Wednesday, October 25, 2006

David LaChapelle: Defining Renaissance Pop Art

With the fleeting glory of the entertainment industry it is difficult for any artist to maintain respect and creative recognition from peers, clients, and the general public for a substantial amount of time. Making a name for oneself based purely on creativity and imagination is a complicated and often competitive task to complete on a professional level. Those who accomplish this goal often receive various forms of public recognition, including honorary degrees from prestigious academic institutions. Honoring professionals of fine arts is a celebrated and longstanding tradition of colleges and universities across the nation. At the 2007 Spring Commencement Ceremony, the University of Southern California will bestow Honorary Degrees to outstanding persons who are “widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor”. The most deserving and qualified individual to receive this honor in the field of Fine Arts is photographer and director, David LaChapelle. Though primarily known for surrealist fashion photography, the 37 year old auteur has evolved into a renaissance pop artist, directing documentary film, music videos, concert stage productions, and short advertising campaigns. Over the last twenty years, David LaChapelle’s work has become consciously and unconsciously known to the general public, with appearances on magazines covers, album artwork, billboards, commercials, and other cultural artifacts all over the world. As an openly gay professional, LaChapelle is a marked testament to LGBT visibility. In the era of the often formulaic and repetitive pop culture aesthetic, David LaChapelle produces thoughtful, innovative, and provocative work that has touched the lives of millions of young people and has positively contributed to the visibility of marginalized cultures and individuals.

Many academic professionals would prefer to keep the world of pop culture outside of the public ritual of awarding honorary degrees. The controversial content of David LaChapelle’s work, his notorious celebrity reputation, and his sexual orientation does not presumably fit into the standard persona of doctoral degree recipients. In his book, Liberal Education and the Public Interest, James Freedman asserts that in recent years the Honorary Degree process excessively “bows to celebrity culture” (127). Giving an award to a photographer whose work consists of mainly celebrity iconography may seem to emulate this trend. In fact, Freedman might argue that LaChapelle’s work is not of the intellectual caliber of other reputable artists. He claims that “any aspiration to populate an American peerage is surely trivialized…by awarding an institution’s ultimate accolade to mere celebrities” (126). However, David LaChapelle’s commercial endeavors cannot be dismissed as trivial simply because they are not heavily featured in scholastic settings. Celebrated as the “Fellini of photography” by the New York Times, LaChapelle has clearly transcended the status of mere celebrity into a valid and respectable artist. Although the honorary degree process is not a popularity contest, one might suggest that in the world of popular entertainment, where everything is subject to competition, it is refreshing to have someone like LaChapelle emerge through all the monotony of mainstream popular art and culture.

The work David LaChapelle has produced in the span of his career has been popularized and highly acclaimed all over the world. His career started with the help of notorious photographer Andy Warhol, who gave LaChapelle his first professional job offer shooting for Interview magazine. Since then La Chapelle's photographs have appeared on and in between the covers of big name fashion and celebrity magazines such as Italian Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. Over the last decade he has published distinguished compilation books of photography, including LaChapelle Land, Hotel LaChapelle, and most recently LaChapelle Heaven to Hell. Over the years, he has received numerous awards including the “Best New Photographer of the Year” award in 1995 from both French Photo and American Photo magazines and the Art Directors Club Award for Best Book Design for LaChapelle Land. The sweeping success of his photography can be attributed to its trancelike style and controversial content.

LaChapelle’s images are an obscure embodiment of high and low art that is exceedingly prevalent in film, music, literature, and other cultural texts. LaChapelle’s work surreally captures what has come to be known as the Post-Modern aesthetic. His use of intertexual references as well as the highly contextual mode of representation used in his short films and videos makes LaChapelle’s work exceptionally distinctive to contemporary generations. The homepage of his official website asserts that LaChapelle has utilized such “diverse sources as renaissance art history, cinema, The Bible, pornography, and the new globalized pop culture.” With these referential elements, his celebrity portraits often contain hints of irony and ridicule, all the while glorifying the subject with color soaked sheen. LaChapelle’s mode of representation is summed up as a “deeply personal and epoch-defining visual language that holds a mirror to the face of our times, reflecting back both the sacred and profane.” The campy buoyant wit of LaChapelle’s surreal human portraits coupled with the digitally saturated color makes his photography exceptional and worthy of recognition from USC. His patterns, colors, choreography and detail are the work of a master-craftsman.

