Romy Shiller

Archive for November, 2015|Monthly archive page

TV Review: QUEER AS FOLK

In 3rd Wave Feminism, Television on November 30, 2015 at 8:36 am

QAF

It’s Monday night. I’m in the living room. My boyfriend is in the bedroom. I’m wearing my sexy black teddy, mules with gentle pink feathers dangle from my perfectly pedicured feet, my lips are swathed in a lipstick called Fatal Femme. It’s a holy time and I want to be ready. My fireplace roars. My popcorn is poised for the new season of Queer As Folk. Like many women across the country who watch the show – fifty-two percent according to the Nielsen ratings in 2001, and growing – I’m addicted. I am not alone.

“At the beginning it really surprised me,” says Queer As Folk producer Sheila Hockin. “All of us working on the show, Showtime in the States and Showcase in Canada , expected to have predominantly a gay male audience.” Because most of the lead characters are male, the assumption was that “the group of people portrayed would likely be the people watching the show. It startled us in the beginning and at first we thought that maybe we’re drawing gay women.” After reviewing fan mail and Web sites about the show they realized it was a lot of straight women.

When openly-gay actor Robert Grant, who plays Michael Novotny’s (Hal Sparks) HIV+ lover Ben, appeared on The Mike Bullard Show, he noted that the women “like the cute guys. They relate to the stories or whatnot, but here’s the key… I found out that the truth is, women love to watch two guys getting it on! I was really surprised by this… it’s always, guys like to watch two women… socialization-wise.” Hot male bodies in action are a big part of the draw. Surprise! We could stop right there if that was all there was to the show’s fascination for women – there’s a hell of a lot more action happening in gay porn that could satisfy a Betty’s need to see Studly getting it on with Dudly.

So what exactly are women getting all wet over? What kinds of identifications are women hooking into? Women are creating their own gender performances in fantasy and play in ways that make gender go nuclear. Straight women watching Queer as Folk might be the ultimate Queer quotient. Femininity and masculinity, associated with “appropriate” sexual identification and desire, is suddenly attached to culturally inappropriate male and female bodies. There is an explosion of identification: girls desiring straight boys playing gay boys. Girls wanting to be a feminine boy kissing a butch boy. Girls wanting to be taken by or wanting to take a gay/straight boy. Girls romanticizing gay desire and freedom of sexual play.

What we are experiencing now is Gender Meltdown.

Why women find QAF appealing finds part of its answer in Hockin’s musing that “women find it erotic and sensual to watch.” Queer representations, however, transform the relationship the straight female audience has with the erotic and sensual, triggering new kinds of identifications because women need to take a leap not usually necessary in traditional (straight) television dramas or comedies.

Eroticism and sensuality are intertwined with romantic situations and dramas housed in queer cloth. Still, women are wrapped up in it. “Women are drawn to the working out of romantic relationships,” says Hockin. “And how people negotiate relationships. The power-plays. There are Ethan-Justin fan groups…a whole group of people on the Web called BJshippers – Brian-Justin Worshippers. People are so heavily invested in that relationship. [The executive producers] Ron [Cowen] and Dan [Lipman] think of Brian and Justin as one of the great Romantic couples.”

Hal Sparks plays the sweet and dysfunctional-enough-to-be-believed Michael Novotny, Brian Kinney’s (Gale Harold) best friend. I ask him what aspects of his character might appeal to women. He replies: “His sweetness. His vulnerability and his habit of binge eating comfort food when he gets upset.”

In a more serious vein, he feels there are common romantic identifications. “This is the first time many women have seen what they go through with their husbands and boyfriends portrayed honestly on screen. Most straight relationships on TV are told in an incomplete, male-focused way.” Sparks says that women relate “with a combination of deep rooted teary-eyed understanding and throw popcorn at the screen in frustration. I think we all can relate to unrequited love in some way.”

