Steve Rogers: America’s Underdog, and the Importance of Representation

Captain America statue in Brooklyn, NY

Captain America statue in Brooklyn, NY

In recent weeks, there has been a slew of online editorials penned about the confluence of the internet and fan entitlement, and how social media often acts as a conduit for hatred and bigotry. With the violent misogyny of reboot Ghostbuster-haters (sharpened to a crude peak in the form of Leslie Jones’ online harassment and abuse) and their gate-keeping, privileged ilk – so accustomed to being catered to – I felt it important to highlight how vital social media has become in providing a bullhorn to marginalized groups.

Comics are both an art form and a product shaped by capitalism. Creators are encouraged to be creative, but not too much; it is safer to appeal to a built-in, guaranteed demographic (presumably straight, white men) than risk losing their patronage by reaching out to “fringe” demographics. Creators themselves are primarily straight, white men who tell stories from the point-of-view of straight, white men. It is a self-sustaining cycle of benign neglect, consequently silencing and overlooking individuals in a world that already ignores them.

These marginalized voices have circumvented content creators by utilizing social media to raise awareness about their exclusion, and to fight for positive, healthy representation in mainstream pop culture. For years they have been relegated to combing film, literature, and comics for subtextual themes or metaphors that remind them of their own experiences and identities. They have watched as these subtextual nods have gradually become textual, largely resulting in assurances that a harmful, cartoonish stereotype or a side-kick character is “good enough, so stop whining”.  It’s not surprising that under-represented voices are still demanding more than these meagre offerings.

Granted, more strenuous efforts have recently been made; most notably, Marvel Studios’ decision to cast African-American actress Zendaya Coleman in the famed role of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spiderman: Homecoming. It is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and for the very same reason that Paramount’s decision to reveal Hikaru Sulu’s husband in Star Trek Beyond is a beneficial choice. These two characters are both established and well-loved; people have already formed an empathetic bond with them because of their long history. By introducing a new trait (race, sexual orientation, etc.), the audience must incorporate that detail into their pre-existing opinion of the character. A subtle change in perception can influence how individuals who possess these traits are perceived in the real world.

Marvel’s recent effort to evolve and “modernize” iconic characters is much-needed and commendable, and must continue. In this vein, the subject of the recent trending twitter hashtag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is an ideal starting point. Steve Rogers is the very definition of iconic; a deeply personal character created by two Jewish men during the spread of pro-Nazi propaganda in America before its involvement in World War II.

Rogers was an avatar for his creators, representative of their desire to vanquish bullies and fascists, his righteous fists pummeling Hitler on the cover of his debut issue. At the time, the imagery was considered politically risky. It was also the morally just decision. After the character’s 75th anniversary, it would be fitting for Marvel to update Steve Rogers to reflect the modern era he now inhabits.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve Rogers is introduced to us as short and scrawny, with chronic health issues and a shocking lack of self-preservation; his need to fight oppression much larger than his frail body. Out of historical context, it is difficult to convey how Rogers’ Irish heritage and status as an “invalid” and a “burden on society” (he suffered from scoliosis, asthma, astigmatism, partial deafness, arrhythmia, and anaemia) would have made him a social pariah in pre-World War II America. Essentially, he was a man of “questionable” genetics in an era obsessed with eugenics.

Rogers was also a man with pretty, almost effeminate features and a talent for art, traits that would have unfairly made him a target for entirely different reasons. He lived Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood known by historians as a haven for artists, bohemians, and others who occupied society’s fringes (like W.H. Auden and Gypsy Rose Lee). His run-down tenement apartment was likely only a few blocks from the swinging drag balls in Greenwich Village and St. George Hotel, a place notorious for homosexual cruising. Steve Rogers was smack-dab in the vibrant, and secret, LGBT culture of the 1940s.

Unsurprisingly, Rogers was never the John Wayne-esque symbol of American conservatism that so many interpret him to be. He attended a college for fine arts; based on his residence, it was likely City College of New York. In the 1930-1940s the school had an 80% Jewish student body that organized student trade unions and anti-fascist political rallies. Odds are he had more than one lively debate with a fellow student on the subject of Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal.  Rogers benefitted from FDR’s Public Works of Art Project (which paid artist’s a hefty $23.50 a week).  He was likely a democratic Socialist and an original “Social Justice Warrior”.

By any definition, one of “the little guys”, Steve Rogers lived both in the cultural fringes and at the forefront of political movements.  It wouldn’t be a radical departure from his established character for Marvel to grow a backbone and make him canonically LGBT.

Unlike the comics, where Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are separated by an age gap, the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead establishes that they grew up together.  Interestingly, the details regarding their strong childhood friendship were borrowed from the comic book character Arnie Roth; a gay, Jewish boy who saves young Steve from a back alley brawl, thus forging a lasting bond between them.  (Unfortunately, the hybridized film version of Bucky Barnes retained neither trait.)

Instead of a bright-eyed teen seeking Captain America’s mentorship, film-Bucky Barnes is depicted as his contemporary; virile and masculine. He affectionately calls Steve a “punk” (slang for an effeminate gay man, per George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940) whilst simultaneously urging Steve to join him in socially accepted, heteronormative activities like double-dating.  The physically mismatched duo is remarkably reminiscent of the heartbreaking protagonists in William Maxwell’s subtextually queer The Folded Leaf.

The decision to alter Steve and Bucky’s ages and origin story also lends a brother-in-arms element to their relationship that mirrors warrior-lovers and equals like Alexander and Hephaestion or Achilles and Patroclus in a way that the comics couldn’t. Their dynamic becomes even more complex post-serum; Bucky’s sense of protectiveness evolves into something almost possessive. His self-appointed role as Steve’s only champion is threatened by the introduction of Peggy Carter, an exceptionally capable woman who appreciated Steve even before his transformation.

