Yearly Archives: 2012

Children of Killers

Katori Hall’s 2011 play takes on the difficult task of theatricalizing the haunting national trauma of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda by considering the children of Hutu militia born after their fathers perpetuated mass murders, rapes, and maimings against their fellow Tutsi nationals.   The young men around whom the play revolves, Innocent, Bosco, and Vincent, are teenagers just coming into their manhood when they learn that the first wave of Hutu soldiers has been released from prison to return to their villages.

The boys anticipate the appearance of men they’ve never met, about whom they’ve created their own mythologies from a mixture of fear and impossible admiration; Innocent boasts that his father killed more than 600 people and Bosco’s father more than 700. Vincent’s father assumes an elevated place as allegedly the most adept of the patriarchal killers.  In a chilling scene, Innocent and Bosco imagine in graphic detail how their fathers slaughtered their victims, cutting off their limbs with sharp machetes, using their detached heads as soccer balls, and forcing women to eat the body parts of their children.  They also taunt one another with details of the rapes, proposing that the sexual violence was perpetrated by those with “the sickness” to insure that HIV/AIDS would kill their victims slowly and painfully.

Esperance, a young, maimed Tutsi woman who survived by hiding under a pile of bleeding dead bodies after one of her arms was severed, crosses the boys’ territory as a living reminder of their fathers’ violence.  Innocent and Bosco threaten to harm Esperance (LaTonia Antoinette) when the statuesque young woman wanders into their space bearing a large plastic water jug on her head, the scars of war painted in white against her dark skin.  The boys encircle and taunt her, calling her “cockroach,” the despicable nickname that helped justify the Hutu’s massacre of their country’s ethnic minority.

When Vincent steps in to protect Esperance, Innocent and Bosco protest that they were only joking.  But it’s clear that these children can’t come to terms with the history of violence into which they’ve been born, and their anxiety over their fathers’ return simply heightens their tense relationships.  If the three boys are haunted by the legacy of their fathers’ violence, Esperance carries the bodily memory of her own victimization.  She remembers trying to breathe beneath the heavy load of her butchered fellow Tutsis, and surviving only to watch her mother die of AIDS.  Esperance now protects Emmanuel (Khadim Diop), her young, rather hapless brother, who insists that his conception was “immaculate,” like Jesus’s, when the other kids know that he’s a child of rape.

Playing guhahamuka

Although the play proceeds in a realist style, Hall represents the memory of national trauma in ghostly children who haunt several of the central characters in turn.  Played by ten young actors, who serve as a movement and vocal ensemble on- and off-stage, they collectively embody guhahamuka, a Rwandan word that apparently came into wide use after the Tutsi genocide that means “the breathless attempt to articulate the inexpressible.”  Hall and director Emily Mendelsohn represent guhahamuka as a persistent, terrifying, resonating memory of historical violence with visions that each character suffers alone.  The others can’t see or hear the taunting specters that infiltrate the scene, sometimes projected as over-sized shadows against the scrim that surrounds the stage, sometimes present as an undulating mass of bodies dressed in soft blues and beige, sometimes simply heard as voices chanting or laughing with manic, threatening energy.  None of the characters can shake these ghosts, who accompany them everywhere as reminders of their own national complicity.

But even as the boys are haunted by genocide and await their fathers’ return, they dream of other lives and desires.  Bosco (Melech Meir) wears a Lakers basketball shirt, and boasts that his good looks will win him a place as “Rwanda’s Top Model.”  Innocent (Sidiki Fofana) brags of his nascent sexual prowess, developed without the advice of a male role model.  Vincent (Terrell Wheeler), despite his father’s renown as a butcher, is the most conflicted boy, ambivalent about his father’s return and inexplicably drawn to the Esperance, who rebuffs his efforts at warmth as no more than ethnic guilt.  Vincent’s turn to violence at the play’s end seems out of character, a surprising action for a young man who appears to be noble and strangely hopeful throughout.  Hall’s story probes the effects of a nation’s trauma on its youth, but Vincent seemed poised to break the historical cycle, until it catches up with him, too.

In fact, the play’s last scene underlines historical repetitions.  Vincent’s father does return to the village, and is welcomed back into his home by Vincent’s mother, who’s adorned her lips with bright red lipstick to make herself appealing to her long-missing husband.  In his absence, Mama (Suzanne Darrell) has had to barter sexual favors for food and basic survival; she’s had a daughter with another man.  Her husband sits at her table, eating food she’s prepared while she watches, still, silent, and fearful.  When he reappears, Vincent Sr. (Raphael Agbune) acknowledges young Vincent as his son; he says he recognizes himself in the boy’s eyes, metaphorically seeing the violence Vincent has just inflicted.  But Vincent Sr. banishes Mama’s daughter, Felicite (Naja Jack), from his table, knowing that she’s not his blood.  As the lights dim, the patriarch resumes his place, eating across the table from his son while Mama contemplates a continually troubled and uncertain domestic–and by extension national–future.

Children of Killers, at 65 minutes, necessarily schematizes a complex and devastating national history.  Theatricalizing genocide is challenging—witness the canon of Holocaust plays over the years that have pondered how to represent the meanings of mass murder.  Embodying genocide in a realist play is bound to reduce its horror.  For instance, Vincent comes to Esperance’s rescue in a gesture of both chivalry and budding sexual attraction.  Under the terms of realism, the play requires the typical romantic trope to motivate and help explain his climactic violence.  Such realist justifications remove the characters from the very history Hall wants to represent and explore.

On the other hand, the Castillo Theatre’s production is well wrought and compelling.  The young actors in the leading roles and in the ensemble representing guhahamuka are appealing and convincing, imbuing their characters with verve and determination despite their ambivalence about their historical inheritance and their concern for their immediate and long-range futures.  Many of the performers in Children of Killers train at the Castillo’s theatre school and participate in the theatre’s All Stars Project which “seeks to provide opportunities for young people and adults to express themselves through performance in ‘mixed company’: that is, before our highly diverse audiences. . . . In selecting our plays and performances, we are guided by basic democratic principles of inclusion, artistic freedom, and freedom of speech.”

