Saturday, June 30, 2007

Inherit The Wind

The Broadway production of “Inherit The Wind”, which pits Christopher Plummer’s Tony-nominated performance of Henry Drummond up against Brian Dennehy’s critic-disappointing turn as Matthew Harrison Brady is a revelation. And that revelation has everything to do with the astonishingly profound – and unforgivably ignored – acting choices made by Mr. Dennehy. Unlike Fredric March, who took a far easier path in the film version by shaping Brady into a charismatic, Bible-thumping blowhard, Dennehy chooses to explore the infinite complexities of a man nearing the end of his life who suddenly finds himself questioning and doubting all that he’s ever believed in. An iconic man confronted with the realization that his time has come and gone, the fear that everything he stood for could very well be wrong. Faced with Plummer’s tour de force, Dennehy goes under it, not over the top – and it all makes complete sense! Only a religious man wrestling with his own conscience would rush to the aid of a preacher’s daughter, literally knocked down by her father for supporting her “blasphemous” colleague/paramour on trial. A man who with a brilliant lawyer’s rational mind would no doubt succumb to Drummond’s eloquently sound reasoning.

I have an enormous amount of respect for an actor who can take a panning from critics too simple to see the genius of his performance and not give a damn, just carry on with what he knows is right. Christopher Plummer’s Henry Drummond might have won on the side of truth, but Brian Dennehy’s portrayal of Matthew Harrison Brady is nothing short of truth incarnate.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Judgment Day

It’s fitting that the trial of Antidote Films vs. Laura Albert ended with a fraud conviction accompanied by Bible-quoting closing statements in which Albert was portrayed as evil, for what has this media feeding frenzy been if not a witch hunt? This case was not about Laura Albert masquerading as a teenage, truck stop prostitute, but about getting revenge for the shame caused when one feels they’ve been suckered. Not too long ago this same level of intense mob hatred was directed at author James Frey after his supposed memoir was revealed to be fiction. But James Frey is not another one of Laura Albert’s alter egos. Mr. Frey published fantasy as hard fact. Laura Albert published JT Leroy’s “memoir” as fiction.

That those now throwing stones overlooked this simple fact until Beachy’s “New York” magazine article came out is, quite frankly, astonishing. But then people only see what they want to see, that which they need to make a film marketable. Inconvenient facts like phantom pieces of uranium in Niger are swept aside. Author identity was crucial to the producers – yet no one at Antidote questioned why they were optioning a “memoir” that hadn’t been published as memoir? The only people “deceived” were those who wanted to be.

I wonder whether the jury was really able to see the shades of gray – or only feel the black and white emotions of a dupe, the red of shame. Instinctively I knew Albert’s defense had miscalculated when they chose to address her mental health (irrelevant to the case) instead of sticking straight to the facts. This wasn’t a criminal trial, I thought, and any attempt to gain sympathy for a person able to talk her way into celebrity friendships could only backfire, with the jury instead seeing Albert as a manipulative woman hiding behind her past abuse. Playing (psychological) defense instead of turning the tables and playing (willing accomplice) offense carried an implicit admission of wrongdoing. The defense shouldn’t have taken responsibility – the bait – for a criminal act not committed. There should have been no apologies made for JT Leroy’s birth, no excuses or remorse. To paint Albert as a frail, helpless victim is absurd. She’s strong enough to have become an accomplished writer who fought for her work to get noticed, with or without her alter ego. The point isn’t that Albert didn’t know what she was doing – the point is that everyone else on some level, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, did.

Not that Antidote’s president Jeffrey Levy-Hinte ever second-guessed Albert’s fragile psychological state. “She’s liberated, in a way. It’s quite wonderful,” he told a “New York Times” reporter, referring to the loss of Albert’s alter ego, a statement which seems a bit condescending coming from a self-described “person of principle” who’d just liberated an artist of over a hundred grand she didn’t have. (But then “Sarah” could still be made into a good movie according to Levy-Hinte – which I guess would help offset Albert’s possible loss of the rights to all her books if she can’t pay the judgment.) Indeed, a true man of principle would stand up and take responsibility for having been a willing accomplice to the perpetration of JT Leroy’s existence – something Laura Albert could never have pulled off if a trick-turning, trannie boy weren’t such a lucrative exploit.

So I suppose it should come as no surprise that the company president also still respected Albert as someone who “pulled off something quite startling — all these intelligent people were taken in.” But then how intelligent could one be if he can’t tell truth from his own wishful fantasy, can’t even read the word “Fiction” on the binding of a book?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More Hoaxes and Fraud

It’s amazing how nice and civilized the security guards are down at the Federal Court building on Pearl Street (pleasantly correcting me when I asked if this was 500 “Worth Street”), probably due to the fact that they don’t have to actually sit in a courtroom listening to the bullshit legalese spewing from the mouths of guys making four times their salaries. Which is what I was subjected to at the hearing for “Antidote Films vs. Laura Albert” and her alter ego JT Leroy, who I’m sure would have been dragged into court as well had he existed.

