The Line of Beauty: A Review Saturday, Dec 30 2006 

This past week, PJ and I watched the BBC miniseries, The Line of Beauty, adapted from Alan Hollingshurst’s novel of the same name. I haven’t read the novel (yet), but I liked the miniseries quite a lot.

Beginning in 1983, it follows Nick, played by Dan Stevens, a recent graduate of Oxford, as he moves in with the family of one of his college friends, Toby Fedden, played by Oliver Coleman (pictured on the left below). Toby’s family is wealthy and politically well connected, especially since Toby father, Gerald, played by Tim McInnerny, is a Tory MP. The plot takes place over four years, a period bookmarked by two elections, both of which return Margaret Thatcher to the government.

Nick (pictured in the middle above) is a working-class aesthete. His father is an antiques dealer, and Nick has absorbed his knowledge of art, furniture, and aesthetics, and then studied literature at the university, all of which helps him find a place among the wealthy politicos of his new environment. Nick is also gay, a fact that is conveniently ignored by most of his new found family and their friends.

Since Toby is beautiful but straight and soon engaged to be married, Nick is forced to turn his sexual interest elsewhere. At the urging of Toby’s manic-depressive sister, Catherine, Nick answers a personal ad and meets up with Leo. Toby’s hobnobbing with England’s conservative elite stands in marked contrast to his furtive sex with Leo, who is black and working class. Not surprisingly, their relationship doesn’t last long.

But its demise leaves Nick in a precarious situation: how to find sexual partners among his wealthy friends in an age in which AIDS is increasingly threatening the gay male population. The tensions between Nick’s sexuality, the AIDS crisis, the Fedden family’s personal and professional indiscretions, and the Thatcher government’s policies comes to a head in the third act, when the consequences of being in the closet, political corruption, and private scandal all collide in one cataclysmic event.

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Dreamgirls: A Review Friday, Dec 29 2006 

Yesterday, PJ and I went to Columbus to do some shopping. While we were there, we saw Dreamgirls, one of the most talked about films of the year. I had heard the original soundtrack album before and was generally familiar with the overall plot, but I really had little preconceived idea about what to expect. While the movie has received a lot of positive press, it hasn’t been universally acclaimed. So, I was looking forward to forming my own opinion. Since I’m a gay man who loves Black women and musicals, I guess it isn’t surprising that I think Dreamgirls is one of the year’s best and most entertaining films.

Here’s the trailer from Youtube:

As just about everyone probably already knows, Dreamgirls is loosely based on the story of the Supremes: a Detroit girl group called the Dreamettes is struggling to make it when a car salesman cum music producer, Curtis Taylor, Jr., played by Jamie Foxx, decides to give them a break as background singers for a popular R&B star, James Early, played by Eddie Murphy. When Early’s sound remains too “black” for popular tastes (i.e., whites), Curtis decides to remake the Dreamettes into the Dreams, moving one of the background singers, Beyonce Knowles‘s Deena Jones, into the lead since her voice is weaker and therefore more pop-friendly than that of the previous lead singer, Effie, played by Jennifer Hudson. Needless to say, this change is the beginning of the end for the original Dreamettes, as jealousy, changes in music, and romantic triangles begin to tear them apart.

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Merry Christmas Monday, Dec 25 2006 

Merry Christmas! This year I’m spending Christmas away from my family and even from PJ. I decided some time ago that I wanted to have some time alone to work, wear my pjs all weekend, and eat macaroni and cheese. I did this a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it as a kind of anti-holiday. I hate holiday travel, and I really do need to finish up some projects. Plus, I tend to be a bit reclusive anyway, and it doesn’t get any more reclusive than spending Christmas alone in Athens!

On the whole, it’s been a good weekend of reflection and self-analysis. I feel like I’m getting my life in order and working through some stuff that I should have worked through a long time ago. But now that the big day’s here, I’m kind of regretting my decision. I love my family and I miss spending time with them. So, I thought I’d bring myself a little family Christmas cheer by thinking about past Christmases with them and posting a picture from my little sister’s first Christmas:

A’s first Christmas

This picture was taken in 1979. She is 3-months-old here, and I’m 9. It’s crazy to think that she’s now married! She’s a grown woman with a husband and two dogs. In so many ways, I still feel like I’m the 9-year-old in this picture.

