Unlike so many movie stars, Robert Ryan was able to portray a real heterosexual. But Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952), seen on Channel 11 at 2 a.m. March 30, 1983, is not impressed. It is very, very, very hard to impress Barbara Stanwyck. She is authentically blue collar in this picture, utterly credible when she says she used to sell sheet music in a dime store, and able to make us forget that she is a glamorous millionaire movie star. She drinks what she calls a “slug” of whiskey out of a shot glass with no chaser and holds a cigarette in her teeth when she lights it. The picture would not be the same without cigarettes; the climax for me occurred not when the director intended it but earlier in the picture when Ryan, fairly tough himself but of course no match for Stanwyck, lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. She accepted it but looked at it with an easy, graceful scorn for just a fraction of a second and tossed it over her shoulder. I was so shocked I didn’t notice what Ryan did. I believe he did nothing; what could he do?
This is Boyd McDonald’s review for Clash by Night in its entirety. It does two things I love, which every movie review McDonald wrote for Christopher Street and other gay pubs does:
1. It asserts the viewer’s right to shape a movie, deciding not just what does and doesn’t have value, but when its climaxes and low moments fall.
2. It takes the actor’s body as the lone source of all movie art.
Most of McDonald’s task is to write from his hardon—he is consistently leering over (or dismissing) the asses and bulges of male actors throughout the golden years of Hollywood. But this approach to criticism finds its way to a kind of radical rethinking of what movies can do, who they are for, and what they can do for the people they’re for.
Take, for example, this bit from his review of Fireball 500: “it is especially calming to watch a[n Annette] Funicello picture after being overexposed to such excessively gifted players as Liza Minelli, who relentlessly ram their talent up the viewer’s ass.” Or when he dismisses Katherine Hepburn’s “scenery-chewing” performance in Adam’s Rib as not worth watching.
Instead, McDonald is gaga over Hope Emerson, the 225lb 6’2″ character actress whose unconventional (i.e. “unfuckable”) body makes every (male) director in Hollywood overlook her magnetism and understated talents.
One of the joys of criticism is feeling yourself able to elucidate the presence and textures of talent better than the average person can. (I’m kind of doing this right now.) Critics then, love stars and the abundantly skilled, and they love to play to our similar enthusiasms. If you go to movies to be allowed closer to the more ideal versions of us, conventional film criticism is for you.
If you feel that beauty is cheap and you’re more interested in real human faces,[*] buy McDonald’s book. His eye is so honed to the real that slips through a film’s worth of sheeny inauthenticity, and his variant (deviant/perverted) tastes open movies up as documents to a kind of U.S. viewership unreported by critics reading movies as auteur narratives.
What I love about the above paragraph-review is how succinctly he gets at those moments of the real, and how confidently he shuts out whatever gets in their way. As a “movie review” aimed at telling you what the thing is about and whether you should spent money on it, McDonald’s blurb provides no service, which is what lets it hang out as art.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
No surprise I count myself among you. My favorite film performance of the year is Louise Latham in Hitchcock’s Marnie (which I just saw last month in Finland so it counts). Go see it and watch what her face is capable of.↵
On the 56 Vermonter train out of New York, I put on a movie because everyone in the Quiet Car wanted to deny the fact of their having chosen the Quiet Car, and I chose The Cruise. Perhaps my favorite documentary, it’s about Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who in the 1990s was a rhapsodic, erudite, and literary bus tour narrator in New York City.
