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Entries in HBO (90)

Wednesday
May112016

HBO’s LGBT History: The End

It's the final episode as Manuel has worked his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions

I began this project because, after watching and recapping Looking here, I became fascinated with the idea that, with that Andrew Haigh show, the cable network had somehow reached peak gay TV even as it also managed to alienate the very viewers it was trying to coax. I wanted to, in a way, put Looking in context by watching everything HBO had produced and aired that had tackled LGBT issues.

This required a lot of scavenging—despite their shiny HBOGo and HBO Now ventures, a lot of the network’s older and more obscure TV movies and shows remain unattainable. And so I reached back and watched a lot of not so great TV movies from the early 80s, caught up with key “very special episodes” of their most well-known dramas and comedies, and later got to re-watch some of their most recent entries into this, as it turned out, rather extensive canon.

We began with Harvey Fierstein’s Tidy Endings which a year later looks as perfect an intro to the HBO brand of LGBT representation as I could have envisioned: here was a character-driven drama adapted from a well-received property (Fierstein’s one-act play) that got a prestige boost with some grade-A casting (Stockard Channing) that treated its characters with dignity and complexity. That it was also an AIDS drama (in 1988!) also told me a lot about how button-pushing and social justice-minded the network was and remains. In fact, for the first handful of entries this column might as well have been called “HBO’s AIDS films.”

What surprised me most in this journey was both the diversity of stories being told and also the homogeneity of them at the same time. Taken individually, And the Band Played On, The Normal Heart, Vito, In The Gloaming, Angels in America and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt are all urgent and necessary projects that build out the narrative of the AIDS crisis; but seen as a collective, you cannot help but see the very narrow racial and socio-economic stories being told here. Angels is a near-perfect play/miniseries but I do often wish Belize’s world and personal life had been offered to us in equal measure with his fellow characters. Similarly, while gay men were amply represented, I found myself dismayed (though not surprised) at the lack of lesbian stories.

These are, of course, issues that are larger and more systematic but they’re worth keeping in mind even as I still stand by the belief that HBO has championed LGBT representation like no other television network in history (though ABC and ABC Family/Freeform on the one hand and Netflix on the other might be giving them a run for their money right now).

Rather than offer an exhaustive index of everything I covered—22 television shows, 18 feature films, 16 documentaries, and 2 miniseries—I figured I’d offer a sampling, with three Top 5 lists. 

Manuel’s Favorites: Top 5 Discoveries

Part of the fun of this project was the chance to watch films that I'd never seen before and there 5 may not be the "best" but they are certainly the ones I'm most glad I got to catch and write about. Bonus: even in a gay male saturated canon, I got to talk about Michelle Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Yolonda Ross, and Jessica Lange.

If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000)
Stranger Inside (2001)
Normal (2003)
Nightingale (2015)
Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures (2016)

Manuel’s Favorites: Top 5 TV

These were not only fun to write (I really could spend endless posts on my love for Andrew Rannells in Girls and the actressing work on that Mormon family drama Big Love) but also great exercises in focusing on the parts rather than the whole (say, Dane DeHaan's great turn, Rodrigo García's capable direction).

Six Feet Under, “A Private Life” (2001)
Big Love (2006-2011)
In Treatment (2008-2010)
Girls (2012-)
Sex in TV

Fan Favorites: Top 5 Most Commented

Auteurs, Sarah Jessica Parker & co., and Glenn Close drove the most spirited discussions this past year which, when you think about it, seems just about right. 

Elephant (2003)
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Sex and the City (2008, 2010)
1998, The Year in TV
In the Gloaming (1997)

There's plenty more for you to dig through if you wanted to revisit the entire series, but for now we'll bid goodbye to the series which was challenging, exhiliarating, and exhausting, but never nothing short of rewarding. Thank you to Nathaniel, to all who commented, who shared in the experience, and who made it feel like I wasn't alone this past year. There may be another column in the future but for now, we rest (and patiently wait for Haigh's Looking film which will premiere at Frameline this June).

