Yearly Archives: 2005

Holiday Films: Mainlining Popular Culture

I’m afraid I’ve broken my resolution to write bi-monthly this December, a lapse I hope readers will forgive, as the month has been filled with planned family travel, unplanned fatigue, and a general sense of lassitude necessary after the rigors of a semester of teaching. In the new year, I’ll be back to my twice-monthly entries.

I planned to write my next blog about feminist criticism in general, and to engage with Lara Shalson’s piece in the latest Theatre Topics, in which she discusses the importance of criticism to the initial stirrings of feminist theatre in the 1980s, in particular. I still intend to write that piece, but given the season, I’ve been caught in the spirit of the holidays and their effulgence of holiday films. With grading finally behind me, and a trip to see family fully and pleasantly accomplished, I’ve been indulging my passion for the movies and trying to catch up on all these end-of-year flicks touted as Oscar material and contenders for other awards. I’d like to detail a few of my reactions here.

But first, this experience of spending so much time in movie theatres instead of live theatres has made me think about the differences I feel consuming the two forms. In a brief piece in last week’sEntertainment Weekly—which I read religiously, since I enjoy the smart, literate film reviews by Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman—their “Ask the Critic” column answered a question from a reader who wondered why it’s so much easier to tolerate plot confusions or peculiarities on television shows (or films on tv) than it is when you go to see a movie. Schwarzbaum replied that we go to the movies with so much more hope, that schlepping out into public to be with people to watch something on the much bigger screen demonstrates an investment of hope for the experience that shoddy plotting disappoints.

Her remark seemed right to me, and very much in line with my own belief in what I call “utopian performatives,” those moments when you go to see a performance and feel yourself in the presence of a group of strangers experiencing a moment together that fills us with hope that our world might be better than the way we currently know and experience it. Performances, because they’re live, are richer for me than film: the presence of the actor in front of breathing spectators implies an expectation that sharpens our watchfulness, our awareness of ourselves as a group, and the potential for our hope to translate into action.

It’s palpably different to walk into a movie theatre than it is to a theatre that presents live performance. Arriving early to see a mid-morning showing of Harry Potter the other day, I entered the theatre under the screen in the near-dark, confronted with rows of empty, looming seats. The room felt cold and corporate; there’s no life there without the audience. No one would ever leave a ghost light on in a movie theatre. (A ghost light is the standing lamp with the single bare bulb that sits in the middle of a bare stage or sometimes hangs alone from the rafters at night or when a theatre is empty; according to superstition, it’s left on to keep the theatre from “going dark,” or closing.) The blank white screen in a cinema doesn’t leave a residue of lives lived, as does the stage.

An empty theatre is warm, unsettled by the vibes of the living, cluttered with the labor and detritus of creating the magic of theatre. The back brick theatre walls and the revealed stage wings offer a sense of depth, of “there-ness,” of perspective that connects it with the audience. (Marvin Carlson beautifully details what he calls “the haunted stage” in his book of the same name.) In a movie theatre, the separation between the audience and the screen is clear, two-dimensional. It’s no accident that in the first scene of Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice folds herself into a chair in a theatre to gaze at the stage and watch her life unfold again (a conceit also attempted by the much less success De-Lovely, the Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline). The theatre is haunted by its ghosts—its stories, its players, its audiences, its stagehands. The cinema is haunted by underpaid kids who roll their garbage bins up the aisles between showings.

But films still hold out the possibility for transcendent moments, moments of recognition, understanding, empathy, and identification that speak to something urgent and desirous in me, that capture something intensely and sear themselves onto my emotional canvas in a lasting way. I love being entertained and entranced by films. In backwards chronological order, then, here are my impressions of and musings about the films I saw this holiday season:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter novels, which I find exceptionally fun and smart fantasies. J.K. Rowling’s books invent unique, creative worlds, where the Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore, for instance, can store his thoughts in something called a “pensieve” when his head gets too crowded, and where trains appear on half-tracks reached through acts of magical will. The sixth, most recent novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, seemed very much a post-9/11 story, in which an aura of fear inspired by an unseen but sharply felt enemy prompts a crackdown on civil liberties in the magical world of the story in much the same way we’re feeling this process in the States. The Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, began to move the series into a darker world, after Harry’s godfather Sirius has been killed. The Goblet of Fire is literally a dark film, shot in shades of blue and black and grey that make it a noir-ish experience. This, along with the coursing hormones of the characters, whose relationships are newly strained by more complicated feelings and desires, drain the pleasantries and color from Rowling’s magic and replace them with a series of challenges to Harry’s body and his emotions, if not his soul.

The film moves at harrowing speed through the various tasks set for the four Tri-Wizard champions, each challenge more ominous and impossible than the next, until the reluctant Harry finally makes his way through the proverbial maze. He’s accompanied on his proving journey by Cedric Diggory, with whom he shares ethical, responsible, humble moments that keep Harry from seeming a lone, cockier sort of hero. Reaching the goblet of fire, which turns out to be a “port-key” that sucks him through a vortex into a parallel world, Harry finally meets his nemesis, Voldemort, the Dark Lord, played by Ralph Fiennes made-up to look like a man in the process of painfully, evilly resurrecting himself. Daniel Ratcliffe does a good job facing the traumas of being an adolescent hero and the supporting players gamely assist the suspension of disbelief that makes the story so addictive.

