Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 September 2011

Sorrow for the Dead

One of the interesting things that has happened in the Violence, Ethics & Representation class – and I think I laid the foundation for this on day one by introducing pain theory before introducing anything else – is that we spend a lot of time talking about victims of violence in the class.

I have spent most of my study of violence considering how violence works as a trope, trying to parse out the ideological functions of fictional violence, but playwrights and filmmakers don't make representations of violence in order to achieve ideological effects. They make films and write plays, for the most part, because they want us to pay attention to those who are victimized by violence.

I have been writing about Howard Brenton's play The Romans in Britain (1980) for the last, oh, four years, coming back to it every once in a while and rethinking my position. I presented a talk about the play – and the male-rape that is the centerpiece to act one – at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference this past August in Chicago. And when I did I completely rethought my criticisms of the play, changing the tactic so that I was talking about the play's erotic elements and the qualities of eroticism that were components of the theatrical rape.

Anyway, I revisited the play again this Fall because I taught the play in my Violence, Ethics & Representation class. (The kids did not care for the play, I should note.) But I was struck this time by how much the play is actually about mourning. I don't think I ever really believed paid too much attention to what Brenton said about the play before, but when he says:

The greatest difficulty I had when trying to write the play is a weighty matter. It was what to do about a sense of overwhelming sorrow, a grief for the nameless dead, with which the material of the play is drenched. This is, itself, difficult to express. It was what Blake expressed in the terrifying "Proverb from Hell" – "Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead." If you do not you will go mad with grief. But cruelty is hard to dramatize. What you must never do is pretend, by stagecraft sleight of hand, that cruelty is not as bad as it is. [...] You must not sell human suffering short.

The Romans in Britain is a herculean effort that for me is an attempt to express this grief for the dead, the immeasurable sorrow that the playwright feels for all those who have been destroyed through violence throughout history. And the play has, for me, become a play about mourning now. It is still, of course, about violence. With all of its brutality how can it not be? But I think the work of the play is the work of mourning for the dead, of processing or incorporating the incomprehensible losses of history.

26 September 2011

Dreaming Backward toward Twilight

Twilight where you live is different from twilight where I live.

The gloom of the onset of night hangs over the trees and the marshes here like a net, something tangible, like a felt blanket of almost-night or a shawl.

Where you are, where I imagine you to be, the sun sinks behind a ridge of towering mountains in blazes of pink and orange and heartbreaking lavender.

It disappears from view defeated by itself, tired of the day, perhaps, but still so willing to give so much of itself, like my mother must've done, weary from hours of crying or bickering or the need need need for attention with which children approach adults.

And there my mother is, dreaming of quiet, of, perhaps, some moments alone, or the feel of my father's hand on the nape of her neck, patiently reading to me before I fall asleep.

I might have invented the memory of my mother, willed it up, an object of fantasy, unicorn-like.

And I might be imagining the sunset in your hometown; I only ever drove through it once or twice, after all, but you, you are not imaginary.

No. I imagine you as well.

You are my invention, fabricated by longing, by age, by the eye of my desire for someone just like you.

I dreamed – I am sure of it – long before you ever appeared, of exactly this smile, this devious but innocent twinkle in the green of your eyes, the rough touch of your left hand as it slips into my right, awkwardly at first, and then snugly fitting.

--from 30 July 2011.

The Romantic in Me

Bennett Miller's Moneyball is just superb. It will be one of my favorite films of the year. It would be easy to say that Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian's script is really the showcase here, but that is simply not the case. The script is, without question, excellent. No debate there. It's smart writing that constantly reminds us that baseball is nothing we should be romanticizing. It's a numbers game, and everything behind the scenes is numbers. Romance, the film says, is for the fans.


Except that the film also allows us to romanticize baseball... and how can we not? That amazing crack as the bat hits the ball. It's just electrifying. And the film reminds us that not everything is numbers. Sure, a lot of it can be numbers, but some of it is just heart, pouring everything you have into something you care about. I bought this stuff hook, line, and sinker. But, then, maybe I'm just a romantic.


