The Rise of Politecore

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An odd thing happened for seven minutes in downtown Portland on Monday. This in and of itself is a remarkable thing to say, seeing as though a few weeks back in the exact same spot I witnessed a man in a Spider-Man costume playing the bagpipes and riding a unicycle. But this occurrence right here steps away from the world-famous Powell’s bookstore was something that doesn’t happen everyday, unlike the musically inclined Spidey. Because even in a terminally friendly town like Portland, there was something bigger and more profound at work and not just the eclipse, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1979.

No, what I witnessed was people, strangers for the most part, genuinely being happy with one another and dare I say it, in the era of world leaders dissing one another on the Internet, polite. Whether they were moving out of the way so a stranger could get a better glance or sharing their glasses with each other, something about the sun getting blocked out for seven minutes brought the best out in people. Very quickly you got the feeling that it wasn’t just the eclipse that was special but the behavior associated with it too. As it ended, we all went back to our respective shops, workplaces and cafes. The eclipse was gone and you could assume these moments of politeness, humanity and decency were gone along with it. But I’d argue that politeness is making a comeback and you need look no further than your television for solid evidence.

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Of the hundreds of things to love about The Great British Baking Show (or Great British Bake-Off as it’s known in the U.K.) are the moments when contestants help each other. As a reality tv aficionado (or junkie depending on how you want to spin it) I can tell you this is a weird and unnatural thing in the genre. Sure, we’ll have random drag queens loan one another costumes on RuPaul’s Drag Race but for the most part, the “I came here to win! I didn’t come here to make friends!” is the battle cry of American reality tv. Thus it’s the utter lack of backstabbing and cut throat competitiveness that makes Baking Show so charming. During the last season to air on PBS this summer, I once again found myself near tears as contestants assisted one another in finishing their frosted masterpieces. The contestants genuine goodwill and enjoyment of each other makes the show feel darn near aspirational. They help their fellow contestants not because there’s an endgame or an additional bonus for not being a selfish jackass. They do it because it’s the right, normal decent human being thing to do. Sounds like a revolutionary concept when I put it like that. And perhaps it is.

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For more proof that maybe  we just don’t act right, look no further that Netflix’s Terrace House. The reality tv hit from Japan became a global sensation recently when Netflix wisely added it to its roster of international delights. Seriously, if you’re not watching at least one crazy-ass foreign tv series on Netflix than you’re doing it wrong. They have a lot of great ones and Terrace House is my recent guilty pleasure. The show puts 6 singles (three boys, three girls) in a flawlessly designed house and let’s the drama (or in this case non-drama) unfold. If this all sounds eerily like MTV’s old standby The Real World than you wouldn’t be wrong. Except in Terrace House there are no manipulated situations, challenges or group jobs. It’s just six incredibly reserved Japanese people living under the same roof. With the exception of adding a room of offsite commentators who offer their own insights on the action in the house, that is literally it. Much has been written about why a show that isn’t just politecore but borderline borecore is so compelling even with its lack of fabricated plots. From the heartfelt discussions of emotions to the intimate glimpse into Japanese dating culture, the show has several layers that makes it a fascinating watch. But for me, watching twentysomethings that weren’t the rude, selfish, loud ingrates that I was in my twenties is utterly captivating. Even when Terrace House has “drama”, usually revolving around food or temporary thoughtlessness, the housemates resolve it in a sincere and tear filled way that would never go down on these drinking throwing, wig pulling shores. Sure, the sometimes snarky commentators offer good-natured jabs at the housemates. But even they spend a fair amount of time celebrating the personalities and emotional triumphs of each resident. Turns out, rooting for people who are considerate is just as easy as rooting for mental unhinged housewives.

While suggesting that we all be the Terrace House we want to see in the world is too ham-fisted and unrealistic for even me, I do think there’s something to be said for politeness. I recently had a job interview where the potential employed asked my philosophy on taking care of customers. I said basically, I try to treat people how I want to be treated. He laughed and said, “That’s so simple but sounds amazing in times like ours.” I agreed but it wasn’t just one of those things I said in order to get a job (which I did get, by the way). It’s a way of life I try to achieve. Try being the operative word. Catch me on a day with no sleep and in between meals while waiting in a long line and you’ll see that sometimes this ideal of politeness is hard to achieve. But for me the idea is to at least give it a shot. Like it won’t kill me to at least attempt not being awful.

