Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Interview: Gay Panic vs. Nuclear Annihilation

 First off, let me just say how affirming it was to sit in a movie theater with my fellow New Yorkers to watch The Interview. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see an adolescent comedy about a plot to kill the leader of North Korea, but I was so pissed off at the idea of a foreign dictator telling me what I can or can’t see that I was like, “You know something? Fuck you, North Korea! I’m going to see this!”
And, no, that police command station assembled one block from the movie theater did not make me nervous at all.
Now, to the movie itself.
Much has been made over the fact that The Interview may be the first movie to depict the death (albeit humorously rendered) of a sitting head of state. (And a psychotic head of state with nuclear weapons, to boot.) Less has been made over the fact that The Interview is, essentially, a 90-minute riff on what I call “gay panic.” That is, the discomfort many heterosexual men feel at the idea that they may be (or be perceived), in the slightest way, homosexual, and the fact that, for many heterosexual men, this is the worst thing you could possibly be.
As a gay man, sitting in a movie theater with (I would assume), mostly heterosexual men laughing at one of my defining traits as a human being, could make one, how shall I say, uncomfortable.
The oddity of this spectacle is further compounded by the fact that it is being portrayed by an actor, James Franco, who has made something of a career lately out of playing gay men (Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, a fake documentary about the movie Cruising). And, of course, need it be said? James Franco is ridiculously handsome.
So, imagine a movie in which James Franco and his polar opposite in the looks department, Seth Rogen, do everything but have intercourse onscreen (and do, in fact, kiss each other, say they love each other, drink fancy cocktails with umbrellas in them and—horrors—listen to Katy Perry music).
Indeed, the amount of phony homosexuality on display is ratcheted up so high that you have to laugh—and that, I suppose, is the point.
There’s also a cameo at the beginning of the movie by Eminem where he “admits” to being gay during an interview on a tabloid TV show. So is Eminem making fun of gays or poking fun at his image as a homophobic rapper? Truth be told, I can’t even remember why he is allegedly homophobic (I don’t really listen to rap music) and, besides, didn’t he already silence those complaints when he performed with Elton John on the Grammy Awards?
Then again, I suppose if we’re going to go down that road, an equal if not larger grievance could be voiced by Asians (or at least North Koreans), for being portrayed as the world’s laughing stock. Or women, for being portrayed as sex objects whose only reason for existence is to please men.
The fact is, that if one can suspend one’s inner PC police, the movie is actually quite funny. And, by employing more Asian actors than pretty much every other Hollywood movie put together and showing them poking fun at themselves, it has the ironic effect of humanizing them.
Now if only Seth Rogen and James Franco would just fuck each other and get it over with.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Love-Hate Relationship: Homeland vs. The Affair

 The last few Sundays, I’ve been having a love-hate relationship with Showtime. I love Homeland. I hate The Affair.
I’ve recently become acquainted with the term “hate-fucking.” Is there such a thing as hate-watching?
Let’s start with Homeland.
I didn’t watch the first few seasons of Homeland, but I decided to give this season a try because I’d heard such good things about it. (A previous attempt at trying to watch last season didn’t work because the plot was already too far along for me to catch up.)
This season started great and got better. And it was also a new story line, so if you missed the first few seasons, like I did, you could start from scratch.
This season’s arc had Carrie (Claire Danes), a bipolar CIA agent, pursuing the Osama Bin Laden-like character Haissam Haqqani in Pakistan. Along the way, she has a make-believe affair with Haqqani’s young nephew, a slowly simmering attraction to her hot fellow agent Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), and has to deal with a bunch of backstabbing coworkers that make your typical office politics look like a walk in the park.
While the season finale was relatively subdued compared to the rest of the season (Carrie returns home to the United States while Quinn, after swearing he wouldn’t, returns to Pakistan), there were some moments that were so suspenseful, it was truly difficult to watch.
And I haven’t even gotten into the sadomasochistic relationship between the U.S. Ambassador Martha Boyd (Laila Robbins) and her traitorous husband or their double-dealing Pakistani counterparts.
Really, a plot summary couldn’t possibly do the series justice.
Let’s just say that by the end of the season, I needed some of Carrie’s bipolar medication!
Now let’s talk about The Affair.
What started for me as a harmless bit of real estate porn turned into…well…just porn!
Holy crap! Dominic West was naked more often on this series than Lena Dunham in Girls! (Not that I’m complaining…)
But the histrionics were ratcheted up so high, it was more like watching a soap opera than the True Detectives-like mystery they were aiming for. (How creepy was that Fiona Apple song at the beginning?)
Noah and Helen Soloway (Mr. West and Maura Tierney), a Brooklyn couple (he’s a teacher and writer, she runs a home furnishings store) are vacationing with their family in Montauk when Noah is drawn to a young waitress (Alison Bailey, played by Ruth Wilson) at a seafood restaurant.
They immediately begin a torrid affair, but this is no ordinary affair. You see, Alison’s young son died several years ago and she and her husband are still in mourning. Meanwhile, Noah has to deal with his rich in-laws who are constantly belittling him.
While the series shows the very real devastation infidelity can wreak on a marriage, Noah and Alison are so self-destructive that after a while you’re like, “Oh, well, I guess they’re gonna fuck again.”
OK, so we know that—in America—sex is a greater taboo than violence and infidelity a more serious crime than murder. But if you’re going to have a morality tale about infidelity, go big or go home. I’m talking Fatal Attraction.
That movie was more believable for being a one-night-stand gone wrong than the long, drawn-out Affair. And Glenn Close (as Alex Forrest) was so deliciously evil, she practically verged on camp. (As much as I loved Cher in Moonstruck, I still think Ms. Close deserved the Oscar that year.)
In the Affair season finale, when Noah is finally arrested for a murder we never saw him commit, all you can do is yawn.
P.S. The Comeback is a bit of a disappointment this season, too. I guess the first season (nine years ago) set the bar so high (and reality TV set the bar for humiliation so low) that it was hard to top. (I also think that the show-within-the-show, Room and Bored, added a much-needed dimension.) This week’s episode, where Valerie wears a wire to the restaurant where she and her husband are trying to repair their relationship, approached some of the cringeworthy-ness that made the first season so good.
Sometimes I think, this isn’t a comedy about show business, it’s a documentary.

