Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Sex and the City

A Fan Reacts to Sex and the City 3

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In one of the final episodes of ‘Sex and the City’ red-haired Miranda Hobbes, played by blonde-haired Cynthia Nixon, has proposed to her on-again-off-again boyfriend Steve “over three dollar beers.” She hates everything to do with romance and phoniness but, after she tells her friends of the engagement, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha get misty-eyed verklempt. Getting up from the table because they’re “freaking her out,” Miranda says, “Samantha, I expected more from you.”

The line works because, of the four lead characters, Carrie and Charlotte were the optimist/idealists, while Miranda and Samantha the cynical/realists, although their personal philosophies came from opposite directions. Miranda was the show’s feminist voice while Samantha was a de-political hedonist—a male sexual ego trapped in a woman’s body. Just how inescapable that female body was becomes clear later in the same episode when Samantha discovers she has breast cancer, a risky and brave story line for the writers to insert in the final episodes. When she accidently lets slip her condition at the end of Miranda’s wedding, she reminds her: “No tears. Miranda, I expected more from you.”

While ‘Sex and the City’ will always be associated with Carrie and her musings (but look, I wrote two paragraphs and didn’t even mention Big!) the trajectory of the show more resembled the development of Miranda and Samantha, who both had to let go of some cynicism and independence to accept that love was possible. It’s why, after Steve cheats on her in the first movie, Miranda’s line “I changed who I was for you,” cuts so deep.

Although Carrie had to get over her sarcastic reaction to Petrovsky’s romantic gestures, that didn’t work out too well for her. She ended up with Big, the man who had constantly let her down but she loved regardless. The series started as a tribute to chain-smoking, mid-thirties negativity (“Welcome to the age of Uninnocence,” Carrie voice overs in the first episode) but eventually became one of the most unabashedly romantic shows on TV.

Funnily enough, I think personally I’ve gone in the other direction. I started out with Carrie’s idealism, tested Samantha’s joie de vivre (the polite way to say it), and have settled somewhat on Miranda’s snarky skepticism. It’s maybe what happens in your twenties. But as both a first and second generational fan (I watched it when it first aired, sneaking downstairs late at night to watch it on the family TV as a teenager, and then shared every episode on DVD with my university friends) I will always stand by the show, even as the cultural cacophony has moved against it. After the economy crashed, Carrie’s shopping and trendy restaurant name-dropping instantly looked dated. Entire series have been created as rebukes to the fictional world of dating in New York that ‘SATC’ espoused. But it will continue to irritate me that in an era of philandering, drug-dealing, serial killing, male ‘anti-heroes’ Carrie Bradshaw is the one routinely described as a ‘bad person’.

The movies didn’t help. And I say this as a fan who watched both in the theatre and owns both on DVD. (Even the second one, yes.) There are scenes from both films I enjoy and, if I had any digital editing skills I would put them together into a passable thirty minute long episode, as I heard someone did with ‘Star Wars’. But the final three episodes, in which Carrie gives up her column and moves to Paris, were so perfectly conclusive there was no reason for a first film, let alone a sequel. I will say this for the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’: I appreciated the theme, which was something about it being okay for women to speak their minds, much more than that of the first one, which was ‘forgive the one who love no matter what they do to you’.

I believe screenwriter Michael Patrick King deserves a lot of the blame. From what I’ve learned, the writers’ room for the series was a chattering place where the writers’ bad dates and misadventures in love were worked into episodes. Those different experiences and perspectives became the different voices of the characters and were essential to the chatty spirit of the show. The movies, in contrast, are subdued and quiet, the silence becoming all the more obvious with feature length runtime. He also deserves the blame for completely misreading the zeitgeist and sending the girls on a frothy vacation to Abu Dhabi, a sojourn that pleased no one.

What I’m saying is I can’t handle another movie. Which is why I was glad to see Miranda’s alter ego, Cynthia Nixon, holding out on signing up for a third film. Nixon, New York City’s most famous activist lesbian mom, has always come across as the most down to earth of the actors, and her non-involvement would make it impossible for the show to go on. (For the record, Chris Noth was also as noncommittal as Mr. Big.)

Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor I admire and will always have a deep affection for, seems unable or unwilling now let the character of Carrie go. When she came up to Toronto to open a Target store she wore a big season 3-style flower pin. She’s a professional Carrie now. It was only a matter of time before she started a show company.

Meanwhile, Nixon appears happy with doing the odd bit of theatre, the odd bit of TV. She told the press it would be okay if they let the series end. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Nixon told the ‘Today Show’ she’d “absolutely” be on board for a third movie. (My question: who got to her? Was it Kim Cattrall?) I understand that working actors need money and movie studio pay cheques allow them to continue to pursue the life style they’ve become accustomed to, but there are bigger issues at stake. ‘Sex and the City’ is what the four lead actors will be remembered for, unless ‘Failure to Launch’, ‘Rampart’, ‘Cross Roads’ or ‘The Shaggy Dog’ become cult favourites. (Actually, ‘Cross Roads’ might be already.) They should let the beautiful series finale speak for itself. They should hang up their Manolos and call it a day. Lastly, they should consider how I feel, the lifelong fan who defend ‘SATC’ till his dying day, but wants to talk about Paris and Petrovsky and not camel toe sight gags. I hope one of the actors comes to her senses.

Miranda, I expected more from you.

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Private Parts

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, although recent years have provided a number of exceptions. Figures as varied as Al Gore (former V.P. and failed presidential candidate, now international environmentalist icon), Steve Jobs (Apple founder, then Apple exile, then Apple savior) and Rosie O’Donnell (interrupting her sporadic career as a bubbly daytime TV host with bouts of angry activism) all demonstrate why the obsessives who update Wikipedia biographies get so little sleep.

And while an actor would love to get a regular part on a beloved, long-running TV series, it is a mixed blessing: with fame and financial security comes the straightjacket of being trapped in a specific character in the public’s mind. While Kramer, Niles and Phoebe may now exist only in reruns, they cast long shadows on the careers of Michael Richards, David Hyde Peirce and Lisa Kudrow.