Although LaChapelle’s formal techniques are undeniably unique and respectable, the highly sexual content in some of his videos and photography could be construed as excessively vulgar and outrageous. This could be problematic for the USC honorary degree committee as this particular work may not “elevate the university in the eyes of the world” but have the opposite affect. One particular photo series that exemplifies this problem is the 1999 Rolling Stone photo shoot featuring a 17 year-old Britney Spears in sexually suggestive Lolita-themed poses. In response to the photos, a representative from the American Family Association stated that the “mixing of childhood innocence with adult sexuality is troubling." This is noted in a 1999 articleThe Spokemans Review. Of course, most of the responsibility for this controversy was put on the pop star, jabbing at Spears’ ability to be a role model for young fans. Nevertheless, this incident shows that LaChapelle’s merging of celebrity and established cultural imagery evokes reaction. He should be commended for successfully arousing conversation about the touchy subject matter through pop art. in

Although much of LaChapelle’s work is laced with spectacle, it does contain valuable meaning and insight. In his book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, Mike Martin identifies three areas of personal success for professional individuals. The area most relevant and vital for honorary degree recipients is moral concern. One definition of moral concern is the “desire to enter into and sustain caring relationships with clients, customers, colleagues, and the wider community” (23). The production of artwork is inseparably tied to the artist’s moral concern for his or her audience. As David LaChapelle’s work is often aimed at mass audiences, he has the ability to communicate with a large ranging community. LaChapelle’s moral concern is found in his communication of deeper meaning and commentary on cultural oddities, social problems, and current political issues in his widely distributed images. This concern is aligned with USC’s central mission statement which aims at enriching the lives of every human being. LaChapelle’s does this through art. His moral concern is evident in the following examples.

In preparation for the 2004 elections, Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan voter-registration group, raised two giant billboards in Times Square, showing Christina Aguilera and André 3000 with their mouths held shut, next to the message, "Only you can silence yourself." LaChapelle is responsible for this ad campaign which also includes two short commercials viewable on his website. The spots include parodies of makeup and pet food commercials before turning a sharp corner to depict the sealing, bolting or muzzling of stars' mouths. This highly confrontational ad campaign has proved necessary to grab the short attention spans of younger generations. As noted in the New York Times article entitled Getting Out the Vote, With Style, this ad campaign was meant to sell a cause as if it were a brand. LaChapelle’s efforts to capture the attention of audiences by fusing eye-catching concepts with celebrity star power is a viable method to promote change in a generation that has grown accustomed to tuning out pretty much everything but the entertainment world.

A more pressing example of LaChapelle’s moral concern is found in his first and only feature film. The 2005 documentary film Rize, is an illustration of LaChapelle’s vivid moving photography as well as his awareness of societal disparities. The film records a form of dance, known as krumping, which flourishes in some African-American neighborhoods in the greater Los Angeles area, not far from USC. As a filmmaker LaChapelle shapes the look of the film, while letting the subjects of his documentary tell their stories and exhibit their art form. An LA Weekly review notes that, “The strength of the film lies in how LaChapelle both brilliantly captures the kinetic, sexy, forceful dancing, and also simply lets the cameras roll as the kids speak thoughtfully about the world around them.” There are only two instances of directorial interpretation in the film. Images of urban turmoil, with clips from the Watts riots of 1965 and the Rodney King disturbances in 1992, delicately establish that krumping is an art form that has arisen against a backdrop of poverty, violence and despair. The second instance features cross-cutting of archival footage of traditional African ceremonial dances with footage of South-Central youth krumping. Underscoring the eerie sameness of movement, style and energy across time and continents. As emphasized in the USC Role and Mission statement, Rize is a well crafted contributor to the “development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” LaChapelle uses documentary film making to accurately and richly depict an art form and cultural phenomenon that otherwise may have gone unnoticed or drowned out by commercial hip-hop culture.

