Archive for December, 2008

December 18, 2008

Queer Heteronormativity, or How “Queer Duck: The Movie” is Straight-Laced.

by Craig Martin

When the feature-length animated film, Queer Duck: The Movie (Xeth Feinberg), was given a limited theatrical release in July 2006, it was lauded a queer triumph by the popular GLBT press. Reviewing the film for US national gay and lesbian newsmag, The Advocate, Alonso Duralde described it as ‘naughty, outrageous, … the must-see animated film of the summer’ [1]. Despite this and other enthusiastic accolades [2], Queer Duck: The Movie rarely lives up to its name. Certainly, the film lampoons homosexual panic, performative gender stereotypes and ex-gay cults, but it also endorses homosexual/heterosexual binarism and reinforces gender stereotypes, even as it benignly pokes fun. As such, Queer Duck: The Movie contains a considerable lack of authentic queer content, which we will soon explore. What follows is a brief attempt to describe aspects of queer theory for the purpose of illustrating how Queer Duck: The Movie might be considered straight-laced. Let’s commence with a working definition of queer theory.

Perhaps the most important point to make about ‘queer’ is what it is not, and how often it is misunderstood. Annamarie Jagose observes that queer is commonly thought of an “an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications” [3] and notes that the term is regularly appropriated as interchangeable for lesbian and gay. Queer is, of course, concerned with sexuality and sexual identity, but it challenges notions that these are fixed. To suggest that queer is merely an alternative label for homosexuality is erroneous, despite the fact that such labeling persists. Queer rejects labels and categories and is committed to displacing ideas of normalcy, exploring instead what Harry Benshoff describes as “spaces wherein normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performance identity” [4]. Because queer rejects ideas of normalcy, it also serves to “interrogate and complicate the term ‘gay and lesbian'” [5] as well as challenge binary categorisations of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, in favour of fluid and transgressive sexual identities. Through such a lens, heterosexuality is deemed an artificial construct, despite hegemonic assertions of its naturalness and normalcy. Present within the same binary, homosexuality is an equally contrived and restrictive social construct. Its characterisation as aberrant, or a deviation from heteronormativity, ostensibly delimits heterosexuality, or, as Meredith Li-Vollmer and Mark LaPointe express it, “one function of the deviant is to help define for others that which is not deviant” [6].

Instead of fixed binaries, queer creates a space that argues for the validity of unstable constructs of sexuality and gender, which Alexander Doty refers to as “a place not concerned with, or limited by, notions of a binary opposition of male and female or the homo versus hetero paradigm” [7]. Queer is certainly inclusive of lesbian and gay subjects, but it is also concerned with alternative expressions of sexuality that, according to Jagose, include “cross dressing, hermaphrodotism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery” [8], as well as transgressive heterosexual behaviours such as masturbation, fetishism, prostitution, bisexuality, and alternatives to monogamy and procreation. Benshoff broadly encapsulates queer as a description of any sexuality “not defined as heterosexual procreative monogamy … [and includes] people who do not organize their sexuality according to that rubric” [9]. Using this amorphous understanding of queer, we can briefly explore the contrasting heteronormativity that characterises Queer Duck: The Movie.

Queer Duck: The Movie appeared at a time when mainstream lesbian and gay movements, according to Diane Richardson, were “increasingly demanding rights of citizenship on the grounds of being the ‘same’ as most heterosexuals” [10].  Unfortunately, in their pursuit of equal rights, gay and lesbian groups capitulate to the heterosexual/homosexual binary in an effort to create a legitimate, or normalising space for homosexuality. Thus, in their desire for respectability and recognition, significant segments of the lesbian and gay movement have effectively abandoned, or at least, minimised their transgressive identity. Observing this trend, Richardson states that, “both feminist and queer academics and activists have been highly critical of the normalizing politics that form the basis of mainstream lesbian and gay movements organized around claiming ‘equal rights'” [11], because they ostensibly validate social constructs designed to control and limit human sexuality.