Brad Pitt is excellent, as usual, and probably deserves an Oscar nomination for the movie. And the supporting cast is uniformly good, including a toned-down Jonah Hill who demonstrates excellent timing. The big supporting standout for me is Parks & Recreation's Chris Pratt, who plays a first-baseman who's scared of the ball. I loved his performance. He has this innocent, nervous quality that just shines. He's wonderful.


And then there's the direction. Miller's work here is just outstanding. He has the ability to make scenes in offices and cubicles just as compelling as what happens out on the field, and he does this thing where he lets our imaginations run away, letting us get fully invested into the game, praying that everything works out. Then he'll remind us that what we've just watched was just a game, no big deal at all. I've never seen a film this in love with baseball and also this able to take a detached look at baseball. It's just an excellent film. One of my favorites of the year, for sure, and it's only September!

Anyway, go.

25 September 2011

So Foreign

Last year I didn't manage to see all five films that were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This happens not infrequently, obviously, as many films don't find a release in the United States even if they do manage to snag an Academy Award nomination. So, last night I finally saw the last of the five and I thought I would cover these films briefly.


I rated Biuitiful my favorite film of 2010. I found it deeply moving, with a central performance by Javier Bardem that is simply incredible. This is another of 2010's films about parenting, and like the others (The Kids Are All Right, The Illusionist, Mother and Child) I felt like Biuitiful really connected to me in terms of where  I see myself right now. Biutiful is very similar in tone and style to Alejandro González Iñárritu's other films, but where those films don't quite work all the way, Biutiful works in every way. It has a sense of the mystical about it, the interconnectedness of things on a spiritual plane, but even more importantly – though both part of Iñárritu's project – a sense of the global, that the small choices we make can affect profoundly the lives of others. Biutiful manages to be about Chinese migrant workers and Senegalese migrant workers at the same time as it is about dying of cancer, discovering one's relationship to one's father. It does all of this extremely well. I have heard that this film is hard to sit through for some. I had precisely the opposite experience. I found the entire thing exhilarating.


I am not sure what Dogtooth is about any more than you will be if you get to watch it. It's incredibly violent, but it's also, well, frankly, bizarre. I found it very, very interesting. And if it didn't quite make sense to me in terms of plot or theme or whatever other so-called Aristotelian aspects a narrative is supposed to have, Dogtooth made for compelling viewing and I would definitely watch this again before watching, say, The King's Speech again. I've written more about this movie here, so I'll shut up about it now.


Hors la Loi is a movie by Rachid Bouchareb starring his usual trio of Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, and Jamel Debbouze. I don't think I'm ever going to be very interested in Jamel Debbouze (I guess I'll never get his performance in Amélie out of my head), but Roschdy Zem is great in this and I am a little obsessed with Sami Bouajila. I think he is just brilliant. Hors la Loi is about the fight for Algerian independence on French soil. I didn't know this before the film, but during the Algerian struggle for independence from France, an Algerian party also planned and executed many terrorist attacks on French soil itself. This is what Hors la Loi covers. The trouble is... Bouchareb can't help but make everything sentimental. The movie spends long periods of time attempting to pluck at the heartstrings instead of simply trying to tell the story. The movie wants to be a kind of neo-noir gangster film at many points, and it is here where Hors la Loi works best. But Bouchareb is constantly distracted by a desire to also make an inspiring historical epic that has a giant emotional impact. So he romanticizes and sentimentalizes and by the end of the film I was mostly just frustrated at all of the emotional manipulation the film manages to do. The men creating the revolution aren't sentimental, so why must Bouchareb continually look at them with a sentimental eye?


I thought Incendies was a bit of a fail, as well. It is well acted, and I was with the film for about its first hour. The movie jumps back and forth between Lebanon in the 1970s and Canada in 2009, when a pair of twins is trying to figure out what happened to their mother a quarter of a century earlier. Incendies is based on a novel that I haven't read, but my main thought about this film is that it misses the story of the mother because of its need to include the story of the children. Every bit of the mother's story in Lebanon in the 1970s is utterly fascinating. Every bit of it. And every time the film jumped back to the twenty-first century I felt myself fidget in my seat. Villeneuve also makes the film into a mystery. We do not know what happened, so we must figure it out. But mysteries only work if you hide what happened well enough. Because the film jumps back and forth, we frequently know what happened before the onscreen detectives figure it out. This simply does not work, and I couldn't help but think that there was a really interesting story in here somewhere if only the novel had been adapted differently.