It’s probably why Sarah Jessica Parker, who had an interesting if not A-list movie career as a young character actress prior to ‘Sex and the City’, has had a difficult time since taking off her Carrie Bradshaw shoes. In her latest film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ she played a financial advisor who was also a mother, two positions very difficult to imagine Sarah Jessica/Carrie filling.

But, as the giant ‘Sex and the City’ nerd that I am, I only want the best for those ladies. So when I first spotted the fabulously art deco posters for a revival of Noël Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ starring Kim Cattrall (alongside ‘Due South’s Paul Gross), I felt it my duty to attend.

I should admit, though, that, unlike a lot of gay boys out there, Cattrall’s Samantha was never my favourite. I related to Carrie’s romantic yearning and idealism about how life should be (as well as her occasional incoherent incompetence) and cheered on Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda as she provided the show’s feminist voice and demonstrated that beneath toughness can be insecurity. But the cartooniness of Samantha (her porno situations, her over-acted orgasms, the garishly bright colours of her outfits) seemed to personify the worst things people thought about the show.

But my Mother (yes, my Mom and I stay up late watching old ‘Sex and the City’ episodes together), noted an occasional softness in Cattrall’s performance. As the oldest character she suggested a wisdom and far-sightedness the other ladies’ in-the-moment reactions lacked.

When I bought tickets to ‘Private Lives’ for the two of us online, my Mom made me paranoid that Cattrall might sit out some performances. While I understand that every actor needs an understudy and that ‘the show must go on’, as the date of the performance drew nearer, I feared that little piece of paper stuck in the program which would inform us that “Sitting in for Ms. Cattrall…”

There’s the paradox of it: while I support Kim Cattrall moving on with her career and playing different parts, I, like many people at the theatre, bought tickets because I was familiar with her from TV. She could win the Nobel Peace Prize and in the first paragraph of the news story would be the sentence, “best known for her role as Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’…”

The rain was pouring down as people crowded under the illuminated marquee of the Royal Alexander theatre. As we stood in the lobby, Mom in a scarf and me in a bow tie (my nod to the fashions of the 1930’s), we flipped though our programs.

“Oh no,” Mom said, discovering a little slip of white paper.

“At this performance,” it read, “due to the indisposition of Paul Gross the role of Elyot will be performed by Gareth Clarke.”

I audibly sighed. “Thank goodness it was just him,” I said.

“I’m disappointed,” my Mom said. “I wanted to see Paul Gross.”

The play itself is a painfully witty and sophisticated concoction, at once as classic and of its time as a 1930’s martini glass. It begins on a luxurious hotel terrace in Deauville, France. Two couples are celebrating their honeymoons next door to each other. The audience learns that the wife of one pair, Amanda (Cattrall), and the husband of the other, Elyot (not Paul Gross), were not only both married before, but married to each other. When they discover one another what follows is one of the funniest exchanges of awkwardness and mounting anger ever put on the stage, and it reminds one how much sitcoms owe to their drawing room comedy forebears.

Most of the past revivals of ‘Private Lives’ have stuck to the dry, deadpan delivery of Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in the original production. (Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery even based their performances for the 1931 film version on a recording of that show.)

Cattrall delivers her lines both broader and more realistically, speeding up when she’s upset and occasionally dropping into a demonic shriek when muttering something nasty. Her voice, which sometimes sounded stagey on ‘Sex and the City’, fits nicely with a British accent. (Cattrall was born in England, but grew up in British Columbia.)

It must be noted that Cattrall, who’s playing a part she’s twenty years older than, looks beautiful and incredibly youthful on stage. Although she spends much of the play in dressing gowns, when she steps out in a bias-cut gold evening column, you could almost hear the audience gasp.

And since we’ve admitted and accepted that Kim Cattrall will never fully escape Samantha Jones, what is it like to hear Coward’s sophisticated lines (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”) coming from the mouth which once declared, “My boyfriend has the funkiest-tasting spunk”?

With Cattrall in the role, we can better see Elyot and Amanda for their modern hedonism, contrasting with the boring traditionalism of their new spouses. Elyot has a speech defending treating life “flippantly”, which could almost be a founding manifesto of Camp, and Amanda keeps up with her desires to be “wild”. Dare I even suggest that there are some proto-Samantha lines, such as when Elyot claims it’s natural for women to have less affairs and Amanda shoots back, “It’s useful for men for women to have less affairs!”

As they took their bows, Cattrall grabbed Clarke’s hand and allowed the cast and audience to give him a special round of applause, to which he humbly nodded. As a survivor of stage and screen, she knows that, as difficult as it is to be in the shadow of a TV character, for an understudy to emerge from the shadow of the absent star is even harder.

‘A Lady Is A Lady, After All’

At the WORN office the other day we were talking movies, like we do, and the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’ came up.

“It is literally the worst movie ever made,” one of the Wornettes claimed.

“No,” I sighed. “It is not literally the worst movie ever made.”

My objection came less from loyalty to Carrie and company and more from my problem with the continued watering down of the word ‘literally’. It does not mean ‘really’. ‘Literally’ literally means literally. That’s all.

Sure, you may balk at ‘Sex and the City 2’s materialism, it’s stiletto-heel-thin plot line and its treatment of an Arab country as an exotic backdrop for frothy fun, but are the shadows of the camera men visible? Does the story, unbelievable as it may be, at least make logical sense? You may not be laughing at the jokes, but at least you’re not laughing at the serious dialogue.

There are hundreds of films worse than ‘Sex and the City 2’.

Literally.

Two movies, both alike in indignity, in Fair Hollywood where we lay our scene: ‘Glen or Glenda’ (1953) or ‘Myra Breckinridge’ (1970).

On the surface, the pair would seem to have little in common: one was a low-budget exploitation flick to titillate drive-in audiences in the conservative fifties; the other, a would-be blockbuster from a major studio, based on a best-selling book, staring a sex symbol and a couple of fossilized Hollywood legends.

But the two films, which both deal with cross-dressing and gender confusion (albeit, making opposite points), have more in common than just their inanity. ‘Glen or Glenda’ and ‘Myra Breckinridge’ redefine what it means to be bad. And the stories of how they were made are as interesting as what ended up on screen.

