Monday, December 10, 2007

The Beatless and generational history

Across the Universe. Dir. Julie Taymore. 2007.

I watched Across the Universe recently, not expecting to like it much. I had heard that the critics were split, that the plot devolved into chaos at some point, and in general that it was too sentimental and nostalgic. It is, indeed, an excercise in baby boomer musical nostalgia with some serious issues, but all honesty, I enjoyed it very much.

Based on what I had heard, I expected the plot to completely fall apart at some point, but really it carried through pretty well. There were moments that didn't make much logical sense, but that's OK sometimes. In this case it rather worked, though it was a little annoying. There were serious problems with the plot of Across the Universe, but I don't think there was a lack of plot. It was really about the wrong emphasis and audience investment in the characters. The film spent a lot of time assembling a large group of characters into an East Villiage apartment (a la Rent), but it didn't do anything with them as a group. There was no investment in these characters apart from their historical analogs. While I could recognize that these were John and Paul, Janis and Jimi and Yoko, I didn't know why I should care. If the film had spent some time establishing their relationship and their group dynamic, the rest of the plot would have had its climaxes and tragedies with some meaning.

In this case, it feels as if the film is relying on history to make the points and provide the investment inherently. Which is a problem for any audience member who isn't a baby boomer Beatles fanatic. I grew up with the Beatles as occasional background music - my parents weren't huge fans, but we listened occasionally. I had a couple of greatest hits albums on CD, but certainly wasn't invested in the Beatles history or tracking down their more obscure songs. As a result, all of the clever allusions and carefully thought-out historical analogies are lost on me, and presumably a large percentage of the audience.

I blame the editing, and a few small directorial decisions. There were many brilliant things about this film, but they weren't put together quite right. A little more plot/character development/explanation, and it might all have been delightful. Apparently, there was some dispute about the editing between Taymor and the producer; I would definitely like to see whichever versions did not end up being the final cut to see if some of these problems were fixed in a shorter or longer version.

I did, however, very much enjoy this film as a movie musical. By taking songs that are so familiar and reworking them, often simplifying them, I was forced to listen to the Beatles music again and to think about something that had been nothing more than background soundtrack to my life. In the songs where the reworking was successful, particularly toward the beginning of the film, it was an amazing experience. Similarly, the visuals to the songs included some amazing Taymor artistry. Production numbers in an Ivy League college and an army induction center were sheer delight, and I would have liked to see Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy have some similar big production numbers establishing her character. The initial reveal of John Sturgess as Jude with his giant Paul McCartney eyes at the beginning of the film was breathtaking, but its impact was ruined by being used in the trailer. The film definitely had moments in which Taymor's genius read loud and clear, but the overall product was problematic. I loved it anyway, though. I appreciate it for what it could have been, what it wanted to be, and what in its best moment it was: an affectionate, creative, visually stunning movie musical, in which the songs of the Beatles were (sometimes cleverly) recontextualized and reconceptualized.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Theater as Historiography

The History Boys. The Ahmanson Theater. 11/20/07.

Ideologically, I should have hated The History Boys. It is the story of white working-class British boys struggling to get into Oxford and Cambridge (there is one black and one Muslim character, but they only have a couple of lines each). While it deals with issues of sexuality, it portrays its most overtly queer characters as repressed, tragic and/or unsuccessful. It also portrays a postmodern approach to history as ideologically suspect and opposed to an idealised "truth" and knowledge for its own sake.

It is a testament to playwright Alan Bennett's skill and insight, then, that I loved the play despite all of my theoretical objections. It is a beautiful, sensitive portrayal of characters wrestling with ideas of maturity, sexuality, and knowledge, questioning which knowledge is considered valuable and why. While I object to the portrayal of Irwin, the history teacher (played by Peter Paige), as advocating a deliberately provokative and intellectually suspect approch to history in the guise of postmodern skepticism of traditional histories, overall the characters and particularly the queer characters were interesting, complex, and actively engaged in a debate over what we value in education. I may not agree with Hector's (played by Dakin Matthews) methodologies as an English teacher, stressing memorization and appreciation without analysis and transcendent ideas of "truth" and "art," but I love the way the play established these ideas and displayed his truly entertaining pedagogy. It was all the more interesting against a the classroom backdrop of postmodern collage combining images from art history and pop culture. The actors playing the boys were all charming, especially Alex Brightman as Posner with his sweet voice and youthful innocence. I was also intrigued by Brett Ryback as Scripps, who often took a narrator role in the play and whose characterization as the religous one of the boys could have used more explanation/development.

