Friday, July 30, 2010

TV Movie Review: Serving in Silence

The following is a previously unpublished TV movie review I wrote in 1995. It was assigned by the late Mel Tapley, who was the arts and entertainment editor at the New York Amsterdam News. No reason was ever given for why it never ran. The review is still timely because of the continuing controversy about gays in the military.

Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (1995)
Directed by Jeff Bleckner
Written by Alison Cross
Reviewed by Charles Michael Smith

"Controversial" and "television's first lesbian love story" are the words the press has used to describe NBC's two-hour movie, Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, which aired recently.

Such descriptions would have caused viewers to believe they were going to see steamy bedroom scenes and other forms of titillation. Serving in Silence is not a movie about lust and sexual conquest. Instead it is about discrimination ,intolerance, hate, fear, and prejudice in the U.S. military toward its gay and lesbian members. The movie is an attempt to "humanize this issue," says Donald Suggs of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which is organizing a postcard campaign to thank those companies that bought advertising time in the movie's time slot.

Serving in Silence is based on Cammermeyer's autobiography of the same name. The film traces her rise to colonel in a career that spans nearly 30 years. As a combat nurse in Vietnam, she received numerous medals, including a Bronze Star, "a rare achievement for a woman in those days," writes Randy Shilts in his book, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military. Married with four sons, she later divorced her army husband of 15 years. As she (portrayed by Glenn Close) says in the film, she always knew she was a lesbian, she just found it hard to come out to herself.

In 1989, she applied for chief nurse of the entire National Guard. This would raise her to the rank of general and require her to attend the War College. But she must first pass the security clearance interview. When she was asked about her sexual orientation, she admitted to being a lesbian. "I assumed that since I had been a good soldier and had been in the military so long," she says in an interview in the New York Daily News, "I couldn't possibly be seen as a security risk." From that point on, the army began taking steps to have her dismissed. She, on the other hand, was determined to fight them. Lawyers from a gay legal defense organization come to her aid.

Throughout the film we see the anguish and turmoil her public battle causes her family, most of whom nevertheless support her, and especially her artist/teacher lover Diane (Judy Davis), who would rather avoid the limelight and live a quiet domestic life.

Despite the hoopla from GLAAD, Serving in Silence is not all that controversial or groundbreaking . The Kiss much talked about comes during the last ten minutes when it is too late for viewers offended by such behavior between members of the same sex to change channels. Very brave, producers. (Barbra Streisand co-executive produced.)
Serving in Silence, like other gay films (Philadelphia and Making Love, to name two), emphasize the highly educated, upwardly mobile gays and lesbians because their makers are afraid straight audiences will be less willing to see these films otherwise.

I'm still waiting for the day when an ordinary hardscrabble black gay man from Harlem or Bedford -Stuyvesant with a minimum wage job and an unsympathetic family is depicted on television. That would be truly groundbreaking and, perhaps, controversial.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: The Extra Man

The following is my review of Jonathan Ames's novel,The Extra Man, now a major motion picture (opening July 30), starring Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, and Katie Holmes. It originally appeared in the Lambda Book Report, October 1998:

The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames (Scribner's)
Reviewed by Charles Michael Smith

The back jacket copy of The Extra Man, Jonathan Ames's second novel, describes it as a book that's "destined to become an instant classic among lovers of smart comic fiction and adventurous New York stories." Whether or not it becomes a classic, instant or otherwise, is anybody's guess. But there is no doubt that this is a truly hilarious, and often risque, tale about two bachelors, one young and Jewish, the other old and WASP, who are Odd Couple-like roommates.

When Louis Ives--who is obsessed with women's breasts, women's lingerie (especially bras), and cross dressing (as well as cross dressers)--loses his teaching job at an upscale Princeton, New Jersey private school after being discovered trying on a colleague's bra, he makes a life-altering decision--"Move to New York City and live!"

Whereupon he answers an ad for an Upper East Side apartment to share placed by an elderly playwright/college instructor named Henry Harrison, " who despite the poor condition of his clothes and strange apartment, had the air of the upper class and of England." Since Ives aspires to be "a young gentleman," he sees Harrison as "a fellow gentleman" and immediately agrees to move in. Shortly thereafter Ives lands a telemarketing job at Terra, an environmental magazine, where his "assignment was to contact all the natural history museums and nature centers ,in the country and try to get them to buy bulk subscriptions of the magazine for their memberships."

