Monday, June 27, 2011

Watching the Seductives

The following is my yet-again-under-the-wire contribution for today's Queer Film Blogathon, mounted by Caroline at her Garbo Laughs blog, in celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month. I may be more of an occasional dinner guest of Dorothy than a full-on friend, but to paraphrase the old bumper sticker, I remember when "queer" meant "unusual and arousing curiosity," and as far as I'm concerned, it still does. As such, I'm eager to put my $3 bill's worth into this discussion.


Aside from my personal affinities, I have a particularly interesting history with LGBTQ media. For a period of about 2 years in the mid-'90's, I was the resident film critic, and only straight male writer, for a lesbian-themed 'zine in Columbus called Sovreignty for Women, a position given to me most generously by its publisher, who cared more about my talent as a film lover than my gender or sexual identity. The inherent humor and ironies within such a position notwithstanding, I did not shy away from rankling the potential readership with my opinions on film in general, and gay film in particular. In an introduction for an fall '95 article on my favorite portrayals of gay people in then-recent film, I opened up with this toss of the gauntlet:

After the first two installments of my column, I know some readers somewhere must be asking, “If this magazine is published by and for gay women, why aren’t you writing about gay movies?” And upon first thought, I find this question moot. To believe that gay people are only interested in gay movies is an insulting stereotype, as ludicrous as believing that African-Americans are only interested in rap music or Japanese people are only interested in Kabuki plays. Just because Hollywood seems to be controlled by straight white men does not make the entire enterprise sick.
There’s a bigger reason for me, though. Most “gay” films bore me. They coast on their subject matter alone, with no regard to compelling plot, characters, or arresting visuals. They play like grown-up ABC Afterschool Specials, thinking as long as they keep mentioning homosexuality, the homosexuals will watch. AAANK, wrong answer. Tom Hanks deserved his Oscar for PHILADELPHIA, but the movie itself is a long “Gays are our friends” morality play. For every lesbian I’ve met who enjoyed CLAIRE OF THE MOON, I’ve met two who would rather watch karate films. EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES is best described by Lea DeLaria as “Even Worse than You Think.” And as much as I love Sandra Bernhard, INSIDE MONKEY ZETTERLAND is a pretentious, self-righteous yawn.
To me, I don’t really give a damn about the sexual orientation of the characters in the movies I watch. I care about the characters. Sure, perhaps the monopoly of straight characters over gay ones in films would appear to the average radical as being some sort of “Only straight is good” conspiracy, and I object to the previously caricatured portrayals of gays and lesbians in the past, just as I do stereotyped minority portrayals. But I am also tired of how the pendulum has swung to make every minority angelic and politically correct, such as the black police superintendent that must bench the white loose-cannon cop. If a non-sympathetic movie character happens to be gay, such as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, or even suspected of being gay, like serial killer Jame Gumb in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, loud wearying protests arise. Using that logic, shouldn’t straights be protesting their buffoonish portrayals in gay films? Everybody chill!


I still hold to that standard today. Postive gays, negative gays, dysconjugate gaze, just don't preach, pander, or bore me.

Also, I spent a significant chunk of my 20's working in a 24-hour video store, owned by gay men, and which featured an adult section with a healthy selection of male/male porn. And during that time, I learned something about myself, which is that the men that were being featured on the covers of gay porn did not turn me on. That is not to say that men period did not turn me on, just those being sold to me as a gay ideal. Consequently, while I have been open and often eager to watch gay sex on film as an abstract, in practice it has happened very rarely, because...most guys who have been doing it with each other on film are not my type. I'm hard-pressed to tell you what my type is, though I certainly don't have that "Masculine guys only, no femmes or fatties" hangup one sees in the Men Seeking Men section of the personals.

But back to the critical matters at hand. This whole month, in anticiption of the blogathon, Caroline has been taking a film containing signficant gay content from each decade of the 20th century once narrative film became a commercial medium, and analyzing it as both entertainment and historical document. It's interesting stuff to read. And in an oddly appropriate way, I like the fact that while her posts are looking at the history of gay portrayal on film, mine is looking at the future, and a rather promising future in the case of my particular choice. In full disclosure, I came upon this film because of the involvement of a close friend in its postproduction, but I promise that my enjoyment of the finished product was solely due to its artistic merits and not just because of my relationship to one of the creative contributors.