Friday, December 12, 2014

White Riot

“White riot  I wanna riot
White riot  a riot of my own.”
—The Clash

When I looked at the front page of today’s New York Times, I was so furious, I felt like I was having a heart attack.
The lead story was about how, in a move that was typical of what’s been happening in this country lately, House Republicans snuck in a last-minute giveaway to banks in next year’s budget before leaving for vacation, and the only member of Congress who spoke out against it was Nancy Pelosi.1 Even Obama caved in to Republicans! (Again! Roll over, Obama!)
Right next to that story was an article about how "the share of prime-age men...who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s...."2
That’s right! The same people who voted to bail out the banks six years ago voted to allow them to continue doing the very same things that necessitated their bailout in the first place! They also threw in a measure increasing by tenfold the amount of money people are allowed to contribute to political parties.
The same people who refused to extend unemployment benefits five times last year, voted to give banks a major loophole, thereby increasing the chances of another financial collapse and another bailout at taxpayer expense.
And, of course, none of the parties responsible for the financial collapse were ever prosecuted. (Why should be we surprised, though, when just the day before the Times reported on the C.I.A.’s involvement in and cover-up of torture. None of the people responsible for that were ever prosecuted, either.)
But I digress.
Meanwhile, the front page of the New York Post was all about Hollywood producer Scott Rudin calling Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” (This from a man whose own ego is so huge he goes through 50 assistants a year.3 Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!)
People went to work, as usual. The subway droned on with its Orwellian announcements about giving up your seat to the elderly and “if you see something, say something.” (I mean, really, if you need a subway announcement to lecture adults about manners, you’ve already lost the battle.)
The operating principle in this country (if not the world) today seems to be "How much can we squeeze people before they literally riot?" Not figuratively riot, but burn buildings and cars riot.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the black community (along with supporters of other races) justifiably angry about the killings of young black men by white police officers.
What I want to know is, Where’s our riot? 
Granted, the financial collapse affected everyone—white and black—but the difference is that so-called “white collar” criminals are rarely punished, while blacks are sometimes killed over minor offenses.
Where’s our outrage?
I think the problem is that people simply don't know how bad things are. Everyone’s working so many hours, they don’t have time to read the newspaper. And the TV news is about as substantive as Entertainment Tonight.
Meanwhile, the moneyed powers that run this country (if not the world) continue to get richer and more powerful.
I’m surprised shows like Real Time with Bill Maher, Moyers & Company, The Daily Show or The Colbert Reportanything that questions the existing power structure--are even allowed to air, considering that six corporations control 90% of the media in America.5
Think I’m being alarmist?
Recently, there was an article in the Times about how Russian oligarchs are scooping up stakes in media companies.6
But we’re special because we’re America.
Yeah, right!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hand to Mouth: My Story

I recently started reading Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Linda Tirado’s book about her experience with poverty. While my experience may not be as bad as hers, my experience may actually be more common.
Like 20% of the US workforce1, I’m a temp/contract/project-based/freelance worker (not by choice, I would hasten to add, but because those are the only jobs available). Partly as a result of this, I’ve been unemployed for half of the past two years.
I also have no company-provided health insurance and no paid time off.
Last year, I made so little money, I qualified for Medicaid. Some people would be thrilled to have health insurance. I’m embarrassed I qualified for Medicaid. (The only problem with Medicaid, of course, is that many doctors and dentists don’t accept it.)
As we head into Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I’m grateful to be working (for the time being), but I could very easily be unemployed again by Christmas.
That’s because full-time, “permanent” jobs are disappearing. Forget about retirement, I’m struggling to stay employed until I reach retirement age!
Last year, I made numerous press appearances on behalf of the long-term unemployed. But despite my many efforts (which included writing letters to Congress and posting over 5,000 tweets), unemployment benefits were not extended and the entire issue has disappeared from the headlines.
In light of the new Republican majority in the Senate, I feel that this issue is more important than ever.
Not only are full-time, “permanent” jobs disappearing, it’s becoming harder than ever to get the few that remain. It’s no longer enough to just submit to a job interview. There’s now often a phone interview that precedes the actual job interview, and several follow-up interviews after that.
But that’s not all.
Background checks are also now a normal part of the hiring process. And for a recent job, I not only had to go through a background check, I also had to submit to a drug test and be fingerprinted!
And Republicans say the unemployed are lazy.
As Ms. Tirado points out in her book, when you’re living “hand to mouth” (or paycheck to paycheck, like 25 million Americans2), there’s no margin for error. I recently went into a panic because I thought I was going to need a dental implant. In fact, whenever I have a medical problem of any kind, I’m more worried about the cost than the health implications. (I once got out of a taxi on my way to a hospital emergency room and walked because it was stuck in traffic! Needless to say, I didn’t even consider paying $500 for an ambulance, even though I had insurance at the time.)
The root cause of all this, of course, is globalization, a force way beyond the control of any individual worker (or perhaps even any individual country). But isn’t there something our government could be doing to ease the pain of globalization on the middle-class? And rather than using their earnings to buy back their own stock or move their corporate headquarters overseas (so they don’t have to pay taxes), couldn’t companies use that money to create jobs or give people a raise?
Instead, our government has been silent (which is not surprising considering they’re bought by the very corporations that are causing this problem) and companies are sitting on record profits.
The other reason jobs are disappearing is because companies simply don’t want to pay for health insurance. In fact, I would argue that this is now the only reason the temp industry even exists: to eliminate any legal obligation companies might have toward their temporary employees. (It’s not like they’re actually finding people jobs!)
That’s why we need a single-payer system. Not just because every other civilized country in the world has one, but because it’s ridiculous to expect a for-profit enterprise (and that includes health insurance companies) to do anything that’s not in their own self-interest.
So as we head into this holiday season, you know what I’d really like for Christmas?
A full-time, “permanent” job with benefits.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Birdman Doesn’t Fly

