March 28, 2015

Logic, The Bible, and Anti-LGBTQ Discrimination Laws.

(D) The existence of laws allowing business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals.

(d) The existence of business owners who actually wish to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals.

(S) In The Bible, it is stated that Jesus ate with sinners. (Mathew 1:9)
(C) Christians should emulate Christ.

(s1) Eating or socializing with sinners is therefore Christian-like behavior.
(s2) Going out of your way to avoid eating or socializing with sinners is therefore un-Christian like behavior and thus a sin too. (Modus Tollens)
(s3) Business owners refusing to serve sinners, are therefore committing a sin.

(L) There are a few versus in Leviticus and Romans that can be seen as broadly condemning sexual relationships between men (if you squint at them carefully and ignore a lot of history and cultural context things).

(l) That broadly speaking any person in the LGBTQ spectrum can be seen as a sinner. Even thought that is not... *exactly* what is stated (given that there is nothing in there about sexual relations betwen women, transgender idenitity, and so on..) we'd waste too much time trying to fine tune this bit. Also, the idea of Original Sin, has it that everyone is a sinner any ways so, let's not get too nitpicky here, okay?

Given (l), (d), and (s3)

(B) Refusing service to LGBTQ individuals would therefore be a sin and therefore those business owners who engage in it are sinners.

Conclusion: Christians should invite all sinners, including both LGBTQ individuals and discriminatory business owners over to their place for potlucks.

March 4, 2015

Queer Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending
Directors: The Wachowskis
Writers: The Wachowskis
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatumn, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

Jupiter Ascending is a mess and not in a good way. This represents the weakest entry into The Wachowskis filmography that I have had to opportunity to see, due to this film falling far shorter than usual with regards to the high ambitions that The Wachowskis usually set for the stories that they tell. Then there is the tricky matter of the main villain, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), falling prey to sexist and transphobic tropes.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an ordinary young woman, working a dead end job as a cleaning lady in her family's business. When her cousin encourages her to donate her eggs at a fertility clinic, she goes, only for the medical attendants to turn into aliens and try to kill her. Fortunately, she is then kidnapped-slash-rescued by a strange being who calls himself Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who informs her that her reality is a computer generated dreamworld designed to turn human beings into batteries, or uh rather... that earth is a farm maintained by aliens who harvest humans so they can have eternal youth. It also turns out that there are a lot of planets like that out there. Oh and we humans were genetically engineered by the aliens with their DNA, which they spliced onto a native species in order to create us. Also, Jupiter is the reincarnation of the Abrasax siblings mother, who was murdered. And Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) is the one who inherited Earth and wants to start the harvesting, like right now. Meanwhile Jupiter and Caine are (supposedly) falling in love, while Jupiter tries to claim her title to Earth.

The Queering
There are times when Jupiter Ascending almost manages to achieve the ambitious goals set out for itself by the Wachowskis, but the end result is more disaster than the intriguing space adventure it aims for. There are parts that show off an intricately developed universe, complex characters, the development of philosophical themes, and even bits of intriguing social commentary. Then there are parts that are just confusing and too often, the Wachowskis simply seem to want to show off that they know how to handle a special effects budget.

In the past, the Wachowskis have shown the ability to combine the examination of philosophical themes, even while blowing stuff up real good. Even their post-Matrix material is better than the reputation it has received. Cloud Atlas suffered a bit from over-editing, but still managed to hold itself together and The Matrix sequels while a step down from the first, still managed to tell coherent and engaging stories.

Jupiter Ascending on the other hand, does not hold together so well. Much of the important plot points feel rushed, the big action scenes tend towards the incoherent and confusing, and the universe all of this is set in feels half developed. In spite of the fact that the story drags, there were times when I wanted more time spent explaining how this particular universe worked and to character development as well. The relationships and motivations of the Abrasax siblings in particular felt under-developed (a situation not helped much by the fact that they always spoke softly in half-whispers with each other). Furthermore, the fact that we are never shown exactly what a harvesting of a planet looks likely (merely the results) makes audience investment in the central conflict that much harder.

