Thursday, July 26, 2007

Édith Piaf: Not So Pretty In Pink

". . . there were periods when I had an irresistible urge to destroy myself."
- Édith Piaf

I am not sure whether it's ultimately tragic or fitting that I chose to see La Vie en Rose a few days before deciding to take a medical leave from work and enter an out-patient rehabilitation program.

La Vie en Rose, directed by Olivier Dahan, is the life story of chanteuse Édith Piaf [France's version of Judy Garland]. Piaf, whose stage name means "sparrow" in French, has the distinction of being the only female singer from France to have become known in the United States.

I'm going to cut to the chase and recommend that you skip the film, or at least wait until it's available from Netflix.

The film's lack of balance leaves its audience dizzy. While purporting to cover her entire life, it, in fact, omits decades at a beat, exclusively focusing on the lowest notes sustained by this high-note warbler. There is little humor and no real triumph in this story -- only sadness, deep pain and isolating addiction.

In short, Dahan's slanted lens turns this biopic, myopic.

Marion Cotillard, the French actress portraying Piaf, has the unenviable task of stepping into the itsy-bitsy heels and huge voice of one of France's most beloved women. Physically, the resemblance is astonishing, right down to the creepy, drawn-in eyebrows (think Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, and that pre-op Latin tranny that's always sitting near the corner of Seventh Avenue and 15th Street). Cotillard is beyond compelling, but her efforts are undermined by a badly conceived script and inconsistent direction. I can't believe I'm going to suggest this, but it's a film that should have been done (and probably will) by an American. From a cultural perspective, it's my instinct that when the French revere something or someone, which is extraordinarily rare and is certainly the case with Piaf, they became incapable of distancing themselves enough to convey the truth of the matter.

Piaf's legacy is based as much rusted life as it is her gilded voice. And again, I can't believe I'm going to write this, but she's as much Judy Garland as she is Liza Minelli and Anna Nicole Smith. The entire lot were (and in Liza's case, still are) capable of delivering train wreck after train wreck.

The simultaneous rawness and clarity of Piaf's voice reaches into one's chest, grabs the beating heart and stops it for a second. She demands your full attention, if only for a tremulous note or tortured turn of a lyric. Her voice is the sound of defiance, kneeling for a moment -- equal parts Holliday, Simone and later-Garland. Tears come without any understanding of French; the universal communicability of her torment is neither helped nor hindered by mere language.

Piaf came from the Parisian slums, the daughter of a circus performer father and a street-musician mother. She was raised for a time in a brothel, eventually leaving as a small girl to join her father making money on the street. She was devastatingly poor all through childhood. She became an unwed mother, only to lose her daughter to meningitis at a young age.

She was discovered singing on the streets of Paris. Almost overnight, she was a sensation. She had actually done it; she had moved beyond her circumstances and could have lived a wonderful, content life doing what she loved.

Unfortunately she carried her demons everywhere. Alcohol, heroin and painkillers stopped the inner voice that tortured her. She suffered well and publicly, married poorly, and lost the one man she truly loved in a plane crash. Hers was a life of tragedy, of epic, Greek proportions.

She died a sparrow silenced, unable to sing or soar, at the age of 47.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dirty Little Secrets: Sears Husky Jeans

Whenever I recall the particular fact of my existence that I am about to disclose, I reexperience the intense shame I felt the first time I realized it existed. The moment, which occurred in two feet of snow at a bus stop in Derry, New Hampshire when I was in the 6th grade, is so vivid, I can feel my cheeks burn the way they did that day. I have to trust the process at this point, but I have to admit I felt woozy even looking for an image to use for this piece.

The simple truth is that I wore Sears brand Husky jeans for boys from the time I was about seven all the way through sixth grade. For those of you that don't know, Husky jeans are what little fat boys wore. While everyone else was wearing Levi's, Lee Jeans, and even old-school Gap jeans, I was religiously sporting Huskys. My distinct recollection is that I was not at all aware that these jeans were, in fact, target marketed for young men of my proportions. It took some skinny-ass, future teen bride to point out that I was wearing jeans for "fatties." I can still see her standing there -- straight stringy hair, pink parka, hugging a green notebook, wearing mascara and smelling like fruity lip gloss; her name was either "Stacey" or "Tracey." Today, I would describe her as a "skank," but I'm fairly sure I didn't know that word then.

For some reason, she felt the need to point out in front of the everyone (okay, there were 4 of us, including her, me and my brother) that I was wearing the jeans that her brother had to wear because he was fat, just like me. What kills me is that there was absolutely nothing I could say to that. Nothing. Almost 30 years later, as I write this, I'm still dumbstruck. I still can't think of an adequate retort. Well that's not entirely accurate; I would probably say something along the lines "Well, one day I'll be a smoking hot gay lawyer living in NYC and you'll be trying to figure out if your sixth kid is your husband's, the mechanic's or your cousin's." But I didn't have the verbal wherewithall at the time that I command today.