The best moment by far intellecually was when Charlotte Cornwell as Mrs. Lintott, the more traditional history teacher and the only woman in the play, goes on a diatribe about history being 5000 years of men's mistakes and the women cleaning up after them who don't get mentioned. It's a great speech and a fun introduction to feminist historiography. Unfortunately, she doesn't get an opportunity to model this as pedagogy the way the men do. This speech gestures toward the way postmodern approaches to history can be done right, but Lintott remains outside the main discourse of the play nonetheless.

Overall, it was an entertaining and mildly intellectually engaging play. I enjoyed it very much, and it is rare that play manages to disarm me enough that my intellectual and ideological objections fly out the window so that I can sit back and enjoy the play uncritically as a solid, engaging, well-crafted piece of art.

Go See Bear in San Francisco

The fabulous author and performance artist S. Bear Bergman is teaching workshops in San Francisco this weekend. I wish I could be there instead of grading quizzes and applying for jobs! Even the descriptions make me giggle.

All workshops take place at the Center For Sex And Culture in their new space at 1519 Mission. Please feel free to forward to repost as appropriate. All classes are pay-what-you-can.

Saturday, 1 Dec, 4pm-6pm
A Re-Introduction To The Only-Mostly-Dead Art Of Chivalry
(Now! With 200% More Feminism!)

Everyone's heard the stories: men who get kneed in the balls for holding open a door, youngsters who sprawl on bus seats while elders stand, the myth of the handkerchief-carrying gentleman, and all the rest. What, exactly, do girls women people want in the world of chivalry? How can a modern gentleperson be courteous without being sexist or a suckup? And while we're at it - who goes through the door first, again? Talk a little about the principles, and then learn a lot about the mechanics of walking in public (v. walking in private, natch), and a whole lot more.

Sunday, 2 Dec, 2pm-4pm
Writing With and About Gender

A 2hr. workshop designed to get writers thinking about the language of gender, its vernacular and lexicon and ways of making itself heard in writing, and then figuring out personal, useful ways to turn that to their advantage. This workshop is appropriate for any one who can form a sentence, regardless of hir experience as a writer: from novelists writing transgendered characters to transfolk writing about their experiences to academics tackling queer theory to people still
exploring the nature of their gender and sexuality in private writing to absolutely anyone else. Feedback opportunities will be provided but not required.

Sunday, 2 Dec, 7pm-10pm
Theater Skills For Better Sex

People with improvisational theater training know three things you don't about how to make a scene out of nothing, and/or keep one going if it gets away from you. Excellent for eager newbies and jaded ancients, the straightest of couples and the queerest alike will learn how to seamlessly become new characters, take old standbys in new directions, and incorporate new ideas, handy props, and changes of scene on the fly without missing a beat. Inventive, snappy, and lots of fun - even if you've never stepped on a stage in your life! Participation required.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dolan on Wasserstein, again

Jill Dolan writes an extended critique on Wendy Wasserstein's Third, which she saw here in LA at the Geffen Playhouse. Go read her description and analysis of the play - she does it more thoroughly and better than I will.

The production is part of a season of the Geffen doing plays about women, only half of which are written by women. Two out of the three plays written by women criticize feminism, particulary academic feminism, and Third decidedly falls into that category. It's an intensely problematic play, Wasserstein's answer to King Lear reducing its female protagonist to begging forgiveness of a student in a dorm room and leaving academia. But while in Lear you witness the king's downfall and desperation as tragic, the play sets up Professor Laurie Jameson's humiliation as deserved and just, a victory over a too-rigid feminism. The play constructs this desertion of academia and feminism as a gesture of "hope" and a rejection of "irony" which is really intellectual critique.