In Jupiter Ascending's defense, there are a couple of interesting ideas presented, even if they are half developed. The concept of creating sentient life to lengthen the lifespans of other beings, is not that far removed from the creation of savior siblings, where a child is created via in vitro fertilization and is expected to donate cells and tissues for an older sibling with a fatal disease. In other words, the technology for doing what is presented as science fiction here, not only exists, but is already being utilized. I'm not sure if the Wachowskis actually intended for their to be any parallels here, but they are worth pointing out.

As it is, the characters and situation itself are both interesting, even if they are only half developed.

However, there is one awkward element that I want to point out. The main villain, Balem, is presented as being both extremely effeminate and having an obsession with his mother (and thus by default, he also has an obsession with Jupiter Jones). Note: Lana Wachowski said that the story was inspired by The Odessey but with regards to greek mythology, the Oedipal Complexing going on is lot more obvious than anything else. Anyways, the point being is that Balem is queer coded in some pretty obvious ways.

Now, one trope regarding transgender villains that I have pointed out before, is that trans villains (who are almost always woman) are always presented as not only deceptive, but as actively stealing the bodies and or identities (among other things) of woman. Now, while Balem is not presented as transgender, he is still an obviously effeminate, queer coded villain, who actively seeks to steal an entire planet from a female character. Between the use of human bodies to create a fountain-of-youth type substance and Balem's mother obsession, several uncomfortable parallels end up being created with extremely transphobic films such as Psycho (where the titular character is also obsessed with his mother) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (an alternate take on the story where Dr. Jekyll uses female hormones in order lengthen his lifespan and winds up killing numerous female sex workers in order to obtain them)

What makes this particularly awkward is that Lana Wachowski (who co-directed along side her brother Andy Wachowski) is herself transgender.

Admittedly, there are a few problems with trying to paint Jupiter Ascending into a transphobic corner. As close as it comes to paralleling one transphobic trope, there are numerous others that it avoids. Balem never engages in deception to obtain what he wants, but instead shows himself resorting to force to get it. Instead, there is only one Abrasax sibling who resorts to deception, and he was shown engaging in sex play with several female looking alien type characters. Furthermore, Balem doesn't want to steal anyone's body to assist with a gender transition type process (as was done by the main villain in The X-Files: I Want to Believe but merely to extend his life. Even if the specific person he is trying to steal the planet from is a woman, the bodies that the fountain-of-youth substance is made from are going to inevitably have to come from males, females, and anyone otherwise outside the gender binary. Thus, due to this generality, one could argue that the trope of "trans women stealing from women" is technically avoided.

When I first saw the previews for Jupiter Ascending part of me was interested in seeing a female lead in an action heavy film being made by a direction team of whom one half is a woman. As it is, whenever a woman is made the lead of an action film, it inevitably ends up being a member of (as Mr. Cranky put it in his review of Underworld: Evolution) "'hot chicks in skimpy or skin-tight outfits beating the crap out of things' genre."

However, while Mila Kunis plays the role with spunk and determination and the character does get to display both a degree of autonomy and show off her intellect (she manages to memorize most of the universes legal code in what could not have been more than a few hours time). There is even a bit during the climax where she is shown risking life and limb to remove members of her family from a dangerous situation. However, for all the ways Jupiter Jones parallels "The Hero's Quest" (that is, the story hero who comes from a humble background to be revealed to have an important role in grand events) she still tends to wind up a mere damsel in distress to be rescued by Caine.

As it is, he potential for Jupiter Jones to be a female hero is wasted, like so many of the other potentially intriguing elements of this story.

Not quite worth ascending to Jupiter in order to see, but might be worth taking a reasonably priced commercial space flight (if those were to ever be developed at some point in the near future).

The Rating
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

February 3, 2015

Queer Issue: The Box Trolls, Same Sex Parents, and the Never Ending Parade of Gender Transgressive Villains.

In the grand scheme of things, there are plenty of little details that can escape my attention. I didn't know until last night, for example, that the original teaser trailer for The Boxtrolls featured same sex parenting.

The trailer opens with an anonymous narrator intoning, "Sometimes there's a mother, sometimes a mother and a father, sometimes there's a father and a father, sometimes both fathers are mothers."

It appears then that the makers of ParaNorman (the first children's movie to feature an openly gay character) are still willing to continue pushing against homophobic boundaries.

This is a good thing.