A very unorthodox “love-triangle” emerges; the two most important people in Steve Rogers’ life are Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter — he is equally in love with both, but for different reasons.

Bisexuals suffer from very poor media representation, whether they are depicted as promiscuous and untrustworthy or fetishized for the heterosexual gaze. Imagine how these harmful stereotypes would be shattered if Marvel introduced a bisexual Captain America – an established and beloved character known for his unyielding, moral center and perceived purity – the diametric opposite of the “greedy bisexual who will sleep with anyone” trope.

The Captain America trilogy has all the pre-existing narrative beats of a love story. Bucky was the “damsel in distress” to Steve’s rescuer in The First Avenger. In The Winter Soldier, Steve’s devotion is so strong he literally choses to lay down his life rather than harm his “shield-mate”. Similarly, Bucky breaks through years of torture, mind-alteration, and dehumanization after simply seeing Steve’s face and hearing a handful of words: “I’m with you to the end of the line”. (Essentially, the vow “‘Till death do us part”.) In Civil War, Steve Rogers battles his teammates and the world’s governments to protect Bucky. After everything is said and done, Rogers forfeits the mantle of Captain America so that they can escape together.

Their story is epic. It spans decades and defies all odds, including death. A profound idea: two soldiers serving in World War II, when such a relationship would warrant a dishonorable Blue Discharge (requiring them to keep their feelings secret – maybe even from each other – for decades), only to find one another in the present day, in which same-sex marriage is now legal.   The emotional weight of such an arc is compelling and devastating.

It is without question that Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes love each other. Officially, Marvel has stated that their love is platonic, brotherly. The depiction of deep, loving bonds between men is important, and despite the prevalence of male friendship in media, society’s fear of making heroes appear “un-masculine” often prevents any intimacy, let alone romance. This antiquated concept of masculinity must be rejected. LGBT individuals, young and old, deserve a character to whom they can relate and to see themselves depicted in a positive, healthy way. Straight, white romances are ubiquitous in popular media. The unrepresented and the marginalized deserve something new, something ground-breaking. Marvel Studios (and others), I implore and dare you:  don’t take the path already laid before you.  Pioneers leave a trail for others to follow.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  – Thomas Paine


RESERVOIR DOGS: The Power of its Homoerotic Subtext 20 Years Later

Author’s note: the content of this editorial contains numerous “spoilers”.

“Gay subtext always makes every movie better.” – Quentin Tarantino

The brilliance of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is exemplified by the profound and intimate relationship portrayed between “Mr. Orange” (aka Freddy Newendyke) and “Mr. White” (aka Larry Dimmick). Through the lens of their interactions, the film explores our cultural perception of masculinity and how male sexuality is intimately entwined with violence. In fact, violence becomes the vehicle that gives these two characters permission to be physically and emotionally demonstrative with each other in a way that our machismo-obsessed culture wouldn’t otherwise allow. The ultimate irony is that violence permits them to explore their (sublimated) feminine impulses and/or homoerotic urges.

The narrative possesses a play-like structure that intermittently deviates from the “stage” of an abandoned warehouse to enhance the complexity of its various characters in the form of flashbacks. Through these flashbacks, it is established that the events of the film span over the course of a few weeks, from the time of Mr. Orange’s acceptance into crime boss Joe Cabot’s fold, to the powerful and tragic denouement after the botched heist. In that short span of time, Mr. White and Mr. Orange form a connection so powerful that in order to preserve it, one man betrays his long-time friend and business partner, and the other tells a secret so devastating it will mean his certain death, even when salvation is mere moments away.

Mr. White winks at Mr. Orange.

The film opens during an extended dialogue scene involving the main players: Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, Joe Cabot and his son/heir-apparent, Nice Guy Eddie. The obvious pseudonyms are names given by Cabot to maintain plausible deniability among his for-hire thieves in the event that their jewelry heist doesn’t go as planned.

Already Mr. Orange and Mr. White’s closeness is represented by their physical proximity; throughout the scene they lean towards each other, exchange amused glances, and take turns draping an arm over the back of the other’s chair. Perhaps the most blatant moment comes when Mr. White turns and winks at Mr. Orange before saying something particularly cheeky to Joe Cabot. It’s full of playfulness and bravado, and emphasises Mr. White’s fondness for Mr. Orange, as well as a need to gain his approval.

Mr. White begins to lose his composure.

After the title card sequence, we’re thrust into a moment of crisis. Mr. Orange is shot, bleeding out onto the back seat of a car, while Mr. White frantically drives them to the rendezvous point. White is clutching his hand, coaxing Orange through his excruciating pain with words of encouragement. He makes Orange repeat his words like a mantra, as if the act itself will somehow be the man’s salvation. White then repeats “correct!”, almost to himself, and his voice cracks with emotion. He is on the verge of tears, but reins it back in. In his mind, he is Orange’s protector and he must not show any weakness, yet it is obvious that he is devastated by the other man’s injury.

Mr. White wipes away tears as he cares for Mr. Orange.

Orange is an incoherent dead-weight in White’s arms as they enter the mortuary/warehouse. White tenderly lays him down on a service ramp and carefully undoes Orange’s fly to release pressure on his bullet wound. At this point, Orange is referring to him by his Christian name, “Larry”, thus demonstrating that at some point, one or both men broke Cabot’s firm rule of anonymity. Orange begs White to hold him, and White obliges, aligning his body next to the injured man’s, cradling his head on his arm. He gently combs Orange’s hair, wipes his brow.

Mr. White whispers to Mr. Orange.

Then, in perhaps the most intimate moment of the entire film, White leans down and whispers something in Orange’s ear. We, the audience, are not made privy to the words he says; only Orange’s giggling reaction. In truth, what White says to him is unimportant. What matters is that we weren’t meant to know; it is a secret that belongs to these two men alone.

