Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thank You, Hefner. We'll Take It From Here.

Brigitte Berman's new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, deserves attention. Read this great interview at the for more background on the process of the film and its conclusions. Go see it if you're interested in sex, law, social justice, censorship, publishing, and/or sexy girls.

On the movie's opening night, July 30th, I went with Linz and her mom Debbie to the premiere at LA's Nuart Theater. Both Hefner and director Berman were in attendance, and they did a brief Q&A after the film.

As inspiring as the film was, the way Hefner has had to live on the defensive his whole life made me sad.

At this point, he's no longer defending himself against the obvious enemies he had in the 60s. Then, it was the conservative Christians, the censors, the people who were out-and-out afraid of crass depictions of sexuality. That the feminists of the time (Susan Brownmiller, and Gloria Steinem, famously) also vilified him is fascinating, since he thought he was working on the same project they were.

But it's even more complex now. The people who scoff at Hefner are people my age, who know little to nothing about his heroism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and only see the caricature of male sexuality he's become. They don't care about the way he flouted racist convention, and in some cases actual law, to have black performers on his show and in his clubs. They don't care that he published Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man," a short story that questioned homophobia directly, when no one else would. He said during the Q&A that he thinks most people nowadays don't acknowledge "the other half" of his life.

The implication here is heavy: one half of his life is women/sex/silliness/parties and the other half is intensely focused intellectual, creative, activist work. Much like the way they were presented in Playboy, Hef thinks of the naked girls as a very separate experience from the writing.

This is such a puzzle to me. On the one hand, it seems like he should have the right to be a sexual adolescent, to love big boobies and blondes, and spend his time on that. He's a grown man with consenting women, after all. On the other hand, I agree with the criticism that Playboy became, in some very important ways, a dictator of sexual taste, and that it presents a limited view of what is sexy. What's clear from the film is that this restricted taste that has become so ubiquitous is actually Hef's. It doesn't seem as though he had a mission to tell all Americans what they "should" like, in fact. It seems as though he was a brilliant business man who happened to know exactly what HE liked. That Americans are sheep, media consumers, and easily told what their preferences should be based on what they see around them, is their own fault.

Someone with Hugh Hefner's acumen for business and a different aesthetic might have changed the course of American sexuality. Maybe. Or maybe Hef's desire for a certain hour-glass gal is just so mainstream because it is also a basic biological imperative the way symmetry in the face seems to be in cross-cultural studies of beauty. Certainly a particular waist-to-hip ratio (.7) has been theorized as a beauty ideal in many cultures. If Hef was just tapping into some heterosexual evolutionary biology, what exactly could the feminists expect?

What's beautiful about Hef's current incarnation as an 84-year-old business tyrant (he's buying the magazine back from stockholders to, one imagines, exert some more creative control), strangely self-effacing lover (see a recent LA Weekly cover story by Dennis Romero), and general eccentric is that he still seems happily committed to being authentic--he really does exactly what he wants to do, no matter what. This I respect I great deal. I don't share my generation's disdain for the grandfather-aged patriarch of The Girls Next Door, because the sheer volume of good he's done simply outweighs the potential done by his perpetuation of certain boring sexual aesthetics. 

It's up to us to derail those aesthetics, offer alternatives in media, and so on. What is also up to us, and seems to be the next big project that Hef may never attempt, is to do real integration of the "two halves"--to lift the barrier between sex and intellect. They existed side-by-side in early Playboy, but they didn't exist as integrated whole. This is the ideal that excites me most: not just a culture that has stopped oppressing sexual expressiveness, but a culture that has no problem with sex and sexuality entering the ivory tower. 

So overall I think we should see Hef as we see the early feminists or civil rights activists. We can never forget what they accomplished. We wouldn't even be able to think the thoughts we think now without them. But we can't pretend that the important fights have all been won, or we will be just a new generation of culture-slaves. There's always a new front for revolutionary thinking.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cute Girls in Boys' Town

I’ve never before been mistaken for a television journalist. I’ve been mistaken for an aspiring actress, mostly, and occasionally for someone’s old girlfriend. I’ve been mistaken for a normal blonde. When mingling with a litter of breezy sexy casual late-twenties hot girls, I could be mistaken for one of them.

Those hot girls are the people currently running the film publicity scene, which means underneath their Los Angeles chic sunhats buzz the brains of a fantastically powerful marketing machine. I like to think that people mistook me for one of them because I am both cute and somehow look smart, even when I’m just standing around shielding myself from the sun.

