. Light-filled. Wise.  And that our darkness is just what it is: an intrinsic and balancing ballast to all that loveliness.

…Perhaps the most radical suggestion we can make about ourselves is not that we are not different. Or even that we are. But that we are both.

I remember a very specific moment in my children’s development, around the age of seven, when the power of reason became the happening thing, as in, ‘ No I can’t climb up a tree with you now because this dinner needs cooking…etc?’’

Along with this magical property came the anthem that still rules in our household to this day, the mantra of it can be both.

‘Would I like the chocolate eclair or the fairy cake? Do I want to play with my Lego all night or, as it happens, go to sleep because I’m super tired?… Do I like my twin brother /sister or – could it be – that I really really hate him/her?”

…Light and Dark both at once.

Welcome to the age of reason, welcome to life.

…Wherever you are alone with yourself most will show in that magic mirror.  And bear your heart witness, and keep you company whenever you need to draw on it.

We come. We take it home with us. We never really leave.

The Rothko Chapel is a sacred space because of precisely this capacity it has to re-bind, to re-balance, to re-store, to re-inspire the spirit in its simple and essential gesture of darkness held in light. Of art held in spirit. Of spirit held in life and the living of life. It is a truly humane space for humans to find themselves in.

Glamour is a word derived from the Scots, meaning ‘dangerous magic.’

The Rothko Chapel is glamorous beyond any glamour known to any Highland witch. It is a light that never goes out.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindness of your invitation.

And for the inspiration of your fellowship.”

– Tilda Swinton, 2014.

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photograph by Lucy Gray

(UPDATE 2/12/15 – Rothko Chapel got word of the enormous response to this post and has put the speech up on their website.  There’s also a beautiful photo of Swinton speaking.  I’m so happy the speech has found its way back to its original home!)

2013/2014

7 Jan

NSV019_TheMix_ConnerHabib_affilVert_5Happy to be on this side of a new year in a new city with a life that also feels totally new.  Below is my review of 2013: things I did, things that happened, things I read/saw/listened to, people I fucked and more.   But before going back, go forward –  Here’s a little update on what’s coming this year:

My book, now (and I think permanently) titled How To Learn about Freedom by Having Sex will be out in Fall this year!  It’s due at the publisher (countercultural mavericks, Disinformation)  at the end of this month.  So I’m on it every day.  I’ll be publishing excerpts here throughout the year.

My first movie of 2014, The Mix is out from NakedSword this January.  You can click here, sign up and get the scene (NSFW!).  If you click through to NakedSword via my site, I get a little kickback money, always helpful.  Anyway, I got to play a snotty writer (jeez, thanks, guys) and then get fucked by Conner Maguire (pictured below right – THANKS GUYS) while I’m hanging upside-down from a tree branch.  It was a lot of fun.  It’s the only scene I have coming out for awhile as I finish up my book.  Then I’ll NSV019_TheMix_ConnorMaguire_affilVert_3be shooting again in March.  I’ll also be making my own porn this year, with help from a few of my friends.

The Conner Loves Everyone Podcast is coming – I’m hashing out the details.  Basically it’s me, a co-host (TBA), and conversations with guests from the margins of culture.  If you have any suggestions, now’s a good time to let me know; I’m in the formative stages.  It’ll be up and running mid-2014.

I’m giving lectures around the country and will list the dates here as they come.  If you’d like me to speak at your school or organization, reach out via the info here and we’ll discuss the details.  You can also always hire me as a writing coach to help with projects.  I promise it’ll be more exciting, less expensive, and ultimately less soul-destroying than getting an MFA.

My new web series is also in the works – if it’s not distributed via Logo/NewNowNext like my last one, it’ll be up one way or another in the next few months.

I’m also dedicating more time to the blog, so you can expect at least two entries a month.  Thanks for sitting with me.

2013 Year in Review

 This post is intended to give people who are new to me a way to get acquainted, and for those who’ve been hanging with me for awhile to go deeper or check out some of the stuff that was on my mind last year.  Feel free to tell me about your year in the comments: your favorites and what you loved (and who), what you’re looking forward to, what you checked out from my lists/what you think I should check out.