In the early 1950’s, inspired by the public’s interest in Christine Jorgensen, the first person to make news for having sex reassignment surgery, B-movie producers rushed to get sex change movies into the theatres while the story was still hot. Ed Wood, the unknown scriptwriter with no previous film directing experience, pushed his way in to direct what was then called ‘I Changed My Sex’. Along with wanting to be a legitimate director, Wood had a secret motivation: he was a secret cross-dresser and wanted to show the world that that was no great sin.

The resulting film, which is one part preachy public service announcement and one part coked-out nightmare of devils, vampires and sadomasochistic porno, must be seen to be believed. Wood stars as a regular, all-American guy named Glen (the narration makes a big deal that his character is heterosexual) who happens to feel comfortable in women’s clothing. Playing his oblivious fiancé was Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend who, in an incredible bit of art imitating life, didn’t know about Wood’s cross dressing while making the film.

In Tim Burton’s loving tribute movie ‘Ed Wood’ (1994) she is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a reminder that she once had a successful film career.

Hovering above the action is Bella Lugosi, the original Dracula, who by this point was a drug addict and un-hirable. Wood befriended him and gave him the part of ‘The Scientist’, a would-be narrator who doesn’t narrate so much as sit in an armchair and yell, through his Hungarian accent, insane things like “Pull the strings!” and “Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big, fat snails.”

At the end of the movie, Glen confesses to his fiancé that he enjoys wearing women’s clothing and she, after a pregnant pause, (spoiler alert!) hands over her angora sweater. One can only imagine all the thoughts which went through the producers’ heads when Wood dropped off the film roll, but we know at least two complaints: the film was too short and featured no sex change operation. They had ordered a movie to cash in on people’s interested in (what was then considered) a freakish operation. Wood had given them the opposite: a movie about a normal guy who just happens to like angora sweaters.

“Glen is not a homosexual,” the narrator intones. “Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” This line is delivered as the viewer is shown shady men, presumably gays, lighting cigarettes for each other under street lights. One of the greatest ironies of ‘Glen or Glenda’ is that, fifty years later, homosexuals are winning the PR war, while straight men who cross-dress (not transgendered people) are as little talked about and understood as they were in the 1950’s.

To fill up the rest of the movie, they tacked on a second plot (‘Alan or Anne’) which featured a sex change operation, and an extended fantasy sequence with women writhing around on sofas in their underwear. By the time Bella Lugosi’s is cross-cut, supposedly reacting to the sexy ladies with arched upside-down ‘V’ eyebrows and pursed lips, my friend Jeremy and I were laughing so much we had pause the DVD.

Which leads to an interesting conundrum: the movie is undoubtedly horrible, but if you get so much pleasure from it that you are practically crying with laughter, should it really be considered bad?

‘Glen or Glenda’, though bizarre, is watchable. ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is not.

Based on the slim but engrossing novel by Gore Vidal, ‘Myra’ was 20th Century Fox’s attempt to tape into the Swinging Sixties youth market. But by 1970, when the film came out, the killings at Altamont and the Charles Manson murders had cost the flower children some of their bloom. But that was only the beginning of problems for this cursed production.

The book told the story of Myra, a knock-out beauty who is obsessed with old movies (she alleges that the entire range of human emotions was filmed by Hollywood between 1935 and 1945) and who is on a mission to exterminate the traditional male. She claims to be the widow of an effeminate man named Myron and blackmails his uncle, a former cowboy film star, into hiring her as a teacher at his mediocre acting school. Myra takes an interest in a hunky student named Rusty, graphically penetrating him in the climax scene. By the end (spoiler alert!) we discover the beautiful Myra is actually Myron after a sex change.

It seemed to everyone that the plot was unfilmable, but one of the most frustrating things about the making of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is the movie that could have been. Gore Vidal wrote the first toned-down screen treatment, which was promptly rejected by the studio for being too conservative. Vidal disassociated himself from the production and has said bitchy things about it ever since.

There was also talk of getting legendary director George Cukor (who, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, made the type of movies the character Myra cherishes). Instead, Fox hired Michael Sarne, a novelty song-writer and occasional actor from England with one film credit to his name. Fox wanted a director who wouldn’t follow established rules; Sarne wouldn’t even follow the elementary rules of movie making.

Until you submit yourself to ‘Myra’, in which entire scenes are incomprehensible and seemingly pointless, you don’t know bad movies.

Although he auditioned drag queens and transgendered actors for the lead, Sarne eventually approached sex symbol Raquel Welch, who was eager to be taken seriously as an actor. Although I admire her chutzpah, why Welch ever thought playing a former-man who rattles on about Tarzan films and rapes people would make her a legitimate actor God only knows.

Wearing brightly-coloured, 1940’s inspired outfits with matching hats (looking like some whacked-out drag version of Joan Crawford), Welch digs into the role with energetic gusto. You can sense her desperation for this to be a good picture just below the surface, and hers is the only performance which matches the cartoony camp-ness of the film.

In a smaller part, Sarne coaxed Mae West, queen of the suggestive double entrendre, out of retirement. West, of famous lines like “Is that a rifle in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, was the original Samantha Jones. In her seventies and blanketed in black and white Edith Head gowns and a high-piled blonde wig, West delivers her dirty jokes in the exact way she did in her twenties (in the ‘20s!). She was fanatically jealous of Welch, and legends abound of her stealing her costumes and refusing to share a scene with her.

Everybody on set was on edge. Nobody trusted anyone. They began shooting before the script was finished and Welch ran to her dressing room in tears, perhaps sensing the train wreck she had attached her career too. Sarne would spend hours tinkering with the props for unimportant scenes, or would disappear to “think” about his next step. A heavy haze of marijuana smoke engulfed the lot.

Sarne became convinced that the studio was going to take the film away from him. Remarkably, they didn’t, even though they probably should have.

Fox even allowed the director full access to their archives, so to punctuate certain scenes Sarne inserted old clips of Laurel and Hardy, Mareline Dietrich and Judy Garland. At the climax of a scene featuring a blow job, he placed a clip of little Shirely Temple milking a cow and getting sprayed in the face. This clip got an especially warm reception from the test screening in San Francisco, but a letter was sent from the White House on behalf of Ms. Temple (who was an ambassador) and the scene was pulled.