As an openly gay professional, LaChapelle participates in the quest for fair and accurate representations of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the media. He recently garnered the 2005 Vito Russo Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The award “is presented to an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for [the LGBT] community.” LaChapelle has handled the issue of sexuality in the public eye in a firm and honest manner, not shying away from the subject, both personally and professionally. In an interview with The Advocate, a popular gay political magazine, LaChapelle addresses how his sexual identity has shaped his artwork, stating, “Being gay, you see the world as an outsider…it makes you escape in your head, and it makes you more creative.” One of the most infamous examples of LaChapelle’s art as a vehicle for LGBT visibility is found in a 1996 Diesel Jeans ad. This photo depicts a passionate kiss between two hunky male sailors. In an earlier interview with The Advocate, LaChapelle states that “Diesel ran that ad in 67 countries around the world…I would have loved to have seen an image like that when I was 15, it would have meant a lot to me.” The ad has been interpreted as a fashionably correct commentary on the ongoing controversy about gays and lesbians in the military. It is a snappy and polished example of LaChapelle’s ability to weave controversial subject matters into lighthearted and free flowing images. LaChapelle’s use of LGBT content in his work coincides with Mike Martin’s notion that personal ideas “contribute to the overall coherence and significance of professional endeavors” (21). LaChapelle successfully takes personal experiences and transforms them into public agenda.

A final criticism that may arise in considering David LaChapelle for the honorary degree has to do with the quantity of his work. Although LaChapelle’s still photography and short films are expansive, his career as a stage and major motion picture director has just blossomed over the last couple of years. Those in opposition to LaChapelle may conclude that he needs to accumulate more accomplishments before being given such a prestigious award. This is a narrow approach to choosing honorees and most likely results in the ineffectuality of commencement addresses. Having a speaker who has been prominent over vast generations creates a distance between the student audience and his or her message. Although he or she may be well accomplished and satisfy the criteria for receiving an honorary degree, their lack of contemporary appeal may make them less pertinent and interesting for the student. Having a speaker who is currently known and literally “on the rise” in the public sphere may generate a much more lasting impression on graduates than someone who is well off in their career and nearing retirement. Freedman confirms this himself, noting that “despite all the effort that is devoted to selecting and then attracting honorary degree recipients, there is little evidence that commencement speakers have more than a fleeting impact on their audience” (129). From the looks of his career, David LaChapelle will remain a prominent figure in the fashion, photography, and film world for a while, and graduates may continue to encounter or recognize his style, if not his face, for years to come.

In a culture where mainstream media has a way of draining individual thought and creativity, LaChapelle could genuinely remind students that it is still possible to maintain one’s own imagination and viewpoint within all the formula driven and routine cultural cues. As a man most comfortable working with images and not words, LaChapelle would probably deliver a laidback, non-intimidating commencement speech. As a speaker he could utilize his often simple and straightforward way of talking about his own work to encourage students to embrace their own freedom of attitude. No matter what graduates take away from his commencement speech, hearing it come from an openly gay man could directly and indirectly teach students a final lesson about tolerance and mutual respect before they begin a new chapter of their lives in the real world. The USC Code of Ethics claims that at this university “we treat everyone with respect and dignity, even when the values, beliefs, behavior, or background of a person or group is repugnant to us.” In a way LaChapelle’s commencement speech could be a final challenge for students to really embrace these values, by allowing LaChapelle’s verbal and professional guidance to transcend any opinions about his sexual identity.

From images of the most famous faces in the world to marginalized figures like transsexual model Amanda Lepore or the cast of his critically acclaimed social documentary Rize, David LaChapelle uses his creativity to challenge and invoke new ideas about glamour, gender, sexuality, class, and the overarching world around us. Most people in this country, including the graduates after the commencement, will rarely read highly academic texts, frequently visit high art museums, or learn about great advances in the sciences, however many will see and read magazines, stare at billboards, and watch commercials. Within all of these facets of mainstream culture exists the artistic expression and stunning works of David LaChapelle. By honoring him, USC would not be succumbing to celebrity culture or contradicting its mission as an institution. Instead it would be proving and reinforcing its values by honoring someone from a diverse background of world-renowned achievement. By honoring David LaChapelle with a doctoral degree of fine arts, the University of Southern California would be acknowledging and embracing an individual whose work brings both humor and intelligence to mainstream mediums that otherwise contain little depth or interpretation.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Capote: Motivating the Intellect of Viewers

