A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!
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In 2005, the United States found itself in a renewed culture war over the place of homosexuality in society. Just two years prior, the Supreme Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick to establish sodomy laws as unconstitutional. None of this was new to civil rights activists, of course. Gay rights had been part of the national...
In 2005, the United States found itself in a renewed culture war over the place of homosexuality in society. Just two years prior, the Supreme Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick to establish sodomy laws as unconstitutional. None of this was new to civil rights activists, of course. Gay rights had been part of the national conversation for decades, especially in the wake of Stonewall (1969) and the DSM’s redefinition of homosexuality as non-pathological (1973). By 2005, the year Brokeback Mountain blew up the box office, Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriage and a flurry of bans had swept the country, ushering in an era not just of tacit acceptance of bigotry against gay people but also of systemic, government-supported bigotry. All this was hot on the heels of decades of brutal murders of gay people, and an especially tumultuous 1990s, which saw well over a dozen murders and executions of gay men (and women), some of them so high profile that they would eventually lead to legislation designed to protect gay people from (or at least create greater punishment for) murderous homophobes.
For a young man raised in a deeply homophobic culture, all of this was a bit of a shock, not least of all because my mother was a gay woman, and for about a decade up until 2005, my life had been packed with gay people being people with regular people problems. And here we were being asked as citizens to determine if other citizens had the right to live their lives without government interference. For me, there was no question that same-sex marriage should be legal.
All of this is important to understand the cultural context in which Brokeback Mountain (2005; dir. Ang Lee) appears. While the film centers on a roughly twenty year span from 1963 to the 1980s, it appears in a time when much of the conversation about gay rights seemed mired in the divisions between the rural and the urban, something I saw first hand in my small mountain town in California in the 90s and 2000s. That dynamic is firmly in place in Brokeback Mountain, as the central gay characters, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), meet in the deep country of Wyoming but ultimately lead drastically different lives: Ennis in rural Wyoming and Jack in considerably less rural Texas (here, I refer more particularly to the technological “urbanity” rather than skyscrapers). These different lives befit their personalities, with the more outgoing and vocal Jack using his financial success in Texas to launch more daring forays into his burgeoning homosexuality while Ennis’ extremely rural life allows him to remain secluded from prying and explicitly violent eyes. Jack is strongly suggested to have been murdered for being gay in parallel to Ennis’ childhood story of his father showing him the mutilated corpse of a gay man, and so Ennis’ reluctance to give himself fully over to his feelings makes a disturbing sort of sense.
Those different lives also become central to the way Ennis and Jack explore their sexuality and relationship, which Ennis cannot imagine outside of the “paradise” of Brokeback, the fictional remote mountain from which the film receives its name; Jack, on the other hand, seeks connection on a more permanent basis, and the consequences of that desperate desire for connection are dire. Jack’s death, in this respect, reminds one of the wall of murders and executions of gay men (and women) within my lifetime: a horrid, painful reminder that being gay has always been a risk.
Though Brokeback Mountain is envisioned as a kind of romance, the film itself is more accurately described as a depressing and brutal portrayal of the individual and societal costs of homophobia, including on those who might see themselves as gay. Ennis and Jack’s profound differences in expression paint a horrifying picture of psychological violence, especially as each man grapples with the fact that their society does not want them to exist. Of the two, Ennis’ repressed homosexuality manifests quite frequently in violence, as if his mind and body are literally at war and the only outlet is someone else. We see this manifest against Jack after their sexual awakening on Brokeback; Ennis battles back and forth with violently rejecting Jack, tormented, it seems, by feelings he doesn’t understand and his society refuses to acknowledge as valid. Even the way Ennis pursues his physical relationship with Jack comes across as a man fighting his “fight or flight” reflexes, both desperately grabbing for Jack and seeming to push him away at the same time. That violence is sometimes redirected at Ennis’ future wife, Alma, and even at unsuspecting people on the street, making Ennis volatile like a wind-up toy. His efforts to repress his sexuality build tension so deep in his body that his jaw seems to compress, as if everything were trapped in that one space. Here, Ledger’s performance is profound, as so much of what he does is caught up in small moments.
