Monthly Archives: October 2015

Buried Treasure

When Billy Wilder is remembered at all, it is for classics such as Sunset Blvd., The Apartment, Double Indemnity, even Stalag 17 or Sabrina. Unfortunately, there is one picture that I consider better than almost all of them and almost no one has seen it. It’s called Ace in the Hole and stars Kirk Douglas.

Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter slowly working his way to the bottom. He’s been fired from big newspapers and shows up in a small town out west to offer his services to their paper. He’s slick, tells them he can save them money by asking for less than his usual salary. They’re not hiring, don’t pay as much as he wants anyway. Nevertheless, he convinces them that they need him.

He’s soon on his way to cover an inconsequential story he clearly has no actual interest in covering. Accompanied by the staff photographer, they stop for gas at a tourist place where people can buy genuine Indian artifacts from the grounds nearby, including a mine just across a large field.

No one is around, however. Just an old woman fervently praying. Turns out her son, who owns the place with his wife, is trapped in the mine. A section has collapsed and he’s been injured. Seizing on the opportunity to exploit this human interest story for all it’s worth, and thereby regaining his former glory, Tatum works with authorities to rescue the man. He convinces the wife – who was literally on her way to catch the next bus to bigger and better things – to stay. It’ll be good for the story, he says. And he convinces rescuers to drill in from the top, a process that will take longer than the alternative, but is supposedly safer.

As word gets out, eager onlookers begin to show at the site. “Is this where that guy is trapped in the mine?” they ask. It sure is. And for just a small fee, they can stand around and watch the drill working to free him. Before long, the field is full of gawkers. Business is booming. There’s even rides for the kids.

Tatum occasionally visits the man. There’s an opening big enough to talk through and even pass small objects such as food. Tatum assures him that the drillers are working hard and will have him out as soon as they can. Yes they’re taking the long way but it’s safer. Honest.

Tatum may be able to talk his way out of just about anything, but this picture never ceases to be bleak. There is never any genuine optimism or hope. It is easy therefore, to see why it failed twice (it was also released with the title The Big Carnival). There is no happy ending. There is no one to root for or side with. This is Wilder at his most cynical showing us a side of human nature that none of us wants to face.

If anyone thinks morbid curiosity is a recent invention, think again. This picture was released in 1951, when the popular medium for news and entertainment was still radio. They didn’t have 24-hour news channels, live streaming, or internet so none of those things are to blame for human beings being awful to each other or genuinely enjoying each other’s suffering. Why do passersby slow down when they pass a car accident? For the same reasons people in horse-drawn wagons did the same thing. It’s not so we want to help. It’s because we want to watch. We want to think we got the inside scoop. It’s an ugly, ugly side to us, and it is nothing new.

Ace in the Hole is a picture far ahead of its time, but it seems audiences may never be ready for it. In 1997, a picture called Mad City starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman vaguely tried to retell the same story. It also bombed (I didn’t see it so it is entirely possible it just wasn’t very good).  As always, however, Wilder’s writing is nearly flawless, the story compelling enough to make you want to see it through to the end, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. And, despite his hatred for trick camera shots – he always said directors should not be seen – the final scene is not to be missed.

If you have any interest in Wilder’s work, Kirk Douglas, or simply great filmmaking, I highly recommend this one. If you know me, I might even lend it to you – or invite you over to watch it with me so I have an excuse to geek out.

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Uncensored

Barbara Stanwyck was a badass. She may have only been 5’5” and skinny, but there was never any doubt that she was capable of fucking you over. And if she didn’t, she always had connections to people who would (Ball of Fire). I first fell in love with her in Double Indemnity. And who wouldn’t? She was the ultimate femme fatale who wielded her power over Fred MacMurray from the second she appeared on screen, looming over him wearing nothing but a towel and an anklet.
 
I’ve never had time to accumulate or watch as many pictures of hers as I would like, but I have started exploring some of her pre-code work. One picture in particular, Baby Face from 1933 is fascinating. Although Hollywood had adopted the Hays Code, a misguided attempt to keep films moral and not corrupt audiences, in 1930, its principals weren’t actually enforced until 1934. Until then, it was anything goes, especially when it came to female sexuality.
 
