Yearly Archives: 2006

Rise and Shine and The Closer

First, The Novel

I’m usually quite a big fan of author Anna Quindlen. I read her op-ed columns “Life in the 30s” and “Living Out Loud” in the New York Times in the 80s and 90s, and remember feeling so heartened when she was appointed the managing editor. Her columns were full of self-reflexive, humane and even feminist thinking, usually about difficult subjects like the ethics of journalism and a reporter’s place, interviewing, for instance, a family who’d just lost a child in a violent death. I looked forward to her insights, her humor, and her rather quotidian humanity, which her words always elevated to an exemplary level.

I’ve also been a fan of her fiction since she left the Times to write fulltime. One True Thing andObject Lessons, her first novels, were excellent reads, if a bit melodramatic and predictable. Black and Blue was a vivid depiction of an abused woman running away with her son. And Blessings, her most recent novel, was a lovely story about an unlikely couple raising a child unexpectedly left in their care. So despite rather tepid reviews for her latest novel, Rise and Shine, I read the book.

The story concerns two sisters, one a famous television talk show host on the level of Katie Couric, the other a social worker who heads a non-profit that serves women and children in the Bronx. At the story’s opening, the highly successful Megan gets into trouble by cursing a morally suspect guest on her show. Thinking her mic is off, she calls him a “fucking asshole,” since he’s left his wife to marry the surrogate they’d hired to carry their child.

Much of the book illustrates how one false move can topple even the most miraculous career. The media circus around Megan’s mistake prompts her to retreat to Jamaica, where she stays in a remote but comfortable home with a view of the ocean, nursing her wounds and (theoretically) getting in touch with her true self.

Her sister, Bridget, who narrates the story, is younger and was once washed up, until Megan insisted she pull herself together. After some time as an artist and a waitress, Bridget finds her calling working with abused and homeless women and children of color.

When Megan leaves town, Bridget takes Megan’s son Matt under her wing, and he, too, finds his higher self with Bridget’s organization, driving women and children to appointments. Working with little black kids who come to love him, Matt is the young white hope. Close to the end of the story [spoiler alert], he’s shot by an irrational and soon repentant African-American teenager jealous of Matt’s relationship with an African-American girl from the projects where they live.

The shooting, of course, brings Megan back from her self-imposed exile in Jamaica, and resuscitates her career, since the shooter asks her to come meet him in the projects and bring him to the police. She delivers him with aplomb in front of national television cameras—even though he nearly killed her son, and in fact left him a paraplegic—and insists that he not be hurt, which turns her into a martyr and returns her to her status as a must-watch “it” girl in the bottom-feeding culture of wealthy Manhattan.

On the level of literature alone, the novel disappoints. The dialogue sounds stilted and self-conscious, with none of the warmth and truth that Quindlen’s characters usually display. The awkward talk could be a result of the first-person narration by a character who’s ultimately not that interesting; it could be the Manhattan setting, which might be too close to Quindlen’s own milieu to let her stand back and see it artistically. While parts of the book want to critique the social-climbing back-stabbing fickleness of rich and famous New Yorkers, the book also seems enamored by this culture, and never really launches an incisive analysis.

As a result, even the “good” characters appear blind to their own excesses—or rather, blind to everything in the city that’s not about them. Bridget, for instance, works alongside and with almost exclusively women of color. But rather than drawing out their characters, these women remain wholly subservient to the white women’s story.

Tequila, the most egregiously colorful character of color, is a caricature of the large, hands-on-hips, self-righteous, big-hearted, effective, and sassy middle-aged African-American woman. She listens in on Bridget’s phone calls, and manages to find information not available to other people. But although Tequila has her talents, she has no real life in the story, except when she’s assisting Bridget, who’s her boss.

When Megan flees to Jamaica to lick her wounds, she’s cared for by local people of color, who drive her around the island and cook for her, then eventually follow her back to New York to work for her there. Megan’s old servant/assistant is passed along to her sister when Bridget has twins. People of color in this story are narrative chattel, exchanged to further the lives of the white people in whose power they bask but never share.

Even Matt, the tragic, selfless white boy, finds his own soul by working with the cute African American children who climb on his shoulders and cling to his pant leg. That he’s shot by those he thinks he’s helping could have been played as a difficult racial irony; instead, Quindlen portrays the incident as somehow inevitable, as though it’s a given that a black man Matt’s age would fire at him senselessly on one of his trips to the projects.

The white people in this novel are the only ones who grow emotionally, intellectually, professionally, or spiritually. The people of color only get to change jobs, working for an interrelated line of white people who can’t see them as anything but people who do a great job answering the phone and driving Miss Daisy around town.

Too bad Quindlen lost her progressive touch with Rise and Shine, and capitulated to New York City as people think it is, rather than how it might be, if fiction were used to imagine other ways for white people and people of color to interact.

Second, The Television Show

On The Closer, Kyra Sedgwick plays Brenda, an Atlanta-born detective who’s been transferred to the LAPD to work under a long ago ex-boyfriend who’s now the Chief of Police. Heading the Priority Murder Squad lands Brenda a promotion to Deputy Chief, which her colleagues (many of them men) resent. Over the course of the first season, they grudgingly come to admire her work, and offer their allegiance and respect.