LIFE

2013 was the year that marked a slow fade from being a porn star/writer to being a public intellectual.  I know that all might sound pretentious, but I’m not sure what else to call it.  I made less movies, I wrote more, I had more published, I did more media and lecture appearances. That old model of someone in the public eye who does real scholarly and thoughtful work and interacts with cultural currents is coming back (largely because of social media) and I’m happy to be a part of it, and so thankful that you’re reading this/interacting with me on twitter, listening and getting into it with me when needed.

mejustinLast year, I broke up with a boyfriend (we’re still friends, he’s awesome), I taught online courses on Sexual Revolution and Anthroposophy, I gave lectures at a bunch of schools and organizations (the Museum of Modern Art in New York – at their PS1 Dome, at Amherst College, and at the William Way LGBT Center in Philadelphia among many others). My talk at Corning Community College in New York was canceled because of sex- and porn-negativity, and it ended up being a national news story (I gave the talk anyway, and I’ll revisit the whole thing and discuss the aftermath in a one-year-later entry this March).  My NewNowNext show went on hiatus, so I left you to sexually fend for yourselves (I’m sure you’re all doing fine).  It’s archived though, including my episodes on how to top and how to kiss, in which me and my buddy Justin go at it.  Also on hiatus is my NSFW website, ConnerHabib.com – I’m reworking it to better suit everything I’m up to; so it won’t exclusively be a porn site anymore and will largely be safe for work (with links to NSFW stuff).  Or at least as safe for work as someone like me can ever manage to be.  Right now, there’s a picture of me in my undies and a redirect to here.

I moved to a new city, just as San Francisco slipped into a trend of tech-hipster-ornamentalist-conservatism (I can explain what that JDmeans someday, just let it slide).  One of the signals that it was time to leave SF was the nudity ban imposed by gay District 8 supervisor Scott Wiener.  So ofcourse, to express my irritation, I conceived of and wrote a porn series with my friends at NakedSword (NSFW) called The Cover Up about a self-loathing San Francisco supervisor named Scott Cox who hypocritically has sex with nude protestors.  It was publicized all over the country (here’s an article in the Huffington Post about it), even though the porn itself ended up being a bit clumsy and silly.  Still, the sex is, well, sexy, and I had a lot of fun with it.  Now I’m in LA.  You can’t be naked here, either, but you can certainly wear less clothing year round.  My friends have been calling me from the East Coast, telling me they’re in something called Snowpacalypse or Snowmageddon or Snownarok or Snow, uh, whatever.  Anyway, usually when they call I’m sitting under a fig tree or watching hummingbirds or something.

WORDS

I published a lot of work in 2013, so I can’t list everything here (although I’ll be creating a bibliography/CV page with everything I’ve published for this site soon).  Here are some of the highlights:

wilfredMy most read essay of the year appeared on this blog.  I wrote  “Why Do Gay Porn Stars Kill Themselves?”  shortly after Arpad Miklos and porn director John Bruno committed suicide.  Then, just after I finished writing it, another porn star, Wilfred Knight (pictured left), took his own life.  It was a rough time for everyone in gay porn, and the questions that were aimed at us didn’t make it any easier.  Often they were callous or based on a sort of urgent ignorance.  So the essay was a rebuke to anyone who would even ask the question posed by the title.  The essay also serves as a quick primer on how to make our experience creating, starring in, and watching porn healthier.

Also appearing on my blog in 2013: the final installment in my “Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School” series – about the boy I fell in love with my senior year.

I wrote a few pieces for Buzzfeed’s LGBT section, including one about my porn name vs my birth name (Andre Khalil), and the difficulty in maintining a balance between the two.  I also wrote about the meeting point of fantasy and reality in porn, and how the distinctions between the two may be to simplistic.   I started an online column – Profanity! – at Vice, and wrote about how masturbation and internet freedom are intertwined, and about a forgotten occult science, among other things.  I also wrote critical essays  to respond to the film Lovelace, in praise of the novel Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor, to facilitate examination of gay hookup apps, and to condemn writer Alain de Botton’s terrible book on sex.