About midway through the movie, the crew follows him around town, and he points out a white comforter bundled over a sleeping person in a dark nook on a quiet street, and he speaks, extemporaneously, this monologue:
The image makes me think of a conversation with this woman the other day. She was a fastidious, Judaic-type woman, in very sexual slacks, and we were talking about the Grid Plan. I made the comment about how the Grid Plan emanates from our weaknesses. This layout of avenues and streets in New York City, this system of 90-degree angles. To me, the Grid Plan is puritan. It’s homogenizing in a city where there is no homogenization available. There is only total existence, total cacophony. A total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of consciousness and awareness and cruising. And this woman turns to me, and she goes, “I never even thought of that.” She goes, “I can’t imagine it. Everyone likes the Grid Plan.” [Here, Levitch makes a dubious face.] And of course the question is like Who is Everyone? I mean it’s just like I said, and whoever that is under the white comforter, cuddled up with 34th Street and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and disheveled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island with all their machinated rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories—I mean what does that person think about the Grid Plan? Probably much more on my plane of thinking, my gradation of being, which is: Let’s just blow up the Grid Plan and rewrite the streets to be much more self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles. I mean doesn’t she find it infuriating? By being so completely allegiant to the Grid Plan, I think most noteworthy is this idiom, I can’t even imagine changing the Grid Plan. She’s really aligning herself with this civilization. It’s like saying, “Oh I can’t imagine altering this civilization. I can’t imagine altering this meek and lying morality that rules our lives, can’t imagine standing up on a chair in the middle of the room to change perspective, can’t imagine changing my mind on anything, and in the end, can’t imagine having my own identity that contradicts other identities.” When she says to me, after my statement, “Everyone likes the Grid Plan,” isn’t she automatically excluding myself from Everyone? How could you not like the Grid Plan! So functional! Take a right turn and a right turn and a right turn, and this is a red light and a green light and a yellow light! It’s so symmetrical! By saying that everyone likes the Grid Plan, you’re saying: I’m going to relive all the mistakes my parents made. I’m going to identify and relive all the sorrows my mother ever lived through. I will propagate and create dysfunctional children in the same dysfunctional way that I was raised. I will spread neurosis throughout the landscape and do my best to recreate myself and the damages of my life for the next generation.
I was struck most by isn’t she automatically excluding me from Everyone? It’s a familiar feeling, but what made me want to pause the movie and type the monologue out was the greater feeling I got that here, as I start the first of three 4-week writing retreats, is an excellent artist’s statement.
It’s a perfect image of the artist’s job of going against the grain of accepted norms, and it’s also the perfect example of the essayist’s job of taking an encounter from your past and making something more of it. You may think Levitch is Making Too Much Of Things when he claims that believing in the Grid Plan is like promising to be complicit in the Boomer-Republican project of leaving the world a worse and less inspiring place, but the beauty of the idea as an idea is that it is indefensible, unproveable, and it sticks in your mind like a song you can’t tell is good or bad. It puts two things together I have never myself put together, and even if I decide he’s wrong those things won’t soon unstick, and loving essays the way I do, I love Levitch for essaying me to that place.
I have been for two weeks in New York City, home of the Grid Plan, and many of the people I have seen and spent time with stood somewhere on the plane of Levitch’s thinking, and some of the people aligned themselves, in some way or another, with the Grid Plan. Not Everyone, but some. I’m knowing myself more and more as not among them, and that used to make me feel so terrible and lonely.
…are rage and sadness. I’m furious that the police in my hometown[*] are posing as men cruising for sex, only to arrest the men they pick up for “Simple Assault (sexual)”. And I’m sad for these innocent men, whose sex lives some people still find criminal, and whose lives might be ruined now just for being human.
But what are my thoughts on it? I find them untetherable from my feelings. I see the argument in front of me that gay sex is not public sex, and that the crime here, and what is being policed, involves using public space—in this instance Meridian Hill Park, a longstanding cruising spot in what’s been a swiftly gentrifying part of DC—for private acts. I see the argument, and I don’t care about it.
If you need them, I’m confident that I could find studies and stats that show gay public sex is far more criminalized than straight public sex. Maybe this is because gay men have way more sex in parks than straight people do and, you might argue, it’s more of a numbers game than targeted harassment.
But I’ll never buy it, because I know my history, and my people’s history, and as much as I’d like to think we’re past that history, we’re not. They gave us the right to marry like straight couples, if we want to be straight couples, but there’s still something essential about the sex we have that disgusts people.
Some data, in case you haven’t yet read the story. One: those arrested have said that the cops making the arrests were not in uniform, and were posing as other cruising men. (The police have neither confirmed nor denied this.) To spell that out, they haven’t come across men fucking in the park and arrested them, they have created the criminal encounter (or all but its follow-through) themselves.
Two: “the arrests were prompted by complaints from the public about ‘lewd acts’ in the park.” My feelings about this override my thoughts such that I want the names and addresses of these people so I can find them and make their lives fucking miserable.
More data: some gay men still need to stay in the closet in 2019 for a host of reasons involving careers, personal safety, family ties, etc. And though phone apps and the Internet[†] some closeted gay men need cruising spaces to have sex, as they have for as long as sex and public spaces have been in existence.