In contrast, Jack’s pursuits are less cautious and more vocal. While he does hide his true self from most, he also ventures to Mexico for trysts with gay men (probably prostitutes) and even pursues a fantasy mountain life (off screen) with another presumed gay man, which is ultimately scuttled by Jack’s violent death. Comparatively, Jack’s outbursts are less pronounced than Ennis’, and manifest primarily in sexual escapades or even a verbal altercation with his father-in-law, images that are familiar in any familial context. Yet, while Ennis’ caution builds to boiling points of physical and emotional violence, Jack’s ability to “be free” ultimately brings violence to his doorstep. Brokeback Mountain seems to suggest that violence is an inescapable consequence of being a gay man in the United States: either you are violent from the feelings you repress or you express those feelings and violence comes for you in broad daylight.
That inescapable violence makes for a suffocating experience, however important its rural portrayal might be. There is no sense of hope in this story because hope is already foreclosed. There are no fantasies of gay romances here; indeed, Ennis rejects Jack’s fantasy about living in a cabin in the mountains as a delusion that can only end with their deaths and with the destruction of their family lives (a theme worth exploring elsewhere). And, indeed, that is what happens, but it is Ennis who escapes to a lonely life with only Jack’s bloody shirt and coat to comfort him. Brokeback Mountain essentially tells us that while gay romantic fantasies are impossibilities in a realistic portrayal of 60s-80s America, the alternative is to hide the metaphorical body of your gay romance in the closet — right where your sexuality must stay. Suffocating is not quite the right word for this. Depressing doesn’t quite capture it either. Unbearable is a better word.
Brokeback Mountain is an unbearably violent and disturbing endpoint for gay love. Ang Lee’s direction is brilliant — the cinematography and acting equally so — and one would be hard pressed to argue that this film isn’t an important milestone in American cinema. But it is also a horrifically violent tragedy of the lives ruined by a deeply homophobic and deeply repressive U.S. society that is still with us today. And as we close in on Valentine’s Day, I’m forced to reckon with what it means that so many of our portrayals of gay lives involve reliving the horrific tragedies of a society that still can’t quite accept people for who they are.
Welp. It’s that time of year for Capricon, a Chicago-based science fiction convention to run virtually this year. Capricon 41‘s guests of honor include Aliette de Bodard, Brandon O’Brien, John Jennings, Michi Trota, and Dr. Cacophonie Tamayo, all exceptional individuals in general (and within their respective fields). Needless to say, Capricon is going to be...
Welp. It’s that time of year for Capricon, a Chicago-based science fiction convention to run virtually this year. Capricon 41‘s guests of honor include Aliette de Bodard, Brandon O’Brien, John Jennings, Michi Trota, and Dr. Cacophonie Tamayo, all exceptional individuals in general (and within their respective fields). Needless to say, Capricon is going to be on fire this year!
This year is unusual, too, for the fact that I helped a little with programming, though not nearly as much as I should have or wanted to when I first chose to participate. It’s been a learning experience, though, and I hope to continue growing and being better at this going forward!
With all that out of the way, here’s my schedule of panels (all times in CDT). Come hang out!
And that’s it. I’m a busy boy, as usual!
I hope to see some of y’all there!
In 1996, a young 13-year-old me didn’t so much drag my family to see Space Jam as convince them by osmosis that this would be the most important film of our lives. In retrospect, I was wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that of the animated films for kids in the 90s, Space Jam...
In 1996, a young 13-year-old me didn’t so much drag my family to see Space Jam as convince them by osmosis that this would be the most important film of our lives. In retrospect, I was wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that of the animated films for kids in the 90s, Space Jam had a surprising impact. It earned $230mil worldwide on an $80mil budget in an era before one expected a blockbuster film to near or break the $1bil mark. And it spawned new merchandise and even its own video game (not exactly surprising for the era, but still a fun fact).
