Saturday, March 29, 2014

I Honestly Know Me: An Evaluation Of An Evaluation



This is a most unusual post. It does not deal with subject matter I normally talk about on this blog, or with anyone outside of my partner, my doctor, and my immediate family. This is my first post about my firm belief that I am an Aspergian (one with Asperger's Syndrome), and the devastating consequences that have resulted from my failing to realize this until well into my thirties. I can only imagine how many millions of people are struggling in their lives, in ways they can neither understand nor express, because they have no idea that they, too, are on the autistic spectrum. This first post is about the role that cultural stereotypes and my own constructed identity have played in making a diagnosis more difficult than I had expected. If not for the discovery of countless personal testimonials in books or online, I might still doubt myself about who I am and what it is that I am dealing with. Based on incredible feedback generated by past posts, I suspect many people out there are facing the same exact challenges that I am, and for the same exact reasons. And I hope that sharing my experiences may be beneficial to any of them who read this.


Part 1: August 29th, 2013

For the month leading up to the appointment, I was under the impression I would be undergoing a daylong series of neurological tests to determine if I, my family, and my referring physician were correct in the assumption that I have Asperger's Syndrome. I was so wrought with anxiety about what these tests would entail and how I would fare under them that I could not sleep for the two nights prior to what turned out to be a forty minute interview.

The appointment began at 8:30 AM. The neurologist came out to the waiting room to call me into an office where the evaluation began with a question along the lines of "so what brings you here today?". The neurologist was polite, but not especially friendly, with voice and body language suggesting to me that the neurologist felt I did not belong there and that this was a pointless exercise. Or, perhaps, that said neurologist was extremely tired. I told the neurologist about my family's encouragement in my being tested and my having many traits since childhood (as corroborated by relatives and many videotapes) up to the present. I told the neurologist that I have a family history of autism as well as bipolar disorder. I noted that while I had a cursory knowledge of Asperger's, I avoided researching too much so as not to impact my evaluation. I was asked a series of questions while the neurologist looked at a computer screen and typed.

I had begun the interview by stating that it was my sister who approached me about Asperger’s Syndrome after viewing Temple Grandin's TED Talk and being reminded the whole time of me. I indicated that growing up in a protective bubble with my parents and sister in a happy but insulated childhood allowed me to feel more comfortable expressing myself but meant that it took me much longer to pick up on how people in the world outside of my home would react to such expression. I even mentioned my “Vogue Boy” video because I felt that the performance people were seeing on video did not match who I really was off camera. What countless viewers interpreted as brave was in many ways blissful ignorance. (Something closer to my personality, if still meant for audience approval, was put on display in another video shot that same summer in a “1-2-3 Video” message booth.)

When asked about my early verbal communication, I referenced having been told over the years by my mother that I had uttered my first word at three months old when I greeted a housekeeper with a "Hi". The neurologist seemed skeptical. It may have been that this seemed out of character for a child with AS. But, that morning, I read the reaction as doubt that this event had even occurred. That at three months I had begun expertly mimicking sounds in response to specific stimuli seemed buried underneath overall suspicion, which fueled my subsequent insecurity about how my answers were being received.

I made it clear that I am a recluse living with my parents in my childhood home and that I had seen hardly any other people for the last year. I stressed that crippling social anxiety, not a lack of desire to be working, was the reason why I cannot get a job and turn my life around in spite of all the people who look at me and see nothing more than a typical “loser” stereotype. When asked about my sleeping schedule, I revealed with my trademark New England/Catholic guilt/shame that I am most inclined to go to sleep around 5 AM and wake up around 2 PM. This counters society's expectations of "normal", and I've spent two decades trying to conform, but it has been my natural tendency since puberty kicked into high gear at the age of thirteen. I didn't get a verbal response. But the neurologist's non-verbal response seemed to me, once again, critical and vaguely judgmental.

The most surprising interaction came about when the neurologist asked me if I dated or had girlfriends in high school. I told the neurologist that I’m gay, and that I knew this back then but was not out at the time. I told the neurologist that I did not cover this up by dating females, and emphasized that I was adamant about not leading girls on after a close female friend had had feelings for me which I could not reciprocate at a time when I could not be honest as to why. While typing, the neurologist stated, in regards to my being gay: “it was pretty obvious, but I have to ask”. At the time, I laughed, as I did not interpret it as hate speech. In hindsight, I feel this was part of an overall sense of dismissiveness that permeated the reactions to my answers.