For decades, a common story theme in gay-themed films, from the arthouse to the grindhouse, has been the journey of the Hustler, the Rent Boy, the handsome, anonymous young man who goes from one sexual encounter to another, bearing Voltairean witness to all the partners' tales and desires. In skillful hands, this has served for great drama, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini's TEOREMA with Terence Stamp, where the stranger seduces male and female members of the same household, unlocking their buried ids, but more often, the trope has been employed either in the service of simplistic titilation for the viewer, watching multiple types of guys get it on, or for cheap moralization, with degradation and despair compounding from the hollow sex and abusive johns until the protagonist is left ruined or dead.

As such, anyone quickly browsing the gay DVD section (because, sadly, we aren't open-minded enough to integrate movies with gay protagonists into the ordinary genre categories) would be forgiven if they glanced at the advertising for STRAPPED, with its image of fetching lead Ben Bonenfant teasing the reveal of a bare chest, and initially wrote it off as yet another man-pageant posing as a drama. That was the initial concern of author and blogger Ian Rosales Casocot, who pretty well spoke for myself and most casual movie hunters in the opening paragraphs of his rave review of the film...

When I first began viewing Joseph Graham's STRAPPED, I was ready to dismiss it as one of those mindless gay films that serves more as a flesh buffet without paying much attention to story, to character, to insight about the human condition. We've all seen pictures seemingly like this, and they've all been fruitless exercises in gay excess for the most part. [It] centers, after all, on an unnamed male hustler who follows a trick to his apartment complex, and then after the tryst...meets assorted characters, all gay...The premise sounds like it was made for a porn movie...


Well, you know that old joke about what the difference is between a romance novel and a pornographic manuscript: the lighting. And writer/director Joseph Graham knows a lot about lighting, not just in a literal fashion, since STRAPPED has a beautiful look that transcends its ultra-low-budget, but also in a spiritual fashion, because his approach to the proceedings is, yes, illuminating! Immediately at the film's opening, during the first appointment for our never-christian-named hustler, the staging is tender and unexploitative, playing like the ending of a short story, but it's only the beginning. And as the protagonist leaves, and changes names and refashions himself to the roles suggested to him by the colorful series of men he meets that night, we feel that we are not only learning about the different experiences and lives all these men have led, we also are actually learning something about this proverbial blank slate in his dealings with them, instead of just watching the act of prostitutional pretense. The other characters, who to an extent are representing familiar types of gay men - the self-hating closet case, the hedonist, the wizened pioneer - play like real people and not just attributes. Graham, forgive me for abusing the metaphor one last time, puts the spotlight on a whole group of people that we have heard about but few of us have known, and made us care about them. I would be interested in how any one of their stories played out long after our hustler has left them.



Let's talk about star Ben Bonenfant. He's terrific in this role that always keeps one last card unrevealed. He's playing a faker, but nothing ever feels fake. He could be all of these boys, he could be none of them. It doesn't matter: as actor playing actor, he nails it. And, yes, it helps that he is very attractive, not just to his hook-ups, but to us the audience, because we know what it feels like to want to believe in him and what he represents to each man he meets. It's that feeling of deep and widespread audience empathy that has quite often been missing from other gay films, and what makes STRAPPED such a special treat.

And in the spirit of the personal admissions from above, when he became intimate with his most compatible companion of the evening, I not only felt an emotional elevation from a story turn that depicted two wandering souls were finding mutual happiness, I also felt a primal excitement that these two good-looking guys were going to make out! And I think this is one of Graham's most significant successes in this movie, and why I think he has the potential to create more great movies. Which is clearly what he was after, as he told to Gaydar Nation in an interview this past winter:

"I do wish straight men did not have such a difficult time looking at gay sex in the movies. Gay men look at straight sex in the movies all the time. I think human sexuality is fascinating. All of it."


Graham is not only correct, but he's done something about it. It's not something as trivial as casting two hot boys and stripping them naked, though I suppose that's what I'm making it sound like. It's that he's taken what is a fait accompli - after all, if he blue-balled the primary audience, and didn't have a really good lovemaking scene, this would end up being his only feature film - and created real suspense and emotion around the moment everyone has been waiting for. Which is what every great director does in the genres they excel in. Like Radley Metzger with SCORE, or John Cameron Mitchell with SHORTBUS, he presents gay sex in a way that it transcends any sort of straight viewer's trepidations, and makes it as joyous as any heterosexual climax in a standard movie romance. In short, as I demanded before, Joseph Graham did not preach, pander, or bore me. He entertained me.

