Airport Rambling

There’s been a hefty chunk of time between now and the last time I posted, I know, I’ve fallen headfirst into my PhD attending 3 conferences in the past two months (one of which was international) so I’ve had little time to give my blog any thought. But alas, I’m currently trapped in the airport for a few hours and I have had a lot on my mind these past few weeks (most of it pretty soul-destroying) so in an attempt to cheer myself up, I’m going to break my blog’s (limited) tradition and instead of picking an SF/F or queer text I’d like to talk briefly about Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room,’ Greg Sestero’s ‘The Disaster Artist,’ and James Franco’s 2017 film by the same name.

To preface, I’m sort of new to ‘The Room’ and I hadn’t actually seen the film in its glorious entirety until about a week ago and AFTER I finished reading Sestero’s book about the behind-the-scenes look at both his friendship with Wiseau and the making of ‘The Room.’ It was probably the only book that I read in 2017 (of 50 at present count) that kept me hooked and fully engaged from cover to cover. I literally could not put it down, not even while crossing the street on my long walk home at the end of the day. Trimming the dramatics, it is safe to say that I was intrigued by Wiseau (as many before me have been), his film-making process, and his bizarre yet lasting relationship with Sestero.

Anyone who has read Sestero’s book will know that (from the middle to the end) he focuses heavily on the toxicity of his friendship with Wiseau, going so far as to compare him to Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley from 1999’s ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’ Not exactly a positive picture, but one that resonates in the way that Sestero seems to hope that it will. Despite all of the darker stories he writes about his time with Wiseau, Wiseau remains undeniably sympathetic as Sestero waxes poetic about how deeply lonely he believes Tommy to be. Indeed, there were many moments in the book where I found myself looking through Wiseau’s eyes, feeling that loss of control and desperately wanting the people who I felt were slipping away to see me as someone worth holding onto.

It is perhaps a nastier aspect of the human condition, but one that likely speaks to many of us as years pass and the people we love grow distant because they are on a different path. (What struck me more, though, was how aggressively Wiseau rejects this habit of time, refusing to let something that matters so deeply to him slip away). I found that I was often at odds with myself while reading, shifting between deep unexplainable sadness to having to slap a hand over my mouth on the bus to keep from laughing too hysterically. Essentially, I found that the book both rested and rejected a great dichotomy of what is and what we want to be, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

To move from the book to the film for just a minute (slight spoilers to follow if you’ve not yet seen it) I found it interesting how Franco stripped away these darker elements of Sestero’s story to craft a version of Wiseau that was seemingly free from the more toxic personality traits that Sestero described in his book. What is of greater interest to me, however, is Wiseau’s own response to Franco’s film. Speaking on Jimmy Kimmel Live! with James Franco in tow, Wiseau claimed that Sestero’s book was 40% accurate (an old claim) while Franco’s film was 99.9% correct (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aT1gOazMMm8). Having read the book and seen the film in quick succession I can only imagine that this is because the film depicts a version of Sestero who is immediately grateful for the opportunity to play Mark in Wiseau’s script (in the book he drags his feet, claiming to know immediately that ‘The Room’ would be a catastrophic failure, occasionally questioning whether or not the film would ever even be finished. In the book, it is not until Wiseau offers Sestero a large sum of money and a new car that he finally accepts the role of Mark.)

Yet the film glosses over the more troubled periods of friendship that spawned between Sestero and Wiseau during their time together in LA and later during the filming of ‘The Room.’ Instead, it portrays a Greg Sestero who is in open awe of Tommy Wiseau from the moment he meets him, a Greg Sestero who is grateful for the chance to make a film with Wiseau, a Greg Sestero who is devoid of many of the self-achievements that he writes of in his book. To be clear, I am not writing an indictment of the film, I genuinely loved the experience of watching it and I’m very much looking forward to adding it to my collection. It makes sense that the darker elements of the book would be excluded from the film, it is, after all, about the making of ‘The Room’ not a biopic of Greg Sestero, and it is beautifully done. Again, what I find interesting here is Wiseau’s own claim that it is much more accurate to reality than Sestero’s book.