Sedgwick plays Brenda as an unflappable, smart, if rather scattered, working woman. She thinks about several things at once—often, in fact, the murder in question on any given episode is solved when Brenda’s engaged with someone who figures in the subplot rather than the central narrative. Her ability to multi-task and think on her feet is her chief asset as an investigator, hampered only by her tendency to lose personal things and to eat, almost constantly, sugary, high fat foods.

It’s refreshing to watch a female television character who actually eats, let alone to watch one compulsively eating things that no health-conscious, weight-obsessed middle-age woman would ever go near. Brenda’s donuts and cookies and candy, strewn across her desk or flowing out of her purse, seem to help her think; she uses them the way TV characters once used cigarettes. Of course, Sedgwick is slender and pretty—the food she consumes in character doesn’t seem to affect her slim waistline. Unfortunately, under the conventions of the show, this character would never work if she were overweight.

Brenda’s munching is a source of bemusement to her squad, a ragtag group of mostly men in ties who represent the racial and ethnic diversity of LA (and who seem much more weight conscious than she does). Her next in command is an African-American man, having a not-so-secret affair with the only other woman on the squad, who also happens to be African-American.

Two of the other men are white, rather crusty old hands who’ve been there and done that but find themselves constantly surprised by Brenda’s antics and impressed with her results. The last two men are an intellectually curious Asian-American with a penchant for technology, and a taciturn Latino. To a person, they struggle with how to look up to such an unlikely boss, yet each week, find themselves affirming and admiring her skill.

The Closer is one of the few television shows I’ve ever watched that seems aware of how it’s using gender relations. Brenda is portrayed as feminine (Sedgwick is beautiful without really trying) but professional and sadly lacking in fashion sense. Rather than the effortless allure that other female detectives achieve (think, for instance, of Poppy Montgomery’s character on Without a Trace, or even Kathryn Morris as Lilly Rush on Cold Case) and need to work against to be taken seriously, Brenda wears overly flowery, flowing dresses and sweater sets, and looks quite out of place in the hard boiled LA environs she investigates. She’s sexy in an awkward, unself-conscious way that’s much more real than how younger, more purposefully calculated women detectives are usually drawn.

Mostly, Brenda is good at what she does and she knows it. Her interrogation style uses her gender to catch her suspects unawares; her femininity is a tool in her box, rather than something defining. She can turn her feminine wiles on when she needs them to make progress, but the script makes sure the audience knows that she’s making a choice, not falling back on biological destiny. And she makes choices that work against her gender just as often, shouting down suspects and intimidating them as well as any of her male colleagues.

When her very long ago affair with the Chief of Police is rudely announced to her squad by his ex-wife on a recent episode, the moment is mortifying not for the typical melodramatic reasons, but because Brenda worries that her gang will think she got her job only by sleeping with the boss, not on her own merits. This is still women’s concern in the 21st century: that no matter how good we are at what we do, we’re still measured and judged in relationship to men, whether sexually or professionally, or in that episode, both.

Although the multi-cultural face of the squad room might be calculated, the men who surround Brenda are fully drawn characters, each with his own idiosyncrasy, but with something of a heart instead of just a caricatured sketch on which to hang his actions. These people are likable, unpredictable, funny, and smart, and their respect for Brenda is refreshing because the show never takes it for granted. In fact, Brenda earns their esteem anew each episode, not because she’s trying, but because she’s very good at what she does.

That’s a show I can get behind. I was disappointed that Sedgwick didn’t win an Emmy for last season’s work, but perhaps this time around, Emmy Award voters will recognize the layered complexity of the character she’s created and reward her for creating a professional woman whose life seems real.

In reading and viewing pleasure,
The Feminist Spectator

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On Teaching . . .

I recently had the good fortune to be selected as a new member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach. I was inducted into the Academy on September 21st; I’d like to share the remarks I made at the dinner:

Thank you so much for this honor. As a theatre professor, and someone who was herself once a performer, I know many people who dream of standing up to say thank you to the Academy. We dream of being in front of millions of television viewers, clutching in our trembling hands a statuette that’s evidence of our value as artists.

I long ago gave up the dream of receiving an Oscar, which never seemed real to me anyway because, truth be told, I was always a better critic than I was a performer. But I think all of us yearn at some point for public recognition from our peers and our community. It’s to our collective chagrin, I think, that teaching remains a mostly private, unrecognized activity.

Lots of people presume to know what and how we teach. Some of those people insist that we’re not teaching enough, or not teaching the proper subjects, or not producing measurable outcomes (as though what students experience when they learn can ever, finally, be measured). We’re often excoriated by those who drive the agenda of education without ever giving us the basic resources for good teaching and good learning. And these folks, of course, would never tell us we’ve done our jobs well.