At this point, Mr. Pink arrives at the rendezvous, rattled and declaring that the heist was a set-up from the beginning. White takes him into a side room (much to Orange’s protestation), where the two have a conversation about the events that transpired at the diamond wholesalers, dissecting how and why the police evidently knew they were going to be there. White reluctantly admits that the signs point to a rat; he tells a story about how an undercover cop had infiltrated the ranks of a job he’d recently worked on. It is apparent that both he and Pink view police with hatred and disdain, even classifying them as sub-human.

Mr. White reflects about Alabama with Joe Cabot.

In a flashback sequence, we are given a quick glimpse of Mr. White and Joe Cabot before the heist. It is the single most revealing sequence in terms of establishing Mr. White’s character and motivation in the entire film. Not only are we made aware of his long-standing professional history with Cabot, but also the near-familial nature of their relationship (White calls him “papa”, Cabot affectionately returns with “junior”).

In the course of their conversation, Cabot asks after Alabama, a former partner-in-crime and flame of White’s. White reveals that he and Alabama broke it off: “you push that man/woman thing too long and it gets to you after a while.” Put in simplest terms, White reveals that he has trouble maintaining a clear separation between his personal and professional lives. He becomes too emotionally attached; it is a weakness he recognized in himself, which is why he severed ties with Alabama. Once that attachment forms, all his other allegiances become blurred.

Flash-forward to the warehouse. Pink and White heatedly debate what to do with Orange; Pink argues that Cabot will likely wash his hands of the situation, leaving them on their own. White discloses that Orange had begged to be taken to the hospital, willing to risk jail in order to get medical attention. Pink agrees that it’s his choice to make, as the rest of them won’t be implicated if Orange doesn’t know any of their personal information. This is when White ruefully admits that he told Orange where he was from (“in natural conversation”) and his first name.

Pink balks at this, demanding to know why White would make such a hot-headed blunder. White becomes enraged and defensive, arguing that Orange was his responsibility, and he wasn’t going to deny a dying man the knowledge of his name. Pink shuts him down (“I’m sure it was a beautiful scene”), declaring that they can’t risk a trip to the hospital; White has essentially doomed Orange by sharing too much sensitive information with him. White loses his mind, punching and kicking Pink to the ground. He is obviously emotionally compromised.

Mr. White loses his composure while discussing Mr. Orange with Mr. Pink.

Events unfold to reveal that the rat is none other than Mr. Orange, an undercover LAPD cop. White isn’t present when the audience is made aware of the revelation. We are treated to a flashback; Mr. Orange, aka Detective Freddy Newendyke, meeting with his superior at a diner. He explains that Joe Cabot wants to talk to him about doing a high-risk job; a diamond heist with five other men.

Freddy expresses fondness for the LAPD’s informant, Long Beach Mike, who put in a good word for him with Cabot. Like White, Freddy has difficulty compartmentalizing. With this off-hand comment, we are made aware of his tendency to humanize the men he’s been sent in to bring down. He is the type of cop that gets in too deep when he goes undercover; he is at high risk of “going native”.

In a subsequent scene, Freddy (Mr. Orange) is waiting to catch a ride with Nice Guy Eddie, White, and Pink to a pre-heist meeting held by Joe Cabot. As part of his preparation (which involves a motivational speech to himself in the mirror), we see him pull a prop wedding ring from its hiding place in a jar of change. What Freddy is attempting to add to the fake persona of “Mr. Orange” with this wedding ring is a point hotly debated by film aficionados. In my opinion, it acts as an emotional barrier between him and the other men. The ring signals that he is domesticated, settled, unavailable. It gives him the illusion of responsibility to counter his youthful appearance and habits. (In the words of The Departed’s Captain Ellerby: “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead. It lets people know you’re not a homo. A married guy seems more stable.”) It is a detail that undoubtedly gets noticed by Mr. White.

Mr. White and Mr. Orange relax together while casing Katrina’s Diamond Wholesalers.

The pre-heist casing scene involving Orange and White together in White’s idling car is very interesting. The two men are relaxed, at-ease; dressed in everyday clothing. White is quizzing Orange on the details of the job, and casually points to a woman crossing the street in front of them, asking: “that girl’s ass?”

What was he attempting to glean from Orange with this flippant question? Orange’s immediate and hyper-heterosexual response (“sitting right here on my dick”) elicits a sharp and almost surprised bark of laughter from White. He’s learned two things: Orange was quick to establish his masculinity, and inadvertently revealed that perhaps he isn’t the type to remain faithful to his (supposed) wife.

White then goes into “old hand” mode, describing in detail which violent acts can be utilized with greatest efficacy if they are met with resistance during the hold-up. Orange listens with a mix of awe and disgust; it is apparent he is starting to like White, against all better judgment.

Detective Newendyke (aka Mr. Orange) is conflicted as he watches Mr. White shoot the police.

Orange’s escalating inner-conflict about his feelings for White is brought to a head in the post-heist getaway scene. Their driver, Mr. Brown, has suffered a gunshot wound to the head, crashing their car. Orange and White get out of the vehicle, only to be boxed in by an approaching squad car. White positions himself in front of Orange and shoots at the officers behind the windshield, killing them. He is ignorant of the expression of sorrow and desperation on Orange’s face.

Mr. White throws a protective arm around Mr. Orange as they leave the crime scene.

If Detective Freddy Newendyke had been uncompromised, he would have shot White while his back was turned to him, commandeered a vehicle to the rendezvous point, and told the rest of Cabot’s thieves that White had been killed by the police. None of them would have been the wiser; Mr. Brown was already dead and wouldn’t have contradicted his story.

Instead, Orange allows White to shoot his colleagues and lead him away from the scene (hand held protectively against his back). They try to strong-arm a random civilian out of her vehicle, but she unexpectedly draws a weapon from her glove compartment and shoots. Orange is hit in the gut; he fires back without thinking, killing her instantly. In that moment, the cop has completely lost himself to his undercover persona. He’s now no better than the men he led into a trap.