What’s striking from a feminist perspective, though, is how quest stories like The Goblet of Fireremain all about boys and men. Teresa de Lauretis, in her foundational book of feminist film theoryAlice Doesn’t, suggested that that the mythic hero’s quest, in which a territory is crossed and conquered, is always about the masculine conquering the feminine. In Harry Potter, this very much holds true. The quest, as reluctant a hero as Harry seems in this film, remains his, even though it’s his very smart friend Hermione who often feeds him information and the motivation to step up to the test that awaits him. And even though one of the four Tri-Wizards is a young woman, it’s a given that she’ll never win. She gets very little screen time, and in the maze, the most daunting of the tests of skill and will, she’s swallowed by a hedge well before the three boys fail or succeed. Even though Hermione has grown through the series—and in this more sexualized part of the story, looks attractive and alluring enough to attend the Hogwart’s dance with one of the visiting Tri-Wizards—she remains the smart side-kick.


Philip Seymour Hoffman is virtuosic as Capote, capturing his peculiar voice and speech patterns and his fey, effete character in a chilling portrait of a man whose own success outweighed any ethical concern for the killers on whose story he hitched his star. The film is a character study, but also says a lot about American culture, not just in the late 50s and early 60s, when the story takes place, but in the United States now, when celebrity is achieved at all costs and our mutual responsibility to each other seems lost in the greedy drive for personal achievement. Capote lies repeatedly and with unnerving sincerity to murderer Perry Smith, his main informant, whom he befriends in his jail cell to wrest his story from him. The writer preys on Smith’s need to be seen as good, as smart, as better than his actions would lead people to believe. Smith thinks he’s won Capote’s favor, that he’s found a champion for his story and his cause. Instead, Capote uses him and judges him (calling his book In Cold Blood, a damning phrase for a man who thought his horrible actions could be seen as nuanced and complex because of his childhood depravations) and makes his fortune on the killer’s life.

The film tells the story sparely, alternating scenes in Smith’s cell, Capote enacting all the gestures of false intimacy that lead Smith to trust the writer, with scenes of Capote camping and vamping at public parties, parlaying his access to the killers into a corrupt cultural capital. His lover shakes his head at Capote’s exploits, and Capote’s stalwart best friend, Nell Harper Lee, played by the amazing Catherine Keener, stands by him until she, too, is repulsed by his excessive self-involvement. Keener’s role is thankless; she’s a smart, talented actress schlepped along by the male lead, uttering very few lines, but telling pages of stories by acting with her face and her gestures and the sheer fact of her brilliant, knowing presence. Hoffman’s performance wouldn’t be half as good without Keener’s; her reactions to his actions allow us to see Capote as pathetic, as well as tragically talented. But we never see Harper Lee writing To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s Capote we see on the red carpet outside the movie’s premiere. Lee’s commitment to Capote seems motivated by the fact that they share a southern background, but given his neglect and self-centeredness, that doesn’t seem enough. In this too-familiar pattern, a female character is used in the service of the male, written as a foil for a compromised great man.

Brokeback Mountain

As a lesbian nearing 50, it’s still amazing to me to see a film about gay desire on the screen. So many mainstream reviewers of this mainstream film write with a blasé attitude about a same-sex relationship in the 60s, as though they’ve seen it all before. I haven’t and I only want to see more. I saw Brokeback as an historical film, one no doubt accurate to what it meant to love another man, in Wyoming, at a time when gays and lesbians remained either invisible or reviled.

Although the film feels contemporary, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Heath Ledger’s rugged good looks, the story is set at a time when the love they felt for each other could only be terrifying and shameful. The intercut scenes of violence against men suspected of loving each other are chilling and foundational in the film. Those images, seared into his young mind by a father eager to teach him a lesson, for a son who might have suspected some of that passion in himself even then, become defining for Ennis Del Mar, dooming him to a life of longing and furtive passion. I was moved by their relationship, by Jack Twist’s willingness to give up everything so that he and Ennis could share their lives, by Ennis’s fear of giving in to his love for Jack, and by the knowledge that in that particular time and place, their options were limited to the ones they ultimately choose. There are no heroes here.

Of course the women in this story are after-thoughts, cogs in the narrative machinery, stick figures to represent how society in the 60s expected heterosexual couples and their families to behave. Ann Hathaway is wonderful as Jack’s wife, wealthy, competent, and beautiful until she settles into a more garish middle-aged version of her younger self. Her own spirit is clearly stifled by her dominating father and weak-willed husband (until he finally asserts himself at a holiday dinner table and “wins” a modicum of his “manhood,” in a scene that underlines how ludicrous are the chest-thumping displays of male ego and prerogative). Michelle Williams is also very good as Ennis’s beleaguered wife, who sees her husband practically devouring Jack after a four-year absence and has no frame of reference through which to interpret the kissing and clutching she sees. She only knows that the passion she witnesses in Ennis is unfamiliar, something he feels for someone else, and a man, at that. Williams’ nearly wordless performance is a study in perplexed shame and confusion, and finally, anger and retribution. Brokeback is a man’s movie. These women decorate the window into the souls of two men whose love for each other is tortured and desperate because their society refused to allow it to be any other way.

King Kong

This high spectacle from Peter Jackson feels big (sometimes cumbersome), intent on eliciting the kinds of cheap emotions that come from watching computer-generated dinosaurs cavort and fight with 25-foot gorillas while little white men gasp and scurry to get out of the way. The film offers some amusing references to the popular entertainments of the 30s, where Ann Darrow, soon to be Kong’s play-thing, starts out as a vaudeville performer who’s let go by her struggling Depression-era company and is “discovered” by a corrupt impresario (Jack Black) trying to cast the romantic lead in a movie for which the funding has already been pulled. Jackson’s film, at first, seems happily parodic, a satire of all the beautiful-young-woman-discovered-as-a-star films, and all the greedy-egotistical-producer-will-make-his-film-at-all-costs stories.