So we look within for our rewards, and happily, find them frequent and rich. The hours I spend in the classroom always require the best of me—that’s when my mind and my wit needs to be sharpest, when I feel (just like I do at the theatre), that what’s happening in the present of our meeting is the only thing that matters.

In class, I continually take my own measure, as I respond to students’ questions, suggestions, and challenges. In class, I develop my ethical commitments, which often hinge on an instantaneous decision about how to redirect a comment or resolve an incident. I never sweat as much as I do in class, whether the session is going well or poorly, because I’m working so hard mentally and physically and emotionally to weave the threads of anecdote and theory, of experience and knowledge into a fabric strong enough to bounce us into the future.

My last book was about utopia in performance. In it, I argue that our willingness to join friends and strangers in a live, present moment to watch vulnerable actors perform before us creates a rare, precious moment of community. We note a feeling of belonging together, of feeling ourselves lifted temporarily above the present into a hopeful sense of what a better future might be like.

I’m thrilled when I feel that same fleeting utopia in the classroom. I mark when my students and I think so hard together that we hear what musicians sometimes call the “phantom note.” It rises above the chorus of our thoughts as something both apart from us and of us; it creates a common vibration in an often bare, windowless, hardly utopic room.

My students and I are artists, scholars, and citizens all, people with the unbelievable good fortune to think about the magic of the performance we create or study, and how it matters to the rest of our worlds. My students and I are people who desire to see ourselves not just as we are, but as we might be, through the crucible performance provides.

So although I’m not receiving an Oscar today, I’m glad to thank the Academy. I’m more than glad, because I know that teaching lasts longer than performance. Teaching generates those fleeting moments of utopian possibility on a regular basis, semester after semester, year after year. They linger as generative pieces of collective memory.

I’m delighted to join the Academy, and look forward to working with all of you in what I know is our mutual desire for ever-better worlds. Why would any of us teach otherwise?

Thank you.

And thank you all for reading,
The Feminist Spectator

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Summer Movie Wrap Up: The Descent, Little Miss Sunshine, V for Vendetta

Film critic A.O. Scott wrote an article in the New York Times shortly after the latest Pirates of the Caribbean extravaganza was released in July (“Critics Notebook: Avast, Me Critics! Ye Kill the Fun,” July 18, 2006, B1, 7), addressing the perennial accusation that critics are out of touch with popular taste. They look for art where “regular” people look for fun, he says, and bring expertise and intellect to bear where the movie-going public is eager to suspend its disbelief and give itself over to pure entertainment.

Often the victim of what he calls “populist anger” about bad reviews of popular films, he says, “[T]he discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.”

Scott goes on to suggest that studios market their films hoping to influence the zeitgeist, whetting the public’s appetite for months or sometimes years in advance for their next big release. The public, in Scott’s scenario, become cultural dupes of studio marketing, acquiescing to the establishment of taste set out for them in advance, which critics then have difficulty counteracting.

“So why review [films]?” Scott asks. “Why not let the market do its work, and let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcane—the art—we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t.”

Although I don’t believe my role as a feminist critic is to disparage public taste, I share Scott’s associations with art—pleasure, wonder, and surprise—and look for it wherever I can find it. I read other critics—on films, I read Scott, Stephen Holden, and other Times reviewers, Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly, J. Hoberman and other Village Voice critics, and even Leah Rozen in People—for a sense of collective critical response and some guidance to my own spectating choices. Part of the pleasure of seeing films is lining up my feminist perspective against these critics’ views, since they sometimes see gender, politics, or ideology as factors in a film and sometimes don’t.

My feminist critical perspective sometimes sees through the ploys of marketing. But I can’t say that I, too, am not lured to see films by ads that tell me I should. And I can’t say that I don’t often suspend my politics and critical voice in favor of my guilty pleasures as a spectator, letting a film’s narrative or images temporarily overrule my feminism (at least until the lights come up).

Some would suggest that even more than mainstream criticism, feminist commentary takes the fun out of popular entertainment. I’d argue to the contrary, suggesting that although looking at films or performances or television shows with an eye to how they represent gender and other identity relations is a necessary act of civic engagement, feminist criticism can add to viewing pleasure by opening other avenues of consideration. Perhaps that’s an idealistic suggestion, but isn’t there something fun about turning the cultural lens and seeing what others seem to have missed?

Risking, then, the disapprobation of criticism in general compounded by the dread perspective “feminist,” here are my thoughts on three end-of-summer films.

The Descent

I went to see this summer’s horror film The Descent because enough reviewers I trust told me it broke genre conventions and represented its women spelunkers with unusual grit and determination. Schwarzbaum noted the pleasure of seeing buff women’s bodies getting a workout, squeezing through tunnels and finding footholds on impossibly steep cave walls. Well, I might not know enough about the horror genre to see how this film breaks the mold, but I found its plot an overworked women-fighting-over-a-man story that failed to amuse or entertain.

The story takes a group of women on a cave-diving trip, propelled by the tentative return to psychic health of their friend Sarah, who lost her husband and daughter in a freak car accident directly after she and two of the friends triumphed on a challenging white water rafting trip.