One wonders what the character of Myra would have thought of Sarne sullying classic movie clips and Old Hollywood actors by using them to make dirty visual puns.

Obliviously buoyed by the good reception in San Francisco (studio execs had not yet realized that the taste of gay men wasn’t always the same as the taste of the mainstream), the film makers began to think that, despite all the drama that had gone into its making, they might remarkably have a hit on their hands.

“About as funny as a child molester,” cried the most famous review. Although curiosity spurred some early attendees, ticket sales plummeted soon after ‘Myra’ opened, and took purchases of the book down with them. Everyone involved allowed Sarne to take the blame and, having become a leper in Hollywood, he went back to England.

I’m most sympathetic towards Welch, who wanted so much from this movie and got so little. Her career survived (although she never became the acclaimed actor she wanted to be), but she did get to do a duet with Miss Piggy. Interviewed for the DVD release, looking remarkably similar to have she did in the 1970’s, Welch is candid and self-effacing about the disaster which was ‘Myra’.

Interestingly, ‘Glen or Glenda’, made during the red-baiting early 1950’s, is the film which argues that people who cross dress are just like everyone else. Although a satire, the cross-dressing character in ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is as large a threat to tradition, normalcy and the manhood of everyday blokes as conservatives would fear. Glen may wear angora because he likes the feel, but Myra pulls on pumps to start revolution.

You could claim that certain aspects of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ were ahead of its time, like the recycling of old movie clips and the movie’s proto-post-modern editing. Its mixture of the elevation of the frivolous (Myra’s love of old movies and retro fashions) with its questioning of the traditional male foretold the creation of Queer Studies, which would combine these disparate ideas. ‘Myra’, of course, has garnered a cult following. For a movie as bizarre as this one, it would be surprising if it didn’t.

But ‘Myra’ is bad. It’s a bad film. While ‘Glen or Glenda’ is unintentionally hilarious and ‘Myra’ is a terrible movie.

Remember it next time you’re ready to judge Kim Cattrall purring “Lawrence of my labia” in the desert.

Seasons Change, So Do Cities

 

The last episode of ‘Sex and the City’s fourth season, titled ‘I Heart NY’, was filmed in August 2001 but not aired until the next spring. Viewers were shocked at the prescience of the last few minutes, in which Carrie feels nostalgic and a bit melancholy because Mr. Big has moved to California. Completely by accident, the show’s creators produced a season finale that reflected some of the feelings of 9/11 without having anything to do with 9/11. I have often re-watched it during times when I felt like my life was about to start a new chapter.

“After all, seasons change. So do cities. People come into your life and people go. But it’s comforting to know, the ones you love are always in your heart and if you’re very lucky, a plane ride away.” 

Country Wedding

Brianne and John got married, and I am very glad I was there.

One of the best things about university (acquiring long term employment not included) is meeting people you would not have otherwise known. Such was the case with my friend Brianne, who lived with me two years in Artz Haus and two years in a townhouse on campus. Hailing from a small, farming town, with brown wavy hair and a not-tall stature, Brianne has a completely un-ironic affection for fairies, country music and ‘Moulin Rouge’.

For an example of how our two personalities at times oddly overlap, we both know the lyrics to the weepy 1980’s ballad ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, but while Brianne learned them from her parents’ record collection, I know the song from ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’.

With her pearls and occasionally-shocked expressions at the crap that came out of our mouths, Brianne quickly became the Charlotte York of our rag tag group. (An analogy which became obvious after she admitted to almost walking out of her first episode of ‘Sex and the City’ after a particularly dirty comment by Samantha, but not being able to as the character of Charlotte did it on the show before she could.) Of course, eventually we (re: I) got her hooked on the series, but the corrupting of Brianne is not my subject today.

In fact, quite the reverse: out of all of us, she always stayed true to who she was and what she believed. But I never once felt that she judged me or made assumptions based on our differences. We could talk about anything and everything for hours. And when I was going through my Bad Break-up, it was Brianne who let me pull my mattress into her room so I wouldn’t have to spend one particularly dark night alone.

It was about that same time that Brianne met John. Very occasionally, we tried to stay in shape, which led a few of us to university pool one evening. Brianne can’t swim, so she sort of fluttered on a floaty board while I kept her company. She had gone to a play that afternoon and forgot she was wearing make-up. Her mascara was now running down her cheeks, but we didn’t tell her, as it was the Guelph swimming pool at nine at night and who cares? Well, Brianne ended up caring, after a cute boy swam up to her and they talked for a bit. Later, when she saw her reflection in the women’s locker room, she apparently cried, “Why didn’t anybody tell me I look like Corpse Bride!”

Turns out John, also sweet and from a small town, didn’t care very much. He swiftly made his way into our group and into Brianne’s heart. Five years later, they got married.

A group of us from Artz Haus drove the three hours from Toronto for the wedding, stopping at a chip wagon and listening to CDs from the early 00’s to get us in the nostalgic mood. The ceremony took place at John’s aunt’s farm and we were kindly offered the ‘Hunter’s Cabin’ to stay in (a title particularly funny, given that we had two vegetarians among us).

When we arrived at the farm, it was clear that this was going to be a Country Wedding. And by that I don’t just mean the abundant presence of John Deere tractors, or the random sheepdog running around. By ‘Country Wedding’ I’m referring to the casual, not-terribly-organized manner in which the event played out. Who needs an over-reacting, stressed-out wedding planner anyway?

John’s warm and welcoming aunt took us to the cabin. The girls were invited to ride a John Deere ‘Gator’ while the boys walked. (Considering the girls were also told to use the inside facilities while the boys got to use the porta potty, I noted that gender differences played a larger role than they would, say, in Toronto’s Annex.) As we dropped off our stuff, John’s aunt explained what the word ‘rustic’ meant:

“Now, it’s unfinished, but there’s bunk beds in the back enough for all of you. But don’t sleep on the top bunks, because they’re plywood. The windows open, but only some of them have screens, so watch out for bugs. If you get hot, you can turn on the AC, but you probably don’t want to leave it on all night, as the cord gets very hot. You should probably keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burst into flames. The outhouse is just outside, but send one of the men in first, as we keep trying to get rid of that wasp’s nest, but you never know. I hope you’re all comfortable…”

Joking aside, it was exactly the space we needed and we were so grateful to be staying on the property.