This includes online too. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had to do a lot of deep breathing and deleting on social media when replying to discussing about racism, homophobia and all the other nifty thing currently happening in this country. The endless scroll is now home to people yelling at each other, rambling off manifestos and most annoying telling others how they should process. I have come to the conclusion that it’s a trap to even have these conversations online. My rule of thumb now is I can either respond in a way that’s online with how I act in person or not at all. This, as it turns out, is a tall order as it is really easy to act like know it all or bully online with zero repercussions. Instead, I’ve chosen to make good-natured smartass comments, have my beliefs, stay of service in my real life and leave the debating over the head of strangers to those better equipped than myself.

Yet if we listen to the internet just being polite isn’t enough. Just being thoughtful of one another doesn’t qualify you to put resistance in your Twitter bio. Just having compassion won’t help us “rise up” as directed by the song the play on everything from the Olympics to soap commercials. And that’s fine. Part of politecore, the hardest part in my mind, is sticking to a value that kindness means something and that being courteous and loving to strangers is where real change is happening, without hashtags or celebrity endorsements. But the most amazing thing about politecore, about compassion and about love is that we don’t have to wait for another eclipse or to watch it broadcast from a foreign land. We can do it right now.

 

 

 

‘Strike a Pose’ Strikes a Chord

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“Look, around. Everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.” Madonna,Vogue, 1990

It wasn’t the scene of Madonna simulating oral sex on a bottle. Nor was it the many scenes of her openly discussing her love life. It wasn’t even the scene where she turned “Like a Virgin” into a masturbating with a crucifix blasphemy filled ballad that people were talking about when they talked about 1991’s Truth or Dare. It was the scene where two of her male dancers kissed each other while playing the game in the title of the film. The sight of two men making out on the big screen was so nonexistent in 1991 that jaws dropped around the world when the film was released. Now over 25 years later, the story behind that kiss as well as the all the dirt on the tour, the film and the diva herself can be seen in the new documentary Strike a Pose, now on Netflix.

As a Madonna fan, I’ve been dying to see Strike a Pose since I read about it last year. The main reason being that Truth or Dare was seminal in my life as a gay teen trying to find the courage to come out. What that seemingly simple scene did for me and others like me was show that who we were was okay. Madonna and her dancers were presenting a life where you could be yourself and not give a fuck about what people thought. Sure sounded good to me, the terminally effeminate and unique soul that I was. Yet according to the film, that scene and the glamorous carefree life that came with it also came at a price.

Strike a Pose profiles the lives of six of Madonna’s dancers from the Blonde Ambition tour who were also featured in the “Vogue” music video. Luis, Jose, Salim, Carlton, Kevin and Oliver became instant stars during the tour and their fame exploded when moviegoers met them a year later in Truth or Dare. The movie takes an unflinching look at the past and pulls no punches especially when talking about the AIDS crisis. Two of the dancers, Carlton and Luis, tell heart-wrenching stories about how they were terrified to tell Madonna and other members of the company that they were HIV positive. Carlton found out in Japan while Blonde Ambition was getting ready to take over the world and Salim was diagnosed in 1987 but kept it hidden. Their stories are incredibly sad and ironic given that Madonna was vocal advocate for HIV and AIDS, having just lost her friend artist Keith Haring to the disease. These dancers were very young and I can’t imagine how terrifying that world was back then. Thus the story of Strike a Pose, after it gets done dishing the showbiz details, quickly becomes to a story I can really relate to: a story of survival.

How do you deal with the fall outs of instant fame? If we are to believe Strike a Pose, the answer is, not very well. These kids thrust into the spotlight were given all the drugs, booze and VIP access that they could handle and they rightfully took advantage of it. Naturally, things got ugly pretty quickly. Jose and Luis, who became minor club sensations with a record of their own, both got hooked on heroin and parted ways with Madonna after their addictions got out of control. For Carlton and Salim, the battle to stay well in a society where everyone with your condition is dying is a very real one, not helped by collective shaming and ignorance. In one of the films, more devastating segments, we’re introduced to Gabriel, the dancer featured, along with Salim, in that famous kiss. Gabriel died from complications of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 26. According to his mother, Gabriel wanted Madonna to cut the kiss from the film and after she told him to “Get over it”, he  went on to sue her for forcing him to come out. It’s an unsavory moment but not the only one. Kevin and Oliver also sued Madonna for compensation from the film. Yet the movie goes surprisingly lite on the Madonna bashing which is surprising given that her reputation as a difficult  boss and coworker is legendary.

It’s because of this however that Strike a Pose is effective and moving. By avoiding being a victim, bitchfest, Strike Pose turns into a portrait of growth. It isn’t about Madonna anymore. It’s about the six dancers and what happened since their worlds were turned upside down. Against the odds, these men have somehow stayed well, gotten sober and survived. Salim’s story, for me, is the center of the films’ heart and message of resilience. Still dancing and living in New York, Salim speaks  publicly for the first time about being positive and the result is a raw, tear-jerking emotional moment.

