Friday Free for all #47: Better cook, media influence

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website, although it’s been on hiatus since the Christmas Countdown began. Here, I resume with this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Who is a better cook your mother or grandmother?

It depends on which grandmother! As I’ve written about here before, my mother was an amazing cook, while her mother had to basically make due on a very limited budget with a lot of kids.

On the other hand, my dad’s mom was an amazing cook, even if she didn’t dabble in the exotic ethnic cuisines that my mother did. Of course, my dad was a lot older than my mom, and his mother grew up with a pioneer and Great Depression background.

For as long as I can remember, she and her second husband (my step-grandfather, but the only grandfather I ever knew) grew pretty much everything they ate, and she was into making preserves, apple butter, and canning everything. She was also always in charge at all the Thanksgiving dinners that would be held annually at her place.

My mom and my only west coast aunt (my dad’s sister-in-law) assisted, but Grandma Neva was large and in charge despite her tiny stature.

When it comes down to it, though, I’d have to say that it’s really a draw between Grandma Neva and my mom. They were both excellent cooks, but Grandma excelled in a few things, while Mom was an expert in many.

Both of my grandmothers, by the way, absolutely put the lie to the “horrid mother-in-law” trope.

What piece of media (book, movie, TV show, etc.) changed the way you viewed the world? In what way?

There are a few, but I’ll start with the one that set me off on the whole stupid idea that I could be a filmmaker, and that’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The initial release was way before my time but, thanks to the vagaries of Hollywood, it was one of those films that would get slapped up in a rush at the Cinerama Dome or other super big-screen cinema whenever some would-be widescreen Hollywood blockbuster tanked and they needed to fill out the engagement.

It was to one of these screenings, when I was nine years old, that my dad took me on a movie date, and the film blew me away for so many reasons. First, it was just stunning to look at. Second, his use of music in it was amazing. Finally, the story made total sense to me (I had to explain it to my dad later), and it cemented my love of hard Science Fiction.

It also made me aware of the idea that “film director” was a thing, and so from that point forward, I read all the Science Fiction I could get my hands on, started writing my own, learned about film directors, and decided that I wanted to be one myself.

In retrospect, a totally stupid decision, because I really didn’t have the patience or the people skills (at the time) to get that far into the minutiae, so instead I focused on screenwriting, and that led to an entirely different but rewarding career path. And it all happened because a nine-year-old kid was enthralled by the sights and sounds on a gigantic movie screen in the dark.

Two other influential works of the literary variety, in chronological order: First would be Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, which I somehow wound up reading in middle school. I don’t remember the exact reasons why, except that I was already a Kurt Vonnegut fan, and a friend of mine had said something like, “Oh, if you like Vonnegut, check out Vidal.”

So I did, because there used to be an annual and ridiculously cheap used book sale at the local mall that was worth riding my bike three miles for every day of it, and the thing that The City and the Pillar taught me was that “gay people exist.”

Now, although it was written at a point in time when publishers absolutely demanded that gay protagonists met sad ends, Vidal still made the ending ambiguous enough so that I didn’t get it at the time. (Hint: on a later reading, and probably a revised edition, the gay hero basically rapes and kills the straight best friend he’s been obsessed with, and is probably later arrested for it. Oops.)

But this did lead me to read more Vidal. His histories are fantastic and worth looking into, and his Myra Breckenridge is a masterwork.

Finally, there’s Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, and while this one really turned my head around when I was (appropriately) 23, in later years, my opinions have somewhat changed.

The origin of the book — actually, three books that were eventually published in one omnibus volume — was this. Wilson and Shea were both writers for Playboy magazine in the late 60s and early 70s, and they saw some crazy shit in the reader mail.

Remember, despite being a titty mag, Playboy was also very respected for its editorial content, particularly interviews with celebrities and politicians, and investigative articles. Hell, that’s why my gay ass was a subscriber in college.

Their editorial content was top-level stuff. Not to mention that they snuck in plenty of man-cake via frequent “Sex in the Cinema” articles.

Anyway, the two Bobs plowed through their share of insane conspiracy theories, so they finally decided to write a novel based on the idea that every batshit theory of the time was 100% true.