But when the cast arrives on Skull Island, the unexplored territory on which Black’s character wants to film his opus, Jackson’s takes an unsavory turn. He portrays the island’s denizens as grotesque savages, losing all the satirical notes that first graced the film. The natives all look African; they wear bones and sticks through their noses and other parts of their anatomy, and their faces are wet with war paint. They shudder in Jackson’s frenzied fantasies of ritual ecstasy, rolling their eyes back into their heads and shaking their limbs and their rattles and their sabers as the camera cuts among them, furiously whipping up the audience’s sense of dread and loathing. Jackson toldEntertainment Weekly that the Skull Island “natives” were cast with extras of a number of different races, nations, and ethnicities, and then painted with the same dark make-up so that they would appear to be of the same tribe. The end result, though, is that they all look African, and all succumb to stereotypes of native people as primitive and grotesque, inhuman and cannibalistic.

Against this colonialist, racist backdrop, Naomi Watts, as Darrow, stands out as the dewy white, pure “virgin,” who must be captured and sacrificed to the reigning god of the island, King Kong. When Watts and the CGI-projected, Andy Serkis-animated animal meet, the film takes an interesting romantic turn. With her wit and her rather glowing presence, Watts pulls off an attachment to the ape that seems real, full of affection and eventually, mutual love. Considering that she did much of her acting against a green screen, with perhaps only Serkis in his wired, motion-capturing black suit to interact with, Watts’s performance is indeed remarkable. She ends the film in Kong’s hand, being chased up the Empire State Building, where, in her flowing, sleeveless white dress and precarious high heels (giving new meaning to winter white), she climbs a ladder to the very top of the building (with nary a hair out of place) and tries to save Kong from his inevitable death.

The film wants to speak to the necessity for human (and animal) connection and compassion, in moments of dire need and greed that too often prompt corruption. Watts’s character represents the pure, unsullied version of “America,” capable of falling in love with the “Other” and finding his humanity (always translated anthropomorphically into something that resembles her own). Black’s character represents the greedy corporate businessman who will stop at nothing to make a buck off his “art.” That Black brings the captured Kong to Broadway, where audiences flock to see this remnant of another time and place, is an irony too bald to be lost. We’re willing to pay quite a lot to gaze safely on the spectacle of the other, Jackson seems to say, an other whose rage and desire breaks his bonds and lets him escape to his eventual doom, ignorant of the bloodlust of his captor and the audience who comes to get their scopophilic pleasure watching him restrained and ultimately killed. “Freaks” have always been useful to capitalism; too often, though, those offered up as freaks were just different from what the dollar decides is “us.” The virgin sacrificed to the beast finally forces the beast to sacrifice himself for her, and we learn nothing new about women or the other, and only a little about the capricious, greedy, evil egotism of “man.”

The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach’s supposedly semi-autobiographically film is about a family deteriorating from the parents’ self-absorption and superiority, while their children are left without clear ethical role models on which to shape their own choices. Nothing much happens in this film, but the snapshots of relationships on view, and the growing awareness of the two boys’ anxieties about losing their own childhoods to their parents’ strife, winds up being captivating and moving. Jeff Daniels, as the self-absorbed, pretentious father, has received the bulk of critical acclaim for this film. But Jesse Eisenberg, of Rodger Dodger, is wonderful as the teenage son trying to shape his own pretensions, who finds himself too influenced by his father’s snobbish opinions to lead an honest, earnest life. The younger son is even more wounded, caught between conflicting demands of two parents who can’t quite focus him in their viewfinders. Laura Linney plays the wife, who begins the film being attacked by tennis balls launched on the doubles court by her passive-aggressive husband, and ends with the upper hand in the dissolution of her marriage as her career as a writer soars while her husband’s sours. Implicit here is a critique of the assumption that women will always forgive men their trespasses. Watching Linney disabuse Daniels’ character of these notions is poignant, painful way.

Walk the Line

I love films about performers that actually show them performing, especially when the filmmakers capture the distinct gestalt of being onstage in front of a live audience. This biopic about Johnny Cash and his relationship with June Carter is best when Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, who sang their parts themselves, are seen performing, partly because they must capture something of how Cash and Carter looked and felt and partly because it’s clear that Phoenix and Witherspoon were also charged and nervous about performing themselves. Both layers come through in their performances. The film manages to get at what it means to have stage presence, and how Carter, regardless of the messes she confronted in her life offstage, slipped easily into the kind of charisma that makes spectators love a performer.

Walk the Line paints Carter as a smart, principled woman. Witherspoon is a joy to watch, graduating from her Legally Blonde series—films which themselves parody the stereotype of the dumb blonde—into a role that lets her use her own innate intelligence to lend a depth of character to June Carter. Watching them perform onstage together is a revelation; whether or not Witherspoon and Phoenix approximate the magic of the real Carter and Cash, they clearly strike up something novel and appealing of their own. Offstage, in the film, the gendering of their roles is more predictable, as June mothers and Johnny fails at the project of responsible manhood, until the narrative pulls them along toward a predictably redemptive ending.