The internet has become a major promotional tool for American and international film industries. An entire website dedicated to the promotion of one film has the potential to give audiences a microcosmic look into the meanings, narratives, and history of what will appear on the big screen. According to research gathered by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 56% of internet users watch video clips. Many of the clips available online are movie trailers enveloped by content such as a film synopsis, cast information, and theatrical release dates. The websites that present this information most effectively are thoughtful and engaging representations of the films that they promote. The Webby Award nominated website designed for the 2005 film Capote, is a intellectually appealing and accessible representation of the motion picture. Capote’s website has three clear objectives: to inform audiences of the historical placement of the film, convince audiences that the film is as intellectually stimulating as the site itself, and to ultimately persuade viewers to go see Capote or purchase it. With the film essentially amounting to a character study, the site sheds an extensive amount of light on the controversial and subversive reputation of Truman Capote. Although the site successfully generates the eerie ambiance of Capote and addresses important literary and social implications of the life of Truman Capote, it fails to provide easily identifiable insights into the filmmakers, writers, and actors involved in the film, leaving viewers with more knowledge of the subject of the film rather than the film itself.

Before delving into the particulars of the website, it is first important to note how the site deals with Capote, the person, as a well-known homosexual man and Capote the film as a pivotal representation for the LGBT community. One of the few things that audiences may know going into the film is that Truman Capote was a gay man. Capote’s sexuality is addressed as sparsely and nonchalantly on the website as it is in the film. His flamboyant physicality is notable but seamless within the larger context of his persona. The “childlike voice, fey mannerisms, and unconventional clothes” of Truman Capote mentioned in the opening synopsis and in several of the reviews are concisely pointed out. Since the film successfully avoids portraying Capote as a campy caricature of an effeminate gay male, the site itself is not overly concerned with his homosexuality in the biographical information, nor in the imagery provided. This is a completely sensible decision considering that there are no explicit romantic occurrences in the film, nor are there any identity issues dealt with directly. If anything, Capote’s sexual identity serves to reinforce the power of celebrity embodied within his persona. As quoted in the “Biography” section, “During a period when homosexuality was anathema in America, Truman was nonchalantly and resplendently gay.” The “Biography” and “Timeline” does not shy away from pointing out Capote’s lovers and companions, but none of the information is gratuitously focused on. There is an adequate and tasteful amount of information provided for anyone looking for more details about Capote’s homosexuality. By not exploiting this particular side of Truman Capote, the site, as well as the film, contributes to the evolving representations of LGBT individuals.

As an independent feature in prominent film festivals, Capote is among few mainstream films that cater to a more intellectual audience. The homepage of the site highlights the Academy Award honors the film received, specifically for the title role. This opening page serves to inform or remind viewers of the filmic status of Capote. In addition, the Sony Classics .com domain enforces the credibility of the website. It is the official site dedicated to Capote, not a fan or spoof site. The “Reviews” section and the “Festivals” section accentuate the reputation of the film. In fact, the “Festivals” section is where the photo background motif is the most functional. This photo captures the smug infamousness of Truman Capote which looks fitting next to the illustrious “Official Selection” emblems from the New York, Toronto, and Telluride Film Festivals. Reviews from prominent newspapers and magazines such as Time Magazine and Rolling Stone, lend to the esteem of the film. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal vigorously spouts, "I've never seen anything like Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrait of Truman Capote." This and equally flattering reviews of the film solidify Capote's critical status. The site is operating under the assumption that the anticipated audience is a highly intrigued academic group of movie-goers conscious of the film’s prestige. This is a positive characteristic of the site because it establishes the validity and respect of the film.

Once in the Macromedia Flash site, viewers embark on a small aesthetic journey. By delicately capturing the atmosphere of Capote, the visual elements of the site readily engage visitors. The judging criteria for the Webby Awards, asserts that good visual design “communicates a visual experience and may even take your breath away.” Capote's website attempts to do this without using muddled complexities. The introduction to the site is a concise blend of visual, audio, and textual elements that serves as a thematic foundation for the film. Though primarily driven by textual entities, the visual elements provide smooth transitions to carry viewers over into the meaty content of the website. Upon entering, readers are greeted with a familiar black and white image of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in front of a desolate Kansas field. Four alluring quotes from the film are presented through sound bites and visual text, while the film score softly plays in the background. This combination of audio and visual elements establishes the bleak setting and haunting mood of Capote. Welcoming viewers into the world of the film with these four quotes disproves preconceived notions that it is a biographical piece. The focus of the story is on Truman Capote in relation to the violent incident alluded to in the passages. The introduction could have opened up with quotes about Capote’s life as a child, his experience coming out as a homosexual, or his life in the spot light. Instead we get a glimpse of a film that is about crime and murder, and the complexities of human relations. Following the introduction is a blur effect transition into the main page, followed by the typing of “Capote” across the screen along with the side bar options. These slick transitions provide an entertaining, yet simple way to introduce the site’s navigational features. The visual content is not extremely intricate or flashy, however it is polished enough to keep the attention of the expected audience.