 I had high hopes for Birdman, coming as it does with a well-known director (Alejandro Iñárritu, of 21 Grams and Babel), a first-rate cast (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone, among others) and a premise that really interests me: a formerly successful, aging movie star questioning the career and life choices he’s made.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays the former star of an action movie franchise featuring the titular character, who tries to stage a career comeback by starring in, directing and producing a play based on the book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by the well-known writer Raymond Carver. During previews, one of the actors in the play’s cast is injured by a stage light and is replaced by Edward Norton’s character, a somewhat pompous, overly serious theater actor. The play appears headed for disaster when a theater critic for a New York Times-like newspaper threatens to “kill” the play. But then there’s a last-minute plot twist involving social media that turns the play into an unexpected hit.
The acting here is good (particularly a low-key, slimmed-down Zach Galafinakis as Michael Keaton’s lawyer), but I was distracted by such things as the camera work and the actor’s appearances (“Why is the skin around Michael Keaton’s ears so pulled back? Did he have a face lift?” “Edward Norton has a hot ass!” “Emma Stone has a beautiful face and her eyes are really green!”). The film appears to have been shot in one continuous take. I realize this is a major technical achievement, but it distances the audience from the movie, and even people who aren’t film school graduates might sense that there’s something “wrong.” Also, weird events happen throughout the movie for no apparent reason. (Keaton has the ability to move objects just by pointing at them, a drummer mysteriously appears in various places playing the movie’s percussive soundtrack, a homeless-looking man appears on the street reciting Shakespeare). I don’t know if Iñárritu is trying to create an atmosphere of “magical realism,” but this is distracting, too. We’re led to believe the film is taking place in the “real world,” not the world of superheroes, where we’re used to people flying around. Although Keaton’s Birdman character is referenced throughout the film, he’s not really a part of the main action. He mainly appears as a voiceover, narrating Keaton’s inner doubts.
The screenplay is also a weird mixture of high-brow and low-brow, dropping names like Roland Barthes while at the same time indulging in adolescent sexual humor.
Birdman comes with a critic-proof device: the character of the aforementioned theater critic about whom several digs are made of the “those who can’t do criticize” variety. That’s a bit disingenuous. Who goes to a movie (or in the case of this movie, a play) not wanting to like it?
Perhaps what the makers of this movie didn’t consider is that some people love the art form they’re critiquing so much that they’re truly disappointed when something doesn’t live up to their expectations.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Sad Demise of Dojo, the Deplorable Rise of Brunch, and the Death of Mom-and-Pop Stores in Manhattan

 This afternoon I was supposed to have lunch with a friend of mine and his husband at Veselka, the last Ukrainian restaurant standing (and, therefore, also the last affordable restaurant standing) in the East Village. This being 2pm on a Sunday, the restaurant was full and the line was out the door. Having just read David Shaftel’s brilliant op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Brunch Is for Jerks,”1 I turned to my friend Ivan and said, “I am not contributing to this madness known as 'Sunday brunch in Manhattan,' ” and suggested we go to Dojo, another vestige of the affordable East Village we both knew and loved. (The remaining Dojo is actually on West Fourth and Mercer Streets, but the original location—now closed—was on Saint Mark’s Place.)
Those of you of a certain age may remember Dojo as a ridiculously cheap restaurant with a Japanese flavor, famous for their carrot ginger dressing and their status as a de facto cafeteria for nearby NYU students. A few months ago, the owners of Dojo, in their infinite wisdom, decided to “renovate” and those of us who remembered the old Dojo held our collective breaths, fearing that either they would never reopen again or, if they did reopen, they would raise their prices to accommodate their higher aspirations (and renovation costs).
I’m sorry to report that my last two visits to Dojo since they reopened have been disappointing in the extreme. Gone are the wide-open spaces that made the place feel like a cafeteria physically as well as price-wise, replaced by wooden dividers that make you feel like a caged veal. While the prices have not risen substantially, something is seriously amiss in the kitchen. The last time I had breakfast there (I had suggested it to my friend Owen as a nicer alternative to the Washington Square Diner), the food was barely adequate and Owen vowed never to return for breakfast. This time, returning for lunch, was a horror show. My friend Ivan ordered a steak sandwich which, in both of our estimations, resembled Steak-umms more than actual steak, and I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with French fries, which are still repeating on me several hours later.
Now, to be fair, Dojo never claimed to be a four-star restaurant and the service was always leisurely, at best. But this food was barely edible. I took one look at Ivan’s steak sandwich, which I had planned on sharing with him, and said, “I’m not touching that!”
It seems to me that Dojo spent all their money on renovations and then actually lowered the quality of their food to make up the cost!
I feel sorry for the (constantly rotating) wait staff that has to put up with these conditions (as well as the owners), but it seems like a catch-22 situation. The owners of such restaurants are struggling to stay in business, so they either have to renovate and (usually) raise their prices and/or cut their costs (which often means cutting their quality, as well). Then, when they cut their quality, they get even fewer customers, so it becomes a vicious cycle, until they eventually close for good.
Basically, if you’re not either very expensive or part of a chain, you can’t afford to do business in Manhattan anymore. In fact, there are some chains (and I would include high-end luxury retailers in this category) whose stores function solely as 3-D advertisements for their brand. Is anyone really buying $10,000 dresses at the Chanel store in Soho (or any of their other stores, for that matter, considering the only people who can afford them get them for free)? It doesn’t matter, because they make most of their money on perfume. This is why so many designers go out of business, unless they’re also in the business of selling underwear (hello, Calvin Klein!).
Right now there’s an entire chain of stores called Organic Avenue that sprang up literally overnight, with locations in every neighborhood in Manhattan. Yet every time I pass one of their stores, it’s completely empty!
I’m afraid that restaurants like Dojo—not fancy, but affordable—are not long for this city and will soon join the dustbin of retail history, along with all the other mom-and-pop drugstores, coffee shops and diners that have already gone out of business.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bedbug and the Angry Itch