My essay on my mentor, Lynn Margulis – “As Above, So Below” – was reprinted in the excellent collection, Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel.  The book is edited by her son from her marriage to Carl Sagan, Dorion.  Dorion’s a thoughtful editor, and most of the other contributors are big time scientists.  It was a huge honor to be a part of this act of love, reverence, and grieving for Lynn.  My other anthologized essay last year was “Rest Area Confidential” – my thoughts on sex at rest stops, which originally appeared on Salon.com and was featured in Best Sex Writing 2013.

SEX

meadam2

2013 began slowly as far as my movie releases, but ended with a flurry of them.  My favorites were directed by porn maverick Joe Gage.  If you don’t know much about Joe, here’s an interview with him in BUTT Magazine.  His movies are all about the set-up and the tension, two aspects of pornography undervalued by many other directors.  That focus always makes for a fun shoot: lots of dialogue, lots of eye contact.  Joe directed me in scenes with Adam Russo and Colby White for Titan Men (NSFW).  In the scene with Adam,  we’re dressed in tuxedos, talking about sex with each other’s siblings (who are celebrating their wedding to each other in the next room).  It’s typically fucked up, but in a gratifyingly sexual and well-paced way.

AFP3

My favorite movie to be in was Joe’s Armed Forces Physical.  I have two scenes in the movie, both threesome, both sort of ridiculous, both with men I was really attracted to.  One of the scenes is with performer Andrew Justice (pic of me star-struckedly fixing his collar on the right). I’ve had a huge crush on Andrew from afar for years.  Joe overheard me pining for him one day and so surprised me by putting us in a scene together.  The scene itself isn’t all kisses and hugs, but hanging out with Andrew over the weekend in the woods where we shot was.  A highlight of my career.  You can access Armed Forces Physical by signing up on the NakedSword supersite.

BOOKS

I never like “best of” lists for books, because every book is new every year.  If you’ve never heard of it, and you read and love it, it will have the immediacy of its release date.  So, many of the books here aren’t new.  But they’re new to me and I loved them.  Because I was researching for my own book, I read more on sex in 2013 than I had all together up until then.  Some of the books I really loved included: Roger Lancaster’s biting and engaging Sex Panic and the Punitive State, which explores when, where, and why panics about sex kick up in Western culture.  Relatedly, Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors and Sinikka Elliot’s Not My Child both detail the general sex panic surrounding adolescent sexuality; Susan Clancy shows how moral furor can damage the lives of children who have been sexually abused in The Trauma Mythand Lawrence Wright focuses in on problems with memory retrieval in his  gripping narrative of a Satanic ritual abuse panic in Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory.  I reread Adam Phillips’s masterpiece, Monogamy, a series of vignettes on the problem and solution of monogamy in our culture.; every sentence is loaded with radical and profound though.

GUTGGiving up the Ghost: A Story of Friendship, 80s Rock, A Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means To Be Haunted by Eric Nuzum was deeply moving to me.  Nuzman, who grew up in Ohio, seemed to be describing my own struggle through teenagedom, with all its tragic missteps and supernatural pulses.  Really beautiful.  Also entertaining and paranormal was Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation by Mitch Horowitz.  The book is a catalog of the religious movements that shaped our nation.  Some have obvious occult dimensions, others are more subtle; for many readers, the movements detailed will be new (some were for me, even though I’m well-versed in all that esoteric stuff).  I also absolutely loved The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorainne Warren by Gerald Brittle.  I listened to it as an audiobook after my interest in the Warrens was rekindled by the movie The Conjuring.  It’s terrifying and fascinating, wherever you stand on occult matters. It was my favorite book this year, and I plan to read it again.