Asked about my ability to read other people being angry or upset, I noted that my tendency was the extreme opposite: I always fear having just hurt people and I always think people are left upset. I begin to question every move I've made and everything I've said and in what way I could have hurt someone enough with what I've said or done to potentially destroy them. Someone telling me they love me one minute doesn't mean I won't be convinced I have not earned their hate the next minute, hence a perennial need for assurance. I don't know how much of this I conveyed in the office because what was on my mind and how it came out seems to have been somewhat disconnected. But I'd like to think I made it clear that my empathy, while abundant rather than lacking, is still extremely abnormal.

After giving my answers, I looked at my hands or looked at the wall or at the floor while the doctor looked at the screen and typed in silence. All of the neurologist's questions were met with honest answers. Most of these honest answers would indicate AS. But these were ultimately dismissed on the basis that: a.) I get along well with my immediate family, b.) I care intensely and obsessively about not hurting other people's feelings, and c.) "you seem amiable to me". According to the neurologist, my concern for the feelings of others indicated I did not have Asperger’s Syndrome, as “people with Asperger’s don’t really care if other people are happy”. The neurologist felt that my being close to my sister indicated I did not have Asperger’s Syndrome since the difficulty that people with AS have interacting with other people begins at home, and thus it would be unlikely someone with Asperger's would get along with family members.

The neurologist felt that simple therapy would treat what the neurologist perceived as severe social anxiety disorder, which had not only impacted my ability to pursue a job but also my ability to keep one for more than a matter of weeks or months. The neurologist felt that my experiences being a gay teenager at an all boys’ Catholic school in the 1990s could be largely responsible. The neurologist suggested that I was likely still dealing with unresolved anxiety from my semi-closeted high school years.

I reiterated something that I brought up early on in the evaluation, which is that I had been rapidly flapping my hands in states of intense thought or heightened excitement ever since childhood, when I did it openly, and that this is something I constantly still do in private as an adult. In the most alarming statement of the evaluation, the neurologist offered that this, too, was directly related to my homosexuality. “Most of my gay friends use their hands a lot” was the specific response. Once again, I laughed this off. 

The neurologist followed up this summation by noting that if I wanted to I could still make an appointment to undergo four hours of neurological testing to know for sure whether or not I had Asperger’s. At that point, I was anxiety-ridden, discouraged, and in doubt of my ability to understand anything about myself. I could not wait to get out of there, so I turned down the opportunity. I accepted the diagnosis despite my misgivings, I referenced my "Vogue Boy" video (no doubt a an unconscious suggestion to reconsider the diagnosis), and cheerily said goodbye with a big smile because I was so happy to be leaving. 


Part 2: March 29th, 2014

Over six months after my evaluation, I discovered that a number of challenges faced by my partner and I are commonplace in relationships in one which one (or both) partners have AS.  I proceeded to read books and testimonials from Aspergians writing in defense of their unique emotional make-up. Learning that perhaps intense over-empathy is being mistaken as a lack of empathy in a number of Aspies seemed to hit the nail on the head: this was EXACTLY what I was trying to communicate in the office that day about my skewed emotional make-up, but sadly to no avail. Maybe some Aspies, if not most, don't care if other people are happy. But many Aspergians assert that this oversimplification does not accurately describe all people with Asperger’s, and empathetic Aspies like activist/artist Alex Plank are clearly frustrated with not being heard--or, like myself and many Aspergian females, are not being diagnosed at all. 

My going in for the evaluation in the first place was based not only on my own feelings, but also based on the opinions of my parents, my sister, and my life partner. (Subsequent research has lead me to believe that my aforementioned loved ones are themselves undiagnosed Aspergians, hence the surprising closeness with my family.) One month before the evaluation, I had been referred to the neurologist by my physician, who “would not be surprised” if I was found to have Asperger’s Syndrome  based on knowing me through a handful of appointments over seven months. My physician also suspected that if I had AS, it would likely be a “mild” case. Subsequently, my fear about being evaluated was that my desire to please and my aptitude for unconsciously performing would suggest an outgoing personality and belie the fact that said “personality” is, in fact, a lifelong front. Sadly, my fear was realized. 

For seven months now, that morning of August 29th, 2013 has been a frequent source of pain and regret. I spent the preceding weeks anticipating a definitive neurological confirmation that would allow me to approach my life in a positive new way. I was given a diagnosis based on an interview, leading me to believe that I had apparently misunderstood myself for my entire life. I wore a Michael Jackson t-shirt into the office that day, because it was his birthday, or “Michael Jackson Day”, as I call it. Michael has been a guiding influence on me since my birth, and only more so since his death, and going in I assumed he was on the autistic spectrum, too. When I was told Aspies don't care about the happiness of others, I realized he couldn’t be one either. He, too, was obsessed with other peoples' happiness, and like myself, his isolated and intensely creative life was fueled by this aim to please, from his early success as an ultra-precocious child through his troubled adulthood.