I loved this movie. In Another World is a Danish film by Susanne Bier (she has made at least one English-language movie now), and, like her other films, this film packs a huge emotional wallop. The movie is about violence in Africa and in Denmark both. In Denmark, the film follows the violence of adolescents as they try to figure out how to seek revenge or end a chain of violence. The film asks all kinds of interesting ethical questions about how we train our children, how important it is to be "strong" in front of them, and how best to respond to violence committed against us. This is a film about parenting, too, of course (there I go again), but even more importantly it is a movie about being a responsible citizen of the world - in the same way that Biutiful is, really. In Another World is a real achievement; it's compelling from start to finish; and it manages to unpack all sorts of questions about domestic terrorism, violent impulses, and revenge. Definitely worth seeing.

21 September 2011

Puppy Love with a Tongue Hanging Out

He brings me his former lovers,
Those who have had crushes on him.

Not as baggage, though,
He doesn't want me to carry them.

No. He brings them like a dog might,
To prove his worth,
Show me that he has been wanted,
That he has been loved in the past,
Is worthy of it again. By me,

If I'm paying attention. Am I
Paying attention? Am I listening?

Derek crushed on him
And this guy with a C name.
There's a J, too, and another J,
I think, and a girl with a T name.

And the exes – not as many of those.
And another two
Or three who regularly proposition him
In the clever ways the internet provides
For propositions.

All of these are presented to me,
Paraded, really, so that I will come around.

So that I will look on him
And love him.

But he is already too late;
Not one of these men matters. Because I

As it happens, am already falling.

From 2 August 2011.

Famous

A favorite quote of mine from Joan Nestle's Not Just Passing Through:

Every lesbian is worthy of inclusion in history. If you have the courage to touch another woman, then you are a very famous person.

20 September 2011

If I Had a Hammer...

Everyone, it seems, is talking about Drive, the film that was released this week from director Nicolas Winding Refn. People are loving it and hating it. I meant to see this movie on Friday, but then I went to a release party for a collection of poetry written by my friend Greg. This book, in fact. So I didn't get to the movie in time, but my roommate and our friend George both went to see Drive knowing nothing about it. They both loved it.


When I saw it on Sunday I was less enthusiastic, but I have been rather inarticulate about it so far. Anyway, I figured that I would post a conversation Greg and I had about Drive since it was his fault I missed the movie on Friday in the first place.

Me: Drive.
Greg: Did you love it?
Me: No. I liked it though.
Greg: Sad face.
Me: Hahaha. Oh. I didn't know I was supposed to love it. I loved all the violence, of course. And the scene with the hammer is amazing.
Greg: YES. I thought the elevator scene was the most beautiful moment I've seen in a theater in a while.
Me: Oh yeah. That was a great scene too. I am frustrated with slow-motion shots, though. They create a real pacing problem, I think.
Greg: Normally I would agree.
Me: I don't have a problem with the director showing his hand (slomo shots do that, I think), but I get frustrated with the importance slomo places on certain things. The kiss worked. But there is a lot of slomo in this movie.
Greg: I am in love with Ryan Gosling.
Me: Oh I am too. Why else did you like it?
Greg: The soundtrack, the slow pace, the opening sequence; it didn't give in. Albert Brooks. I believed that all of it happened. I wanna make someone swallow a bullet. Everyone was emotionally vulnerable.
Me: I liked all of these things as well. And I loved Bryan Cranston. And Oscar Isaac.
Greg: Yes.

Me: My objection is that the film wants two things at once. I think. It wants us to love Ryan Gosling. For us to think he's a hero. (The soundtrack spells it out: "...and a real hero...")
Greg: He is a hero. Every hero is flawed.
Me: Well, no, Greg. He's also deeply troubled. And frankly, a bit scary.
Greg: The world forces him to be scary.
Me: Does it really?
Greg: I think so.
Me: The shot in the elevator after the kiss is, I think, intended to make us think differently. He doesn't need to smash that guy's head in.
Greg: He would've killed both of them.
Me: Yes. I understand that. It is the excess of the violence that I think we are meant to read as troubling. I read it as troubling, at any rate.
Greg: Well yeah, but that wasn't long after he gets fucked over & those guys with the shotguns. Who wouldn't snap?
Me: I hear you. I do. But he does snap.