 The most imaginative piece of theater in New York right now is happening in a church basement on West 71st Street. I’m speaking of the musical Bedbugs, and you must run like a commuter fleeing from a bedbug-infested N train to see it.
I’d forgotten how much fun camp done well can be and this show hits the nail on the head on several counts.
The plot, such as it is, involves the recent infestation of New York City by bedbugs and one scientist’s quest to wipe them out and simultaneously avenge the death-by-bedbug of her mother. Somehow, a character based on the self-parodying singer Celine Dion (here called Dionne Salon) also figures into the plot, to hilarious effect.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but there are some standouts in my mind. Barry Shafrin as a protypical hipster has every mannerism down pat, from the constant scowl on his face to his non-stop staring at his iPhone to such utterances as “I’m allergic to sincerity!” and “I don’t even ironically like Dionne Salon!”
That brings us to Brian Charles Rooney as the aforementioned Dionne Salon. I didn’t even realize that a man was playing this role until I looked at the program during intermission. It was only then that I noticed his uncharacteristically (for a woman) large hands, but then I wondered, “How does he sing so high?” His impersonation is spot-on, from her annoying habit of pronouncing the word “love” as “lurve” to her diaphanous gown waving in a fake breeze.
Chris Hall as lead bedbug Cimex bring a Rocky Horror-like swagger to his role. (It’s no surprise to learn that he played Rocky and is also in an 80’s tribute band.)
Grace McLean as the scientist Carly has an admirable set of pipes and makes a wonderful transition from nerdy scientist to sex-bomb leading lady.
I don’t know how large the budget for this off-Broadway show is, but you certainly see every penny onstage. The four-piece band does a pitch-perfect rendition of the show’s 80’s-sounding score by Paul Leschen and Fred Sauter. The costumes (particularly for the bedbugs) are way over the top and match anything Disney could pull off. The staging makes the most of this unusually shaped space, including a chirpy morning news reporter who sticks her head through a TV set to simulate a live broadcast.
If I wanted to quibble, I’d say the first act seemed a little long (even though it was only an hour). But you’ll be having so much fun, you won’t care.
Just bring insecticide. (I kid!)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

How to Survive Being a Middle-Aged Gay Man in New York

 Yesterday I found out on Facebook that a man I know who was about my age and was a fixture at a certain gay bar I frequent passed away. While the cause of his death is still unknown, it was suggested to me that he may have taken his own life because he was very unhappy. (He had recently broken up with a boyfriend and was also unemployed.) I did not know this man very well (he was more of an acquaintance than a friend), but it got me thinking.
Middle-aged gay men in New York face a unique set of pressures.
First of all, there’s the economic pressure faced by everyone who lives in New York City, the most expensive city in America and one of the most expensive cities in the world. Add to that the difficulty of finding a job in this economy, which still has not recovered from the recession that started six years ago. I would also argue that there is rampant age discrimination going on in the workplace that’s not being prosecuted because it’s almost impossible to prove. (But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.)
Secondly, there’s the ageism in our society in general which, I would argue, is even worse in the gay community. This is compounded by the gay community’s emphasis on looks, which borders on body fascism. Granted, our entire culture is now consumed with appearances, but the gay community may have started this trend (a fact which does not make me proud to be a gay man).
Third, there’s the rampant promiscuity in the gay community. (Yes, I know some gays are in committed relationships or even married, but they’re the minority). Again, this is not unique to the gay community, but we practically invented “hooking up.”
I don’t want to sound anti-sex, but try finding a boyfriend in this environment!
And all of this is happening in an atmosphere of total silence. Sure, the recent suicide of Robin Williams cast the media’s attention on depression for about a week, but then they moved on to the next crisis. (War? Ebola? Take your pick!)
And this situation is further exacerbated by social media, which not only has had the ironic effect of making us more isolated, but serves to magnify the highs and lows of the human condition: everyone’s life is either perfect or they’re dying. What you don’t see is the mundane reality that constitutes 95% of most people’s lives: going to work, cooking, doing the laundry, watching TV, etc.
It’s no wonder that the suicide rate is highest among white men in my age group.1 And it’s also no wonder that the rate of substance abuse is higher among gay men.2
Also, let’s not forget that my generation saw dozens of their friends and lovers die during the peak years of the AIDS crisis. We weren’t even supposed to live this long!
I’m not a psychiatrist. This is just my opinion based on my feelings and what I’ve observed in other middle-aged gay men in New York. It’s a tragedy when anyone dies before his time, but suicide represents a level of depression that’s incomprehensible to me.
I’ve joked a lot about the alienation I feel as a gay man in my act, but when someone kills himself because of that alienation, it’s no joke.
A few years ago, there was a gay psychiatrist who wrote a book about how to survive middle age as a gay man and he killed himself!3 That would be funny if it wasn’t true.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it has something to do with paying more attention to our relationships in real life (as in, not on the Internet), not isolating ourselves and not being afraid to talk about our feelings.
I wish I had the opportunity to ask my acquaintance how he was feeling and that he had the courage to tell me the truth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My Late (Almost) Conversion to Beyoncé and Jay-Z Fan

