Thursday, May 31, 2012

May Cultural Roundup

Destroyed cathedral of Péronne, Somme 
c. 1918 (Photo: Ullstein Bild)
A month of historical fiction ... Rasputin's Imperial Russia, the Indian diaspora in Ethiopia and scenes from the First World War. And a trio of crappy films.

Meet the Fokkens (Netherlands, 2012) directed by Gabriëlle Provaas & Rob Schröder
What's your Number? (U.S., 2011) directed by Mark Mylod
The Avengers (U.S., 2012) by Josh Whedon 

The (Not So) Nice Italian Girls & Friend celebrate New and Emerging Writers @ Annex Live, May 16, 2012

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (Please see review here)
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Please see review here)
The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Art happens when things move around

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (HarperCollins, 2011) 309 pages

I didn't know what to make of the Fangs initially. The bohemian Camille and Caleb Fang have been orchestrating art "happenings" since the 1970s - springing unusual or traumatic scenarios (all fabricated) on an unsuspecting public and involving their usually reluctant children Annie and Buster, also known as "Child A" and "Child B".

They stage mock proposals on airplanes (which are sometimes declined by Camille), enter Buster in beauty contests (disguised as a girl), hand out fake coupons for the Chicken Queen franchise in malls (hoping to incite some sort of consumer rebellion), attend thirty six fake weddings (and one real one when they discover that Camille is pregnant with Annie), "fix" the school play so that Buster plays Romeo (to his horror) and Annie plays Juliette ... with varying results of success.

The children are allowed to assume aliases for these escapades: Clara Bow for Annie, Nick Fury for Buster. Now grown, their children lead somewhat chaotic and strange lives. Anne is a fairly successful actress with a superhero franchise and an Oscar nomination under her belt. After rumors (and photos posted on the the Internet where she is topless) surface that she is unstable and, possibly gay, she dumps her successful but utterly annoying screenwriter boyfriend, reluctantly sleeps with a fellow actress whom she has no interest in and a reporter who has been dispatched to write about her antics. She dispiritedly returns home to her parents in Tennessee utterly confused as to why she has behaved in this manner.

Buster is already there after an incident where he was accidentally shot in the face with a "spud gun" by an Iraq War vet who, among others, entertains himself by loading potatoes into a rifle and shooting it off. Buster was covering the story as a freelance writer and got in the path of the over zealous shooter. Twelve thousand dollars in debt, his face in ruins, and heavily medicated, his parents drive to St. Louis (which is as far as Buster's last bit of money would take him) to pick him up and take him home.

Back home, the two adult children occupy their childhood bedrooms and a semi-vegetative state. Annie eases her pain by drinking all day starting at breakfast. Buster is over-medicated and clearly depressed. They unearth some interesting secrets - their mother's frustrated desire to be a painter. Annie reveals her father's theory about art which informs all their performances which intrigued me:
"Their father, on several occasions, throughout their childhood, had referred to painting and photography and drawing as dead forms of art, incapable of accurately reflecting the unwieldy nature of real life. "Art happens when things fucking move around," he told them, "not when you freeze them in a goddamn block of ice." He would then take whatever item was closest to him, a glass or tape recorder, and smash it against the wall. "That was art," he said, and then he would pick up the pieces of the shattered object and hold them out for his children to inspect. "This," he said, offering the remains of the broken thing, "is not."
They have a sort of epiphany about their lives while living with their parents. Annie promises not to drink during the day and Buster says that he will not over-medicate if at all possible.

One day, soon after, their parents disappear. They say they are leaving for a trip to North Carolina but the next day the police call saying that their van has been found abandoned with splattered blood in the surrounding area. Annie is convinced it is a "happening" and that their parents are trying to frighten them into a reaction. Buster is unsure. And scared. Annie tries desperately to convince the police, and Buster, it is a hoax to no avail.

The only person they know who might be able to unravel this is the now 90 something Hobart, an artist and Caleb's mentor - the inspiration of many of their outrageous stunts. It was Hobart who once told Caleb "Children kill art". Now seeing the wreckage that the elder Fangs have left behind he penitently amends this verdict. "Art kills children, " he sorrowfully notes.

Annie has a seemingly foolproof plan to draw out their parents if they are truly alive ... they will feature their mother's art in a gallery and await their father's enraged response. The truth about their parents' disappearance soon comes to the fore.