Imagine doing that now. Toss in everything QANON, the flat-earthers, 9-11 Truthers, chemtrail and UFO believers, anti-5G and anti-vaxxers, and so on. That’s basically what they did, pulling from the extreme left and extreme right at the same time.

They also modeled the whole story structure on James Joyce’s Ulysses, and stuffed it with parodies and references to things like Atlas Shrugged, the Beatles, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so on.

Now, when I first read it, the main point I took away was that reality is different for everyone. I perceive a universe unique to me, and you do the same for you. And that really stuck, and still does because it’s true. Wilson referred to it in his later works as everyone having their own unique “reality tunnel.”

This meshes well with the current concept of everyone having their own bubble when it comes to beliefs.

I proceeded to read everything Wilson ever wrote, and also attended several seminars that he held in L.A., and for years he was basically my guiding light and guru.

But then I got older, grew up, and drifted away, and I revisited the Illuminatus! Trilogy several times over the years, the last one fairly recently, and it was a quite different experience for two reasons.

One is that while Wilson’s brand of non-Randian Libertarianism was attractive when I was in my 20s, it makes less than no sense now. Also, I don’t buy into his total cynicism regarding our elected officials and political parties. He landed on the side of “no politician can ever do anything good.” I’ve wound up in the place of “pull you panties out of your ass and give them a chance.”

Finally, my latest read of the book gave me a big “Whoa, dude,” when I realized that there was quite a seam of rampant homo- and transphobia running through it and its sequel trilogy.

Imagine that. Coming from someone claiming to be open-minded and accepting of the idea that everyone perceives reality differently. Wow.

Although he did lead me down the path of trying hallucinogens, which only led to good things. Probably the fastest way to heal the country and set everyone on the proper path of “We are all in this together, and whatever divisions we think we have are illusions,” would be for everyone to drop acid in a controlled setting and with trained guides.

It and other hallucinogens are different than most other drugs. Opiates, downers, nicotine, and alcohol just numb you to everything. Cocaine, amphetamines, caffeine, and sugar just hype you up without focus.

But LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and ecstasy do the opposite of both. See, what they do is remove the filters on our perceptions that exist to keep us from overloading. We only experience a small fraction of everything our senses actually take in. Our brain filters a lot of it out.

Hallucinogens let it all in but at the same time they also allow us to focus on all of it at once as well. So it’s literally the opposite of both other opposites, which is some heavy Hegelian shit right there. It really is the synthesis that goes beyond the thesis and antithesis of downers and uppers.

Thanks to reading about it in Wilson’s works, I eventually gained the courage to try LSD, and it was truly life-changing. I did it a number of times, and every experience was amazing. The other great part about it is that it is non-addicting. It was a secular spiritual experience in a lot of ways, and so something to be treated as a special ritual.

Of course, most of the acid in the U.S., if not the world, went away with a gigantic drug bust back in 2000. Which is silly, really, especially considering that this drug was quite legal from its synthesis in 1938, although Albert Hoffmann didn’t realize it was an hallucinogen until 1943.

It was used in mental health settings, the CIA considered weaponizing it, and everything was good until it was outlawed in the U.S. in 1968 — not coincidentally because it was popular with the “counterculture” (i.e. people who didn’t like Republicans) at the time, and the so-called “War on (Some) Drugs” was initiated specifically with them as targets.

Yes, that’s something I learned from Wilson as well. Hopefully, that tide is finally turning.

Reconsidering Myra

Sometimes, it’s possible for a work of art to be so damn far ahead of its time that no one gets it until years later, and I was reminded of this recently when random events led me to take another look at the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s infamous novel Myra Breckinridge. At the time it came out, the movie was hyped with the tag line, “From the book that couldn’t be written comes the motion picture that couldn’t be made!”