 There’s one thing to be said for HBO’s 24/7 marathon presentation of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run concert, which I have now seen almost in its entirety (two-and-a-half hours is a lot of ask of a fan, let alone a non-fan): it’s (almost) made a Beyoncé and Jay-Z fan out of this middle-aged half-Jewish gay white man from Long Island. Almost.
The first thing that needs to be said about this concert is that the production values are spectacular. Beyoncé and Jay-Z obviously spared no expense in mounting this tour, from video and lighting to dancers, backup singers and band. But those things are available to any artist who has achieved a certain level of success. (An instructive documentary on this subject is Who the F**k is Arthur Fogel, about the concert promoter of such artists as the Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Police, and Guns 'N Roses.)
But then you have to look past the production values to the actual musical talent (or lack thereof) of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And that’s where I run into some problems.
I’ve always admired the virtuosity of Beyoncé’s voice, but some of her songs sound like she’s performing vocal scales: either they don’t have any hooks or it’s just one long chorus (i.e., “Love on Top”). She’s just trying to impress you with her octave range.
I think a lot of Beyoncé’s appeal has to do what I call The Cult of the Diva: the fascination among gay men for powerful women who behave in a dramatic fashion and/or seem larger than life.
For me the high point of the show was a song called “Resentment,” about a lover’s (Jay-Z’s?) infidelity. Again, this is not exactly the kind of song whose melody you’ll be whistling after you leave the show, it’s more like a dramatic monologue. And it’s here that Beyoncé goes into full diva mode, as she literally brushes her female competition off her shoulder like so much dandruff and delivers such lines as “She ain’t even half of me/That bitch will never be.”
This is the kind of stuff that typically drives gay men wild. It’s like watching a woman doing an impersonation of a drag queen (which, of course, is a man doing an impersonation of a woman).
Then there’s Jay-Z. This is the part of the show where I would normally go to the bathroom and/or get a drink.
The problem I have is not so much with Jay-Z, per se, as it is with rap “music” as an art form. (I hesitate to even call it “music” because music is inherently melodic and rap is more about rhythm, or saying words rhythmically to be precise.)
The most successful rap songs usually sample a melodic “hook” from a song such as Chic’s “Good Times” (Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) or Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”). Occasionally, there may be an original melodic line underneath (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”). Or, sometimes, the rhythm itself is catchy in a call-and-response way (Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”).
Similarly, Jay-Z’s best “songs” sample the work of songwriters like Alicia Keys (“New York State of Mind”) or Alphaville (“Forever Young”). And I’m sure no one was more surprised (or more happy to count their royalties) than Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin when Jay-Z decided to sample one of their songs from the Broadway musical Annie, “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”
OK, so the fact that my rap references are at least 30 years old may mean that I’m not exactly a rap connoisseur, but at least it gives you some idea of where I’m coming from. Hip-hop may have become the dominant force in pop culture, but when I hear lyrics like “H to the izz-O. V to the izz-A” (which even I have to admit is kind of catchy on a strictly rhythmic basis), my reaction is “Whaaaaat?”
But that explains why Jay-Z and Beyoncé can fill a stadium in Paris. Because minorities are the majority. And that’s why middle-aged white guys like me feel left out (unless we pretend we’re from the “’hood”).
It’s interesting, too, to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z appropriating aspects of “white” culture such as Bonnie and Clyde and punk rock. But I guess that means the culture has come full circle.
So when Beyoncé makes her last appearance in a fabulous dress that looks like the American flag (except its colors are black and white instead of red, white, and blue), it makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fuck You, New York

Increasingly, people are saying “Fuck you!” to New York.
Fuck the high prices, fuck the noise, fuck the crowds, fuck the rude behavior, fuck the subway. In short, “Fuck this shit, I’m outta here!”
As summer draws to a close and post-Labor Day reality sets in, you can practically feel the stress level in this city rising.
That’s because the population seems to double after Labor Day, as thousands of college students descend upon the city and all the rich assholes who make our lives hell the rest of the year return from their temporary haunts in the Hamptons and Fire Island.
No less a New York institution than the New York Times recently published an article about how people—particularly young people—are moving to second-tier cities in the Midwest, or what was formerly known as “flyover country.” The main thing driving this exodus, according to the story, is the high cost of housing in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
I also think the economy may have something to do with it. Sure, there may be more jobs here, but there’s also more competition for those jobs. Now you not only have to deal with the in-person interview, but also the phone interview, and sometimes even the screening interview. I’ve read stories about people who’ve endured as many as seven in-person interviews for the same job!
At a certain point you have to ask yourself, Is this really worth it?
I mean, what even makes New York so special anymore? I think many people, especially tourists and newcomers to the city, are coming here for some idealized version of New York that hasn’t existed in at least 40 years. They think they’re getting Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, but what they’re really getting is some watered-down version of Sex and the City: Sex and the City Lite.
Besides, don’t you have the same chain stores in your own city? So why even bother coming here?
We’re living in an era of empty bragging rights, where having a T-shirt with the words “New York” on it is supposed to signify something special, like a designer label or a selfie taken in front of some tourist attraction. It’s doesn’t. You don’t see New Yorkers walking around with “I Love New York” T-shirts. That’s because we live here. We know better!
I often find myself asking if there’s some other place where I could find a better quality of life. But I’m afraid of abandoning the limited advantages I do have: my friends, my network of job contacts, my rent-stabilized apartment. Besides, I can’t afford to move.
But what’s the point of living here—or doing anything for that matter—if it’s no longer enjoyable? So I can say, “I survived New York” (as if that’s something to brag about)?
Sure there are those rare only-in-New York moments where, say, you might see a celebrity on the street, but is that really worth mortgaging your life?
If anyone has the answer to this question, you’ll find me holed-up in my rent-stabilized apartment (because I can’t afford to go out) watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (because I can’t afford to move).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Social Media Paradox

