Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Vault - Milk & The Times of Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
directed by Rob Epstein
starring: Harvey Milk, James Fierstein

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1985, The Times of Harvey Milk uses archival footage and interviews to reconstruct the political career of the first openly gay elected official in the United States. The film briefly details Harvey Milk's campaign, his eleven month stint as a City Supervisor in San Francisco representing the new gay neighborhood in the Castro, his fight against Proposition 6 (a California ballot initiative that would have made it possible to fire all gay teachers and anyone who supported them) which gave Milk statewide and even national prominence, and his assassination by one of his colleagues, Supervisor Dan White, who also assassinated Mayor George Moscone. The final twenty minutes of the film follow White's trial, where his lawyer successfully convinced the jury that a combination of financial stress, family trouble and junk food caused White to become temporarily insane -- a travesty of justice that became known as "the Twinkie defense." White was convicted of manslaughter and served only six years in prison. He was released in 1984, the same year as the film (and committed suicide three years later, though that's not in the documentary).

On its artistic merits alone The Times of Harvey Milk is a pretty standard documentary: archival footage and audio supporting interviews with several of Harvey Milk's friends and political allies, all stitched together by James Fierstein's narration. But the filmmakers have done the one thing that every documentarian hopes to do -- they've found a story that is both fascinating on a human level and relevant in a larger social context.

Milk (2008)
directed by Gus Van Sant
written by Dustin Lance Black
starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco

So, with such a wonderful, critically acclaimed documentary in fairly wide distribution, did director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant) need to give Harvey Milk the Hollywood treatment? Yes, I think he did. As we watched Sean Penn (as Milk) and his minions fight against Proposition 6, I doubt anyone in the audience could keep themselves from thinking of the recent battle against Prop. 8. That's a sure sign that the story of Harvey Milk needed to be told again, after 22 years. Sean Penn's performance is superb. Penn has clearly spent quite a bit of time looking at old video to get Harvey's mannerisms and voice right, but he gives his version of Milk something more than I saw in the documentary: a quiet vulnerability. Penn's Milk is fiercely determined, yes, but he's also a man who wears his heart on his sleeve no matter how much the birds peck at it. This touching performance rescues the film on the rare occasions when Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black lay it on a little too strong -- such as the midnight phone call from the handicapped, suicidal gay teen or the attempt to turn Harvey's relationship with an ex (James Franco) into a romantic through-line even though it wants to be a close friendship.

Van Sant and Black aren't just trying to recreate the documentary with actors and that's what ultimately makes Milk a success. They use the historical events and a lot of the archival footage from the documentary as the skeleton of their film but then spend most of their time focusing on Milk himself. We see Milk as a Wall Street broker decide to come out of the closet and move to San Francisco. We see his humble entry into politics in the Castro, his three failed election campaigns, the suicide of someone close to him, and his role as a mentor to future AIDS activist Cleve Jones. The film also explores the motivations of Dan White in a way the documentary couldn't. Since we can only speculate about why he did what he did, the documentary could only follow the trial. Milk can show a fictional White (Josh Brolin) becoming more and more erratic, rejecting Harvey's attempts at friendship, and eventually surrendering to some personal demons which may, the film suggests without insisting, have included his own secret homosexuality.

Sean Penn's performance and Gus Van Sant's light touch make Milk one of the rare biopics that can actually stand on it's own as a good movie. But the experience of watching it will be vastly improved if you see The Times of Harvey Milk as well, and since the documentary is available for free at you really have no excuse not to, even if it isn't carried in your neighborhood Blockbuster.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Special Holiday Greeting From the Wet Spots

Stop the Presses: Week of DECEMBER!

I haven't posted many links to news stories about sex recently. Rest assured I've still been reading them. Here's some of the interesting things I read in December:

Savage Love 12/23/08: Dan tells three letter writers to dump their partners, then uses all the space he's saved to address high sodomy rates among straight teens and high pregnancy rates among gay teens. "This is where abstinence education and homophobia have gotten us: Gay kids are having vaginal intercourse and straight kids are having anal intercourse. Good work, sexphobes!"

Control Tower 12/23/08: Matisse suggest which kinky Christmas gifts certain public figures should buy for others. "From John McCain to Sarah Palin: a moose-hide strap-on harness and dildo with a card reading, 'You got me up and going, but then you fucked me in the end. Now you can do that to other guys, too.'"