As a fan of Madonna and Truth or Dare, the movie delivers on the serving the desired nostalgia of the time. With clips of the film and access to the songs, the movie gives a fan what they want. But as somebody sober with HIV, the movie goes a lot deeper and soon becomes relatable and courageous. Gay men like myself have always been attracted to women who survive. Cher, Elizabeth Taylor and Tina Turner all had been through the ringer and counted out but somehow came back. It’s a glamour and toughness that we as gay men latch onto and find aspirational. Yet what Strike a Pose does beautifully is finally give gay men the fierce, empowered, truthful comeback story of their own.

Au revoir, Louis. Au revoir, Chappelle

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“There is nothing to apologize for. I made a joke, that’s what I do, “- Joan Rivers

Last year, my act of pop culture rebellion was I wasn’t going to pay to see any more Hollywood remakes or reboots of old films. This was brought on by that Ghostbusters. And no, it’s not because it was an all-female cast. What kind of misogynistic a-hole do you think I am? It was because it looked like a poorly written mess. Like I get it they bust ghosts. What else about that universe do we need to know about? Plus as a storyteller and film lover, supporting rehashes over fresh new stories felt hypocritical. I’m pleased to report, my little rebellion went very well. Nary a remake in my 2016 movie repertoire to be found. After just watching the Netflix comedy specials of Dave Chappelle and Louis CK, my 2017 pop culture rebellious act became crystal clear: I’m done with straight, male comedians.

There’s a two-minute joke at the beginning of The Age of Spin, one of two new comedy specials by Dave Chappelle on Netflix, where he looks like he’s going to go there. By “there” I mean the giant pink elephant in room of his widely chronicled bizarre behavior. He starts this hour-long special by addressing a TMZ story wherein he was booed off stage for being drunk. He wisely corrects the story with a great punchline: he wasn’t drunk. He was high. And he wasn’t booed offstage. Sure, people booed but he stayed on stage. It’s a great joke and hints at a self-aware special that promised to address all of the stories and do it in a way only great comedians can, by making fun of himself. Sadly, that hint is all we get. We instead get rape jokes, gay jokes and trans jokes.

Which would be fine. Let me be clear. Comedy doesn’t offend me. It never has. I grew up in the 1980’s where HBO and Comedy Central were flooded 24 hours a day with comedians many of them telling jokes that made your jaw drop. I like hearing comedy that tells the truth and sometimes the truth has to be dirty, raw and unpretty. That quote at the top of the post was made by the queen of offending people Joan Rivers who made a zinger about the women kidnapped in Ohio back in 2014. Rivers’ joke was a funny one but she was also able to roast herself first and foremost. This is the missing ingredient from The Age of Spin. Chappelle mentions he hadn’t performed in Los Angeles, where the special was taped, in over ten years. He also casually talks about a comeback. The subversive, hot topic jokes feel desperate. When he gives us a look into Dave Chappelle, the troubled and beaten down entertainer whose over a decade away from his groundbreaking show, he lights up. He provides belly laughs. He feels relevant again. Yet it’s fleeting. Part of what made him so good back in the day was his ability to tell it like it is. See his amazing SNL opening monologue for proof.

But without the self-reflection, the rape jokes, the gay jokes and the trans jokes fall flat. Instead of an hour of watching a comedy great return to the top of his form, we’re trapped watching a desperate and at times criminally unfunny attempt to claw his way back. Had he been able to take legendary public bellyflops with mental illness into a funny, confessional hour, it’d be something to actually talk about.

Yet Dave Chappelle alone doesn’t shoulder the responsibility of me swearing off straight dudes telling jokes. Louis CK’s dully titled special, Louis CK 2017 isn’t exactly something to write home about either. Also on Netflix, CK’s issue is similar. When reflecting on society as a whole and taking himself out of the equation, it feels like we’re watching an overpaid Vegas headliner doing their greatest hits. But his material absolutely soars when he talks about his family, his personal fears and his children. CK also goes there with trans and gay jokes and why these are even part of the straight man’s cannon is completely baffling. Like aren’t straight men horrible and fucked up enough to draw plenty of jokes from. Keep our names out yo’ mouth! While not as ill-conceived and tasteless as Chappelle’s, they are a cheap laugh and at least CK incorporates himself into them. His Magic Mike joke which finds him obsessing about the movie and questioning his own sexuality. It’s the best joke of the set which leads to a hilarious penis/microphone bit. As a fan of the sitcom CK walked away from, this mildly entertaining special doesn’t feel like a return to form as much as it does a people pleasing exercise meant to elicit hoots and hollers from other straight dudes.