The Castillo’s demonstrated commitment to social justice in the plays it selects and in its production values was a felt experience in the audience the night I saw Children of Killers.  In its flexible theatre, director Mendelsohn and set designer Joseph Spirito placed the two domestic settings—a kitchen and a bed—at either end of the long, wide playing space.  The central outdoor action took place between two groups of spectators arranged in rows on risers facing one another.   Rather than peering into the fixed and inexorable frame of a proscenium, we swung our heads from one end of the playing space to the other, and in the process, looked across at the other half of the audience.  The space required us to contemplate our own closeness to and complicity with the action taking place in and represented by the play.

Children of Killers was commissioned by the National Theatre in London and performed as part of its Connections Festival, a year-long celebration of writing for young people (see Hall’s web site).  The Castillo Theatre’s very earnest American production raises crucial issues for consideration.  What do children do with a legacy of violence?  How can a nation address a recent past of ethnic brutality in which so many people were slaughtered so viciously?  How does a people and a country move into the future on the basis of such a bloody past?  It’s impossible not to applaud Hall’s attempt to use theatre to address these questions.

The Feminist Spectator

Children of Killers, Castillo Theatre, New York, through October 28, 2012.



The suburban setting, hiding underlying malignancies

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize, which ultimately went to Quiara Alegría Hudes’s more earnest Water by the Spoonful.  Detroit is instead a rather vicious examination of American dreaming and its attendant disappointments and perversities, all delivered in comic dialogue that carries less of a wink than a bite.  It’s a perfect play for an era of economic uncertainty and political shape-shifting.

Despite all its ordinary suburban appearances, nothing in this strangely disquieted, more or less middle-class neighborhood is as it seems.  In fact, despite the play’s title, the Playwrights Horizon’s program is vague about the place, which it describes as a “’first ring’ suburb outside of a mid-size American city.”  Because the play is called Detroit, it’s easy to read it through that city’s economic depression and racial strife.  But D’Amour is after something bigger than profiling just one declining U.S. city desperate to revive itself.  The city becomes a synecdoche for the country itself, and its white, purportedly middle-class characters tell a cautionary tale about those in the so-called fly-over states who so often represent the “real” America in political discourse, whether idealized or disparaged.  The play succeeds by telling a story nearly David Lynch-like in its ability to get at the seamy underside of middle-class American life.

Directed crisply and sensitively by Anne Kauffman, D’Amour’s play puts two ordinary-seeming white couples together in close proximity and watches how the four characters push and prod one another toward revealing the fear and wrenching disappointment covered by lives of prosaic propriety.  Mary (Amy Ryan) and Ben (David Schwimmer) live in a house that seems, from the back- or front yards where the action is set, perfectly acceptable and conventional.  And as gracious suburbanites, they’re quick to invite their new neighbors, Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), over for dinner.

Ben cooks outside on a large and handsome propane-fueled Weber affair, boasting about throwing “these puppies on the grill” when he’s ready to prepare the steaks he and Mary serve.  Schwimmer plays Ben with a perfect mix of bumbling anxiety and calculated, if only finally hopeful, arrogance.  Ben has recently been laid off from his job as a loan officer, and boasts that he’s starting his own financial planning consultancy on a web site he’s creating.  When he offers to practice his new skills on Kenny and Sharon, D’Amour intimates that Ben isn’t quite as competent as he takes pains to seem.  In his trademark Friends-inspired style, Schwimmer plays Ben’s reactions with blankly confused expressions, as the poor guy is always a beat behind the others in figuring out what just happened.

Mary, on the other hand, is sharper at keeping up with conversational subtexts, even if she doesn’t have the wherewithal to act on her instincts.  She works as a paralegal, fond of pretending to type letters while she’s actually shopping online.  She also has a drinking problem, easily sniffed out and diagnosed by Sharon, who’s a recovering addict.  Ryan beautifully communicates Mary’s sneering confidence, which thinly veils her own resentments and concerns about a future that suddenly seems much less than secure.

Sharon and Kenny are noticeably less adept at middle-class decorum than their new neighbors.  Sharon seems younger than the other three, and Kenny seems moody and mysterious in ways that make him stand out against the more conventional masculinity Ben tries to achieve.  Pettie plays the shifty Kenny as a handsome rogue who can’t quite look at people full on.  He jiggles his legs impatiently and always seems to have an eye on the door, even outside, where each scene takes place.

Sharon and Kenny announce at the first of the foursome’s dinners that they met when they entered rehab at the same time.  That their story quickly unravels, along with their sobriety, helps D’Amour move along a plot that doesn’t seem to have a central conflict or even a focal point.  The play instead moves subtly toward its rather shocking and spectacular ending, permeated by a tension the source of which is difficult to pin down.  D’Amour’s achievement with Detroit is that the play seems infected with a malignancy that never really takes firm shape, but erupts instead from within the characters themselves, as drugs and alcohol and finally music free them to enact the anger and unhappiness and desire they work so hard to quell.

That is, Mary and Ben work hard at it.  The coiled Kenny and the impulsive, wacky Sharon—beautifully played as a Hippie-manqué by the charismatic, loose-limbed and energetic Sokolovic—seem to have confronted their truths in rehab and their twelve-step programs.  They live comfortably in the present-tense, using the know-and-forgive-yourself-and-others rhetoric of recovery.  Their apparent openness about their past lives and excesses seduces Mary and Ben into addressing their own hidden demons, though the cost for the more conventional couple turns out to be quite high.