Here is the trailer for those who are curious:

My partner and I watched The Boxtrolls the other night and while it at times evokes some of the better elements of ParaNorman, there were some other elements I want to comment on. I don't plan on writing a review, as I was watching it while playing on my laptop and thus was not fully paying attention to the film

The basic story revolves around Eggs, a human boy being raised by Boxtrolls, a sentient group of trolls who are vilified and hunted by the citizens of Cheesebridge. Thus it would appear that the references to same sex parenting in the teaser trailer are rather apt.

This too is good.

However, in a plot twist, it turns out that the head Snatcher (the group tasked with hunting down the Boxtrolls) is also a cross-dressing cabaret singer, who uses his secondary identity to help vilify the Boxtrolls via over the top theatrical performances.

This is not a good thing.

On one hand we are fortunately spared any over the top transphobic Ace Ventura-esque reactions. Eggs doesn't react much of all to the revelation, nor does any one else. And in what I think is a first, this is a first cross-dresser baddie who is shown stealing anything from any female characters. The closest he comes is trying to steal a truly feminine white hat from the mayor.

As it is, the White Hats (which represent the upper crust of Cheesebridge and are presented in the most fay terms possible) are what provide motivation to the Snatchers. As it is, the Snatchers work assiduously to join the ranks of the White Hats, and thus the Snatchers are the ones who spend the most time fanning the flames of hatred against the Boxtrolls.

There are definitely a few interesting subtexts regarding class roles going on here.

On the other hand, I am not sure what the point of the whole The-Head-Snatcher-Sometimes-Dresses-Up-Like-A-Woman sub-plot was. It does, however, do a pretty good job of reinforcing the idea that trans people are deceptive. In fact, deceptiveness is pretty much the character's defining character trait. When Eggs first shows up on the surface of Cheesebridge, and sees the Snatchers putting on his anti-Boxtroll propaganda piece, his immediate reaction to the drag performance is to label it as fraudulent.

In fact, Eggs attempting to reveal the head snatcher as a "fraud" pretty much sums up the rest of the movie. The final scene of the movie has Eggs exhorting the head Snatcher to "stay true to his own nature" and that it doesn't matter what the Snatcher wears or eats.

This is *not* a good subtext.

In fact, it's a pretty shitty subtext, precisely given the constant stream of transphobic rhetoric that transgender people should "stay true to their nature" and not try to live as the gender they identify as and instead live as the gender they were assigned by society.

Honestly, I don't know what more to say about all of this. ParaNorman was groundbreaking, and the same can be said about the trailer for The Boxtrolls. Too bad the actual movie The Boxtrolls delivers such a problematic message.

January 26, 2015

Queer Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writers: Graham Moore. Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon

Thankfully The Imitation Game does not fall prey to the tendency of filmmakers to de-emphasize a heroic LGBTQ historical figures sexual identity. What we do get is a powerful, well made film about one of the more ironic chapters of human history. Alan Turing's work was influential in the fields of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Cryptology and he is considered the Father of Computer Science. His work on codebreaking is credited by historians has potentially having shortened the World War II, thereby saving countless lives. However, his ultimate fate might not have been very different had the Axis powers won that great conflict.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the most talented mathematicians of his time, applies to Bletchley Park (the British center tasked with decoding German communications during World War II. He is accepted and immediately makes enemies with his immediate supervisor and coworkers due to his abrasive personality and his idea that a new kind of machine is necessary to break the German encoding device known as Enigma. As Turing puts it, it will "take a machine to break a machine". Further complications occur when Turing attempts to hire a talented female mathematician, Joan Clark (Kiera Knightly), to help with the decoding efforts, only to have her face severe sexism that hinders the contributions she can make. Eventually, Turing is successful in building the first decoding Machine (which he dubs Christopher after a childhood love) and ultimately aiding the Allies in their eventual victory over Germany.

This does not prevent Turings' inevitable fate when he confesses to having sexual relations with another man and is forced to participate in hormone therapy or go to jail.

The Queering
When I was growing up, my mom refused to allow us a TV and thus the two of us would frequently listen to audiobooks as a form of communal entertainment instead. While I have not (as of this writing) seen the 2001 film Enigma (an alternative version of the Bletchley Park story where Alan Turing was written out and replaced with an entirely heterosexual character), I do clearly recall listening to the audio book with my mother. I do remember that the tale that was told was one of a sweeping romance where the hero and his lover must face impossible odds while working against impossible odds to break the German codes.

