WELL, OTHER THAN THAT…

Posted in Rants on December 22nd, 2008 by Ed

If there is one kind of film I categorically loathe it is blatant Oscar bait. The Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season is jam packed with such films annually. Yes, there are some truly great films released during the month or two before the Academy picks a crop of winners, and many films that win Oscars are in fact deserving of recognition. But there are also ham-fisted, cynical efforts churned out by studios lacking a "serious" film upon which awards can be bestowed and hoping that sentimental tripe involving handicapped people or people imprisoned/wrongly accused of crimes will do the trick. Some of the worst offenders include cinematic vomit like I Am Sam, The Green Mile, Pay It Forward, Love in the Time of Cholera, or The Life of David Gale.

In recent years, though, the criteria for individual acting Oscar-bait has slightly broadened. It now encompasses not only Convict or the Handicapped but also Gay. Boys Don't Cry and Brokeback Mountain both softened up the Academy to the point that we can now annually expect some Very Serious Film from some Very Shitty Studio about a heroic, slightly messianic LGBT Character who, from the studio's perspective, preferably gets murdered. In a couple years I fully expect to see one of the fucking Jonas Brothers starring in The Matthew Shepard Story.

I guess by this point you can tell that I am not going to be watching Milk for a number of reasons. First, Sean Penn's face looks like an ape's puckered red asshole. Second, Mr. Penn cannot act to save his soul and has already stolen an Oscar for the revolting Mystic River. Third, the story of Harvey Milk, American Hero and Martyr, delightfully tiptoes around the fact that the Great Man owed much credit for his election to Jim Jones and the People's Temple, an organization that Milk spent his elected career protecting and enthusiastically supporting.

The excellent PBS production Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple details how Reverend Jim's flock provided thousands of person-hours of labor to the campaigns of Milk, Moscone, and then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, later the mayor of San Fran. Some sources go as far as to credit the Temple's three thousand registered voters for being directly responsible for Milk's electoral success in 1976.

In return Milk regularly spoke glowingly of the Temple and spoke at public rallies with the Reverend in addition to regular columns in the Peoples Forum, the cult's newspaper. He was no mere opportunistic politician, as many of his biographers attempt to depict him if they mention the issue at all, but a personal devotee of Jones. After one Temple visit he wrote a personal letter to Jones stating,

Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.

On the evening before Jones was to be exposed by investigative journalist Marshall Kilduff of the Chronicle, the Reverend and his flock fled the long arm of the law into the jungles of Guyana. Political allies sprinted away from Jones like rats on a sinking ship. Not Milk, though. He wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter protesting the government's investigations into the Temple and its leader, a "man of the highest character." Of the relatives working with Congressman Leo Ryan (soon to be murdered in Guyana) Milk wrote that they were opportunists attempting to "damage (Jones') reputation with bald-faced lies." Within a few months Ryan, Milk, and nearly everyone in Jonestown would be dead, all for very different reasons.

Harvey Milk was obviously a brave man, someone who did as all individuals should do. He proudly stood up for himself and refused to accept second-class treatment or apologize for who he was. He drew attention with both his life and his death to the shoddy, often violent treatment that gay and lesbian people receive at the hands of the police, elected officials, and garden variety bigots. I applaud Gus Van Sant and the film for making even one viewer think about homophobia, discrimination, and the violence it inspires.

What I can't swallow is the lack of context, the rush to canonize Milk the Character to make the film a more appealing slice of Oscar bait. A film that purports to tell the true story of a man should not feel free to edit out the parts that get in the way of tear-harvesting the audience. The film certainly follows the pack, though. An exhibit at the Gay Historical Society is unironically called "Saint Harvey." A decent author or filmmaker can handle a three-dimensional character, one who is a bastard sometimes in addition to being heroic. Shitty filmmakers have to rely on hackneyed caricatures who either parade around in glowing halos or are comically evil.

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BIPARTISANSHIP: IT'S FOR STUPIDS

Posted in Election 2008, Rants on December 22nd, 2008 by Ed

Americans have a soft spot for certain narratives – the Horatio Alger luck-pluck-diligence success stories, small children with terminal illnesses, and, in politics, bipartisanship. Isn't it great when everyone joins hands and gets along? Aren't there some issues on which we are all united in the national interest, the usual partisan bickering and dilatory points-of-order temporarily cast aside?

Certain politicians attempt to use the public's soft spot for reaching across the aisle to their electoral advantage. Two such politicians ran for president in 2008. One of them lost. The other won and is well on his way to proving exactly why I refused to get even momentarily excited about him as a candidate. One of the big reasons I declined to vote in the very competitive primary was a nagging feeling that both paths led to four or eight years of "centrist" New Democrat horseshit. The President-elect gives every indication of assuming the post-Civil Rights era Democratic Party's accustomed role as the battered wife of American politics, assiduously sucking up to their abusive partner in the vain hope that someday the kindness will be repaid. Woefully premature FDR comparisons and messianic zeal among Obama's faithful will quickly turn to disillusionment as the figure they elected starts to look a lot more like Harry Reid than FDR.

As a governing strategy, bipartisanship is for stupids. Post-Gingrich Republicans in Congress have only one goal upon waking each morning: find out what the majority Democrats want to do and say no. Say no procedurally, publicly, and with their votes. Delay, obstruct, distract. Obama's presidency will be no different than Clinton's, which is to say it will be one phony "scandal" after another cooked up by the minority party and dutifully dispersed via the talk radio airwaves. And yet time and time again the Democrats allow themselves to be victimized, and in fact encourage it, by "reaching out" in a show of solidarity to keep the GOP in the loop.

As the minority, the Democrats rolled over for every single major decision of the Bush administration (Authorization for the use of force in Iraq, the Patriot Act, Telecom immunity, Alito, Roberts) while offering nothing beyond token opposition. Think the minority Republicans in Congress will be returning the favor in the next few years, supplicating themselves and getting in line behind President Obama? Yeah, me neither. Think the baffling decision to leave the Department of Defense to a Bush stay-behind soldier and the State Department to Hillary "Remember how my husband's schizophrenic foreign policy of interventionism with zero resolve was a recipe for disaster" Clinton will pay off? Yeah, me neither. Think he's going to win over the lunatic Christian fringe by reaching out to Rick Warren and his kind? Yeah, me neither. Think the Cheney-endorsed national security team is going to produce meaningful Change? Yeah, me neither.

Touched by the let's-all-get-along attitude from the incoming President, Congressional Republicans are reminding the backbenchers that "the duty of the opposition party is to oppose." Translation: sharpen the talons. Get ready to block appointments and scuttle the ship. Run the government even further into the ground so that the GOP may arise in 2010 and 2012 to say "See? Look how much worse things are…"

In the end Obama, like the party he represents, will attempt bipartisan governing for the same reasons as always: because it's the "right thing to do" and to "change the tone in Washington." It is the right thing to do, of course. But like so many other examples from our lives, in politics doing the right thing correlates strongly with getting torn apart by the amoral throat-cutters on the lookout for honest people of whom to take advantage.