While folks today look back at the film with humorous horror, critics of the day didn’t exactly hate it. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel both gave it a thumbs up. Leonard Maltin in his 2010 movie guide praised Michael Jordan’s performance and the understandably impressive visual effects for the time. Others were more critical, such as Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones, who apparently did hate it and whose views are understandable given he directed numerous Warner Bros. productions and gave us Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)! Meanwhile, 1996 me, a most esteemed critic, would have told you that we repeatedly rented and eventually owned the VHS to Space Jam, and we played it quite a lot.
Today, its present Rotten Tomatoes critics score hovers around 43%, and if you ask people who have seen the film what they think, a good chunk will jump into glorious jokes about how ridiculous it is. A film about wacky cartoon characters convincing a professional basketball player to help them beat souped-up cartoon aliens from an evil capitalist empire run by green-ified Danny DeVito. Who would have thought such a thing could be so bananas.
On top of those critical accolades (and detractions), the film is also infamous for its long-lived 90s website and its delicious (yes, delicious) soundtrack, perhaps even more so than for the film itself. If you were born in the 80s, then you can probably blame this film for the fact that you know the lyrics to Seal’s rendition of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” or R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” or, shocking as it seems, the actual theme song to space jam by Quad City DJ’s. Everybody get up. It’s time to slam now. We gotta real jam goin’ down. Welcome to the space jam. Here’s your chance, do your dance at the space jam. ALRIGHT!
And here we are on the precipice of a sequel starring Lebron James, perhaps the only other basketball player who has business following Michael Jordan.
While 1996 me would have told you that this was one of the best films of my childhood, 2021 me returned to a blu ray wondering just how well a goofy film about cartoon characters playing basketball with an actual legend would hold up. Could this film really hold a candle to my 1996 memory?
Space Jam is everything its critics new and old have said. It is a zany, overloaded with slapstick, and, frankly, the epitome of a love letter to the Looney Tunes. It’s also a film that doesn’t really care about plot in the same way that it doesn’t care about basketball, and it seems to relish in that fact more than anything else — to its credit. While basketball is central to the story, nothing about the game we watch between the Looney Tunes characters (plus Jordan) and the Monstars resembles basketball except that there are baskets and the balls go in them. Marvin the Martian serves as the referee, but he’s largely useless because none of the characters other than Jordan seem to particularly care about the rules. The Monstars and Tunes both maim and destroy one another in ways that make every basketball brawl look positively tame. Here, all the familiar Tunes antics are on display, from explosions to objects falling from the sky and beyond. How exactly does a film about basketball work if it doesn’t actually care about basketball?
Part of this concerns the film’s dramatic component, which provides a somewhat fictional account of Jordan’s retirement from basketball in the 90s and his Minor League Baseball experiment. As in the real world, Jordan cited the murder of his father as his inspiration for trying baseball, and that, too, is presented here as a young Jordan receives encouraging advice from his father. This story, while taking dramatic license for effect with Jordan’s real life, provides a solid foundation for the cartoonish elements of the film. That is especially so in the final moments of the Tune/Monstar basketball game, in which Jordan’s arm stretches like a cartoon character as he is pulled to the ground by all of the souped-up Monstars.
Jordan’s become-looney moment harkens to the opening scene in which young Jordan is told by his father that “if you get good enough, you can do anything you want to” while “I Believe I Can Fly” plays in the background. The film uses this to set up “belief” as its central message. Belief in dreams. Belief in the impossible. The film is littered with “belief” sequences. Jordan’s belief in himself as a child to the actualization of that dream in the credits, filled with Jordan highlights from his career. A father’s belief in his son. Later, an equally powerful — and humorous — belief on the part of Bill Murray (as himself) that he can play professional basketball; he gets his shot and shines, and he chooses to leave on a high note limping away to a hypothetical ice bath.