I emphasized where I was at in my life, and not without a great deal of shame. I was thirty one, living with my parents, and had become a recluse. I was too anxious to drive a car or see people, and thus incapable of interviewing for a job or shopping around for a suitable therapist. I was spending my days writing by myself and my nights watching movies by myself. It is an endless cycle of solitude that is usually only broken by extended video chats with my partner, whom I feel is a fellow "Aspie" and who is also presently living with his family in a nearly identical situation. I have since learned that my present life, as described to the neurologist, is sadly not an unfamiliar manifestation of undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. I am, like so many other undiagnosed adults, suffering the inevitable state of disconnection and uncertainty that comes with not knowing "what's wrong with me" in relation to the rest of the human race. If I had realized just how NOT alone I was, and just how RIGHT I was to be there that day, I would never have turned down the opportunity to undergo the very testing I thought I was showing up for in the first place. I went in for an evaluation based on traits that I saw in myself for years prior to the low point that my life had sunk to. I had no idea that day that said low point is further indication that I am not only correct in my assumption, but would have benefited immeasurably from having been diagnosed years earlier. And I would give anything to have known all of this last August. 

Prior to the evaluation, I was shocked and relieved to learn that rapidly flapping my hands while in a state of excitement brought about by intense inwardness--something which consistently attracted amusement throughout childhood before becoming a hidden, embarrassing trait ever since--is a defining trait of individuals on the autistic spectrum. But I did not know the word for this, “stimming”, until after my evaluation. I suspect that my use of grandiose hand gestures while explaining myself, rather than the stimming that I was attempting to explain, is what the neurologist reacted to. Several days later, my sister sent me a YouTube video of a young boy with Asperger’s whose mother asked him to demonstrate and explain his stimming. His behavior, his demeanor, and his description of his internal experience while stimming illustrated everything I had been attempting to communicate in the office and apparently could not. I saw myself in this child, as did my sister. Subsequently, the mortified reaction of everyone with whom I shared the doctor's "most of my gay friends use their hands a lot" statement preempted my own shock in being given such a stereotype-based response to such an incredibly common behavior of individuals on the autistic spectrum.




I would like to stress that I do not believe that the neurologist I spoke with was motivated by any homophobic inclination. With that said, I feel that my being gay was way too prominent an issue in this evaluation. Addressing my sexuality as “pretty obvious” early on and later writing off my stimming as behavior not unlike “most of my gay friends” was troubling, to me and to many of my loved ones. I have always struggled with social relationships, in predominantly gay as well as predominantly straight environments. Thus I do not agree with the theory that my problems today are directly rooted in my Catholic high school years, particularly not after fifteen subsequent years of being relentlessly open about my sexuality and in a decade-long relationship with another man. Two of my oldest friends, neither of whom I see very often but both of whom have been in my life since our youth, both separately joked that I had gone in for Asperger’s testing and been diagnosed as gay.


Based on the neurologist’s facial expressions and body language, I interpreted skepticism, condescension, and general irritation. I took the neurologist's "so what brings you here today?" as an implication that this was an audition as much as an evaluation. I proceeded accordingly, answering the questions and reading the signs sent by someone who struck me as going down a checklist rather than exhibiting concern for what I was saying and where it was coming from. Throughout the evaluation, I felt that the neurologist was looking at me as though I was looking at Asperger's as a scapegoat for my neurosis. I may very well have been correct in this assumption. Or I may very well have entirely misread the non-verbal cues before me. If indeed I completely misread the neurologist, then I feel all the more convinced that I have Asperger's. But regardless of the accuracy of my interpretation, by the time the forty minutes was up, I felt browbeaten and stripped of any sense of self beyond being gay and seemingly “amiable”. I also felt like such a neurotic stereotype that I turned down the tests I had wanted to have done so as to avoid further embarrassing myself in the eyes of the neurologist. 

I know that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. This is based not only on the overwhelming extent to which I can personally identify with the experiences of diagnosed individuals, but also based on the observations and memories of people close to me whom I have knowingly or unknowingly revealed my true self to in the years between my being an ahead-of-his-years child and a what-went-wrong-with-him adult. I also know that my evaluation had a catastrophic effect on my self-esteem. I feel that a big part of my reaction in this regard was based on the fact that the evaluation seemed bound to end in dismissal from the get-go. That such focus would be placed on my sexuality suggests that perhaps my feigned demeanor had a bigger influence on my diagnosis than did my honest answers to the questions I was asked. Since that day, I have struggled to feel like myself again. But thanks to incredible blogs like SeventhVoice, communities like Alex Plank's WrongPlanet, and activists/authors like Temple Grandin, Maxine Aston, and John Elder Robison, the voices of people whose life experiences I most relate to are leading me out of the dark.

