Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tribute To A Friend

After I learned of Assotto Saint's death, I played "Forever Gay," the song he and his life partner Jan wrote and performed, on my cassette player. It was my private tribute to a cherished friend's short but productive life.

The most outstanding thing about Assotto (1957-1994) was his lack of selfishness. He was always willing to share information and give of himself. When our mutual friend, writer David Frechette, was hospitalized with AIDS, it was Assotto who looked after Dave's apartment and took care of his personal business.

I could always count on Assotto to send me a Christmas or birthday card, direct some editorial work my way, or call me to find out how I was doing.

Unlike some black men with white lovers, Asssotto did not abandon the black gay community. His publication of two black gay poetry anthologies attests to that. He also did not forget his African and Haitian roots. He was able to do this because he was comfortable with himself as a black gay man and proud of his heritage.

As a poet, playwright, musician, painter, editor, publisher, and activist, Assotto leaves a rich, edifying legacy. He will not be forgotten.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review: "Annotations"

Annotations (New Directions) is an experimental first-time novella (96 pages) by John Keene, a St. Louis-born African-American gay man.

The book, "a series of mere life-notes aspiring to the condition of annotations," is presumably an autobiographical account of adolescent experiences, thoughts, and concerns. I came to that conclusion because it is set in and around the St. Louis area and the birth of the unnamed narrator at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis occurs in the summer of 1965 (Keene's birth year) when "Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal."

Annotations is plotless, impressionistic, and rambling. Throughout there is page after page of unparagraphed sentences and the reader is never sure who is telling the "story" or to whom the pronouns "he," "you," and "we" refer.

Keene's frequent philosophising ("As a result those endlessly engaged in the quest for happiness usually constitute the unhappiest lot.") and clever use of language ("Your penis is a woodwind that some play better than others. What two men do.") are no substitutes for a cohesive, riveting, and satisfying account of the coming-of-age of one sensitive and creative black gay youth. If the book was focused on the unnamed youth's emerging sexual identity (the most interesting parts of the book), Keene's efforts might have been successful and enjoyable.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Books For "Mad Men"

Billy Parrott, manager of the New York Public Library's Battery Park City branch, has compiled a "Mad Men Reading List" that consists of books that have been given screen time on the popular AMC TV series ( books like Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel, The Group.)

"Now, the day after the show, people come in and start asking about stuff," Parrott told the New York Daily News ("'Mad Men,' Book By Book," October 3).

Maybe Mad Men will do for books what Oprah's Book Club once did. And maybe Parrott will publish a Mad Men Reader that will contain information about the books the characters in the show read as well as brief biographies of the authors.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: "Directed By Dorothy Arzner"

Judith Mayne's Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Indiana University Press) is not a biography of the woman who was called a "woman's director" and a "star-maker" during her 15 years behind the camera in Hollywood. It is instead, points out Mayne, a professor of French and Women's Studies at Ohio State University, "a study of Arzner's work and of the Dorothy Arzner image that includes some biographical elements."

She further states that "I am interested in what kinds of films Arzner made, in how those films and Arzner herself were written about, and in how Arzner was portrayed during her career."

Mayne traces Arzner's film career from her days as a script typist in 1919 to her directorial debut in 1927.

Mayne's interest in Arzner began when she saw several photographs in which she presented a butch image: "[Arzner] wore tailored, 'masculine' clothing; her short hair was slicked back; she wore no makeup; and she struck poses of confidence and authority."

It was Arzner's "butch persona" that caused newspaper writers of that time to become obsessed with her appearance. "Arzner," writes Mayne, "contradicted established notions of what a woman should look like."

Dorothy Arzner made 16 films before she left Hollywood for good in 1943. Unlike many Hollywood films, "Arzner's work did indeed focus primarily on women's lives, women's friendships, and women's communities. But," continues Mayne, "women are never identified in a simple or isolated way in Arzner's work." Her films are "indicative of her commitment not only to the exploration of the connections between women, but to those connections as they are shaped and complicated by social class."

Directed by Dorothy Arzner will not appeal to everyone. It is a work of scholarship with a lot of discussion of feminist film theory and analysis of Arzner's films. However, as an analytical guide to understanding and interpreting these films, it deserves a place in a cinemaphile's library. You just have to be tolerant of Mayne's repetitiousness, scholarly prose, and frequent use of the phrases "in other words" and "put another way."

The 62 black and white photographs of Arzner at work and at home are themselves worth the price of the book and attest to what drew Mayne to an examination of Arzner's life and career.
(Included are photographs of Arzner and her female companion of 40 years, dancer Marion Morgan.)

I hope this book and the renewed interest in Arzner encourages some filmmaker to do a biopic about her life--a life that was filled with drama, celebrity, romance, and upward mobility.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Book Review: "The Stonewall Experiment"

Ian Young is upfront about who he sees as the intended reader of The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory (Cassell)--"a young gay man (or whatever term he chooses for himself) of a future generation." I just hope this future reader will be able to get through the text without yawning or having his eyes glaze over from encountering pages of social science jargon like "heteromimetic" (imitating heterosexual marriage), "ithyphallic" (an erect penis), and this tongue-twister, "brachiopractio eroticism" (fisting).

The British-born Canadian writer traces the psychohistory of gay men from the mid-19th century to the present age of AIDS. Young explains how "fear, shame and guilt have always undermined our cause" and how the Stonewall Experiment, "an experiment in reclaiming full humanity" for gay people, was co-opted by "government, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, organized crime, the churches, the public--and we."

Most of The Stonewall Experiment is devoted to the AIDS crisis which would be fine in a history of the AIDS epidemic, but this is supposed to be a book about how and why gay men have internalized their oppression over the decades by "having fervently embraced the role assigned to [them]--that of outcast and pariah..."

What The Stonewall Experiment lacks is a narrative style that makes the early homophile activists--Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Gerald Heard, among others--come alive on the page and that makes complex but otherwise interesting ideas and theories compelling and layman-friendly.

The bibliography, however, is a useful guide to books and articles of particular interest to gay readers.