I read lots of fiction last year, but was curiously unmoved by much of it.  That said, there were a some stunning exceptions.  Along with, like, everyone else in the fiction-reading world, I was blown away by many of the stories in Karen Russell’s new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  “Proving Up” and “Reeling for the Empire” were both terrifying and sat nestled amongst lighter, friendlier stories in this bizarre collection.  Buy it at least to read those two superb stories, which will stay with you for a long, long time.  I also really enjoyed a lot of Joyce Carol Oates stories, if not an entire collection.  My favorite was “Strip Poker,” which is about as sinister and tense as it gets.  Finally, my friend Jake Shears got me to buy one of the bleakest, most brutal books I’ve ever read, Donald Ray Pollack’s The Devil All the Time.  Serial killers, spiders, dead animals, murderous cops, darkened landscapes.  I still feel as if I owe Jake a thank you and that he owes me an apology.  Read it and laugh and then get a sick feeling in your gut and tremble.

SOUNDS

I didn’t make any of my own music outside of the shower last year, but I listened to so much.  Most of the highpoints were the discoveries of new artists or particular songs rather than albums.  That’s how things are going, I suppose; an album takes up too much mental space – we’re focusing, singing along, and thrilling to a new song and a new feeling.  An album is a landscape, a song is an evening.

Some new bands I fell in love with in the past year:  Gang of Youths from Australia – particularly their Walkmen-esque “Sudden Light”.  X Ambassadors, with their weird combination of crooning and clattering drums – here’s their single, “Unconsolable.”  Sures, also from Australia, and their echoing, progressively loud single, “Waste.”  Mariam the Believer from the band Wildbirds & Peacedrums went solo; her voice is haunting and combines strangely timed beats with a new age sensibility.  Bizarre witch music.  Here’s her video for “Invisible Giving.”

JebBands that have been around for a bit but made me happy, sad, tap my foot, close my eyes and wish I had a different life as a musician:  My friends the Dismemberment Plan reunited to release Uncanny Valley, a surprisingly warm album with music that’s not afraid to be happy and loving.  The opener, “No One’s Saying Nothing” is a favorite.  The Plan was also my favorite live show of the year.  They’ve lost none of their frenetic, crazy energy on the stage.  Natalia Kills’s album Trouble is witty, sad, catchy.  Her song “Saturday Night” was a favorite of mine last year.  My favorite electronic-meets-analog artist, Tim Fitz, released a new EP called UnsceneYou can download most of his music for free on band camp.  Panic! At the Disco continued to evolve, get better, catchier, more fun, more sing-along-able.  They incorporated some Cut Copy feel into their work and released Too Young To Live, Too Rare To Dieone of my very favorite songs “Girls/Girls/Boys” is here.  My best friend, Jeb Havens (picture right) released a whole bunch of covers last year – recording mostly in his closet while he slowly became one of the best-regarded and most-listened to signer songwriters in San Francisco.  Here’s his cover of Lady Gaga’s “I Wanna Be with You” (which eventually became “Dope”)

burqa

I feel my teenage punk rock self cringe a little when I admit that the music event of the year for me was not remotely underground or unknown.  Instead, it was the release of ArtPop by Lady Gaga. I don’t need to write much about it.  You’ve probably already drawn your lines and picked your sides with her (Though how anyone could fail to love an album with the lyrics “Aphrodite lady/sea shell bikini” in one of the singles is beyond me.)  I’ll just say, to explain this polarization, that ArtPop reveals Gaga’s biggest moment in the public eye was the only moment out of sync with the rest of her career.  The straight-ahead pop of Born This Way (and to a much lesser extent, Fame Monster) never gave people an idea of just how completely bizarre she was – meat dresses notwithstanding.  It’s not a farce.  I saw Lady Gaga play many times before “Just Dance” came out; at drag shows, in hotel lobbies, and more.  It was her, two wiry back up dancer girls, some duct tape, and a mask.  It was strange and out of place.  When she was working her way up to being famous, it was completely new and exciting.  Then she got famous, and people lumped her in with other pop divas like Katy Perry or whatever.  It’s a misunderstanding that ArtPop displaces.  Many people aren’t ready for it; the whole album is like a signal sent backward through time.  A crazy blend of Sun Ra, Arabic music, industrial, hip hop, Dub, 1970s pop, and top 40, ArtPop is amazing if you let it in.  Here’s the mindbending iTunes concert that puts many of the songs on display.