Such is the history that a homophobic society would have us believe, one in which queer people simply do not exist but as victims or villians. This is how our history is stolen from us, not merely by presenting only the stories of us as monsters or victims, but by presenting the lives of our heroes as if they themselves were straight.

There is a vocal group of critics who will leap upon any historical inaccuracy in a film which deviates from history in even the smallest of details. Similarly, justification for homophobic language is simply given as "well, that's just the way people talk". However, when films present a LGBTQ character as heterosexual and/or cisgender, then the result is typically nothing more than a deafening silence.

In The Imitation Game there are a few deviations from history, mostly around simplifying the work being done at Bletchley Park and with how the decoding of the Enigma machine was actually used by the Allies. But these generally do not detract from the narrative, other than in one particularly contrived case where one of the codebreakers, after the decoding is first accomplished, reveals that one of his relatives is on part of a group about to be attacked, and the team must make the contrived decision to allow German attack to be carried out, rather than risk revealing to the Germans that Enigma has been broken. It's a small misstep, but it happens at a time when the film should be soaring.

Other deviations include making Turing to be more anti-social than he probably was. While the real Turing was indeed eccentric, he is written as if Graham Moore believes Turing to be a high-functioning autistic (allow me to insert the obligatory "not that there is anything wrong with that" disclaimer here) and his caustic relationship with his co-workers. The only problem with this is that it causes Turing to come across at times as a pan-romantic asexual. The only thing that prevents such an interpretation, is Turing repeatedly identifying as "homosexual" and his eventual prosecution for sexual deviance. As it is, Turing is never shown engaging in a same sex relationship or any kind of romance as an adult.

In any case, what is demonstrated very well by the film is the way in which Turing's work as codebreaker, philosopher, and mathematician was influenced by his sexuality. The most obvious as presented in the film, was the how the death of Christopher Morcom, drove Turing to consider how machines themselves might be able to think and to store consciousness. Turing believed that it might be possible someday for them to store human consciousness. He also developed what is known as the Turing Test (also known as the imitation test or game), which is an artificial test to determine if a machine is "thinking". Another thing that is done well by the film is the presentation of Turing's philosophical work into the question of Artificial Intelligence. The framing sequence, where Turing is being interrogated by a detective, has the two debating the question at length.

What is equally interesting, is the double meaning that can be read into the title. Does the imitation game refer to the Turing Test or to the imitation that LGBTQ people are constantly forced into, when we must imitate the lives of cisgender, heterosexuals? Either could apply to the life of Turing, who became engaged to Joan Clarke while they were working together at Bletchley Park. Fortunately, the filmmakers go out of their way to make it clear, that while Clarke and Turing were very close friends, their relationship was not in anyway romantic but based upon both of them facing different, but parallel forms of discrimination. While I don't wish to take anything away from Turing, it is worth noting that despite modern stereotypes, computer programming was once primarily seen as being a woman's work, due to it's secretarial nature and the fact that it could be done at home.

However, the greatest irony of Turings' life is not one that is often addressed. The NAZI's themselves were of course notoriously homophobic and imprisoned many gay men in concentration camps, where numerous expirements were performed on them in order to determine a cure for homosexuality. Such experiments included castration. As it were, Alan Turings' eventual prosecution at the hands of the British might have been only slightly better than his fate would have been at the hands of the NAZI's. Thus, while Turing's work was instrumental to an Allied Victory during World War II, he was not able to fully enjoy the results of his work.

Further irony comes in the fact that Turings' case was not unique, in the years leading up to 9/11 and aftewards during the US led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, numerous translators specializing in Arabic and Farsi were let go from the US Military for violating DADT. Some have speculated that had they had not been fired, the US would have had a chance to prevent 9/11.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an impressive performance as Alan Turring, and able support is provided by his costars Kiera Knightley and Mathew Goode. The scene where Turing committed suicide was filmed, but not included in the theatrical version. Turings' final fate thus is revealed by title cards. This is the correct choice in my opinion. While it is important to note the consequences that Turing faced for being gay, too many of stories told about us go out of their way to needlessly demonstrate how miserable being queer can be. As it is, the film ends on a bittersweet note, with scenes of Turing and his coworkers celebrating the end of World War II. This perhaps is the best thing that we should remember Turing, how his accomplishments changed our world for the better. How he died is important, but only because those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, as historian George Santayana (who was either gay or bi) would have put it.