The New York Times reported recently on the proliferation of Christian- and evangelical-based web sites that rate films according to not just their quality but their morality quotient, so that Brokeback Mountain, for instance, can get a high grade for artistry and a very low grade for what the sites consider “normal” moral behavior. I share their concern for films as influential, if not determining, artifacts of American culture, and hope that many more avowedly liberal—feminist, progressive, or otherwise—writers will continue to pen their own overtly ideological readings of the movies, as well as other forms of representation.

Here’s hoping that 2006 gives us lots more to think about and write about from a feminist perspective on the arts.

Warm wishes,
The Feminist Spectator

Sarah Schulman Redux: The Delicate Balance of Criticism, I

My last blog entry on Sarah Schulman’s representation in the New York Times generated a bit of behind-the-scenes sturm und drang. I received an email from Sarah the day after I posted, in which she both appreciated my attempt to point out the excesses in Jesse Green’s feature story and took apart my own posting, objecting to my characterization of her and her work. I also received an email from a friend in New York who told me that Sarah, despite her objections to my post, had forwarded it to a number of people in the city with the subject line “Finally,” apparently using it as vindication for the critical lashing she typically receives.

The Times published two letters in response to Green’s article from other lesbian theatre folks: Lisa Kron, of the Five Lesbian Brothers and her own solo work fame, and Linda Chapman, the Associate Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop, which first produced Jonathan Larson’s Rent(see “Letters: Sarah Schulman,” New York Times, Sunday, November 13, 2005, Arts and Leisure Sec. 8). Kron’s letter pointed out that she, too, has shared Schulman’s “frustration at the marginalization of lesbian work,” and noted that many lesbian artists have been “under-recognized” by the mainstream press and industry. But Kron’s careful to acknowledge those artists who opened doors for her, like Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), Maria Irene Fornes (Mud), Jane Chambers (Last Summer at Bluefish Cove), and Claire Chafee (Why We Have a Body). She ends her letter by saying, “I applaud your success, Sarah. And I wanted you to know, you’re not alone.” The letter subtly underlines Schulman’s tendency, at least as quoted in Green’s piece, to point to her own exceptionalism, when in fact, most lesbian playwrights and performers have suffered the lack of notice she describes.

Linda Chapman’s letter tries to set the record straight, once and for all, on the Rent debacle, and in the process, offers some interesting information about Schulman’s tussle over the authorship of Larson’s musical. Chapman says she gave Larson Schulman’s novel, People in Trouble (which Schulman subsequently accused him of plagiarizing), after the “characters and indeed the setting and given circumstances of the work were well established.” She asks that Schulman and the media put this event behind them; New York Theatre Workshop and Chapman herself continue to support Schulman’s work.

Ultimately, I’m glad that the Times wrote about Schulman’s work, glad I wrote about it here, glad Schulman contacted me, and glad that Kron and Chapman followed up with letters to the Times. For a rare moment, lesbian theatre artists got some attention from the mainstream press, and prompted some healthy debate about what visibility means and to whom it’s accessible.

I was frankly caught up a bit short when I received Schulman’s email, an exchange that’s lead me to think, again, about a critic’s responsibility (more accurately, my responsibility) to the community of artists and critics and readers and spectators of which they’re a part. Is my job as a writer about theatre, performance, and the arts one of advocacy? Is it to simply get the word out about work by women, lesbians, people of color, and others to whom more visible venues don’t typically offer their space? I believe my job is to extend the conversation about art practices that aren’t as easily accessible in the mainstream media and to watchdog those outlets for how they portray the people they tend to marginalize.

But what are the ethics of participating in the conversation I want to so extend? Should I never “critique”? Should I not have written sometimes less than positively about, for instance, Oedipus at Palm Springs, with which I started this blog? Should I not have referred, in my last blog, to Schulman’s notorious reputation for being “difficult” because I don’t, as she noted in her email to me, have personal experience with this side of her personality? Even though I know that blogs are often places where people express themselves unfiltered to readers invited to listen pruriently to the writer’s “id,” I’d prefer that “The Feminist Spectator” always maintain an ethical relationship not just to readers but to the artists whose work I do indeed want to promote, in a thoughtful, if sometimes polemical, way.

After all these years, I still find myself debating just what it means to be a feminist critic. And I guess that’s a good thing.

Next month’s first blog entry (since I’ve clearly committed to bi-monthly postings here) will continue this conversation by looking at a recent essay in Theatre Topics, one of two journals published by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Lara Shalson’s article, “Creating Community, Constructing Criticism: The Women’s One World Festival, 1980-81,” addresses some of these very issues about feminist criticism, which I’ll take up again shortly. If you’re interested, the article is available at Theatre Topics 15.2 (2005) 221-239, and on-line from Project Muse at participating library sites.

On a personal note, my most recent book, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, has just been published (with a lovely cover) from the University of Michigan Press. I wrote the book to be accessible to a wide audience—it addresses the ways in which theatre and performance can provide a forum for ideas and experiences that inspire us all toward imagining (and for a moment, even, feeling) a better world. And it offers some examples of transcendent moments I’ve had recently at the theatre. I’ll try to figure out how to attach the cover art here in my next post.