Whether or not this is the case (and if reality can be trusted, it probably isn’t) I think what this claim seeks to offer is a deeper glimpse into Tommy Wiseau the person, and the way that he views both himself and reality. Considering the overwhelming self-confidence he is written to have in the book coupled with Seth Rogan’s claims (again during late night talk shows) that Wiseau acted as though it was about time someone made a film about him offers a fascinating glimpse into the heart of this esteemed Disaster Artist.

There is a point in the film where the actors playing the actors who played the characters from ‘The Room’ are sat around a table discussing ‘The Room’ script and theorizing that it is autobiographical. “Who is Lisa, then?” is a question raised by the film with the speculative answer that Lisa represents the universe, meaning that the person who has hurt and betrayed Wiseau the most out of everyone is the universe that gave him life. And if any of the backstory Sestero writes of Wiseau in his book then this is certainly the case, but again I’m not trying to do a psychoanalytical character chart of either Wiseau or Sestero here, what I am thinking about in this small, dingy airport tech room is Wiseau’s grasp – or lack thereof of reality itself and his place in the universe.

As I mentioned before, the book (coupled with both The Room and The Disaster Artist film) seems to rest on a great dichotomy of what is and what we perceive. And what makes Wiseau such an intriguing character is the way he has broken all conventions of show business, making a film that was ultimately a massive flop (at first) and a complete failure should we define success as something that is achieved by meeting set parameters. For example, The Room was meant to be a ‘serious drama,’ a label that no one would ascribe to ‘The Room.’ In that sense, ‘The Room’ is a failure, it do not achieve what it set out to achieve, yet the twist comes when we further consider that if ‘The Room’ had been written to be comedic it would have also failed. What makes ‘The Room’ so worthy of its cult status is its complete lack of self-awareness. So describing the ‘success’ of the film then becomes tricky, because it finds its ultimate success from its failure, existing in the same middle ground that Wiseau himself lives in. Both the film and the man are resistant to the realities and the truths that keep the rest of us grounded. As a parade of actors, directors, and producers claim in the opening moments of the film, this is the type of success that can not be replicated.

‘The Room’ in this sense exists beyond the boundaries that restrict the rest of us, and that very much comes down to who Tommy Wiseau is and the narrative (again, or lack thereof) that he builds around himself. At once, Wiseau is both the performance of secrecy that he builds around himself and 1000% himself. In many ways, Tommy the person is a performance, and performance could be defined by Tommy Wiseau (though if you’ve seen his film, you’ll know he’s not the best performer). But, again, I think this is indicative of the way Wiseau shapes reality around himself. Humans have this very depressing conformity to the laws of the universe that dictate our longer realities as well as our day to day reality. Tommy Wiseau seemingly rejects this, and that, I think, more than anything he has ever created, is why he will be remembered long after the rest of us have gone.

 

It is this sense of identity that perhaps relates most heavily to what I am trying to do as a scholar, yet it is still floating in some beyond land that I cannot quite reach. I would like to keep thinking about Wiseau and Sestero and the work they have created, the narrative that they have built. So as I sit in this airport mulling over the great mystery that is Tommy Wiseau, I find myself sinking into a bizarre contentment, looking to Wiseau’s self-crafted reality as a standard that I would both love to live by while simultaneously knowing that I never will. And somehow, that’s okay.

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Todd Talk

Caveat: This post contains minor spoilers for BoJack Horseman season four, proceed with caution.

Something I didn’t mention in my brief introduction to this blog is my interest in animated television. And while my tastes usually veer toward the science fiction (Rick and Morty) or fantasy (Avatar; The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra) for this post I would like to focus on an animated show that is – despite the sentient, talking animals – incredibly realistic and set in a satirized version of Hollywood that goes by (following the theft of the ‘D’) ‘Hollywoo.’