In terms of the Geffen's production, I know several people who thought it was awful. Personally, I found it serviceable but in no way inspired. It presented without helping a problematic text. I was less disturbed than Dolan by the awkward blackouts and scene changes and transition music. I was, however, furious at Matt Czuchry's portrayal of Woodson Bull III. He came across as an overgrown frat boy completely without the insight and intelligence the character supposedly should have. He was awkward and arrogant. You'd think that my complete lack of sympathy for him would help me to identify with Christine Lahti's portrayal of Laurie Jameson, but honestly I spent a lot of time thinking about how her floral skirts and heels were completely inappropriate for New England in the winter and why in the world she was outside without a jacket. Because Bull was so utterly unsympathetic, there was nothing at the center of the play. If he is encouraging hope at the end, he has to offer some, but instead his moralism seems vapid. He doesn't offer a vision of a new kind of student with a critical awareness of privilege and lack of privilege but a resurgence of the Old Guard in a new skin, and that's where this play fails. It tears down feminism (without offering any sense of what feminism actually is), but offers nothing but a vacuum in its place. The "feminist" professors must be humilated, prostrated, and removed from the university, but what is left? Where is the "hope" the play espouses when no one is left? Everyone is removed from the university, but the institution stands, presumably in the hands of the old white men who were there first, but even this isn't seen as a tragedy in the play - it's almost seen as the way things should be .

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Elvis was an Ass Man

I've been watching Elvis movies recently (for research purposes, of course) and I'm amazed at how often the entire focus of scenes is on Elvis' female costars' rear ends in tight pants and short shorts. This is most obvious in Viva Las Vegas where Ann Margaret's bottom is really the star of the film. I'm amazed at how blatently these women are portrayed based entirely on closeups of their behinds. In Fun in Acapulco, the blond girl who Elvis likes better is differentiated from the female matador who is also pursuing him by the fact that her pants are much tighter and her bottom gets much more screen time. That's how you know Elvis likes her.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Busy Week

This next week starting yesterday is comletely insane. Yesterday after class stopped in the conference on the American Musical at UCLA (where I spotted The Playgoer in person and it took me reading his bio to figure out why I recognized the name). I ducked out of there early hoping to have time to buy a costume for my party tonight, but didn't manage that before I had to be back to UCLA to see Bill T. Jones "Blind Date" which was awe-inspiring. It was a brilliant anti-war piece that felt nuanced rather than strident. I felt like it asked what it means to be patriotic when capitalism and government combine to make patriotism a bad thing. Even the images of death and destruction were beautiful and haunting. Today I have to find my costume and dress for Backyard Drag, which could easily take all day itself, but I hope to drop in on the musicals conference again for a panel on gender and sexuality. DA Miller's paper on the subject yesterday was fascinating and contentious and I would be glad to see more of the response it provokes. That makes a perfect theoretical frame for dressing up for a musicals sing-along in my friends' backyard. I'm still not sure whether I'm going to just wear underwear and be someone from Cabaret (I have to find a bowler hat somehow) or if I'm going to buy a shiny gold lame dress that I have my eye on and be a backup singer from Dreamgirls/Little Shop of Horrors (racial issues notwithstanding). I also have the perfect dress to be a Shark girl from West Side Story, but West Side didn't make the sing-along. And I'm not sure I have the right shoes for any of these outfits. I'm just going to put my whole wardrobe in my car and hope for the best.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Doing Judy

Rufus Wainwright. Hollywood Bowl. 9/23/07.

Last night, Rufus Wainwright performed his last concert in a series that started over a year ago when he did a tribute to Judy Garland's performance at Carnegie Hall. The series began with two performances at Carnegie Hall on June 14 and 15, 2006 and ended at the Hollywood Bowl. He recreated both Garland's set list and even his gestures evoked Garland's performance style. He also performed the concert at venues in which Garland gave famous performances (the London Palladium, L'Olympia in Paris, and the Hollywood Bowl). A friend of mine commented that performing Judy's songs, re-creating her performance, is an awfully ambitious project. It's true, and it could have gone horribly wrong, but Rufus made it a beautiful tribute to an amazing performer.