 I’m burned-out on social media.
On the one hand, I feel like it’s nothing more than a vehicle for people’s pathetic need for attention, but at the same time I feel obligated to participate in it and am often guilty of the same things I criticize other people for doing. I’ve always maintained that “normal people” (i.e., the majority of people who aren’t in the creative professions and therefore don’t need to promote their work) don’t need to be on Facebook, except maybe to share photos with their family and friends. But in today’s society, where everyone is considered a “brand,” such thinking is probably naïve.
Add to that the fact that, like every other grass roots movement, it’s been taken over by big corporations, and you can probably sympathize with my point of view.
I find that most social media posts fall into one of two categories: bragging/promotion (either for one’s self or one’s political ideas) or the casual cruelty of making fun of other people.
I stopped posting my political beliefs some time ago, because I found that I was either preaching to the choir or preaching to people who didn’t care. Either way, I wasn’t going to change anyone’s opinion, so the only purpose it could have served was to show how noble, caring, or sensitive I was and my expectation to be “liked” accordingly.
Even when I share an article that I think someone might be interested in—without any personal agenda—people don’t click on it. It’s like you literally can’t ask people for a minute of their time anymore, so why bother?
The most famous example of my inability to accomplish anything using social media was my recent unsuccessful campaign to get long-term unemployment benefits extended. (OK, maybe some of that was the fault of our do-nothing Congress, which has passed fewer bills than any Congress in history, but I digress.) Despite posting over 5,000 tweets and making numerous media appearances, absolutely nothing happened. Long-term unemployment benefits weren’t extended, Congress continued to take endless vacations and not pass any bills, and our economy continued to deteriorate.
Nowadays when I look at Facebook or Twitter, it seems to be nothing but paid advertising, interspersed with the usual cute pictures of babies, kittens and/or puppies, vacation photos from people I rarely (or never) see in real life and, in general, things designed to arouse jealousy in the person looking at them.
I have almost 1,000 “friends” on Facebook, and yet for some reason it’s always the same ten people who show up in my news feed.
Some people I know have chosen to “opt out” of social media, either for a designated period of time or permanently. Those who do so permanently are still regarded by our society as “freaks,” but perhaps the tide may be turning.
Especially in light of recent articles about online bullying, is it surprising that Robin Williams’s daughter, to take but one example, chose to cancel her Twitter account?
Ultimately, the Internet is a reflection of us, but it often seems like it only reflects the worst aspects of human nature: our pettiness, our jealousy, and our tendency to reduce things to the lowest common denominator.
I recently spent an entire weekend carefully scripting and shooting a take-off of the Woody Allen movie Interiors. Even though it was barely over a minute long, I spent hours agonizing over the shots and dialogue, and I couldn’t wait to show it to my friends when I visited my boyfriend at the bar where he works. When I got there, one of the other employees was just as excited to show me a video on his cell phone: of someone bouncing off a fat woman’s stomach.
The latest tempest in a teapot has been the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a well-intentioned idea that has received more attention than the current wars in the Middle East or Ukraine and has deteriorated into the usual controversy. Some people see it as a harmless way to raise money for ALS, others see it as the latest example of people’s seemingly endless need for attention. Just today I read (on Facebook, I’ll admit it) that somebody died allegedly filming his own Ice Bucket Challenge.
Is our need for attention so great that we’re willing to die for it?
Or, to put it another way, if an ice bucket falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it really fall?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fire Island: You Can’t Go Home Again (Or Can You?)

The Belvedere
It’s been eight years since I was last on Fire Island and it seems to be experiencing a simultaneous renaissance and decline.
The Belvedere, the wedding cake of a hotel where I usually stay, has a fresh coat of paint and eye-popping new carpeting but, a block away, a showcase house near the beach seems abandoned and in need of serious maintenance.
The Ice Palace has gone upscale with video displays and a new dj booth, and there’s a newly rebuilt Pavilion (which was destroyed in a recent fire) in the Pines. But The Tides (formerly the Bay Leaf) sits empty, as does Sunsets on the Bay.
Promoter Daniel Naridicio has made headlines by bringing big-name entertainers such as Liza Minelli and Carol Channing to the Ice Palace on the weekend but, during the week, crowds empty out of the bar as soon as the show is over.
What is the message to be drawn here?
It’s ironic that the growing acceptance of gay people in society at large has caused the simultaneous decline of once exclusively gay places such as Fire Island and gay neighborhoods such as the West Village and Chelsea. The feeling now is that gay people don’t need those places anymore, but I would argue that they need them now more than ever, especially in a world where everything is increasingly homogenized.
I’ve heard reports during my most recent trip to Fire Island that the local police have been handing out tickets to people caught having sex in the infamous “meat rack” between the Pines and Cherry Grove. What could possibly be the motive for this? Are they attempting to make these communities “family friendly,” much the way the Giuliani administration did with Times Square in New York City? Isn’t it enough that there are already “family friendly” communities on Fire Island, such as Ocean Beach?
Some would argue (especially those older than I) that Fire Island peaked in the ’70s, before AIDS decimated an entire generation of gay men.
Being alive these days is like counting the rings inside a tree. You know how old someone is by how many places they can name that used to be something else. Before the Tides was the Bay Leaf, it was the Monster. (And before that, those older than I will recall, the Sandpiper.)
The restaurant that sits in the center of town in Cherry Grove used to be Michael’s before it burned down.
That other restaurant near the ocean used to be Rachel’s.
The new Pavilion