Since I finished binging the show just about a week ago a particular aspect, or should I say character, has been on my mind near constantly. I am referring, of course, to Todd Chavez. If you’re unfamiliar with BoJack Horseman, it’s a an adult dark comedy series with four seasons on Netflix that has been largely lauded for its realistic portrayal of mental illness. It also breaks ground for the Queer Frontier at the conclusion of its third series when Todd is revealed to be asexual.

Before that groundbreaking moment, however, the third series of the show kicked off with an episode set nine years in the past (according to the in-show narrative) in the year 2007. The episode is the second of the third series, called ‘The BoJack Horseman Show,’ and it introduces Emily – an old friend of Todd’s who has a clear romantic and sexual interest in him. From her arrival on the show, there was something about Emily that irked me. On the whole she was incredibly likable, a female character who was self-assured enough to chase after what she wanted. The problem was that what she wanted was Todd.

I quickly realized that my issue with Emily was not actually with Emily, but instead with the relationship she was shown to have with Todd as the two eventually end up lip-locked during a bout of ‘seven minutes in heaven.’ It wasn’t that I had spent the first two seasons of the show thinking of Todd as a gay character, I hadn’t. In fact, up until this point in the show Todd had not been shown either sexually or romantically with any other character of any gender, nor did he ever seem particularly interested in finding a partner.

Near the end of the episode set in 2007, Emily asks Todd if he wants to have sex, and Todd becomes visibly anxious before escaping the situation with evident relief when Emily’s father comes home early. It was at this moment in the show that I began to understand why this relationship had irked me, it was obviously, really: Todd was asexual.

The thing about being queer is that I feel like I’m always screaming in frustration for representation, but I don’t think I ever actually expect to see said representation actualized on-screen. So, despite my surety that Todd was an asexual character, I never expected BoJack Horseman the Netflix series to actually confirm my suspicions. You can imagine my unadulterated joy when it did.

Before BoJack Horseman I could count the number of asexual characters depicted in television or cinema on one hand, and – despite Raphael Santiago from Freefrom’s Shadowhunters – none of the characters who come to mind as asexual are ever confirmed to identify as such, and without clarification there can be no representation. But BoJack Horseman’s creators not only allowed this character to come out as asexual, but they did not once shy away from Todd’s queer identity.

It is far too typical, especially in the film industry, to find studios lauding themselves as queer ground breakers – far too eager to claim the “First Gay Character™” of whatever franchise or genre their films belong to. In 2016 alone, Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers, Star Trek Beyond, and Alien: Covenant were all guilty of this to some extent, though by no means are they the complete list of titles that boasted queer representation where queer characters and moments were sorely lacking. Not to mention that all of these titles were meant to deal with a queer identity (homosexuality) that is more or less understood within the cultural mindset.

This is not the case with asexuality, there is very little dialogue surrounding the existence and acceptance of people who have no sexual desire. Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat (the Internet’s favourite punching bag) once went so far as to clarify that his iteration of Sherlock was not asexual, but simply too distracted/pre-occupied for sex. (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who) Why? Because, in his words, asexuality is ‘boring.’ An unimaginative sentiment from an unimaginative man that is not only massively insulting to asexual people, but furthers the falsehood that asexual people are sexless, loveless robots.

Yet, BoJack Horseman completely disregards this stereotype and instead seeks to present an honest and real take on asexual identity, going so far as to include scenes of asexual meet-ups wherein one character notably says, ‘some asexuals are also aromantic, but others have relationships like anyone else.’ (S4:E6). If asexual representation is rare (and it is) then acknowledgement of the separation between sexual and romantic desire within television and cinema is practically unheard of.