Trust me (I’ve read a lot on the subject) that gay men fucking in public are in as much hiding as the world out there allows. They’re not looking to get seen, or caught. They’re not fucking in the open. They’re not fucking in daylight, even, usually. And they’re certainly, without question, not fucking with kids and families around. Not just because kids and families are total boner-killers, but because they’re too dangerous. They’re the ones threatened—how? in what way?—enough to call the cops.
The 26 men arrested in Meridian Hill have lawyers, and none of these lawyers would talk to the Washington Blade about their cases, citing not only attorney-client privilege but the fact that many of these clients are closeted. For straight people to get caught fucking in a park becomes a story you tell your closer friends over drinks one rowdy night. For gay people, it gets you on a sex offender registry and ends your career, if not your life.
Is that true? I find it so difficult to think straight (forgive the term) about this because of how central sexual desire is to my life and the self I’ve constructed. I refuse to let the sex we gay men have get scrubbed from our identity, and the sex we have, gay sex, is more than anatomical. It’s social, it’s historical, and if you’re not gay it’s never, ever going to hurt you.
And fuck you if you ever call it assault.
These arrested men are my brothers, and this morning, back in the DC area for the first time in months, I’m furious and sad for them.
No longer Craigslist, though, which shut down its personals section last year after both parties in Congress bought the lie that consensual sex work and anonymous hookups = human trafficking and handily passed FOSTA/SESTA.↵
I didn’t know he existed (Poirot being just Belgian) until I came across Drewey Wayne Gunn’s The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film in the reference section of the Mechanics’ Institute, where I’m now spending my days writing so’s to steer clear from campus during my sabbatical (or clear enough: I pass campus every day I step outside).
Here’s something worth noting from his opening essay on the GMS, about a specific novel he marks as the first appearance of the character type:
The novel incorporates two important patterns that would become hallmarks of the gay mystery. First, Tony [the sleuth in said novel], in the process of solving the mystery of his ex-lover’s [Julian’s] suicide, begins to understand more the nature of his own sexuality. […] Second, the novel is the prototype of the gay mystery as romance. As Tony uncovers the facts about Julian’s life since the time that they were lovers, he discovers the key to unlocking his own emotions. […] Thus, from the beginning, gay mysteries have willfully violated Chandler’s belief that a “[l]ove interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic … to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem.” For the gay detective, it’s complementary.
I’ve never taught mystery fiction, knowing nothing of how they’re put together, but I can imagine using that craft text of Chandler’s (“Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story”) and in a flash alienating any gay students I’d have and overlooking an entire subgenre of the genre.
And so suddenly this is a post about representation? But also it’s a post about queering forms. So happy I stumbled across this book that showed me yet another way gay artists bestrange and bedevil the forms they work in. For more on this idea, see this great essay by playwright Jeremy O. Harris.
A followup post to the one the other day on Imposter Syndrome. Posing and pretending got me thinking about acting, and how I’m bad at acting, and how I’m afraid of it. If you ever want to get me the worst gag gift, sign me up for an improv class and make me enroll.
What’s scary about acting is being wrong or not being believed. It’s attempting the proper accent and sounding instead like I’ve got marbles in my mouth, or saying sad words in so wooden a way the audience laughs. Adorable. Oh, look! He’s trying to be somebody else but he’s really only always himself.
In other words, the scary thing about acting is other people dismissing my hubris or delusion. That too-big-for-his-britches quality. Which brings to mind the closet. In truth, I acted like a straight man for more than half my life, and the latent feeling I had during that performance was always: Am I doing this right? What if they find out?
Every time I got called a faggot, there was a critic panning my performance.
II. Lately, I’ve been thinking about acting not as a thing certain handsome people do on stage, but as a thing we all do when we leave the house. I act the part of a writer most mornings, and then I act the part of an MFA program director (me! they actually gave this job to me!) and then I act the part of a teacher, and then I go home and act the part of a loving partner. We all have roles to play, with different scripts and settings and sometimes even costumes.
But further, I’ve been thinking about acting in opposition to passing, given “active”‘s opposition to “passive”—in voice, in sex, in everywhere.
You can pass as anything. Most people’s experiences with passing is when somebody comes up to you at a store and asks you where the restrooms are, or the kosher salt. “Uh, I don’t work here,” you go. Passing involves appearing to be somebody else when you’re not even trying, when you’re just being yourself. Passing creates an audience outside of any performance.