Kenny (Pettie) and Ben (Schwimmer): defining masculinity

Kenny resembles the Brad Pitt character in Kalifornia, the guy whose footloose and fancy free attitude is seductive to the more buttoned-down Ben, who doesn’t recognize the violence Kenny harbors.  When Mary and Sharon go off on a long-planned, much idealized camping trip together, Kenny talks Ben into joining him at a strip club for the evening, despite Ben’s protests about his monogamy and his morals.  That neither the men’s nor the women’s outings go as planned doesn’t matter; D’Amour indicates that to arrive at the kind of intimacy the trips promise, the characters would literally have to leave their homes.  Such freedom from their own domesticity—represented adroitly by designer Louisa Thompson’s agile set—rarely occurs, as each couple seems saddled with the repetitive performances of a too-settled married suburban life.

Thompson’s evocative set revolves from the back to the front of Ben and Mary’s house and to the front and back of Kenny’s and Sharon’s, making palpable their stultifying sameness and stasis.  Even the dialogue repeats with each new grilling episode.  Although Kenny makes fun of Ben’s forced cheerfulness at their first meeting, when Ben and Mary come to his house for dinner, he, too, announces that he’s going to throw “these puppies on the grill,” turning American masculine can-do-ness into a kind of performative that he well knows is constructed.

Though they’re neighbors, these two couples live at far different ends of an economic scale.  The set and costume design (costumes by Kaye Voyce) and D’Amour’s dialogue illustrate the layers of difference within the supposedly homogenous “middle class” of America.  When Ben and Mary visit their neighbors, their house looks almost identical, except that its siding seems dirtier and its appointments are in disrepair.  The deck Kenny is building isn’t yet finished; Kenny and Sharon’s grill is a small charcoal Hibachi, beside which Kenny sits, coaxing the coals and the hamburgers to heat.

The treacherous, unfinished deck

At their second dinner at her home, Mary inexplicably tries to impress Kenny and Sharon by serving them upscale hors d’oeuvres.  She lays out an array of delicacies from Whole Foods, including caviar and pink salt, pompously explaining each item to her new friends as Ben watches, incredulous.  When Kenny and Sharon host, Sharon suddenly remembers that she’s forgotten to serve the “appetizers,” running back into the house to retrieve a plate of what she calls “white trash” food, including Cheez Whiz and Saltines.  Sharon is too earnestly good-humored, if slightly unhinged, to be mean; she’s simply meeting Mary’s gesture in kind and demonstrating the couples’ vast differences in class presumption in the meantime.

Given its setting in these closely connected tract homes, you might think that Detroit’s action would be static and contained.  But D’Amour and Kauffman keep the pace quick and the events surprising.  Ben and Kenny get hurt in one another’s yards, Kenny with a patio umbrella that closes unexpectedly, and Ben by a loose plank in the deck Kenny is trying to build, both in a rather neat displacement of masculine violence.  The women, too, circle around one another, never quite articulating the sexual competition and the erotic tension that crackle in their mutual air.  The play’s erotics and violence only explode at the end, when a mix of drugs and alcohol and propulsive music let the foursome bump and grind out their lusts and longings.  In the climactic scene, Sharon kisses Ben and then Mary, neither of whom can understand nor resist the desire she suddenly ignites in them.

[Spoiler alert.]  In fact, the metaphor of heat and ignition becomes literal when Sharon decides “we’re going to have a fire,” and lights up Ben and Mary’s wooden patio furniture.  As the couples dance around the flames in a suburban tribal ritual of catharsis and reclamation, Kenny wanders into Ben and Mary’s house to set the kitchen and then the whole house alight.  Thompson and lighting designer Mark Barton create a compelling and convincing conflagration, which dies down to reveal the charred skeleton of Ben and Mary’s house.

As Frank, John Cullum explains it all

In Detroit’s embers, Kenny’s uncle Frank (John Cullum, perfect in a one-scene role) appears to explain that Kenny’s name is really Roger, and that his nephew has a history of drug and jail trouble.  Kenny and Sharon have disappeared, leaving Frank to deliver the eulogy over the suburban dream that the likes of his nephew ensure will never again be actualized.  Scanning the neighborhood’s horizon with bitter nostalgia, Frank remembers its heyday, when neighbors borrowed sugar and shored up one another’s illusions that their cookie-cutter way of life was right and true.

The stunned Ben and Mary listen without quite comprehending, strangely thankful that the home that constrained them no longer exists.  They’re unwilling to blame Kenny and Sharon, and ruefully tell Frank that the couple was nice, that they liked them.  The fire and its aftermath free Mary and Ben, loosening the bounds of expectation enough that they think they can start their lives over.

Throughout the play, Sharon has teased Ben, insisting that he’s really British.  It turns out that Ben actually does harbor a secret desire to be British.  Mary thinks he’s visiting internet porn sites while he’s pretending to build his web site, but in fact, he’s visiting addresses that encourage him to play at the noblesse oblige of aristocratic British life.  With their house in ashes, Mary surprises Ben by suggesting they move to the U.K.  She also calls him “Ian” in front of Frank, beginning again the process of trying to remake yourself, just as Kenny/Roger did, that’s as much a part of the American way of life as (supposedly) moving to the suburbs.

Although their dream of escape and renewal is no doubt a fantasy, D’Amour lets Ben and Mary believe for this last moment in the pretense of “elsewhere,” a place where they can be upstairs rather than downstairs, a new place that happens to be an old place, and the delusion that returning to the “motherland” will revive their fortunes.

Detroit is a smart, poignant play and Playwrights’ exciting, visceral production keeps spectators glued to the scene, wondering about and never prepared for what will happen next.  In the absurdist tradition of Albee, D’Amour shows us a reverse image of the American dream, leaving us disconcerted and yet strangely, productively hopeful nonetheless.

The Feminist Spectator

Detroit, Playwrights Horizons, extended through October 28, 2012.