I don't think I would recommend this to every single straight person I know, not because of the subject matter or the sex, but because its low budget and mostly-conversational story would probably not satisfy a palate that is used to more polish and action. But for anyone who likes to step outside of their comfort zone, is interested in affairs of the heart, and wants to see the debuts of a charismatic actor and a gifted filmmaker, you should definitely take a chance on STRAPPED. It has not gotten much coverage beyond the gay media, though it did receive very good mainstream reviews fromThe New York Times and DVDTalk. I'm going out on a limb and predicting great things for Graham and Bonenfant, so anyone who is in a position to give them work, help prove me right!

And to bring things full circle, what brought me to STRAPPED in the first place was Graham's extremely wise choice (winking) to enlist one of my favorite friend-fronted bands, Windows to Sky, to provide a few songs for the film. I was already grateful to him for giving my colleague's band a gig. Now I'm even more grateful that it was in the service of such a very good movie. Here is one of their songs, specifically written for the film:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Look what you've done to the rock'n'roll clown"

To all you pimps makin' money on his name
How do you sleep, don't you feel ashamed?
He went through the test, he's outta this mess
Be my guest, and let him rest


We are coming up on a date that still manages to shock and sadden multiple generations around the world. The sudden and questionable death of Michael Jackson may have ended his life and body of work, but the speculations about that life will likely never abate, nor will we likely ever learn the true answers to those questions, which even the most otherwise indifferent spectators to this never-ending circus would certainly listen to when presented. Though that has not stopped, nor will it stop, dozens of authors, pundits, former acolytes, and anyone with a tangential connection to his life to weigh in and give you what they think is the real story, and naturally, those "real" stories will have to be filtered through multiple prisms of self-interest and intent, thus rendering their truths to the granules of sodium chloride.

That being said, anyone who has expressed heavy interest in Jackson, either for his staggering talent or as ugly symbol of celebrity culture unrestrained, would be better served by viewing a pair of movies that were made while Jackson himself was still a child, when he was famous but hardly the obelisk of polarized opinion he would become in adulthood. In short, both of these films frighteningly predicted the arc of Michael Jackson's life - before he even had a chance to live it.



PRIVILEGE, from 1967, is a documentary-like story about a futuristic London where government, church, and big business have quietly come to cabal-like agreements in regard to Steven Shorter (Paul Jones, former lead singer for Manfred Mann - the "Doo Wah Diddy" incarnation, not the "Blinded by the Light" Earth Band), the country's most popular singer. Shorter is used to sell all manner of products, to help to boost church attendance, and overall placate the youthful masses and divert them from any sort of real rebellion. Naturally, this takes a large emotional toll on the performer himself, who spends most of his time sullenly going through the motions, though he occasionally brightens in the company of an artist (Jean Shrimpton, an early "supermodel" then romantically linked to Terence Stamp, and later immortalized in "Behind the Wall of Sleep" by The Smithereens) hired to paint his portrait. Shorter will ultimately reach his breaking point, but the powers that be already have a contingency plan for that.

PRIVILEGE was made by a former documentarian named Peter Watkins, who arguably perfected the dramatic device of the "mockumentary," albeit for hard and serious storytelling, long before Christopher Guest spun the genre and made it synonymous with semi-improvisational comedy. Many elements in the film were liberally borrowed from a National Film Board of Canada documentary on pop star/songwriter Paul Anka called LONELY BOY, which depicted the gradual toll fame as business can exact on an otherwise well-meaning performer: thankfully, the short has been included on the current U.S. DVD of the film. Watkins previously made a nuclear war docudrama for the BBC called THE WAR GAME, about life after the bomb, that was so intense the BBC refused to air it; it was ultimately screened in some theatres in the U.S. and U.K. Another fiction film of his, PUNISHMENT PARK, took on the premise of youths isolated to play a kill-or-be-killed game for the benefit of polite society a good two decades before BATTLE ROYALE. [Watkins in fact was a guest professor at OSU while I attended their film program, although I never had a class with him--Rats!]