Best wishes,
The Feminist Spectator

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Sarah Schulman and the Plight of Women Playwrights

The Women and Theatre Program listserve (available at began a conversation a week or so ago about Jesse Green’s New York Sunday Times feature story on playwright Sarah Schulman and Green’s inability to position Schulman as anything but a once-angry lesbian now trying to “reform.” The story, called “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Schulman” (10-23-05), is rife with the kind of containing, inadvertently disparaging descriptions that continue to plague women theatre artists. While leading his piece with references to Schulman’s notoriously prickly personality and her “difficult” nature as an artist, he remarks, “Though her speech is armored with jargon, the effect is often mitigated, in person, by her almost maternal warmth. In private, she has been a loving mentor to many young writers, feeding them encouragement and home-cooked meals. Even during our interview, she occasionally took my hand to emphasize an important point, and spoke in a modest whisper. Still, I found myself repeatedly preparing to flinch as she stalked me for bad motives, tired agendas and prejudices; when she thought she spied one she pounced as if to drag it from behind some trees and let it rot in the sun.”

In one short paragraph, Green manages to employ most of the stereotypes that still stick to women artists: they are smart but have to remain maternal, offering home-cooked meals to younger playwrights and touching the writer modestly to whisper privately. At the same time, Green paints Schulman as something of an animal, waiting to pounce on his words like prey she’s eager display like a trophy then let desiccate. This feature isn’t much different from one of the first New York Times Sunday Magazine stories to run on a woman playwright, which featured Marcia Norman in 1983, when her play ‘night, Mother ran on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Nearly 25 years later, the tone is the same: bewilderment that a woman could be an artist, and a desperate need to place her in a domestic, rather than a professional space. Green’s piece on Schulman spends a great deal of time preoccupied with her sixth floor walk-up in the East Village, which stands in as the measure of Schulman’s inability to achieve profitable mainstream success. But it also slants the story, making it appear as though Schulman’s only aspiration is to find a new apartment. Green quotes Schulman’s confident assertion that she’s a good writer, that she’s trying to do “something that’s never been done before,” but he seems to undercut Schulman’s confidence by domesticating her and implicitly belittling the streak of paranoia that runs (no doubt rightfully) through Schulman’s stories.

After all, this is the woman who accused Jonathan Larson of plagiarizing her novel People in Trouble in his hit, long-running Broadway musical RentStagestruck (Duke University Press, 1998), Schulman’s screed about the production and American theatre’s refusal to give lesbian playwrights their due, reads as the work of a writer slightly unhinged in her account of Larson’s purportedly unauthorized borrowing of her work. But after decades of neglect as a playwright, some resentment, even fury, seems logical and rational, rather than hysterical.

I don’t know if Schulman is a good playwright, as I’ve never seen or read her work. Manic Flight Reaction, the play recently produced at Playwrights Horizons, which occasioned Green’s Sunday feature, was reviewed in the Times by Christopher Isherwood (10-31-205). Isherwood calls the play “talky and hyperanalytical” and notes, “Virtually everyone onstage seems to have just emerged, eyes ablaze, from either an unusually revelatory therapeutic session or a seminar on the oppressions of the ‘media-industrial-art-technology complex,’ as one character puts it.” He criticizes Schulman for letting her characters quote philosopher Walter Benjamin, and for attempting to combine “didactic impulses” with “generation-gap comedy.” Isherwood expects conventional drama that closely hues to singular genre expectations; that refuses to be too thoughtful or intellectual, if it intends to be a comedy; and that keeps its references safely, slyly hidden. Schulman’s sin, in this play, doesn’t appear to be her lesbian characters or her own lesbian identity, but rather her intellectual and political commitments, which mainstream reviewers would rather elide from performance. Unless, of course, the playwright is Tom Stoppard or Tony Kushner.

Schulman’s play could be as awkward and heavy-handed as Isherwood insists. But shouldn’t we applaud a woman who uses her midtown production to stage a play with a 50ish woman academic in the lead, someone who’s lived multiple lives, someone who thinks deeply and isn’t afraid of contradictions? Isn’t it to Schulman’s credit that while she draws this unusual character, she also apparently unravels a plot in which one of the lead’s former female lovers has now married a Republican candidate for office and is determined to heterosexualize her past and her future? This sounds like a fine combination of issues and intriguing peccadilloes to me. Why isn’t there space in American theatre to let a writer like Schulman take a few risks, and even court failure, without dismissing her for her erudition or trying to reinscribe her as a mother, the role to which women in theatre apparently remain best suited?

I’ve long believed that more women—specifically, more feminists—need to write about theatre and the arts for the mainstream press. We need to make feminism the default perspective, so that Schulman’s experiences and her resentment over the lack of acclaim for her work might be described differently. When might we be able to consider our theatre from the perspective of a woman (even lesbian) playwright or critic, instead of relying on a less than sympathetic, entitled male reviewer who still can’t imagine what it feels like to be marginalized by gender from the most important forums of American culture life?

The Feminist Spectator

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Thoughts on Different Media

These last three weeks and a couple of days in between posts only mean that life has been hectic lately as the fall semester geared up and got underway. As much as I want to be able to comment regularly on all the culture I absorb, I find my observations flying by, while I’m left in the road waving at their shadows.

Today, then, is an effort to simply share some preliminary impressions on three different representations that have struck me in the last few weeks: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a film given rave reviews in the mainstream press; Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a book given rave reviews in the mainstream press; and Grey’s Anatomy, a television show that entered its second season this fall, also garnering rave reviews.