Katie (Fisher), Regan (Dunst), and Gena (Caplan)

Written and directed by Leslye Headland, based on her play of the same name, Bachelorette is like a car wreck from which it’s difficult to look away.  That the movie is good is part of the problem; Headland, in her first feature film directing gig, moves the story with a sharpness and speed that’s nearly pitiless, for both her characters and her audience.  The quick editing and snappy dialogue contribute to the film’s dark humor, but I suspect it also serves to unbalance spectators so that we can’t think too hard about how despicable these characters are to one another and themselves, or about the shallowness of the misanthropic lives they lead.

Three so-called friends, Regan, Katie, and Gena, gather for the wedding of a woman they went to high school with, who was a peripheral part of their clique, the “B-girls.” (Although it’s never explained, the “B” no doubt stands for “bitch.”)  Becky (Rebel Wilson, terrific in a thankless role) couldn’t really be one of the gang because she’s overweight and much too nice to understand that nothing matters but being mean for the sake of the thrill and the power.

For some reason, Becky has remained friends with Regan (Kirsten Dunst), the alpha girl of the group, who’s dating a med student we never see, who got a scholarship to Princeton, and who’s known for her smarts but really only wants to be married.  In one of the film’s more despicable speeches, Regan complains that she’s done everything right.  She stayed thin and beautiful and still, the underwhelming “fat” girl is the first of their crowd to marry—and a handsome, nice, rich man, at that.

Becky (Rebel Wilson) flashes her ring

Regan agrees to be Becky’s maid-of-honor, which requires that she plan the wedding and the bachelorette party.  Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Kaplan) return to New York from Los Angeles, where they’ve been living, for the party and the wedding.  These two are the real comic couple of the film.  They’re both quirky and unusual and spend the first half of the night snorting cocaine and drinking.  Gena’s an old hand at this sort of debauchery, but Katie is a novice who can’t quite hold her stuff.  That she keeps drinking and doing drugs—moving from cocaine to pot to an inadvertently consumed half-bottle of Xanax—lets the already clueless woman lose what few inhibitions she has.  When the women meet the groom’s friends at a strip club, Katie is already so high, she finds the strippers beautiful and sexy and talented, and she decides she, too, wants to be a dancer.

Gena is marginally smarter.  Her virtue in this vicious satire seems to be that she can hold her drugs, though she gives away a baby powder bottle full of cocaine to the lap-dancer who holds her erstwhile love interest, Clyde (Adam Scott), hostage so that he can leave without paying his bill.  But Gena has a self-reflexive streak that provides much of the film’s less sophomoric humor.  She realizes somewhere through the bachelorette party’s long night of the soul that she’s been attending a 10-year-long concert of a band she never even wanted to see.  To play it for laughs and undercut what might be an honest, important intuition, Headland has Gena repeat her insight twice, once to Clyde and once to Regan.  But at least Gena ends the movie with a bit more self-awareness than at the start.

The stripper at the party

The plot, aside from its march toward the wedding that naturally ends a film like this, is set in frantic motion when Regan, Gena, and Katie ruin Becky’s wedding dress the night before her nuptials.  Because Becky isn’t much of a partier and because the eager male stripper Gena and Katie hire to entertain her (Andrew Rannells, very funny in a small Magic Mike-lite part) calls her by her high school nickname, “Pigface,” the bachelorette party per se ends early.  But the three bridesmaids continue to play, snorting and drinking themselves into more hot water when Regan and Katie decide they should try on Becky’s plus-size wedding gown—together.  The gown rips, which requires an after-hours trek through New York, looking for a quick sew and cleaning job.

Their less than picaresque journey shows off the women’s least flattering sides.  They start in the hotel’s housekeeping department, confronting a wry African American worker (Shauna Miles) who staunchly refuses to fix the gown, though she does offer to clean it if they can get it sewn.  When the women complain, she cracks, “This is Housekeeping, not Project Runway.”  Headland has Gena and Regan leave the scene commenting, “I don’t think she can even speak English that well,” although it’s clear the woman is American.  Likewise, Regan over-enunciates to her Asian-American assistant (Sue Jean Kim), the wedding planner who helps her manage the affair, even though she, too, is obviously American.  This racist behavior is no doubt supposed to signal that Headland is purposefully piling offenses on to her distinctly unlikeable characters.  But how does it all add up when none of the major characters in the film are people of color?  And when, in fact, the few African Americans on screen are just peppered across the background as extras?  Doesn’t the filmmaker risk being as racist as her characters?

Trevor (Marsden) and Regan (Dunst) at the strip club

I know I shouldn’t be dogmatic or hard-nosed about a movie that presents itself as a satire.  I know that we’re not supposed to like these women.  Regan is a competitive ice-queen whose only talent is talking on her cellphone while she’s having sex in the bathroom of a club with the film’s alpha male, the also unlikeable Trevor (James Marsden).  Dunst offers a terrifically edgy performance, totally unconcerned that her character be likable.  But that doesn’t make Regan any less detestable.

Katie’s cluelessness is played for repeated laughs.  But after the third or fourth time the poor woman admits that she truly doesn’t understand the nuances of a pretty uncomplicated conversation, you begin to feel like she’s a child being abused.  Joe, the guy she’s paired with by the mercenary Trevor, can’t shake his leftover from high school crush on her.  He used to do her French homework for her and sold her pot.  But Joe’s chivalry only softens the blow of Katie’s childishness so far.  Played by the empathetic and decent Kyle Bornheimer, Joe refuses to take advantage of Katie sexually, even when they find themselves alone in the hotel pool, swimming in their underwear.  Katie expects him to have sex with her; it’s the only kind of relationship with a man she understands.  When he refuses because he thinks she’s too drunk, she pouts.  Fisher is excellent as the hapless Katie, but are we supposed to laugh at her inability to respect herself?  Well, yes, I guess we are.

Lizzy Caplan, with her dark round eyes and lush dark hair, her slightly deep voice, and her slightly bemused expressions, steals most of her scenes as Gena.  Her monologue about the fine art of giving blow jobs, delivered on the plane to a too-eager, not handsome enough seatmate (the character, billed as “Barely Attractive Guy,” is played by Horatio Sanz) is funny and no doubt supposed to be daring.  After all, here’s a woman going into great and loud detail about the fine art of oral sex during a plane ride.  But . . . so what?