As such, PRIVILEGE is at its heart political agitprop drama rather than pop culture critique, and some of it now plays rather earnestly to modern tastes. But it is dead-on in its vision of how we would see rock co-opted by the establishment in the present day, and it's extremely perceptive about how easy it is to buy and sell both rebellion and people. And yes, its observation that rock stars at the height of their fame become less people and more corporate behemoth is very applicable to the later years of Michael Jackson. When the consortium decides to change Shorter's image from persecuted rebel to obedient choir boy, they position his "conversion" within a huge religious rally in Wembley Stadium, complete with a firebrand reverend leading the crowd in a chant for conformity, disabled children brought to the stage for potential healing, and pageantry reminiscent of images from Riefenstahl's TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Years later, Jackson employed similar "messianic" staging for a performance of "Earth Song" at the 1996 Brit Awards, leading Pulp lead singer Jarvis Cocker to cheekily disrupt the performance; while he considered himself a fan of his music, Cocker explained his actions by saying, "He was pretending to be Jesus - I'm not religious but I think, as a performer myself, the idea of someone pretending to have the power of healing is just not right."

Though quickly abandoned by Universal, PRIVILEGE did manage to find a devoted group of fans, most visibly the multi-gifted Patti Smith, who covered the film's signature song "Set Me Free" on her EASTER album, which also features her original version of "Because the Night." Another high-profile fan, writer/director Allison Anders, who has told much more hopeful stories of rock'n'roll living in GRACE OF MY HEART, SUGAR TOWN, and THINGS BEHIND THE SUN, and presented PRIVILEGE at her first "Don't Knock the Rock" film festival, explains her love of PRIVILEGE in this Trailers From Hell commentary.



STARDUST is a quasi-sequel to an earlier film called THAT'LL BE THE DAY, about Jim MacLaine, an aspiring rocker modeled on John Lennon and played by David Essex, singer of the glam rock standard "Rock On". However, you do not need to have seen that film beforehand: this film stands alone with or without its predecessor. Moreover, this movie so strongly builds and heightens upon the first, and has such an epic sweep, it's like THE GODFATHER PART II of rock dramas. Both films were written by novelist Ray Connolly, who began his career as a rock journalist, and before that, a schoolmate of Mick Jagger, and thus brings an insider's eye to the subject matter. The film is a sophomore narrative work by Michael Apted, who also began his career in documentaries by creating the epic 7 UP series (the latest installment, 56 UP, is expected in Spring of 2012), then moved on to acclaimed films as COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, and still returns to the documentary form in BRING ON THE NIGHT and INCIDENT AT OGLALA. While I was already a fan of Apted as director, when I finally saw this at the first "Don't Knock the Rock" festival in 2003, I sat there in awe, amazed that he had this kind of Scorsesian vision, and so early in his career.

Essex plays the same character from the earlier film, and tells a large if somewhat painfully familiar story of the rise of Jim MacLaine's career and the cost to his soul. It shows the path of going from living in a van playing from pub to pub, to eclipsing the original front man of his band, to record company corruption, to solo stardom and pretentious artistic ambitions, to public alienation and erratic behavior, and finally reaching such insane detachment that it eventually drives him to seclusion and possible madness. As we get the public tragedy writ large, we also witness the private tragedy, as MacLaine finds his bad choices enabled by those who stand to make money on him, or being unable to attend a family funeral without being beseiged by the tabloid press, and watching his longest friendship, with his road manager Mike, turn into a curdled, Albee-esque duet of cruel one-upsmanship. To paraphrase the poster above, it's not the story of John Lennon or Jim Morrison...or for that matter, Michael Jackson or Axl Rose or Whitney Houston, but it easily could be.

The supporting cast features a staggering amount of musical Who's Whos, including Keith Moon, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Marty "Abergavenny" Wilde, Paul "Heaven on the Seventh Floor" Nicholas, and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, along with Larry Hagman as a U.S. record company weasel. It has an incredible soundtrack of songs, including recordings by Carole King, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles...so incredible that to clear it all for DVD would be too cost-prohibitive for the likely demand, so a stateside home video release by Columbia is very unlikely. (In the U.K., StudioCanal did put out a double feature DVD with THAT'LL BE THE DAY, though it is currently out of print) However, it is currently available for streaming on Hulu and Crackle, albeit in an old monophonic, non-widescreen transfer. But like Smokey sang, beggars can't be choosey, I know.

So, if you're a genuine fan of The King of Pop, or if you just want some sort of explanation as to why the people who have everything always seem to be unhappy, you have a couple cinematic treatises to give you some insight on the pitfalls within the cult of personality.