Me being done with funny, straight guys is unlikely to make a difference and I know this. It’s the dominating source of things mainstream funny. One glance at the primetime sitcoms of the moment and we know that straight men still rule the playground. And to be honest, my latest act of rebellion has less to do with their straight-dudeness and more to do with my exhaustion with the genre. Much like the busting of ghosts, I know what to expect. I’ve heard it all before. I get it–women are hard to get along with, being a dad sucks, blah blah blah. Mainly, I don’t identify with their “struggle.” I resisted the urge to throw my computer out the window recently when reading about Tim Allen complaining how hard it is to be a straight white conservative in Hollywood and comparing it to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, for fucksakes. Boo fucking hoo, Tool Time. I don’t care which is fundamentally my issue. At my core, I just don’t give a crap anymore about the narratives of Kevin James, Tim Allen, Seth Meyer, Jimmy Fallon, Dave Chappell or Louis CK. So I’m giving up straight guy comedy for 2017. I will let you know how this experiment goes.

However, John Oliver gets to stay. Primarily, because he only talks about the news, he’s brutally funny, unapologetic and I might be the only gay man who knows who he is.

 

 

BoJack Horseman: 2016’s Spirit Animal

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The urge to wade around in the pool of collective disenchantment of the times is certainly a strong one. “We’re all going to hell and everything sucks” is the underlying tone of nearly every social media post, newspaper article and talk radio monologue. The validity and truthfulness of this sentiment could be debated until our heads explode but one thing is clear it takes real humor, honesty and creativity to tackle the malaise of our times head on. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman does just that. Season three of “the animals living as humans acting like humans” in Hollywood sitcom premiered last week and cemented the show as one of the best on television.

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The show, if you’re unfamiliar, centers around a washed up 90’s sitcom star, BoJack Horseman(voiced with the ninja-like jerkiness by Will Arnett we’ve come to expect from the actor who should really win an award simply for playing an asshole better than anyone else on the planet), who is literally a horse and a man. BoJack for the first two seasons teeter tottered back and forth between comeback kid and full-blown train wreck. In season three, he gets to be both. Like many of us real humans, BoJack has a hard time with reality. He’d rather drink than be a good friend. He’d rather have one night stands than real relationships. He’d rather flee uncomfortable situations than face them head on. Needless to say, for this alcoholic in recovery who is not a horse but certainly a human in progress, I can identify. And that is the magic of this little sitcom. Even though it’s a Hollywood populated with animals, we see ourselves in these characters. we’ve all been a couch crasher like Todd or an optimist on the verge of delusion like Mister Peanutbutter or a workaholic who feels empty inside like Princess Caroline.  Season three ups the emotional ante not just for BoJack, who is busy working the awards seasons for his film Secretariat, but everyone around him. The people( and animal people) who populate BoJack’s universe are all disenchanted yet hopeful on some level and they’re all really, really funny.This all because of great writing and some terrific casting. From series regulars like Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris and Alison Brie to brilliant guest stars like Angela Bassett, Maria Bamford, JK Simmons and Candice Bergen each performance in this funny/sad universe is pitch perfect.  screen-shot-2015-02-27-at-2-20-15-am.png

Yet what really makes season three a knockout is the boldness. The show has found its footing and knows who it is. Therefore it can say and do whatever it wants. And it’s a glorious thing. For example, an honest and jaw-dropping episode about Diane, BoJack’s cynical yet loveable writer friend, getting an abortion is the television conversation we’ve always wanted on this topic but somehow could never figure out. The aforementioned Bergen stars in the sublimely ridiculous yet profound episode “Stop The Presses” wherein BoJack tries to cancel his newspaper subscription but winds up getting a free therapy session. Oh and how can we not mention what the internet is calling the “underwater episode.” Episode 4, “Fish Out of Water” is so darn creative and good that every site from Vulture to AV Club and beyond has already sung its praises. Done with nearly no dialogue while invoking Lost in Translation and Charlie Chaplin films, the episode deserves every inch of blog real estate that it currently occupies. 21-bojack-04.w750.h560.2x.jpg

BoJack Horseman might be a brightly colored animated world where the line between humans and animals gets gleefully blurred (the show has a really good time playing with animal sensibilities in human environments like a car filled with sardines in business suits) but the emotional terrain is meaty enough to keep you captivated. Great sitcoms (like the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Seinfeld or Golden Girls) have always had an ensemble facing the challenges of their personalities while trying to make the most of whatever life throws at them. BoJack Horseman does that for sure but it also is a truthful mirror of our times. The universal feelings of “less than” and “fuck it” are widespread right now and it helps BoJack resonate even louder. Will its addicted, dysfunctional characters stand on their own in a less cynical, post-Trumpism era? It’s hard to say. But for the time being, there isn’t a better group of people, or animal-people to hang out and commiserate with.