For straight women, buying into the show’s romance and eroticism is more complex – it is something of an identity juggling act. Keeping all the balls up in the air becomes especially convoluted in the worship of the actors. After all, to fall for one of the boys on QAF is often to fall for a straight boy playing a gay boy. Sparks has been upfront about being straight: “A very small section of the fan base gets angry every time I say I’m straight because they are under the impression that I ask to be asked so that I can say, ‘I’m straight, thanks for asking – here’s 10 bucks,’ and distance myself from the show. In my heart I know this criticism comes from people who have been severely marginalized by our culture and fear it will get worse.”

You may as well be desiring Matt Damon for all the chance you actually have of seeing Michael or Brian waltz through your door at the end of the day. But there is the illusion of possibility that is tempting beyond the illusion. And obviously, you might be falling for a gay boy too. In any case, the so-called secure straight identities actors have in distinguishing themselves from their characters gets blurred. They have kissed and often been naked with members of the same sex, after all. In character or not. Juggling the object-of-desire’s ambiguous sexuality is part of the straight fan’s own gender performance. The object she desires says something about her own sexual play and sexual orientation.

The show brings role-playing to the surface. Femininity is not necessarily female and masculinity male. On QAF there are traditional roles taken on by both sexes. Females, such as Melanie Marcus (Michelle Clunie) take on a traditionally masculine role as the provider for the family and it could be said that Justin, played by openly-gay Randy Harrison, takes on the femme role to Brian’s über-butch. Gale Harold plays a gay man objectifying men in the way that some men have historically objectified women. Brian’s total bad-boy hotness is reminiscent of the womanizer seen on soaps from suds past, collapsing a traditional (straight) male archetype with a butch gay one. Hal Sparks notes, “Ironically, even though the relationships on the show are predominately male-male, since one person must take on the feminine role, women get to see their struggle played out more fully.” Women might find a certain reflection of themselves in a gay ‘feminine-role-playing’ man on TV. Or a butch one.

The toss-up of conventional roles creates a grab bag of lust opportunity and gender play. Sheila Hockin elaborates: “A lot of straight women wildly romanticize Brian Kinney. There is some commentary on the Web, straight women talking about sexual fantasies to do with the characters, where they want to be a guy Brian kisses. They don’t want to be a woman. It all gets very gender-bending.” Women are not just taking a peek as themselves, replacing characters on the screen (Justin, for example) with their pretty, pouty faces, they’re also masquerading as gay males. Gender Meltdown.

With all the hype about women getting turned on by the gaze, straight women are also watching women getting it on. And this is something we don’t usually hear about. How do straight women relate to the lesbians on the show? Exit the Professor, enter Ginger and Mary-Ann.

The lovely Michelle Clunie plays Melanie Marcus, the somewhat butchier partner to Thea Gills’s Lindsay Peterson. Speaking from “my own perspective as a straight woman,” Clunie describes what turned her on to the show. “Before this I never saw two women making love in real life or in the theatre or in a porno or anywhere. I know the first time I saw the pilot, I thought ‘wow that’s kind of hot, I never thought about that before.’ I think a lot of straight women are re-thinking ménages-à-trois. I mean, there has always been this fantasy of two women for guys. This puts the shoe on the other foot.” She goes further by saying, “In a way because there is so much male nudity on the show and so much male sex on the show, it’s almost like we’re objectifying men.”

Women are also re-evaluating the ménages-à-trois players. “I’ve even heard women say ‘wow, I wonder what it would be like to be with two men?’” says Clunie. “One boyfriend of a girl came to this party and he said something like ‘do you want me to kiss a guy?’ because the girl watched Queer As Folk and she was really into the guy-guy thing. I think that it’s opening up a whole sexual layer to explore. And I think that’s wonderful and great and why not?” The exploration of sexual layers between ‘straight’ couples takes the term to task… It’s almost as though a new language needs to be created to accommodate the play involved in watching the show.