Gena runs to fix the dress. A running gag is that her dress is so short, it looks like she forgot to put on her pants.

The wedding party is complicated by the fact that Gena and Clyde will see one another for the first time since high school, when their relationship imploded because Gena had an abortion to which Clyde didn’t come.  Regan took her instead (when Katie finds out, she says, “We had an abortion and I didn’t get to go?”).  Gena’s been furious with Clyde for ten years, but during their long night before the wedding, he admits that he didn’t come along because it was all too sad.  [Spoiler alert.]  They of course wind up sleeping together again and rekindling their relationship, a happy ending that I suppose is meant to redeem the night’s decadences.  Of course Clyde realizes Gena’s the love of his life and announces it to everyone at the wedding; of course Gena throws her arms around him and lives happily ever after.

Regan sees to it that despite their mishap with the dress, the wedding goes off without a hitch, all things considered.  She also saves Katie when she finally ODs in their hotel room bathroom.  To rouse her unconscious friend, Regan puts her fingers down Katie’s throat to induce vomiting.  As a life-long bulimic, Regan knows just how it’s done.  Her bridesmaid’s dress stained with Katie’s vomit, Regan makes sure that Becky gets to walk down the aisle.

The exhausted "B-Girls" watch the wedding from a bench

The film could have ended with the three friends watching the “fat” other marry her nice beau, but Headland caps the evening with the party.  Clyde publically and graphically declares his love for Gena; Katie and Joe dance romantically; Regan mouths to Trevor that he should call her.  That Clyde and Gena get back together seems contrived.  But because Becky and Dale can’t really be the romantic couple, since they’re already getting married and because Becky is fat, the film needs another couple to pin its hopes on.  Katie and Joe are played for laughs, even though Joe is the most decent character in the film.  And Regan is too much like Hannibal Lector (as the other characters call her) to be redeemed.  So Gena and Clyde win the happy ending.

Bridesmaids looks like a children’s bedtime story compared to Bachelorette’s Grimm’s fairy tale.  The gross humor in Bridesmaids was situation-based; in Bachelorette, it’s character-based.  Is it radical to see women behaving badly?  Maybe, but it’s not behavior I need to see to even out gender inequality.  (I don’t go to movies in which men behave badly either.  It’s just not my thing.)  Is it radical to see women drink to excess and do enough coke to make their noses bleed?  Maybe, but again, I don’t need to see that to believe that women are as tough as men.  I don’t mind seeing women characters who are mean and emotionally ugly (I liked Young Adult very much); I love a good satire as much as the next person.  And Bachelorettes made me laugh, in spite of myself.  But as Owen Gleiberman said in his Entertainment Weekly review, “You’ll laugh, maybe a lot, but you won’t feel great about it in the morning.”

Headland’s play got mostly positive reviews when it was produced at Second Stage in New York in 2010, especially in the New York Times, where Charles Isherwood praised Headland’s “incisive humor and insight.”  The Backstage reviewer found the play shallow.  On the basis of the reviews I read, I remember deciding not to see it.

But the buzz-worthy film did very well during its on-demand release, becoming iTunes’s No. 1 movie rental three weeks before it opened in movie theatres (see  It broke a record and some think it might set a new trend for film distribution.

I want to be glad for a film written and directed by a woman that’s getting so much notice.  But Bachelorette makes me feel mostly queasy.

The Feminist Spectator

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The poster captures the film's mysticism and strange euphoria

This lovely film directed by Behn Zeitlin and co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on her play, Juicy and Delicious, received superb reviews when it opened earlier this summer, a happy response to a feature that feels more like a documentary.  Zeitlin and his independent film production company Court 13, devote themselves to making good movies by and about good people, regardless of resources; their web site says the company is “a collection of madcap artists and animators of junk that seek to tell huge stories out of small parts.  Tales spring from groups of real people on the margins, and adaptation to screen demands that we live the extremes of the story, not just tell about them.”  The company, based in New Orleans, used a mostly non-professional cast to tell a magical story of survival in a fictional Louisiana delta community called The Bathtub, set near Terrebonne Parish.

Playwright and co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar

Cut off from the mainland and threatened by a recently built levee that keeps water from draining out of their neighborhood after devastating storms move on, the local people live a subsistence existence according to their own rules.  Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl, lives by her wits with her unpredictable father, Wink (Dwight Henry).  Wink is ill; he suddenly disappears early in the film, and comes back a few days later in a foul mood, wearing a hospital gown and identification bracelet, wandering around the field outside the shack he and Hushpuppy share in the depths of the bayou.

Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t propelled by plot as much as by how Zeitlin tells the story of a hardscrabble group of people rarely represented on film.  Hushpuppy narrates the film with simple but poignant philosophical observations that somehow never seem clichéd but only true.  People who might be falling-down useless drunks in another film here become enchanting, charming, self-sufficient denizens of an underworld where people with no money nonetheless seem rich with friendship, camaraderie, and the wealth of the natural world in which they live in utter balance.  Theirs is a tale of survival.

Hushpuppy and Wink live in shelter pieced together from old house trailers, corrugated tin, cardboard, and garbage in mixtures that are literally flammable.  Cooking on a rusty propane stove whose burner she lights with a long-nosed lighter, wearing a helmet she stores in the broken refrigerator’s freezer, Hushpuppy starts a fire to get her distracted father’s attention and to retaliate for his unwarranted anger at her.  She winds up burning down her part of their home and her collected mementos, only rescuing the basketball jersey she uses to represent her missing mother.

Hushpuppy on her daddy's boat, made of a truck bed

But without much sense of loss, she moves into her father’s adjacent space, where they use his ramshackle, barely floating boat—the bed of an old truck lashed onto tin barrels—to keep themselves safe in case the storm water rises to their flimsy roof.