Who among the twenty-somethings now spending their first summer on Fire Island remembers (or cares) what the old Pavilion looked like?
This kind of change happens all the time in New York City but, for some reason, I find it more jarring on Fire Island.
I was devastated to learn that the first room I stayed in at the Belvedere (the Seasons) was recently cut in half to make room for a fire escape. Or that the pool was moved (and seems smaller).
Walking down the beach, I saw one house in the Pines that had its deck destroyed (probably in a recent hurricane) and another that had all the sand washed out from beneath its foundation.
On the other hand, I’m happy to report that my worst fears have not been realized and the Belvedere has not been turned into a Marriott (and it’s still, thankfully, all-male).
Fire Island will always have its natural beauty (I hope), but there are other things that may be even more fragile and cannot be replaced.
I will always remember my first time staying at the Belvedere. I was returning to the hotel at the end of a sensually overstimulating couple of days and, after climbing the spiral staircase to the second floor, noticed that the door to the room next to mine was slightly ajar and there was a full moon shining through the window.
Let’s just say that the vision shining through that window wasn’t the only full moon I saw that night.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

America: A Good Idea Gone Bad

 I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so apathetic about the Fourth of July fireworks. When the cashier at my local newsstand asked me if I was going to see the fireworks yesterday, I was like, “Nah, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.” (The crowds of tourists taking over my city doesn’t help, either.)
While that may be true, it dawned on me this morning that there may be some deeper reason why I don’t feel like taking party in this annual orgy of national celebration and chest-thumping: I’m embarrassed to be American.
Well, not exactly.
The truth is, I’m very proud to be American, if by American you mean the ideals set forth by our founding fathers, namely that this is a land of opportunity where all men (and women) are created equally. But lately it seems as if we’ve become a perversion of who we say we are and more people are coming to the realization that the system is rigged against us.
Once again, I’m looking at the very real possibility of being out of work, right after I spent nine painstaking months to find the job I currently have. Despite this week’s jobs report crowing about the best job numbers in years, the reality is that wages are stagnant and the number of people who have been unemployed for over six months is higher than it’s ever been.
This year, the Fourth of July fell against a backdrop of images of immigrant children showing up at our doorstep in huge numbers and being met by an equally large number of Americans (ironically, children of immigrants themselves) forming a human wall to keep them out. They might as well have been armed with pitchforks and torches, so ugly was this picture.
I admit, I’m at a loss for how to deal with this new wave of children arriving in our country. At the least, it strikes me as very irresponsible of their parents to send them on such a dangerous journey without an adult. (If I was a parent, I wouldn’t send my child unaccompanied to the corner deli for a quart of milk, let alone across several national borders! Remember Etan Patz?) On the other hand, the level of violence and lack of opportunity in their own country must be staggering for any parent to even consider this as a viable option.
But I digress.
On a whole host of issues, from abortion to gun control, it seems like the reality of our country is out of synch with its stated ideals. We pride ourselves on having individual choice and yet it’s become harder than ever for a woman to choose what to do with her own body. (And, even more frustratingly, those decisions are being made, primarily, by men.) We say that we’re a country that places the health and safety of our citizens above all else, and yet many of us don’t have access to healthcare, are affected by gun violence, or have to worry about the safety of our food and drinking water.
So, on this Fourth of July, I would urge every American to remember the country we say we are and work harder to make sure our government not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.
Happy Fourth, everyone!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Hedwig: Every “Inch” a Modern Major Musical

 At this point, there have been at least three incarnations of Hedwig and the Angry Inch: the original off-Broadway production starring Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell, the film version (again starring Mr. Mitchell), and now, an honest-to-God, big-budget Broadway production starring TV star, movie star, and ubiquitous host of the Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris. What’s remarkable about this show is that it has endured over the past 20 years and its trajectory mirrors that of not only the scrappy protagonist, but of the entire gay rights movement itself. Who could have imagined, 20 years ago, that gays would not only have the right to marry but would become so mainstream that they’re a running joke on both the Tony Awards and the Oscars? Equally astonishing is the fact that a show about a transsexual is now on Broadway, playing alongside not just one but two shows about transvestites (Kinky Boots, Casa Valentina), as well as the usual assortment of gay-themed shows (Mothers and Sons).  Part of the credit may go to the gay rights movement, but the other part belongs to the rock-solid credentials of this show.
In a sea of jukebox musicals (Beautiful, Jersey Girls, Midnight Blue) and original musicals that close overnight (Bridges of Madison County), this is that rarest of creatures: an original Broadway musical with staying power. When was the last time you walked out of an original musical and the songs were truly hummable? I don’t want to take anything away from Mr. Mitchell’s clever book, with its Borscht belt humor (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I don’t think enough credit has been given to Stephen Trask’s phenomenal, Bowie-inspired score. It now has to rank among the great works of American musical theater, alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Hedwig, in its stage version, is essentially a one-man/woman show, so it’s critical to find an actor with both the musical chops and the comic timing to pull it off. Needless to say, they’ve found that person in Neil Patrick Harris. Harris has proven his musical theater abilities in the recent concert staging of Company, as well as his recent Tony-hosting duties. He’s so effortlessly self-assured in this performance, it’s breathtaking! The one-hour-and-40-minute, intermissionless show breezes by with the immediacy of a rock concert.
There’s only one minor criticism I can think of: Some of the seats on the side of the orchestra (I had one such seat) have a partially obstructed view of the stage. Other than that, it’s hard to find fault with this production. It now takes its place in the musical theater canon as the very model of a modern major musical.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why Louie is the Best Drama on TV