FILM

SB

Movies, movies, movies.  I saw over a hundred movies last year.  I have no idea where I got all that time.  As per custom, I’ll list my favorite that were released in 2013.  Spring Breakers and The Great Beauty seem like unlikely bedfellows.  The former is the melodramatic, loud, absurd depiction of a pretty girls wallowing in sex, drugs, guns, and freedom (plus, a corn-rowed James Franco).  The latter is a breathtaking and heartfelt look at how to live and love; often compared (too easily, I believe) to Fellini.  But both movies are movies made by editing – a trend not started by, but given permission to flourish by, Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life in 2012.  Both Spring Breakers and The Great Beauty work to engage through a collection of images, sounds, bursts of feeling.  They’re the sorts of movie that would have been almost incomprehensible to TGBviewers before the age of the internet.  The world had to be made ready for both films.  They’re both excellent and both depend on, for some of the grandeur, being seen on a big screen.  If there’s no possibility of that, just download/stream them.  But if they show up in a theater near you, go, go, go.

I also loved Jagten (The Hunt)  which is all about the sort of sex panics described in some of the books I mentioned above.  A small town school teacher is accused of abusing one of the kids at his school, the town goes apeshit, the movie gets under your skin.  Passion by Brian De Palma wasn’t the greatest movie, but it was a whole lot of fun.  It’s a late 1980s-style film about women grasping for power in the workplace.  Watch it and let me know if you start pressing your finger to your friends’ foreheads when you insult them.  You’ll see what I mean after you watch it.  Last but not least was the Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope.  The movie is one of three in Seidl’s series; which can be watched out of order, thankfully, because it was the only one playing near me.  It’s about girls at fat camp, and it’s an oddly flat movie.  There’s nothing dizzyingly high or low about the film.  It takes its time, and evokes life perfectly.

All right that’s it for now.  Stop.  Forward again. See you soon.  Love.

How to Fight Conspiracy, or, The New Old Real Fake Ones: An essay on The Cabin in the Woods

25 Sep

In conjunction with the Blu-Ray/DVD release of The Cabin in the Woods , I’m reposting an essay I wrote back in April when the film was released. This essay originally appeared on horror icon Peaches Christ’s website. The essay has some spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, what are you waiting for?

If you don’t believe in a world ruled by secret, unseen forces that control how we think, feel, and treat others, there’s a quick remedy to your delusion: Tear a twenty dollar bill into tiny, useless pieces. Better yet, do it in front of a friend. One or both of you will gasp, feel sick, feel remorse. All over a little piece of paper.

Of course, it’s not the paper itself, but the meaning in the paper (and “in” isn’t the proper word here, since meaning isn’t ever “in” anything, it’s not spatial) that is sacred to us.
If you prefer to spend your money instead of tearing it up, you could learn a bit about these forces by buying a ticket for Drew Goddard’s and Joss Whedon’s Lovecraftian film of horror, spectacle, and conspiracy, The Cabin in the Woods.

In one of its strangest and most potent moments, Marty (Fran Kranz), the nerdy Shaggy-like stoner character points out, when we’re in the sway of these secret forces, which is always, “We are not who we are.”

These forces are always magical and strange in nature – they evade our understanding, because they’re bigger than our understanding. Economy, sexual attraction, race, language, the feeling of a place: all of them invade our being and identity. Most of them aren’t chosen, and there’s no escaping them. Nature itself is the greatest conspiracy – cells conspiring without our say so, weather and elements deciding who lives and who dies. Indeed, nature is such a convoluted conspiracy that there may be no need for intention at the top at all, it may simply act out of habit, taking everyone along for the ride.