Up to now, this blog has primarily been a platform for me to worship my favorite stars, rave about my favorite movies, celebrate my favorite pop culture anniversaries, and generally indulge in my perceived narcissism--all indicators of Asperger's, I might add! Thus, you may rightfully be asking why I would suddenly feel the need to discuss extremely personal details about my mental health. And that brings me to the questions I’ve been asking myself in the days leading up to writing this post. Is it not possible that cultural stereotypes of gay men as high-strung and idol-obsessed has permeated science and medicine, and to such an extent that autism is being confused with homosexuality? Is it not possible that in the seven months since I accepted my diagnosis that numerous other LGBTQ people have accepted similar diagnoses, putting aside their self-understanding in favor of an expert opinion? And, more importantly, is it possible that doing so has lead to the same depression, anxiety, and overwhelming self-doubt that has swallowed up the last seven months of my own life? 

I have only myself to blame for letting anxiety and self-doubt hold me back from giving a “Yes” answer when offered the testing I so wanted. And so I blamed only myself for the last seven months. Now, I anxiously await the opportunity to finally undergo neurocognitive testing in July. I could not be more excited about Summer 2014, and I pray it provides the assurance and optimism I sought out in Summer 2013. In the meantime, I will fight to believe in MY understanding of myself, even if it means fighting against the real or perceived skepticism of others. I stand alongside everyone waging a war against such doubt, and will keep my comrades up to date through future posts.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

FYI File: Fantasy, Nostalgia, and "The 2014 Project"

Now that this blog has been given its third and final (I swear!!) name, I thought I would shake things up a bit. Nothing so crazy as dropping the pink text color or updating the general appearance to a post-1997 look, of course. But there's a lot I've been wanting to say, so rather than post a succession of lengthy blog posts, I thought I'd post this variety pack of short ones. 

The Twentieth Anniversary of My Obsession With Anniversaries


The hits package that redefined my life. Like, seriously!

January '14 marked the 20th anniversary of my obsession with anniversaries. My first-time viewings of Starman, The Shining, Dawn of the Dead, and Working Girl on blistery and/or snowy Friday nights in January '94 mobilized in me a 1980s nostalgia that never went away. But it wasn't just the movies I watched that month, it was also buying THE album: Totally 80s, the 2-CD Razor & Tie compilation that was advertised on TV all the time before becoming the soundtrack to most of my life in the sixth grade. From 1994 on I was fetishizing every aspect of '80s pop culture while lambasting everything I could about the '90s. However, happy Friday nights ritualistically spent at the local multiplex limited my aptness for thrashing then-contemporary film. 



It is now a time capsule for what the world looked like in March '94,
but The Paper also remains grown-up Hollywood fare at its most brilliantly entertaining.

For the Class of 2000, 1994 was the year when the sixth grade ended and the seventh grade began. Thus the year closed with my being knee deep in adolescent angst, which only kept me going back into the past. I continually found myself disappointed by reality, so I was constantly choosing fantasies that were constructed in another era. My pre-pubescent childhood had been so happy, and the spirit of the '80s was so inextricably linked to my own soul, that I lamented the decade until it became an over-idealized Heaven that I dreamed of dying and going back to. I was not unaware of this being unhealthy, but that didn't make it any less painful to push forward, not when I discovered that being a teenager was to be a lot less pleasant than I had been imagining in the '80s. Instead of forging a new path that would make childhood dreams come true, I clung to the past as an escape while reality came crashing down in the present. And, for better or for worse, I've been inclined to do this ever since.




I related to Tess McGill when I was twelve. I still do now.
And I'll bet many of you reading this feel the exact same way.