For the record, I was a fan. Still am. And I wish life had not imitated art in his case.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dé a Diablo Cody su deuda


I am not Charlie Kaufman or Sofia Coppola (much as I supplicate at their Cannes-weary feet.) I'm not Paul Thomas Anderson. I'm not even Paul W.S. Anderson. I am middle-class trash from the Midwest. I'm a competent nonfiction writer, an admittedly green screenwriter, and a product of Hollywood, USA. I am "Diablo Cody" and if you're not a fan, go rent PROSPERO'S BOOKS again and leave me the fuck alone.

Indeed, at this moment of time, three years after the wide success of JUNO, one month after the abrupt cancellation announcement of "THE UNITED STATES OF TARA", and a hypothetical three months before the first open screenings of her newest screenplay collaboration with director Jason Reitman, the territorial battle lines over the most visibly successful (and well-compensated) female screenwriter in Hollywood are in essentially the same place: there is the contingent that takes pleasure in her loquacious characters, in the same manner that previous generations lapped up the urbane banter of Preston Sturges or Hal Hartley, and the immovable regiment that insists her career advancement is due only to a series of fornicate events that would make Xaviera Hollander look like a Lutheran minister. And much like 9/11 Truthers or Obama Birthers, there is no reasoning with the latter camp, because as writer/entrepreneur Tim Ferriss said on Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast, "You can't reason a person out of a position they didn't reason themselves into."

I have been privileged to keep company with Diablo Cody in the past, and on at least one occasion she actively promoted an event of mine, so I am not here to play august scholar on why she is in fact a vital and welcome voice in Hollywood, because the opposition can rightfully say I do not have enough critical distance from my subject. It's pretty obvious my opinion is prejudiced at best. But I can point to stuff in her work that has stuck with me long after viewing it, and say why it is good, and hope that I've earned enough trust with you that you'll believe it as the voice of a film lover and not a sycophant.

Let's start with the big one, the gold winner. Something that few people have ever picked up on in the ongoing debate about JUNO is the unique nature of the friendship between Juno and her best friend Leah (played by the criminally underrated Olivia Thirlby). Leah, by all outward appearances, is the more classically attractive girl, is on the cheerleading squad...in a typical Hollywood film, she would be the protagonist, and Juno would be the wacky bohemian sidekick, and of course there would be the standard boilerplate "ABC AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL" conflicts over her being prettier or more popular that would launch the third act. Cody not only flips the paradigm by making Leah the sidekick, she also flattens it by never making their differences an issue - there is no heavyhanded preaching about how misfits and princesses can get along: they just do. Juno is doing her thing, Leah hers, and they have their happy common ground. In fact, there's no hackneyed teen conflicts anywhere in the environment: even when Juno is speculating about the buried lust that hot girls have for older teachers, it's from a state of precocious amusement and not hostility. There are some high school environments where everyone may not be friends, but no one is actively starting shit either: the organism works. Coming from my own experience of high school, which started out with some hazing but ultimately settled into an easygoing mutual acceptance, it's nice to see that represented on screen.

As for the often-maligned follow-up screenplay, JENNIFER'S BODY, while I don't think it's effective as a horror film, it is definitely entertaining as a seriocomic metaphor on how troublesome it is to extricate yourself from a bad friendship. Unlike the dynamic between Juno and Leah, the relationship between Needy and Jennifer is a definitely one-sided one, even before the incident that turns Jennifer into a flesh-hungry succubus, with Jennifer getting all the benefits. Yet for as long as she can stand it, Needy stays loyal to Jennifer. Most readings of the film suggest that this is partly a romantic motivation - at a recent screening hosted by maverick San Francisco programmer Jesse Ficks, Cody openly declared as such, though in an interview with the website AfterEllen, she was able to go at length and describe it as less of a lesbian attraction and more of a simple teenage intensity, of being so enamored of your best friend you want to bond with them in as many ways possible [Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES explores this concept also]. But I also saw in Needy the feeling that she's Jennifer's only good influence, that as long as she is there to be her Jiminy Cricket, Jennifer can never be all bad. I'm sheepish but not ashamed to say I stayed in some long bad friendships for the same reasons: When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal - you're finished!. And sure enough, Jennifer does not "stay" with Needy, and she does become an animal, feeding herself on Needy's clothes, then her man, and ultimately Needy herself, until she finally summons the strength to end this otherworldly power grab. But even after that, when their friendship is decisively over (the manner in which I won't detail lest I rile the Spoiler Police), Needy stays loyal to Jennifer's memory by hunting down the treacherous parties that caused her demonic possession in the first place. As wily ol' Sam Spade once said, in perhaps the first cinematic explanation of "bro's before ho's", "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." Again, Cody spins the gender around, throws in some blood and bon mots, and makes it fresh.