The rafting scene, the first in the film, clarifies that one of those friends (naturally, the dark, raven-haired, ethnic-looking one, played by Natalie Mendoza), Juno, was having an affair with Sarah’s husband, which indirectly causes the crash in which he and the daughter die (he’s distracted and clearly unhappy, and doesn’t watch the road as closely as he should).

Juno wants to make it up to the fair-haired heroine Sarah, by taking her and a group of their 20-something friends into a cave that no one’s ever explored before, so that they’ll have the opportunity to name it and somehow immortalize themselves. But because Juno at first keeps her motives for misleading her friends secret, her decision seems nefarious. Told they’re descending into a cave that’s already been explored, the women are soon furious when they learn they’re traveling uncharted territory, and Juno’s noble purpose seems flimsy and ridiculous.

The women all promptly get lost in the claustrophobically small tunnels between caverns, and begin glimpsing signs of malevolent life. One by one, each meets a bad end, some from the folly of wandering off alone, some because Juno’s obvious immorality lets her leave the wounded alone to die, eaten by the flesh-eating monsters who appear in ever-more frequent waves of terror.

Despite wading through pools of muck and one encounter too many with creatures of the dark (who look like a cross between Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and actors from the chorus line in Cats), Sarah, the blond-haired heroine, prevails, watching the creatures kill off her human nemesis and finding her way out of hell. But reaching her car and speeding out of the Appalachian woods, she realizes she’s still in purgatory when she’s haunted by Juno’s ghost, just as she was haunted earlier by the voice and image of her child.

Finally, The Descent is just another movie in which family doesn’t work. The struggle to avenge its inevitable disintegration propels women into betrayals, the consequences of which ripple across the landscape of female friendship. Although the film quickly dispenses with the husband, its one male character, and although the women try to defeat the cave’s decidedly masculine creatures, they can’t bond together as women to escape from their physical (or, metaphorically, political) confinement.

No irony propels this film—it holds hostage any potential critique of the family dynamics that indirectly prompt the women’s descent. They’re haunted by a patriarchy whose tunnels are as deep and confusing as the cave’s, and although Sarah returns to the surface alive, she remains emotionally and ideologically trapped, still seeing ghosts.

And honestly, the actors aren’t even that buff.

Little Miss Sunshine

Lisa Schwarzbaum was one of the few critics who didn’t like Little Miss Sunshine, which I found a smart, warm, funny film. Its plot is usually described by character and situation: This is a dysfunctional family “road trip” movie, in which the youngest child, a pudgy, bright, emotionally open daughter named Olive, is somehow invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in LA. The family piles into their broken-down VW bus to make the trip from New Mexico and encounter obstacles typical of road trip comedies along the way.

Schwarzbaum sees the characters as stock, ripped from the indie film casting book. The father (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be motivational speaker/author who can’t close a book deal, a wanna-be winner who’s actually an ordinary loser. The mother (Toni Collette) repeats platitudes about family while hers disintegrates. Her brother (Steve Carell) is a gay Proust scholar who’s just tried to commit suicide because a competitor was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. The son Dwayne reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence, which doesn’t prohibit him from scrawling communications on a notepad he carries along. And the grandfather (Alan Arkin) is a crusty porn connoisseur whose bad habits get him kicked out of an extended care home. Put together in the close quarters of a rickety vehicle, their idiosyncrasies begin to collide.

But although the characters and the situation provide the basic ingredients, considering Little Miss Sunshine only through the lens of family dysfunction short-changes the critical work the film conducts on a deeper, more satisfying level. The film is really about how people navigate their lives, especially when their lot is thrown in with people they didn’t choose to be with, even though they’re related to them. When the mother keeps pulling everyone together to insist that no matter what, they’re a family, her words sound pathetic, rote, and hollow. To the contrary, “family,” in Little Miss Sunshine, is a vow everyone takes not by fiat but because they choose to affiliate instead of walking away.

For example, when Dwayne inadvertently finds his hopes of being a pilot dashed when Olive diagnoses him with color-blindness during the long trip, he bursts from the van and runs down a hill beside the road to end his vow of silence with heart-breaking sobs. His mother can’t persuade him back into the fold; Dwayne shouts that his parents and uncle are losers, pathetic failures with nothing to offer. They listen stoically. Everyone knows he’s telling the truth, but they also know that they’ll soldier on anyway, as they always do. They don’t judge Dwayne for judging them; they aren’t angry with him. The moment is poignant and somehow sweet.

Although his mother can’t rouse him, when Olive comes down the hill to put her head on Dwayne’s shoulder, he recovers quickly. This moving show of empathy doesn’t have (or need) dialogue; Olive might be younger, but she intuitively feels her own confusion and incipient despair at the choices that land in our laps, whether or not we want them there, at the vagaries of a life over which we have so little control, biologically or politically. Dwayne helps Olive back up the hill, where he apologizes to his father, mother, and uncle, and proceeds to get on with his life in the midst of people whom he’s been consigned to love by an accident of birth, but whom he loves nonetheless.