While the straight female fan hoopla is intriguing, there have been concerns on the fan chat-boards. One gay fan feels that the straight fans are given more credibility, that it means more to the show that there are female viewers, “sorta like AIDS didn’t mean anything until straights were affected…can’t exactly explain why this hits me so oddly, but it does.” Another fan worries the show might change to attract straight fans: “It may be cable but it’s still commercial American television and that is all about numbers, ratings and demographics.”

I asked Hal Sparks and Melanie Clunie if their performances were affected by the knowledge that they had a huge het female fan base and they both replied in the negative. Clunie’s primary goal was, “to be true to my character.” Sparks says, “My only real focus is on interpreting the script as close to the writer’s intention as I can. The British show had a big female fan base with no help from me. So, I just try to stay out of the way. Let Michael live without my ego getting involved at all.”

Producer Sheila Hockin is adamant that the writers have only been concerned with depicting the characters from their own gay, cultural perspective and that the story would not shift to accommodate a straight female audience. Rather the stories would grow, like the characters, from clubbing to different growth-oriented gay priorities and concerns. “The show has never been written for straight women,” says Hockin.

So what does this mean?

It isn’t surprising to find women subtextually replacing Justin with themselves or with an altered gay male version of self. That is what queers have been doing for decades, watching TV shows that didn’t represent their desire. What gay man hasn’t been Scarlett to Rhett or J. Lo to Ben?

In fact, straight women might be the ultimate Queer quotient when it comes to watching Queer as Folk by inhabiting that twilight-zone, the marginal, the Other – qualities of the Queer that are seemingly taking a lovey-dovey hiatus from the show within a gay context irrespective of a straight female fan base.

Women now have fantasy access to back rooms they could never get into before. The straight female fans might be fags in mental drag; they might be Queer as folk.

• Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama and Film. Her academic areas of concentration include gender performance, camp and critical thought.

Books are available online. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing.

 FAB Magazine, Number 213,  April 23, 2003,  12-17

Trainwreck

In Comedy, Film, Romance on November 23, 2015 at 8:30 am

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About: [from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia] Trainwreck is a 2015 American romantic comedy film directed by Judd Apatow and written by Amy Schumer. The film stars Schumer and Bill Hader along with an ensemble cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, John Cena and LeBron James.

Plot: Gordon Townsend [Colin Quinn] is telling his two young daughters Amy (Devin Fabry) and Kim (Carly Oudin) that he and their mother are divorcing because monogamy isn’t realistic. Twenty-three years later, Amy [Amy Schumer] is a party girl who drinks too much, smokes weed and sleeps around while dating a gym-addict named Steven [John Cena]

Instead of Titanic you get Trainwreck. The film uses the comparison metaphorically and then throws it away in the recycling bin. I adore that this film opens on a ferry and not a ship. I adore that Schumer recreates Winslet’s “I’m flying” pose. I adore that our lead female reinvents herself and the romantic comedy genre. In a voice-over she says that she hopes the romantic montage is over soon and that it ends like Jonestown [suicide]. Judd Apatow’s involvement means that the tone will be irreverent – and it is.

Judd Apatow tells Variety that he discovered Amy Schumer on the Howard Stern show: I come at everything as a fan. I’m just like a kid who sat in his room and watched Merv Griffin all day long. So every once in a while I’ll hear something and say, “That’s my favorite comedian.”

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I was in my car. I was not that familiar with Amy Schumer’s standup. She was talking to Howard Stern, and she was so engaging. She was talking about her dad having MS and what her relationship is like with him. It was very dark and sad, but also very sweet and hilarious and she clearly adores him. I thought, “This is a very unique personality and I’d like to see these stories in movies.”

So, Schumer plays a woman who has many one-night stands and is scared of intimacy. She meets a sports-doctor on a writing assignment and falls in love. She is very unconventional which does make this a unique rom-com.

I think that she resonates with many men and women. Love and intimacy are not perfect things. They’re far from a romantic montage and even if there is a desire for perfection there are, most often, issues to deal with.