That sense of belief runs through everything in the film even as it plays with the idea that talent is innate and can be stolen by alien technology. Belief is so powerful, in fact, that Bugs Bunny’s trickery after the first half of the basketball game — convincing everyone that Jordan uses a special water that gives him power — immediately turns the team into basketball greats. Ultimately, the fact that the Monstars lose despite having the talent of a Dream Team reaffirms that belief matters more than talent. Talent is a vehicle to success, but it has to be molded and shaped, not simply acquired.
While the main reason for Space Jam‘s refusal to acknowledge that basketball is a game with actual rules — perhaps to the frustration of adults who know better — rests on its reliance on the slapstick comedy of the Tunes, there is equal reason for it in the film’s reliance on belief as its central appeal. Belief is tuned to eleven like hot hands here, driven to such delightful extremes by the absurdity of the Looney Tunes. You can achieve anything, the film seems to say, even if that means stretching your arm 20 feet across a basketball court to make the game-winning basket! This is hardly unusual for a movie meant for children, but it is one that seems especially powerful given that so much of the Looney Tunes oeuvre relies on that stubborn grasp on self-belief — often for our amusement and in the context of an almost surrealist portrayal of character and violence.
Needless to say, re-watching this film some 20 years later was a pure delight. Space Jam won’t win any major awards for the story it tries to tell, but the kid in me doesn’t much care. It’s fun and wacky and enamored with the idea that we can all become greats even if we’re not Jordan. That feels pretty good.
For those who follow me here or on Medium direct, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve put together a space for The Joy Factory content in the form of a Medium Publication. This will create a central designed space for all of the joyful content! It also means that following me there and my...
For those who follow me here or on Medium direct, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve put together a space for The Joy Factory content in the form of a Medium Publication. This will create a central designed space for all of the joyful content! It also means that following me there and my personal Medium page will go a long way to supporting the content I create for this project.
Content will still show up here and on the Patreon page for The Joy Factory, but you’ll see a bit more thought going into their placement on Medium going forward.
Also in the works: a newsletter. More on that later.
So there you go. Go follow me on Medium. Support my stuffs!
If you’d asked me in 2019 whether musicals were “my thing,” I might have said something like “well, I do enjoy musicals from time to time, but I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to watch them.” If you’d asked me the same question by July 2020, the answer would have been something...
If you’d asked me in 2019 whether musicals were “my thing,” I might have said something like “well, I do enjoy musicals from time to time, but I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to watch them.”
If you’d asked me the same question by July 2020, the answer would have been something like “oh my sweet mother of god I absolutely love musicals they are keeping me from going mad.”
Throughout 2020, I consumed what to me was an absurd number of musicals for someone who had only dabbled in the genre previously. And the world was happy to oblige my desperate need for the joy a good musical can bring. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Show Must Go On YouTube channel joyfully screened some of Webber’s classics, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Phantom of the Opera. Other music institutions also happily aired operas, symphonic performances, and even professional productions of Shakespeare and other plays. And Spotify’s music catalogue gave me even more to enjoy, from Gilbert & Sullivan to walls of EDM and symphonies I’ve never heard before. But it was the musicals that gave me an escape.
For months last year, I obsessed over the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman before dropping a chunk of change on the blu ray. While the film leaves much to be desired, the music that makes up its soundtrack held such a powerful sway over the early days of quarantine that I played the whole thing on repeat while going about my day, sometimes gleefully singing along with tears in my eyes. Songs like “This is Me” by the absolutely incredible Keala Settle, “Rewrite the Stars” with Zac Efron and Zendaya, or the absolute banger “From Now On” with Hugh Jackman. This led me down the rabbit hole of behind-the-scenes materials, wherein I discovered this riveting performance by Settle of “This is Me,” which effectively got the movie greenlit because of her devastating honesty and the palpable joy oozing from the others in the room, many musical giants. And after years and years of cruelty and hate rampaging through U.S. culture, I kept coming back to those immortal lines from “From Now On”:
From now on
These eyes will not be blinded by the lights
From now on
What’s waited ’til tomorrow starts tonight
Let this promise in me start
Like an anthem in my heart
From now on
And if those lyrics don’t speak to you, maybe the actual moment from the movie will, because I sure as hell lost it the first time I saw all that joy manifested in one place:
The Greatest Showman‘s songs seemed to speak to me — past me, now me, future me. And I just couldn’t get enough of it.