There are two versions of Baby Face. The differences are quite revealing, and proof that there were limits even in the pre-code era. In each version, the basic story is the same. Stanwyck’s character, Lily, works in her father’s speakeasy. When he dies in a still explosion, she escapes to New York with her friend Chico, a black woman who had also worked for Lily’s father. Her exact role is unclear – she’s more personal assistant than maid – but what I think is easy to ignore today is that Lily treats her very nearly as an equal throughout the picture. As Lily’s place in society rises, so does Chico’s. This is one of my favorite aspects of the film.
 
As soon as Lily and Chico are on the train to the big city, Lily starts using her feminine wiles to get ahead. When a porter finds the women stowed away in a boxcar, she seduces him. Once in the city, she seduces a human resources guy in order to get a job. We literally watch her sleep her way to the top for the rest of the picture. Every time she succeeds with a man in a higher position, the camera cuts to the outside of the office building and pans up a couple of more floors.
 
The differences come largely at the beginning and end. In an argument with her father, there is a line in the unedited version where Lily basically accuses him of pimping her out as early as age 14. I find this rather startling – today, the entire picture would probably be based on the effects of this little factoid. But the released version cut it altogether. Further, before leaving for the city, Lily meets with another older man who is much more of a father figure than her actual father. In the unedited version, he encourages her to read Nietzsche and then go use men the way they use women. He clearly means this in a sexual way and might as well have said, “fuck ‘em all.” Later, he writes to her in the city and expresses pride in how she’s living her life.
 
In the edited version, however, he simply sends her on her way. Later, when he writes to her, he expresses disappointment in what she’s doing. The endings are also radically different with opposite outcomes for our heroine. The running time in the released version is about five minutes less than in the unedited version and yet, those five minutes make all the difference. The seduction scenes are a little longer, and it’s a little more obvious exactly what she’s up to.
 
So why so many changes? The reasons seem to be lost now. In fact, the picture itself wasn’t found for decades after its release and then the second version was found almost by accident. So many pictures from that time have been destroyed or corroded due to neglect that we seem to be lucky to have both versions at all.
 
Make what you will of the changes. Personally, I find it an interesting study in how little has changed over the past 80 years. Hollywood likes to make assumptions about what audiences will accept and what they won’t. Others want to limit art and any expression of controversial ideas. But those ideas can’t be repressed forever. They will always find a way out. Always. Even if they’ve been buried in a pile of celluloid in the back of a studio’s warehouse.

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Defending Feminism

I literally do not understand how every woman alive is not a feminist. I realize that may sound snarky or like a misuse of the word literally, but I assure you it’s neither. For me, being a feminist is the simple belief that women should be allowed the same opportunities and choices as men. End of story.

I do not hate men. I am not seeking any type of revenge on men. I have no interest in cutting men completely out of my life or never sleeping with another man. Yes, I believe trans*women should be included as women. And I’m aware that there are factions that would disagree with me on one or more, or even all of these points. But none of them have any effect on my basic desire stated above – equality for all, regardless of race, religion, or class.

Unfortunately, some of these factions – second-wave feminism, TERFs, etc – have negatively colored some people’s perceptions of feminism so much that they’ve distanced themselves from the term altogether. Part of me understands. Who would want to be associated with such extreme views unless you held those views?

But to me, that’s like believing the Bible is true, but not calling yourself a Christian because of Westboro Baptist Church. Sure they get the press, along with people like Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum. When I was a Christian, I dreaded stories on people like this. Each time some religious bigot made the news, I wanted to scream about all the decent people I knew who were quietly living their lives according to actual biblical teachings of love, forgiveness, and inclusion.

Admittedly, when I was in college, I stopped referring to myself as Baptist because these stories always seemed to revolve around someone who also identified as Baptist. I did want to distance myself from them. But my core beliefs weren’t changed because of other people’s actions and I didn’t stop being a Christian because of them.

Instead, I took every opportunity to defend my fellow Christians and let people know that most of us weren’t like the ones making headlines. I still maintain that a great number of Christians are good people. I have nothing against them as a group even if we have increasingly little in common.