Sure, BoJack Horseman’s portrayal of asexuality may not be perfect (let’s face it, what isn’t even a little bit problematic?) but the dialogue it opens to advance the understanding of both sexual and romantic queer identities cannot be understated in its importance. What is more still is that the show presents a self-aware front that not only represents asexual identity, but allows Todd to grow into himself while simultaneously exploring the damage that lack of proper queer representation inflicts.

For me, the most heartbreaking moment of BoJack Horseman is when – after Todd has come out as asexual to BoJack – he says, ‘I don’t think I’m allowed to be in love.’ (S4:E3). Not only is that sentiment total bullshit (romantic love and sexual desire are unquestionably separate entities) but it further reflects the mainstream notion of asexuality that embraces the harmful (and false) image of a cold, robotic individual who lacks all emotion. As if sexual desire dictates empathy.

I sincerely hope that season five of BoJack Horseman will continue to explore queer identities with a nuanced hand, and I would challenge anyone (*cough* Moffatt *cough*) to come up with a convincing argument that Todd Chavez is “boring.” (There are some Dentist Clowns in the Hollywoo forests who have already proved you wrong).

The Pilot Post (Welcome!)

Space! The final frontier. These are the voyages of one queer blogger. My continuing mission? To celebrate science fiction television and cinema, to seek out queer representation in SF and discuss the genre’s failings, to boldly go where no fan has gone before! *cue Star Trek theme music*

Hello dear reader, and welcome to my blog! (Don’t worry, I won’t always start with a lame opening, please don’t run away yet!) Ever since I was a small child who had no concept of the greater academic world I’ve been wholly obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, though I made it 22 years before I discovered the joy of both Star Trek and Star Wars. I know, I know, what took me so long, right?! Anyway, the moment I first watched Star Trek I knew it was something special. As an avid member of queer fandom I already knew that Kirk and Spock were slash fiction’s first couple, essentially paving the way for the avalanche of slash fiction that inevitably followed. What I didn’t know then, while sitting on my bed in Reading crying over Spock’s death at the conclusion of The Wrath of Khan (when I probably should have been researching for my Master’s Dissertation), was how integral Star Trek would become to my academic career and research interests.

Fast forward to October of 2016 and I began my PhD research at Lancaster University with an overly ambitious proposal that asserted I would study just about every facet of SF I could think of – Star Trek, Star Wars, superhero narratives, dystopic worlds, you name it and it was probably somewhere in my proposal. It wasn’t long before I realized that the breadth of texts I had originally wanted to study was far too great for a single thesis, and so when the time came to narrow my research down I found myself drawn to Star Trek. There was something special about it to me, something that resonated deeper than the other texts, though I still wasn’t quite sure what, exactly, that something was.

In the year that I have spent to date working on my thesis I have discovered that Star Trek’s fifty-one year canon offers a fascinating (to steal Spock’s favorite word) view of both fan and queer history. Roddenberry’s original series was created to be political, to push the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable to air on television in the 1960s, famously being cancelled (at least in part) for its inclusion of an interracial kiss between Kirk (white male) and Uhura (black female) – the first interracial kiss aired on American television. And while Trek’s significance in its stance on the Civil Rights movement is important, my research seeks to uncover the ways in which Roddenberry used his platform to enable and encourage queer fans and the spread of slash fiction.

As any truly devoted K/S fan is undoubtedly aware, Roddenberry created the term ‘T’hy’la’ in his novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in order to define the relationship between Kirk and Spock (await an in-depth post focused on both the term and the footnote to which its origin belongs).

But while my thesis is focused on the queer history of Star Trek, this blog will seek to discuss the queer within a number of SF texts (cinema, television, literature) with the aim of highlighting the genre’s problematic of heteronormative culture. Since Star Trek: Discovery (the first iteration of Trek with a character written to be gay) is currently airing, you can expect a weekly post of my thoughts on the show (so far, they’re mostly positive). I can’t guarantee that all of my posts will be strictly academic – I am liable to fangirling and ranting – so to borrow Henry Jenkins’ term, welcome to the blog of an avid aca-fan!