Greg: We create these action heroes who don't use guns because we don't want to see them kill anyone, so they have whips or tie people up or kung fu them, but the reality is they are hunting him down to kill him & the people he cares about. Part of me thinks it'd be less scary if he didn't snap & kick the guy's head in.
Me: I think you are completely correct. But I want to remain ambivalent about him.
Greg: Haha. That's fair.
Me: And the film wants me to think he is heroic. I think he does what is right. Definitely. But I don't think he is a hero per se.
Greg: By making him overly violent it's easier to dismiss his death at the end.
Me: I do not dismiss his death.
Greg: It's a way for the audience to get a pass out. You know what I mean.
Me: Yeah. Drive reminded me more than anything of Animal Kingdom from last year. The David Michôd movie. Did you see it?
Greg: I didn't catch it.
Me: Drive is slicker. And I liked Drive better. But it has this same obsession with slow-motion. And empty (if you ask me) silences.
Greg: I would've liked a little more dialogue. It seemed like a cheap screenplay, if that makes sense.
Me: It does.

Greg: I am bummed. it got great reviews but audience reviews have been bad. I don't think it'll have legs.
Me: Really?
Greg: Yeah. Cinemascore was like a C-. The trailers were very misleading.
Me: Oh! Wow! Everyone I've talked to has loved it.
Greg: Because you know educated people.
Me: I don't know any educated people.

You can read more from Gregory Sherl (about Drive and John Cusack and poetry and fucking) in a delightful interview with Roxane Gay over at HTMLgiant.

15 September 2011

Smart about Race

So, on the way back from Chicago this summer, Julien, Becky and I were talking about The Help. The movie hadn't been released yet, but both Becky and I were skeptical. Julien asked about our skepticism. Do you think the movie will be racist?

The point, I said, was not that the movie would be racist. Most everything is racist. Hollywood itself, for that matter. But when I think about films, I told Julien that I think some films are smart about race and some films are stupid about race. I assumed from the trailer that The Help would be stupid about race.


I was right. The Help is actually extremely stupid about race. From its total ignorance about the state terror under which black people lived (and continue to live) in the South to its insistence on black women's love for the white children they're forced to raise to the almost total absence of black men in the film to the humorous way The Help deals with black women's fear of white men, The Help is just dumb about race.

Any film with a magic negro in it falls in the category dumb-about-race for me.

But all this got the three of us to thinking about what films are smart about race. I might need some feedback on this. I could not think of that many. These are the films I could think of:

Two films by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck: Sugar and Half Nelson. The first is about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic who comes to the U.S. and is transplanted to a midwest farm team. The second is about a teacher who is addicted to crack. Half Nelson in particular taught me about my own racist prejudices when I watch a film. That film stars Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie. So good.

I also recently watched the film Claudine from 1974 with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones and found it funny and moving and extremely smart about race.

I always thought Monster's Ball was pretty smart about race, too, but it's been a while since I saw it, so I can't remember that all that well.

Of the films I've seen in the last ten years:
Precious.
The Class.
The Visitor.
The Last King of Scotland.
Caché.
Junebug.
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
Dirty Pretty Things.
Raising Victor Vargas.

There are probably a couple more that I am missing here. Anyhow, the point is: the list as such is not very long.

Thoughts?

12 September 2011

Words for Empty and Words for Full

The poem on the back of Bob Hicok's amazing Words for Empty and Words for Full misses the whole point of the book. The poem on the back has the words groom and pillow and bride and sea salt. But for me Words for Empty and Words for Full is a book of poems about ethics. Hicok writes these poems as a way of figuring out how to wake up in the morning. Many of the poems are direct responses to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and many more are about global warming and globalization and terrorism and how to wake up in the world and keep going.