For reasons of my own legal protection, I can't provide any of the specific details as to why I am about to state that on Febrary 27, 2012, Diablo Cody will likely have another molten gold humanoid holding court in her home. Just know that I would never make that kind of brash statement without something to back it up. Watch this space.

Well, you are 33 today, Ms. Cody. You have outlived Christ, Hicks, Belushi, and Bangs, and I'm certain your generous words of dialogue are going to live a lot longer than the gutteral words of diatribe the haters still fill their favorite echochamber messageboards with. Happy Birthday from another arguably competent nonfiction writer from the Midwest.



Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Burned Hard for Bernhard

I have had a long, strange, frustrating, moving, and very laugh-filled love affair for over 25 years with a woman who doesn't know I exist. That sounds like the words of obsessive stalkers, I grant you, but really, it's just how I express that I am more than a fan but obviously less than a realistic equal to one of my favorite entertainers. And since yesterday was her birthday, I guess it's okay to go into detail






I don't quite know what the turning point was that made my teenage self fall in love with Sandra Bernhard. I was too young to have seen her on Richard Pryor's short-lived variety show, and I did not remember her specifically from the dozens of comedians who worked their material on the late '70's incarnation of "MAKE ME LAUGH," so that can't come into play, though it has been fun to revisit those appearances years later. I definitely enjoyed her numerous visits to "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," where she was perfecting her unique style of reviling and reveling in celebrity culture, but I can't zero in on a certain episode where it went from "She's funny!" to "She's my ideal woman!" I know that from puberty onward as a Nice White Catholic Suburban Boy From Cincinnati, I was fervently attracted to girls who were outside of any or all of those adjectives, and Sandra was definitely penciled outside of the Scantron circle, so to speak. As such there may not be a firm date of origin, but midway through high school, I got infatuated - much to the eternal bewilderment of my father who could not see her beyond two lips and an attitude - and to this day, I still dig her.

In college, I had an eye-opening friendship with an older woman who also enjoyed Sandra a lot, and from her I received her first book, CONFESSIONS OF A PRETTY LADY, which made me an even bigger fan, with its combination of legitimate autobiographical details and saucy, teasing "did this happen/is this fiction" gossip. I felt a kinship with this girl from Detroit who drove to L.A. in a crummy car with a dream in her bag, whose parents had broken up and who liked to be funny in dark moments, who could alternately hate and love the excesses of show business, who could be tough and biting yet have a sweet and vulnerable soul. Much like the ethereal Kira from XANADU, Sandra straddled that fuzzy line between infatuation object and big sister to me, someone flying the freak flag with panache in advance while I slowly brought up the rear. From said friend I would also receive the cassette tape of Sandra's one-woman show WITHOUT YOU, I'M NOTHING, and I wore that tape out memorizing those great monologues, including this favorite one, which somewhat mirrored my eventual clumsy exploration of gender identity:





(since some of you are wondering now, to quote my friend Phil Porter,
"Marc is not gay. It just took him three tries." I'll let you ponder that a while...)


My attraction began to receive a little more acceptance from my friends in adulthood, primarily because of those few years at the end of the '80's/dawn of the '90's when she was palling around with Madonna; girls were interested in this otherwise cult figure she was hanging with, and the guys were wondering if they were doing it. Despite having a public friendship of really less than four years that ended 20 years ago, it is a linking that continues to this day to be discussed by press, columnists, and fans alike when they interview Bernhard. Oftentimes inquiries are in the quest for good dishy dirt (Did Madonna "steal" Sandra's girlfriend? Was she just looking to borrow a dream as it said on page 140?) But on a November 2010 appearance on "THE WENDY WILLIAMS SHOW," she encapsulated what made their time together so enticing to me and other fans, and recently repeated it today to another online interviewer:

"I see why people still link us. It's so rare that two really strong women become good friends and play it out the way we did on the public stage. I'm sorry that the friendship didn't flourish and continue but these things happen with showbiz people. But we really had fun.