Americana Run Amok

After the fluff of the summer film season, I was instantly drawn to the reviews of A History of Violence. All of the various newspapers and magazines I read regularly heralded this film as the most riveting, ethically and even intellectually gripping film of the year to date. How disappointing, then, to see a film that proved so retrograde and old fashioned, politically and narratively. Why don’t mainstream reviewers pick up on the values that movies broadcast so baldly? Why did none of them notice how the film reviles “northern” values, represented by stereotypical characterizations of mobsters, and valorizes small town (white) living, applauding Americans’ ability to start their lives over, if they commit to ages old ethical systems that rely on Mom and Pop and literally apple pie to anchor their new existences?

The Viggo Mortensen character, a stalwart family man who walks to the diner he owns from his clapboard house on his Indiana homestead, isolated on a rural road far from other social intercourse, is quiet and upright, the kind of man who greets his regulars and knows their preferences and desires without being told. He keeps the coffee brewing; he’s kind to his help; and he focuses in a simple, resolute way on the tasks at hand. Until, that is, two wayward killers come to town, dissolute drifters whose cold-blooded practices have been set up over the credits. In the only scene in the film that could be parodic, the killers enter the diner and begin to rattle at the cage of its complacency, figuratively spitting in the coffee and sneering at the pie. They go too far, however, when they threaten the diner owner’s waitress. He goes into high physical gear and becomes, himself, a killing machine, neatly dispatching the villains and quickly becoming a hero on the local news.

And so the character’s cover is blown. Rather than the simple, kindhearted mid-western stereotype he appears to be, this man has in fact his own history of violence. He’s run to Indiana from Philadelphia, which becomes, in the narrative, shorthand for everything wrong with America, the site of all moral rot and evil. In the process of remaking his life, he’s changed his name and has convinced himself that he’s changed his soul. When the tentacles of his old life reach out to recapture him, he resists fiercely, killing the mob emisssary who’s come to track him down, and wreaking havoc on his henchmen. Knowing that there’s more where they came from, he finally travels back to Philly to take out the mob boss who wants him back; the boss turns out to be his own brother (William Hurt in a wonderfully campy turn that might have lent the movie some irony if his scenes were longer).

Meanwhile, back on the home front, Mortensen’s wife–played by Maria Bello as a woman equally strong and lightweight, whom we see carrying a briefcase but doing no work, who’s disturbed when she realizes the rumors about her husband are true and at once repelled and turned on by his past and his new, virile, violent power–tries to come to terms with the truth of her husband’s identity. While he appears to beg not for forgiveness but for her to become complicit with his willed amnesia, she can’t decide if her own lust should outweigh her own sense of ethics. The film ends a bit ambiguously, with the Mortensen’s character’s teenage son tentatively passing him the vegetables at the metaphorically weighted family dinner table. Will the family welcome the killer in the man they know as their gentle father and husband?

Cronenberg doesn’t say. But what he does say instead is even more disturbing than the notion that vigilantism will go unpunished, or that one man can clean up his past with a gun. What the director implies in his romantic vision of the mid-West is that Americans can remake themselves if they subscribe to the foundational values of a country that prides itself on being self-made: heterosexuality, reproductivity (two kids, a boy and a girl), whiteness, cowboy masculinity, and middle-classness (the mobster brother’s palatial home is photographed as if it’s pornographic, while the slightly ramshackle country house in Indiana is filmed through soft lenses with a kind of homey charm). Mortensen teaches his erstwhile ironic, would-be intellectual son that expressing yourself in violence is more effective than expressing yourself in thought–over the course of the film, the son learns to fight back at the two boys who bully him, and saves his father from certain death by shooting his nemesis (Ed Harris, with a strangely comic disfigured eye) dead with a shotgun and not flinching when his father hugs him with a shirt full of the man’s blood and brains.

This isn’t fabulous moviemaking–this is Bush propaganda from a Canadian director who should know better. I longed for a point of view here that would lend an edge to this whitewash; I longed for commentary that would let me know, David Lynch-style, that something in fact was rotten in this prototypically American town, something beside the stink of the past that comes to ruin the diner’s fragrance. But instead, Cronenberg holds out hope that the heartland can be reestablished, better, even, for the evil it’s expunged. One last righteous murder spree, he seems to imply, can clear the killer’s heart and let him keep the girl and the kids and the house with a clean spirit, forever. Chilling indeed.

Academia Run Wild

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, on the other hand, is a lovely meditation on American values, filtered through the strange and wondrous world of the academy, as told by a Black British author with a fine eye for the workings of race and class. The novel is an academic satire in the David Lodge vein, one filled with knowing references to the excesses of academic behavior when it’s not constrained by real life. On Beauty paints a somehow loving picture of a world that’s both separate from the rest of culture and intensely reflective of it, while at the same time shaping it by teaching values, modeling for students how to be in the world. That none of the models really work only underlines Smith’s point, which seems to be that forgiveness and even faith are necessary to get along in the world at all. Nothing goes unpunished here, but all the chastisements are meant to make the world better, to inspire a kind of hope that we might find our best selves in the core of our worst, rather than pretending that we can outrun who we are by returning to a mythic American middle where hiding is living.

The novel pits two families against each other, and traces their unpredictable overlaps and alliances. One family includes a white British father who’s a Rembrandt scholar of post-modernist critical leanings, who lectures on the instability of meaning in the artist’s paintings and refuses the trappings of conventional aesthetics. A Black Britian of Caribbean descent heads the other family; he’s a Shelby Steele kind of academic who rails against affirmative action and preaches Dinesh D’Souza’s party line. The two men come to blows when they wind up teaching at the same institution, a privileged liberal arts college in the northeast that sounds a lot like Harvard or Wesleyan.