And because this is Louisiana and they live in the Bathtub, the water rises indeed.  On this year’s seventh anniversary of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and with the more recent appearance of the less threatening but still potent Hurricane Isaac, Beasts of the Southern Wild demonstrates its eerie relevance.  As the Bathtub’s residents wait for the storm to arrive, they note who plans to leave and who’s “man” enough to stay.  Characters hand out the admiring designation “You the man” without regard to sex or even age.  Wink shouts at Hushpuppy, motivating her to clench her little biceps and to yell, “I’m the man!” as he persuades her of her own power.  Being “the man” is a state of mind that convinces Wink, Hushpuppy, and their friends that they’re strong enough to face down not just the elements, but anything that would intrude on their proud way of life.

The community survives the first of the film’s storms, even though the water rises to the windows of their shelters and requires them to float through the streets.  They celebrate with liquor and buckets of crawfish that appear from nowhere, presumably pulled from the high water coursing around them.  Their raucous dinner seems like a scheduled revelry, rather than a pick-up meal that honors their survival.  These occasions seem to happen regularly in lives tied so intimately to the seasons’ weather.

Before the next storm, government officials visit the Bathtub to scare its people out, insisting they observe the mandatory evacuation.  They forcibly remove Wink and Hushpuppy and their friends from their desperate homes and relocate them to government shelters that feel like prisons to the adults and like what she calls a “fishbowl without water” to Hushpuppy.  The girl enters the large, airy shelter in awe of its proportions, wondering at all the people waiting listlessly for the storm to arrive.  The doctors who examine Wink realize how sick he is and insist he be treated.  Her father tries to send Hushpuppy away, but the tenacious little girl refuses to leave him, even as Wink spits up blood at her feet and they both realize that he’s dying.

Hushpuppy’s mother either died herself or left the girl and Wink on their own.  Although Wink loves to tell Hushpuppy stories of the night she was conceived, her mother exists only in Hushpuppy’s imagination.  The girl incarnates her by draping a sports jersey across the back of a chair, and pretending that she hears her mother’s voice speaking to her fondly.  Later, she believes that a beacon she sees from a lighthouse in the distance across the water is a signal from her lost mother.  In one of the film’s many wordlessly moving scenes, Hushpuppy and three of her young friends run into the surf together, each with a little hand clutching a single flotation ring, paddling with determination toward the light.  They’re picked up (rescued would be the wrong word, as they have a goal and a destination) by a fisherman on a rickety, two-story boat called Grumpy.

On the fisherman's boat

The crusty white boat captain communes with Hushpuppy as though she were a much older woman.  The girl is in fact an old soul; she sees her world with sober resignation cut with remarkable hope, understanding that each piece of something goes with a piece of something else, that her world is a puzzle that follows a grand design.  She says, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.  If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted.”  Hushpuppy listens to what she calls the different codes living things make, holding birds’ breasts up to her ear to tease out their messages.  She finds comfort in knowing something larger than herself inspires her life, though she and the others never call this “god.”

The boat’s captain takes Hushpuppy and her friends to a floating juke-joint-like brothel, where the resident slip-clad prostitutes (women of all ages and races) fuss over them like hens over chicks.  Although Hushpuppy is the seeker, all four girls find themselves wrapped in warm, motherly embraces, dancing to music with their faces buried in ample bosoms and tender arms.  Hushpuppy meets the establishment’s waitress, who takes her to the kitchen and tells Hushpuppy she’ll show her a magic trick.  The kind waitress fries alligator meat for the little girl while she imparts the region’s conventional wisdom:  We’re all alone, there is no happy-ever-after, and you have to rely on your wits and good sense to get through.

Listening for codes

Despite what seems like social deprivation, the Bathtub’s culture is rich with music and gaiety. Danger never comes from the community.  Only the weather and the government merit fear.  The boat captain who retrieves Hushpuppy and her friends from the water is a stranger, but he moves them along in their journey without threat or question.  The waitress she meets can’t comfort Hushpuppy for the long haul, but for the few moments they know one another, Hushpuppy nestles in her arms on the dance floor.  In their passing acquaintance, these people offer their own measure of sustenance with a clear-eyed commitment to one another’s survival.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) and Wink (Henry)

Hushpuppy is a quick learner with a steely resolve.  She leaves the comfort of the brothel, knowing she has to return to her dying father.  In Wink’s last moments, she feeds him the leftovers of her fried alligator meal from a Styrofoam take-out box, putting each morsel in his mouth like a communion wafer.  Zeitlin’s direction is so tactile, and the acting so real and present, you can almost taste each of those bites with Wink.  When her father dies, Hushpuppy honors his wish for his body to be burned on his boat in the bayou.  She pushes his shrouded corpse onto the water in the makeshift boat, lighting the funeral pyre with a torch.  Hushpuppy and Wink’s friends watch as the burning boat floats away.  His daughter is ready to inhabit the instructions for living that represent Wink’s legacy:  “My only purpose in life,” he once said, “is to teach her how to make it.”

Hushpuppy’s teacher, Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), tells her and the other Bathtub children who comprise her ad hoc classroom the story of the aurochs, ancient animals trapped in ice that will be released from their deep freeze when the glaciers melt and begin to end human habitation on earth.  The very serious Hushpuppy takes these stories to heart, incorporating them into her already vivid imagination.  The bayou’s thundering storms come to represent to her ears the approach of the mythical animals that signify both the terror of the apocalypse and hope for a future.  Images of ice melting around the boar-like auroch’s bodies, portending their release back into the wild, pepper the film.

Just before Wink dies, Hushpuppy hears four aurochs stampede across the bayou.  The moment they reach her, Hushpuppy stops in her tracks and turns to confront them.  “Strong animals know when your hearts are weak,” she says in the voiceover.  The alpha animal leans his snout in close to Hushpuppy’s face, as she stands immobile and impassive in the face of what should be a mortal threat.  The animal sniffs, inquiring more gently than might be imaginable, before he and his fellow beasts turn and leave Hushpuppy to her loss.  The beautiful scene—managed by a combination of puppetry, animation, and human actors—foretells Hushpuppy’s ability to stand her ground, to face down her terrors, and to control her own future.