Mike Reiss, creator of the Queer Duck universe, is a co-producer and regular writing contributor for The Simpsons. It may not be surprising then, to learn that Queer Duck: The Movie similarly contains an endless flow of parody, pastiche and intertextuality. Its characters eat Quentin Crisps and drink Harvey Milk, and during one promotional interview, Reiss described his film as “Brokeback Rocky and Bullwinkle” [12]. The film exploits almost every lesbian and gay stereotype and is crammed with wall-to-wall jokes about Disney resort ‘Gay Days’, Broadway musicals, drag queens and showbiz Divas. But does this make it queer? Interestingly, the film displays a keen awareness about the anthropomorphism of animals in animation, and this is perhaps its queerest characteristic. Animation is endemically queer because, as Alice Kuzniar argues, it has the ability to “frustrate the laws of nature” [13] that Philip Brophy calls “an incursion or irruption of reality” [14], which makes animation, with its transgressive qualities, an ideal medium for exploring queer issues. We certainly see this in Warner Bros’ Bugs Bunny cartoons, in which the waskily wabbit is forever dressing in drag and kissing the fall guy. Likewise, in Queer Duck: The Movie, the most transgressive aspect of the film is not its endless homosexual references, but its interspecies coupling. A parody of the Rex Harrison voiced song ‘Talk with the Animals’ from Richard Fleischer’s 1967 musical fantasy, Doctor Dolittle, declares we can instead have “Sex with the Animals.” The self-reflexive song winks at the film’s cast of animals and the prevalence of inter-species relationships, highlighting the obvious necessity for bestiality. The characters have drag names with humorous puns that describe their sexuality and species. Along with the titular Duck, there is his sensitive partner Openly Gator, and their friends, Oscar Wildcat and Bi-Polar Bear.

The film’s narrative is concerned with a chance encounter between Queer Duck and aging Norma Desmond-styled Broadway Diva, Lola Buzzard. The two hit it off to such an extent that Lola asks Queer Duck to marry her. He is mighty flattered, but reminds her that he is gay and couldn’t possibly consummate the marriage. Lola offers a solution, recommending that Queer Duck visit homophobic televangelist Reverend van Dergelding. After a few consultations, the Reverend cures Queer Duck of his homosexuality via a home brew. Queer Duck thereafter transforms into Straight Duck, complete with chest hair, stubble and a devil-may-care attitude. He and Lola immediately marry, causing no end of heartbreak for the duck’s former lover, Openly Gator. Straight Duck is the antithesis of Queer Duck. Whereas Queer Duck is talkative, flamboyant and seemingly asexual, Straight Duck is monosyllabic, assertive, sullen and sexually potent. On their wedding night, Straight Duck sees his withered bride waiting for him in bed and instantly develops an enormous erection. Their evening consists of non-stop sex and in the morning Lola speaks of her deep contentment before promptly dying from exhaustion, having bequeathed her fortune to the duck. Alone and lonely, Straight Duck reminisces about his old life and looks up his gay pals, who hire Barbra Streisand to turn him gay once again through the divine power of her nose. The procedure works like a charm and the remainder of the film involves a series of celebrations as Queer Duck reunites with Openly Gator, foils Reverend van Dergelding’s sinister plot to rid the world of homosexuals (by showering the gay populace with his ‘cure’),  and, finally, splurging Lola’s millions on his friends.

Despite its name, Queer Duck: The Movie contains little that is actually queer per se. Rather, the film emphasises the homosexual/heterosexual binary, problematically reinforcing a heterosexist, heteronormative paradigm. The only valid choices of sexual expression the characters are given is either gay or straight. Queer Duck readily abandons his homosexual lifestyle and friends, including his life partner, Openly Gator, and panders to stereotypes that homosexuals are incapable of long-term commitment and that a gay lifestyle is wayward, superficial and essentially sexually unsatisfying. Indeed, the only occasion in which an erect penis or sex acts find representation on screen is when Queer Duck is transformed into the virile, hyper-masculine Straight Duck. We subsequently learn that straight sex is infinitely more satisfying, potent, and even dangerous, as is evinced by Lola Buzzard’s post-coital demise. In contrast, when we see Queer Duck and Openly Gator in bed together, they do not touch, nor kiss. Indeed, their relationship is altogether asexual – oscillating between hystrionic and angst-ridden. There is of course a parodic element contained in the reversal of stereotypes that see straights oversexed and gays reserved and sexless, and this aspect of the comedy works well. Yet the fact remains that in the Queer Duck universe, homosexuality is confined to a superficial, self-loathing, agamous lifestyle primarily preoccupied with artifice, or what Susan Sontag describes in her Notes on Camp as “style at the expense of substance” [15]. Writer/Creator Reiss’ commentary on gay culture deliberately limits itself to artifice, offering a stereotypically camp view of homosexuality. While his cartoon seems, at first, witty and innocuous, there is little that is actually humourous or innocent about the way Queer Duck: The Movie exploits gay culture and negates transgressive sexual identifications. With so little actual queerness in Queer Duck: The  Movie it is fascinating to consider the enthusiastic reception the film received, especially from within the LGBT community. Or is it? Richardson’s observations about the quest for equality and – of even greater concern – assimilation among some gays and lesbians might lead us to conclude that Queer Duck: The Movie conspires to, if not strip queerness of its transgressive power, then at least tone it down. Straight society, Richardson effectively suggests, is more likely to accept homosexuality if it can distance itself from its transgressive roots and prove that it belongs. And there’s nothing queer about that.