The visual design of the website is persistently well organized and easy to follow. Web Style Guide suggests that graphic design should create “visual logic and seek an optimal balance between visual sensation and graphic information.” The still photo backgrounds in contrast with the slightly transparent information boxes establishes a good balanced between visual entertainment and textual information. Having the high quality photographs from different moments in the film, outside of the photo gallery, provide a constant visual stimulation for a site that is mostly geared toward historical and academic documents. The dense text documents are easier to read with the firm contrast and relief of the visual elements. For instance, the image of the real-life Truman Capote next to his biographical information is eye-catching. The viewer gets a glimpse of the reality of the film and there is no better way to expand on that than to read the given biography right in front of them.

Hidden within the seemingly minimal navigational options is a hefty amount of descriptions, explanations, and facts that can seem overwhelming for someone looking for a brief overview of the film. The Web Style Guide asserts that, “Few Web users spend time reading long passages of text on-screen. Most users either save long documents to disk or print them for more comfortable reading.” The abundance of information provided on this site may seem both useful and excessive to viewers. A typical film site would include the information found in “The Film” section, a movie trailer, and a photo gallery. However this site goes several steps further with the inclusion of biographical sources, newspaper clippings, and dozens of directly and indirectly related links. Under the “Links” section one can find dozens of hyperlinks to websites related to the studies of crime, journalism, and literature. These extensive features of the site work as instruments to bring viewers closer to the real life events that the film is based on as well as broader thematic elements within the film. Though much of the sources and textual information may seem excessive, it is all undeniably relevant to the film.

The importance of Truman Capote’s literary contributions is the most pertinent and assisting form of information the website provides. The purpose of the “In Cold Blood” section is to emphasize the impact Capote has had on the literary world. The section asserts that “Capote’s influence extends even into the twenty-first century, and writers…write the way they do because of the way he did.” The social commentary on the impact of the “Non-fiction Novel” ultimately proves that Capote is a public figure worthy of a film adaptation. Instead of pompously stating that Capote is the most important writer of his generation, the author of this content, cleverly introduces the idea with a supporting quote from Norman Mailer, who states that Capote was the “most perfect author of [his] generation.” This section shifts to the importance of Truman’s persona, as a great writer and a frolicsome celebrity. The description of the book’s succ$ess and success of the film and television adaptations provide a comfortable ending to the biographical section of the website. The final quote from Gerald Clarke indicates that there is more to Capote’s success than meets the eye. Audiences could deduce that the film explores the “tragic downfall” mentioned in this quote, prompting them to see the movie. The biographical content available on the site is an invitation to see the film with a well informed knowledge of the subject matter.

As a result of all the rich textual information, a minimal amount of interactivity is allowed on the website. The site is only able to accommodate this feature with one entity. According to the Webby Award judging criteria, well crafted interactivity on a site “insists that you participate, not spectate.” The “In the press” section of the website allows audiences to participate in the sensationalism of the arrival of non-fiction crime literature. The section, containing book reviews and magazine clippings from the mid-sixties and early seventies, not only confirms facts given within the biographical sections, but also adds to the general ambiance of the website. These are hands-on examples of the book’s impact on the literary world as well as glimpses into Capote’s inspiration and celebrity. The hyper-texuality allows the reader to directly transport to the time and frame of the film. The most distinctive of these articles is the link to the 1963 New York Times article, entitled Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain. With access to the actual article clipping that prompted the writing of the novel In Cold Blood, the audience is given the thrill of being in Capote’s shoes. With these cultural artifacts from Capote’s In Cold Blood stages, it is easier to grasp the historical significance and accept that the influence of Capote has not been exaggerated by the website.