This isn’t a conventional dysfunctional family, but a family of rule-breakers who find their confidence through their collective refusal to conform. When the grandfather drops dead in his hotel room in the middle of nowhere one night, an officious hospital administrator insists they interrupt their trip to the pageant to attend to paperwork and burial arrangements. Instead, the family steals his body, storing it in the Volkswagen’s trunk to take to a funeral home when they arrive in LA. They happily if rather haplessly flout the authority of one of many pompous gatekeepers who would try to enforce social norms against their desires.

Along the way, they even get a pass from a state trooper who stops them when he hears their horn beeping erratically (hysterically, mournfully calling attention to their progress). The trooper doesn’t notice the grandfather’s body in the trunk, because he finds instead the pornography the grandfather left behind, and forms a fellowship with the father over what he assumes is his similar taste in women. What officials of the state like the trooper and the hospital administrator perform as “morality” proves bankrupt.

By contrast, the family’s idiosyncratic, goofy ethics of caring proves effective. When they finally arrive at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, all the work (physically and ideologically) they did to get there has prepared them to see through the event’s smarmy self-importance to its inherent pedophilia. Watching each member of the family begin to “get it” is one of the real pleasures of the film; to a person, they look around them, look at the performances before Olive’s, look at the other parents and spectators, and understand that the event is corrupt.

The other kids all look and act like Jon Bonet Ramsey. Their mothers primp them and preen themselves and sit in the audience mouthing the words to their silly, amazingly sexual routines. Olive’s competitors are little girls with come-hither poses, their tiny bodies dressed and painted to look sexy. But when Olive performs a routine choreographed by her grandfather that–without the rest of the family’s knowledge–turns out to be a striptease, the audience is horrified.

Olive, though, dances with joy and gusto and a surprising athleticism, proud of her moves and happily unaware of the vocabulary of sexuality from which they’re borrowed. Overcoming their own surprise and confusion, Olive’s family understands that they can turn the tables on the event. They join Olive onstage hooting and hollering and clapping, taunting the mortified audience by revising Olive’s routine into a pointed pep rally and implicitly critiquing the other girls’ performances as kiddie porn. With her father, mother, brother, and uncle onstage with her, Olive is a happy kid dancing with the people who love her. By comparison, the other little girls look like miniature Hustler models, luring leering spectators (including a probable pedophile who sits beside Olive’s father in the audience). The pageant’s hypocrisy couldn’t be clearer.

Little Miss Sunshine deftly critiques how inconsistently the U.S. treats child sexuality. The scene is a hysterical send-up of the pornography of baby beauty pageants, but it’s also the moment when this family finds its agency. Olive’s bravery in going on with her number, even though she senses her difference from the other girls (and her touching dedication of the act to her dead grandfather, who “taught me all these moves”), inspires the family to support her, and in the process, to find their own strength, their own rebellion from a superficial, hypocritical, restricted set of social conventions.

The characters seem to have “nothing,” limping down the highway in their broken down Volkswagen bus. Watching them roll the car to get it in gear, then jump one by one into the open back door as it picks up speed, is at once the film’s recurrent sight gag and its central metaphor. Despite their differences from each other, despite how little they have in common, they all need each other. They can’t make their lives move alone, but if they help each other jump on, they can all get where they’re going.

The family’s quiet victories—over the hospital administrator, the pageant official, the state trooper—mark their humanity and their humility. Their simple hope and faith win out, and although they might be bankrupt financially and professionally, they are rich in their relations with each other and in their ironic but generous and finally hopeful understanding of the limitations of their lives.

V for Vendetta

Although it’s set in Great Britain in the future, and full of references to British historical figures like Guy Fawkes, V works well as an allegory about the nefarious machinations of the current Bush administration. V (Hugo Weaving) is a masked, black-caped crusader, whose vengeance is apparently ignited because he was burned in a fire at Larkhill, a secret government facility set up to conduct tests in preparation for biological warfare (or defense, I’m not sure, as the plot is complicated). We never see his face; flashbacks show the outline of his body roaring out of the flames, intact and furious, animal-like with what could be superhuman strength wrought from experiments gone wrong.

Through a quirk of fate, V meets Evey, played by the smart, always watchable Natalie Portman. Evey’s parents, it turns out, were also unwilling subjects in the Larkhill experiments, captured and imprisoned there because of their radical activism against the fascist regime. Scenes peeking at the collective cultural memory of Larkhill show sullen, acquiescent lines of victims, heads shorn and clothing drab, walking like Holocaust or HIV/AIDS victims to their doom.

These scenes are intercut with shots of bodies dumped in mass graves then covered with lime and dirt, unmistakable references to Nazi concentration camp atrocities. These pointed allusions to fascism underscore the narrative, as the film sets out to unmask the government as self-serving power-mongers who manipulate the citizenry for their own gain.

Those in power have hidden their connections to the Larkhill experiments, in which they all took part. When you control the means of production and the dissemination of information, the film suggests, it’s easy to write and enforce your own version of history. The film is chilling as a parable about what happens when leaders exploit terror as a way to govern.