The concert was quite fabulous, and fascinating to think about as an artistic tribute to Judy Garland as a performer and as a symbol of queer identification. First and foremost, it was a good show. Wainwright's voice is well-suited to Garland's music. He's the kind of singer I would gladly hear recreate standards and old favorites in his own style anytime. And this was a lovely mix of Wainwright's distintive voice and Garland's dramatic performativity. He made the songs his own, but used her arrangements. While he was by no means impersonating Garland, he used his hands and elbows in a way that suggested without mimicking Garland's expressive theatricality.

The highlight of the show for me was "The Man That Got Away," in which Wainwright captured the smokey darkness of Garland's voice and the strength and fragility of the song itself. The second half featured appearances by Lorna Luft in a fabulous bright pink gown, Rufus' mother, Kate McGarrigle, playing piano for "Over the Rainbow," and an absolutely beautiful rendition of "Stormy Weather" by Rufus' sister, Martha Wainwright. Rufus also sang one song, ("Do it Again," I think) in Garland's original key. His falsetto was strange and haunting and somewhat painful.

The closest Wainwright got to impersonation was in the encore, in which he sang "Get Happy" in an imitation of Judy's iconic outfit, a costume that was almost drag on her but certainly was on him in stockings and heels. But even then, he was performing himself, not her; he wasn't trying to pass as Judy or become her - he was citing her as an inspiration, a symbol, a patron saint, a diva, and perhaps a goddess. He was still very much Rufus under that hat, not a boy in a halloween costume or a drag queen camping for an audience.

The fascinating thing about the show was the way in which the crowd was behind it. So that it didn't matter when Rufus' voice cracked and failed toward the end of the show, or when "Putting on the Ritz" felt just a little off tempo to me. It didn't matter that while Wainwright took full possession of the big, tragic numbers, some of the smaller and quieter pieces got lost in the hugeness of the venue and the undertaking. What mattered is how much the audience wanted to love Rufus and love Judy and love them together. The fact that this was happening was more important than the exact details of how it was happening. The whole audience was caught up in the process of identification and celebration of an event that happened 45 years ago, and it was wonderful. I'm sad that the DVD of the performance at the London Palladium and the CD of the show won't be available until December - I want to take them home and relive this performance now. I've been playing the Judy Garland CD, but I'd like to have them both.

For a full accounting of the concert, read this very detailed Yahoo Music review or Harp Magazine's detailed description of the Carnegie Hall show. There's something off about the LA Times coverage of the concert - halfway through, the reviewer gets caught up in being condescending about drag rather than talking about Rufus and Judy. What the LA Times reviewer missed, and I probably won't be able to explain well, was that this both was and wasn't a camp performance. The show claims and embraces a culture that has claimed and embraced drag performances of Judy Garland as loving tribute and mocking mimickry at the same time. But this was about the music, and about a single performance that has been called "the greatest night in show business history". It was a challenge and a performance accomplishment and a tribute. It was a heartfelt embrace of Garland and queerness and the ways in which they go together.

Wainwright says "I've thought a lot about this, and I think the secret" to Garland's effect on listeners decades after her death, said Mr. Wainwright, "is that, when she sings, she is beautiful without being actually beautiful." In this TONY article, Rufus imagines Judy as an alternative to a Frank Sinatra swinging masculinity: "There’s nobody being the flip side of that, which is the hungry, lonely, desperate, crazy-person singer. So I wanted to pick up that mantle and try to be a little less cool." I think that these quotes, and his performance, demonstrate a wonderful, respectful appreciation of Garland, her music, and her life. Recreating that iconic performance and making it his own was a brilliant tribute, as well as a the ulitimate performance of gay male identity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

computer problems

Forgive me if my posting is light for a while. My computer isn't feeling well, and has thus been sent in for service. As a result, I'm temporarily using my mother's geriatric powerbook. Apparently, the version of Safari it runs doesn't get along with blogger. As in, I can write entries but not post them. I discovered this after losing a long post on feminism and theater that I may or may not feel inspired to recreate. This means that I can only blog on Firefox, and must log out of my email to do so (GRRR! I HATE this about blogger). Blogging becomes much more of a hassle and I'm much less inclined to do it. Hopefully my real computer will be back soon.