[1] Duralde, Alonso. “Fine Feathered Fop.” Rev. of Queer Duck: The Movie, dir. Xeth Feinberg. The Advocate.  967 (18 July 1996): 57.

[2] The DVD cover for Queer Duck: The Movie includes a quote it attributes to BBC Television claiming that Queer Duck is “One of the 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.” Thanks go to Dean, who found that the source of this claim is a Channel 4 poll conducted in 2005 to determine the most popular cartoon characters and animated films. Queer Duck is listed 94th, while The Simpsons topped the list in first place. For the complete list of animated films, see http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites/G/greatest/cartoons/results.html

[3] Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996. p. 1.

[4] Benshoff, Harry and Griffin, Sean. “General Introduction.” Queer Cinema, the Film Reader. (Ed) Harry  Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 2.

[5] p. 1.

[6] Li-Vollmer, Meredith and LaPointe, Mark. “Gender Transgression and Villainy in Animated Film.” Popular Communication. 1.2 (May 2003): 89-109. p. 91.

[7] Qtd in Griffin, Sean. “Pronoun Trouble: The “Queerness” of Animation.” Queer Cinema, the Film Reader. Ed. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 107.

[8] p. 3.

[9] p. 1.

[10] Richardson, Diane. “Locating Sexualities: From Here to Normality.” Sexualities. 7.4 (2004: 391-411. p. 391.

[11] p 392.

[12] Urban, Robert. “Queer Duck: The Movie is Sooooo Gay!” AfterElton.com Online 18 July 2006. 27 October 2008.

[13] Kuzniar, Alice A. The Queer German Cinema. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000. p. 239.

[14] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967. p. 278.

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December 14, 2008

Rethinking the Cannon

by Dean Brandum

I’m guessing it was around March of 1986 when I saw Runaway Train at Hoyts’ Midcity complex on its opening weekend here in Melbourne. The film had been praised by a number of critics as a thoughtful and exciting action film, the fact it was based on an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa validated its potential of quality. With several Oscar nominations to boot, the expectations of the small, but anticipative audience were high.


The trailers and ads finished, the curtains adjusted – we were ready. And then it happened. The Cannon logo appeared onscreen and the audience groaned with dismay. We were to be duped. No philosophical musings on man’s savagery to come, instead it would be a cheap and nasty flick churned out for that lowest-common-denominator viewer, the dimwitted fan of Dudikoff and Bronson, one turned on by the putrid vigilante violence of such bottom shelf of the video store sludge. Never had I heard an audience diss a film logo before and nor have I since, but such was the notoriety of Cannon films that such outrage was justified.

Do you remember the Cannon logo? Look it up on youtube. That cold, blue metallic style so favoured by corporate promoters in the 1980s, ticking all the necessary boxes of the day – efficiency, synthesis, functionality – complete with a reverbing synthesizer.

Pretty soon the audience at Runaway Train settled into the experience and presumably enjoyed it – I know I did and to me it remains possibly Cannon’s finest achievement. Yet at the time I was well aware of the film being a Cannon production and to myself might have given a small cheer, for although Cannon’s reputation was for junk (which I invariably paid to see) I knew that the company, in its bizarrely schizophrenic manner, was determined to be seen a purveyor of high art cinema and taken seriously as such. It was this attitude, this desperate need for critical and peer respect that helped make the company the laughing stock of the industry and the critics’ whipping boy. Perhaps if they’d known their place and been happy to just mine the low-budget exploitation market they would have been ignored, but for a while, their ambitions, riding on a wave of bravura, chutzpah and just plain bullshit took them to the position of Hollywood’s foremost mini-major, their share price riding high even though few people were actually interested in seeing their films. Eventually the bubble burst and in the dying years of the 1980s the company collapsed, its heads Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus parting ways and since reduced to the smaller tables in the corners of world film markets.


Nearly that nearly two decades have passed since Cannon’s demise, how can and should we look back on their output?