Mr. White threatens his long-time friend Joe Cabot to protect Mr. Orange.

Fast-forward to the warehouse. Orange knows that the LAPD is waiting for the boss, Joe Cabot, to arrive before they move in from where they are waiting a few blocks away. When Cabot does finally make his entrance it is with accusations; he knows that Orange is the rat, the one that tipped off the LAPD to the heist. Orange is almost delirious with blood loss and pain, but he maintains his innocence.

White is aghast at Cabot’s claims. He refuses to believe the man he’s come to care so deeply for is a cop. He demands proof from Cabot, who replies: “with instinct, you don’t need proof.” White draws his weapon on Cabot, his old friend and business associate, and threatens: “Joe, if you kill that man, you die next. Repeat: you kill him, you die next.” In one moment, he’s thrown years of loyalty and allegiance into the wind for a young man he’s only known for a few weeks. Cabot fires, hitting Orange. White shoots back, killing both Cabot and his son Eddie, but not before taking a few bullets himself.

Mr. White pulls himself over to Mr. Orange, cradling the other man in his arms.

In the gutwrenching final scene, White pulls himself, bloody and moaning with pain, over to where Orange is lying. Both men are drenched in blood, wheezing through their injuries. White lifts Orange’s head and tenderly places it in his lap, caressing his face. Orange reaches up, enveloping White with his arms. Their faces are inches from each other as they form a perfect Pietà.

Sirens blare in the background; Orange knows that his salvation has arrived. White looks down at him, resigned: “I’m sorry kid, it looks like we’re gonna do a bit of time.” Unspoken is the word “together”. (Aside: if Orange hadn’t signalled his unavailability with the wedding ring, I am positive that White would have asked him to replace Alabama as his new partner. His emotional attachment to Orange was that intense.)

Still holding Mr. White, Mr. Orange reveals his true identity.

Up to this point, it has been a matter of debate whether Orange’s feelings mirror White’s. His job is now essentially complete; all he has to do is wait for the LAPD to burst through the door and take him to a hospital. Instead, he does the unthinkable: he confesses his true identity to the man he has betrayed. As Orange sobs, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, White continues to stroke his face, then howls like an animal, as if his heart has been cleaved in two. White pulls his gun and places it against Orange’s jaw. The police burst into the warehouse; White is now crying, almost hysterical. He pulls the trigger, knowing it will mean his own death; that he and Orange will die together.

Mr. White sobs as the police enter the warehouse to witness a veritable “Liebestod.”

Many of the underlying themes of Orange and White’s relationship can be likened to tenets established by Japanese culture. Orange’s confession was the equivalent of “jingy”; essentially, honor and humanity. It is the thing you know you must do, even if you don’t want to. In his heart, he knew he owed it to White to tell him the truth, regardless of his own safety. He preferred to die with a clean soul than survive knowing that he’d lied to a man who loved him.

White was an individual who strove to live according to a kind of thieves’ “bushido”, a chivalric code that emphasized loyalty and professionalism. Orange knew that in White’s eyes, death was preferable to dishonor, and he was willing to make that sacrifice. It is also a valid interpretation to see White and Orange’s relationship as a modern-day representation of “wakashudo” (a practice engaged in by all members of the Samurai class; when a seasoned warrior took a younger male as a lover who was apprenticed to him in warrior etiquette, martial arts, and the Samurai code).

Throughout the film, White constantly declares himself Orange’s protector and mentor. He feels responsible for Orange’s injuries even though his actions didn’t cause them in any way. They share a level of physical intimacy onscreen that is undeniable; holding hands, caressing, embracing. But most telling is their almost mutual decision to die together on that warehouse floor, when survival was so easily within their reach.

Miramax Film Corp. is re-releasing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in theatres to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Tarantino’s career. Click HERE to find a participating cinema near you.

Blood Lust

(Left to right) JACKSON RATHBONE stars as Jasper Hale, ASHLEY GREENE stars as Alice Cullen, KELLAN LUTZ stars as Emmett Cullen, ROBERT PATTINSON stars as Edward Cullen and NIKKI REED stars as Rosalie Hale in THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON. Photo Credit: Kimberley French

(Left to right) JACKSON RATHBONE stars as Jasper Hale, ASHLEY GREENE stars as Alice Cullen, KELLAN LUTZ stars as Emmett Cullen, ROBERT PATTINSON stars as Edward Cullen and NIKKI REED stars as Rosalie Hale in THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON. Photo Credit: Kimberley French

Did Bram Stoker ever suspect that Dracula would become a cultural touchstone in the evolution of gothic romance? Did he endeavor to revolutionize the horror genre in the same vein as Mary Shelley’s hauntingly humanizing Frankenstein? Did he see a man or a monster in Vlad Tepes when he borrowed from the blood-stained legacy of the Hungarian tyrant? In the years since Stoker’s seminal work, others have fallen in love with his vampire mythology, so malleable as to be receptive to constant reinterpretation.

Hollywood’s vision of the Transylvanian Prince became iconic; Bela Lugosi’s death-blanched skin framed by a raven widow’s peak, his cruelty cloaked by a dashing suit and cape. Maidens were boneless beneath his deep voice and strong embrace. The hunt was a seduction, his teeth both penetrating and life-draining. It was a petit mort many women privately fantasized about succumbing to.

Author Ann Rice made her vampires both beautiful and obscene; as susceptible to piety and corruption as any human being. She stripped them of sexuality, replacing it with a classic romanticism that transcended all gender boundaries. Louis hated himself for loving Lestat. Marius found his muse in the eternal youth known as Armand. These vampires were bound by agape, not eros, and therefore pop culture was able to accept Rice’s proclivity for same-sex pairings.