And when I’d played through those musicals, I found myself digging into the well of my favorites. Wicked, Urinetown, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, and even the original Cats. Singing along to those tunes made the days being alone in my apartment or playing Pokemon in my car brought an immense amount of joy. They made existing in seemingly endless quarantine without friends or family less horrible than it could have been. And they’re still doing that work now.
There seem to be two big reasons for the power of musicals to manifest an escape:
Musicals made 2020 bearable.
And musicals weren’t alone. When things go rough, the arts work gave themselves to us. They gave us plays and movies and art installations and documentaries and musicals and operas and symphonies and more. They gave us a lesson: that art matters, and we should ignore it at our own peril. We can’t survive without food or roofs or healthcare, but our souls need the release of great art — whatever that may be for each person. We don’t need much beyond those things. Survival and joy.
At least, that’s how I view it. What about you? Where did you find joy in 2020?
As Palpatine would say: long have I waited to discuss this film! A film reviled for its infamously confusing ending, its gleeful presentation of punk apes and other humanistic ape-eries, and its attempt to convince us that Mark Wahlberg earned his way onto an expensive Air Force ape research space station while still getting away...
As Palpatine would say: long have I waited to discuss this film! A film reviled for its infamously confusing ending, its gleeful presentation of punk apes and other humanistic ape-eries, and its attempt to convince us that Mark Wahlberg earned his way onto an expensive Air Force ape research space station while still getting away with calling apes monkeys every ten seconds. A film that shockingly made a decent chunk of change and almost got a sequel. It’s Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001)!
Call it a remake or a reboot or a reinterpretation, Planet of the Apes has rightly earned its place as one part visual marvel and one part disastrous narrative — beauty and terror fused into one glorious package. Its position in the Planet of the Apes oeuvre has, alas, earned it additional and unfavorable comparisons to its more successful and narratively compelling predecessor and successor. Have the twenty years since this film’s release helped its perception?
Before I get to that question, we should probably briefly discuss the film itself. Directed by Tim Burton, it stars Mark Wahlberg as Captain Leo Davidson alongside a pretty stellar cast of ape actors. Davidson works for the U.S. Air Force on a research space station called the Oberon. There, he helps train genetically-modified apes to pilot pods to study phenomenon in space. Why not use drones and the like? The movie doesn’t bother to answer that question. Meanwhile, a massive electromagnetic storm stolen straight out of Star Trek shows up, and Davidson’s favorite chimp, Pericles, is lost in its delicious clouds; being an animal-loving sap, Davidson rushes to rescue his chimp friend and is sucked through a space vortex some thousands of years in the future and crash lands on a planet ruled by, you guessed it, ape people! In his attempts to find his way back to the Oberon, Davidson inadvertently causes an ape-human civil war, attracts the wrath of chimp-man Thade (Tim Roth) and his trusty gorilla-man companion Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), and gets caught in a love triangle with human Daena (Estella Warren) and chimp-lady Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), the latter of whom happens to be a human rights activist who is like 75% into abolition because that’s the allegory we’re going for here.
The main plot is not terribly difficult to follow. The central mystery here concerns how the ape people got to be walking and talking ape people and what happened to the Oberon — each tied to the other. This forms the basis of ape religion, as they worship a deity called Semos, the first ape to found ape society. The ape people think he’ll return like Jesus and end the struggle ape society suffers. who they think will return like Jesus (or, if we take the anagram of the name seriously: Moses).
The execution of that story, however, is a mixed bag. No doubt, the visual portrayal of ape society is astonishingly detailed, from the clothing and armor they wear to the set design and political structure. Even the makeup design supports the characters beneath them. Paul Giamatti’s weaselly slave salesman, Limbo, is lanky, hunched, and toothy, speaking to the slimy salesperson he’s meant to be. Meanwhile, Tim Roth’s imposing — and, frankly, incredible performance as — General Thade looks like the seething rage trapped within; his body almost twists with the hatred he tries to hide, especially before Ari, whom he wishes to possess.