McCarthyism Now

"We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

I'm in the middle of watching The McCarthy Years, footage of Edward R. Murrow's See It Now episodes relating to McCarthyism (much of which was portrayed in Good Night and Good Luck. It's amazing how contemporary so much of the footage feels.

There's a point at which McCarthy questions State Department employee Reed Harris about a book he wrote in 1932 about higher education. Apparently, in that book, Harris suggested that professors should have the right to teach that marriage "should be cast out of our civilization as antiquated and stupid religious phenomena" if that's their educated and considered opinion. This, apparently, made Harris a communist.

It's interesting that even at the height of McCarthyism, the president (Eisenhower) defended due process of law and the right of defendants to face their occusers. If we could even have that much committment to liberty and democracy now, I'd be impressed.

I was personally amazed that McCarthy accused the left wing media of unfairly persecuting him. I thought that the accusation of liberal bias in the media was a recent fallacy, but apparently happened in the 1950s.

It all feels very familiar.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Irreverent or Reactionary?

Invasion! The Musical. Hudson Backstage Theatre. 9/9/07.

Invasion! The Musical is, as one might suspect, a musical (very loosely) based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. More than that, however, it is an evening of dirty jokes and foul language that are sometimes hilarious and sometimes completely nonsensical. As potty humor isn't exactly my style, I found myself cringing as often as laughing, but I feel that the musical is perfect for perhaps slightly immature frat boys. The production seems to have originated as a project among USC undergrads and recent graduates; most of whom are quite talented and seem to be having a lot of fun with the show, but I definitely felt too old and too queer/feminist to be the ideal audience. Variety calls the show "the latenight handiwork of a team of drunken frat boys trying to top each other's nominatiosn for Ultimate Grossout between extended bong hits" and I think that's about right. It's also the intended audience.

While the show was dirty fun, where it fell disappointingly short was as a satire. The program claims the show will be "innovative material that is going to challenge contemporary social constructs." It fails, however, to set up those terms clearly so that when it tries to claim that it's ridiculing ideological extremism of all sorts, it ends up feeling just plain reactionary. It feels like conservatives trying to be campy, which strikes a sour note for me. At all points, the writers seemed to avoid plot development, character development, satire, and logical consistency in favor of disgusting or unpleasant side notes.

The production fails to use the sci-fi genre or the 1950s setting to develop its ideas. If it employed the 1950s small town setting as a shorthand for conservative values, racism, hypocracy or sexual repression and established that at the beginning, then the ending would feel less reactionary to me, but as it is, the ending is just plain offensive and I find myself agreeing with the show when one of the characters jokes that it's not well-written. I guess I'm disappointed because the production has a lot of potential to be clever and interesting as well as just funny, and it at every point turns away from being intelligent as well as humorous.

For such an aesthetically heterosexual show, there was a good deal of queer content, including Emily Pennington as Spencer Brewster, a possibly transgender-identified 10-year-old-boy with a crush on his babysitter. Pennington as Spencer was adorable and he and his babysitter, Steve Thompson (played by Cory Bretsch) were the two characters I would have been happy to see more of in the show.

My feelings about the butch/femme lesbian couple, newscaster Gloria Parish (played by Jenny Weaver) and her girlfriend/camerawoman, Janelle (Danielle Faitelson) were much more mixed. Janelle was portrayed as "a butch dyke with no future" content to follow around (and be mildly abused by) the high-powered femme newscaster. Their relationship was loving but dysfunctional, which unfortunately can sometimes ring true for lesbians and they did get a roll in the hay at the climax of the show. Unfortunately, butch seemed to be defined by a tool belt, flannel, a bad wig and large fake eyebrows. They were distinctly out of period, which is odd since the '50s is often considered the height of butch-femme bar culture. These two have their moments, but personally I would find it more entertaining if the point of the jokes surrounding them went beyond "she's a butch dyke with no future" and perhaps implied that someone in the cast had actually met a butch lesbian rather than just heard of them.