My earliest memories of Christmas are from when I was 3-years-old. My mom and I were living with my great grandparents. It snowed that year, and we built a snowman. When I woke up the next morning, the snowman was gone — my mom told me that he had gone to live at the North Pole like Frosty so that he wouldn’t melt. I think all of my subsequent mechanisms for dealing with loss stem from that day!

Besides 1979 bringing me my little sister, that year was also a great Christmas because I received a lot of Star Wars toys. I lived, breathed, and ate Star Wars as a kid. The movie, of course, came out in 1977, but I didn’t see it until late 1978. (My parents thought I was too young to see it at first.) And 1979 was the year that I finally started raking in the loot: action figures, ships, the soundtrack, etc. I didn’t get everything that holiday, but the Star Wars wave began. I think I had gotten a few things for my birthday that year, but Christmas was special because (if I remember correctly) that’s when I got Darth Vader, some Stormtroopers, and the Millennium Falcon. (By my birthday in 1980, I was really set: I got the Death Star, and 1981 brought me Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer and many of the action figures from The Empire Strikes Back.)

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Infamous: A Review Tuesday, Dec 19 2006 

Last night, PJ and I saw Infamous, the latest film about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Like Capote last year, Infamous recounts how Capote came to write this book and how it affected his life and career. It stars Toby Jones, who seems to have been born to play Capote, and a large star-filled cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Sandra Bullock, and the new James Bond, Daniel Craig.

Here’s the trailer, which gives you a glimpse at these and other members of the cast:

I really admired Capote last year. I thought Philip Seymour Hoffman and Clifton Collins, Jr. were both excellent as Capote and his prized murderer, Perry Smith. The look and feel of the film was also great — I thought that it really caught the historical moment of the early 1960s. Of the five films nominated for best picture at the Oscars earlier this year, I thought Capote was the most deserving of the win.

Since I liked Capote so much, I’m kind of surprised to report that I loved Infamous! Infamous isn’t simply a retread of the previous movie. Jones is great as Capote — he brings a humor to the role that I don’t think Hoffman did. Also, where Hoffman’s was a performance, Jones’s is an embodiment, every gesture perfectly conveys Capote’s inner life. Sandra Bullock is also excellent as Harper Lee. While I thought Crash‘s win at the Oscars was indeed a homophobic rejection of Brokeback Mountain, Bullock was great in Crash; combined with this role, she is becoming quite an actress.

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Being Evaluated (Part 2) Monday, Dec 18 2006 

I began my blog with a post entitled “Being Evaluated.” That post was about having my scholarship evaluated by experts in my field and having my teaching evaluated by my students. In this post, I’d like to update my thoughts about these forms of evaluation.

Today, I read my teaching evaluations for the year. In 2006 I taught 5 classes: Lesbian & Gay Lit, a grad course on late eighteenth-century Brit Lit, Literary Theory, Critical Approaches to Drama, and Women & Literature. At the end of the year, we select the evaluations from 4 classes to submit to the “Budget and Rating Committee” as part of our annual evaluation.

For the first time in my teaching career, I didn’t have anyone in any of my classes who just hated me and everything else about the class s/he took with me. Usually, there’s somebody who is taking a course under duress and decides to take out his or her frustration by giving me low scores. This is especially the case in the L&G Lit course — for some reason I still don’t understand, I usually have someone in that class who complains about the course content — it’s too gay! But not this time. One or two people thought the class might emphasize sex a little too much. A few of the lesbians want more women-centered texts (which is a totally legitmate complaint, I think). And one or two people want less reading, but I don’t feel like I’ve taught a good course if someone doesn’t complain about too much reading and/or writing. The theory students seemed especially appreciative that we studied theory by applying it to short stories by E. M. Forster. My Women & Lit students had useful suggestions for improving the commonplace book assignment. And my grad students seem to have learned a lot about the late eighteenth century, which I’m especially delighted to read since it was the best grad class I’ve taught so far in my career (and the third of the “long eighteenth century” that I know the least about).

So, I’m very pleased that my students seem to have thought my classes were good learning experiences for them. (more…)

Reading Samuel Pepys Friday, Dec 15 2006 

I’ve long enjoyed reading around in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, a late seventeenth-century English bureaucrat who worked in the Naval Office. The level of minute detail that Pepys included in his diary — on just about every imaginable facet of life: entertainment, his sex life, his relationship with his wife, his duties in the Naval Office, his thoughts about the monarch, government, and administration, what he ate, what he drank, how he traveled from one place to another, the coronation of Charles II, the Great Fire of 1666, and much, much more — make it an important source of information for historians and literary scholars alike.