The Other Guys, a new comedy from Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (previous team-ups: Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), was the subject of scrutiny on that bright LA day.  I shadowed Ted Chen from NBC, a news man of fifteen years who takes entertainment industry assignments when he actually wants to watch the film/go to the party/talk to the artists. The Other Guys opened August 6th in the U.S., and will open in the fall in most other countries. It’s a spoof of “buddy-cop” films like Lethal Weapon, and it ends up being a send-up of movie-making in general. Someone else can write a review. I’ll take you on the briefly thrilling journey to the publicity event.

Ted Chen and I arrived at the Marriott Hotel, where the press junket was supposedly occurring, at his appointed time. We were ushered through a labyrinthian series of hallways and elevators to the adjacent Ritz Carlton. The junket was actually set up at the Ritz Carlton rooftop pool, so the cameras could capture a sparkling skyline behind stars Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, and Eva Mendes. Never mind that the movie is set in New York. An LA skyline serves as symbolic stand-in cityscape for anyplace, we all know that.

“Who are all these women?” I asked Ted, nodding my head toward a knot of particularly well-accessorized ladies in shiny sandals and jersey tops.

“They’re like me,” he said. “They’re doing the interviews. Some of them are publicists.”

I discovered my prejudice: these people looked like they should be interns, still.

Ted laughed. “I guess I’m kind of a fossil here,” he said, looking around. (He’s not.) “I don’t do entertainment reporting that often. It really is run by pretty women.”

We ate New York-themed food in a luxurious Ritz suite, where The Other Guys DVD Press Kit played, in a loop, on a large HD television, with the sound off. The press kit included multiple trailers and interview materials with stars not present at the junket, like Michael Keaton.

While we cut our sausages Ted and I chatted about how movie marketing had changed over the years. This publicity DVD we were seeing as ambient background video would be sent to news outlets that couldn’t pay a journalist’s expenses to the junket, in the hopes that an entertainment reporter would do a piece on the film for a local TV market.

Finally, it was Ted’s turn. We were ushered by a smiling brunette into the space between the suite and the pool where we were picked up by another smiling brunette and brought to a space between the space between and the pool, past a buffet of fruit and water, to a waiting space in the shade. We waited quietly. We chatted. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg were visible on a temporary, elevated platform, under a white tent, wearing sunglasses, tan and smiling. They talked to whoever had been ushered into the director’s chair opposite them.

This was when I found out that these interviews lasted a total of four minutes. Every journalist was allotted four minutes with Eva Mendes, and four minutes with Wahlberg and Ferrell together. They would then take their tapes with them back to their station/show and build a story. As a writer, my notion of an interview is that it takes about an hour to get enough material for a story. I don’t know what I expected for TV, but I was surprised.

“Four minutes?” I said, incredulously, to Ted. “That’s it?”

“It’s not long,” he said. “We used to get six.”

TV time is not regular time.

I didn’t get to hear what any of the other journalists asked. I imagine that the actors spent the whole day answering very similar questions about their rapport, what it was like to work with director McKay, and what they’re headed to next. When it was Ted’s turn to interview Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, I stole twelve inches on the platform, held out my hand, and thanked them for “making my face hurt so much.” I was sincere--in a vast sea of bad comedy, I really did think The Other Guys was terrifically funny. And I loved the politics.

Ted asked a great question about whether Ferrell and Wahlberg were “on board” with the political angle of the movie, which is decisively anti-mega-corporation, even anti-capitalist.

“Of course,” Ferrell said.

“It’s one of the reasons we wanted to do it,” said Wahlberg.

Considering the paltry amount of time allowed and the generally content-less entertainment stories mainstream journalists seem compelled to make, this moment seemed pretty good. When you take another step back of course, the paltry amount of time allowed and the lack of content in entertainment stories is a totally unacceptable situation. I'm all for compression. What I saw was that someone like me, who craves meaningful discourse, will grasp at straws where there is no content. It helped that Ted was so amenable to my questions--what's the point of these interviews if they're all the same? People want to see their familiar anchor/journalist with the stars. What's the point of doing a news story on a movie that's already getting so heavily promoted? Ted thinks this is the kind of promotion that matters most, actually, because it is part of other, socially legitimized media, not an advertisement. How exactly did the scene come to be run by PYT's? No idea, really.

While Ted and I waited for his tapes back in the Ritz suite, I was again mistaken for a journalist. On our way out, we were handed a gift box, in perfect New York-doughnut-shop-pink. Inside: a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts gift card and a very nice Thermos-brand travel mug, emblazoned with The Other Guys, of course.

“Coffee and doughnuts for the cop film,” Ted smiled. “Cute.”