The ceremony was held down a little path from the house by a babbling brook, under some tall tress which provided a cathedral-like canopy. A gorgeous dragonfly landed on a leaf right beside me. Indeed, for the anxious, bug spray had been left on a chair as you made your way to the site.

At least for the beginning of the ceremony, brides have it easier. They get to compose themselves at some undisclosed location, while the groom stands on display at the front, mingling with the guests and looking nervous. The only evidence of Brianne I had really seen so far was the ‘Moulin Rouge’ quote in the program: “The greatest thing is just to love, and to be loved in return.”

We had seen and greeted John, but we didn’t see the bride until the violinist began Pachelbel’s Canon. Maybe I didn’t fully believe it was happening until I spotted her with her top-hatted father in an achingly romantic gown. Suddenly it hit me; my friend was getting married. As she walked down the ‘aisle’ and was about to look in our direction, I heard a loud thap-thap-thap beside me. Looking down, I saw a giant black beetle-type insect had landed on my shoulder. Calmly and quietly, I swatted it away, but when I looked back up, Brianne had passed us.

When the minister permitted the couple to kiss. It came earlier than she expected, Brianne told me later, and, as not a tall person, she grasped John’s arms, went up on her toes and planted a big one on his lips. There was awkward silence until I shrieked “Woooooo!” like a studio audience member, and everybody laughed and cheered. I’m so proud of her for just going for it. Perhaps some Samantha did rub off after all.

The reception was held in the ‘barn’, which was very new and large and felt more like a wooden airplane hangar. The Guelph people had a prominent spot near the head table, with our named place settings attached to small rocks. A rumour spread that Brianne had personally matched each name to a stone. (I guess this is why brides are so busy.) Before dinner was served, dehydrated and on my second glass of white wine, I wandered up to the head table:

“Brianne. Brianne! Why did you pick this rock for me?”

Without missing a beat she answered, “Because it’s craggy and kind of antique-looking.”

“Oh. Okay. I’m keeping it.”

Sometimes country folk say completely unprompted country things that sound made up.

“Pretty good party, eh?” a man said to me out of nowhere.

“Yes, it is.”

“Not like those fancy, city weddings!”

“No,” I laughed. “Definitely not.”

After dinner, she danced with her father to a country song which had the chorus ‘I Held Her First’ before joining John in a waltz to ‘Come What May’ from ‘Moulin Rouge’. That’s when many of us started crying, although I first teared up when John said in his speech that, having known Brianne for five, he couldn’t wait to know her for ten, fifty and one hundred years.

During her speech, Brianne gave me a shout-out, thanking me for taking her swimming. She said my surprised expression was priceless.

And I tried to catch the bouquet with all the ladies. Gender differences be damned! It sailed through my hands, I actually felt the petals before a girl behind me with blue hair caught it. Turns out, I wasn’t the only subversive friend present. They made the blue-haired girl dance with the guy who caught the bride’s garter, so it was probably for the best.

I kept feeling like I wanted a moment alone with the bride, as impossible as I knew that was. The feeling was given special urgency because the couple are leaving for Alberta soon, perhaps never to return. But I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. Thank you for always being an amazing friend? Congratulations on finding love in this rough, relationship status ‘It’s complicated’ world? Maybe I just wanted a moment with her to get a breath, take it all in and acknowledge how much everything’s changed since we shared a wall at Guelph.

Brianne kept her energy up and danced in the barn until one in the morning. I tried to keep up, and at some point lost my shoes. Her parents danced together, especially when the DJ played a Beatles’ song.

TV shows and movies about weddings often focus on how they divide (family versus family, inter-bridesmaid rivalries) but the truth about weddings is that they bring us together. Even if only for one night, older relatives from the country, attention-grabbing toddlers running around screaming, parents, siblings and queer and non-queer university friends combine to form an ad hoc group to support the couple in the next phase of their life together. And the glue that holds this diverse band together is their love for the bride and groom.

There was a moment near the end of the night when there were four couples slow-dancing and I stood off by myself. There wasn’t even an unoccupied bridesmaid to dance with (although I wouldn’t want to lead her on and break her heart). In truth, I felt a little sad. Here were two people promising each other to love one another for a hundred years, ‘come what may’, and I hadn’t been on a second date for longer than I care to admit. But it’s okay. I thought of Carrie Bradshaw dancing by herself at a ‘gay prom’ (a humorously reversed situation than I was in). Besides dirty words, ‘Sex and the City’ taught me that it’s okay to dance by yourself if you know who you are and what you’re waiting for.

And I had evidence right in front of me that love really exists.

That night at the cabin, our formal clothes soaked in sweat, we brushed our teeth on the front porch and I accidentally spit on the picnic table down below.

“It’s fine; it’ll look like bird poo in the morning.”

The next day, all of the Guelph people reassembled in the barn, tired and hung-over, for a breakfast feast of left overs and waffles. Looking totally refreshed and rested, John and Brianne joined our table and we momentarily acted like we were back at Creelman, the cafeteria we went to practically every day. But then everyone had to leave and no one wanted to say goodbye.

Realizing I hadn’t said anything to Brianne’s parents yet, I sought out her Mom.

“Oh, Max!” she said, giving me a hug. “You look so different without long hair!” (I had long hair in third year. Yeah, I don’t know either. ) “Thank you so much for coming all this way! It means a lot to Brianne.” She said it as though Toronto was countries away.

“It’s not that far,” I replied.

My friends were trying to leave, but I wanted to make it clear to her how glad I was to be Brianne’s friend. “Thank you… for having such a wonderful daughter!” I called out.

Then we went to the car, for a quiet, contemplative drive back to the city and regular life.

Congratulations, John and Brianne. I am very happy for you and proud to know you both.

Make sure Alberta is ready for my visit.