Highly recommended. This is no imitation of a great movie, it has the heart of the real thing.

The Rating
Four Stars out of Four.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

December 2, 2014

The 90's called. They want their film franchises back.

Alright, with the release of the trailers for Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens I am getting a very 90's vibe right now. Dunno why exactly, but for whatever reason, the new Star Wars trailer strongly reminds me of the days of trying to download The Phantom Menace Quicktime trailer on a 56k phone line. Now those were the days.

The new Star Wars trailer has of course already garnered a ton of analysis and speculation, but I figure that's no reason I can't do my own.

Opening: Ominious voiceover prattling on about feeling the force getting awakened from its' beauty sleep.

A man jumps up looking scared and wearing a stormtrooper outfit with no helmet.

Let's get the obvious question out of the way: Isn't this guy a little short to be a stormtrooper?

Next shot: Cute robot.

Next Shot - A bunch of stormtroopers lined up in a flying contraption thingie. One of them really is shorter than the others.

Insert J.J. Abrams signature wobbly cam here.

A young women starts her pod racer and flies away.


A guy, who apparently got lost on his way to audition as an extra for AFI's DecemberUnderground music video, is wandering around and... WHOAH COOL LIGHTSABER!


Final Note: Not unexpectedly, the new lightsaber design has caused a bit of speculation. Some say it looks silly (which does become question begging, did such people realize this was a Star Wars movie they were talking about?) and others have speculated that the extra appendages serve a function, maybe. Personally, I think that they look like vents for excess energy, given that what comes out looks less like mini lightsaber blades and more like actual flames.

As for Jurrasic World, I kind of lost interest in the film series after The Lost World so I can't exactly say I'm enthusiastic about this. Also is it just me, or does it look like Chris Pratt is playing Sam Worthington here?

November 19, 2014

Philosophical Issue: The Economics of Sin

My last semester at Wilkes University, I took Economics of Crime, which ended up being a personal favorite of mine out of the classes were required for the criminology degree (which by the way I am still working towards). Given that for the senior thesis I wrote while getting my degree in Philosophy, I argued that the ability of mathematics to describe all possible worlds makes it an ideal language, it seems only natural that I would turn towards theories that allow criminal behavior to be modeled in mathematical terms.

Another requirement for the criminology degree at Wilkes University was the completion of a capstone project. Long story short, the work I did on my (currently unfinished) capstone project involved analyzing rhetoric around violent crime and thus involved looking at rhetoric put out by anti-drug organizations. While my purpose was to analyze how anti-drug orgs presented topics around violent crime, there was another issue that stuck out to me the more time I spent analyzing anti-drug rhetoric. Namely, that our society (in general) appears to treat the use of illicit drugs such as a sin in of itself.

The reason though that I'm pointing this out is because sin, in religious terms, is something people are generally willing to pay any price to eliminate completely. If one is religious and believes in eternal damnation for not doing enough to eliminate sin from this earth, this perhaps is not an entirely irrational goal. However, this means that that religion promotes what is called in economic terms a perfectly inelastic demand schedule for the elimination of sin. In everyday terms, a perfectly (or nearly) inelastic demand schedule means that one is willing to pay any price for a good or service. In this case, the good or service desired is a zero sin world. And in order to achieve a zero sin world, all sins, including the "sin" of drug use.

But ultimately, it appears that in our modern society that the concept of sin plays out with regards to a variety of public policy issues. Examples that in my experience where the intertwining of sin and public policy occur the most include, the war on drugs, sex work, and queer identity. In each of these people who oppose sex work, drugs, and the LGBTQ related activities, work assiduously to completely eradicate any occurrences of each "sin".

This is in contrast to the thinking I was exposed to in my economics class, which focused on the concept of externalities (costs or benefits not borne by the buyers and sellers of goods) when it comes to public policy decisions regarding what we call "victimless crimes". Victimless crimes, in an economic sense is a label that can be applied to crimes that have willing buyers and sellers of a product or service, but are made illegal for other reasons. Examples of a positive externality would be the pleasure people derive from a flower garden planted by a neighbor. They did not labor in the planting, nor purchase the seeds and supplies, but nonetheless are still able to benefit from it. A classic example of a negative externality would be pollution.