A Sorta-Facade On The Verge of Sorta-Crumbling

There has been so much that I have wanted to communicate through this blog over the last fifteen months, but during said fifteen months my life has been in a major state of upheaval. Actually, it was in upheaval when I started this blog back in 2011. But way back then, things in my life were just starting to turn upside down, and the coinciding mini-phenomenon of “Vogue Boy” allowed me to escape reality like never before. For a moment in Summer '11, it felt like my dreams of being an artist and a star had been instantly realized when that video achieved its peak popularity in one weekend. It was during that delightfully manic moment that I quickly decided to become a blogger, and my early entries here are thus defined by an optimism, and even a sense of fulfillment, that apparently represents me at my purest.  
The-blog-formerly-known-as-RobWorld has been a tremendous outlet in the three years since since then, for it has allowed me to unlock and release parts of myself through the written word in a way that I could never do within the format of a screenplay. But for well over a year, I have not been inclined to do any unlocking or releasing, for I have discovered that my life experiences are a lot less vivid in my mind after I make them public here. And, as evidenced in past entries, my memories, and the role they play in shaping my creative output, are too precious to me to be sacrificed.
On some level, I've gotten more screenwriting done by not blogging. But on most levels it has denied me an outlet that I need: not only to write, but to be read. I might not have a huge readership on here, but the feedback I've received in personal messages has been too awesome to be ignored. There is no better feeling than knowing a handful of people were affected by work that they personally related to, or which made them look at a movie or a person or a similar life experience in a new light. I don’t know if I’ll start writing again more regularly, because I thought that that would be the case last November....and it wasn’t. But I think this has a lot to do with my wanting to make every post an event, in turn defeating the purpose that this blog serves, for me, in the first place. I am a hopeless neurotic, still in the middle of a challenging and annoyingly long life chapter, and I need a place to let all this shit out. Some people go to therapy. I go to the stage. And that’s exactly what this blog is to me.


From Sixteen To Thirty-Two: "The 2014 Project"

Like the film itself, I'll NEVER forget the first time I saw this trailer!

When I was sixteen, I realized that Wes Craven's Scream was released exactly eighteen years after John Carpenter's Halloween, which itself had been released exactly eighteen years after Alfred Hitchcock's PsychoYears later, I would realize that Val Lewton and Jacque Tourneur's Cat People’s limited release in December 1942 meant it was the movie that launched this every-eighteen-years cycle. Since then, I’ve been anticipating "The 2014 Project", a film that would, like the aforementioned four films, inject the horror-viewing experience with enough wit and suspense to change the cinematic landscape and redefine the genre for another two decades.


The most bewitching of Hollywood films and
possibly the most influential horror movie ever made.


Since the late '90s, I have secretly hoped that the Universe would see fit to choose me to write this 2014 horror film, and much of my creative life has been spent preparing myself to be worthy of such an opportunity. Alas, I've proven far more adept at writing screenplays than actually getting them made into movies. And without ever seeing your work on some screen, one can hardly feel like a real screenwriter. So last year I attempted to put work of which I remain as proud as ever temporarily behind me, and to instead take a stab at crafting "The 2014 Project". I spent the entirety of 2013 working on eight different scripts, each of which I had hoped could potentially reinvent "the American horror film", but none of which ever made it to their respective finish lines. By New Year’s Eve, I was forced to admit defeat. I was proud of the work I had done, and confident that one day the characters and story elements from this arsenal of partial completion would find their way into my future projects. But by no means did I come close to striking the gold that I was digging for.


If every attempt at crafting a pure suspense picture was even half
as effective as Halloween, the world would be a much better place.

It was not until the very end of 2013 and the very beginning of 2014 that a burst of renewed inspiration and ambition (my favorite cocktail) launched me on a new path. My dream, in this easy-to-shoot-but-hard-to-distribute world of modern indie filmmaking, was that the work flowing out of me would find its way into the right hands, and a quickly-realized project (Cat People, Psycho, Halloween, and Scream were themselves low-cost/high-speed shoots) could theoretically find its way onto a VOD platform or into an early 2015 film festival. But nearly a third of the way into 2014, I'm inclined to believe that that dream will not come true....and I'm okay with that. It’s very likely that a great horror film will come along and make the impact I was hoping to make while I'm still pining away, and if that happens, I can finally say I was right all along. And hopefully, if that happens, 'my little horror film', whenever it makes its way to the screen, will still earn itself a place in the hearts of like-minded movie lovers. But for now, I think I'll put my faith in "The 2032 Project": I have good reason to believe I might be capable of writing something worthy of comparison to the aforementioned films when I'm fifty. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the writing process instead of mourning my failure to be where I thought I would be when I was half the age that I am right now. 


No movie-going experience has come close to the first two times I saw Scream on the big screen. And I'm 99.44% sure that this will always be the case.

Furthermore, assuming that the every-eighteen-years cycle really does extend into this century, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for the film that will ultimately redefine our collective concept of modern horror movies. There are already a few potential contenders in the pipeline, and 2014 has only just begun...





Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Twenty Years Of Living Dangerously




From the very beginning of my adoration of her, I have always viewed Madonna as an actress first and a singer second. Everything about her life is drenched in performance, and every performance she has ever given is drenched in her life. The lines blur in a fascinating way that no doubt plays a role in her longevity and ability to continually evolve both creatively and commercially. In fact, it is easier for me to understand people’s complaints about her singing than it is for me to get the whole “Madonna can’t act” stigma. She has managed to continually deflect criticism of her voice, at least publicly, but she has never been able to hide her vulnerability to critics' savagery about her performances on the big screen.