Confronting the auroch

The film’s final image echoes scenes from The King of Hearts merry band of escaped asylum patients, or from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its macabre dance of death.  Hushpuppy and her make-shift remaining, multi-racial family walks through Bathtub, down a tunnel of land on which water encroaches from both sides.  As the surf laps at their feet, the ragtag assortment of adults and children walk toward some unknown destiny, with Hushpuppy, “the man,” leading them along.  Though it’s not clear where they’re going, we can be sure that they’ll stay together and that somehow, they’ll prevail.

What’s most moving about this film is that it tells its story through the eyes of a very young girl who’s a very old soul.  Although Hushpuppy mostly speaks in voiceover, Wallis’s eyes and her face are expressive and nuanced.  Her clarity of purpose and her dignity are captivating and compelling, as she seems to be older than most of the adults with whom she interacts.  I’ve never seen a movie that captures a child’s dawning realization of what it means to carry the world on your shoulders in quite this way.  Hushpuppy works to survive every day, trundling toward a future that’s far from certain.  But her final bit of narration insists that people will know Hushpuppy was here, that she existed.  She says, “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know:  Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”  This, in itself, is a triumph, when the odds—because of her race, her gender, her poverty—are weighted so heavily against her.

Zeitlin directing Wallis

Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a documentary crossed with magical realism. Its richly calibrated, lightly emotional performances give it the narrative force and the power of character that real-life chronicles sometimes treat more obliquely.  That the lead actors are non-professionals is truly amazing; the wonderful Wallis was cast, at five-years-old, from a pool of 4,000 or so young girls, and Dwight Henry ran a bakery that was located across the street from Court 13’s production offices.  The empathetic Montano, playing the teacher, appeared in Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Rise.  That these three and the other assembled children and adults prove so powerfully compelling is really a testament to Zeitlin’s vision and compassion as a filmmaker and to Alibar’s story.

See Beasts of the Southern Wild for its revelations about how people can live so differently under the name of citizenship; see it to be angered at the paternalism of a government that harms by trying to protect.  But also see it to be moved by a girl who tells her story with powerful simplicity and utter insight, in ways that make Hushpuppy an agent of belief in magical transformation.

The Feminist Spectator, with props to Feminist Spectator 2 for her smart observations


Coming Out Stories: Chely Wright, Wish Me Away


Wish Me Away

Chely Wright is a country music singer who debuted in 1994 and achieved her life’s dream by becoming part of the Grand Ole Opry tradition, recording several Top 40 and number one songs, including “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.”  In 2010, she publicly came out as a lesbian, after 20 years of maintaining the secret of her sexuality from her fans and even from those closest to her.  In Wish Me Away, the documentary filmed during the three years before her public coming out on the Today Show and Oprah, among other national media venues, Wright narrates her story, which focuses on her emotional trauma over whether she has the personal strength to make her sexuality public.

Book cover, Chely Wright's LIKE ME

In addition to the film shot for the documentary by directors Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, Wish Me Away includes clips from Wright’s personal video diary, unexpurgated moments of real despair, fear, and ambivalence over the major public announcement she works toward for those three years.  If Wright hadn’t decided to come out, she most likely would have died.  In her memoir, Like Me, and in Wish Me Away, she describes contemplating suicide when living her life as a lie became utterly untenable.

Wish Me Away is a coming out story, but it’s also a testament to a woman willing to trade her music industry success to finally be able to tell the truth.  In the conservative world of country music, Wright was the first major performer to openly self-identify as gay or lesbian.  On the occasion of Wish Me Away’s release earlier this summer, Wright reported that Nashville has frozen her out since her announcement two years ago.

Just as one of her song-writing collaborators predicted in the film, the country music community didn’t denounce her; they simply leave her name off of invitation lists to visible, influential events.  But Wright says she has no regrets; she knew her career might take a hit, but decided to trade certain aspects of her success for a real life.

Wright and Blitzer at film premiere party

Two weeks after she came out publicly in 2010, Wright met Lauren Blitzer, an LGBT rights advocate who she married a year later in Connecticut.  Wright now serves on the Board of Directors of GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network—and also established The Like Me Organization to advocate for gay and lesbian youth by preventing bullying and teen suicide.

Wish Me Away constructs a teleological narrative, returning to stories of Wright’s childhood and sharing photographs of her family from her early life in a very small town in Kansas.  With a population of 1600, Wellsville didn’t provide many options for a girl who knew she was gay by the time she was eight-years-old.  Wright grew up very religious, and says she prayed, literally, that her uncomfortable difference from other kids would go away.

Though her god never saw fit to make that happen, Wright says that at her lowest moment, when she contemplated putting the barrel of her gun in her mouth, she did feel suffused with a warmth that persuaded her she was being cared for and looked after by the higher power in which she continues to believe.  She came out to her father shortly before her televised announcement; she let her mother, who’s divorced from her father and from whom she’s estranged, find out that her daughter is a lesbian by watching the Today Show.

I watched Wish Me Away on video-on-demand, prepared to be slightly diverted.  I didn’t know Wright’s music, although I’m a selective country music fan, but I’m always interested in how people tell their coming out stories.  I was quickly entranced by Wright’s integrity and honesty and by her determination to make her personal struggle matter to a larger public, especially to young people who feel the same desperate pain she did as a kid.  The film is also an important reminder that despite or perhaps because of all the political rhetoric about same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues fought over in the public eye, many queer people remain in circumstances that require them to be silent about their desire.  Wright’s story demonstrates how much is still at stake for so many people in the choice to come out.