Samuel PepysIn the past, I’ve looked up specific entries in the diary, Pepys’s thoughts on the libertines I write about: Sir Charles Sedley, George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, for example. I haven’t ever just started at the beginning and simply read the diary. Until now (sort of).

I’ve decided to teach the Diary in my eighteenth-century class this spring. Since it’s actually a 9 volume set (in print, plus a companion volume and an index), I obviously can’t teach the whole thing. Instead, I’ll order an edition of selections from the Diary, probably the Modern Library edition, which presents the selections in order rather than topically, like the California edition, A Pepys Anthology.

Since I’ve never taught more than one or two entries from the Diary, I thought that I should read through the edition I’m going to order and begin to think about what kinds of directions I want to give my students to guide them in their reading. So, I started reading in January 1660 and am working my way through to the end, 1669. I can’t predict what my students will make of it, but I think it’s a fascinating read. I’m already learning so much. For instance, I didn’t know that Pepys actually sailed over to the Netherlands as part of the official party that brought the royal family back to England in 1660. I’ve also become increasingly impressed with just how much Pepys bustles around London. (If I didn’t have anything else to do, I would love to join the ranks of scholars working on “London Studies,” but since I am busy elsewhere, maybe I can just teach a class sometime on London.)

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Nina Simone Tuesday, Dec 12 2006 

So far, my blog has mostly been about my thoughts on academia, movies, or travel. Today I want to go in a different direction and post about my new found love for (obsession with) Nina Simone.

“Nina Simone” is one of those names that has been on the edges of my consciousness for as long as I can remember, but I’ve only consciously been exposed to her music infrequently. My first memory of being aware of her is watching the final scene of Before Sunset, the sequel to Before Sunrise, both of which are among my favorite movies. More recently, our friends Mark and CJ gave us a copy of one of Simone’s CDs, and we caught part of a concert film of hers on Trio (or Ovation — one of those cable channels we don’t often watch).

None of these slight exposures to Simone’s music did much for me. But for some unexplained reason, I was looking for the CD Mark and CJ gave us and couldn’t find it. I don’t know what sparked the interest, but I wanted to sit down and really listen to her music. (I think it might have been seeing a little bit of the concert film again, but I’m not sure. But it might also be my deep, instinctual love of Black women: Tina Turner, Jill Scott, India Arie, Mary J. Blige, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jocelyn, Erika Badu ….)

So, PJ and I ended up buying a couple of CD anthologies of her music. I uploaded the one entitled Anthology, a 2-disk set, and have been listening to it almost non-stop for the past few days. In sum, I now think Nina Simone is the greatest vocal artist I’ve ever heard. Her ability to interpret a song, to “make it her own,” to borrow the insidious phrase that the judges on American Idol constantly use, is truly unparalleled.

I did a google search on “Nina Simone” and one of the things that came up was a series of clips from her live performances on YouTube. (As a corollary statement, I also think YouTube may be the most valuable entertainment outlet since the advent of the internet.) One of her songs that I’m most obsessed with right now is “I Love You Porgy.” Here’s a YouTube clip of Simone singing it live in 1962:

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Guys and Balls: A Review Sunday, Dec 10 2006 

PJ and I just finished watching Guys and Balls, a German movie about a soccer goalie who gets kicked off his local team because he’s gay. When his teammates harrass him about his sexuality, he ends up betting them he can beat them with a new, all gay team in four weeks.

Here’s the preview:

Guys and Balls is a fairly predictable, but nevertheless somewhat enjoyable queer sports movie. The main character, Ecki, played by Maximilian Bruckner, is likeable enough but suffers from the usual movie coming out issues: his dad is too distant and thinks his son is now too girlie and he can’t hold his new boyfriend’s hand in public. And a lot of movie is based on stereotypes: Ecki’s new teammates are mostly stereotypes of one sort or another: leathermen, the flamer, the Beckham fanatic, even the straight man pretending to be gay in order to get close to the girl, Ecki’s sister. All of the plot’s conflicts are also resolved a little too easily for a movie that’s only 106 minutes long.