With the overwhelming focus of the website on the historical context of Capote, the film’s contributors are overlooked and decentralized. Under the “Cast and Filmmakers” section a list of credits are provided, but there are no cast biographies nor are there links to such material in this section. The site does provide links to websites for the three leading actors under “Cast” in the “Links” section. However as a matter of prioritization of information, it woulnd be easier for readers to have cast information available under the first mention of the “Cast and Filmmakers.” Instead the primary mention of the cast is found in the “Reviews” section. For instace in the esteemed Rolling Stones review by Peter Travers he complements Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance stating, “his real triumph is inward, the way he finds the stillness in Capote and the emotions rolling in his eyes when what he sees in the world reduces him to awed silence.” Here we have an in-depth commentary on the role of performance in the film not found in any centralized section of the site. Although helpful, the “Reviews” section is also somewhat inadequate in that it does not provide links to the full reviews of the selected blurbs on the website. The site neglects the fact that film reviews are among the key elements that prompt viewers to see the films. These well-written and flattering articles should be fully accesible. Readers interested in the actors and their performances, as well as the films literary and temporal structure, are not met with much satisfaction from the website’s materials.

The Sony Classics website for the film Capote is a well-crafted and detailed look at the persona behind the film and the creation of the novel, In Cold Blood. The bulk of the site contains information that most audiences would only sift through once or twice. However anyone doing recreational or academic research on the subject of Truman Capote, the non-fiction novel, or subjects as broad as crime, literature, and journalism would be able to find at least a few helpful resources through this website.Ultimately, the website is both informative and intriguing. Capote is a haunting, honest, and perplexing depiction of a prominent figure in the history of American literature. Through the website, these ideas are illustrated succinctly and expanded on in ways that allow browsers to explore a seemingly infinite amount of information about the man behind the title.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Ex-Gay Movement: Damaging Visibility

USC’s LGBT Resource Center is holding an intellectual discussion that features a representative from the group PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays) on Thursday November 2nd. This event is meant to foster dialogue about the growing representation of Ex-Gay organizations and focus groups. PFOX contacted the LGBT center proposing that Ex-Gay Information should be available to students on campus. As the Communications Director for the Resource Center, I completely objected to the idea. Myself and several of my colleagues feel that a Pride Center is surely not the proper venue for Ex-Gay Literature. This issue prompted me to search for blog-posts that discuss sexual identity reformation and what type of artistic representations of it exists. I commented on two posts, one from a liberal perspective and one from a conservative perspective. I posted as "designosis" on the latter post. The conservative post discusses an upcoming by Exodus International book about educating churches on handling LGBT people. The second post I responded to is a very liberal report on an upcoming Ex-gay Television show called “Pure Passions.” Both sides of the Ex-Gay phenomeon proves that the issue is bound to become more controversial.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Get on the Bus:
Explicit Content and the Treatment of Sex in Film
When does a film cease to be art and become pornography? Is the depiction of actual sex pornographic if the images are calculated not to arouse viewers, or is what causes arousal so subjective that it is impossible to define what is pornographic? If so, is it practical to empower lawmakers to define what is or isn't pornographic on our behalf? When serious actors engage in sexual activity for artistic purposes, are they inadvertently prostituting their art? Any number of these tricky, perhaps unanswerable, questions are raised by the explicit sexual content in the upcoming fall release Shortbus.

Shortbus follows a group of New Yorkers as they explore the comic and tragic intersections between sex and love in and around a present-day underground sex salon called Shortbus. The film includes scenes of real sex between gay, lesbian, and heterosexual characters as well as masturbation and group sex scenes. The film is not meant to focus on the erotic side of sex, but use sex as a representation of other aspects of the characters and the overarching story.

In the 1996 article “Prisoners of sex? - sex in society and the media" in the Humanist, Lee Ann Morgan writes about the progressively juvenile and superficial portrayal of sex. She states that “sex may be losing its soul in direct proportion to its becoming a mass commodity.” Ten years later Morgan’s observations of mainstream media’s treatment of sex have worsened exponentially. Sex is trivialized in raunchy gross-out teen comedies, reality television, magazine spreads, and other prominent pieces of pop culture. Morgan continues by stating that “the images are powerful without an accompanying sense of respect or responsibility or proportion.” Sex sells, but only if it is exaggerated and infantile. This leads to the question, Can films like Shortbus bring the “soul” back into sex? In a Cannes Film Festival press conference, Director John Cameron Mitchell stated that he “wanted to use sex for a metaphor for things that were perhaps more universal: themes of connection and love and fear.” Imagine if sex was more commonly situated to provoke thoughtful interpretation, as opposed to provoking erections. Although Shortbus’s ability to do this relies heavily on the audiences’ capacity to accept the sex in the film as not another opportunity to overdose on our cultural obsession with sex, but to view the sex in the film as a single entity that defines and represents the characters.