Smith parodies academic pretensions, but she also somehow gets the complications of trying to believe in things in a world that’s too cynical to navigate. The white father is married to an African American woman who won’t truck with intellectual pretension, but who searches for meaning in her own life through an unlikely alliance with the Black British father’s wife, a fragile, wise woman whose death prompts the plot’s crisis and its eventual denouement. Both father’s daughters are troubled young women looking for love and relationships in the wrong places, too assured of their intellectual power and ultimately only further unmanned by their attempts at sexual intrigue and agency. The sons fare no better; one is rigidly dogmatic, another insecure and ambivalent, and his biracial brother a kind of minstrel who’s trying to achieve a presumptive sort of African American authenticity by mouthing hip hop pieties and salutations that don’t fool any of his “brothers” on the street.

None of the book’s characters provide a clear moral center, although the African American mother comes close. But they all have luminous moments of self-understanding and insight that gave me hope for myself and for all of us, that in our most self-deluding illusions about ourselves and our worlds, we might still learn something, might still find a kind of faith that will let us not just get through our lives, but get through to each other, let us love each other just a little better and more truly. I laughed at Smith’s book, and recognized myself and many academic types I know in her characters. But she moved me, too, with the ultimate generosity of her observations and her vision of how we might resolve our differences. The villains here are punished not with violent exile, but only with having to live with themselves and their mistakes until they can see their way through to change them. That’s not redemption, exactly, but it’s hopeful. And it works for me.

Anatomy Lessons

Grey’s Anatomy, an ABC television show produced by an African American woman named Shonda Rhimes, has become a new guilty pleasure for me and my partner every Sunday night. We started watching summer reruns, after hearing rumors of smart writing and compelling characters. Despite the formulaic plots and rather stock personalities–a group of interns competing with themselves and each other at a teaching hospital–the acting and the writing make it a consistently compelling hour of television. The plot’s driven by a love story; it’s the rare network television show that can forego romance as its motivator and engine. But the love story here is complicated by ethical issues of power and nepotism–one of the interns, whose mother happens to be a famous neurosurgeon, has what she thinks will be a one-night stand with a handsome man who turns out to be her supervising doctor. His Romeo good looks and soulful, wounded expression set him apart from the more macho, preening male characters who’ve come to define the genre. The central couple grapples constantly with their desire for each other and their desire to do the right professional thing

The show twists all the medical story stereotypes in slightly new directions, often by changing the character’s gender or race from the more typical. For instance, the head of this hospital (or at least the head of surgery, I’m not sure of his administrative position) is a smart, kindly African American man; the resident who oversees the interns is an African American woman with exacting standards and exasperated but ultimately human expressions; one of the interns is an Asian American woman blithe about her own ambitions who finds her emotions more complicated than she predicted; another is a slightly paunchy white man with a hangdog expression but a kind and determined soul. There are more doctors and nurses and hospital personnel, all running into each other’s egos, all having sex, eating together, living together, feeling exhausted together.

But somehow, they’re all smart, articulate, and seem to have an eye on their futures, on an elsewhere to which the show implicitly refers. That is, most tv dramas become claustrophobic, because the very intensity of the plots each week make the situations and characters quickly feel hermetic and self-referential. In Grey’s Anatomy, these people seem fleshed out enough to have dreams, to hanker after positions outside this hospital, to have choices to make about their fictive lives, now, not when the series finale is being planned and shot. Their fraught but somehow respectful and even tender interactions seem compelling, moving, because there’s more to them than fancy fake medical language or cheap and bloody shock shots.

There seems much more to see and to read and to watch and react to. Hopefully, in due time, I will.

Meanwhile, your comments are always welcome and thanks for reading.

The Feminist Spectator
October 14, 2005

The Luminous Laurie Carlos and her Nourishing Pork Chop Wars

Last Friday, September 16th, I heard Laurie Carlos give the opening lecture of the Fourth Annual Performance as Public Practice Distinguished Lecture series at the University of Texas at Austin where I teach. Carlos is an Obie award-winning artist whose work has long influenced American theatre: she was the first woman to perform “The Lady in Blue” in Ntozake Shange’s foundational choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. She was a collaborating founder of Urban Bush Women, and performed with Jessica Hagedorn and Robbie McCauley as Thought Music in the 1980s. She received a Bessie award for White Chocolate for My Father in the 1990s, and continues her career as a writer, choreographer, performer, and all around inspiration. Introducing Carlos’s lecture, Prof. Omi Osun Olomo/Dr. Joni Jones said that when she’s around Laurie Carlos, she feels her “humanity is expanded.” Carlos’s lecture, “Walking the Edge with Instructions from Conversations with Robbie,” offered one of the most thoughtful, immediate, moving artist’s lectures I’ve heard in some time.Carlos wove food metaphors throughout her talk, suggesting that the hybridity of the American palate stands for the diversity of our lives. She described growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, where life bombarded her with flavors, smells, and tastes of the neighborhood’s immigrant culture. This she juxtaposed with her current life in St. Paul, Minnesota, where putting mayonnaise, for example, on corn beef and rye might not be considered the culinary faux pas it would be in New York.