I did, however, actually like the random side plot of two National Guardsmen (Ben Giroux and Al Rahn) who arrived randomly, and did nothing, but had a lovely moment of Don't Ask-Don't Tell discovery of their love. The lack of queer sensibilty in this relationship made sense, and even though there was absolutely no need for these characters in the plot, I rather enjoyed their appearance.

I actually enjoyed writer/director Aaron Matijasic's appearance in the play as a nerdy scientist, but I wish the character had something better to do than sing about Toxic Shock Syndrome and get the girl. Will Harris as Sherrif Brewster actually managed to amuse me while singing an offensive anti-feminist hoe-down song. And Ian Littleworth, Carl Petrillo, Al Rahn, and Gabriel Oliva made a wonderful barbershop quartet who were tragically underused.

Basically, there were some good people and good moments in a show that desperately needs to be rewritten with more attention to a humor that goes beyond gross-out jokes. The best word to describe the show is sophmoric, but there's a lot of potential for something better. At the moment, there's no point to this play at all, and its vapid attempt to be postmodern and irreverant makes it, at best, offensive and reactionary.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Perfect Night

Cohn, Rachel and David Levithan. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. New York: Random House, 2006.

This is a book about two people meeting cute, then spending a delirious night doing and saying all the wrong things. Over the course of a single evening, they learn and change and grow and fall in love in a way that's full of youth and hope and passion. It's sweet and beautiful and perfect. I loved it. I loved it so much that I immediately sent it to my gay best friend (who doesn't have time to read blogs anymore, so he won't know 'til it shows up on his doorstep). I thought about sending it to two other boys I know and love, but I'm not sure I could get past their skepticism to get either of them to read it. Anyway, it was one of those books that's so simple and evokative that I just want to hand out copies to everyone I know.

Now, I love David Levithan and I have since Boy Meets Boy made me laugh and cry and kept me from screaming while I was stuck in Vegas overnight during the most miserable travel experience of my life more than two years ago now. I love him so much that I almost think he's wasted writing straight teenage boy characters when he tells queer stories so incredibly beautifully. But if I thought that, he proved me wrong with Nick and Norah because they are fabulous, awkward, realistically confused, endearing characters.

I don't know what it's like to be a teenager reading this book, but with my cynical adult perspective the book feels bittersweet both for how honest it is with the disconnections and miscommunications and bad decisions and for how hopeful it is. Because I want, with all my heart, for Nick and Norah to be together and stay together and never break each other's hearts. Because this book is just the beginning of their story, one perfect night with the future purposefully blank so that they never have to break up, grow up, change or move away. Even as I'm applauding their bliss, though I'm also mourning an inevitable loss that is beyond the scope of the book but looming nonetheless. It's a good thing when I worry about the future of fictional characters. It means that in the few hours when I was savoring the book (and it wasn't very long - it's a quick read), they felt like real people to me. I like that.

It's also a book that made me think about the people I've spent a perfect night (or perfect afternoon with). It made me treasure all over again the nights staying up late in cars and coffee houses in the suburbs with Prophecyboy just talking, not yet understanding that my love for him wasn't attraction. Or dancing to Madonna in a dorm room with a girl to whom I didn't understand that I was attracted. Or that trip to Santa Cruz with my first girlfriend where we got lost and flirted and ended the night with that first awkward kiss that changed my life. Or the afternoon I spent running errands with a performance artist I barely knew but with whom I talk so easily. Or those coffee dates that lingered for hours all last spring. Each of these moments is perfect unto themselves, whatever the future brought. They are moments of genuine connection with people who are in one way or another kindred spirits and any book that reminds me to appreciate them is genius in its own special way. And I want to give that book to each of them, and to everyone else who matters in my life. That's the kind of book this is.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

If I lived elsewhere (or had time and money to fly)

There are two very exciting shows that I want anyone who happens to be reading this in New York or Seattle to know about. If I could afford to, I would be booking plane flights for both of these shows.