Clearly, Burton and his team tried to think through the world as it might be after a cataclysmic break between humanity and their genetically-modified ape creations. This makes for some obviously allegorical discussions between the militaristic Thade, the weak semi-abolitionist Senator Sandar (David Warner), and the “well we tried” Senator Nado (Glenn Sadix). It also makes for some genuinely hilarious moments, such as the image of the teenage punks straight out of Ape Grease — ridiculous, sure, but also pretty funny. If there’s an argument for this film, it’s that it is visually striking in a way so few films are. This feels like a world with real people. It’s not an artificial space as so many films in the last ten years have created — I’m looking at you, Jurassic World.
But the care taken in devising the visual and physical formation of the world of Planet of the Apes clearly fell short in the narrative department. The most infamous example of this is the cliffhanger / surprise ending laughingly referred to as the Ape Lincoln moment. While much of the film indulges in quirky transfers of our human culture to an ape culture, the concluding merger of a U.S. narrative about Lincoln’s role in ending slavery with an allegory of that same struggle involving ape people is, to be blunt, almost insulting. The entirety of the mainline narrative of the film is a loose allegory of the abolition movement ended by the arrival of Pericles, whose immediately love of Davidson shocks the ape and human worlds alike into realizing that maybe the line of Semos, of which Thade is a descendant, is actually toxic and destructive. It’s a crude allegory, to be sure, but one that on its own works well enough even if you’d rather see more time spent unpacking it. But the Ape Lincoln disrupts that allegory by simply translating Lincoln, the mythical anti-slavery figure, into a presumably pro-segregationist descendant of slave holders and genociders — he shares a striking resemblance to Thade, after all.
Additionally, one has to wonder just where they hoped to go with all of this. The film is full of timey wimey nonsense, sure, but jumping forward a thousand or so years to a future in which Thade’s brutal rejection of human rights or collaboration begs more questions about “how” than the film seems interested to answer. That critical failing leaves the concluding battle — another visual spectacle, as apes are shown jumping all about in attack on a ragtag army of humans — somewhat pointless. If the lesson everyone is meant to learn is “humans and apes can live together in harmony” — a simple and poorly explored message — then shoving us into a world where the exact opposite has become true seems less a thoughtful twist than a kind of narrative cowardice to commit. In this sense, we’re honestly lucky that we can enjoy the visual wonders of Burton’s vision rather than see this story continued in a film that would undoubtedly feel like more horror.
So to turn back to that fateful question: Have the twenty years since this film’s release helped its perception?
For me, the answer is “yes, with caveats.” This is the part where I admit that I never hated this movie. In fact, I spent one glorious summer re-watching this film on DVD, though partly to listen to Danny Elfman’s incredible soundtrack and to watch the behind-the-scenes materials. To me, the visual splendor of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes deserves far more recognition that the film has received in the twenty years since its release. The BAFTA, Saturn, and Academy Award nominations don’t do it justice.
There’s also something else here to appreciate: time. No, I don’t mean the film’s odd and nonsensical time warps. I mean the time we’ve had to sit on this film while it was usurped by a more successful franchise. Planet of the Apes was meant to have a sequel, and its modest financial success virtually dictated it would get one, but the absence of a true successor reduces the space allotted to considerations of the film’s most reviled component: its conclusion. Because we don’t get to see this brought to life, there’s more room for the enjoyment of its better qualities.
For that reason, I’ll continue to find this movie a lot of fun even if I think aspects of its story leave a sour taste. I’ll never get tired of watching Tim Roth seethe as a grizzled general chimp or hearing Michael Clarke Duncan’s booming voice behind a gorilla face. There is so much to love here even as we recognize what ultimately doesn’t work.
And you know what? I think that’s OK.
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