Most recently, Stephenie Meyer has sought to re-imagine the vampire legend and in the process exposed an entirely new generation to the appeal of the perfect undead. At the center of her universe is an unremarkable teenaged heroine named Bella Swan and her century-old beau, the mysterious Edward Cullen. Many have interpreted the saga is an allegory for abstinence – Edward struggles to control his overwhelming bloodlust while in his beloved’s presence; in turn, Bella denies her own hunger for Edward’s form, which is otherworldly in its beauty. Meyer has taken the Lugosi Dracula’s sexual appeal and the Rice vampires’ pristene asexuality and brilliantly merged them for easy teen consumption.

At the center of this current phenomenon remains the complexity of the vampire myth, and how it has become inextricably linked to both romance and sex. By stripping her vampires of sexual lust, did Ann Rice tap into the appeal of the “safe” homosexual male, devoid of any predatory threat towards females? Is this why the porcelain-faced, willow-limbed – and essentially neutered – Edward Cullen possesses such an ardent female fanbase?

In truth, women are not innocent of objectifying males. Men openly approve of feminine sexuality, particularly the appeal of lesbian eroticism.  Within the anonymity of the internet, where society is less prone to judgment, multitudes of women express their appreciation of masculine sexuality in the form of homoerotic fiction often known as “slash.” There, they can remove themselves from the equation and operate as voyeurs in a world where a romantic pair is comprised of physical and emotional equals. Lust is safe from afar; this is a rule that females have been taught from a young age. However, that coda has been seized and re-invented by women authors exploring the vampire myth, who in turn gave their peers permission to view men as meriting desire outside of a female reference point. Little did Bram Stoker know that his horror novel would eventually play a seminal role in the evolution of feminine sexual emancipation. Dracula is no longer the predator he once was.

Radio Goo Goo

How does one analyze a business model that is sprawled upon shifting sand?   Media pundits and industry insiders are treading with care; there is no longer a magic formula on which to pattern an artist’s career, no roll-out progression guaranteed to rake in enough profit to repay hefty recording advances.     Careful observation and analysis of light-speed trend changes rule in an era of a la carte purchasing.

The internet generation set this shift in motion more than a decade ago with the emergence of MP3 audio encoding.   File sharing services like Napster and Limewire became the distribution vehicle of choice, complete with a storm-cloud threat of a piracy law that seemed to garner little credence.   The record labels threw tantrums in their ivory towers; lawsuits were lobbed at a few unsuspecting Joe Publics, high-profile recording artists tested fan loyalty and the future seemed uncertain.  Then Apple swooped in with an entirely new business model; a virtual store peddling $0.99 cent songs.  It was radical in its simplicity and the dust began to settle as a brave new world was formed.

We live in an age of playlists, lovingly assembled on portable MP3 players and mobile phones.   Space is finite; we choose our songs carefully, based on mood or the call of childhood nostalgia.   We shuffle our songs to break up the monotony of genre or keep us on our toes.   The internet is like a smorgasbord of musical tastes, and we are free to pluck whatever we want from the table.

The conventional industry model, most thoroughly examined in M. William Krasilovksy and Sidney Shemel’s This Business of Music, dictates that an album of 12-13 tracks would retail between $12.98 and $15.98.   The public is titillated by a single – something indicative of the artists brand of “sound”, and catchy enough to earn radio spins.   The bulk of the label’s financial clout is placed behind this single, complete with music video and late-night television performance tour.    However, when expectations have been set to under a dollar per track, few artists can demand an all-or-nothing album purchase from a fickle and ravenous public.    Singles prevail and profits are barely enough to cover the album’s hefty advance.

Gimmick releases (think holiday albums, movie soundtrack compilations, Best-Of collections and cover recordings) are low-risk ventures with relatively high returns.   It is a cut-throat arena for an emerging artist, who must carefully balance between the lure of something new, and the safety of predictable pap.    In the rare instance of an album boasting multiple potential hits, the record label will carefully stagger the release of each new single with the standard publicity blitz each time.   It is expensive and risky; they are largely dependent upon radio (primarily Clear Channel) for embracing each song so that it may slowly accumulate station adds and audience exposure.   It may take months for a song to seep into the public consciousness, at which time album sales may be temporarily buoyed until the next single can be debuted.   It is a delicate and nerve-wracking process that can be only be undertaken by the industry cream like Beyoncé and Lady GaGa.

As a medium, radio allegedly died with the advent of MTV in the 1980’s, so how does it still wield such power in the music industry?   Essentially, people remember music that is experienced with other people; whether in a car, restaurant, nightclub, park, sports stadium, or family room.   Radio is everywhere.  Teenagers used to come home from school with their friends and visually connect with their favorite songs by way of the music video.   When Viacom-owned MTV became a reality television network its mantle was never picked up.  YouTube, now owned by Google, is the modern world’s music video headquarters, but the sensory experience is lonely and cold in front of a computer monitor.   Where is the sense of community that is so intrinsic to music?

It seems we are still trying to figure that out.   According to Wired Magazine, Univeral Music Group, Sony Music and Google are teaming up for the launch of VEVO, a video streaming site that will boast only professional content—think Hulu, but for music videos.  Will it be successful?  Some big name recording artists (Lady GaGa, Adam Lambert) have already signed up for ad campaigns to market the site.   The appeal lies in the exclusivity of its branding.   Again, warmth and approachability seems lacking in this business model.

The next chapter in the transformation of the music industry will, I think, be written in mobile cyberspace. Technological convergence devices such as iPhone bring about the potential for purchasing access to live, streaming concerts in high quality picture and sound from anywhere. Record companies have before them an opportunity to resurrect tour support, a form of promotional subsidy that hasn’t really existed since the 1970’s.

Recorded in high definition, distributed across mobile broadband networks to mobile convergence devices, the marginal income from pay-per-view live streaming of concerts could replace conventional channels of record promotion—e.g. radio—while simultaneously recovering costs of advances paid to the artist on singles released side-by-side on the same internet retail outlets. There is still hope for the album in the form of the iTunes LP, but the success or failure of that product—liner notes, extras and videos packaged with the album tracks—depends in part on whether or not the pricing relative to the value added is attractive enough to sway younger consumers who grew up with the digital single.