We think that science and scientific understanding give us a better handle on these forces, but in fact science is a symptom of these magical forces. Historically, science rose from religion and mysticism, linked to the spiritual at its birth, and even now as it seems distant from its occult ancestor, science pulses with magic. We build airplanes out of a magical impulse to fly, telephones out of a longing for telepathy. We bind chemicals and harness physics through a very limited understanding, demanding the world jump through hoops for us, and then pretend to understand it when it does. But we don’t understand the world, and continue to worship what we don’t understand, albeit implicitly. In labs, when an animal is killed or experimented on, it’s called “sacrificing.” Sacrificing to whom?

This tangling of magic and science, the old and the new, is on full display in Cabin, as five college students are manipulated by a secret (governmental?) organization into a weekend at a sacrificial black room masquerading as a cabin with a lake and some beautiful surrounding woods.

* * *

The movie starts by pointing to the unseen forces that rule our lives, through superstition. It’s a disorienting start – you wonder for a moment if you’re in the right theater. Where are the college kids? Where’s the party? The RV being packed full of stuff and the sly innuendo?

Instead two middle-aged men Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) hang out by a coffee machine in some sort of science-looking base. They complain about women and babies, and Hadley, in a foreshadowing you’ll forget unless you see the film again, voices a superstition – if his wife thinks it’s a foregone conclusion that they’re having a baby, if she childproofs the house before she’s pregnant, they’ll never have a baby. (Hadley is right about the baby – though he doesn’t suspect just how right. The movie starts with a small superstition at the coffee machine and in less than 24 hours finishes with the end of the world.)

Cue the title on the screen – so this is The Cabin in the Woods after all – red and loud, in an homage to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a film with which Cabin shares much in lesson and idea.

The kids, the lambs to be sacrificed, are introduced in a typical way. They’re getting ready for a trip, they’re thinking about sex, they’re lamenting lost loves, they’re excited. But how much of it is real? Jules (Anne Hutchison), has dyed blonde hair. It’s not just fake because it’s blonde, it’s calculatedly fake – we find out later that the organization, which is never named but has (surprise!) a pentagon as its symbol, has drugged the hair dye to slow down her cognitive functioning and make her dumber than she is. Her boyfriend, Kurt (Chris Hemsworth) is excited to go to his cousin’s cabin. Not his cousin’s cabin, we find out at the end of the movie. Dana (Krisitin Connolly) has just had sex with and been unceremoniously dumped by her professor, revealing her thing for smart guys (the smart guys in the organization will be treating her much much worse later). Her relationship with the professor was probably real, but it was a delusion in itself. How did she think she could maintain it? In walks Holden (Jesse Williams), who we know and learn the least about. He’s smart and nice, and maybe knows a bunch of other languages. He gets stabbed in the throat later.

And finally, Marty, who starts off and remains more knowing than the others. He pulls up in his beat up car, high and smoking a huge bong (that collapses into a thermos and later extends into a zombie-beating club). Unafraid of the police, he’ll foil them with “ancient logics,” of posturing and feigned nonchalance.

The pot keeps his head clear through the rest of the movie, and this is no coincidence. To understand how the world, as one 17th century mystic put it, is “bound with secret knots,” you have to ask big questions. For many, the big questions are too terrifying to ask without pot. Indeed, questions about god, reality, and conspiracy are nowadays ridiculed as stoner questions.

But in Cabin, as in life, these questions are what help you survive, because without the thoughtful interrogation of everything, you can’t see what kind of danger you’re in.

Their vacation world isn’t what they think it is. They pass through a tunnel, wired with explosives that go off later, that’s surrounded by a force field, that’s rigged with pheremone-emitting vents and grass, lined with underground elevators, patrolled by the organization’s hidden cameras.
Cultural theorists used to make much of such constructed vacation environments – Disneyworld’s fake castle and Epcot Center’s fake countries and Six Flags’ fake safari. The weird part about those places is that people would leave the constructs of the city and enter into something even more constructed. In contrast, the kids in Cabin are seeking the classic vacation – to be somewhere more real than their lives, but instead of getting off the grid, they’re getting on an even more heavily regulated grid, and the environment conspires against them. The woods are no longer free from being made-up. Their lives are fake. Their memories and hair color are fake. And their escape is fake. In other words, there’s nowhere real left to go.