Virginity Pledges Don't Work (Washington Post/MSNBC): A large federal survey shows about what you would expect -- teens who pledge sexual abstinence have the same amount of sex as teens who don't. But they are significantly less likely to use protection when they do have sex.

Teenagers Who Skip Breakfast More Likely to Have Sex (The Guardian): Pledging abstinence doesn't work, but according to a study in Japan, teenagers who eat breakfast lose their virginity two years later on average. Researchers conclude that breakfast indicates a better family life.

Labor Orgasms Called "Best Kept Secret" (ABC News): ABC will report in the January 2 edition of 20/20 that many women experience incredible orgasms during childbirth.

Gay Teen Suicides Linked to Homophobia (AP): No big surprise here. A study shows the more homophobic a family acts when a kid comes out, the more likely that kid is to kill himself or herself. The thing is, there are plenty of religious fundies who use gay suicide rates as an excuse for homophobia. Slick, huh?

RIP Bettie Page (New York Times): The queen of the pin-up poster died on several weeks ago.

UN Declaration Against Homophobia: This month the UN made a declaration against government-supported homophobia. It was non-binding and there was a counter-declaration, so it was about as effective as most of what the UN does. The Vatican issued a statement that stopped short of supporting the resolution but did support tolerance of homosexuality, which is a big step for them. The French newspaper Le Monde interviewed Louis-George Tin, president of the International Day Against Homophobia, which inspired the declaration. In the article (in French, alas), Mr. Tin points out that the Catholic Church's position on gay rights depends on which way the wind happens to be blowing since it raises most of its money in tolerant countries but converts more followers in intolerant ones. Mr. Tin also points out that institutionalized homophobia was introduced to a lot of the countries where it now thrives by colonial powers that have since rejected homophobia.

Pre-Marital Sex Rates Rise in Iran (The Guardian): Iran has attempted to promote marriage amongst it's young people. Instead they've been having more and more pre-marital sex, which is illegal under Iran's Islamic law.

Gay Marriage Ban Inspires New Wave of Activists (New York Times): The Times reports on the recent explosion of gay activism following the passage of Proposition 8.

Savage Love 12/11/08: Dan gives a straight guy advice on how to design a very special sex toy, talks to a 30-year-old male virgin, insults a pathetic and manipulative mom-to-be and gives a college girl advice on how to deal with annoying neighbors who are ticked off by her noisy lovemaking.

Savage Love 12/18/08: Dan helps a couple keep the drama alive, counsels a guy who's gal has embarrassingly bad manners, and discusses the merits of dating strangers vs. friends vs. enemies.

Last but not least -- I know you've already seen it already and it is only marginally related to the subject of this blog, but here's SNL's Jizz in My Pants.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Vault - Sex: The Annabel Chong Story

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999)
directed by Gough Lewis
starring: Grace Quek, Ron Jeremy

This documentary follows Grace Quek, a gender studies and sexuality student and rape survivor who became a porn actress under the pseudonym Annabel Chong, gravitated towards gangbang movies and became famous by setting the gangbang record in a porn video where she had sex with 251 men in ten hours. In the documentary Grace says that her goal was to do something so outrageous that it would turn the traditional image of female sexuality on its head -- and she certainly succeeded, judging from the sex-negative comments she inspires frThis documentary follows Grace Quek, a gender studies and sexuality student and rape survivor who became a porn actress under the pseudonym Annabel Chong, gravitated towards gangbang movies and became famous by setting the gangbang record in a porn video where she had sex with 251 men in ten hours. In the documentary Grace says that her goal was to do something so outrageous that it would turn the traditional image of female sexuality on its head -- and she certainly succeeded, judging from the sex-negative comments she inspires from a few pornstars and directors. But you can't watch this documentary without getting the impression that she had a few other reasons for what she did.

It is easy to dismiss Grace Quek as self-destructive or exploited. In fact, a friend of mine who came in halfway through the movie began ranting that very thing within three minutes of entering the room. It is a fact that Grace was the victim of a gang rape after having consensual sex with a stranger in London. It is also a fact that she grew up in an extremely sexually repressive culture in Singapore, and that (according to friends) she was very sexual when she moved to London and LA for college. In one scene in this movie we see her cut herself. In another we see her tearfully reveal her career to her mother, who demands Grace find a way to restore her (the mother's) honor. One porn director she works with seems sleazy. The gangbang producer doesn't appropriately screen participants for STIs and cheats her out of $10,000 (Grace claims not to care in either case).