Schumer has a difficult time just ‘trusting’ and most of her relationships follow her father’s older warning that ‘monogamy is unrealistic.’ Her initial love-interest played by John Cena leaves her cold and not emotionally attached. She is not monogamous and has many one-night stands. He learns of this and claims that he wanted to marry her. Her response to his distress is that she is too ‘high’ for this conversation. Her ‘reality’ is being high or absent from important moments. She does not live in the present in a way that involves her at all.

When she meets a man who calls after sex she assumes he is insane. He dashes her expectations of casual encounters. This might not be a ‘casual encounter’ after all.

TV World says: Three-time Emmy® nominee Amy Schumer (“Inside Amy Schumer”) stars as a commitment-phobic journalist in Trainwreck, the film Fandango calls “the funniest movie of the year.”


Schumer takes her undeniable talents to the big screen tossing aside rom-com conventions with a timely and outrageously funny portrait of an unapologetically independent career woman whose hard-partying personal life is turned upside down when she meets Mr. Might-Be-Right. Directed and produced by comedy guru Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “Girls”), Trainwreck UNRATED arrives on Blu-ray™ & DVD with even more hysterical moments, including deleted scenes, gag reel, line-o-rama & more!

I think that part of my fascination with this film is the tension between Schumer’s obvious dislike of the rom-com genre and her performance in a rom-com. She is contextualized but not constrained by the genre. Huh.

Also brilliant is a black and white film within this film. “The Dogwalker” starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei is playing at a movie theatre Schumer attends. It is hysterical, really.

The thing is, the film in theatres was more politically correct and less ‘offensive’ but well edited. The DVD may be closer to the script, but it is less good than the film was in theatres. It was too long and did feel like some stuff needed to be cut. I am truly sorry to say this.

Bill Hader tells Collider that it was hard to play the romantic lead:

You want to get the balance right. I couldn’t be funny, in the way that I am on SNL. You just can’t be that funny, in this movie. I have to see a side in her that she doesn’t even see in herself. I’m in love with her, and I’m accepting of her, in some ways, and not accepting in others. There’s this balance that you have to have. It’s very easy to try to put in a lot of jokes, but it would have ruined the relationship. I feel like, even on the set, Judd probably thought I was going to be funnier. He was like, “Don’t you want to try something?” and I was like, “No, I’m good with just that.”

Hader’s efforts of being realistic pay off. He is a good foil to his wacky love-interest. His earnestness lends credibility to her putting ‘trust’ in him. We do want them to end up together and we root for her to overcome her issues because he is worthy.

Hader is excellent and Schumer witty. My nit picking about certain flaws should not keep you away from the DVD.

Spy

In Film, review on November 10, 2015 at 8:44 am
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About: [from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia] Spy is a 2015 American action comedy film written and directed by Paul Feig. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, and Jude Law, the film follows the transformation of desk-bound CIA analyst Susan Cooper (McCarthy) into a field agent who attempts to foil the black market sale of a suitcase nuke.

Distributed by 20th Century and produced by Feigo Entertainment and Chernin Entertainment, the film was theatrically released on June 5, 2015. Upon release, the film received critical acclaim and has grossed over $236 million worldwide.

Plot: Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a desk-bound CIA analyst guiding her partner Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on a mission to Varna from a CIA office in the Washington, D.C. area. Fine accidentally kills Tihomir Boyanov without first finding a suitcase nuke whose location is known only to Boyanov. Meanwhile, the agency learns that Boyanov’s daughter Rayna (Rose Byrne) might know the location of her father’s device, so they send Fine to infiltrate her home. However, Rayna shoots Fine dead while Susan watches online. Rayna knows the identities of all the agency’s top agents, including Fine and Rick Ford (Jason Statham). Susan, who is unknown to Rayna, volunteers to become a field agent, and her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), agrees. Ford quits in disgust over Susan being chosen for the assignment.