Wright’s anguish over her false life is palpable and authentic throughout the film.  After obligatory footage of the early years of her career in the 90s, when her big hair and sexy feminine style hid her desire for women, Wright spends a lot of screen time speaking openly about what she fears and how she feels as tears roll from her eyes.  Her performance of herself in the documentary is raw and vulnerable and becomes surprisingly captivating.  The film is also dialogic; that is, except for the short video diary entries, Wright mostly talks about her emotions and her choices with other people.  We watch her learning from the team she assembles to stage her announcement; we see her interacting with her sister, Jennifer, and her supportive aunt; we watch her writing songs and talking to managers; and we see her in a rather confessional but earnest conversation with her “spiritual adviser.”  Although she’s obviously aware she’s being filmed, Wright projects an openness and honesty that makes her powerful and appealing.  Wish Me Away demonstrates the importance of learning from communities; that is, once she decides to come out, Wright carefully educates herself by talking to others.

Wright also lets viewers see how her persona as a performer is constructed.  Scenes of Wright filming a music video and preparing for appearances on television include make-up artists and hair stylists fussing with her face and her hair extensions and her clothing.  These images contrast starkly with scenes of Wright leaving her house in Nashville to move to New York, driving herself across the country with her two dogs to an apartment that she paints while her sister lends a hand.

Wright seems happy to be filmed without her star mask.  In a poignant moment from her video diary, she cries because her book editor, a native New York feminist, criticized her for the sexy, revealing pose of one of her pre-coming out photographs.  Wright insists that she’s not hiding her lesbian sexuality in the photograph, but that the image with the come-hither expression and lots of bare skin is a version of herself.

The film includes several moments like these, when Wright comments on the malleability of her own gender performance.  She says that as a kid, seeing Billie Jean King on television in her masculine outfits and learning that the tennis star was gay made Wright fear that her own tomboy style would “blow her cover.”  She knows early on that gender performance signals something about her sexuality.  The film shows her performing comfortably across a continuum of masculinity and femininity.

Wright is as beautiful without the feminine glamour as she is with it, but seeing her without make-up, in jeans, t-shirts, and reading glasses, underlines that she’s also an ordinary woman.  She worries that when she comes out to him, her brother-in-law will reject her and won’t let her see her niece and nephews.  In two of the film’s moving scenes, her sister Jennifer’s children express their regret that Chely didn’t come out earlier.  Her nephew, in particular, says how sorry he is that he made fun of gay people before he knew about his aunt.  When Jennifer and the boy later ride with Wright in the convertible that escorts her as the Grand Marshall of the Chicago Gay Pride parade, the moment feels like a personal as well as public achievement, given how much Wright had to lose.

Wright, GLSEN advocate

Wright hires a team of publicists and managers to stage her coming out announcement, and writes her autobiography to prompt and coincide with her television appearances.  When Chely’s handlers lob her hostile practice questions about her motivations and her personal life, it’s clear  from her answers that Wright is a smart woman who truly wants to use her platform to speak not just for herself, but for the kids like her with whom she empathizes deeply.  She wants kids growing up in religious environments like she did, who’re told that being gay is evil, to know that there are others like them, that they’re not demons.  Once she put down the gun she contemplated turning on herself, she wants to reach out to kids who are like she was and smooth their way.  She quickly becomes a fervent, articulate activist.  And she winds up being a wonderful role model, too.  What can I say?  I’ve become a Chely Wright fan.

When CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper confirmed the open secret of his sexuality, the media reacted by dissecting how little reaction there seemed to be to his announcement.  It’s almost as though the mainstream media has decided that queer people coming out is no longer really a story.  I assume if Tom Cruise, who’s long been rumored to be gay, decided to come out, his story would make headlines.  But the media seems to pride itself on its current unflappability about sexuality.

Megan Rapinoe

Even during the Olympics this week, an NBC feature on U.S. women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe saved its reveal that she’s a lesbian for the last few moments instead of leading with the athlete’s sexuality.  [Update:  Likewise, I just learned on like that U.S. Women’s Basketball player Seimone Augustus is a lesbian with plans to marry her partner.  Hadn’t heard anything about this until today . . .]

Seimone Augustus, U.S. Olympic Women's Basketball Player

More interesting is how many of the female Olympic athletes wear make-up when they compete, and how they femme themselves up for television interviews and features.  Is it really still necessary for them to perform non-threatening femininity?  These women are so physically adept and strong, with their six-pack abs and cut biceps, that they seem to need make-up to reassure people (fans and potential endorsement dealers?) of their heterosexual femininity.  I really wish that weren’t the case.  (See also Amanda Marcotte’s smart Salon essay, “Athletes Don’t Wear Heels,” which takes on this issue.)

Wish Me Away and all the internet sites I trolled after I saw the film construct a happy ending for Chely Wright.  The filmmakers flash on her marriage to Blitzer at the film’s end.  Although I wish marriage weren’t the sine qua non of relationships–LGBT or straight–I admit thinking it’s cool that a deeply religious Christian woman married a New York Jewish girl.  Blitzer in fact worked at one point for Faith in America, a non-profit dedicated to ending religious bigotry in the LGBT community (Wright now serves on its board).

Okay, then: the wedding photo and happily ever after . . .
Seimone Augustus and her finance Grand Marshal Twin Cities Pride Parade

Does it still matter, then, that personalities like Chely Wright, Frank Ocean, Anderson Cooper, Jane Lynch, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, Zachary Quinto, and Cherry Jones, for only several examples, come out publicly?  Yes, I think it does.  If these announcements become commonplace and the media affects boredom with their revelations, so be it.  Because somewhere in Wellsville, Kansas, or in other small towns or religiously conservative communities around the country, there are still more eight-year-old girls or boys like Chely Wright, who recognize their difference and are terrified that they’re on their way to a hell not of their own making.  If they can look to someone as talented, smart, articulate, and genuine as Chely Wright and see the role model they need to grow up proud, I think that still matters quite a lot indeed.

The Feminist Spectator