Now, I’ll admit up-front that I’ve always liked the movie and the book because they are both transgressive, and I’m also a huge fan of everything Vidal ever wrote. The novel is epistolary in structure, meaning it appears as a series of letters and memos, alternating between the voices of the titular Myra and her uncle Buck Loner, owner of the acting school she wants to take over. It’s actually not at all an uncommon style. One of the most famous examples is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A more recent example is World War Z, which itself was directly influenced by Stud Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. The epistolary form is a very interesting and compelling story structure. In fact, it’s sort of a lynch-pin of a lot of modern gaming, whether text or action based.

But the main point is that Vidal’s original put us in the heads of the protagonist and antagonist and made us understand them both, although Buck’s recorded memos are decidedly colder and more self-serving, not to mention that he likes to lie about shit, while Myra lays it all out to explain what she’s up to. And, in retrospect, the movie does a good job at nodding to that while not sticking in it because, honestly, nothing would be more boring than a film in which we just watch two people write letters. But we do open with an actual view of the words Myra writes, and we have several scenes in which we see Buck record his memos, so the hat tip to the original is there.

What’s really interesting about the film is that the decidedly X-rated Myra (when that rating was still a thing), premiered two months after Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It seemed like movie-going audiences were ready for adult fare and, indeed, Midnight Cowboy grossed $44.8 million on a budget of $3.2 million or, adjusted for inflation, the film cost $21 million to make, but brought back just under $293 million.

The real problem was that while the MPAA trademarked all of its other ratings, they did not do so for X, and suddenly producers of exploitation and pornographic films started to slap the X on them in hopes of getting the same legitimacy as Hollywood fare like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, and Last Tango in Paris, all of which were originally rated X.

Side note: What was considered “adult” back then would barely raise eyebrows today. Any single episode of any made-for-cable or streaming show now would have given the censors of the ‘60s and ‘70s total aneurysms despite the expanded sexual freedom as the Hays Code got kicked to the curb. It’s arguable that the only reason that Cowboy did get the X-rating is because of two scenes which imply but don’t show oral sex and anal rape, both acts involving only men.

The other weird thing about Myra is that the book was critically acclaimed while the movie was lambasted. The novel was also the first to depict a transgender character, not to mention that she was also the narrator and protagonist. Above all, it is a satire on gender roles and how they are artificially constructed, particularly via mass media.

The film was universally panned and it flopped, making only $4 million on a budget of $5.4 million, or, adjusted for inflation, taking in only $26.2 million on a budget of $37.3. And this was with an all-star cast of its era — Raquel Welch, Mae West, John Huston, Jim Backus, and John Carradine. It was the film that introduced both Farah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, and gave then well-known critic and gossip columnist Rex Reed his film debut (asshole in real life, but actually kind of hot here) — playing the pre-transition version of Raquel’s character to boot. Hell, even Toni Basil, of 80s pop music fame, turns up in a small role.

So I had a re-watch of the film a couple of days ago and, again, while the movie has always been one of my guilty pleasures, I put it in that “so bad it’s good category,” except that now, for some reason on this re-watch, my reaction was, “OMG. This move is really, really good.”

What stuck out, first of all, is that the A-List stars in this thing really, really got it. Nothing was supposed to have been taken seriously because everything was satire and parody. And it’s satire on so many levels. First of all, the film takes a major stab at the illusion that Hollywood is a fantasy factory that will make any rube who wanders in from the sticks instantly famous just because they’re pretty, but in reality makes it a habit to suck them dry of their money while doing nothing to help them improve their talent or make real connections. One character pretty much just says it outright: Students enroll in Buck Loner’s acting school, but none of them ever seem to graduate. And what happens to Rusty and Mary Ann is the literal embodiment of what the industry figuratively does to the naïfs who come here.

Second is how the film explodes the self-importance of those who have made it. John Huston’s character, Buck Loner, is the archetypal Hollywood cowboy star of the 1930s through 1950s. His students adore him, but he is clearly a walking parody from his first entrance. As played by Huston, Loner is clearly too stupid to get this. The only reason his students love him is because he might know people who know people, but the second that façade falls, they would run away.