In a rational sense, legislating against "victimless crimes" could be justified if the costs of preventing said activity are less than the negative external costs eliminated through criminalization.

With regards to drug use, negative externalities range from the costs created by the violent and destructive behavior drug use may cause, car accidents from those driving under the influence. If the drug user in question ends up using public assistance in order to receive healthcare treatment for issues related to their drug use, than negative health affects related to drug are also an example of a negative externality. However, when the drug user pays for the complete cost of their own health care, then negative health effects related to their drug use are not negative externalities. However, in a society with universal healthcare or where a large degree of public assistance is available to people, then any medical costs that are borne by society are negative externalities of drug use.

Sex work comes with the risk of transmission of STDs between the client and the sex worker. If these STDs are then passed onto sexual partners not engaging in sex work or the client and sex worker receive public assistance to get healthcare for treating these STDs, than those costs become negative externalities. In cases where STDs are not transmitted past the client and sex worker and neither of them receive outside assistance for treating such STDs, then the costs related to the transmission of STDs between client and sex worker are not negative externalities.

Same sex sexual acts and gender non-conforming behavior in of themselves do not generally come with any obvious negative externalities. Furthermore, it is hard to consider any negative externalities that come from queer relationships that would not also exist within straight relationships. As for gender non-conforming behavior, the only clear cut negative externality would be if the individual in question receives public assistance or charity to receive gender affirmation surgery or hormone treatments.

There is however one negative externality associated with all of these activities that is not clear cut, but is worth pointing out. Namely, that of the negative psychological consequences created in people by exposure to the above the sins. That is the psychological revulsion that people experience when confronted by any of these sins in real life. That is the revulsion a person experiences when seeing a sex worker in the street, seeing people selling drugs in public, or a same sex couple holding hands, etc. would then be a negative externality of any of those activities.

On the other hand, it's also worth considering that in the case of homophobia and transphobia, two forms of bigotry which are clearly exacerbated by certain religious teachings, can in turn be considered negative external costs of any religious activity that promotes transphobia or homophobia.

Of course, all of this is important due to the fact that the shaping of public policy should be based on minimizing negative externalities and maximizing positive ones. One way to account for negative externalities is to levy taxes on products that have them. The idea behind the tax being to make the buyer and seller of a product or service pay the full costs generated by the product or service in question.

However, in contrast, the view that all of the above activities are "sins" and thus must be eradicated according to the religious perspective. That is, the religious view does not wish to minimize or eliminate the costs of any of these activities but create a mindset where we are willing to create another set of costs in order to eliminate such acts. That is, rather than manage negative externalities, our society adds further costs to those already present by devoting resources to arrest drug dealers, sex workers, and (in times and places where such things were illegal) same sex activity, cross dressing, and other gender bending behavior.

It's worth also considering the demand schedules for any of these activities mentioned. Namely that all of the "sins" in question have inelastic, or nearly inelastic demand schedule themselves.

For example, due to the powerful nature of drug addiction, addicts are typically willing to accept all manor of costs in order to continue using, such as the negative health effects of drug use, arrest, and even death itself. While asexuality is a real thing, it appears that for most of us, our sex drive is second only to our hunger drive (and I've come across individuals where the exact opposite could be true) and thus the worlds oldest profession appears posed to keep that title for a long, long time. Furthermore, the psychological costs of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who live in the closet are significant and well known. People who are transgender, transsexual, or gender non-conforming also report significant psychological costs when it comes to living as the gender that was assigned to them by society.

What I am getting at, is that the consequence of viewing any of these activities as "sins" is that we wind up in a situation where one side is willing to pay any price to eradicate them, and where the other is willing to pay nearly any price in order to continue doing them.

While religious folks arguably have every right to spend their own time and money in order to prevent what they view as sinful activities (so long as they do not directly tread on the rights of other people), when it comes to public policy, how we distribute public resources should be in everyone's best interest. Thus it becomes problematic when we create public policies where our primary goal is "eliminate all sin". When we do, we set ourselves up for situations where an unstoppable force is only going to meet up with an immovable object.