For Your Entertainment – Adam Lambert

Title: For Your Entertainment. Release Date: November 2009. ©2009, RCA Music Group

Title: For Your Entertainment. Release Date: November 2009. ©2009, RCA Music Group

Adam Lambert can’t be accused of timidity.   His debut album, For Your Entertainment, hasn’t re-invented the acoustic wheel, but his bucking of any one genre is a risk most non-established artists would shrink from.     In an industry where pop icons themselves are branded as a commodity, music often takes a backseat to pomp and circumstance.   However, Mr. Lambert is a rare creature; his show-stopping style is backed by a preternatural vocal ability.   As Madonna (more a businesswoman performer than a vocalist) sagely stated, “An image and a good hook can get you in the door, but something has to keep you in the room”.    Mr. Lambert has made a bold and sweeping entrance.

The hook comes in the form of MUSIC AGAIN, the album’s opening track, and an irreverent, joyful hymn brimming over with 80’s enthusiasm.   The cheeky “Queen” sound makes this patchwork throw-back an homage of the highest order.    Why aren’t we treated to music like this anymore?   FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT, the debut single, really brings sexy back to commercial pop music, proudly displaying an element of sexual titillation usually exclusive to female pop stars.  Mr. Lambert gives men permission to be objects of desire; if Hellenistic Greece had possessed a techno-anthem, this would’ve been it.

P!nk’s WHATAYA WANT FROM ME is a bittersweet and simple song with an annoyingly catchy chorus designed for radio domination.   Its generic nature isn’t helped by Mr. Lambert’s careful reverence of P!nk’s signature style; his oft-admitted admiration of her may have prevented him from making the track his own.

Who knew that a man of such ear-piercing octave punches also possessed a lower-register growl with a tremolo capable of curling toes?  STRUT combines a kick-ass guitar riff with a gripping hook, but its verses seem plucked from Doctor Seuss.  Is the near-ridiculous rhyming scheme deliberately tongue-in-cheek, or a foray into junior-high-calibre Lyrics 101?   Mr. Lambert’s taste for kitsch suggests the former.

Those familiar with the rock-opera/futuristic-fusion sound of Muse will delight in Mr. Lambert’s treatment of Matthew Bellamy’s SOAKED.   The astonishing vocals are both immaculate and dreamlike, providing a stark contrast to the bombastic orchestra lending accompaniment.  Take a moment to fully absorb the lyrics and emotion evident in Mr. Lambert’s delivery.   Who knew that the self-flagellation of a person inured to one-night-stands could be so beautiful?

SURE FIRE WINNERS is tailor-made to be a romping, stomping stadium staple.  More observant listeners will recognize the song for what it is; a championing of male virility at the most primal level.

Close your eyes while listening to A LOADED SMILE.  Mr. Lambert’s flawless falsetto merges with the buoying synthesizers to create an almost aquatic ambiance that is both etherial and transporting.  The lyrics (brilliantly penned by Linda Perry) reflect the conflict of a person hopelessly in love, and the disenchanted object of their desire.

IF I HAD YOU is credible Euro-pop with guts.  Its rolling, cyclical refrain and staccato chorus perfectly compliment each other.  This is light fare and Mr. Lambert knows it, delivering the beguiling lyrics with a delirious abandon.  It is a song made for dance clubs and thunderous remixes, but is unlikely to have mainstream appeal.  Its mid-way placement on the album is somehow apropos; the song is forgettable until you hear it.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer and Mr. Lambert collaborated to create PICK U UP, the album’s bravest and most subjective song.  Bold in its musical theatre roots, the track blends a fluid guitar with happy-go-lucky lyrics designed to elicit smiles.   It progresses predictably until the “money-shot” arrives; an insane vocal run that ascends toward a breathless key-change so unbelievable that you’ll have to stop and rewind just to make sure your ears aren’t deceiving you.

Don’t let the heavy disco-era references of Lady GaGa’s FEVER  deceive you;  its maturity and sophistication is belied by an appropriately sparse, yet raucus, musical arrangement which Mr. Lambert perfectly executes with a petulant and sinewy wail.  The opening line, “There he goes, my baby walks so slow,” will raise eyebrows, but years from now may be regarded as an important step in blurring the line between gay and straight cultural segregation.  Mr. Lambert doesn’t need to do the cover of Out magazine to be a human rights trailblazer.  FEVER is hands-down the best up-tempo track on For Your Entertainment.

SLEEPWALKER is an inevitable single; Mr. Lambert’s voice is earnest, pleading, yet unbearably sexy, making it a pop-ballad with an edge.   A killer guitar solo by This is It‘s Orianthi Panagaris gives this romantic lament some teeth.  AFTERMATH could be easily written-off as the accessible and bombastic rock anthem, but it serves as an empowering chant for all the faceless LGBT youths struggling to be themselves within a society that still largely rejects them.  With the simple urging “tell a stranger that they’re beautiful”, Mr. Lambert reveals not only his desire to spread love unprovoked, but gives us a glimpse at his own adolescent insecurities.  Every awkward teen hungers to hear such a simple affirmation of self-worth.   Perhaps next time we will be treated to musical composition worthy of such moving lyrics.

Closing out the album, BROKEN OPEN is easily For Your Entertainment‘s best slow-tempo song, and perhaps the best track overall.  Mr. Lambert’s sophisticated (and under-appreciated) abilities as a lyricist are showcased here; he gently urges a friend or lover to feel vulnerable enough to weep.  It is a song so other-worldly in its beauty that it evokes more traditionally “new age” electronic artists like Vangelis (Voices) and Enya (Shepherd Moon), but with a hitched, industrial influence.