Indeed. We do still live in a media environment where the press and the gossip vultures would rather report on (and often themselves incite) catfights and feuds between two female stars, rather than present them working together and mutually elevating themselves. And rewatching that Letterman appearance reminded me of what a great comic team they were, riffing and one-upping each other as David all but yields the floor to them. They could have been the MTV Generation's Martin & Lewis - Madge the smooth unflappable one, Sandra the manic loudmouth. Hollywood seriously screwed up by not putting them in a screwball comedy after this appearance! My first attempt at screenwriting was in fact a buddy movie intended for them.

Which leads to the "frustrating" part of this essay. I have come sooooooooooo tantalizingly close to having a significant encounter with my idol over these decades, but always missed it by that much! Shall I count the ways...

Sandra does a combination spoken word/Q&A at Ohio State around '92. I get my turn at the mic, and after I ask my primary question, I then ask if I can hand up the script I wrote for her. Since she's been making jokes during the show about not getting better roles, she says sure. Audience laughs at my audacity. [Note to craven young screenwriters: This was the early '90's, when this sort of tactic was rare and funny. If you do this today in any public event with your favorite star, you will be booed and castigated, and you will deserve it because this sort of tactic is not cool anymore. DON'T EVER DO THIS!] 20 minutes later, she gets bored with the questions...and begins to read the script out loud! AUDIENCE ROARS! She only gets a few pages in, none of which involve her character, sadly, but her guitarist knows the music cue I wrote in, and plays it underneath her reading. She claims to be intrigued from what she's read, but I never hear back from her despite having all my contact info on the title page.

In '96, a local gay newspaper is sponsoring another Bernhard appearance, and holding a contest for readers to describe what they would do in order to obtain a personal audience with her. I submit that because her words have been so influential to me, I would stand in front of the theatre and have one of her essays painted onto my body, Peter Greenaway/PILLOW BOOK-style. The newspaper declared me as one of the winners of the backstage passes...but the show was cancelled due to illness and never rescheduled.

2000, Sandra does a show at the now-shuttered Knitting Factory in Hollywood. It's a small enough venue I that could cross paths with her if I just find the right exit. But I don't. I do experience a nice moment during the performance, when I notice that standing next to me is her longtime friend and stand-up mentor Mr. Paul Mooney. Within a long audience applause break, I just lean over to him and whisper, "You must be very proud." He smiled and nodded.

Finally, on Halloween 2005, close friend and czarina of the L.A. underworld Lenora Claire gets me a last-minute invite as a costumed "party guest" during a live broadcast of "Queer Edge" with Jack E. Jett on the now-defunct pay-cable channel QTN, because the big prize is that she who smells like angels ought to smell, the goddess, the perfect woman...Sandra Bernhard is the special guest! This is going to be the closest I'd ever get to her. I throw together a makeshift Angus Young costume and race to the studio. As "party guests" we are supposed to be dancing it up during the house band's musical interludes, so I make sure that I throw around lots of energy to sell the concept. It gets a little comical in that every time I try to steal away from the set to hit craft service, the show is about to go back to "the party" and the floor is barren, so we get herded back to fill it up. But hey, them's the rules of being background, so I just start skanking again when the music starts. Sandra stays the whole three hours, and of course she was perfect. Unfortunately...I don't actually get to be that close to her. We are on the same set the whole time of course, but I am...here...and she is...there. And like a good background player, I am not going to overstep my bounds. When the show wraps, I manage to get a few words of admiration to her as she leaves the studio. I mention the Ohio State incident, hoping it will open the door to conversation, and while she laughs, she doesn't stop walking. So...foiled again. But I can't blame her for wanting to get out of Dodge: it was a long shoot, and she probably wanted to go back home to her daughter and share the holiday properly.


No, at this point I am more likely to catch scurvy from Andy Dick than I am to ever have a full, dinner-length conversation with Sandra Bernhard; it's been sufficiently proven that Elijah, Loki, or Yehudi will not stop jockblocking me. But at least nobody can say that I didn't do my damndest...whether or not I should have will be up to you, and hopefully not the Police department, to decide. And I'll always have my vinyl copy of I'M YOUR WOMAN.

So, wherever you've been on your special day - meditating at Kabbalah, cavorting with the kid, crying for Elaine's - thank you, Miss Sandra. You inspired a long-haired, big-nosed misfit kid to take chances and believe in himself. I've been kissed hundreds of times by your words, it's alright if I don't get one from those actual legendary lips.