Wednesday
May042016

HBO’s LGBT History: True Detective (2014-)

It's the penultimate episode as Manuel has worked his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions

Last week we looked at Nightingale starring David Oyelowo, a film you should definitely seek out if you want further proof that Oyelowo is one of the best actors working right now. This week, the latest LGBT character to be introduced into the HBO canon: Officer Paul Woodrugh from True Detective’s second season, played by Taylor Kitsch who everyone I know knows from Friday Night Lights and thus keeps trying to convince me is a promising newcomer. I've only ever encountered him in John Carter and The Normal Heart (discussed previously) and neither have really convinced me that this very attractive young man is really all that. Needless to say, I was ready to see what he'd been given to do here.

(Spoilers ahead)

“I was just tryin' to be a good man.”

“Well you don't try right.”

True Detective truly embraces its Raymond Chandler/gumshoe genre by having characters often speaking in impossibly blunt if overtly florid language. Take the above dialogue: Kitsch’s Paul is driving his fiancée to safety (his cover may or may not have been blown, don’t ask) and talk turns to why he even pursued her to which he responds that he was just “trying to be a good man.” Her retort is perhaps a bit on the nose, especially as viewers know that Paul has certain sexual proclivities that make his attempt to do a woman “right” seem a bit self-serving. (He enjoys the company of men and, staying true to the implied rules of masculinity that rule this oppressively male-driven genre, he’s ashamed of this choice and the choice to keep quiet about it).

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Wednesday
Apr272016

HBO’s LGBT History: Nightingale (2015)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we visited Westeros and talked about Varys as a mainstream example of asexuality; definitely mining new ground for this weekly column that’s slowly coming to an end. This week we turn to a film that inadvertently makes a great entry to TFE’s unofficial Actor Month celebration (that it also features an “April Showers” scene means it’s meant to be): Elliott Lester’s Nightingale.

To say the film “stars David Oyelowo” doesn’t quite do it justice; it only stars Oyelowo. That’s only one of the things that makes Nightingale an odd if fascinating entry in this HBO history. For once, since the film is presented through the eyes of Oyelowo’s Peter Snowden—we never leave his house or see him interact with anyone else except for the phone calls to which we’re only given his side of the conversation—the word “gay” or “homosexuality” is never uttered; attentive viewers are clued early what with Peter’s subtle flamboyance (his colorful robe, the pride he shows in the red bow tie he wears to work, his penchant for singing old tunes) but even as Peter’s world begins to unravel, it’s unclear how much Peter, a devout and faith-driven army vet, understands his own sexuality in terms legible by LGBT advocates.

"Events have unfolded unexpectedly."

 

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Wednesday
Apr202016

HBO’s LGBT History: Game of Thrones (2011-)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at the legacy of Larry Kramer via the rather hagiographic doc Larry Kramer in Love and Anger. And from the LGBT frontlines to the land of Westeros, we pause this week to talk about Game of Thrones which returns later this weekend. There’s obviously plenty to discuss in the George R.R. Martin fantasy series since sex and sexuality (not to mention its contiguity with violence) has been so central to debates surrounding the show. So I’m opting to focus instead on a minor character to single out perhaps the most underrepresented group of sexual minorities: asexuals.

When I taught gender and sexuality to college students, one of the things I’d often get asked when dealing with the ever-growing LGBT acronym was to explain all the letters. L, G, B, and T have always been pretty easy to identify (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* and/or any of its variations, including Two-Spirited). It was once we went beyond those that you’d end up really understanding the way such an umbrella acronym encompassed plenty of identities. Q, for example, could stand for “Queer” or “Questioning”; I stands for Intersex while some people would point out that * is necessary given that some people in the community refuse any sort of label (you can read the Wikipedia article on the acronym to see what else often gets lumped in!). A for many stands for “Ally,” a curious category since it seems less a sexual identity than the rest; often I pushed students to also consider A as standing for “Asexual.”