 Some people may have been surprised when Louis CK was nominated for multiple Emmy Awards for his television series, Louie, last year. After all, he’s “just a comedian.” What does he know about acting, writing and directing (not to mention editing)?
I wasn’t. My only quibble was that he was nominated in the wrong category. He should have been nominated in the drama category.
Each episode of Louie unfolds like a miniature Woody Allen movie, from its beautifully-photographed New York locations to its jazz score. And it appears that Mr. CK has learned a lot from The Master and may even be his rightful heir, even though he works primarily in television.
Louis CK has been rightly praised for his willingness to take chances, whether it’s because he allows his scenes to go on “too long,” because he frequently places his characters in extremely uncomfortable situations, or because the episodes of his show sometimes seem to end abruptly, without tying up all the loose ends.
For me, one of the most amazing things about his show is the plotting. It’s like watching that improvisational exercise “Yes, but…,” only in this case it should be called “What if?” What if Louie bombed at a benefit in the Hamptons but wound up going home with a beautiful model who was in the audience? What if one of Louie’s neighbors got stuck in an elevator and asked him to get her medication from her apartment but, when he did, he found her niece sleeping on the couch? You truly never know where the plot is going to go when you watch Louie, and that’s what makes it great.
Another thing I love about this show is the way it routinely breaks into the absurd, such as when Louie is awakened by noisy garbage men in one episode and they literally break into his apartment, jumping up and down on his bed while continuing to bang their garbage cans. Or the Time Warner Cable-like message he listens to, which drones on about how awful their service is.
Curiously, Louis CK is the kind of comedian who doesn’t necessarily make me laugh all the time, but I enjoy listening to him because he’s interesting. Oftentimes, I find his stand-up segments to be the weakest part of the show. (I’m sure I’ve just destroyed my comedy career by saying that!) There are more laughs per minute in the more cleverly written Silicon Valley than there are on Louie. But that’s not why I watch it.
I watch it because Louie delves as deeply into the human condition as any episode of Breaking Bad. Like this week’s episode, where an overweight woman talks for an uncomfortably long time about how hard it is for fat women to meet men, while at the same time underscoring how easy it is for a similarly overweight man like Louie to meet women. Or the episode where he breaks up with a girlfriend at a diner: another uncomfortably long conversation. One of the other great things about Louis CK is the way he’s able to put himself in the place of other characters, particularly women.
So the next time the Emmy Awards roll around, I expect Louie to be recognize for what it is: the best drama on TV.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TV Scorecard

Since almost every network has now decided to schedule all its best programs on Sunday night, I’ve had to become ruthless in my choice of what shows I decide to watch. If I don’t like it after two episodes, you’re out! After all, I’d gotten to the point where I was recording so many shows on my DVR, it had steam coming out of it! Plus, I recently signed up for a free month on Netflix. I’m so backed up on my TV viewing, I need a bottle of Kaopectate!
So let’s get to work, shall we?
Weeks of anticipation have been building (for some people) for the premiere of Game of Thrones. I myself had never watched it previously, so I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I was quickly reminded of why there are entire genres of entertainment I don’t watch.
In short, Game of Thrones has every fantasy cliché imaginable: dragons coexisting with humans, made-up languages and, of course, an English cast. (Americans will buy anything if you say it with an English accent.) Somehow, Peter Dinklage manages to steal every scene he’s in. It’s as if there’s a little twinkle in his eye that says he knows how ridiculous this show is (or maybe it’s just my imagination, having seen his comedic performance in the movie The Baxter). Nevertheless, after two episodes, I still didn’t know what the hell was going on (I guess you have to have watched it from the beginning) and even the promise of male frontal nudity (cf. South Park) was not enough to keep my attention. Game Dethroned.
Similarly, I had heard a lot about Veep and I’ve always loved Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld (and even in her recent movie, Enough Said), so I had high hopes for this one, too, even though the commercials made it sound like the characters were just saying things for shock value. (Those characters would never say those things in real life, at least not in public.) Unfortunately, when I watch Veep, I feel like I’m attending a long status meeting at work. The characters are constantly talking at each other but not really relating to each other and, consequently, I don’t feel anything. Furthermore, none of the characters is remotely likeable, and I really don’t want to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing a jerk.
At first I thought I didn’t like Veep because Washington and politics are essentially boring. But so is Silicon Valley, so why does Silicon Valley work while Veep doesn’t? The answer is because Silicon Valley is funny. I don’t think I laughed once during either episode of Veep.
Sure, all the characters are socially inept to the point that they seem autistic, but that’s probably how they are in real life, too. They also all speak in that annoying “upspeak” common to millennials but, again, that’s probably true to life as well.
Another early casualty of Sunday night was Mr. Selfridge (no Downton Abbey, that!). I just don’t like Jeremy Piven. Maybe it’s that whole Speed the Plow/sushi scandal. He’s like a black hole in the middle of Mr. Selfridge. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t want to see an American actor in an English show. Unless it’s Peter Dinklage.
One consequence of all the quality programming available Sunday night is that I’ve had to re-examine what I watch on other nights as well. I’m embarrassed to say that I used to watch a lot of shows on Bravo but, lately, it’s been banished from my viewing schedule. One guilty pleasure that might hang on, however, is Million Dollar Listing New York. Like every New Yorker, I’m obsessed with real estate, so this show, while ostensibly a reality show, functions on several levels. Of course what really makes this show (or any reality TV show) work is the casting. Why hasn’t SNL done a parody of this show? Luis, with his towering pompadour that makes him look like an ice cream cone, his obsequious smile and his inappropriate sexual humor; Fredrik, with his cartoon-like exclamation of “Zing!” every time he makes a sale and his Scandinavian aloofness; Ryan, with his smug self-assurance made tolerable only by his occasional self-deprecation. I can easily see Taran Killam playing all of those roles with relish.
Another show (on TV Land) that’s currently on life support (no pun) is Hot in Cleveland. I like a good three-camera sitcom as much as the next guy (OK, maybe more than the next guy) and it can be good when it’s well written but, more often than not, it’s a waste of talent.
Let’s hope that Mad Men (on AMC) picks up the slack.