Drop Dead, Diva

 

“That is the gayest thing I have ever seen,” I whispered when I first saw the trailer for the Christina Aguilera-Cher camp orgy ‘Burlesque’. A hodgepodge of ‘Cabaret’, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Showgirls’ (there’s some ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in there too), the film looks horrendous but I think I may have to go see it in order to keep my queer card.

While I worry that Cher’s multiple facelifts have left her unable to act (Cintra Wilson described her as resembling a stuffed, perpetually-surprised geisha), I was pleased to see her again. Cher is that rare creature, a surviving diva who can laugh at herself. When she showed up at the Oscars in a crazy black sequined headdress and a dress that left nothing to the imagination, she joked with reporters, “You can see I’m taking myself seriously as a legitimate actress.” (Would Lady Gaga say something as funny about her outfits, which she treats as conceptional art?)

In her recent Vanity Fair interview she talks about hating the aging process and mentions Meryl Streep, a former co-star and friend: “I think Meryl is doing it great. The stupid bitch is doing it better than all of us!” I pictured her saying this in her quintessential low drawl and laughed out loud.

Not everyone is as happy about the return of Cher. Take Lynn Crosbie in today’s Globe and Mail.

After outlining the term ‘diva’s operatic origins she writes “Lately, to be a diva is to be, plainly, stuck-up, spoiled and deeply unpleasant.” While gay men may cheer their many comebacks, she claims that the persistence of the diva ideal is disheartening to women.

“These women—from Cher to Bette Midler to Liza and beyond—do not persist because of women’s desire or obsessive fascination. Possibly, there are women out there who actually enjoy Cher’s nightmare synth-hit ‘Believe’; women who find Midler’s caterwauling on about the invention of the brassiere in her stage play delicious; women who can watch Minnelli mumble-sing ‘Single Ladies’ in ‘Sex and the City 2’ without feeling shame and revulsion…And while we are gently heartened by the diva’s worldview (‘I will survive!’), by her apparent timelessness and guts, we are simultaneously alienated by such women for they are gay icons who service a queer ideal of women that is, obviously, nonsexual, and rife with cruelty. The diva is not a friend to women.”

While I don’t know what to do with the argument that gay-worshipped divas are nonsexual (Do famous women have to be sexualized? Don’t straight men have that covered?), it is true that gay camp always derided some of its humour from cruelty. How else can you view drag queens recreating whacked-out Marlene Dietrich falling off a stage mid-song, or crazed Joan Crawford brandishing a wire hanger at her terrified children? Daniel Harris in ‘The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture’ has called camp the ‘religion that failed’, a dark mockery by former star-worshippers as they watched in horror as their goddesses aged and faded away.

But there is strength in the diva as well. Harris writes, “to counteract their own sense of powerlessness as a vilified minority, [homosexuals] modeled themselves on the appealing image of this thick-skinned androgyne-cum-drag-queen, a distinctly militaristic figure who, with a suggestive leer and a deflating wisecrack, triumphed over the indignities of being gay… Quite by accident, by pure serendipity, the diva provided the psychological models for gay militancy and helped radicalized the subculture.”

But that’s about the homosexuals, and Crosbie is interested in gay fandom only as it (to her) delegitimizes a diva’s celebrity.

After accusing gay camp of cruelty and divas as being no friend to women, what does she do with the rest of her column? Well, she says nasty stuff about Cher with the relish of a high school mean girl.

She mocks her for making lots of money and not telling ‘20/20’ the exact amount. She brings up a lame joke about “not being born in Poland” from decades ago (because, you know, Cher is obviously racist against the Poles). She judges Cher for the way she handled her conflicting emotions at the death of Sonny Bono, her ex-husband and manager who attempted to control her career. She judges her again for how she’s coped with her daughter Chasity’s transition from lesbian to transgendered male. She even takes the Meryl Streep quote from Vanity Fair out of context, simply claiming that Cher called her friend “a bitch”.

Near the end of this nasty paragraph Crosbie quotes a gay man, flamboyant designer Bob Mackie, who called her a “chameleon”, then, as she did above, dismisses gay fandom as unimportant: “Cher may well be a chameleon, but only in her reptilian demeanour and ability to adapt, cunningly, to her large LGBT following.”

A cunning reptile. Nice, Lynn.

The column reminded me of all the reviewers of ‘Sex and the City 2’ who didn’t see the paradox of cloaking themselves in feminism while criticizing materialism, and then calling the actresses old, ugly and whorish.

It’s fine if you don’t like Cher. And there’s something to be said for questioning gay diva worship and drag performance (even Harris thinks that, rather than being a transgressive force which questions gender roles, drag queens, by exaggerating and codifying femininity as an over-the-top cartoon, actually reinforce them).

But forgive me if I don’t take your feminist warrior stance very seriously when you’ve made a career of writing mean-spirited cut-ups of celebrities, mostly females.

Divas may be no friend of women, but neither is Lynn Crosbie.

Labels or Love

After rocking British TV with 1999’s ‘Queer as Folk’, about the lives of a trio of club-hopping gay men in Manchester, spawning imitators both American and Sapphic, creator Russell T. Davies wrote a mini-series which was, in its own way, just as revolutionary. ‘Bob and Rose’, a simple title for a complicated love story, is about a gay man and a straight woman who fall in love. Neither Bob (Alan Davies), a mild-mannered teacher, nor Rose (Lesley Sharp), a straight-talking office manager, were expecting to fall for the other, but the shock of their first unplanned sexual encounter is overshadowed by the shock that they both want to do it again.

Obviously, Bob has trouble wrapping his head around having a girlfriend. He insists that he is not going through a phase, not going back into the closet and definitely not bisexual or straight. Rose is the only woman he is attracted to and he can’t get her out of his mind. Rose has her own adjusting to do, but once the pair stops trying to explain and label everything, their love becomes simple. How everyone else deals with it is anything but.

Neither Rose’s girlfriends (who ask her why the thought of homo sex doesn’t turn her stomach) nor Bob’s bitchy gay pals can understand, while his father is beaming with pride (“Don’t be too happy, Dad!” Bob snaps), and his mother, who leads the group Parents Against Homophobia, takes it as a personal rebuff. And Bob’s best friend Holly (‘Spaced’s Jessica Stevenson), an extreme and a bit cruel stereotype of the fag hag, jealously wonders why it wasn’t her he fell for.