The denouement, however, feels heavy-handed and improbable even for a fictional family as odd as the Fangs. In the end, the book did not compel me. It offers a unique proposition, a clever proposition, but it felt too contrived and too deliberately quirky - like a Wes Anderson film. Someone should give Anderson the book. On second thought ... please don't.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

50 Shades of Something Alright

Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James (Vintage Books & Anchor Books, 2012) 528 pages

My personal policy as a writer/reviewer is that I don't make pronouncements about the quality of a piece of work that I personally have not read. I think it's foolish to do so. So I'm not going to judge EL James' trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, which has been described as "mommy porn", on its literary merits because I have not read it.

No ... I want to discuss what is the impulse behind the reason that women are drawn to this book that, it is alleged, is very badly written indeed. This is how the book is described on Ms. James' website:

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms. Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.

Apparently, according to an interview I heard Ms. James give on the radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi (oh Jian, why must you speak to each and every interviewee with such reverence as if they are Mother Teresa?), Ms. James wrote six books in two years before this trilogy was published and it was surprisingly easy. The slightly long in the tooth Ms. James was inspired to write her own trilogy by the teenage characters of Edward (vampire) and Bella (virgin) in the Twilight franchise who totally captivated her.

Ms. James is amazingly nonplussed by the reaction that she has elicited with this book. What's all the fuss? she seems to say. Some of us gals, even middle-aged ones with proper jobs and young children, like a little S&M. My take on the first Twilight book was a little gentler than my take on Ms. James' fascination with it.

Admittedly, I've always struggled with the idea of the whole S&M scene and women's role in it. It was something I couldn't really wrap my head around. I remember a ferocious argument I had with a friend in high school about this. I argued (futilely) that if pain was the opposite of pleasure, not quite true I realize now, how could a willing participant derive pleasure from it? I've grown up a tad since then. "Think of it as theatre," a friend once wryly advised. Now I do. I don't want to partake in that particular theatre but I understand now that others do.

I am willing to concede this ... that some women like inflicting and receiving pain in this sort of sexual interaction. Maybe a very great number of women like this, engage in it and like reading about it as well. But, I don't think so ... it's not that I don't believe it's possible, I just don't think there are large numbers of women engaged in this. Like the millions of women who have bought and downloaded the book. I think there is something more complex at work here ... more interesting in a way.

Could it be that women, as co-breadwinners, and sometimes as the primary bread winners, feel ready to succumb, on a fantasy level, to "a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating" like Christian Grey? Does it help that he has "his multinational businesses, his vast wealth"?  I seem to recall that the heroine O's dalliances in the more critically received The Story of O by Pauline Réage, or the more recently published The Sexual Life of Catherine M, were of a similar ilk (i.e. succumbing to rich, charismatic, domineering male partnes). 

Katie Roiphe, Assistant Professor and Assistant Director of the Cultural Criticism and Reporting Program at New York University, whom I sometimes have taken issue with, has taken on this phenomenon in an excellent article recently written for Newsweek. Some have turned on Roiphe. An example of this is that paragon of journalistic excellence in an article entitled "Your Rape Fantasy is Boring, Katie Roiphe". Oddly, I don't believe that talking or writing about an issue means you endorse what it is describes. I think it is just plain idiotic to suggest this. And it's a classic, sexist way of shutting women up. Quiet you tart, your supposed sexual proclivities eliminate you from a reasonable, intelligent contribution to the discussion.

This is Roiphe's viewpoint in the article:
It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.
I think Roiphe, bright, articulate and very literate (sometimes wrong in my view but that's another blog) has hit it on the head. The harassed female libido has likely taken a beating with the various pressures of modern life. Are we just tired, tired, of carrying this heavy load of motherhood and wife and business partner and career woman and want someone to take care of us? Is the price total submission to a man's will and the inevitable subjugation involved? Is thatbthe trade off for us, domination? Kinky sex with a rich guy (and it's always a rich guy) is a turn on and with a poor guy it's ... what? Degradation? Low self esteem?

There is also a puritanical element to this book that Roiphe captures as well. If we are forced to endure the overtures of a sadistic and overbearing man does this then absolve us of the responsibility of liking sex, of desiring sex? She was compelled, she loved him, she doesn't really like the kinky stuff but she loves him and will do anything to please him.
... she [Ana] indulges in the slightly out-there fantasy of whipping and humiliation without actually taking responsibility for any off-kilter desires. She can enjoy his punishments and leather whips and mild humiliations without ever having to say that she sought them out or chose them. It’s not that she wants to be whipped, it’s that she willingly endures it out of love for, and maybe in an effort to save, a handsome man.
What disturbs me a little is that EL James makes (in her mind) the logical leap from Edward Cullens' emotional domination of Bella in Twilight as an inspiration for the Christian/Ana dynamic in Fifty Shades of Grey and Christian's physical and psychological domination over Ana. The submissive element that she inherits from Twilight has obviously hit a nerve with older women in this new book. 