But, on the other hand, Grace herself seems extremely self-aware and, on many occasions, insightful. She has healthy friendships with people who support her career. She articulately discusses her motivations for getting into porn. And, unlike, say, Catherine Millet, who joylessly describes her gangbang experiences in the book The Sexual Life of Catherine M., Grace Quek seems to actually enjoy the sex. Despite her tears when faced with her mother's condemnation, she doesn't seem to seriously regret doing porn. We never see her second guess herself.

We see a lot of facets of Grace's personality in this movie but I don't feel like we ever learn enough to analyze her -- which, paradoxically, is what this film is inviting us to do. She is without a doubt an extreme fetishist. She's going further than nearly anyone would want to. An aggressively sex-negative person would say she's a victim. An aggressively sex-positive person would proclaim her a totally empowered woman. I think she has elements of both, as you might expect from such an extremist. Does the fact that she was raped mean she's not allowed to be so hypersexual? I don't think so. Nor does her repressed upbringing mean she's now out of control. She seems like she knows what she's doing. She seems like she understands and accepts the consequences. In the end I could only draw one conclusion from this movie: Grace Quek is a complicated person.

The Vault - The Education of Shelby Knox

The Education of Shelby Knox (2005)
directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt
starring: Shelby Knox

Shelby Knox is a high school student in Lubbock, Texas, a community full of evangelical Christians whose approach to sex education for teens is summed up in one word: abstinence. The community also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in America. The film follows Shelby through her junior and senior years of high school. An Southern Baptist, Shelby has pledged in church to abstain from sex until marriage, but as part of the city's Youth Committee she makes it her mission to get the School Board to adopt a comprehensive sex education program. This struggle gets Shelby involved in an LGBT student group's lawsuit against the Lubbock school district.

Shelby is up against a lot. She lives in a town where teenagers believe most gay people die by the age of 30 and where a sex ed class teaches students they can catch an STI by shaking hands with an infected person who has masturbated. Questioning what she has always been taught about sexuality is clearly painful for Shelby, a very intelligent young woman and you empathize as her personal experience challenge her entire belief system. The truth is so clear to her that, as an optimistic and somewhat naïve young person, she is positive that simply pointing it out to her peers, her pastor and the School Board she will change the world. It's hard to watch how devastated she is when she learns it isn't that easy.

This documentary is the story of not only Shelby's coming of age but of the belated coming of age of her parents. This is where the film is at its strongest. Adults may be set in their ways, and their conservative town might reinforce their conservative beliefs, but parents with real family values like Mr. and Mrs. Knox love their children no matter what -- and their children's battles have a way of becoming their battles. So what if the School Board uses political pressure to scare off the Youth Committee leader, and the LGBT group loses its court case? Shelby's quest has clearly made at least two converts in Lubbock and that's a good start.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Prop 8: The Musical

Music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray). Starring Allison Janney, Neil Patrick Harris, John C. Reilly, Andy Richter, Maya Rudolph, Margaret Cho, and Jack Black as Jesus!

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Stop the Presses: Week of 12/1/08

Open Source Sex: Violet Blue discusses sex and the economy, from the recent plethora of recession-themed ads in Craigslist's casual encounters section to the sex trade that evolved between real estate brokers, mortgage wholesalers and bankers during the subprime mortage boom.

Couples Staying Together Because of Poor Economy (Huffington Post): One unexpected consequence of the financial crisis -- married couples are giving it another shot (or at least continuing to live with their exes) because they simply can't afford to get divorced at the moment.

Control Tower: Craigslist has recently started charging posters to use it's erotic services section and Matisse (who is, of course, a sex worker herself) is fed up with sex workers talking about how terrible it is.

Savage Love: Dan explains why a monogamous lesbian is having trouble dating a nonmonogamous lesbian using very small words so the monogamous one is sure to understand, then explains why college boys believe tree-fuckers are gay. He also asks his readers to write a post card to Barack Obama.

And, in case you missed it, Dan Savage debated Tony Perkins on Anderson Cooper 360 and kicked his butt:

Okay, I'm Back

The last couple of weekends I've taken long weekends. In the first case it was for sex, in the second case it was for food. Both were wonderful, thank you very much. But the time off meant I was very busy at work and not updating this blog. Still a little swamped but I'm back now.

I'll be trying to catch up on my podcast and article links in the next few days, and I'll be reviewing at movie I saw...