I know I have been posting a lot of poetry here lately, but I've also been needing it just a little more, and as I teach this class on violence, I find myself trying constantly to think about reasons to go on living, ways to live in the world responsibly. I don't want to post a full poem from Words for Empty and Words for Full because I don't really think that's okay, but I'll post some pieces that really moved me. And, anyway, you should check out this book, because it's great:

This is the end of "Meditation on a False Spring":

...
hope, I have hope, somehow
hope. Maybe it's just bloodbreathrhythm, the physical
optimism of the heart, sys-
and diastole, maybe it's that I haven't
shot myself / in the fucking head yet, as we / have almost
not. Maybe hope's
what I've long thought, a choice, a decision
I have to make as often / as my heart decides
yes, until my heart decides / no, and I mean
the actual heart, the actual world, the actual / gun I touch to ask myself
to prove this is a day / I want in on.

And I love this bit from "Minutes of the Minutes":

... Do you ever wonder
about the last thing you'll do, the thing
you won't get to think about, go over and over
until it's worn to a shine or spent, how good
that would feel or if it would feel good, a gift
or an amputation? I noticed then how far
Orion moved without asking me, telling me,
and turned for Cassiopeia, which is almost
what I know of heaven: that it's hushed
and I'm not in it.

Last selection. From "So I Know":

Come with me from being over here to being over there,
from this second to that second. What countries
they are, the seconds, what rooms of people
being alive in them and then dead in them.

This book is amazing. I'm telling you.

Seen in Virginia


Virginia's finiest moving and storage company. Click on the image for a closer look.

10 September 2011

Joan Crawford Is Mad at the Dirt

I don't remember writing this, but it is dated July 30th, 2011, so I guess I wrote it a little over a month ago. And I kinda like it, actually, so here it is:

JOAN CRAWFORD IS MAD AT THE DIRT

When I put the laundry away 
I think always
–because of that magical way
that things have of becoming other things—
of Faye Dunaway
Shrieking at that tiny blonde child,

rather a good little actress, I always thought,
beating her mindlessly in her Kabuki makeup

And we become other things, too.

Changing, always, if we're lucky,
into something else and 
something else again until
the person I was is hard
to see from the perspective of
the person I am

Until the me that I was is as forgotten to me
as the tail I had all those decades ago
beneath my mother's not-yet-round belly 
when I was no bigger than my father's thumb

And wire hangers,
even if they didn't also mean, "Helga
I'm not mad at you I'm mad at the dirt"
have had life upon life before finding 
their ways to my closet

Worn lots of shirts, tried on many an outfit

Before slipping into this light blue polo
that I, too, will wear
until I change again

Craziest Dreams

I am trying to get to a birthday party for my friend Tito. I'm in Brooklyn, I think, though Tito lives in Long Beach, CA.
And I have these six eggs in a paper bag and they're more fragile than regular eggs, and Tito needs the eggs, and I want to get them to him before the birthday dinner at P.F. Chang's (dear lord why is his birthday party at P.F. Chang's?) so I'm trying to get to his apartment.

I must be driving, but maybe I'm driving my dad's car, and I'm in a parking lot and I get stuck doing some family thing where I have to drive some distant cousins of mine somewhere. There are runny noses and someone crying and there might be a small infant. And I am really frustrated because I am just trying to get to Tito's and I accidentally break one of the eggs or maybe one of my family members breaks the egg.

And when we finally drop them off at some baseball field or something in a park I am miffed because they sort-of don't say thank you or anything; they just get up and leave the car. They are angry at each other or something like that and they are not thinking of me and my need to get to Tito's.

Of course, I am not really sure why I can't give Tito the eggs at the restaurant (such as it is), but the urgency of trying to get the eggs to Tito's begins to really overwhelm me. And now my dad is driving the car, but he's going really slowly and I am getting frustrated with him, but he is telling jokes and being funny and not trying to be annoying he just is. We finally get to the car. (I guess we must've been in dad's car and the car we needed to get to was mine?? I have no idea.) And I rush to Tito's. I make it in time. I see him. I show him the broken egg. We chat. I say goodbye because we all have to get ready for the party.

But I had left the other five eggs in the brown bag in the car beneath my seat. It was all for nothing.

***
My other dream last night involved my aunt (who is now deceased) becoming a really hot sixty-year old woman, wearing spandex and lots of jewelry like she was from South Miami. And we were having these parties at her house where we were meeting all sorts of family. I must've been in a bad mood because the first time I met this transwoman who was introduced as someone's girlfriend, I wasn't as friendly as I could've been, and she was already nervous so I wasn't really helping things (and what is the point of being LGBT if we don't really create solidarity between L, G, B, and T people?). 