There is brilliance peeking beneath the edges of this eclectic and brave album.  The fact that Mr. Lambert recorded it in a few short months boggles the mind; I am compelled to wonder what his limit would be if given sufficient time and resources.  His talents are immense and varied, and the untapped potential here is astonishing.  American Idol had to wait eight seasons for a discovery of this calibre.

Brokeback Mountain: Interview with Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Heath Ledger (right) star in Ang Lee’s
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a Focus Features release. Photo: Kimberly French

Films produced from Larry McMurtry’s works have garnered ten Oscars and 34 Oscar nominations, beginning with his first novel Horseman Pass By, which in 1963 was made into the film “HUD,” starring Paul Newman. Larry was previously nominated for an Oscar back in 1971 for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Peter Bogdanovich for their adaptation of Mr. McMurtry’s novel “The Last Picture Show.”

His first attendance at a Hollywood awards ceremony was for the Broadcast Film Critics awards in Los Angeles (January 9th, 2006), and his first writing award ever received in Hollywood was at the 78th annual Golden Globes (January 16, 2006), where he received, along with Diana Ossana, the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay of 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain.”

On February 4th, McMurtry and Ossana won the WGA award for Best Adapted Screenplay. They have also been nominated by the Academy of of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for “Brokeback Mountain.” Larry will turn 70 years old on June 3, 2006.

MEGHAN WHITE: Diana, you read the short story “Brokeback Mountain” (written by E. Annie Proulx) and immediately recommended it to Larry. Was your primary intention to adapt it into a screenplay, or did that come later?

DIANA OSSANA: When I first read the short story in October 1997, I knew immediately that this was a masterpiece of a short story, with the potential to touch many, many people. And so yes, it was most definitely my intention to adapt it into a screenplay. I asked Larry to read it because I wanted him to agree to adapt it with me, and to ask him as well to option the rights together with me. We weren’t certain in what incarnation it would reach the screen, although we were fairly certain it would be an independent film with a modest budget. We never did lose faith in the power of Annie’s story or in our screenplay, even though it took eight years to get it up and going. It was worth every bit of hard work it took to get this film made. We feel very, very fortunate

MW: Would Proulx’s story have appealed to you as much if it had been a tale of forbidden love between a man and a woman?

DO: If I had read a story about forbidden love between a man and a woman that were written as powerfully, precisely and affectingly as Annie’s, the answer is yes, of course. But it was THIS story I read—Annie’s story—about a forbidden love between two men.

MW: When tackling someone else’s story, how do you approach the creative process?

DO: We approach the creative process in adapting someone else’s story much in the same way as we would adapting Larry’s and/or my own material. Larry and I are unsentimental when it comes to the adaptation process. We make the same kinds of choices no matter what the source material. When the source material is a long novel, we often find it necessary to cut large portions of the book, and many times simply create new scenes from our imaginations as well. When it’s a short story, it is even more necessary to access our imaginations in order to fill in, flesh out, and create new scenes that aren’t contained within the story itself, in order to enrich the context of the screenplay.

MW: Because you were expanding a short story to accommodate feature film length, you had to delve more into the psychology of the main characters. Who did you find the most fascinating to explore? The most tragic? Who did you relate to the most?

LARRY MCMURTRY: I definitely found the women most fascinating. I always do, even in my own works. My belief is that if one wants to find out about, access or examine emotion, one must go to women.

DO: I found each and every character intriguing, and their specific circumstances tragic in their own way. I relate to all of the characters, and didn’t really think about who was more tragic than the others while writing the screenplay.

MW: Was there one character in particular that was the easiest/most enjoyable to write? Who was the most challenging?

DO: We both found the process of adapting this particular short story a challenge in the sense that the material was written in a very specific manner, both technically and emotionally. We were extremely concerned about staying true to the tone of the story and determined not to veer off into sentimentality nor to lose the language of the characters and the time and place. We wanted the finished screenplay to be as emotionally honest and straightforward as the short story from which it was adapted.

MW: The film’s script had a wonderful element of humor, more so than the short story. How did this evolve? Was it conscious, or did it happen as part of an organic writing process?

DO: The humor in the screenplay was simply a product of the actual writing process, in developing the characters and their interaction. It felt completely natural to us, particularly during their time up on Brokeback Mountain and in the development of their emotional connection. Larry is excellent when writing humor into a script.

MW: Of all the new scenes that were written specifically for the screenplay, do you have a favorite? Was there one in particular that you struggled with writing?

LM: I am affected most by the scenes involving the women. One of the scenes I find particularly appealing is the last scene in the film between Ennis and his daughter Alma Jr (Kate Mara). No scene was any more or less a struggle than another; all of the additional scenes came from our collective imaginations, mine and Diana’s.

DO: I found (and still find) several scenes particularly affecting—the scene where Ennis staggers into the gangway after he and Jack’s first parting; their reunion scene after four years apart; the confrontation scene about Mexico (the last time we see Jack); and the scene when Ennis goes to Jack’s home and interacts with Jack’s parents. All the added scenes were a challenge, but I found myself excited and exhilarated every morning to be returning to the script and doing the actual writing of these scenes

MW: There were some moments from the short story that didn’t make it into the screenplay or film, in particular Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) recollection of a painful childhood experience with his father. Was there any particular reason for the omissions?

DO: Any omissions from the short story to the screenplay were dramatic choices. Most of what is in the short story is contained within the finished screenplay, although when we actually scripted the short story, it only amounted to about a third of the final script. We had to imagine and create the scenes that we added or fleshed out, meaning, essentially, that we had to create two-thirds of the screenplay from our imaginations.

MW: Do you feel there was any significance in Jack’s relationship with his father, and the moment when he finally stands up to his father-in-law at Thanksgiving? How important was this moment for the character of Jack?

DO: Jack’s father was narrow-minded and culturally deprived, not unlike other men who come from similar backgrounds and places. Jack, however, was clearly more open and adventurous about life and the world outside his childhood home, and what that world had to offer.