But I am little annoyed when people dismiss the book out of hand and the ideas behind it or dismiss discussion about this book as if it is unworthy of consideration. I think any mass cultural phenomenon that touches a nerve like this in women (or men) is worth examining whether it titillates and/or frightens you.

The theatre is open ladies, it's up to you whether you want to take part. But maybe you should give a thought as to why you'd like to take that particular place. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Through a Fire

Once I said to J, my daughter, that I would walk through a fire for her. She just gave me a little smirk and said, "No, you wouldn't mommy." It was like she was saying, "I know you love me but ... come on!"

I don't know. What I feel for her is pretty overwhelming. It's the most intense emotion I have ever experienced  - surpassing love of other family members, surpassing romantic passion, surpassing what I feel for R as my life long partner. 

I described it to a young friend as feeling like this: "Imagine the most intense love you have ever experienced ... multiply that by a hundred." Her eyes widened in surprise. But it was a surprise to me too. You don't understand it until you are in the middle of it. Until you see that kid crying or saddened by life's vicissitudes. Until she is in jeopardy or hurt. Then you understand what she means to you. How life defining your role is.

Sitting by myself reading during lunch one day, I was thinking how powerful it felt, and frightening, to have that much emotion about one person. Is it healthy? Is it right? Is it even avoidable?

Hence, my occasional anxiety when she is subject to the normal but sometimes threatening realities of teenage life. Boys. Drugs. Strangers. Malicious gossip. Mean girls. Academic challenges. Broken hearts.

She picks up on that anxiety too and it doesn't make her happy. Once she sourly observed, "Mama always flips out when I have to go somewhere by myself." Perhaps that's too strong a verb for it. The anxiety certainly escalates. I do have a bit of a catastrophic imagination. Great for fiction writing, perhaps not so great for parenting.

And I'm not saying that she does not drive me absolutely wild some days or that I don't literally feel my hair graying and skin withering as we deal with day to day issues. I do, believe me. I try to chalk it up to retribution for being the worst teenager ever. 

So today ... on a day when we celebrate mothers I would like to celebrate my kid who adds something so pure and so joyous to my life that I can't imagine what it was like before she came into my life, fifteen years ago, all three pounds and three ounces of curly headed love.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Boys Gone Wild ...

Carnage by Roman Polanksi (France/Germany/Poland/Spain, 2011)
Straw Dogs by Rod Lurie (U.S., 2011)
Shame by Steve McQueen (U.S., 2011)

The beleaguered male in Western culture is in a dispirited state, wouldn't you agree? He occupies a special status here that is unmatched globally. His role certainly has been diminished - in most instances no longer hunter and provider, defender of hearth and home or always the primary breadwinner - and his privileges are rightfully challenged on almost every front. No wonder the cinematic representation of men is so bleak, so dismal. No wonder many men appear confused about their role.

In 2011, in its most extreme manifestation, males were variously represented as violent and homicidal (Straw Dogs); unable to control sexual impulses (Shame); under women's thumbs and controlled by political correctness (Carnage). But, you interject, these are only three films among hundreds issued every year. I counter with: where, then, are the positive images? These films elucidate extreme variations of what is seen as masculine characteristics: aggression and incivility towards other males, violence towards weaker subjects, intense libidinous behavior. They are extreme examples but might they reveal an underlying anxiety about the role men occupy in society?

Perhaps it is true that we are largely more intrigued by the dysfunctional, the violent, the reprehensible in humanity but still these images exist on film in a way that they do not for women (we have other grievances, other stereotypes to combat). Is it because men are perceived to be more likely to display these characteristics? Are we more accepting of this characterization of men? Are the largely male directors more likely to take on these types of stories?

The disgruntled parents in a scene from Carnage
Certain themes emerge ... women provide a "civilizing influence" but what men really desire is the free expression of their more anti-social characteristics. In Carnage, two sets of parents try and resolve the issue of one son's aggression (Zachary's) against another (Ethan) in the schoolyard. Alan Cowan, played in a somewhat macho manner by Christoph Waltz, who is the aggressor's father, seems unconcerned by the rough play of the boys, almost bored with the issue, while the other, Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly), attempts to play nice. For a time. Eventually all four parents descend into name calling and accusations but it is the men who break first and with almost a sense of exultation as if it is the silly females (their spouses) who have been forcing them to hold back their true feelings of antagonism towards each other. Alan almost goads Michael into rebelling against his wife's wishes.