Food metaphors also ground her art-making. Carlos says that her ritual-like, improvisatory process of creating performance is like cooking and offering nourishment, a method both public and private. We often make food for others, but cooking can also be a singular, musing event. Likewise, her “performance novel” The Pork Chop Wars, a third of which was presented last weekend in the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT, co-sponsored by the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS), is like a plate of food that she’s cooked up in the moment, some of which the audience might like, some of which they might have to develop a taste for, some of which they might not like at all. Her work, Carlos says, is intensely personal, but she hopes other people will accept and be nourished by parts of the repast she spreads.

The “performance novel” is an art form with which Austin-based playwright/poet Sharon Bridgforth first experimented in Love Conjure Blues (Redbone Press, 2004), premiered by CAAAS at UT last year. The novel, on the page, plays with typography, attempting to evoke in words, letters, type, and line what on stage becomes the nuances and idiosyncrasies of character and relationships. On the page, Bridgforth’s story jumps through space, teasing and seducing the eye; on the stage, the story jumps through space and time, conjuring overlapping stories through simultaneous histories and multiple voices and bodies presenting their versions of the same tales.

Both Bridgforth’s and Carlos’s work comprise what Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones calls a “jazz aesthetic,” a living, breathing, embodied narrative performance form that riffs in unexpected ways like music, and equally depends on the careful, collaborative ensemble work of each musician. Watching Love Conjure Blues last year and The Pork Chop Wars last week, I was struck by the importance of listening, as the performers, texts in hand, both performed their own pieces and paid vigilant attention, honoring each other’s words and presence. The performers in these pieces look like jazz bands, in how they compose their presences around each other, waiting to riff, to pick up a line like a melody and blend it, shout it, make it sing.

Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones heads The Austin Project, a local performance ensemble that has experimented with “performance in a jazz aesthetic” for the last several years. The Austin Project is a “collaboration of women of color artists, scholars, and activists” who “use art and art-making for social change,” performing autobiographical narrative choral pieces. Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones is writing a book that will theorize the jazz aesthetic’s roots and influences and will predict its future; performer/poets like Bridgforth, Carlos, and Daniel Alexander Jones have been part of the process of originating the form. As Carlos said in her lecture, “We don’t even know if it’s even a form except between seven of us, but here we are.”

The Pork Chop Wars finds ten women of various races assembled in a semi-circle on a stage adorned with flowers, pictures, the artifacts of a life of family and work. A musician sits at the end of their row, punctuating their speech with his tenor sax, occasionally walking behind the women to second their words with his voice and his presence. The women read, together and separately, stories of Carlos’s multilingual, international family, evoking in words, movement, and the depth of their feeling the complexities of a history both public and private.

While some of the stories resonated for me more than others, I found myself appreciating the tenor and texture of the experience, listening for rhythms and patterns in movement and speech as well as content. I took seriously Carlos’s injunction to experience what I want from the piece. She says her art serves her own purposes; she doesn’t feel obligated to her audience. She creates performance because, she says, “I’m good at what I do,” and so that audiences can “watch it happen this way” instead of another way. To that extent, watching The Pork Chop Wars became an exercise in meeting the artist halfway, and in letting myself create my own internal dialogue with the work.

Carlos spoke again at the performance’s end, in dialogue with director Deborah Artman, a longtime collaborator, Sharon Bridgforth, who served as dramaturg, and the ensemble cast. Her eloquence and generosity as an artist are offset by the clarity of the reasons she does her work. She feels no need to convince people of its value or validity; her refusal to kowtow to dominant cultural standards of meaning-making or aesthetic significance is admirable and inspirational. “What is it you want to do as an artist,” she asked her audience, enjoining us to cast out the institutional voices that inhibit or censor what we want to say (“The editor bitch has to die,” Carlos said, referring to the voice of the institution she hears in her head and constantly rejects). An artist is compelled, Carlos insists, to say what she has to say despite the possibility of censorship and danger.

Carlos’s own history exemplifies her credo. She sees her art in an arc, as a long-term conversation with a group of collaborators who’ve both challenged and sustained her for over 35 years. When she first started working in the 70s, Carlos said there was no where for people like her to be. Women of color were cast as maids, as mammies, as prostitutes in American theatre. To escape the constraints of convention and racism, Carlos worked in bars, jazz clubs, dance halls to express herself with other performers and musicians who were also resisting the dominant discourse of the time. Carlos, Shange, performance artist Robbie McCauley (the absent presence throughout Carlos’s talk, whom she credits as her “spirit guide”), and other women constantly created rituals that dressed their own experience in symbolism, action, costume, and smells. She said that her artistic foremothers are “piles of renegades” with no funding for what they wanted to say, but the urgency of their need to speak changed forever the contours of American performance.

Then, Carlos said, they “invaded” the Public Theatre in New York, and Joe Papp gave them a new artistic home. Papp nurtured For Colored Girls, even though Carlos said that eventually it became a tenth of what it was in the bars. The piece had developed through an interracial, organic process of creating work from ritual, in which looking at each other, touching each other, and loving each other in performance was as important as the words and the movement for which For Colored Girlsis known. In current productions of the play, Carlos says she most misses that original impulse among the performers, and regrets that the piece is too often reduced to the tragic story about Bo Willy Brown.

Carlos insists that artists have to make their work. You have to “go into the house and make a mess, pour the cornmeal on the floor, and then we can talk.” She said these are slave strategies, subtle ways of resisting hegemony and ownership. Carlos dances in her seat when she speaks, punctuating her language with gestures and short responses to her own calls. “Hmm,” she’ll say after a phrase, or “yeah,” after another, the rhetorical flourishes of a woman who knows exactly what she wants to say and wants only to make sure you’re listening.