Honestly though, there is precious little in this world that prepares one for the rough times that we all eventually face in this life like growing up fat -- especially in America, especially today. Back then, it was certainly less common than it is today. And (at the time) I could never figure out exactly why I was fat. No one around me was -- no one. I realize now it likely had a bit to do with the fact that I was particularly "sensitive" (their word) and smart as a whip. I started doing the math earlier than most and could see the trouble up ahead. I was a worried child and nothing calmed my nerves like food, lots of food. And sugar. And chocolate. And cake; I really liked cake. And fudge.

I gotta tell you, this secret-revealing stuff works. I feel great.

Monday, July 09, 2007

'Ratatouille' is Delicious! and Gay?

How could I resist movie night at a 12-screen movie theater in an authentic upstate strip-mall? The viewing options, as presented by Peter, who's an editor and frequent contributor to 'Filmaker' magazine and can be quite the cine-snob, absolutely shocked me; 'Knocked Up' or 'Ratatouille.' Although 'Knocked Up' seems to be garnering serious praise (huh?), we decided on 'Ratatouille,' which is latest offering from wicked talent at Pixar [the guys behind 'Toy Story,' 'Finding Nemo,' Monsters, Inc.', and 'The Incredibles']. Peter and I both laughed like 10-year-olds (with really deep voices).

Don't wait for Netflix; the stellar animation merits a trip to the big screen.

Peter and I disagreed on whether Remy, our rat-hero, is a metaphor for a young gay boy in the process of coming out. I think it's fairly obvious, while Peter (more Sontag than Kael) looks for the universal truth, seeing Remy as more symbolic of the misunderstood, "queer" individual, though not necessarily gay. I know I'm right, but I nodded as Peter postulated; that's the kind of guy I am. Patient with other's process. (wink)

Without giving away too much of the plot, I've listed those "hints" that, I believe, support my interpretation. They are:
  • Remy exhibits a refined "sensitivity" (smell), which makes him different from all the other rats in his colony;
  • When Remy's stereotypical macho brother sees Remy walking on two legs, he says, "If Dad sees you walking like that he's going to lose it.";
  • Remy is obsessed with the beauty and smells of gourmet food, while all the other rats are content to eat garbage;
  • Remy leads a double-life, hiding from everyone the fact that he sneaks into the human's home to watch the gourmet cooking show;
  • Remy feels conflicted about being what his family expects him to be and what he knows in his hear that he is; and finally
  • the transformation of our villain "Anton Ego" is clearly one of a gay male coming out of the closet later in life and the price he paid until that point. Watch the scene with his mother as he comes home from school crying because of the bullies. And then watch the last scene when he's in the restaurant. So, so gay.
And don't miss the reference to May Day's (Grace Jones) Parisian romp from "A View to A Kill." [Grace Jones!!?? -- Uhm, hellooooo!]

Gay or not the film is as good as slice of a gooey, stinky Epoisses.

As a kid, I was completely obsessed with Julia Child on PBS; suffice to say, Remy has become my new hero. And it's so wonderfully subversive that the folks at Disney (who own Pixar) have made a rat the dalmation or Nemo for 2007.

I love the idea of small kids all over middle America carrying around stuffed rats.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Celebrate America's Independence?

It seems a bit ridiculous, considering.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The He(Art) of Chris Schiffelbein

Chris Schiffelbein and I began exchanging e-mails in March, after meeting on the Queer Justice League listserve. Chris sent me kind note of support after I had responded to a posting of another. He was one of two people (randomly, the other was ex-NJ-guv McGreevey) to send me a private response. It was brief, but its simplicity and implicit sincerity made an impact; I felt heard, accepted.

So, of course, I googled "Chris Schiffelbein," followed the breadcrumb trail of internet links, and, within 10 minutes, I was reading his blog, Queer on Paper, and being introduced to his art. Surprise, surprise. Turns out, this gentle, thoughtful soul is also capable of creating some balls-out, in-your-face "queer" art. After 20 minutes of "click-enlarge," "click-enlarge," I dashed off an e-mail to Chris, which including my version of kind support; I insisted we meet and figure out a way to get a "Chris Shiffelbein" on my wall.

It actually took three months for Chris and I to coordinate schedules, but we finally met tonight for Indian food at Mitali's on Sixth Street. Chris is currently living that part of the NYC "art hipster" experience, which requires one to simultaneously juggle school, partner, art and a table waiting gig. That notwithstanding, he arrived early, in good spirits and appearing well rested.