I’ve also seen women in the kink community – especially women who identify as a submissive or slave – say they aren’t feminists. To some degree, I understand this too. If you’ve given up your rights to another person and constantly defer to them in decision making, I can see where you might think of yourself as less than equal or somehow not deserving of all rights. This is simplified and by no means does it apply to all submissive women. It’s only my take on what I’ve read, and I’d very much appreciate hearing more from someone with this point of view so I could understand it better.

For now, all I really have is my perspective. And when I identified as a submissive, there was definitely a little soul searching that went into using that label. How could I reconcile being a feminist when I was giving over authority to a man?

It was my choice. That’s how I reconciled it. I chose to surrender some control to one specific man. I wasn’t less valuable than him. My opinion mattered (most of the time). And I hadn’t been forced into my role. It wasn’t society or a religious book that said being at his feet was my rightful place. It was me. And I still maintain that being able to make that choice instead of having it forced on us by societal and/or religious norms is feminism at work.

Because of feminism, I am allowed to vote. Because of feminism, I am allowed to work outside the home. Because of feminism, I was able to attend whatever college I wanted based on my merits, not my sex (and yes, I see the inherent privilege here – I paid my way through about half of college and took out loans for the rest, something not everyone is able to do). Because of feminism, I get to decide whether I get married at all, or have children (admittedly, there’s plenty of work to do on this one, but my own privileged placed in society has dictated neither).

A hundred years ago, we didn’t even have the vote. Higher education for women was not a given. Single women living on their own and supporting themselves was still unusual. Is there a woman who truly wants to go back to that without having the option to live another way? Who would impose that on all women and not just themselves? If so, I’d truly love to hear from you as well – I want to know what that perspective is like.

As for me, I’m going to stick to the radical belief that all women should be allowed the same options. I know I haven’t touched on class or race, or any of the other intersectional factors that play into this. Again, all I can really speak to is my own experience, and I’d rather not try to speak for other people. There are others who can – and do – speak extremely well to these topics.

Look, there’s a lot of work to be done. So why not get to it instead of fighting with each other over who should be included or whether someone is feminist enough. We need to stand up for ourselves and each other because our numbers are vast (the stats I found showed us at just over 50% of the population in the US). We are human and we deserve better.

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What My Depression Sounds Like

I got the idea for this from a friend? Acquaintance? I don’t know what the right word here is – how about person on my friends list who I’m not particularly close with but who I think is cool? Yeah, that’s more like it. They recently put up a series of Facebook posts detailing what their depression sounds like in their head. I saw a lot of people who were able to relate, myself included. So while I’m a little afraid that is really just going to suck, these are some of the thoughts swirling around my head. Might as well try to exorcise them, right?

To be clear, I have a very low grade depression. It comes and goes, and is rarely severe enough to worry me to any degree. It’s just sort of a low buzz in the background that I’ve gotten used to and can mostly cope with. Relatively speaking, I have it pretty good and I’m well aware of that. While I have occasionally considered counseling and/or medication, I have so far been able to come back to some semblance of normal on my own or with the support of awesome friends. Other times, meditation has been a tremendous help.

So here goes…

“That person doesn’t really like you. In fact, no one actually likes you.” I’ve said it before. I was picked on a lot as a kid. Maybe not to the point of bullying, but that line is fuzzy. I didn’t know real friendship until I was nearly an adult. So there’s still that little part of my brain that finds it hard to believe that anyone is my friend at all. And sometimes it takes nothing to bring these thoughts on, or something so insignificant that I am stunned at the power of my own reaction.

Here’s an example. I was recently at a public party for a friend’s birthday. Another friend walked in once the party was already in full swing. Somehow, they managed to walk past me and not notice me. Once they realized their mistake, they apologized profusely, but my brain had already kicked into overdrive and was having none of it. Dude, seriously? We like this person. We know they meant no harm. But what place does logic have in such times, right?

One of the popular variants of this one is, “they only like you for your girlfriend. They only want you around if she’s with you.” And, you know, she just happens to be super awesome, wicked smart, and the most laid back person I know. I literally know no one who doesn’t like her. But my brain interprets this as people only liking her and not me. It’s that simple.