There’s also another problem with the film: a gay sports should always include a significant number of lockerroom scenes (and the attendant activities that occur in lockerrooms). Otherwise, why make a queer sports movie in the first place? Athletes dressing and undressing, walking around naked, taking showers — is that the point of a gay sports movie?! Guys and Balls delivers a couple of lockerroom scenes, but they’re even more tame than the lockerroom shots during the first season of Footballers Wives. (The first season’s scenes were great — excuse me while I pause to remember some of the scenes featuring Gary Lucy, who played Kyle ….)

Despite these problems, Guys and Balls is a fun little popcorn and vodka tonic kind of movie. You can’t take it seriously, and it’s not a laugh a minute, but it’s as good or better than a lot of gay movies.

Third Man Out: A Review Saturday, Dec 9 2006 

This week PJ and I watched Third Man Out, a gay detective movie originally made for TV. It stars Chad Allen, who was relatively famous as a child actor and who later made headlines when he came out, as Donald Strachey, a gumshoe who refuses to help a gay client because of the client’s method of outing famous people against their will, only to find out that the client was subsquently murdered. He therefore resolves to find out who did it.

Here’s the preview:

This is a surprisingly good little movie. It’s sexy — there’s a bit of male hotness here and there. It’s fun — there’s humor and the director, Ron Oliver, has a good time checking off all of the cliches of the genre. It’s romantic — Chad Allen and Sebastian Spence are the gay Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. It’s a little predictable, but it nevertheless manages to have a few suprizes.

It’s great to see a romantic gay couple at the center of a movie. It’s even better that a significant number of people involved in the film, including the director and lead actor, are openly gay. I, for one, am tired of watching gay movies only to see actor after actor reaffirm their heterosexuality in the special features. I definitely enjoy a movie more when I know it features gay men in the cast and gay people behind the scenes.

I also enjoyed seeing Jack Wetherall, who played Vic on Queer as Folk, again. I found it difficult to see him as the jerk John Rutka in this movie — I just kept seeing Uncle Vic with long hair. Porn star Matthew Rush also has a small part — he’s becoming quite the routine performer in independent gay movies; his cameo in Another Gay Movie was hilarious.

Third Man Out isn’t the best movie ever, but it is better than the run-of-the-mill gay production. I look forward to seeing the sequel.

Staging Governance Friday, Dec 8 2006 

I recently finished reading Daniel O’Quinn’s Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800, the last of the three books I’m reviewing for a journal. In sum, it’s an interesting book that definitely adds to our current understanding of the effects of colonialism on London society in the late eighteenth century. As with the other two books, however, I’ll save the usual review stuff for that essay.

What I’d like to write about here is how reading this book has helped me think a bit about my approach to teaching. As I read the introduction to O’Quinn’s book, I was struck by a phrase he uses in the following sentence:

Charting and adjudicating the limits of social interaction, the theatre, perhaps more than any other form of cultural production, offers a glimpse of how change swept through a culture in the midst of fundamental social transformation both at home and abroad. (12)

First, I want to say that I totally agree with the general sentiment of first part of this statement: due to its reconstruction of social life for the stage, the theater is indeed uniquely able to comment on socio-political change and transformation in any historical period. The whole point of the theater is, in a way, to offer such mapping and judgment. Martin Esslin’s An Anatomy of Drama makes this argument succinctly and convincingly. (I teach Esslin’s book from time to time — it’s profound and accessible at the same time, if that’s possible.)

But I am also struck by the fact that “charting and adjudicating the limit of social interaction” is what literature more generally does in a given culture. Here’s how I would rephrase O’Quinn’s construction:

artistic texts (literary and non-literary, canonical and non-canonical, written and visual) chart and adjudicate the contours of cultural and political debate.

In many ways this is a great summary phrase for how new historicist and cultural studies scholars view literary texts. So, due to my training in those perspectives, I’ve long thought about texts in this way, but reading O’Quinn’s book has crystallized these particular words — chart and adjudicate — for me, helping me focus my preexisting ideas and think about them more productively.

Literary texts chart contemporary debates by delineating the sides of a particular debate and showing us where the points of agreement and disagreement lie. They also show us the limits of debate — what can be imagined and what cannot; what can be published and what cannot; what can be written and what cannot; etc.

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