Whether asexuals, who have grown increasingly vocal (if not quite visible) within the mainstream in the past few decades, belong within this broad umbrella group is a discussion in itself, but since we’re exploring the way HBO has tackled various sexual identities, I figured we’d look at the most overt attempt by the network to take on the issue of asexuality. And so we come to Varys (Conleth Hill) on Game of Thrones.

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Wednesday
Apr202016

Review: Confirmation

Kieran, here. Politics, even at their most abstract are ultimately personal. At its best moments, HBO's Confirmation directed by Rick Famuyiwa’s (Dope) and written by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) understands this. Anita Hill’s (Kerry Washington) 1991 allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) on the eve of his confirmation to the US Supreme court is a subject about which few who can remember are indifferent. Who was lying and about what? What did the Anita Hill’s testimony say about the positions of gender, race and political alignment in this country? These are the kinds of questions that evoke vociferous, often angry opinions and the film doesn’t offer up easy answers.

The truth of whether Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill is secondary. Thomas, as rendered by Pierce in what is actually a small role with few spoken lines, is a beleaguered public figure, forced to defend himself and deal with the consequences these allegations had on his personal and professional life. I say this not to imply that Thomas is innocent (I’ve always thought he was guilty). But, as is often the disgusting and sad truth about men who commit these crimes, they’re not always technically lying when they maintain their innocence under oath. In order for it to truly be a lie, these men would have to believe that they did anything wrong in the first place. Whatever mental gymnastics Clarence Thomas had to go through in order to get to this place, his own words and Pierce’s subtle but precise performance clearly illustrate that Thomas does not believe he was guilty of any wrongdoing. When the film is examining the implications of a culture that allows men to make these leaps and how it turns victims into villains, it shines and Pierce is a key component of what makes this element works. He opts not to turn Thomas into a monster for it’s not the “monsters” who violate women and irrevocably damage lives. They are simply people, a much truer and scarier fact to fathom.

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Wednesday
Apr132016

HBO’s LGBT History: Larry Kramer in Love and Anger (2015)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at the recent doc Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures which works as a nice primer on the famed photographer and, as is par for the course for films on gay icons from a certain era, as a portrait of a man working tirelessly to make the most of his ever winnowing time: Mapplethorpe died at age 42 of AIDS complications. We’re not going too far afield this week, as we’re focusing on a documentary on “America’s angriest AIDS activist” in Jean Carlomusto’s Larry Kramer in Love and Anger.

Kramer should be familiar to you. We’ve previously encountered him and talked about his righteous anger when we talked about The Normal Heart, and by that point he had already made HBO appearances in The Out List, Vito, and Outrage. That enough should be a reminder that there’s no way of talking about American gay rights activism of the last three decades without talking about Larry Kramer. Carlomusto’s film expediently moves through Kramer’s biography; from his time at Columbia Pictures, to Women in Love and Faggots, through the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group and The Normal Heart to ACT UP and his latest health scares and marriage...

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Wednesday
Apr062016

HBO’s LGBT History: Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we talked about race in HBO’s LGBT properties while briefly discussing Dee Rees’s Bessie. If there’s one thing media in general (but gay media in particular) needs to work on is intersectionality: ay attempt, for example, at framing the gay rights movement as “the new civil rights” movement not only suggests the plight of black people in America has been “won” but it refuses to understand how they intersect in sometimes very troubling ways. This week we're jumping on HBO's most recent release, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, which aired just this past Monday and which I got to see last week in the big screen. Not only is the doc wonderful, featuring candid interviews with those who knew (and posed for!) him, but it dovetails nicely with these issues of sex and race that we keep discussing.

The film borrows its subtitle from the famous words Jesse Helms used during a congressional hearing about Mapplethorpe's "pornographic" pictures: "Look at the pictures!" he implored, arguing that one couldn't deny the fact that they were not art. Cannily, this HBO documentary lets us admire plenty of Mapplethorpe's pictures—I didn’t count but the doc is exhaustive, showing us hundreds of photographs, scanned and offered up to us for close inspection. 

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