If you mention Cannon to an aging buff you would more than likely elicit a hearty chuckle and memories of a tired Charles Bronson, a young Van Damme and Chuck Norris in his prime. This appears to be Cannon’s legacy – medium-low budget action flicks; suitable for drive-ins and grindhouses but produced a decade after such venues had closed. So instead of the romantic nostalgia of seeing Death Wish 3 at the mothbitten Albany/Roma/Star/Galaxy/Metro (insert your own, much loved fleapit here) or local ozoner, it would have more likely been screened in the pokier screens of your larger inner-city multiplex, a 100-seat box with floor to ceiling carpet.


Combine that with the Cannon visual aesthetic (cold, fluorescent and lots of concrete – call it cinematic brutalism) and those too-recent-romanticize fashions cobbled together by the cash-strapped costume and hair departments (the characters, even those apprently in positions of power, always looked so darn cut-rate and suburban) and the memories of Cannon are pretty grim. The aural chintzings of the synthesising Gary Changs and Jay Chattaways only compounds the pain.

There were times when Cannon aimed to have their fare last longer then a week on screen but their forays into matching it with the majors have passed into Hollywood lore for their sheer ineptitude. Perhaps Cannon’s entire legacy is best exemplified by its dealings with Sylvester Stallone. In 1985 Sly was, without a doubt, the biggest star in the world. In that year he managed the one-two punch of Rocky IV (domestic gross: $125 million) and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (domestic gross: $150 million). Cannon spent that year trumpeting (and boy did they carry on about it!) the fact he was to star in their upcoming Over the Top and paying him $12 million to sign on (and to sign off much of his future career). With the boxoffice’s most bankable name on board, how could they go wrong? Well, by having him star in a story about professional arm wrestlers (gee, there’s one ‘sport’ that has been crying out for the big screen treatment) was one way to do it. Having Menaham Golan himself direct the film in his own inimitable manner (lunk of head and ham of fist) was another. Cannon’s marketing department, responsible for the least appealing campaigns of the decade, completed the task by making Over the Top look as cheap and tacky as the usual Cannon fodder they could not sell. When it was released in 1986 Over the Top grossed $16 million domestic – an abysmal return considering Stallone’s calibre, worse still considering the rentals would have not covered half of the star’s wage. Ahh Cannon – if only they put as much effort into making and selling their films as they did announcing their imminent production.

Other such attempts at playing the blockbuster game included obtaining the rights to make Superman IV, then pruning back the budget to above-the-line costs only (Reeve and Hackman) and managing to bury the franchise entirely with the worst of the series. Masters of the Universe seems to have its defenders but I’ll reserve judgement as even 20 years ago I was loath to part with my hard-earned for comic-book action figurey flicks.

To my mind the best of Cannon’s blockbuster efforts was Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce – a batty B-premise given the A-treatment (to the tune of $25 million in 1985 coin). Mathilda May’s gratuitous nudity, crazed space vampires, London as the setting and the notion that Steve Railsback could carry a film. Absolutely enjoyable and a prime example of how Golan and Globus had little idea of how to forge an audience-pleasing project. And thank god for that. Any major studio would have vetoed Life Force as an expensive Hammer film. In their naivety, Cannon thought they were on a box-office winner. Hey guys, I did my bit and showed up.

I also showed up to 52 Pick-Up (1985), in which Cannon provided cinematic asylum to the once mighty John Frankenheimer, allowing him to direct one of the very best Elmore Leonard adaptations to screen. This is one of the rare cases when the aforementioned Cannon aesthetic works to a film’s advantage. The scuzzy atmosphere, exploitative nudity and gratuitous violence do justice to Leonard’s milieu of low life on the outskirts of the Los Angeles skin industry. Once again, Golan and Globus were unable to see that such content would dissuade more viewers than it would bring in. Never let it be said that these moguls delivered overly slick product. Slick was not in their vocabulary. Their effect was even felt on films which they did not produce. Case in point was the Stallone vehicle, Cobra (1986). This was a Warner Brothers release that only had a nominal Golan-Globus on-screen production credit (this was due to Cannon nullifying an agreement they had with the actor in order to pocket a million much-needed dollars from Warners). Otherwise, Cannon had no creative input into Cobra and nor would they receive any financial return from the project. However, for all of Warners’ expense and experienced sheen, Cobra – one of the more putrid releases of a mostly putrid decade – had the fetid stench of Cannon wafting from every sprocket hole.