I kind of can’t believe that I didn’t review this film when it came out in theatres. It is on DVD now so I saw it again. Yup. It’s really good. A send-up of the Bond flicks it centres on a woman who a) doesn’t fit the Bond-girl stereotype or spy b) is the epitome of the anti-spy. Even Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) has expectations… she has a spy-name ready ‘in case.’ They do not let her use it. As The Daily Mail notes; She would like a sexy alias, but having been handed a distressingly prosaic one — Carol Jenkins — she is sent to Paris, then Rome and Budapest, where she proves herself unexpectedly adept at grappling with nasty heavies at the tops of high buildings.

Susan Cooper gets a generic name like her ‘actual’ name and her cool spy-gadgets are concealed in hemorrhoid wipes, stool softener and a rape whistle. Her spy-watch has a photo-face of the film Beaches. The film capitalizes on the single, big woman stereotype and then subverts it. Wow.

Her disguises are unglamorous and she is given a short, curled, un-sleek, grey wig to wear. Her second disguise is that of a cat-lady who has pictures of her TEN cats. When she goes ‘rogue’ she dyes her natural hair darker and wears a glamorous black dress. As a plus-sized woman this is significant. She is reframing beauty and glamour for bigger women in general, not just in film.

Susan Cooper’s ‘real’ life mirrors her dowdy disguises. Bradley Fine (Jude Law) gives her a diamond ring box that has a cupcake pendant and not her obvious hope for a ring. He asks her to pick up his dry-cleaning and to fire his gardener.

Writer/Director Paul Feig says in The Mary SueI’m a fan of spy movies, I’m a fan of most of the James Bond movies and Bourne movies. But I think Casino Royale was the biggest influence on me, because it was when James Bond had come back from being silly and over-gadgetry. Bond got pretty crazy for many years, starting with Roger Moore, and those movies are super fun to watch, but I’m a fan of the original books that Fleming wrote, and Bond was a pretty dark character. It wasn’t about the gadgets; it was about him living by his wits.

As The Daily Mail says, this film is sometimes an uproarious, American-flavoured pastiche of the James Bond films, Spy opens with a deliciously daft pre-credits sequence in which CIA super-agent Bradley Fine, confronting a terrorist over the location of a hidden nuclear bomb, loses control of his trigger finger following a sudden onset of hay fever.

Melissa McCarthy acquired movie star fame as the overweight sidekick in the 2011 hit Bridesmaids, which was followed up by Identity Thief and The Heat.

She tells the Daily Mail that to play a CIA field agent in Spy, Melissa McCarthy had to exercise more than her comedy. The 44-year-old actress told Live With Kelly and Michael that she also had to put in some hard hours at the gym.

‘I studied martial arts for two months,’ the Gilmore Girls vet said. ‘Turns out I like doing stunts.’

Susan Cooper guides the Jude Law character initially. The Daily Mail says that through his earpiece, and sophisticated satellite technology, she can guide Fine through most perilous situations. But when he meets his match in the chilly but exquisite form of Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), conspiring in the inevitable plot to hold the world to ransom, it is Cooper herself who must replace him in the field.

He is so Bond. The Guardian notes that while he’s never had the chance to actually play James Bond, despite rumours that he’s been in the running, Jude Law’s turn in Spy shows that he would make a convincingly slick secret agent.

It’s a smallish role for the actor, who has been enjoying a bit of a comeback of late with roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dom Hemingway and Black Sea, all suggesting he’s breaking free of his pretty–boy shackles and seeking a more varied set of roles.

Rather like the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service, Paul Feig’s highly entertaining film derives much of its comedy from a combination of everyday life, with its mundane issues and challenges, and the glamorous, dangerous world of international espionage. Thus, a secret agent who needs his antihistamines, and a CIA control room in Virginia afflicted with a serious pest-control problem.

This film is REALLY good! Rent it!

Beastly

In Fantasy, Film, review on November 10, 2015 at 8:40 am

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Confucius

Director:  Daniel Barnz
Writers:  Daniel Barnz (screenplay), Alex Flinn (novel)
Stars: Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens and Mary-Kate Olsen

Okay. I want to be upfront about this. I have a problem with fairytales, especially Beauty and the Beast. I also take issue with certain representations of high school in film.  I find representations of youth that are idealized, unbelievable usually. Maybe another reviewer won’t filter this film through the same sieve.