I love passing. I have thought so much about strategic passing I even wrote about it in an essay for The Normal School (on, tellingly, impersonations). I love passing because I love boundaries and borders. Anytime a line in the sand gets drawn I want to stand right on it. I want to be the one person who gets to cross, because taking sides means giving something up. Some freedom maybe.
Passing, though, is passive. It lies low, on the DL, while other people make assumptions and suppositions. And in queer communities (urban ones, mostly) it’s Not Cool. Passing as straight, or cisgendered, implies that you’re trying to pass, because you’re ashamed of being queer.
I think about my friend Clutch, who once told me about the street harassment they get as a trans person. “It’s always guys,” they said, “and they always think I’m trying to pass, and like, doing a bad job.” Clutch embraces their trans identity. They only date trans people, etc. So it’s shitty, the experience, but also confusing—like somebody coming up to you at a store and criticizing what they think is your work uniform.
III. Another dichotomy at work here: expressing vs. impressing. When people exhort you to express yourself, there’s always this feeling of authenticity and truth. You do you, gurl. Or people who insist they write to “express themselves.” Expressing is active, and acting is expressing, even if what’s expressed is a pose, a lie.
Impressing is passive, in that I can’t act to impress you. You are the audience, the arbiter, of whether to be impressed by me. And when I look at these I see how much I love being impressed by people. When I meet new people, all I want to do is ask them dozens of questions. I like to follow a conversation, at a distance, more than I like to play my part in it.
Where am I going with all this? I’ve got some developing ideas that posing and artifice is, paradoxically, the way toward an authentic life. In three more weeks I’ll begin a 1-year break from having to perform two key roles in my life: program director and professor. I feel I’ve done a poor job keeping up the roles of writer and partner (and friend, and brother, and son) lately. Those guys need more plotlines, more time in front of the camera.
[Full disclosure: Ari teaches with me in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. He signed my copy of this book.]
“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under / while rain skims the front of me.”
This is how one poem late in Ari’s debut collection starts, and I loved it because it’s so unlike how I feel. My name I did the good work to grow into, and any changes I made to it—going from David to Dave around 1992—I did because it felt faster, easier.
But such is the luck of being assigned at birth the gender I feel inside. From the position of the trans body Ari maps so movingly in this book, names mean more, and come packaged with more. “I admit it keeps me visible,” the above poem continues, “the agreement to call this that.”
I’m not a strong reader of poetry. It charges a part of my brain I don’t often exercise, a darker part perhaps that makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to the darker corners of Ari’s poems. “The Feeling” starts with a red cloud that comes annually up the Aegean—Ari’s people are Greek—and “covers the buildings, the cars, / in a fine red film of dust from elsewhere.” But soon the poem shifts to the moon, and then to the incarcerated, and throughout the field of war on which nations play.
It’s an unstable place, and this is a book that felt drawn to, or driven to understand, unstable places:
I can say moon and tree and fox and river,
or me and you, or love and stutter,
but I can mean corporation I can mean police.
I can mean surveillance,
or that the moon is a prison, it is daytime,
and in daytime no one sees the moon.
The poem reads like an essay with images that arrest me, which is basically everything I ask a poem to be. “This is not our poem,” it ends. “The poem has been privatized. Its flag will be a red feeling.”
I also loved “Hog”, late in the book, which is a kind of bestial/motorcycle/leather fantasy that reminded me of Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg. Ari’s landscape here is blurred, or maybe tilled up is the better metaphor: “What’s a hog / but gleam of handlebars, leather, that roar speeding by. / The scared parts dressed up tough, saying / ah come on let’s go chop up the wind.”
“Narrative” might be the closest the book gets to a clear portrait of the young trans body before coming out, and it’s so good I want to just quote all of it, but instead I’ll point you to its initial publication in Verse Daily and quote this part I love the most. It’s one of my favorite images I’ve read all year:
In Illinois I tried to build a kind of Midwestern
girlhood that failed and failed
into the shape of a flute
I played only high notes on.
What else? Oh, what a joy it was to read this part from “Handshake”! I felt heard, understood. I felt like I could find the friends I need if only I could open up about the honest parts of myself I feel it would be better to keep inside, lest I scare off potential friends:
I know I'd prefer to misbehave
continuously. Any squirrel gets what I mean—anarchic revelry,
refusing to ever be still, such keenness.
They own no tree so they all own all of them.
I'd like to flick my tail too whenever I want as if to say WHAT.
But at any moment I'm wherever someone puts me—
then change my mind. I'll pick a side
when I need to