This paper was written in November/December 2005, when Confessions On A Dancefloor brought about a dramatic resurgence of interest in Madonna’s music after the relative failure of American Life. I was a student at Emerson College, and this was my final assignment in an “American Independent Cinema” course with the great Rachel Thibault. The course rejuvenated my love for indie cinema at the same time that Madonna’s “Confessions” rejuvenated my love for Euro-flavored disco. And when I revisited Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game on DVD that Fall, I bridged my in-class and out-of-class identities in celebration of the most criminally underrated work in Madonna’s filmography.





I was working on this up until the literal last minute, when I ran out the door after printing it out. Thus my hand-in version was rougher, and a lot less clear, than I would ever have wanted it to be.  That’s why I have trimmed and polished it a bit more than my other Emerson College compositions previously resurrected for this blog. I’m not sure how effective it is in its current form, as it is essentially a condensed chapter from a book I’ve always dreamed of writing about Madonna’s screen career. Nonetheless, I hope it makes a worthy tribute to a film that is most deserving of celebration on its 20th Anniversary.






Robert E. Jeffrey 12/13/05

MA421: Final.

                                  Dangerous Deconstruction



It could be said that the term “independent film” is an oxymoron. For an artist to make a film, the artist must accept the fundamental, perhaps shattering truth that they cannot be the sole creator of their work. Writing and live performance are forms of expression which can theoretically be executed anywhere, by anyone, with or without assistance. Cinema, on the other hand, necessitates that the most independently functioning of artists break free from a potential mindset of creating art solely for oneself and judging art solely by one’s own standards. Filmmaking is defined by constant interactions among a wide array of individual artists coming together to birth a work that will inevitably turn out to be quite different from what any one of them might have imagined on their own. This disparity between the vision and the aptly titled “product” probably serves to explain the careers of numerous artists whose work in film rarely, if ever, fulfills their artistic potential. In the case of Madonna, the world’s most famous artist of any medium, the perennial challenge of balancing the desire to control and the need to submit has resulted in one of the most high-profile yet almost universally dismissed film careers of any actor with two decades’ worth of leading roles under her belt.


People really need to see things now more than any time before. They want to build a fantasy around you. This is the age of escapism because the world is in such horrible shape right now. They want to enjoy looking at you and have fantasies about being with you, or they are going to have fantasies about being you. I did the same thing as a child. I do the same thing even now. I think it’s really important for people to have something tangible, and if it’s good looking, and interesting, then that’s even better.
                            
                                Madonna, 1984 UK Radio Interview
                                                   
From the beginning of her career, Madonna has continually sought refuge in the world of independent film, both to sharpen her craft as an actress and to shed, reveal, and reconstruct her media persona through self-financed productions. Excluding student films and avant-garde shorts that she filmed in New York, Madonna’s career in independent film began with the 1985 Susan Seidelman screwball satire Desperately Seeking Susan and peaked with Alek Keshisian’s Truth or Dare, a rockumentary cum sociological study centered around “Madonna ‘90” and her extravagant, cinematic Blond Ambition world tour. Both films are the most critically acclaimed of Madonna’s career. The low-budget “Susan” was one of the most profitable comedies of the 1980s, and Truth or Dare went on to be “the most financially successful documentary of all time” (Rettenmund 3, 48, 179) until the unprecedented success of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 over a decade later. They are also among the most analyzed American films of the past twenty-five years among post-feminists and media scholars—and, presumably, the incoming generations of young people who have been literally “growing up with” Madonna. Independent film, however, has rarely been discussed as a key component to the success of the world’s most recognizable female entertainer. Feminism, religion, sexuality, family, power, and American social mores are frequent points of discussion (or criticism) in the endless canon of books, magazine articles, and academic essays devoted to Madonna. Yet her role as “actress” has been so universally panned that acclaim or even serious discussion of this aspect of her career is as “uncool” as it is nearly unheard of. 
Since the release of the 1986 critical/commercial flop Shanghai Surprise, there seems to have been an inordinate amount of periodical space filled by scathing commentary on Madonna’s supposed inability to act, or the low grosses for most of her screen work, or pleas from film critics begging that Madonna please stop making movies. This would seem to have resulted in an inherent taboo around discussing her work on the big screen with the same level of seriousness with which one might be allowed to write about her songs, live shows, or overall cultural impact. Part of the reason for this is inevitably because Madonna continually demonstrates an ability to remain omnipotent in the media, aided by the rise of entertainment coverage in print, on television, and all over the internet. Madonna has been a perennial staple of MTV for well over twenty years thanks to distinctly cinematic music videos which have defined her public persona more than any other aspect of her work. But music videos are rarely acknowledged as screen performances. In the public eye, Madonna thrives as “international icon” and “a legendary entertainer”. This makes Madonna’s task of forging a distance between audience perception and on-screen characterization an even more difficult challenge than for most other “stars”. Nowhere else in her film career was the desire to meet this challenge as apparent as in Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (aka Snake Eyes), the most emotionally challenging film of Madonna’s career—for both the actress and the audience. 