New York:
Wolves in the Walls
New Victory Theater
Oct. 5-21

This is the Improbable Theatre Company (who did Shockheaded Peter) and the National Theater of Scotland collaborating to adapt a children's book by Neil Gaiman. The story is verys simple, but I suspect the theatrical adaptation will be fabulous.

Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps
Capitol Hill Arts Center
Oct. 26-27

The Pat Graney Company and the National Performance Network present the world premier of Scott Turner Schofield's Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps. This piece is going to be amazing. Turner is my favorite transgender performance artist. He's a delightful human being, a true gentleman, and a fabulous storyteller. I've had the extreme privilege of reading an early text for this show and I'm super excited about it. Excited to the point that I've cleared my schedule just in case I can find a last minute cheap ticket to Seattle to go see it. If you happen to be in the area, you must go and report back to me. I insist.

So, if anyone out there feels like flying me all over the country to see shows (and review them, stage manage them, whatever), these are two that I'm dying to see. If they happen to be local for you, there's really no excuse to miss them.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Go to ...Hell

Zorro in Hell. Ricardo Montalbán Theatre. 9/6/07.

Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell is part folklore, part history lesson, part political rant, and part stand-up comedy, but it's all extremely entertaining. It draws on traditions of Chicano agit-prop theater (I particularly enjoyed the reference to The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa) in order to dissect pop culture iconography. Plus, it was a love song to old California with its checkered history of exploitation, oppression, and revolution. While not every line was perfect, the fast-paced wit ensured that I laughed so much my face was sore.

Zorro in Hell is the story of a writer (Richard Montoya) who finds himself in a hotel that serves as a museum of old California with a proprietress (Sharon Lockwood) who claims to have seduced and inspired historical and liteary greats from Joaquin Murrieta to Jack Keroac. She and a cast of very queer characters seek to teach the writer the story of Zorro, taking him from a cynical aspiring screenwirter to a revolutionary in the Zorro mold.

Of course, this plot is only an occasional accessory to witty one-liners and a postmodern exploration of California histoy and Zorro mythology. Culture Clash places Zorro in a geneology of tricksters, thieves, and freedom fighters. While they assert that he's directly descended from the Scarlet Pimpernel and an inspiration for Batman, they also implicitly or explicitly link him to Robin Hood, Joaquin Murrieta, and Hannibal Lecter, and perhaps even Br'er Rabbit. The play explores the character's inauthenticity from pulp fiction roots through children's memorobilia. Zorro represents a long history of white and nonwhite children alike nostalgic for a California history that never really existed, but Zorro in Hell comes to the conclusion that Zorro is a character worth emulating despite his problematic history, because first and foremost, he stands up for the people against an exploitative and authoritarian Gobernador. He's a graffiti artist and a one-man rebellion, a terrorist in the most necessary way. Refreshingly, this play embraced the bi-cultural, the alliance between white, Native American, and Mexican as the basis for chicanismo and as the source of potentially revolutionary alliance. It wasn't a piece about how Zorro wasn't authentic enough but rather about how authenticity becomes irrelevant in the face of oppression.

The play is wonderful and I love it and highly recommend it, but no review of mine would be complete without an analysis of gender issues, and this production had some weird ones. First there was the 200-Year-Old-Woman, who was kind of awesome, really. This weird muse/succubus figure isn't exactly a representation of the female experience (she's more symbol than character), but she was a lusty and fiesty old woman (with an occasional inexplicable Irish accent) and as such was kind of fabulous. Of course, she only had one bit, so it got old by the second act, but that's OK really. The real issue wasn't Culture Clash's problems depicting women (for once) but with homosexuality as the foil to masculinity. Our writer-hero was, until he became Zorro, constantly in danger of being sexually victimized. He was kissed by a gay cowboy (and boy can those Culture Clash guys REALLY not do gay right) and raped by Kyle, his bear therapist (the big furry kind, no the big furry kind that lives in the woods). I know that part of this was a humorous take on the tradition of Zorro (and the Scarlet Pimpernel) masquerading as an effete rich boy to hide his secret identity and a performed resistance to the demasculinization and infintalization of any non-white men, but it was also a disturbing depiction of homophobia as the source of all humor. In this world, only Zorro is really a man and everyone else is lesser, as demonstrated by potential homosexuality.