The prime minister of this fascist state (played by John Hurt with all his wrinkled dignity in tyrannical overdrive) is seen only by screen, his twisted face looming large over his cabinet, a cluster of self-important white men who watch him warily, as he treats them nearly as badly as his other subjects. As V begins to wreak havoc on the city, the cabinet carefully covers over his actions with lies spread to the public via the televisions they watch obsessively.

Many of the short scenes between the main action show a revolving handful of families sitting together in front of the tube, commenting with frustration and resignation on the lies they’re being fed. The “telly” is clearly indicted as a delivery system for ideology, but in one of the film’s more hopeful moves, V easily commandeers the national television station and broadcasts his own message of rebellion and redemption.

One by one, V sets out to track down and kill the Larkhill villains to avenge their malevolence. In his bootlegged television address, he inspires the citizenry to revolt with him, inviting them to the Parliament on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, where he will stage his resistance to state power by blowing up the building. Hearing his entreaty, people we’ve only seen watching television in their homes or in pubs feel their complacency and complicity lifted and march off to the battle lines, all dressed in V’s costume, with its black cloak, long-haired wig, and the bleak, frozen smile of his mask.

While the army guards the Parliament, these would-be activists descend on the building en masse, marching together down long avenues. As they approach, the military leaders try to raise high-level officials for operating instructions, but no one responds. This moment of disorganized confusion resonates with the image of Bush sitting in that classroom in Florida while planes hit the World Trade Centers (shown in Farenheit 9/11), as well as the unbearable mystification of the FAA officers represented in United 93, floundering in utter disbelief that the government could be asleep at the wheel, nowhere in evidence while the world as we know it implodes.

Although the crowd of people dressed in the same rather outré outfit could resemble something out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, as the Parliament begins to explode they all lift their masks, revealing their individual humanity to distinguish them from the potential fascism of the uniform crowd. They’re revealed as the anonymous, ordinary people we’ve seen before in front of their televisions, people moved to join the cause and free themselves from the ravages of power.

Parliament finally explodes in a fiery montage of light and sound. The demonstrators gaze with wonder, as though they’re looking at art. The explosives go off like fireworks, breaking into the night sky in beautiful aesthetic arcs of sparkling color and light that makes the scene look very much like the 4th of July, and is in fact a kind of Independence Day. Rather than the false promise of agency and awe that the American holiday has come to represent, this performance of citizenship is filled with hope and possibility for a different kind of future.

This final moment of unmasking and empowering the citizens also reminds me of one of the very first films about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Longtime Companion, when in the end, all the people who’d died earlier in the film are resurrected for a utopian moment of partying together on the beach in Provincetown. In V, the resurrected are people who have been killed at Larkhill, notably a lesbian couple imprisoned and executed for their sexuality, whose story Evey reads when she too (supposedly) is incarcerated in the facility and tortured for information about V. That sexuality is under heightened scrutiny, and that those in power inveigh against “homosexuals” as depraved, makes this Britain of the future seem even more like today’s United States.

Portman’s Evey character offers an interesting representation of someone both participating in history (because of her parents’ activism and their disappearance) and an ordinary person quite oblivious to the real situation of her life. When first seen, Evey works for the national television station as a functionary without power, watching news come in but not registering how it might affect her life or her own complicity in the events of the day. As such, she becomes a neat conduit for viewers, as we learn along with Evey about who V is and the violence he means to avenge.

That they fall in love is rather silly; he’s an effete costumed vigilante who speaks with 19th century cadences of Classical and Renaissance topics, quoting Shakespeare and speaking in couplets. When she finally kisses him, it’s his mask her lips meet. All this is cold comfort, but at the same time, the moment is old-fashioned, chivalrous, and chaste. When V confesses his love for Evey (on his deathbed, of course), he seems more like Camille than an action hero, leaving Evey to play the surviving lover and pull the lever that sends the explosives–with V’s body packed alongside them–to the Parliament.

The love story seems a cheesy ploy, one that reduces Evey’s power to a rather stereotypically female set of emotions. On the other hand, it’s her love for V that persuades Evey to the justice of his political perspective, that brings her to avenge the personal tragedies of her own life and to see them as widely political rather than simply individual events. The romance at once consigns its female lead to being enlightened and motivated by a very strange man and on the other hand, suggests that political radicalism might be achieved through love.

Happily, an action-hero who quotes Shakespeare, is clearly intellectual, and wears a mask that he never takes off breaks the generic mold. We never learn who V was (his name stands only and literally for “vendetta”), which doesn’t really matter because as Evey says in an elegiac moment at the film’s end, he was all of us. He wasn’t an individual, but an archetype, an idea to whom to attach hope and faith and belief.

In fact, V for Vendetta is one of the most politically acute and hopeful narrative films I’ve seen in a long time. Watching people throw off the yoke of illusion, hearing them curse the screen that feeds them lies and don the uniform of revolt, made me hopeful that we, too, could be inspired to protest, and achieve our own independence from unlawful, corrupt power.

V for Vendetta is also wonderfully stylish, allusive, and witty, visually and textually. Critics mostly liked it, even though it didn’t do exceptionally well at the box office (despite its filmic pedigree, adapted from a graphic novel, and produced and written by the Wachowski brothers of the Matrix fame). The critics found art in this film, with all its pleasure, wonder, and surprise. I also found a rather feminist critique of a fascist future, in which finally, Evey, along with V, is something of a hero. And I was quite entertained along the way.

Feeling populist,
The Feminist Spectator

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“Grrl Action” and “American Fiesta”: In Response to “Anonymous”

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful August 2nd comment on my “This I Believe Post.” I think you’ve described exactly what I mean by a “utopian performative”–those moments of being moved and lifted outside of ourselves into a sense of communal belonging and hopefulness.

I agree that these moments often happen when we least expect them. I, too, have found them in amateur productions as often as professional ones, and in fact find that the price of the ticket or the training level of the cast doesn’t necessarily predict when these moments will occur. That’s partly why I try to go to all different kinds of performances, bringing with me the hope that those moments of transport will happen.

I felt a moment similar to the one you experienced at the amateur production of West Side Story last weekend here in Austin when I saw Grrl Action, a performance of solo work by local girls, ages 13-16, produced by the Rude Mechanicals Theatre Company at the Off Center. The summer community-based theatre project now has an established, several year history; in fact, a few of the girls performing this year had been with the project since they were 13, and were now “graduating.” In the audience were a group of girls who had participated in earlier incarnations of Grrl Action. I was moved by their presence, and moved by the graduating girls’ testimony to how the performance project had affected their lives.

The group this year was perhaps the most diverse, in terms of race, sexuality, and, most salient, class. The juxtaposition of their stories highlighted how different girls’ experiences play out in a social world with enormous class disparities.

One Mexican-Amiercan girl performed a piece about immigration, decrying the Bush administration for limiting opportunities for people looking to improve their fates, not to terrorize the United States, as he claims. A white lesbian girl performed a piece about crawling back from an abusive childhood and numerous suicide attempts, propelling herself into a future in which she intends to go to college and make more of herself than her younger years predicted. A middle-class white girl performed her own personal “history of dance,” flying about the stage gyrating and grinding to various dance styles and reminding us of their heyday. Another performed a silent dialogue with two chairs, pushing them toward and away from each other across the stage in a crystal clear illustration of ambivalence for an unseen partner.

The group moments were equally affecting, because they made palpable the girls’ respect for one another across their differences as well as their commonalities; their commitment to telling their stories; and their sense of freedom at their ability to speak into a public forum some of their most important feelings and ideas. The audience was moved to respond to the girls’ call several times through the performance, offering support, love, the power of their answering presence to move the stories forward and honor their meanings.

These girls are trained to write and to perform in a short three-week intensive workshop environment. They craft personal narratives, and they learn to embody their stories and their ensemble moments with movement exercises and Boal-based techniques. A director (this year the very talented Madge Darlington) joins them near the end of the workshop to help them stage the performance. The performance, presented twice over one weekend, is free.

As a spectator, I had little investment in the performance (except that I’m on the advisory board of the Rude Mechs Company). I hadn’t paid for my ticket. I was giving up 90 minutes of my time. And yet my experience was filled with moments of hope, moved as I was by the work these girls’ had done, and touched as I was by our presence listening to them. I believe that their experience withGrrl Action changed their lives. I know that seeing them perform changed mine.

A few days before, I’d spent more than $30 and 90 minutes to see a production of the play American Fiesta, produced by the Austin Theatre Alliance at UT’s McCullough Theatre. Written by Steven Tomlinson, a local favorite on the solo performance scene, the play has been lauded as the Osborn Winner for the “Best New Play By An Emerging Playwright” by the American Theatre Critics Association; selected as “The Best Play of 2005” by the local newspaper, the Austin-American Statesman; and was the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award Finalist. Tomlinson, who also teaches in the business school at UT, is an accomplished writer and performer, with a commanding presence, a smooth, personable delivery, and a coherent, pleasant story-telling style.

American Fiesta uses Tomlinson’s new penchant for collecting Fiestaware as a trope for coming to terms with his conservative parents, who refuse to honor his intent to marry his Latino male partner in Toronto. Across this narrative frame, Tomlinson weaves wry observations about Americana, democracy, domesticity, and politics, searching out the contradictions of queer experience in a moment when gay people are vilified by the US religious right and conservative center while we’re being granted the right to marry in numerous countries across Western Europe and Canada. Collecting the Depression-era dishware becomes Tomlinson’s way to displace his emotions and to order a life that isn’t always in his control.

The production is beautifully staged by Christina Moore, using two butcher block tables and chairs in front of a geometrically compelling arrangement of shelves, onto which Tomlinson loads his new purchases. By the piece’s end, the colorful assortment of plates and cups, pitchers and bowls glow under pinpoint spots, shining with love, history, and the fingerprints of relationships sustained and nourished.

But unlike my experience at Grrl Action, while I appreciated Tomlinson’s story, I didn’t find myself moved by the 90 minutes I spent with him. Even though American Fiesta‘s content is right, as they say, up my alley, I felt strangely distanced from the performance. The story sounded didactic to me. As Tomlinson related the events of his disagreement with his parents and his descent into the obsessions of collecting dishware, it seemed he was telling us how to think and feel, instead of leading us there through metaphor or style, and really hammered
home the obvious “message.” And even though his parents basically reject his queerness and his partner in the most cruel ways, Tomlinson’s emotions remain one-dimensional. He doesn’t seem to suffer at all, never blows his cool, and never seems hurt by their oblivious homophobic rantings. As a result, the stakes seem rather low.

Tomlinson impersonates the other characters, from his dithering mother and pompous father, to his warm but cautious partner, to the mythical man in an antique store outside his parents’ town in Oklahoma who sells him his first piece of Fiestaware. Because he distinguishes each character with only one or two gestures and a distinct vocal pattern, his performance of their idiosyncrasies gets a bit repetitious as the evening progresses.

It’s always nice to see a warm, pleasantly told story about a gay man and his partner and family, especially one with a poltiical analysis that draws a relation between the microcosm and the macrocosm of US domestic policy and its blindness. But unlike my experience at Grrl Action, I felt “addressed” instead of moved. I couldn’t sense the audience surrounding me drawn closer together; we remained surprisingly solitary in our respect for Tomlinson’s work. We seemed to receive the piece in a syncopated timescape, rather than in the lovely unison with which the Off Center audience heard Grrl Action.

I’m glad I saw American Fiesta, and I’m glad that Tomlinson’s work is receiving accolades. But I’ll remember my afternoon at Grrl Action for much longer, and carry it with me when I think about my own nieces and how they might grow up to share their stories.

The Feminist Spectator

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For “This I Believe” . . .

As many of you know, NPR has been running a series of personal essays/statements every Monday for the past while on “Morning Edition” called “This I Believe.” It’s based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, which was hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

As I’ve listened to the stirring, often inspiring essays each week, I’ve been inspired. I love the historical connection between the series’ first incarnation and the present, and I admire the opportunity it provides to speak publicly about faith and belief in a secular forum.

My latest book is an extended argument about my own faith in the power of theatre to change people’s lives by letting us feel, together, what a better world might be like if we could share the moments of wonder and even love that often temporarily bind us together at the theatre.

So I decided I’d like to share my thoughts in the “This I Believe” forum.

The hardest thing about writing the essay was trying to capture in a few words how much performance means to me and the belief I hold in its power for all of us. But crystallizing your thoughts, though difficult, is always gratifying. And the possibility that your ideas might be shared with others makes it all worthwhile. (I’ve felt this keenly for this last year, writing this blog.)

Since I don’t know if my essay will be selected for broadcast, I’m sharing it here. I encourage you to comment and to share your own beliefs if you’d like (I’ve reenabled the “comments” function on the blog, which was mysteriously turned off for the last month).

Thanks, as usual, for reading.

I Believe . . .

in the transformative power of performance. As a teenager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I took acting classes that allowed me to transcend the constraints of my daily life at school and at home. By trying on various characters, I experimented with who I might become.

At fourteen, I played the dowager Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals, costumed in a heavily draped dress with an excessively long train, wearing a stuffed bluebird as decoration in my wig. I loved the fun of pronouncing her ill-chosen words and the laughs I got kicking that train around the stage.

At the theatre, my life as a solitary, introspective teenager was brightened by the stage lights and became, most importantly, communal.

Although I’ve long since stopped performing, I remain a committed spectator. I know of no other secular gatherings at which I’m regularly inspired to laugh and cry with strangers. In those moments of breathing together, the people we watch on stage reach the audience with little bits of their souls through the transmogrifications of character or the illumination of language.

I feel this heightened community, this warm if temporary belonging, watching high school students perform diverting musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as seeing serious Broadway performances like Fiona Shaw in Medea. Professional or amateur, performance captivates me with its enactments of the possibilities of our lives.

A friend and I, both of us white, middle-aged, Jewish theatre professors, went to see ten young people of color reading their slam verses in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, an exuberant evening of stories not regularly heard in that forum. We smiled even when we didn’t understand a reference, moved by the obvious delight of the younger people surrounding us.

Walking up the aisle after particularly affecting performances like Def Poetry Jam, I rub shoulders with fellow audience members embraced by the warmth of communal pleasure. These moments elevate us to a plane far above everyday life, and surprise us with a depth of present experience that brings us closer together, if only for a moment.

I prize these opportunities to experience public life in tandem with others, despite whatever differences of upbringing and identity might in other social circumstances keep us apart. I’m filled with hope knowing that strangers keep gathering to see people transform themselves into others or to tell us stories about their lives and our own.

I believe in the power of the collective creating and viewing performance inspires, when we confront each other in all our tender mortality and yearn together toward a common future. That bluebird in my hair as Mrs. Malaprop was a harbinger of belief in the possibility of theatre’s magical potential to let us laugh, feel, think, and dream together.

Yours, believing,
The Feminist Spectator

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