So Antidote Films is ostensibly suing for fraud because the author name on the cover of the book they optioned doesn’t belong to the author. And to make the point that the author’s identity is relevant – no, essential! – the plaintiff’s lawyer brought up no less a literary legend than Shakespeare himself. “Of course author matters! Would people read Shakespeare if it wasn’t Shakespeare?” the three-piece suit mused rhetorically as Christopher Marlowe had a good hearty laugh from the grave. Catching himself, he quickly moved on to the example of horror icon Stephen King, who would never use a pseudo…well, you get the picture. (To add insult to injury, Antidote is also trying to collect 110 thousand dollars in “punitive” damages – though the lawyer assured the jury they “weren’t out to punish anyone.” What part of “punitive” do you not understand, sir? Are we talking “pseudo-punitive” damages here?)

I guess I’m trying to find the humor in all this because, frankly, Laura Albert’s Kafkaesque nightmare scares the hell out of me. I view JT Leroy’s life in the limelight as one spectacular, performance-art piece, a collaboration between author and audience like a singer and his fans – with the fans unfortunately turning on their idol when “tough gangsta rapper” is revealed to have grown up in a quiet New Jersey suburb. But does that make the tune itself any less catchy? That the lyrics can speak to someone’s experience so deeply is what keeps the music “real.” Which is why this demand for apologies, for remorse, outrages me so.

The defense lawyers are pounding hard the subject of Albert’s psychiatric history on the stand but Albert’s mental health is irrelevant. (Though as a good friend of mine pointed out, amputees who run marathons are called inspirational for turning disability into creative pursuit, so why isn’t Laura Albert being held up as a hero for turning her emotional “disability” into art?) No, this case is solely about a book – published as fiction, optioned as fiction, end of story. And this is why even the sanest of artists needs to heed the wake-up call, this frightening cautionary tale. As an author who published a 100% nonfiction memoir as fiction (only because my U.K. publisher’s “brand” is erotic fiction so I didn’t have much of a choice), will I one day be sued because my story happened, because I actually exist? Sound crazy? Laura Albert’s being sued right now because she exists and JT Leroy doesn’t. Fact is the only hoax, the only fraud perpetrated, is by a judicial system that could allow a baseless case like this to even come to trial.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Of Hoaxes and Fraud

Poor Laura Albert. The woman behind (her alter-ego, “It” boy) JT Leroy is being sued for fraud by Antidote Films. And heaven help artists everywhere if the company wins their case. Antidote optioned the rights to JT Leroy’s “Sarah” in 2003, but now claims the deal should be rendered null and void because JT Leroy does not exist. Huh? Since when does obtaining the rights to a book allow a producer to lay claim to the flesh and blood author as well? Production companies are optioning human beings now, too? (Not to mention “Sarah” was never published as memoir or autobiography – and Antidote never explicitly bought the rights to JT Leroy’s life. Seems the only intelligent move the producers did make was to bring Steven Shainberg onboard as the movie’s director.)

Laura Albert was first outed in an article in “New York” magazine that bore the headline “IS JT LEROY A HOAX?” on its cover. I remember thinking, WHO CARES? But then I read Stephen Beachy’s piece and my questions became both deeper and darker. Was JT Leroy’s writing overrated? Definitely. Was JT Leroy’s writing worthy of being published? Most certainly. Would JT Leroy’s writing have been published if penned as a work of fiction from a thirty-something musician with no literary connections to speak of? Would novelist Dennis Cooper have given a talented unknown named Laura Albert so much as the time of day?

If JT Leroy was a hoax then Laura Albert was a scapegoat, the article’s real red herring. It’s a reflection of our reality TV world that all the talent in the universe will get you nowhere without a gimmick or connections. Laura Albert should have been applauded for creating JT Leroy, for giving birth to such a beautiful child, humbly eschewing both the credit and subsequent fame – in other words, letting her art speak for itself without her image attached. It seemed Albert’s foremost concern was to get her work out there, like an ego-less mother driven to care only for the welfare of the kid, having conceived not for vanity but for the sake of the creation. (The rumor that Asia Argento, the director behind another movie based on a JT Leroy book, had given birth to Leroy’s child was, in fact, completely plausible – for what is a movie to its director if not her child?) It was those who could not see the metaphorical as truth – as much if not truer than the literal – that were to blame if they felt “tricked.” The best art is never literal, making Albert the purest of artists. So I found the notion of Laura Albert as JT Leroy very touching. She had given hope to artists everywhere.