And then there’s Myra, whose character thinks that the last important American motion picture was made in 1945. In case that date seems arbitrary, keep this in mind: That was the year that the U.S. nuked Japan and yes, we filmed it, so it’s entirely possible that this was the movie she was referring to. (There’s even stock footage of a nuclear bomb test that punctuates a pivotal moment in the film.) She also likes to dress like film starlets of the 1940s, and at one point appears in a uniform that looks very much like U.S. Navy dress white. And when you think about that, it’s a bit of a double gender-bender: a transwoman intentionally becoming a drag king, so basically a woman born in a man’s body who has become a woman through gender confirmation surgery, but then dresses like a man.

On top of all that, the movie is sprinkled with clips from classic American films made before 1945, and the filmmakers were promptly sued over several of them because certain actors didn’t want their work associated with something they saw as pornographic.

Yeah, they entirely missed the point, too.

If Myra were given a re-release today, I have no doubt that it would find an audience and become an instant classic. I’m pretty sure that Millennials would get it immediately. Why? Because it’s a movie that skewers pretension and the artificiality of gender roles, as well as inverts privilege and power. It repurposes pop culture of its era, further tweaking the self-importance of the mass media power structure, and it’s heroine is a very strong woman who knows what she wants and goes out to get it.

It also brings up a really good question. While remakes generally suck, this just might be one movie that merits one today, but updated. Hm. Forty years after… If it comes out next year and we keep the relative timing, that means that modern Myra would think that the last great American movie came out in 1995. If all of the clips reference films made between that year and 1965, when the Hays Code ended, it would give us a hell of an assortment, covering everything from the Getaway and the original Myra to game-changer blockbusters like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars, among many others.

Casting? Well… Rhys Ernst as Myron, Rain Valdez as Myra. (Double switch, because they’re both transgendered.) Clint Eastwood would be a mega-score as Buck Loner but, short of him… Arnold Schwarzenegger? And for total stunt casting, who do we get for the Mae West Part? Um… Raquel, of course, because she’s now of that age, and I’m sure that she’d love the karmatic revenge, since Mae was so awful to her. Hell, they could be the subject of a future episode of Feud. And if Ms. Welch demurred, then the next logical choice, again for reasons of symmetry, would be Anjelica Huston who, while she’s a decade younger than West was then and Welch is now, she’s also the daughter of the original Buck Loner.

Rusty, who gets pegged by Myra? Zack Efron. As for Rusty’s girlfriend and Mae’s stud? Yeah, let’s toss those roles to two lucky unknowns, just like the original.

For the Carradine and Backus cameos, I’d cast Martin Sheen and Seth MacFarlane, respectively, again because of the echoes of the originals — a famous actor father with famous acting sons, and a perennial and beloved TV and voiceover star.

But there’s one more step. See, Vidal wrote a sequel, Myron, which continued the story but which was also a total satire of the Nixon years with television as the medium instead of film. In a nutshell, Myra is back to being Myron, who is now living a straight, masculine, cis-gender life, married to Mary Ann — Fawcett’s character — but then he literally gets sucked into an imaginary 1948 Maria Montez movie Siren of Babylon while watching it on the late-night movie on TV (Maria did make a film in 1949 called Siren of Atlantis, though, but note the year of both the real and fictional movies. Neither one of them could have been any good according to Myra.)

Once Myron is in the movie, he’s stuck in the narrative while it’s airing but able to wander around the lot during commercials, and then Myra starts to re-emerge and tries to take over, much to Myron’s chagrin.

But… Myra/Myron as a limited run series with each book still set in its original era would get even more meta as we moved from the first book into the second. And the wrap-around meta to that maybe? The whole thing is told from the POV of a modern-day grad student majoring in social media and minoring in gender studies who is watching the movie or reading the books in order to write their thesis, except that maybe they get sucked into them, too, and the grad student is the kind of non-binary, gender-queer, and self-accepting person that people from the age of Myra or Myron couldn’t ever possibly even conceive of existing but which they have always subconsciously hoped to become. Maybe the character could be called Myrum —if you got that, you really know your Latin — or Myrex, which is actually probably better on about five hundred levels, and if you get that one, you really know your Latin@.

Hm. Myra/Myron/Myrex. Hey, FX… are you listening? Nine episodes, great ratings. Easy peasy, pan comido.

Photo: Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten.