Yearly Archives: 2007

Once: More with Feeling

Once is a lovely independent film (mentioned in several Best Films of 2007 lists) that tells a simple, affecting story of two people who find each other through music, love each other and what they express, and mutually, wordlessly agree to follow the path their lives have already established (see fox search light). Their choices take them away from each other, yet leave them with the poignant, wistful residue of their musical intimacy and affection.

Named only “Guy” and “Girl,” as though they’re an archetypal heterosexual couple playing out a tale that’s both mythic and utterly, appealingly ordinary, the couple is played by non-actors in simple and appealing performances. Both performers—Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who were friends before filming began—are actually musicians, an appropriate casting choice, since music is what unites them and drives the film.

Writer/director John Carney is also a musician, whose understanding of how music moves people suffuses his unobtrusive filmmaking. Shot with mostly hand-held, low tech cameras in natural light situations, Carney paints the movie with an atmospheric earnestness that enhances the casual pleasure of the couple’s relationship.

Once feels like a casual documentary recording of a few weeks in the life of an Irish street musician and the young Czech immigrant to Dublin who’s attracted to his music when she hears him playing on a deserted street in a commercial area at night. During the day, the guy panders to the crowd he hopes will fill his open guitar case, but at night, he takes advantage of the flattering acoustics of his chosen alley (between a Laura Ashley store and another boutique) to howl his own music, filled with the heartache and ambivalence of his girlfriend’s recent sexual betrayal.

Girl is attracted by something she mutual hears in his lyrics, something primal, unguarded, and familiar in his tone, in the way he closes his eyes when he sings, and later, in the way his battered guitar seems an extension of himself, whether slung from a strap around his neck or carried like a talisman in a nylon case on his back.

To support his music habit, Guy works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop, a fortuitous coincidence that Girl exploits by asking if he can fix her broken machine. The visually charming first few scenes follow the couple through Dublin streets as she pulls the canister cleaner along by its hose.

Carney establishes the cozy, quotidian domesticity of the girl’s life, which she shares in a small, cramped apartment with her two-year-old daughter and her widowed mother, who barely speaks English, but sews continually and cooks heartily.

The girl and her mother share their television—which she proudly tells Guy is the only set in their apartment building—with various young men who cram together on their couch to watch soccer and soap operas. Carney films these scenes, too, like home movies with non-actors, which gives them a guileless, irresistibly sweetness.

Guy and Girl’s mutual loneliness and their love for music draw them together. She drags him to a music store where the generous proprietor lets her play the piano when the shop isn’t crowded. Though they barely know each other, and though her English is accented with her Eastern European origins, they speak the common music of language. He talks her through his song’s chord changes and transitions, which she absorbs without a question, and they play a lovely duet, their voices blending beautifully. Their mutual respect and understanding, as well as the pure joy of making music together, shade their expressions.

Early on in the film, Guy makes a casual sexual pass, inviting Girl to spend the night with him. She’s offended for reasons that become clear only when she reveals that she’s married to a man who stayed behind in the Czech Republic. She feels emotionally as well as geographically far from her husband, and intimates that he doesn’t understand her music or her needs.

Guy, too, struggles with his feelings for his absent lover; she’s moved to London after betraying him with another man. All of his songs seem written for her, and all of Girl’s songs seem addressed to her husband. Yet in their partners’ absence, the couple’s music seems more and more to speak to one another, as their intimacy and affection grows.

The two settle into a warm friendship that begins to more gradually take on erotic overtones. He takes her to a dinner party where a motley assembly of people eat and drink and finally set aside their plates and pull out instruments, crowding around the makeshift kitchen table to strum guitars, bow violins, pick at basses, and sing to music that expresses something communal and personal yet public and urgent for them all.

Although Guy is older, Girl is savvier, and her street smarts and precociousness clearly helps her and her family survive a working class existence with few creature comforts. When Guy decides to make a demo CD, Girl negotiates the studio rental at a bargain price. To secure financing, they visit a loan officer, watching carefully as he listens to their rehearsal tape. The interview ends when the officer borrows Guy’s ubiquitous guitar and serenades them with his own music. In this utopian world, everyone is sympathetic to artists; everyone, in fact, is an artist, committed to supporting one another and their dreams.

Guy invites three fellow street musicians to join him and the girl as his band for his studio session, communicating with them in the same musician-speak that’s the film’s lingua franca. The five hole up in the rented recording studio with a reluctant hired engineer, whose initial sneer turns to more than grudging respect once he hears them play. A montage demonstrates that once again, music connects them all in a proto-familial group of support and affection.

The girl’s mother and daughter join them, bringing food and companionship during a break; they play together easily, with dedication and commitment, each one a part of the transformative whole. At the end of the rigorous few days, they pile into a car to hear how the CD sounds outside the studio, and wind up playing Frisbee at the beach, chasing each other as the music they’ve just created together provides the warm background.

Once is filled with subsidiary characters, a large cast of non-actors who comfortably, unobtrusively, convincingly fill out the frame. The guy’s father is a singular, supportive presence; the two of them work together in the vacuum repair shop like surgeons in an operating room, the son handing the father his tools with the long familiarity of an assistant who can predict the older man’s needs.

Each of the film’s characters is named for who or what they are and nothing else. In addition to “Guy” and “Girl,” the others are “guys on the stoop,” “guys watching television,” “mother,” “daughter,” and “old woman on the bus,” ordinary people graced here by sharing the music being made around them.

Once is a generous, humanist film, in which art lets people forge a connection, however brief and tenuous, that enhances their lives. Music makes them generous and kind with one another and lets them feel their lives in all their poignant pain and happiness. Singing and playing together becomes a model for a collective, utopian “as if.”

The film dignifies the ordinary without romanticizing it. What could be sentimental and sappy culminates instead as moving and persuasive, a slice of lives that remind us of how good our own can be when we listen for the lyrics and let ourselves be transported by the melody.

Happily singing to the soundtrack,
The Feminist Spectator

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Jodie Foster Comes Out

The lesbian blogs and web sites are buzzing today with news of Jodie Foster’s long awaited, much desired coming out. On the occasion of a women’s power meeting in LA (the 16th annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast), Foster received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award and, for the first time, referred to her partner, Cydney Bernard, thanking “my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss” (see After Ellen).

The web site “After Ellen” (named in reference to Ellen Degeneres’ coming out) reports that people in the audience were visibly moved by Foster’s declaration. Ironically, Queen Latifah and John Travolta, both of whom are also rumored to be queer, keynoted the breakfast.

I found myself also moved by Foster’s gesture, and have spent some time after first reading about her speech trying to tease out why it’s politically and emotionally important to me to be able to claim Foster as a lesbian. I’ve long relished the rumors about her sexuality. The first I can remember hearing was that she and Kelly McGillis were involved in some sort of same-sex love triangle on the set of The Accused (1988), the film for which Foster went on to win an Academy Award for playing the working class victim of a brutal, public bar rape. McGillis played her lawyer, whose emotional response moves from indifferent judgment to empathy and respect as the story plays out.

After that, the rumors circulating (at least the ones that caught my ear) were less specific but always enticing, as we presumed that Foster’s sexuality was an open secret waiting to be told. She gave birth to two children, father undeclared; she never appeared publicly with a man at her side; she socialized with Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SUV (also rumored to be a lesbian, or perhaps that’s just my own wishful thinking); she looks at once butch and femme, tough and powerful, and supremely in control.

When we learned of Foster’s announcement yesterday, I asked my partner if she thinks younger lesbians and younger queer women will be as moved as we were by this public knowledge. I wondered whether the more (grudgingly) acceptable and public face of lgbtq culture means that these gestures of mainstream acknowledgement don’t matter as much as they did before Ellen, before gay characters dotted the landscape of network TV, before The L Word and Queer as Folkgraced the premium channels, before Logo and Here gave those of us with good cable selections our own queer channels to watch, before Glenn Close played retired lesbian Army Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer in a made-for-TV movie.

Does Foster’s sudden willingness to stand publicly behind her private identity register as palpably for people who grew up with Out Magazine, or with Bitch, Bust, Curve, and On Our Backs, publications that play (or played) to a generation of women, lesbians, and queers with an already critical but committed relationship to popular culture, publications that regularly comment on queer sexuality not as aberrant, but as an acceptable part of the public landscape?

Does it matter to a generation for whom the political conversation about gay and lesbian lives plays out around our right to serve in the military (for those of us who want it) and our right to marry (for those of us who find matrimony a necessary benchmark of equality)?

Or does a public statement like Foster’s matter more for those of us who remember searching the public landscape and finding only veiled references to “deviant” sexuality, for those of us old enough to recall our own mortification and shame at how easily politicians could refer to the evil influence of “queers” (before that word was reclaimed with pride)?

Does it make a bigger impression on those of us who remember driving to marginal neighborhoods to find unmarked doors behind which stood the temporary, moveable feast of lesbian bars and nightclubs, places found only through word-of-mouth, doors that required screwing up your courage before you raised your hand to knock, peepholes that required a stalwart stillness as the eye peering out sized up your authenticity and decided whether or not to let you inside?

That appraising gaze implied that something could be seen about us that certified our lesbianism, whether it was the indifferent, perhaps masculine way we stood as we were scrutinized, or the clothes we wore, pointedly chosen to reject dominant culture’s assignment of femininity. We performed for that eye something resistant, something performative; that is, something that as we did it, made us who we were to those who could read the signs of our difference.

Isn’t that what we’ve been projecting onto Foster for the many years before this moment? Weren’t we studying how she stood, how she walked (in the dramatically high heels of the Hollywood glitterati, in the shimmering gowns of the red carpet in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), how something wonderfully tough and unyielding and non-compliant (that is, something butch) graced her beautiful performance of femininity?

Didn’t we scrutinize all her film roles for surreptitious signs of her lesbianism? Didn’t we note how toughly she played her characters, how she chose roles in which she was a strong, significantly single mother (with no reference whatsoever to the absence of a male mate) battling invading malignancies to keep her child safe (see Panic Room, 2002, and Flightplan, 2005)? Didn’t we notice that her recent roles were getting tougher and smarter and somehow more wry, while retaining that aloof, single and singular allure (see Inside Man, 2006)? Didn’t it seem that her beautiful smirk hinted at secrets we thought we knew?

I’m not fetishizing a difficult past, but I do wonder if the experience of being what Sarah Schulman so rightly called the last painfully instructed generation (I’m paraphrasing her here, but see her important collection, My American History [1994]) means that Foster’s announcement sounds different to ears that from long habit continue cautiously to hope and yearn for statements like hers?

I still can’t believe that I can see casual same-sex PDA (public displays of affection, of course) on network television. I remember so keenly what it felt like to watch That Certain Summer (1972), the first made-for-television movie about gay relationships, in the same “family” room as my parents, holding my breath as I tried to hide my obvious empathy, my obvious likeness, as I suffered the antipathy they muttered as they watched.

When a friend forwarded news of Foster’s announcement, I emailed it on to family and friends, needing to share with them this “evidence.” I told them that I was moved by Foster’s acknowledgement. But I wonder if I wasn’t also sharing the news to reaffirm for my wondering self that a life like mine is touched, by virtue of our sexual practices and our choices of who and how to love, by a life like Foster’s. Thirty years after I came out, I’m still trying to find approving cultural mirrors.

Foster’s now public partnership is protected by the blanket of wealth. My own partnership might resist official sanction, since we don’t want to be married or to stage a ritual of commitment, but it, too, is secured by the privilege of a bourgeois lifestyle, in which neither the plumber nor the pest control man blink an eye at our obviously shared “master” bedroom. In such a forgiving personal and (in Austin) social climate, why does it still matter to me that Foster’s come out?

Perhaps because my life bears indelible marks of my own painfully carried history, I know that lots of people without my access to money, to community, to self respect, to an analysis of our subjectivity, to theory, or to practice could use the example of Jodie Foster to shore up their own courage and pride.

Shortly after I first came out in 1978, I made what only in retrospect looks like a decision. I would always be out, even though as anyone who’s queer knows, coming out is an infinitely repeated process, instigated every time you fill out a form that asks about marital status, every time you see a new doctor, every time someone presumes your heterosexuality. I’ve committed my energy to that always repeated performance, because I remember viscerally how much it mattered to me to see other people be open about their sexual identities.

I’m assailed by fatigue, doubt, and the frisson of potential danger every time I publicly identify myself as lesbian or queer, but I do it because it still matters. A celebrity only has to come out once; after that, everyone “knows” (although who “everyone” is and what they think they know is anyone’s guess; perhaps that’s a subject for another post).

But nonetheless, I think that’s why I’m moved that someone as visible and culturally powerful as Jodie Foster is now willing to make that gesture. We need people like her on our team, because they make it just a little easier for people who aren’t free to do the same.

Maybe Queen Latifah and John Travolta will be next.

Happy that we are indeed everywhere,
The Feminist Spectator

Fiona Shaw in Beckett at the Kennedy Center

I’ve been lucky enough to catch the indomitable Fiona Shaw in most of her recent U.S. touring performances, including her stunning rendition of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in 1996, at what was then the soon-to-be demolished Liberty Theatre on Manhattan’s 42nd St. She delivered the elegiac prose poem from the edge of the stage apron, crossing its width only occasionally to interact with the ghost light that stood stage center. The theatre itself smelled musty and cold, and at least half of its seats were covered in thick, dusty plastic in preparation for its transformation into an anonymous cinema. But Shaw’s virtuosity and charisma emblazoned the space and mesmerized spectators lucky enough to witness the performance. (She certainly has what Joe Roach might call the “It” factor; see his book, It, just released from University of Michigan Press). In 2000, I saw her perform as Medea in a British import production on Broadway (an occasion about which I write in my book Utopia in Performance).

Last week, I made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in DC to see Shaw in Beckett’s Happy Days in a production imported from the National Theatre of Great Britain, directed by her long-time collaborator Deborah Warner. In the relatively intimate space of the Terrace Theater, Shaw once again captivated audiences, this time with her terrifically mobile, expressive face and torso, and her inimitable command of Beckett’s language.

In front of the curtain (which in this case is a fire wall that lurches a few inches upwards and then back down every few minutes, as we wait for the “action” to begin), the forestage is strewn with the debris of what looks like an explosion or a demolition, which resonates clearly with the post-WTC attack landscape of lower Manhattan. Twisted steel cables thread through concrete rubble in a terrain parched by unfiltered, ungelled white light aimed from intense canned instruments hanging on the extreme sides of the stage.

As the fire wall slowly rises, it’s clear that the wings of the stage are exposed so that the audience can see all the way to the theatre’s walls. When the “curtain” finally rises, it reveals a layer of opaque white plastic hanging from a horizontal steel pipe, which is reminiscent both of the way builders try to mask construction sites and, more prosaically, of a shower curtain pulled around a bathtub. The picture evokes the edgy mix of public/private scene that makes the play so compelling and devastating.

The whole stage remains open, floating within the frame of the theatre’s walls, rather than confined to the edges of the proscenium and its sides. Behind the mound of littered concrete in which Winnie is planted, immobilized from the waist down, a vaguely realist landscape painting of a muted, gray-blue/white-tan desert-like geography provides the backdrop for her monologue, as if a palpable scenographic reminder of a more natural environment that’s imperceptibly fading even as she speaks.

Dissonant, loud, and unpleasantly grating music plays to usher us with some trepidation into the play’s world. Rumbling, rattling sounds that could be the mechanisms of building or the apparatus of destruction echo through the air. By contrast, when the white plastic curtain lifts to reveal Shaw stuck in the mound, her lilting voice seems musical by comparison, projecting one of the many contradictory impressions that make the production so vivid.

Shaw’s Winnie is startlingly flirtatious, given her immobility and existential isolation; she appears to address the audience directly, since Willie—her mostly unseen interlocutor—resides behind the mound, just out of her direct line of sight. Shaw’s characterization at times verges on desperate, while she also plays at a kind of vaudevillian brightness of affect.

Her ability to engage these apparent contradictions demonstrates Shaw’s command of an amazing range of moods, all of which works to make Winnie a strong, layered, powerful presence onstage, instead of the dithering flibbertigibbet as which she is sometime portrayed. With her arms akimbo, wearing a sleeveless black dress and a set of black chunky beads that rest in the hollow of her throat, her gestures approach the operatic and theatrical, as if Winnie literally performs herself into being.

In this production, Happy Days is as much about the theatre as it is about an impossible philosophical condition. Winnie’s ever-present bag looms beside her on the mound like a bag of props. She draws from it the objects that sustain and engage her, personal artifacts that have long lost an external purpose, like her toothpaste and the toothbrush from which she tries repeatedly to read the meaningless words that situate it as both “genuine” and necessary. The revolver she casually pulls from the bag, without comment, although she kisses it rather intimately, signals foreboding; in a realist play from the modernist canon, a gun presented in the first act would inevitably be fired in the third.

But in Beckett’s absurdist world, the gun remains unfired, a potent symbol nonetheless of Winnie and Willie’s inability to assume agency over their lives or deaths. The second act reveals Winnie now buried to her neck in the rocky rubble and debris that seems to encroach further toward her still-moving mouth even as we watch. The gun sits just to the right of Winnie’s vision, an impossibly remote device of her impossible redemption and release.

But in the first act, Winnie’s bottomless bag seems as mysterious and hopeful as the suitcase Hermione carries through much of the last book of the Harry Potter series—as small as it appears, it contains limitless depths and the capacity to hold a whole trainload of stuff. At one point, she drags a mirror from its bottom, which she then cracks on a rock and tosses behind her. Winnie says smugly that it’ll be back in the bag, unbroken, the next day, sure of how unchanging and quotidian her life remains, even when it appears cataclysmic.

For instance, an unexpected, startling fireball appears out of nowhere in the middle of her diatribe, catching her parasol on fire and injecting the stage with a momentary sense of real and present danger and violence. But once the fire recedes, Winnie claims not to know whether the conflagration even happened; reality, here, is a figment of a rich theatrical imagination and little more.

In fact, in the second act, the formerly burnt parasol rests near the revolver, in sight but out of reach, perfectly intact once again, like a trick prop that’s been reset for the next performance of a play. The props mark the passage of time; Winnie parcels out her attention to them as a way of organizing her experience. What Andrew Sofer, in his book of the same name, calls the “stage life of props” are redolent with their own existential theatrical weight.

The theatrical metaphor is underlined when Winnie reports that a couple passed her and disrupted her routine, the man asking impertinently why Willie couldn’t just dig her out. The man wants to know “what it means,” referring disparagingly to her immobility, her metaphysical intransigence, but Winnie reacts to his perplexity with arch superiority, as though her condition should be self-evident. She denies these trifling intruders the satisfaction of an explanation she clearly finds unnecessary. That it’s the man of the couple who interrogates her allows Winnie to assert her own gendered presence against his; she’s no trifling woman, despite her physical disadvantage.

Winnie enacts Beckett’s disregard for his own detractors. Beckett presents Winnie’s effort to interpret the hieroglyphics on her toothbrush handle as equally as important as understanding the meaning of Winnie’s condition (and the meaning of his play). When she finally discerns the faint letters, her joy in putting the words together far exceeds what they mean. But the pleasure she takes in her effort mirrors the spectators’ own pleasure in engaging the possibilities of the play.

Time looms large in Happy Days. Shaw delivers some of her most poignant line readings around “the old style,” her label for time’s days and nights as they used to be delineated, since in this post-apocalyptic moment, when to sleep and when to get “up” is announced by an imperious bell and nothing more. Time is marked by action more than by meaning; in the first act, Winnie shifts uncomfortably and notes that the earth is getting tighter. Yet she soldiers on, always aware that things could be worse, a prophecy born out in the second act, when only Shaw’s rubber face remains free to express Winnie’s indelible presence.

Shaw’s performance is a physical, vocal, and emotional tour-de-force. She carefully marks every word and gesture and scores each nuanced emotional shift, so that Beckett’s repetitions and reiterations seem like a jazz improvisation with recurring themes always presented in surprising new ways. Shaw knows where she’s going each step of the way; her strength as an actor, and her willingness to be so bold and courageous in her performance choices, ameliorates her powerlessness as a character. She renders Winnie peculiarly hopeful (or is she deluded?), capable of creating her own sense when the world makes none at all.

To the end, Winnie’s memory brings her comfort, as she recalls lines from literature that preserve her, even though they seem only absurd. The old lines, like the “old style,” mean everything and nothing, just like Happy Days.

With existential awe,
The Feminist Spectator

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Performance Contexts: Wendy Wasserstein’s Third in Los Angeles

I’ve promised myself not to apologize for those months when I don’t have time to post, but my guilt persists. Suffice it to say that October was filled with preparing for travel to give lectures and trying to get the two classes I’m teaching this semester up to speed. As a result, my theatre, film, and book consumption dropped precipitously, along with the requisite time for writing.

Still (now that I have broken my own promise and apologized), I did see one production during my trip to Los Angeles about which it’s worth sharing my thoughts. I was invited by my friend and colleague Sue-Ellen Case’s Center for Performance Studies at UCLA to participate in two public events at the Geffen Playhouse around its production of Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, Third.Because the play is about an ostensibly feminist professor and her hostile encounter with a white male student taking her Shakespeare class, the UCLA Center programmed a panel discussion on feminist pedagogy in which I participated with another guest, followed by a talk I delivered solo on Wasserstein’s life and her work, focusing on Third as exemplary.

Although the Center had scrupulously arranged for the Geffen events to appeal to public audiences, the theatre staff neglected to announce the ancillary program to its subscribers. Rather than addressing a mixed audience of academics and community folk, I found myself in a room off the Geffen’s lobby preaching to the converted—a crowd of mostly women faculty and students from UCLA. Nonetheless, as performance artist Holly Hughes once said, the converted need their affirmations, too.

I’ve long proposed that we stage “talk befores” in addition to “talk backs” during the run of our university theatre productions, since I believe that describing the context in which to consider a play might enhance spectators’ reception experiences. Whether or not you’ve read the play you’re about to see, and whether or not it’s a premiere or canonical, I find it helpful to discuss in advance the issues raised, the potential production choices and acting decisions available to be made, and ideas to watch for as the play unfolds before us in time and space.

Some artists insist that such pre-show discussions “cheat” spectators of a tabula rasa encounter with a play. Some even dismiss talk backs afterwards, accusing them of fixing interpretation or quarreling with the production, rather than seeing these occasions as a chance to tease out a play’s multiple meanings, to argue over conflicting perspectives, and to address the social affects any production leaves in its wake.

At UT, we’ve attempted to create a discourse community in which to embed production practice in a variety of ways. For several years, the students in our graduate Performance as Public Practice (PPP) program ran “After Words,” a series of talk backs that discussed university theatre productions once or twice each semester. They invited all students and faculty to join the conversation, but at a typical After Words, perhaps 20 people attended, most of them involved in the productions at hand, or other students for whom the plays raised issues or touched nerves.

Recently, to create a discussion context for a production of Maria Irene Fornes’s landmark feminist play Fefu and Her Friends, PPP students Carrie Kaplan and Ray Matthews, who co-dramaturged the production, organized what they called feminist “salons,” afternoon gatherings outside the show’s performance frame to which they invited faculty and others to engage in informal discussions about feminism and performance. I love the idea of salons, because they center attention on a play or production or performance in a social and intellectual context in which it can be examined and more widely and diversely connected.

Given my interest in contextualizing performance, I was pleased to be invited to participate in the pre-show discussion events at the Geffen in LA.

According to American Theatre’s October 2007 season preview feature, in addition to the one I saw at the Geffen, productions of Third are planned at a number of regional theatres around the country. Wasserstein’s death 18 months ago brought attention to Third as the inadvertent finale of her career. In many ways, Third foreshadows Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma at age 55; the play takes an elegiac tone toward not only the feminist movement it critiques (rendering it a companion piece to Wasserstein’s 1989 The Heidi Chronicles), but to the choices all women make to shape and lead their lives.

Wasserstein once said that she distributes her autobiography among the characters in her plays. Her protagonist in Third, Professor Laurie Jameson, has a friend and colleague, Nancy, who suffers from cancer. At the beginning of the play, she’s come out of remission after seven cancer-free years and gone back into chemo, bitter that her reprieve ended so suddenly. Although Nancy’s illness no doubt represents some of the playwright’s preoccupations as she neared her own death, “heroine” Laurie Jameson’s crisis of confidence about feminism indicates another angle on Wasserstein’s final concerns.

Third launches its debate about feminist politics on the campus of an unnamed elite college somewhere in New England, where young white men with numerals after their names could reasonably be expected to come from families of wealth and power. Woodson Bull the Third, in fact, who becomes Laurie Jameson’s antagonist, seems made of such aristocratic stock. He’s a wrestler, an athlete on a campus that denigrates such sport. He’s also rather forward with Laurie, approaching her early in the play with his desire to set up a personal screening of a film version ofKing Lear she requires for her course. He’s not asking for special favors so much as he’s privileging his wrestling over attending her course screening. He manages to secure a copy of the film to see on his own time, but his ploy makes Laurie immediately suspicious.

Laurie’s instant dislike toward Third, though, seems predicated less on his rather over-earnest and somewhat entitled attitude, and more on “the Third” that ends his name (if not the “Woodson” that begins it, which she immediately and somewhat sexually shortens to “Woody” in their first conversation). When Third (as Woodson prefers to be called) eventually turns in a beautifully written paper with a sophisticated argument about Lear, Laurie jumps to the conclusion that he’s plagiarized his work.

Through the play’s subsidiary characters, Wasserstein indicts Laurie for her assumptions about Third. Her ill friend Nancy sides with the student, even as she runs the faculty investigation into the dispute. Her daughter Zoë aggressively rejects Laurie’s strident politics, and even her senile father dismisses her work as so much talk about nothing. In the process, Wasserstein once again damns U.S. feminism as irrelevant, trapped without resonance in a 20-year-old stasis.

As in The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein structures her perspective through multiple levels, which makes it difficult to disparage the play out of hand. In some ways, she gets feminism “right.” For instance, we find out (although much too late in the play) that Laurie was the first woman to be tenured on this fictional campus, an important part of her back story, since it explains her sensitivity and her tendency toward knee-jerk responses to politics instead of more rational thinking.

Throughout the play, Laurie and Nancy alternate between allying with and distancing themselves from a male colleague they consider a “neo-con pig.” But instead of exploring the emotional baggage that comes from being a pioneer in a conservative institution, Wasserstein uses Laurie’s history to criticize her hidebound perspectives on masculinity and entitlement, men and wealth. The journey toward emotional growth through which she ushers her character proves Third—the ingenuous, intellectually agile innocent—to be the agent of Laurie’s change, implicitly demeaning her in the process.

The Geffen production, directed by Maria Mileaf—who was recently profiled in American Theatre as an important young director—failed to ameliorate the play’s sticky ideological problems. Mileaf’s static direction left the actors physically frozen on the wide, empty set, and often forced them simply to talk to each other without doing anything. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a realist production with so few props, with so little “stuff” onstage to create atmosphere and place and to define characters in action. While this choice might support Wasserstein’s critique of feminism’s “empty” program, good theatre requires a more active, precise, and layered sense of scene, pace, and progression.

The production’s archaic scenic technology also hampered what might have been a more fluid, subtle study. At the end of each of the play’s short scenes, blackouts, filled with peculiar original music that sounded deaf to the play’s tone, covered stagehands moving furniture on and off stage. Christine Lahti, who’s in most of the scenes performing as Laurie Jameson, exited and re-entered each time. Watching her unfortunate comings and goings broke the through-line of the action and forced spectators to keep renewing their focus on and commitment to the character.

Lahti played Laurie with relative ease and warmth, considering that the character could easily come across as an ice queen. Diane Wiest originated the role in its premiere production at Lincoln Center Theatre (directed by Daniel Sullivan). Although painfully thin and probably 10 years too young for the role, Lahti’s congenial, affable presence softened the professor’s harder edges and nearly succeeded in making Laurie Jameson sympathetic.

Ironically, while Wasserstein’s script describes Laurie wearing flowing skirts and dangling earrings, in this production, Laurie dressed in close-fitting, stylish power suits that looked more corporate than old-fashioned feminist. While the sartorial appointments Wasserstein suggests at least mark Laurie within a cultural moment that refused the accessories of capitalism, the costume design embraced for the Geffen production visually positioned Laurie within the codes of “power feminism.” The choice both made her plight more relevant and extended the play’s indictment to contemporary feminists in business, as well as in the academy.

Ultimately, though, the play and the production intended to demonize Laurie, a goal too difficult even for a deft, smart actor like Lahti to overcome. By the play’s end, Lahti—a tall woman who towered over her fellow actors—seemed dwarfed by the other characters’ moralizing denigration of everything in which Laurie believes. If the script weren’t painful enough, watchingLahti apologize to Third in his dorm room as he packed to leave the college coul only make a feminist spectator grit her teeth at Jameson’s good-humored response to her humiliation.

Jayne Brook played Jameson’s friend Nancy, striking an easy rapport between the two women. She maintained enough critical distance on her colleague to let us know that not all women professors abuse their students—only feminist ones like Laurie who continue “holding the torch” instead of facing up to the so-called reality that feminism failed women. Nancy rejects Laurie’s attempts to help her friend through her latest chemo. Instead, Nancy transfers her affections to a Jewish rabbi also battling cancer with whom she argues about Israel and Palestinewhile they both receive their treatments. Nancy announces she’s taking an extended leave of absence at the play’s end to escape from the confines of the academy with the rabbi at her side.

Even Nancy’s choice to commit to a heterosexual marriage instead of dedicating herself to the academic feminist cause implicitly criticizes Laurie for her own determined beliefs. Laurie’s husband—whom the audience never sees—teaches political science, but their savvy, cynical daughter Zoë accuses Laurie of withholding her love for him because he’s not as successful or ambitious as his wife.

By contrast, Laurie’s Cordelia-like loyalty to her senile, Lear-like father, desperately overplayed in the Geffen production by M. Emmet Walsh, proves poignant and unshakeable, even as he blusters about the set descending into madness. Her father might demean her occupation and her intellect, but Laurie stays by his side, shoring up her patriarch while she otherwise rails against patriarchy. This calculated contradiction adds to the character’s deficits, subtly shifting the audience’s sympathy away from Laurie toward her nemesis.

This brings us to Third, the boy wonder who turns out to be nothing like Laurie expects.Although those numbers burden his genealogy, it turns out his father works as a small-town lawyer. Third attends this fancy school on scholarship, which he supplements by working as a bartender in town. Third’s insights into Lear come from a really good teacher he had in high school, an instructor remarkably pure and erudite, compared to Laurie Jameson’s obviously partial, biased concern with undoing hegemony through her analysis of literature.

Wasserstein endows Third, in fact, with all the graces Laurie lacks. His genuine curiosity about people leads him to take gay and lesbian studies classes along with courses in Shakespeare; he’s read widely in the subaltern literature of the day. He purposefully puts himself in situations that “other” him, and admits that even Laurie’s negative attention and accusations about his scholarship made him more interesting than he’ll ever be to anyone again as a conventional white, middle-class, heterosexual male.

The character provides a cheap foil, and at the Geffen, Matt Czuchry played Third as an immature frat boy with irritating verbal ticks that made his every speech sound like he was announcing a football game. He stood stiffly, posing without conviction, and appeared broad, butch, and boring, hardly an appropriate adversary for someone as strong and smart as Laurie Jameson.

And that, finally, is the play’s most heinous gesture—to reduce a woman of achievement to a petty, pouting lout forced into a skirmish whose outcome even she knows won’t affect society.Laurie demonstrates her political zeal throughout the play by listening incessantly to news reports of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his subsequent dissembling about troop numbers and casualties.But the arena in which she wields her own political power has shrunk to a miniscule mat on which she and the finally insignificant Woodson Bull the Third wrestle with the white male privilege that Wasserstein had the nerve to portray as chimerical.

At the end, Laurie walks the many steps to Third’s dorm room to eat crow. She ruefully admits that she set out to change the world, and all she changed was the English department.She’s left regretting her own ideas, while Third redeems her with his casual forgiveness and suggests that she “stick with the hope” instead of the irony.

What a shame that The Heidi Chronicles’s Heidi Holland had to grow up into Third’s Laurie Jameson without learning anything about real feminism along the way.

Still holding the torch,

The Feminist Spectator

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Gray Matters and Puccini for Beginners: Love Triangles and All

I can’t resist dipping into what’s now quite a catalogue of lesbian-themed movies, even though most of them are light fluff or portentous melodrama. I find these films by reading about them in scattered reviews, sometimes in the Times or sometimes The Advocate, or I find them in queer browsing sites like Wolfe Video (, which also offers a weekly email update on new LGBTQ DVD releases and entertainment industry queer gossip).

I recently rented Gray Matters (2007,, for instance, which stars Heather Graham, Tom Cavanagh, and Bridget Moynahan in a slight, but diverting lesbian date comedy. I’ve also watched Puccini for Beginners(, a 2007 Official Selection at Sundance, which also opened the 30th annual Frameline [Gay] Film Festival this year in San Francisco. Gray Matters was conceived and executed by Sue Kramer, who notes in the DVD bonus tracks that her sister is a lesbian; Puccini was written and directed by out lesbian Maria Maggenti.

Maggenti garnered mainstream attention with The Fabulous Adventures of Two Girls in Love(1995), the film that launched the queer career of Laurel Holloman, who’s now playing Tina Kennard on The L WordPuccinif, like Gray Matters, is another slight and diverting lesbian “date comedy” (two words I never thought would modify “lesbian” in films).

Gray and Puccini share a common plot thread: a love triangle among a lesbian, a straight woman, and a man. In Gray Matters, our heroine, Gray, and her brother, Sam, are so close they live together and are often misrecognized as a couple. Clearly, this arrangement is too queer to sustain, so it’s time to find Sam a “real” girlfriend. With Gray’s help, the siblings stumbled upon the androgynously, bi-friendly named “Charlie,” walking her dog in Central Park. Sam’s attraction is immediate, but Gray, too, and winds up falling in love with her.

In Gray’s critical “recognition” scene the night before Sam and Charlie’s (inevitable) wedding, Charlie insists on the old-fashioned ritual that Sam not see her until they meet at the altar. Charlie spends the night in a hotel with Gray. After a long evening of girls-only drinking, the two women exchange a series of physically affectionate gestures that escalate into a rather passionate kiss, after which Charlie promptly passes out.

Gray spends all night pacing the hotel room floor trying to figure out what happened; Charlie’s utter amnesia the next morning doesn’t help. When Gray confesses to Sam than she loves his wife, the siblings are temporarily estranged, until Gray lets go of her crush on their mutual object of affection and drifts off to ply her newly found lesbian desire farther from home.

In Puccini for Beginners, the unlikely but entertaining plot revolves around two love triangles, one among a lesbian and a straight couple, the other among two lesbians and a man. Here, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) abruptly leaves our heroine Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) to return to her boyfriend, because Allegra, her girlfriend of nine months, can’t commit.

Commitment-phobic though she is, Allegra soon meets Phillip (Justin Kirk), a Columbia philosophy professor with whom she begins a surprising affair. Shortly after, Allegra also meets and beds Grace (Gretchen Mol), the woman whom (unbeknownst to Allegra, but already clear to us) Phillip has been seeing for six years and recently left because of her insistence on marriage. Phillip, a stereotypically commitment-phobic man, finds a “man” like himself in Allegra and pursues his attraction.

Maggenti offers a prologue to preview the eventual recognition scene, letting the audience know well before Allegra that she’s sleeping with a former couple, after which a series of farcical set ups inspired by this triangle proceeds as only screwball film comedy can. The antics are interspersed with wry but supportive commentary from Allegra’s two best friends (Molly, a straight woman, and Nell, an ex who majored in German philosophy at Yale and pronounces her opinions in suitably fierce, uncompromising intellectual terms).

Both Phillip and Grace attach to Allegra quickly, and she jumps in and out of bed with both, fielding inopportune cell phone calls from one or the other as she tries to keep her lovers straight (and separate). She doesn’t realize until the film’s third act (each act title serves as a convenient, rather theatrical transitional device) that Phillip and Grace were/are involved.

Like any good farce, all the plotlines and characters come together in the final revelation scene that was previewed at the film’s beginning. This one happens at a party for Samantha and her fiancé, whom Phillip and Grace just happen to know. Allegra, despite being a writer who was a runner-up for the New York Critics Circle Book award, has been persuaded to work the party as wait staff for a loathsome gay caterer. In a classic “She’s my girlfriend”; “No, she’s my girlfriend” scene, Allegra’s gig is up and the competing relationships dissolve with her and resolve with each other. Phillip and Grace, mutually humiliated over Allegra’s betrayal, are thrown back together. Samantha, fondly recalling her love and appropriately impressed by how Allegra has (supposedly) changed, ditches her fiancé and returns to her girlfriend, and everyone, we assume, lives happily ever after.

Puccini recalls Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as its New York-set scenes brim with affection for its West Village locations and long shots of the Met at Lincoln Center, where Allegra takes her dates to share her love for the grand passions of opera (which here seem wonderfully, intentionally queer). The apartments in which the characters live (and in which the film was presumably shot) are realistically small, if set-decorated in saturated colors, off-kilter art, and objects tastefully arranged to provide shorthand character detail.

Maggenti films many scenes in public places—delis, restaurants, subways, benches in Central Park—where ever-opinionated, eavesdropping New Yorkers provide a Greek chorus for Allegra’s on-going dilemmas and don’t hesitate to tell her what she should do. Anonymous diners and wait staff turn to offer Allegra unsolicited advice. The sushi chefs at a place she frequents observe Allegra’s comings and goings with soap opera zeal and the insight of committed fans; their hilarious remarks are spoken in Japanese and displayed in English subtitles, which helps comment on the clueless spectacle of white folks in love.

Maggenti’s eye for New York character demonstrates a smart wit—the diners are “types,” including, among others, Babs Davy of the Five Lesbian Brothers playing, in a striped baseball shirt, an advice-wielding member of a dyke softball team arrayed at a nearby four-top in a restaurant. On the subway, the voice of an African-American woman stop announcer interjects her own reading of Allegra’s fortunes, and at the deli, a Latino cashier offers to take her out but looks on approvingly when Grace arrives and embraces her.

That people of color in the film only appear in these subsidiary cameos is unfortunate; what good progressive artist/writer/intellectual like Allegra in Manhattan in the 21st century would only associate with white people?

If it stints on the possibilities of racial diversity, Puccini does represent its characters as smart people who think about their emotions and their politics. Allegra and Phillip lie in bed talking about marriage, which Allegra articulately dismisses as a bourgeois institution of property, whether for heterosexuals or queers. Phillip and Nell joust about Kant. The opinionated diners describe the fluidity of gender, the pros of bisexuality, and the queerness of opera. When Samantha leaves Allegra, she heads to the bookcase to retrieve her belongings. Allegra and her friends go to the Met together (even though most of them hate opera, while Allegra swoons). They escape into bookstores and cinemas when they’re depressed, and come out with enthusiastic analyses of black-and-white films. Idle shoppers at bookstores interject observations from Freud into Allegra’s private conversations.

Allegra becomes a kind of lesbian everywoman, someone strangers want to steer and guide and help to find her way. The film’s affection for her warms the narrative and lets you appreciate the one-liners and sight gags that pepper each frame and fondly skewer upper-middle class white intellectuals like its characters while it moves through Allegra’s plight.

Puccini wouldn’t be half as affecting without Reaser’s subtly sexy, easy-going charisma. Reaser had her own plot line on Grey’s Anatomy last season as the amnesiac patient who falls for Alex during her long hospital stay. In Puccini, she invests Allegra with just enough self-deprecation to make her appealing, balanced with just enough sardonic self-knowledge and sophistication to balance what could have been a mopey, self-indulging role. Reaser’s Allegra is bright and adorable and appealingly open to the parade of New Yorkers with whom she effortlessly, casually shares her intimacies. Through Maggenti’s recurrent joke about the omnipresent and omnipotent New Yorker runs a vein of happy humanism, a vision of the city in which people are entwined in each other’s lives for a moment then move on, all gracefully touching one another with care and humor before they go.

Maggenti also offers a New York in which it’s easy to be a lesbian (even a lesbian sleeping with a man). None of the city’s talkative denizens—straight or queer—blink at the gender of Allegra’s attachments. In Gray Matters, the heroine only begins her search for lesbian love as the credits roll. At the end of Puccini for Beginners, Allegra and Samantha walk off together through Central Park, hands in each other’s back jeans pockets.

If Puccini needed to establish that male-female love triangle, at least it wasn’t to enable the heroine’s coming out through her attraction to her beloved brother’s desire. Allegra’s affairs with Phillip and Grace are instructive, just like those profitable Fill-in-the-blank for Beginners books from which the film adapts its title (Puccini could also be sub-titled Lesbianism for Dummies). Her relationships let her (and Maggenti) sort through the differences between men and women, not only as lovers, but as life partners.

Still, the repetition of the three-way love triangle (one lesbian, one straight man, and one alluring, mostly straight woman) bears noting in popular lesbian film. I’m not sure, finally, what to make of it: On one hand, lesbians have historically been vulnerable to the advances of bi-curious straight women, and many lesbians who suffer a dearth of safer objects of desire find themselves attracted there. Straight women are, in fact, a “type” or a “preference” for some lesbians—proselytizing has its attractions.

On the other hand, perhaps this plot structure signifies cultural anxiety about lesbians competing with men. Then again, maybe it’s aimed at straight women, suggesting it’s okay to have sex with girls as long as you go on to marry a man. In fact, a kiss, some sex, even playing at a relationship is kind of cool–for a while. I’m still not sure what the pattern means, but it seems worth tracking.

In Puccini for Beginners, happily, Allegra affirms her choice to be with women, even as no one judges anyone else for making other choices. Her decision to finally accept the potential of a long term monogamous relationship with Samantha seems a bit of a compromise, after her refreshing aversion to commitment (we all know the joke about lesbians bringing U-Hauls to their first dates).Puccini’s message is liberal, for sure, but delivered with a light touch and enough comic verve to make for a fun evening in front of the flat screen TV.

As an old-time (and getting-kind-of-old) lesbian feminist, I’ll keep mining those lesbian DVD catalogues, still amazed that I now have so many choices for amusing pleasures besides Desert Hearts.

Happy for eye candy,
The Feminist Spectator

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