When Jack finally stands up to Lureen’s father (Graham Beckel) in the Thanksgiving scene, it is a reflection of his own emotional frustrations, not just in his relationship with Ennis, but within his life as a whole. His response to the stud duck father-in-law demonstrates that he has just about reached the end of his patience rope.

MW: When writing the screenplay, did you envision the characters’ aging process, and if so, how did it affect the way you wrote them? For instance, did Lureen’s (Anne Hathaway) physical transformation reflect the growing cynicism of her character through the years of her marriage?

LM: We did envision the characters as we wrote them, as they developed, as they aged and as they experienced their own lives. To us, Lureen’s physical transformation merely reflected her general dissatisfaction and frustration with her life, her disappointments and the realities within her marriage: that she and Jack’s marriage was, at least internally, emotionally superficial and somewhat hollow–though for appearances’s sake, successful.

MW: Larry, when expanding on the characters of Ennis and Jack, did you ever feel an echo of Call and Gus? In his review of Brokeback, Roger Ebert said that you seem to be wondering what your Lonesome Doves would have been like if the characters had been gay. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

The movie is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. The screenplay is by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. This summer I read McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove trilogy, and as I saw the movie I was reminded of Gus and Woodrow, the two cowboys who spend a lifetime together. They aren’t gay; one of them is a womanizer and the other spends his whole life regretting the loss of the one woman he loved. They’re straight, but just as crippled by a society that tells them how a man must behave and what he must feel.

-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

LM: reading this paragraph, it seems to me that Mr. Ebert is comparing Call’s emotional repression with that of Ennis’s, and relating it more to society’s expectations of them as men, rather than any notion that their sexuality is similar in any way. This seems to be an accurate assessment on Mr. Ebert’s part. Gus and Call’s bond is one of friendship, not passion.

MW: Were there any alterations made to the shooting script that you may have disagreed with initially, but reacted to differently on the big screen? How well do you think Ang Lee’s interpretation of your script honors Proulx’s original words?

LM: In the original script, we had the dialogue in the reunion motel scene and the dialogue soon after up on the mountain occurring all in one scene: in the motel. Ang wanted to divide that dialogue into two scenes, with the scene wherein Ennis returns for his things and has to confront Alma’s (Michelle Williams) confusion in between. We weren’t certain at the time whether or not it would work onscreen, but of course, it does. Ang also questioned whether the audience seeing Alma’s reaction to witnessing Ennis and Jack kissing wouldn’t be too shocking, too powerful for the audience, that their reaction would create a kind of narrative sag in the film. But we argued, convincingly as it turns out, that this scene is pivotal, and that Alma must see them kiss—otherwise, how would she know that her husband was in love with another man? Thus the scene that you see in the final film.

Ang’s translation of our screenplay up onto the screen feels very true to the tone and tenor of Annie’s short story, simply because our screenplay maintains, fleshes out, and expands the emotionally straightforward nature of her writing. Annie herself said that her writing is mainly skeletal, but that our screenplay added the flesh to the long bones of her story. We’re honored she feels that way.

MW: Diana, you were a producer on the film in addition to being a writer, and took a very hands-on approach in the filming process. How close was the set, and what kind of relationship did you develop with the young cast?

DO: Our crew was small—less than 150 people, including all support staff—and so we developed a very familial kind of interaction on set. Each person working on the film at one time or another approached me during filming and expressed to me how much they admired the screenplay, and how privileged they felt to be working on the film, which was both extremely gratifying and humbling, to say the least.

Ang worked very closely with all the actors before filming began. He interacted with each of them, one-on-one and in a very detailed fashion, in order to make certain they understood their characters’ natures and motivations. Once filming began, the actors approached me a few times to ask some additional questions about their characters’ motivations, back stories, why or why not they felt and/or behaved in a certain way. At times they had questions about specific turns of phrase in the dialogue, what a phrase meant or if it were “fish and game” or “game and fish”. One actor didn’t know what “talking a blue streak” meant, for example. I had lived with these characters for nearly eight years, and the actors knew this, and simply considered me a reliable source of information. I also worked with the wranglers and props departments concerning details of authenticity and time and place and simply served as moral support and an information resource as needed on set.

MW: For what purpose did you expand the role of Cassie (Linda Cardellini), and what part did she play in Ennis’ relationship to the women in his life?

DO: Cassie somewhat exemplifies Ennis’s continual denial of his emotional makeup, and his attempts to have what he believed was a “normal” relationship with a woman. After his and Jack’s final confrontation about Mexico, Ennis realizes that it is Jack he truly loves, and he simply cannot continue in his attempts at a relationship with Cassie, thus her confronting him in the diner about his whereabouts and her frustrations and painful realization that she’s not “the one.”

MW: What is your reaction to the film’s warm reception at various critics’ awards, and its leading 7 nominations at the Golden Globes? How do you feel about its sudden transition from dark horse to front-runner, and what are your hopes for the Academy Awards?

DO: The response to our film at the various awards shows has been immensely gratifying. We both feel incredibly, incredibly fortunate, all the way around. We never imagined, when we were writing the screenplay and trying to get the film made, that it would seep into the culture to the degree that it has, that it would enter the zeitgeist.

MW: Do you have any response to the charges by some conservative groups that the film promotes adultery and is anti-family? Do you think there will be a backlash over the film’s critical success?

DO: “Brokeback Mountain”doesn’t promote the “gay lifestyle”, or any lifestyle, for that matter, and there are no winners in its outcome. It is a tragic story about a doomed love between two unremarkable men from working-class, rural backgrounds in Wyoming. It is a realistic story, and a human story, universal in its humanity, but very specific in its detailing of the tragic consequences of a love denied.

Meghan White is a contributing editor to Read her essay on “Brokeback Mountain” in the Editor’s Blog.