The History Boys: A Review Wednesday, Dec 6 2006 

Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys was named one of the year’s ten best films by the National Board of Review. PJ and I missed our opportunity to see Alan Bennett’s play when we were in London in 2004 — couldn’t get tickets — so we were not going to miss our opportunity to see the movie while we were in New York last week. A bit of an Angophile, I’m a sucker for English movies — such as Billy Elliott, Kinky Boots, Beautiful Thing, Get Real, Priest, Howards End, and Maurice — and movies about England — Notting Hill and Gosford Park, for example. So, it’s not surprising that I really liked The History Boys. I agree with the NBR — it’s one of the year’s best.

Here’s the trailer:

The History Boys is about a group of sixth-form boys in the early 1980s in a town in the North of England preparing for the Oxbridge entrance examinations, which means that they are attempting to gain entrance into one of the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge. These boys are randy, athletic, and ambitious, as are their teachers. The headmaster is only concerned with results and, seeing this as an opportunity to put his school on the map, hires a special tutor, Irwin, to help the boys with their history. Irwin, who is played by the dashing Stephen Campbell Moore (Bright Young Things), happens to be only a little older than the boys themselves, a fact that, along with his teaching to the test — he teaches the boys that style is more important than substance, that presentation is more important than truth, because style and presentation will help them make an impression — complicates his relationship with them.

Also complicated is the boys’ relationship to another teacher, Mr. Hector, played by Richard Griffiths. Hector believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake and teaches the boys a wide range of topics: World War One era poetry, song lyrics to old Rogers and Hart songs, entire scenes from Brief Encounter, and improvisation in French where the improvisation takes place in a brothel. The common theme to most of these academic pursuits is their underlying homoeroticism, which is further reflected in Hector’s tendency to grope the genitals of the straight boys while giving them rides home on his motorcycle. Despite this groping, the boys generally like Hector until this admiration is challenged by their need to ace the entrance exams and by the vision of the world taught by Irwin.

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Hard: A Review Tuesday, Dec 5 2006 

New York City was the perfect (and somewhat obvious) place to read Wayne Hoffman’s new novel, Hard, which is about the crackdown on gay sex in various venues in NYC in the late 1990s. I finished reading the novel over the weekend. It’s a great read that raises lots of interesting questions about gay liberation and sexual politics without forgetting to entertain its readers.

Hard by Wayne HoffmanThe novel centers on Moe Pearlman, who is known for giving the best blow jobs in the city. He practices his skills in this activity every chance he gets: at sex parties, in the backrooms of bars, in adult theaters, and at home with the various men he’s met online. Moe is also a graduate student and a would-be journalist. In part, the novel focuses on the love lives of Moe and his two best friends, Gene and Aaron. Moe has long been attracted to a man he sees in a diner window. Gene, Moe’s ex-lover who also happens to be HIV+, moves to New York at the beginning of the novel; the closeness of their friendship causes friction in Gene’s new relationship with Dustin, who can’t seem to get over his jealousy of Moe. And Aaron discovers that his new love interest is moonlighting as a prostitute.

The novel is also about Moe’s antipathy for Frank DeSoto, a gay activist who is behind the mayor’s crusade to close down the gay sex venues. Frank believes that gay men must stop indulging in promiscuous sex due to the AIDS crisis; he therefore aligns himself with more conservative, anti-gay forces to try to force gay men into celibacy. If Hard has a villain, it’s Frank DeSoto.

But one of the best parts of Hoffman’s novel is that, while the novel clearly opposes Frank’s ideology and methods, it avoids simply demonizing him. Over the course of the book, we see why Frank has adopted his current views. We also see his faults and hypocrisies. I like that Moe is not simply right and Frank is not merely wrong. Indeed, Hoffman draws each of his characters as fully developed (albeit fictionalized) people. They have realistic problems, to which they generally find realistic answers, if they find answers at all.

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New York Museums Monday, Dec 4 2006 

PJ and I went to three museums while we were in NYC last week: the Guggenheim, the Met, and MOMA. Each of these is, of course, world famous. As I’ve written before, I love going to museums and even have favorites. MOMA may now be on that list.

The Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim is, of course, famous for its distinctive architecture and spiralling exhibit space. The main exhibit while we were there was a collection called “Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso.” My previous experience with Spanish painting is visiting the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. While visiting the former, I fell in love with the seventeenth-century painter Diego Velazquez, so I was excited to see that the Guggenheim was showing Spanish art, including a few works by him.

One of my favorite paintings in the Spanish exhibit is Bartolom√© Esteban Murillo’s Four Figures on a Step, which was painted sometime around 1655-60:

Four Figures on a Step

According to the description that accompanied the painting, the woman lifting her veil is, in doing so, indicating that she’s a prostitute. The older woman with glasses is probably a procuress. The placard audio guide also suggests that the little boy’s torn pants and exposed buttocks is meant to suggest his erotic allure for male patrons as well. The description did not mention the male figure on the left, but he too is presumably “for hire.”

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New York Plays: Brief Reviews Sunday, Dec 3 2006 

PJ and I saw three Broadway plays and one off-Broadway play while we were in New York this past week. I’ll briefly review each of them here. On the whole, I’d say that we enjoyed our theatrical experiences, but I was surprised by which one I enjoyed the most and which I enjoyed the least.

While this is my first experience with Broadway and off-Broadway theater, I have seen several excellent productions in London. In 2004, for example, PJ and I saw productions of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Suddenly Last Summer starring the incomparable Diana Rigg, and the Globe Theatre’s production of Measure for Measure, starring Mark Rylance. This past summer we saw Juliet Stephenson in The Seagull at the National Theatre, an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the wonderful musical Billy Elliot, all of which were quite good. (We also saw a laughably bad production of The Merchant of Venice in Oxford this summer, but I think it’s best not to reflect too much on it!) So, I was excited to finally have the chance to compare English theatre with what New York has to offer. Ultimately, I’d have to say that England comes out better in the comparison.

playbill

The Vertical Hour

One of the first things PJ and I did in NYC was see David Hare’s new play, The Vertical Hour, starring Julianne Moore, Bill Nighy, and Andrew Scott. It is currently at the Music Box Theater. Here’s the “official” summary of the play:

Nadia Blye (Julianne Moore) is a young American war correspondent turned academic who now teaches Political Studies at Yale. A brief holiday with her boyfriend in the Welsh borders brings her into contact with a kind of Englishman whose culture and beliefs are a surprise and a challenge, both to her and to her relationship. David Hare’s new play, about the interconnection between our secret motives and our public politics, seeks to illustrate how life has subtly changed for so many people in the West in the new century.

What this summary doesn’t say is that the play is also about the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq, an exploration of the ethics of invading a country in order to “spread democracy” or to end a dictator’s violent oppression of his people.

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Athenian Muppets Take Manhattan Saturday, Dec 2 2006 

PJ and I are back from New York. All I can say is, so that’s what everbody’s been talking about all these years! Like just about everyone else, I too love New York! I’ll have several posts about our trip in the coming days, but I thought that I would start with an overview of my thoughts about visiting Manhattan for the first time.

Times Square at NightI’ve taught about New York for years now. The texts in my GLBT lit course often revolve around New York as one of the most important havens for gay people throughout the twentieth century. It’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to get there. I’m definitely provincial, the son of working class, conservative parents who never really instilled within me a desire to travel to places like New York or Paris or wherever. One of the things that I like about being with PJ is his urging that we travel and see places. I’ve tended to be a homebody, but I think I’m increasingly gung-ho about going to major cities and experiencing more of the world. In the past decade, I’ve come to love London, Madrid, Washington DC, and San Francisco. I know I’ll never be a New Yorker, and I realize that one trip to the city is only a small taste of what it has to offer. But New York is now on the list of cities I love. It was everything everyone said it would be: wonderful, vibrant, commercial, tawdry, busy, noisy, expensive, and fabulous.

We had three full days in the city. Our hotel was about two blocks from Times Square, so we saw the theater district every day. We saw many of the usual tourist sites: Rockefeller Center and the Christmas Tree, Radio City Music Hall (though we didn’t go in or see the Rockettes), the Empire State Building, Macy’s Christmas window displays, the U.N., St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grand Central Station, the World Trade Center site, and Battery Park.

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