There are more parties at this house. There is this strange black man with a wig. He introduces himself to me. We shake hands and then he introduces his girlfriend: this same transwoman whose name I have obviously forgotten. He makes a very big deal about how to be polite I should say her name out loud. She kindly reminds me of her name and I hold her hand for a very long time and tell her I won't forget it. Her hands are incredibly soft. We speak for a little bit.

At some point during all of this I end up in a small shower/tub with two other people. My friend Michael F. might have been one of them. I think we are actually showering, but there is a problem with the water. It is being blocked by feathers. They are somehow falling down from the wall into the path of the stream of water. Everyone makes a point of giving me a towel with a frog on it (or maybe it's just green).

I have forgotten the transwoman's name this morning. Sigh.

09 September 2011

Sarah Kay on TED Talks

Sarah Kay is a spoken-word poet. This talk was shared with me via David and Natalie, and listening to it is worth every one of its eighteen minutes.


There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline / no matter how many times it’s sent away.

"It’s not just the adage write what you know, it’s about gathering up all of the knowledge and experience you’ve collected up to now to help you dive into the things you don’t know.
I use poetry to help me work through what I don’t understand, but I show up to each new poem with a backpack full of everywhere else that I’ve been."

And stick around for the poem with which she finishes her talk.

07 September 2011

Thomas Richards

Thomas Richards and the Grotowski Workcenter are visiting my school right now and I have been really excited by their work, though most of my colleagues seem skeptical (and some of the younger, more arrogant ones downright hostile). I attended a series of workshops last weekend, where observers were able to watch some of the work Richards and his company are doing, and in which some students participated. This morning I attended a talk of sorts where Richards answered audience questions. I asked one about the significance of the feet to his work.

I found his answers to my question exciting. The work they are doing in Pontedera holds my interest in a way that fascinates me. It is as though the work they do asks me to remember my own body, an activity I do not often practice, or at least one I have practiced a lot less since about 2004/05.

There has been a lot of skepticism on the part of my colleagues about the preciousness of the work, the way that its practitioners hold it in this almost mystical regard. And it doesn't help that Grotowski himself speaks about (and I quote) the ancient Mysteries with a capital M.

But for me the Workcenter's practices have meant something else. Richards answered my question about the significance of feet in the work by speaking about a certain way of walking where the body bends forward and as I raise my leg up I bring it into my body and I make my body smaller. Then he began to describe this making smaller as a kind of giving up or giving in. I think he means a surrender, an abdication of the significance of individual subjectivity. But the walk that Richards described also involved getting back up, right? Because in order to walk, I have to raise my leg (give up) but then I also must make myself erect again so that I can raise the other leg. Richards described it this way:

I give up. And I stand.

As you probably know if you read my writing in this space with any frequency, this task of making myself smaller, trying to make my own individual subjecthood less important to myself, is something I think about often. So Richards' work really resonates with me on this level. So much of it is about communal sharing and responding instead of leading.

He also said this really cool thing about working with a company: It's hard to work without anybody watching you.

He grinned, and then he elaborated in this way:
Because there is no enemy (the audience) the enemy is in the team. And the group must constantly work to neutralize that. An external force like an audience absorbs the negative energy between the group members, and then we can get back to working as a group.

I've never heard this put so intelligently. But he is obviously correct. A glance at any documentation of a group that works together for a long time makes that abundantly clear.
(André Gregory's Alice in Wonderland, for example)

In a way, writing is the same. It is easy to criticize myself in my work, to get frustrated with the same old sentences and ideas, but once I send it out to another reader, get a little feedback, a response, a note or two, the negative energy dissipates and I am able to return to my writing again. I had no idea it was going to, but ATHE did this for me this summer... and I came back to Tallahassee and wrote 50 pages!

All of this Grotowski work, however, makes me really re-think my life-path, I have to confess. I'm not quitting the PhD or anything, but physical practice was such a huge part of my life for so many years, and watching these folks at work makes me definitely miss my own immersion in these practices.