“Your work isn’t good enough. There’s not enough sex. It’s too close to 50 Shades. Why would anyone want to publish it when there’s more talk than steamy sex? Look at all these other writers who have already done this? And so much better too.” This one is self-explanatory right? It’s similar to the insecurities faced by every writer ever. But it’s also stopping me from putting the time in to get my work out to publishers. I procrastinate and put it off by doing other important stuff instead, when if I really wanted to be sending it out and marketing it, I would be.

Which leads to, “You’re not doing enough. Everyone else who doesn’t get everything done in a day that they want to has an excuse, but not you. You’re just being lazy. Why couldn’t you have made time for one more thing? It’s not that hard…” Being tired after a long day at work and getting ready to vend at cons couldn’t possibly be enough right? I should always be doing more. You know, if I had applied myself, I probably would have had a big publishing contract ages ago. It’s totally my fault that I don’t. Right? While that might technically be true, it’s not like I haven’t had other, legitimate and totally valid reasons get in the way.

Looking at all of these logically, now, while I’m in a decent mood and feeling accomplished, they all look ridiculous. When one of them wakes me up at 3 a.m., or tickles the back of my brain while I’m making plans with people I like, they’re a pain in the ass, and it’s all too easy to believe them. More often than not, I win these little battles, but other times…well, I have a feeling some of you know exactly what that’s like and I only hope that you can take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. You never have to face those voices alone. If you’re reading this, we’re likely friends and I will always do what I can to counteract what I’ve come to think of as the brain hamsters. They may find their way back to that little wheel but together, maybe we can give them a break and let them rest.

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Bitch

Am I a bitch or do I simply have different experiences with some people than others do?

I’ve been struggling with this one a lot lately. I tell myself that I have been around long enough to know a little more and see a few patterns emerge, that being part of leadership exposed me to sides of people, especially other people in similar positions, that not everyone else sees.

But I’m also naturally critical, often overly so, and I own that. While my father is very much like his mother, eager to see the best in everyone, reserving judgment until it’s actually due, my mother is the opposite. She has always appeared to me to be far too harsh, finding fault in every little thing and never giving any benefit of the doubt. I say this not to excuse my actions, but to explain their origins.

I find myself vacillating between these two poles. I will give people I like every chance in the world. Once you’re on my good side, it’s hard to get off it. But the opposite is also true. Once I dislike someone, it can be difficult for them to get back in my good graces. Not that I think the people highest on my shit list actually, well, give a shit.

I will say this – I do my best to be objective, to keep emotion out and use only hard evidence against someone, whether it is something I witnessed myself or knowledge passed on from a trusted source (and by trusted, I mean I know the person to be honest and reliable). I do my best to avoid the rumor mill and rely on what I can prove.

It’s actually not that easy to land on my shit list either. You have to display a pattern of pretty awful behavior, over a considerable amount of time. The problem is that people I have the biggest problems with tend to be prominent. They’re in leadership or well known for some other reason. So when their names inevitably come up in conversation, my first reaction is usually less than enthusiastic.

Even so, I rarely try to vilify someone. I can find something nice, something positive to say about just about anyone. Most of the time, however, those positive traits aren’t the first to spring to mind. And if by some miracle, I manage to simply not say anything, I’m pretty sure my face reveals the truth every time. I long ago gave up any illusion that I possess subtlety.

Most of the time, I just try to give people both sides. “Hey, this is the type of experience I’ve had, but I also know this other awesome thing to be true so you decide.” Or “these are the various experiences I’ve had with this person…”

Still, I feel like a bitch for not just falling in line and worshipping at the same altars as everyone else. I miss the early days when I didn’t know so much, when everything seemed so perfect. I’m nostalgic for a time when I went to parties and looked forward to seeing…everyone.

But we’re people right? I’m sure not everyone looks forward to seeing me either. Likely they’re the same people I don’t look forward to seeing too. I’m okay with that. Because for every person who annoys me, there are three others who I absolutely adore. And I do my best to talk them up.

In the end, I guess all I can hope for is balance.

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