And yet JT Leroy was not simply a work of fiction. JT Leroy did not spring from the whole cloth of Laura Albert's mind. JT Leroy was a living, breathing amalgam of street children everywhere. And the worst that Albert did was to give them all a much-needed voice. It is the public that craves live flesh, literary figures and celebrities that forced “Wigs and Sunglasses” (the Leroy stand-in) into being. It was they who demanded a literal truth. Albert only responded. The word “hoax” implies an intention to deceive. Albert’s intention seemed to be to enlighten, to force us to go beyond the literal into the metaphorical. Thus, JT Leroy was, unequivocally, no hoax.

Welcome To The Dollhouse

The most shocking thing about Tomer Heymann’s “Paper Dolls”, a doc about Filipino transsexual caregivers to Orthodox Jews in Israel, is how a director could manage to so completely miss his film’s story.

The first half of this terribly edited film is mostly devoted to the eponymous, trannie performance troupe’s struggle to reach the pinnacle of artistic legitimacy – playing a super club in Tel Aviv (that happens to be run by a buddy of the director). Unfortunately for Heymann, elaborate drag shows haven’t been interesting since sometime after “Paris Is Burning” was released. Ditto the ins and outs of shaving and tucking. And the fact that there are young (gay!) filmmakers out there nearly forty years after Stonewall who still find the very existence of transsexuals sensational is sensational in itself.

Things don’t get good until the bodies start piling up – a suicide bombing, an immigration crackdown. And even these storylines pale in comparison to the beautiful daughter/father relationship between transsexual Sally and Haim, a throat cancer patient in her care. These two deserve their own ninety minutes. From octogenarian Haim’s total unquestioning acceptance of Sally in the face of the filmmaker’s own irrelevant probing to Sally’s inconsolable anguish at Haim’s funeral, these characters both humanize and save “Paper Dolls” from the director’s superficial lens. As far as I can tell, the only true “paper doll” – a reference to that which isn’t real – is Heymann himself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Global Decadence

Watching the nineties Japanese film “Tokyo Decadence” I felt a disarming familiarity with a foreign world, the realization that S&M is a culture unto itself, one that transcends every other culture into which it is placed. From America to Europe, to the Middle and Far East and beyond, tops and bottoms – fetishists of every stripe – repeat the same actions and scenes in a universal ritual, desires as innate as the human linguistic capacity itself. S&M stands for sadism and masochism, but sadist could just as easily substitute for submissive/slave and masochist for master/mistress – two sides of the same coin right down to their letters.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Red, White and True

In the indie flick “Transamerica” the filmmakers painstakingly dismantle every stereotype about transsexuals, hustlers, and “normal” heterosexuals to build a world of truth cannily within the confines of a comedic road movie – a film I wish I’d written. Kevin Zegers’ gay-for-pay hustler is the pitch perfect profile of a Gaiety boy – young, handsome, charming, a recreational drug user with business savvy – and lost. Felicity Huffman’s transitioning Bree with her long flowing skirts and acute self-awareness is the most conservative character in the film (as anyone desperately wanting to “pass” indeed would be).

To Die For

(On “Making A Killing” by Mike White, his “NY Times” Op-Ed about movie violence’s connection to real-life violence.)

While I applaud Mike White’s willingness to stand up and take responsibility where others will not, I couldn’t help but feel his myopic viewpoint was misguided. White wrote, “For my friends and me, movies were a big influence on our clothes and our slang, and on how we thought about and spoke to authority figures, our girlfriends and one another. Movies permeated our fantasy lives and our real lives in subtle and profound ways.” I have no doubt this is true – for Mike White and his niche group of film-geek friends. But to conclude that one’s own powerful teenage influences reflect adolescent culture’s in general is misleading. As Mike White himself proves, children whose lives are unduly shaped by cinema grow up to be directors, screenwriters and cinematographers – not serial killers.

Besides, as I’m sure Mr. White knows, Asian countries produce films with higher body counts alongside teenagers with lower rates of violence. It’s noble for Mr. White to suggest to his fellow industry players, “before cashing those big checks, shouldn’t we at least pause to consider what we are saying with our movies about the value of life and the pleasures of mayhem?” But wouldn’t it be more profound to question an industry itself willing to spend half a billion dollars on “Spider-Man 3” while kids are starving in Africa, genocide is taking the teenagers of Sudan? As far as I know, “Oldboy” wasn’t a hit in Darfur.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pathological Lovers

How crazy is the Dan Klores doc "Crazy Love"? Yes, Burt Pugach, the lawyer who hired thugs to throw lye in the face of his former mistress, is one seriously fucked up dude. And his mistress turned wife Linda, who took the man who mutilated her as her lawfully wedded husband, can also be described as having some, uh, “issues.” Most fascinating, though, is not all the media psycho-babble surrounding their limelight loving personalities, but the universal truth uncovered by Linda in her recounting of the first time Burt saw her in her clear glasses, felon face to disfigured visage. Burt behaved as if he didn’t see the scarring – in fact, it was he himself who was blinded by love. And isn’t that the essence of every love story, finding that special someone who sees right through the scars to your soul? Human nature in extremis only serves to shine a flashlight onto that which makes us truly human.