Plot: A modern-day take on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale where a New York teen is transformed into a hideous monster in order to find true love.

It’s nice for guys in fairytales because they can be ugly but the girl has to be a beauty. Imagine if the Vanessa Hudgens character in this film was ‘ugly’. I don’t think so. (and if you think that Fiona in Shrek breaks this mold think again.) In my article Ogre-Drag I say, Women are often with “less desirable” partners, especially in fairytales. Women are supposed to be good looking. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example. A beautiful woman can be with a beast. She cannot be the beast if he is good looking.”

I’m all for recognizing beauty on the inside but usual depictions of this are flawed (The transformative television show Glee challenges conventional representation). See, if the film simply focused on inner beauty that would be great but gender is at issue here. Not only that, but Vanessa Hudgens resonates with the High School Musical films where teenagers are expected to look a certain way – oh, don’t get me started.

In my book You Never Know: A Memoir I say; “Difference is something that most people avoid. Fitting in becomes a goal. Personally, I think difference is valuable. It is the “same” that irks me. Variation is not the same as inconsistency. One can be incredibly multi-tonal and consistent.” (Shiller, p. 23.)

So, Vanessa Hudgens’ character Lindy says that she prefers substance over style but she doesn’t do the cursing, a witch does.  There is a tradition here.  “Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wicked, ugly witch in Stardust on a quest for beauty and eternal youth.” I do not think that Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) is ugly but Kyle does. So, again, the “ugly” person does the apparently bad thing.

In the traditional fairytale Belle (means ‘beauty’ in French) satisfies her father’s dept by willingly living in a palace governed by a beast. At the end of the story her absence almost kills the beast and she cries upon returning. Realizing that she loves him her tears transform him into a handsome prince. She agrees to marry him.

In this film, Kyle Kingsbury is rich, handsome, and popular. He runs for the president of his high school ’green’ committee but he has no interest in the environment – it will just look good on his transcript. His slogan is ‘embrace the suck’. He says that how you look is proportional to how you are treated. He says that it sucks to be ugly. Kyle is ugly on the inside.

As a mean joke he asks this girl Kendra to a dance he already has a date for. Kendra reveals herself to be a witch and punishes him for his cruelty by condemning him to live as a beast. A girl, Lindy, he met before his transformation falls in love with the “beast.”

Two things interfered with my expectations. First, I thought that the “beast” was hot, and actually better looking than before. See preppy, clean-cut boys are not my thing. I dated someone for two years that looked very much like the beast in this film. Secondly, I identified with the beast in terms of transformation. Now each of these things is worthy of an article but I’ll stay on track – I think.

Okay, back to the first…a good-looking beast. In high-school, if you wear a long black coat, like Neo in The Matrix, you probably have a gun and want to shoot people. If you are different in any way you are shunned.  In many ways this film reinforces that it is better to be the ‘same’ – not fringe.  I wanted the beast to stay as-is but that’s not the fairytale. As in Titanic we know what to expect. The beast goes back to being the pretty-boy. But with a heart to match – he is nice now.

This Beauty and Beast theme is repeated a lot in films in different ways for example, in Titanic it is rich vs. poor. In Tootsie it is the real vs. fake. In City of Angels it is human vs angel. etc.  It might seem harsh and a woman I saw the film with asked me ‘if I could JUST watch a movie’. I guess that critical analysis will always be a part of it. I cannot put myself on hold.

It is hard for me to see this film in a different light. I looked to reviews and found the following: “The film tries desperately to be an homage to the fairytales that came before it. In many ways, it succeeds, but this off-putting hybrid of accepting society, yet deforming it with Aesop Fable logic just doesn’t work. The characters are like viruses attacking an immune system, and as virtuously as the white blood cells fight them off, something never quite feels right.”

There seems to be a problem with this movie. If you like fairytales you still might have an issue with this film. If you idealize high school it follows a prescription but…

Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online