In the end the film implies that the mothers' plea for civility is overwrought, unnecessary. The second to last shot is of the two boys on the playground, playing amiably, their feud forgotten. If only those infernal women would stay out of it. The last shot is evidence of the "weaker" male's own particular brand of cruelty and aggression - Michael, the perceived "weaker" male of the two, had let loose a hamster into the streets and we see it shivering and alone in the park where the boys play, terrified and confused.

Without this restraining female influence men become almost feral, completely uninhibited, rapacious. In the 2011 remake of the 1971 original Straw Dogs, the Southern redneck gang willfully kill an animal, destroy an expensive car and set fire to a house, rape the returning hometown girl Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth), psychologically and physically torment her more effete Northern, Harvard educated husband David Sumner (James Marsden) and nearly kill him. Goaded into an orgy of retributive violence, David triumphantly kills all of them in the end. His last words in the film are: "I got them all ..." with a surprisingly self-satisfied smirk as his home burns and smolders after an aborted fire set by the gang of men. Not strictly true, he did have a little help from his wife via the use of shotgun. But the triumph is seen as his own ... the triumph of one lone male against a horde of other bigger, more dangerous males. The film maligns Southerners as much as it maligns a certain kind of uneducated, rural male. 

The young unattached male as a source of menace in Straw Dogs
The origin of the meaning of "straw dogs" is telling in the interpretation of masculinity as seen in the film:
Straw dogs were used as ceremonial objects in ancient China. Chapter five of the Tao Te Ching begins with the lines "Heaven and Earth are heartless/treating creatures like straw dogs". Su Ch'e comments, "Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, [my emphasis] but not because we hate them." Lao-tzu's Taoteching (Mercury House, 1996)
Here the straw dogs are the aimless young men of Blackwater, Mississippi that Amy and David have returned to. Used up by the town as young athletes (the town like many small American towns is obsessed with football and religion) and as fodder for the Iraq war. Afterwards they are discarded, unrecognized, worthless to their society. Hence, they appear full of rage and easily vent it towards the one that got away (the small town girl who has done well Amy) and the one who never had to do so (the Northerner David).

In Shame, in the absence of a real emotional connection to women Brandon Sullivan (the fearless Michael Fassbender) becomes untethered sexually and emotionally. Whether this is a self-induced state or imposed from without, he is unable to sustain a relationship with a woman that does not involve sex - prostitutes, threesomes, anonymous sex with a male stranger in a bathhouse, an unconsummated and unfulfiling sexual relationship with a "nice" woman from his office - none seem to satisfy Brandon or his appetite. His behavior becomes more and more reckless and dangerous and he deliberately avoids a meaningful emotional connection with his needy, slightly messed up sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). There is an odd erotic current running between the siblings that is unnerving. It is only in desperation when Sissy tries to slit her wrists that Brandon finally appears to feel anything, to care about anything ... to eschew casual sex for a more meaningful attempt to forage a relationship with another human being, in this case, his sister.

Fassbender displays his talents in Shame
In an encounter in a bar, trying to tempt a young woman into going to bed with him he deliberately provokes the boyfriend into pummeling him by describing what he might do to the girlfriend (hint: he gets the pummeling).

Brandon's addiction is largely secret and an on-going source of shame. Hints that he will be revealed (porn discovered on this office computer, Sissy finding his Internet stash at home) throw him into a panic but it is a peculiarly male state ... a woman who demonstrated such excesses would merely termed a slut. For Brandon, it is something different. It becomes a part of his reason to live, his identity as a man.

Where could we look to for role models in 2011 with positive images of masculinity in the top rated and critically acclaimed films of that year - aside from the superhero franchises? The cuckolded, sad sack husband in The Descendants? The volatile, controlling father in The Tree of Life? The sleazy Governor in The Ides of March? The ineffectual, weak or nonexistent husbands and partners in The Help? The greedy, mercenary investment bankers in Margin Call? The controlling, charismatic cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene? The bullied, insecure artist in Midnight in Paris?
"Masculine" values are not ignoble or dangerous or obsolete. I don't believe them to be. Valour. Bravery. Physical courage. Loyalty. Protection of the vulnerable who require defense. These are all admirable and important qualities in men. Why must it be left to the superhero franchise (fantasy figures) in film to promote these values amongst men. Don't these men exist in the real world? Why aren't they being shown on film?

Film goers are starving for these images. I don't think I am alone in this.