But…but…it is far too easy to rip into Cannon and if that was the only purpose of this post then it would not have been written in the first place. For harking back to my opening comments, the poor reputation of Cannon may have infected their better films to the point of audience turn-off, but better films they did produce or distribute. Rather than being just ill-bred cowboys, Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus were true film lovers and did wish to be appreciated by those of a higher brow. Indeed, for all the atrocious work Golan directed in his time with Cannon, he had once been recognised as Israel’s most promising director. Films such as Fortuna (1966), My Margo (1969) and Highway Queen (1971) all received international distribution and some acclaim leading to his best feature as director, Lepke (1975), with Tony Curtis (in fine form) as the Jewish gangster. It must also be acknowledged that his Operation Thunderbolt (1977) was better than either of the more star laden, American productions that retold the events of rescuing the hostages from Entebbe airport.

Sadly there is little that follows that is evident of such early talent. Quite typical of the later Golan is that he can hack out such dreck as Death Game (2001) and Final Combat (2003) yet in the year between helm a version of Crime and Punishment. Such is the story of Golan as it was with Cannon: there was no real distinction between high and low cinema. Arthouse and exploitation, they were all handled and marketed as the same goods and unfortunately, the rotten produce contaminated the many fine films the company released.

Which other major studio (or even mini-major, for that matter) in the 1980s would have given the time of day to the likes of Jean Luc-Godard, Norman Mailer, Andrei Konchalovsky, Emir Kusterica, Barbet Schroeder, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Jason Miller, Liliana Cavani, Lina Wertmuller, Franco Zefirelli, Harry Hook, Neil Jordan, Dusan Mackavejev, Godfrey Reggio, Fons Rademakers and Nicholas Roeg? Not many.

Miramax were held up as a later business model that would differentiate its product and market it appropriately. Cannon had no qualms about announcing Death Wish 3 alongside Fool for Love and selling them both in the same, crude manner. Yet the still employed these filmmakers, most of whom spoke highly of their time with the company but sadly, although some of these films met with critical acclaim, few made any money. But this was the story of Cannon – for even most of their Bronson and Norris flicks barely went into profit (due to the excessively wide releases afforded to such junk) and on the few occasions they had a bankable star they would somehow botch the deal.

Cannon have long gone and sadly we will probably never see their likes again. As a final treat I would like to end with a gallery of films the company announced but never produced. Would these titles have made a difference to Cannon’s reputation or bottom line? Who knows?

(Apologies for the blurry quality of some of these images. Too big for the scanner, the camera did not do them justice.)

Yes, when I think of a modern Judy Holliday, I think 'Whoopi Goldberg'.

Yes, when I think of a modern Judy Holliday, I think 'Whoopi Goldberg'.

In 1970 'Joe' had been a remarkable success for Cannon before Golan and Globus took over the company. This ressurection may have been interesting in the depths of the Reagan era.

In 1970 'Joe' had been a remarkable success for Cannon before Golan and Globus took over the company. This ressurection may have been interesting in the depths of the Reagan era.

housekeeping

A remake of Elio Petri's 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion'. Konchalovsky directing, Schraeder scripting and Pacino starring. Sounds to good to be true for Cannon. It was.

A remake of Elio Petri's 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion'. Konchalovsky directing, Schraeder scripting and Pacino starring. Sounds to good to be true for Cannon. It was.

Hoffman sulked off when Cannon used his image in a promotion without his permission. They tried to shoehorn Pacino into the project, to no avail.

Hoffman sulked off when Cannon used his image in a promotion without his permission. They tried to shoehorn Pacino into the project, to no avail.

The Final Chapter' Zito directing? Where's my ticket!?!

With Joseph 'Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter' Zito directing? Where's my ticket!?!

I'm sorry, make that Albert 'Cyborg' Pyun.

I'm sorry, make that Albert 'Cyborg' Pyun.

Tobe Hooper? You'd get a guy who made his name directing gory horror flicks to do 'Spiderman'? Like THAT would ever happen!

Tobe Hooper? You'd get a guy who made his name directing gory horror flicks to do 'Spiderman'? Like THAT would ever happen!

John Travolta was also attached at one stage. Just what the world needed.

John Travolta was also attached at one stage. Just what the world needed.

Spare me.

Spare me.

You aren't fooling anyone.

You aren't fooling anyone.

Yes, you read correctly - Michael Winner. M-I-C-H-A-E-L  W-I-N-N-E-R.

Yes, you read correctly - Michael Winner. M-I-C-H-A-E-L W-I-N-N-E-R.

Look, now you are just being silly.

Look, now you are just being silly.

December 14, 2008

From the Files on a Dumber Plight

by Dean Brandum

As printed in the New York Times cinema section in February 1975.

filmwaysnytfeb9751

Ya really think this made much of a difference?

Nah, nor do I.

Damn those bloody Swedish names. The good folk at Filmways knew one of them had an extra ‘n’ on the end. Must have tossed a coin to decide which one.