Ives likes his new job and he likes rooming with Harrison despite his eccentric behavior and the fact that "we lived like two bums shacked up together." But appearances aside, Harrison is socially well-connected and escorts rich elderly widows to the opera, expensive restaurants, and parties. And from time to time he fills the role of the extra man at the dinner table to keep "Boy-girl, boy-girl" arrangement intact.

A self-described freeloader (but one who has "the most integrity"), Harrison introduces Ives to this lifestyle of looking for free meals and sneaking into the opera.

Meanwhile, Ives has a secret life that he dares not divulge to Harrison that involves hanging out at a Times Square bar for transvestites and transsexuals and seeking the services of a spankologist and make-over artist for cross dressers. At the bar, Ives picks up a "date" who escorts him to her place in Queens (where his great-aunt lives). Ives--a guilt-ridden, insecure, sexually conflicted nerd--immediately feels "a stab of guilt" because he "hadn't called her since moving to Manhattan." On top of it all, Ives is a hypochondriac. When he sees a "red, scabbed over" cut on the right breast of his "date", he panics. Has he exposed himself to AIDS? But then he calms down when he realizes that "it was only a little cut, really, maybe an inch, and it wasn't bleeding. I'm all right."

Throughout The Extra Man, the reader is introduced to a bizarre but delightful cast of characters, including Gershon Gruen, Harrison's personal auto mechanic from the third floor, who follows Harrison's advice to ride a bicycle and read the dictionary as a way to control his sex drive, thereby eliminating his need for prostitutes and Meredith Lagerfeld, another Harrison crony "in search of free meals and drinks and gaiety," who, despite a swollen knee and 200 plus pounds, "struggled up the stairs" at an antique auction fueled by the thought of all the "pates and meats and shrimps and cheeses" laid out on the buffet table.

But the most interesting, the most memorable character of all is Henry Harrison himself, uttering without fail the most off-the-wall comments you will ever read. In fact, some of his comments would make excellent slogans on a T-shirt, a bumper sticker, or a billboard: "If one day doesn't work, try another"; "filth is the privilege of the aristocracy"; "Underwear is fattening"; "Men face reality, women don't. That's why men need to drink." And if The Extra Man becomes a Hollywood movie, Harrison's sign-off statement "So there we are. Where are we?" might catch on.

More importantly, I hope this won't be the last appearance of Harrison and Ives between the covers of a book.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mad Men: White, Rich, Het People

I don't have cable, so I'm not able to watch Mad Men when it's broadcast. But I have been able to see the show on DVD. At this writing, I've seen season one and the first five episodes of season two. I like the show very much but like Renee Martin in her blog post, "Really Jon Hamm?" for Womanist Musings, I am troubled by the inadequate portrayal of black people and gays.

Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore writes that in the fourth season (premiering July 25), "the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency" has been relocated to the Time-Life Building. If Matthew Weiner, creator and head writer of Mad Men, meticulously researches the show, then he should know that Gordon Parks, the famed black photographer, was a staff writer for Life magazine around the time the show is set. I'm quite sure that in the sixties, there were a handful of blacks and gays in the advertising business as well as other areas of the media. Although you wouldn't know that judging by the episodes of the show that I've seen so far. Not all blacks were elevator operators and janitors.

But if Mad Men is about what Renee Martin calls "the angst of White, rich, het people," it's because the people who run the show (per the DVD bonus behind-the-scenes features), fit that category and can only see the world from that perspective.

Monday, July 19, 2010

No More French Vanilla At Baskin-Robbins

Baskin-Robbins is retiring the French Vanilla flavor, reports Yahoo! Buzz. That's sad news. French Vanilla was my favorite Baskin-Robbins flavor because it tasted better than their regular vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Elements To Look For In A Political Speech

A few years ago journalist/former radio talk show host Utrice Leid devoted a segment of her show on WBAI in New York to identifying the elements that voters should watch out for when appraising a speech by a political figure:
1. The environment of the speech--where is it being made or given; the environment shapes the
connection of the person giving the speech and its listeners.
2. The purpose of the speech--the language in the speech will give clues.
3. Body language and the use of language--How does the body language change with the pattern.
4. What kind of language is used?--Is it linear language? What is the speech about?
a. code words
b. genuine ideas
c. what is not said
5. The impact of the speech--the affect the speech has on its listeners.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Helter-Swelter perfect movie to watch during this heatwave is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), set during a sweltering summer day in Brooklyn, New York.
Like the newspaper headlines featured in the movie, the Amsterdam News, a weekly African-American newspaper based in Harlem, made the current heatwave that has gripped the Northeast Topic A with a banner headline that screamed "SWELTERING!"