We sat down, ordered an appetizer of mixed vegetable pakoras (Chris has the heart of a vegetarian, but admits a weakness for the occasional steak) and started talking about the Queer Justice League's baby steps, queer advocacy, and our backgrounds. Chris grew up in Topeka, obtained his bachelors degree in Fine Arts from KSU and is currently working towards his masters in Social Work at CUNY Hunter College. His commitment -- artistically, personally and professionally -- is to the queer community. He is adamant and consistent regarding his use of the word "queer," unapologetically reappropriating it for himself and his people.

Before the pakoras hit the table, I insisted Chris open his portfolio. Several series emerged during my first look through. The first two draw from the same inspirational roots: the homosexualization and subversion of traditional religious imagery. This inspirational launching pad, though not uncommon among gay artists, can teeter towards triteness or careen into caricature when not carefully considered. Take for instance, Delmas Howe 's, recent show "Stations: A Gay Passion," which was at the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation earlier this Spring. The paintings in "Stations" bordered on garish. The subject matter (the Twelve Stations of the Cross) begged for intimacy, which would have balanced beautifully with the depictions he chose. It was as though he drew a sledgehammer, when a meat tenderizer would have sufficed.

Despite his relatively young age, Chris ably ambles this line, creating compelling pieces that retain a provocative quality without sacrificing subtlety. In a sub-series, which I'll call "Haloed Holies" (Chris tends to "untitle" his work), he gives us solo and partnered men, in various states of undress, but always halo and a hard-on; the gay male equivalent, perhaps, of the heterosexual male (or lesbian, I suppose) ideal of a "lady on the arm, whore in bed." The males, as depicted, are certainly do-able, but aren't those unattainable, over-idealized creatures dominating much of gay art. The pieces are, in a word, delightful.

The next sub-series, "Sacred Texts" (again, my name), includes collages of gay male sex created from pages torn from religious texts, including the Bible and Koran. [click right image]. They are studies in stealth genius; one is drawn in by the simplicity of shapes and deft use of line, and then repelled (or, for some, repulsed) as the words rise and the pages reveal themselves. They are equally engaging in both small and large sizes, in which he's executed them. One of the larger pieces was part of a recent silent charity auction, attracting a lot of interest and raising some nice coin for GLAAD. They are deliciously illicit.

The more I saw, the more determined I became to support this guy and his art; both of which I grew to consider wonderful and necessary additions to my life and this community. But how to choose? I finally decided on piece from a series I'm calling "Dukes of Bio-Hazard," [click left image] which is a title I think Chris would hate, thereby encouraging him to, perhaps, name them himself (wink, wink). The series evolved when Chris, who frequently uses discovered materials in his collages, "came upon" some medical lab test bags [it's pure coincidence that at the time he was working at a clinic as part of a Social Work related to his masters' work]. He felt drawn (bada bing) to them and was determined to incorporate them into his work. And incoroporate them, he did. The small (9" x 6") blue and yellow ink and acrylic paintings are inserted inside the clear bags, with the red bio-hazard box, which adorns each bag, cleverly marking the area of greatest hazard, in the the primary color scheme. So smart.

Besides the aesthetic appeal, I chose this for what it says, or actually for what it doesn't say that I thought it did. I'll explain.

At 30 and 41 respectively, Chris and I exist on opposite edges of the "AIDS gap" - that gap, in time and perspective, separating adults into two groups: those who were sexually active prior to the onset of AIDS and those who became sexually active later. While I was having my first sexual experiences in the late 70's and early 80's largely unaware of the virus, Chris came up and out with the virus as a known entity. Obviously, the gap affects all people, but in this context, I exclusively refer to its impact on the gay males.

This gap, I think, was responsible in large part for my first (gut, default, automatic) reaction to the bio-hazard bag works; I initially assumed they were another artistic response to the epidemic. For such a long time, too long actually, any medical reference in gay art, for me, has conjured the virus. And then I stopped and looked closer. I smiled when I realized I had presumed incorrectly. I asked Chris to confirm the same, which he did. I was completely humbled and felt myself move one more step forward on my journey, with my load lightened.

That voice in my head that often complains about my HIV status, the pills, the doctor appointments, the stigma, blah, blah, blah, was stifled for a moment. The pieces reminded me of the truth that love and sex is a risk for everyone -- not just me. It reminded me that the Universe hasn't singled me out for a tougher slice of love. That I share the reality of this risk with the world, and that reminder brought me back into relation with the rest of humanity.

And that, beautiful people, is what Art can do.

Thank you Chris. Thank you so much.