Not surprisingly, the series, while critically acclaimed, did not become an international phenom like ‘Queer as Folk’. But the show had an unlikely influence on ‘Sex and the City’: the writers, all fans of ‘Bob and Rose’, created a fictional British drama about an interracial couple called ‘Jules and Mimi’ for Miranda to draw inspiration from when she starts dating an African-American. It’s funny that ‘Sex and the City’ was winking at the concept of using a fictional show for inspiration as that series inspired over-analyzing woman and gay men the world over (comedian Bruce Daniels: “It’s all about listening in on gay guys’ arguments at the diner at four am after a night of clubbing. ‘I’m Samantha!’ ‘No, I’m Samantha!’ ‘Bitch, you’re Miranda!’”).

Actually, the influence might not be so unlikely: a year after ‘Bob and Rose’ premiered, ‘Sex and the City’ featured a guest appearance by Nathan Lane, playing a flamboyant and presumably-gay piano-player who inexplicably marries a woman.

But back to ‘Bob and Rose’.

“I don’t know,” my friend Dervla said sceptically when we watched it together. “Isn’t it a bad message for the gay community?”

Some queer activists agreed with her when the series first aired, accusing the show of portraying homosexuality as a phase (although there was a counter reaction among bisexuals who related to the discrimination the couple faced from Bob’s gay friends).

Although I am not one for all that Foucaultian social-constructiveness ‘we’re all bisexual’ bizz-natch, I never once questioned the show’s premise. Firstly, the casting helped: neither Bob nor Rose look like traditionally sexy leads (with Sharp’s unglamorous portrayal being particularly brave), but their sex life is discussed so much that by the end you can’t help but view them as sensual beings. Despite being only six episodes, the beginning of the affair is given a properly patient pacing, with realistic set-backs and awkwardness,  making the unlikely romance all the more believable when it blooms. We’re in British ‘kitchen sink’ drama world, so people go out to the pub or “for a curry”, ‘Coronation Street’ characters are discussed like they’re real and it’s thought that any problem can be solved with a cup of tea.

But what led me to believe the premise most of all is that Russell T. Davies based the story on the surprising love story of a friend of his:

“It came partly from real life, from a friend of mine who was the gayest man on earth… Then he suddenly falls in love with this woman and that’s it—marriage, kids, the lot. It was extraordinary, inexplicable—a chance in a million. And the most incredible thing was our reaction to it. We all took the piss, didn’t believe it for a minute. I thought he was leading this woman astray and it would all go horribly wrong. I found out though after talking to him that it was that rare thing, a real life love story.” He concludes, “To see your own prejudices at work is amazing.”

My own official line at press time is that sexuality is complex, mysterious and changeable. We have barely begun understanding its motivations. (The same thing could be said about love.) It’s best to keep an open mind about these things, as anything can happen.

That’s not to say I’m going to end up with a woman.

Sorry ladies.

Roomies

More than the ‘freshmen fifteen’, snogging in the library and the rumpled walk of shame after a night of debauchery, the undergraduate experience is defined by roommates. For the majority of students, living away from home for the first time overlaps with sharing close quarters with a random person, and can lead to the most remarkable, experimental living conditions. Suddenly, you realize that your roommate has never vacuumed ever in his entire life: not only does he not do it, he never even thinks of it. You wonder if he believes that machine with the long hose in the common room is some sort of abandoned conceptual art piece. At the same time, he quietly fumes at you for always having your friends in the room, sitting on your bed, loudly discussing the plot intricacies of whatever high school TV soap is currently in favour, while he tries to finish his paper on Voltaire which should have been handed in last week.

Movies, books and TV shows about college life always touch on the summer-winter conflicts of mismatched roomies. On Undeclared, Judd Apatow’s short-lived series which was a training ground for his crew of lovable slackers, Jay Baruchel was sexiled from his room in the middle of the night by his hot roommate. He meets an entire colony of pyjama-clad sexiles camped out in the lounge who play team-building exercises and create their own subculture. Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons describes the exact same experience. In Felicity, the over-ernest heroine had a gothy roommate who dumped her stuff in the middle of the night, and wasn’t seen again until, in a painfully awkward scene, she walks in on Felicity discussing how weird she is to her friends. Mismatched roommates remain a source of inspiration for characters long-out of university: Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, Chandler and Joey on Friends, even Ernie and Bert. (Who are just roommates, guys! Although I’m still unclear on whether they are supposed to be kids, like Big Bird and Grover, or Muppet humanoid adults. Thoughts?)

But odd couple roomies may go the way of pagers and land-lines thanks to a new social-networking app called Roommate Finder. As described by Zosia Bielski in The Globe and Mail, UofT’s housing website now allows students to create profiles (complete with cute personalized avatars), list their likes and dislikes, and cross-reference them to find a suitable match. After only a month, UofT’s Roommate Finder has six hundred users, and York, Mount Royal and University of Calgary have all adopted the similar program StarRez.

“It’s like a dating service,” a housing rep at Calgary said. “It’ll tell you that this person is 90 per cent compatible with you and then you can look at their profile.”

But on the downside, it’s like a dating service. As anyone who has every plentyoffish-ed knows, how a date comes across online can contrast starkly with the real person sitting across from you. And in this case, rather than simply suffer through an awkward coffee date, you’re looking at nine months of listening to their keyboard clacking.

But there’s a more central problem with Roommate Finder: sometimes you might not know what you want. Part of the incredible adventure of university life is being thrown together with people from different backgrounds and interests than your own. It can turn out terribly, but it can also fundamentally change who you are. Bielski acknowledges this in brackets: “And who knows, random, seemingly impossible matches by administrators might just yield students a friend for life.”

The girl profiled in Bielski’s piece had two major requirements, that she was okay with her being loud and that she also liked Glee. Now I’m all for bonding over late night DVD watching, but having a TV show in common does not mean your personalities will compliment. If I sought roomies based on two of my favourite shows I can envision finding people very different from myself: The West Wing might snare me a dweeby policy-wonk, while Sex and the City might attract an orange-tanned, peroxide blonde with a status purse swinging from her arm. (I realize while I type this that, if I followed my initial argument, I may very well end up being the best of friends with the dweeb or Elle Woods, because you never know with people, but the fact remains that a mutual TV show does not a friendship make.)