November 9, 2014

Queer Review: Elephant (2003)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Matt Malloy, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Ellis Williams

Tackling a controversial subject matter is never an easy task for a filmmaker, but Gus van Sant manages to create a exploitative motion picture about the Columbine murders that provides a clinical analysis of how such an event could come to pass.

Through long takes, the story of several high-schoolers is told as they go about an ordinary day. One has to take the wheel from his drunk father as he is being driven to school. Another takes pictures of a couple in a park. One young women refuses to change for gym class and is reprimanded for it. Meanwhile two friends draw up plans to murder as many of their classmates as possible before engaging in mass carnage.

The Queering
As someone who has spent many hours pouring over data regarding violent crime as part of an academic research project, it's difficult for me to separate my own work and views on the subject with the story told by Gus Van Sant. So forgive me if I end up talking too much about my own research here a bit.

Our cultural rhetoric on violence consistently posits violent acts as an externalized phenomenon. That is, as something that comes to us from outside our families and our communities. This in spite of the reality that most violence occurs either between family members, intimate parters, or between people who are otherwise known to each other. Our focus on sensational events such as school shootings is one method by which we externalize violence as something that comes from the outside, particularly in the way that it allows us to blame everything from violent video games to absentee parents. Furthermore, such events can be depicted as dramatic inter-group conflicts, such as jocks vs. nerds or the outcasts vs. the preppies. What such framing ignores is that most violence really should be thought of as a phenomenon that occurs within groups, and not solely as the result of conflict between groups.

While Gus Van Sant arguably comes close to perpetrating externalization by making school shootings the subject of a movie, he manages to avoid it many ways within the film. The most common explanations are indeed thrown out there. The shooters are shown playing a violent video game that involves shooting people in a desert like setting, watching Nazi propaganda, being bullied, etc. But none of these explanations feels adequate or complete when we watch shots of the teenagers walk nonchalantly down school hallways shooting their classmates as they go, almost as if Gus Van Sant is mocking the superficiality of anyone who would propose any of the aforementioned hypothesises.

There is one extremely problematic element I have to comment on, namely a shower scene where the two shooters shower together and even share a kiss. While one could argue that this is merely another explanation that Gus Van Sant is trying to mock, it doesn't really help that it means that we have yet another film on our hands where queer identity is overwritten onto historical individuals who committed horrible misdeeds.

Once again I have to say it: The best way to come out in history is to have committed terrible crimes against humanity; the best way to remain closeted was to have been good.

Ultimately though, Elephant is atypical in terms of it's structure. The plot is both elliptical and recursive, with long camera shots following characters as the walk through hallways, only to show us a scene we saw before but now from a different angle. Most of this is Cinéma vérité or slice of life type material. It is not until the end that those members of the audience who might have been unaware of the subject matter, will find that this story is spiraling towards tragedy.

The title of Elephant has two possible interpretations, one is of a parable about a group of blind folks trying to understand an elephant by touching different body parts and limiting their analysis to only those parts that they can feel. Each individual comes to a different conclusion based on which part of the elephant they are touching and none realize that they are touching a large animal. The other interpretation has the title referring to "the elephant in the room" or the obvious subject that no one wants to talk about. Both perspectives can provide viewers with insight into what Van Sant is trying to say.

Many other reviewers have claimed that Gus Van Sant offers no explanations for why incidents like Columbine happen. As someone who has spent a lot of time studying violent crime statistics (much of it involving what can be considered original research) I do not think that violent crime, even incidents as disturbing and shocking as Columbine are incomprehensible. As a film reviewer I do not think that Gus Van Sant himself intended for his film to be given such a nihilistic interpretation. Instead he offers up what should be obvious, that to commit such a horrifically violent act requires a person to experience extraordinary alienation.

Many might assume that people commit horrible crimes against humanity fail to see other people as fully human. That may be so, but many of the cases of violent crimes I found myself studying involved the perpetrators themselves being highly self destructive. The Columbine shooters after all were not arrested or shot by police but instead died at their own hand. Since this is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again, the better question I think is this; do the most violent people amongst us see themselves as human? Maybe this is just me reading my own ideas onto the film, but given how Van Sant approaches his subjects, I cannot help but think that this may have been the connection he wanted viewers to make.

For those interested in a film on such a sensitive subject matter, this is one Elephant in the room that is worth discussing in order to understand entirely.

The Rating
3 stars out of 4


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