Despite the artistic clarifications given for the abundance of sex in Shortbus, the film is still bound to draw in some socio-political controversy. Director John Cameron Mitchell has openly declared that his text is an act of defiance against the current political climate in America. In the introduction to the uncensored trailer on, Mitchell states that Shortbus is “everything you need to get through the next two years of George Bush.” It is unclear how directly the film itself addresses Bush, terrorist fears, and other post-9/11 political issues. Yet it is evident that the auteur, Mitchell, is using his film as a symbol of subversion and liberation in a time where there is a strong presents of distrust of the current administration. At the Cannes Film Festival press conference, Mitchell declared that “We are certainly being controlled by a puritanical government in the States, a theocracy so to speak that a lot of people…don't agree with.” The extreme leftist views of the film and the filmmakers are going to cater to the expected audiences who actually go out to see it, relatively liberal individuals. The extremity of this film may not lead to much social change, or even effect any mainstream media treatment of sex, however for the intellectually open crowds who are able to see it, it will hopefully fulfill its main purpose of giving sex the proper value and respect it deserves.
John Cameron Mitchell on the goal of Shortbus: “Most people have said that by the end of the film, the sex was the last thing they think about, which is in a way our goal too, to remind people that it is just another brush stroke in the painting of life."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Evolving Representations: Long awaited depth for LGBT stories in Hollywood Film.

Cinematic representations of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals have not received such mainstream attention prior to last year’s Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain along with Transamerica and Capote. For the first time, mass audiences were able to see homosexual and transgender story lines that went beyond stereotypes and two-dimensional caricatures. Brokeback’s success can be attributed to the relatively known actors, an acclaimed director, and a narrative operating outside of typical gay cinema territory, the classic Western. Brokeback’s ability to demythologize the most fixed conventions of the genre, along with its timeless backdrops, and empathetic ending, made it the most humanizing tale of homosexual love to ever hit so many big screens. The representational consequences of Brokeback Mountain have the potential to produce LGBT characters of substance in mainstream cinema, eventually contributing to the goals of social tolerance and equality.

Now that Hollywood has little reason to abide by any preconceived notions about whether gay films with gay leading characters can succeed with audiences, there’s no limit to how many widely released films in the upcoming year will incorporate LGBT into its vocabulary. One point of contention is how these films are going to be sold to audiences. Even if a series of thought provoking, tactful films continues to emerge, overzealous coverage can easily turn much needed visibility into a superficial fad. The potential for this is blatant in Silvia Aloisi’s Entertainment news headline that highlights the “Gay Kiss” between the two lead actors in the upcoming film “Infamous” (another film about the acclaimed writer Truman Capote). This need to emphasize the homoerotic interactions in the film indicates the level of intrigue audiences are expected to have over anything with a hint of homosexuality in it. Daniel Craig, one of the actors involved in the kiss, is slated to play James Bond in the upcoming film Bond 22, prompting the playful subheading, “KISSING JAMES BOND.” Like the demything of the Western, the publicity over this kiss is an example of another subversion of an infamous cultural text. The same actor lined up to play the epitome of the chauvinistic womanizing secret agent can simultaneously take on a role that involves kissing another man. This no longer jeopardizes the persona of the actor, nor the legendary character. This illustrates the fact that Hollywood is more willing to tell LGBT stories than ever before and is letting down some incredibly old boundaries.

So what can truthful and humanizing representations do for LGBT communities? How tangible is the correlation between representation and reality?

The main objective of any marginalized group’s visibility within a prominent medium, like film, is to ultimately ignite social change. Maria DiBattista, using Brokeback Mountain as her example, explores the question, “Can Movies Change our Minds?” in a LA Times article. She states that movies have the ability to “take on the great social problems of their time, but they may be the least effective — or appropriate — medium for solving them.” Claiming that Brokeback Mountain is the beginning of the end of homophobia and injustices based on sexual preference is of course a completely irrational conclusion. However the films that take on such issues in their time add up to be something impacting. What will effectively provoke change are honest, if not positive, representations of LGBT individuals. Film, like any art, has the potential to rouse analysis, understanding and even allow audiences to embody the life, or story, of someone else. We will see a change in social and political disparities as more LGBT narratives and characters are implemented with substance and purpose.