Speaking of Sex and the City, we had a roommate pair at Guelph who illustrates my point nicely. One was a tall, classic-rock loving artist from Toronto, the other a petite English student from a small town. The former decorated her walls with Rollingstone covers, the later with holographic illustrations of fairies. When she joined her roommate and I watching Sex and the City, she had never seen it before, but knew instinctively she was a Charlotte (the traditional one). In the scene in which Samantha (the non-traditional one) claims that she’s dating a guy “with the funkiest-tasting spunk in the world”, she was so shocked, she considered getting up and leaving the room. But when the character Charlotte responded on the show by getting up and leaving the restaurant, she was too embarrassed to do the same thing, so she stayed. She ended up loving the show, had a good relationship with her roommate, and she and I, the farm-girl and the queer atheist, are still friends.

There was a similar situation with a young woman who came out as lesbian shortly after moving in, and her roommate from Virginia. The girl from Virginia showed up in a pick-up truck and to pass the time on move-in day actually whittled. The lesbian told me later that she was thinking ‘Oh good God…!’ But they also turned out to have a good relationship. I’ll remember them for their refrain for dealing with issues directly before they became passive-aggressive nightmares. They would say something like, “Dear Roomie, I love you a lot, you are an amazing person and I cherish you in my life, but if you leave your clothes on the floor (or whatever) one more time I’m going to SCREAM.” As far as I know, it worked.

Part of university is meeting different people, testing yourself and expanding who you thought you were. I worry that, by scoping out six hundred people’s profiles to see who also likes Arcade Fire and The Wire, students will become as fickle with roommates as singles are with dating. It’s funny that social networking which was born of university life (facebook, before your aunt Lorraine joined, was for embarrassing drunken pictures, and it was founded by former college roommates), may deny the next generation of undergrads one of the defining experiences of young adulthood.

In defence of Sex and the City 2

So shoot me, I didn’t hate Sex and the City 2. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more than the first one, although the two raspberry cocktails I downed before going in may have helped. All the girls in high-heels and gay boys who dressed up to go to the cinema (when else do people dress up for a movie?) got me in the right mood, and my friends and I had an absolute blast. I’m not going reiterate my misgivings about setting it in the Middle East. Nor weigh in on ongoing newspaper battle of the sexes (male reviewers hating it, female writers crying sexism, female reviewers saying they hate it too), but I will point out that if it caused people to talk about it so much Michael Patrick King arguably did something right. I’m not even going to discuss the fashion. Well, not exclusively. Instead, I’m going to describe my favourite scene which early on connected the film with the universe and ethos of the original series.

The movie begins with Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Big (if you’re still reading this I needn’t tell you he’s played by Chris Noth) are finally married, living a chic and childless Nick-and-Nora-Charles classic-Manhattan existence. What is the ultimate single girl to do when she is officially off the market? Well, she writes a book titled I do, Do I? and switches from spending all her money on fashion to spending it all on interior design. And, like many wives, she worries that they’ve lost the sparkle when her husband buys a TV for the bedroom, spends every night laying on the couch and flirts with Penelope Cruz. (Rich people have problems too, and although yes, I’m disappointed that all four main characters, none of whom started out as ostentatiously wealthy, now have lots of money, but I was disturbed by suggestion by critics that because Carrie has a beautiful condo with a walk-in closet she has nothing to complain about. But moving on…)

When at one point Carrie needs a break from her marriage and their shared living space, she quietly sneaks downtown to a familiar brownstone. As she unlocks the door to her old apartment, I literally gasped with delight. She walks around, turning on lights and running her fingers over book spines, as the narration explains that the housing market being what it was, they decided to keep Carrie’s old apartment for the time being. She sits down by the desk and turns on that celebrated lap top. I absolutely loved that Carrie, despite getting married, was allowed to hold on to her twenty-something apartment (“An apartment everyone’s had,” the creators described in the Sex and the City book) and that she has a quiet place to write: as Virginia Woolf would say, “A room of one’s own.”

Later, when Carrie glances out her window to see Big waiting downstairs in his limo as he did so often in the show, I was bowled over with nostalgia for the series and what it had meant for me watching it late nights on ‘Bravo’, and then sharing the DVDs with my university friends. It was icing on the cake when Carrie exits the brownstone in a fantastic Dior dress patterned like old newspapers that, if you were a major follower of the show, you would recognize from the third season. It was the exact kind of tribute a movie based on a beloved TV show should throw to their fans.

Compare it to this scene in the first movie, which is ostensibly about the ladies helping Carrie clear her out closet but actually is an excuse for them to drink Champaign, dance to Aerosmith and play dress-up. I love the concept of the scene (who wouldn’t want to play dress-up in Carrie’s closet?) but the clothes featured were not just never on the show but predate the show’s existence (as Carrie calls them, “the worst of the 80’s”). Especially when the other women join in the dress-up fun (seen in the extended film but not the theatrical release because preview audiences balked), costumer Pat Field missed an opportunity to have Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha wear quintessential Carrie looks and even (if I directed it) making fun of Carrie’s stiletto-strut and girlish yelps. I visualize Cynthia Nixon in a giant crinoline, maybe with three flower-pins, tossing her hair around. True, the scene ends with Carrie wearing the famous pink tutu from the opening sequence, which the other girls seem to recognize despite the fact that she never wore it on the show. That’s a funny meta joke, but it’s another example of how the first movie treated the show as a concept rather than build upon the universe that had been real for fans for eight years.

One of the sequel’s themes was ‘making traditions work for you’ (marriage, motherhood, Muslim niqabs) which was much better, and more feminist, than the first movie’s theme of ‘you should forgive people if you love them, even if they cheat on you or leave you at the altar.’ Still, as I’ve said before, the series will always end for me with the last episode, which reminds you to never lose yourself in your relationships, and that “If you find someone who loves the you that you love, well that’s just fabulous!”