Excepting his director-for-hire job helming the 1993 Body Snatchers remake, Snake Eyes (Dangerous Game’s shooting title) was Abel Ferrara’s first film after the success of Bad Lieutenant the previous year. It was also the first project to be released by Madonna’s Maverick Films production company (“Interviews: Vol. 2”), and by all accounts Madonna went into Snake Eyes with nothing short of rabid enthusiasm. In a January 1993 American press conference to promote her upcoming film Body of Evidence, Madonna admitted that, in the years since her big screen triumph as “Susan”, she had made mistakes in selecting scripts based on a desire to be a movie star. She suggested that Body of Evidence and the upcoming Snake Eyes offered more substantive characters than the roles she had played in the past, and would ideally boost her reputation as a serious actress. “I love all of [Abel’s] movies. I think he’s a brilliant director and I love his unrelenting honesty about everything. [Snake Eyes] is written by Abel and Nick St. John, and it’s a psychological drama kind of like Truffaut’s Day for night”. (“Interviews: Vol. 2”) Ahead of production, Disney president Joe Roth personally told Madonna that Snake Eyes would only further damage her screen career when he forced her to choose between filming the studio’s Angie I Says or Ferrara’s “dark” new film, both of which began shooting at the same time. Madonna was forced to turn down the title role in what would ultimately be released as Angie—a vehicle written specifically for Madonna. (“Interviews: Vol. 2”)


In Snake Eyes/Dangerous Game, Madonna plays Sarah Jennings, a successful American television star looking to be taken seriously as a screen actor by teaming up with independent film director Eddie Israel and drug-addled method actor Francis Burns in a dark Hollywood drama chronicling the final, violent night of a volatile marriage going down in flames. Harvey Keitel plays Eddie Israel, a director modeled after Abel Ferrara, and James Russo plays Francis Burns, a character possibly modeled after Madonna’s ex-husband, Sean Penn (Rettenmund 45).  The film weaves surreally between the dark lives of the actors and the dark lives of their characters, drawing parallels between the drug use, infidelity, sexual dysfunction, opportunism, and “spiritual death” going on in both worlds. The film rarely adheres to a narrative: it wanders aimlessly through the most uncomfortable sides of adult life, continually reminding its audience of how different the real world is from the movies we are raised on. Throughout its disparaging, boldly anti-commercial journey into Hollywood-as-Hell, Dangerous Game retains its ability to rivet due in large part to three of the most raw, explosive performances to be captured on film in the 1990s.


Madonna, in her first and last Abel Ferrara film, shed the mannered style of Old Hollywood goddesses with whom she had aligned herself in the past and delivered the most human, fearless performance of her career. The New York Times offered that “viewers may actually need to remind themselves that they’ve seen this actress somewhere before” (Rettenmund 45). Rather than attempt to subvert the audience’s past association with the film’s leading lady, Ferrara constantly finds sly, almost cruel ways to remind everyone that that is Madonna onscreen. The character’s sense of humor, fashion, and vampiric use of people to forward her career are all traits of the media myth of Madonna, the one born of scandal sheets and tabloid columns. Here, this unflattering image is satirized with an utterly realistic performance. As the New York Press put it, “Madonna has either learned how to act or finally found a character not so different from herself…either way, she’s terrific”. Madonna agreed with the sentiment, but was so horrified by the differences between the film she thought she was making and the final cut Abel Ferrara delivered that she refused to promote the film. (Rettenmund 45)

It was an entirely different movie when I made it—it was such a great feminist statement and she was so victorious at the end. I loved this character. I thought I could take the role and do a great performance. It was going to be this great thing for me. And even though it’s a shit movie and I hate it, I am good in it. But the way Abel edited it completely changed the ending. It was like someone punched me in the stomach. If I’d have known that was the movie I was making, I would never have done it, and I was very honest with him about that.