Our world isn’t so distant from the constructed world of Cabin, and fake environments aren’t just at Disneyworld, but are now the norm. Most of our own environments now are pocked with invisible class lines (the white and/or rich people never turn left on that city street), filled with arousal-inducing advertisements, and patrolled by hidden cameras. Longing for something “real,” we mimic nature. Advertisements beep and whir in the place of missing birds, lights flash in place of blotted-out stars. It’s no wonder that most of the kids don’t notice – until it’s too late – that there are no stars out in the sky, or that moonlight seems to turn on and off like an overhead lamp.

The constructed world echoes the simulacra of Cabin’s main box office competitor, the mandatory-gym-class nightmare, The Hunger Games. And in both films, the characters are brought into the fake environments, denied escape, and sacrificed to something greater than themselves. In The Hunger Games, the contestants are forced to fight to create a sort of mini-war that will stave off widespread societal chaos. In Cabin this is literalized – the old gods that sleep beneath our planet must be appeased.

The fake world, constructed to make sacrificing real people to real and potent forces, needs upkeep. In both films, men and women in offices control the stars, the sky, the trees, and the monsters. The characters are watched and allowed no real escape. The game is always rigged, even as the audiences (of and in the films) believe there is a certain aspect of chance and therefore freedom at play.

These controlling organizations have a long history of manipulating, capturing, trapping, torturing, and killing young people. In the case of Cabin it’s a tradition that stretches back to end of time.

And so, aside from the explicitly monstrous monsters in both films, there are also the office man as monster, the scientist, the soldier, the executive as monster. There are no bystanders, not even in the audience. “We’re not the only ones watching,” says one of the organization’s men in Cabin, and the meaning is clear. The old gods are watching, the spectators are watching, but also, we’re watching. We’ve got needs, haven’t we? We need to see people die and show their tits, and scream and fight for their lives. Or our money back.

It’s a great moment. Not quite a breach of the fourth wall, but more of a little knock on it from the other side. “Hey neighbor, if you think we’re the villains, what about you?”

But we don’t have to – and shouldn’t – buy the guilt, because the movie is smart enough to let us off the hook. When the kids first arrive at the cabin, Holden discovers a two-way mirror. Through it, he can see Dana, about to undress in the abutting room, but she can’t see him. He struggles for a moment, and then decides to be a gentleman and let her know. It’s a voyeurism that we’re told is terrible – peeping at each other’s bodies, showing off (as Holden seems to be doing just moment later, as they switch rooms and Dana watches him). But then the camera pulls back and we see all of this transpire on dozens of screens in the industrial complex. There is voyeurism and then there is spying, invasion, and control. In our social-media and reality-tv-saturated world, we condemn each other for the small crime of voyeurism and exhibitionism and remain unaware of the surveillance state that has risen up around us.

As long as there’s a small battle of minor morality going on, no one notices the bigger, more important battle.

The big questions – questions of conspiracy, questions of what is real, questions of nature and culture – set us free from these low-level tangles, but we remain ridiculed for these questions. Kurt and Jules berate Dana for her interest in her books. Dana ridicules Marty for his suspicions. And then redneck torture zombies rise from the ground and start to kill everybody.

The Hunger Games’s weakest moment is when the monsters, mutant dogs or something, are released, because the monsters’ appearances don’t quite mesh with the rest of the film’s struggle to stay believable. Cabin, on the other hand, hinges on the appearance of monsters. The kids raise zombies by unwittingly reading an incantation (a la The Evil Dead) from a book they’ve found in the basement. But this isn’t a zombie flick; the movie is a vast network of monsters.

Monsters are usually the killing force in any horror film, but in Cabin the monsters are contained – and unleashed – by a larger power: technology. Underground and hidden are a whole host of monsters – a werewolf, a man-bat, a cenobite-like creature (in one of the most overt homages), a giant spider and snake – locked up in glass cells, waiting to be released. And there must be thousands of monsters, for the movie reveals that this ritual is happening all over the world, each country experiencing its own cultural version of horror. The technology, in turn, is in service to an even larger power, the old gods it serves. So the kids are the modern scientific world made victim to magic, which is subservient to science, which is again subservient to magic. Layer upon layer of power, of old world struggling to come to terms with new and back again.

Should we get used to monsters? A soldier in Cabin asks one of the organization workers as much.

The servants of the old ones are too used to them. In the film’s most horrifying moment, after most the kids have been killed by the zombies (or are believed to have been, since Marty escapes), Dana is being attacked and tortured by a zombie who wields a bear trap as a weapon. Since her death is optional (we learn that the archetype she represents, the virgin, is an optional sacrifice, so long as she dies last), the whole ritual is thought to be complete. The screens are left on, and the members of the organization party. They throw each other beers and ask each other out on dates. They blast music and tell jokes and flirt. In the background, Dana is picked up and throw to the ground, savagely attacked. Her screams are on mute.

Perhaps the organization was doing good at some point, perhaps sacrifice was important and necessary, but they all became numb to it. They ignore suffering (especially suffering on a screen); it’s just part of their job and their world. Dana doesn’t have to die, but they’re prepared to ignore the whole mess and get on with their lives. They don’t even care how it ends up. If you’ve seen one dying kid screaming for her life, you’ve seen’em all.

Of course, you can’t keep all your monsters locked up without having them break free. Marty somehow escapes death, saves Dana, and they break into the industrial underground base together. (When he shows Dana the hidden elevator that goes down – to the basement of the basement – she says, “Do we want to go down?” “Where else are we gonna go?” he replies.)

Audiences are perhaps always troubled with images of mass incarceration, and so thrill to the release of the monsters. The breakout scene fulfills the failed promise of Whedon’s fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the secret governmental organization, The Initiative, traps and studies monsters. In the series, the monsters also broke free, but it was a largely bloodless and scattered affair. In Cabin there is blood and screaming and lots of it. The jailers and soldiers, who were protecting the world, are punished. Their own party, their own version of freedom, is raided and pillaged and murdered.

As Dana and Marty make their way through the complex, dodging monster after monster and watching the employees of the organization die all around them, they stumble on the deepest truth: The old ones. The Director of the organization (played by who else but Sigourney Weaver) tells them the whole back story. And she tells them that if Marty dies, Dana can live and the world will be saved. But if Dana dies before Marty…well, then, the world is doomed.

“You can die with them, or you can die for them,” the Director tells him.
“They’re both so enticing,” Marty retorts.
Dana is tempted to kill him but fails. The Director dies. The world starts to end.

“I’m sorry I…ended the world,” Marty says.
“You were right,” Dana replies. “Humanity. It’s time to give someone else a chance.”
The world begins to shake.
“Giant evil gods,” Marty says.
“I wish I could’ve seen them.”
“I know,” Marty says, “that would’ve been a fun weekend.”
A giant hand bursts from the ground, and the credits roll.

The movie could have ended with nothing happening and meant largely the same thing. The Director would die and the ritual would go unfinished and the world would rumble and then…nothing. Calm. The gods and values we worshipped in confusion and panic didn’t have the power over us we feared.

The pentagon-symboled organization strove desperately to keep the world as it was. They tell us if we don’t keep all this falsehood and untruthfulness in place, we will be overwhelmed by chaos and panic. Well, so what? Aren’t killing people, torturing people, creating deceptive landscapes, manipulating thoughts, the very things they claimed to be protecting us from?

As for the impending dissembling of things:
“Maybe that’s the way it should be, if you’ve got to kill all my friends to survive. Maybe it’s time for a change,” Marty says.

Once you begin to see the world for what it is, once you get to the depths and ask the big questions, the world begins to change. The old world, the one you knew, ends. And of course, this is sacrifice. Real sacrifice, not fake, ritualized sacrifice made out of fake plants and hair dye, propping up a world of lies and unreal pleasures.

Cabin tells us – everything that we’re afraid a revolution in thinking and behavior would bring is already here. We’ve got to find new things to worship, or forever be in the power of forces we can’t see, understand, or escape.

(poster image by http://abayarts.deviantart.com/)