My Week In Pop Culture: Simply Red

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My week in pop culture probably looked a lot like yours. It was spent gobbling down episodes of season 4 of Orange is The New Black. Truth? I resisted this show in its early days. I was repelled by the very idea ( I mean another prison show?) and interviews with the author of the source material had me rolling my eyes into the back of my head. But two summers ago, I gave it a shot and I’ve been hooked since. The writers do some pretty magical stuff when it comes to having us not only relate to but fall in love with criminals who are far from model citizens. Season three was criticized for not having enough action and for being too literary and melancholy. Which is exactly what my Irish bookish ass loved about it. I thought the season finale was pure poetry.

Season four picks right up where it left off and the ride is nonstop from episode one. More intense, higher stakes and the no-holds-barred discussions on everything from rape to race to homosexuality to transphobia are fast-flying and brutally honest. But what the show is really about is people and relationships. As we started the season last week, Michael said, “Aww. I’ve missed all of these people!” Flaca, Sophia, Gloria, Lorna, Taystee aren’t just prisoners. They’re people, which might be the bigger point the show is trying to make. And people we’ve gotten to know and enjoy doing time with over the past four seasons.  For me, the one I find myself missing in the long year in between seasons is Red. Galina Reznikov, or Red, played with tough as nails Russian intensity by Kate Mulgrew, is the bad ass prison mama we would all want on our side if shit got real. And we’re lead to believe that Red is amazing cook which endures her to my heart even more.

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For all of her toughness and drolly dished out one-liners, Red is also a hotbed of raw emotions. From heartache to betrayal, we’ve seen Red go through a lot over the last four years. Mulgrew gamely takes on the task of letting Red become a three-dimensional character. She rarely lets her guard down but when it comes to addict and perpetual hot mess Nicky Nichols, she a fiercely protective mama bear.

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Nichols, played by Natasha Lyonne, is Red’s “daughter” on the inside. Red has seen Nicky struggle with drugs and is continually heartbroken when Nicky does what addicts do and lets her down. A lot of Nicky’s struggles with drugs are based on Lyonne’s own which I’m sure makes the performance even more powerful. Naturally, I identify with Nicky and Red. Who didn’t I let down when I was loaded? Who hasn’t had their heart-broken by an addict? And aren’t they’re thousands of us who want to help someone struggling with drugs or alcohol but don’t know how? As relapses sweeps through my own recovery community this summer, Red’s helplessness over Nicky’s addiction feels more timely than ever. Without giving anything away, I will say having this dynamic back is one of the few reasons I think this season is one of the best.

Another thing to love about Orange is The New Black is how it’s given a lot of overlooked actresses a real chance to shine. Mulgrew was previously known to most as Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager gets to sink her teeth into a character with a lot of layers. But it’s not just Mulgrew. Laura Prepon and Lori Petty’s characters are thrust head first into a really juicy storyline in season four which gives both actresses a chance to really knock our socks off. Prepon uses some dramatic chops we never saw coming when she was on That 70’s Show while Petty’s portrait of a woman struggling with mental illness is at once hilarious and devastating. The show also gives dozens of amazing Latina and black actresses a platform to do incredible work and become stars in their own right.

I have a handful of episodes left and I’m savoring them. By now, I’ve learned my lesson. I’m no Netflix novice. It’ll be a year until I get to spend time with the women of Litchfield again. Therefore, I’m taking my time. Elsewhere, in pop culture I’m reading my first Stephen King book. Okay. That’s a lie. I read On Writing like 15 years ago but nothing before or since. Yup. No The Shining. No Carrie. No Misery. But I’ve seen the movies? I know. It’s not the same thing. That’s why when I saw the first Dark Tower book and I grabbed it. Not usually my genre but I’m kind of open to whatever that isn’t the news these days so I’m giving it a shot. It’s good page turner stuff and has a bunch of wryly placed thoughts about God, revenge and isolation.I’ll let you know how it turns out.  Of course I watched the Game of Thrones finale and I loved it. Listen, this season is getting some flack about setting too many plots in motion but I feel like it set out to entertain and deliver the goods on long burning storylines and for me it did just that.

But what are you guys watching? What are your thoughts on OITNB? Tell me your GOT gripes! And lastly, give me a good juicy somewhat trashy summer book recommendation!