                                             Madonna, 1994
                                                                                                                                                  
          (St. Michael 104, 105)

Since the beginning of her career, Madonna's persona in film and on television has consistently equated sexuality with power and self-assurance. But in Dangerous Game, her character of Sarah Jennings is a stereotypically whorish wannabe movie star, one with so much disdain for herself that she uses sex and a lack of empathy as a means to an end in furthering her film career. In Mother of Mirrors, the film-within-a-film, we see this young actress being beaten and raped and humiliated, sometimes in character and sometimes out. This performance is a stark contrast to the “pornography-as-power” exercise in gender reversal that had caused an uproar one year prior with the release of Madonna’s Sex book, a work that she oversaw from conception to release—unlike Snake Eyes/Dangerous Game. “I don’t have the power in the film industry that I have in the music industry. The director is the one in control, and everyone else is a pawn. [The director] can take [your] performance in the editing room and completely change the character.” (St. Michael 105) 


                  In the years since its notoriously unsuccessful release, Dangerous Game has largely been overshadowed by Abel Ferrara’s subsequent films outside of Hollywood and Madonna’s subsequent achievements outside of film. It is scarcely touched upon in retrospectives of Madonna’s career, but Ferrara himself has no desire to mince words when it comes to Madonna. "She's a fuckin' jerk!  Like we sit around taking out the best scenes in the movie to spite her. You know how paranoid you gotta be to fuckin' say something like that?" (Jones 3)  Abel Ferrara’s ex-wife, Nancy Ferrara, who played the character of Eddie Israel's wife, Madlyn, recalls the vitriolic reaction Madonna gave Abel upon seeing the rough cut. Being interviewed for Andrew Morton's 2001 biography Madonna, she recalled a series of fuming fax letters that Nancy Ferrara felt revealed more about Madonna than about what was "wrong" with the film.

She was so angry about the movie. The faxes were just nasty. “You fucker, you’ve fucked my life”, that sort of thing. The whole tone was about her, “I” and “me”, “I” and “me". She looked very vulnerable and that was really pulling her apart. At the end she revealed that when she is not in control, she is not as secure or confident as she would like everyone else to think.  She revealed something of her humanity. That is why she wouldn’t endorse it. It hit too close to the bone. She hit on all that emotion and couldn’t face it.”     
Nancy Ferrara                                                       (Morton 257, 263)

           Madonna has clearly been influenced by Hollywood legends like Bette Davis in her attempts to build a body of cinematic work as both an actress and an icon. But Madonna never worked as often before the camera as stars like Bette Davis, making movies only sporadically and rarely making two films back to back without an album or tour in between. Thus the results of Madonna’s attempts to have a great screen career have more often than not been disappointing. Madonna has never been one to shy away from this, but in the case of Dangerous Game, a tremendous work was unfairly deemed a failure by none other than Madonna herself. One might theorize that Madonna’s violent hatred for the final cut stemmed from being unable to construct her own identity within a film that was, seemingly, the antithesis of values she had come to represent. Yet her dual turn as Sarah Jennings and Sarah’s movie-within-a-movie character, Claire, oozes with the “relentless honesty” that drew Madonna to Ferrara in the first place. One cannot help but wonder why she dared not embrace a performance that was so memorably uncompromising, especially when Ferrara’s assaultive approach to cinema was what prompted Madonna to put faith in his ability to bring out the best in her.

“In an interesting artistic inversion, the perceived realism of Madonna’s documentary, Truth or Dare, merely recorded the essential artifice and staginess of her Blond Ambition tour, while in Ferrara’s movie, supposedly an exploration of make-believe, Ferrara ripped away her carefully contrived mask, the director literally wrenching a draining and difficult performance out of her. Madonna never saw it coming.”
                                                             Andrew Morton
(Morton 260)




SPOILER ALERTDon't watch this unless you've either already seen the film....

or never intend to.


Abel Ferrara certainly did bring out the best in Madonna: she’s arguably never been better onscreen. At least as much as her Golden Globe-winning turn in 1996’s Evita, Dangerous Game is celluloid proof that a gifted actress lay within the seemingly fearless, seemingly unstoppable multimedia megastar cum superheroine known worldwide as “Madonna”. The film reveals human frailty behind the shining armor of a warrior goddess, but like a general snatching back plans before they can fall into enemy hands, Madonna was not ready to let down her guard. Perhaps, now a more evolved artist than ever, Madonna will be so willing to once again be this forthright and revealing on the big screen, as she continues to be in other mediums. Regardless, the immortality of film insures that Dangerous Game, like Desperately Seeking Susan before and Evita after, will live on as proof that “Madonna, Queen of Pop” could very well have been “Madonna, Queen of Hollywood”.  







             
WORKS CITED

Jones, Kent. “Abel Ferrara, The Man: Who Cares?” Culture Port: Ret. 12/7/05

Madonna. Interviews. Baktabak Recordings. 1995.

Madonna. Interviews: Volume 2. Baktabak Recordings, 1997.

Morton, Andrew. Madonna. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Rettenmund, Matthew. Encyclopedia Madonnica. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

St. Michael, Mick. Madonna: In Her Own Words. Great Britain: Omnibus Press, 1999.