With that being said, the play is overall much stronger than its homophobia and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It just got extended until September 30th and it is very much worth a trip out to Hollywood to see this wonderful exploration of California mythology lovingly and irreverently exploded on stage. Director Tony Taccone and Culture Clashers Richard Montoya, Herbert Sigüenza, and Ric Salinas have a lot to be proud of in this one, and they're working hard up there on stage. The lease you can do is go see it.

P.S. The show also had the best intermission and post-show soundtracks I ever heard. Seriously. I laughed. I sung along. They were all wonderfully appropriate to the show.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lesbian Theater and Queer Performance Art

I recently read a myspace bulletin from Curve Magazine in which they asked for lesbian theater critics or actresses involved in lesbian theater. If you happen to be either, please respond to them.

But the posting made me consider whether I would call myself a lesbian theater critic or not. It's a loaded question, regardless of the identity issues. I write about queer performance art, and as a result, I see quite a bit of performance by lesbians and other queer women, but it's been a long time since I've seen anything that could strictly be called be called lesbian theater. I tend to know things about lesbian performance art, music, spoken word, film, and sometimes even burlesque, but what exactly qualifies as a lesbian play? And have I been ignoring them in favor of other forms of performance?

Is there lesbian theater here in LA that I'm missing? I tend to skip a lot of the performances at the Celebration Theater and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center as too expensive and usually gay male focused. Theatre Out is a newish gay theater in Orange County that I have yet to check out and Rude Guerilla also in Orange County often has interesting gay [male] programming while not strictly a gay theater. The LA Women's Shakespeare Company is a theater company that may be of interest to lesbians, but isn't strictly lesbian theater as far as I know.

And that made me think about gay and lesbian theaters elsewhere. I'm certainly familiar with Theatre Rhinoceros and Brava! Theater Center in San Francisco and the WOW Cafe in New York (Shakespeare in the Nude on Sept. 8 sounds awesome!) as likely places to find lesbian theater, but I can't say I've spent much time at any of these. Are ther other lesbian or gay and lesbian theaters I don't know about? What makes lesbian theater?

For those in NY

For any New Yorkers among my readers, I highly recommend that you check out Mastering Sex and Tortillas by Adelina Anthony. It's a hilarious piece in which Anthony performs butch and femme gender roles, discussing lesbian sexuality in a rowdy, irreverant solo performance. The intended audience is clearly Chicana lesbians, but the piece is delightfully entertaining all around.

Sept. 5th-29th (Wed-Sat @ 8 pm)
Teatro LA TEA
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center
107 Suffolk Street, 2nd floor
(between Delancy & Rivington Streets)
Tickets: $15

Monday, August 27, 2007

Fall Lineup

I finally decided to splurge and plan ahead by purchasing tickets to several of those shows I know I should see this fall and that I was far too likely to put off buying tickets until they were sold out or I was too busy. So now I have all sorts of exciting shows to see this fall. Yay!

First of all, I succombed to pressure and renewed my tickets for The Mark Taper Forum. I know this is hypocritical, since I've been complaining loudly about how atrocious and boring almost everything I saw there last season was. But I was determined to see Sweeny Todd and it was cheap and easy to add on tickets to Avenue Q. The History Boys should also be fun. Yes, I'm totally a sucker for musicals. Of course, the seats will all be atrocious, and I'm a bit worried that I'll have moved somewhere before The House of Blue Leaves and School of Night happen, but I'm a sucker for a good Christopher Marlowe story. I find this a crazy season, and still really really white and heterosexual and male-dominated, but I subscribed anyway. Sometimes I fail to live up to my own ideals, but I think it's better to err on the side of seeing more theater rather than less.

More interstingly, I also ordered tickets for a few events at UCLA Live before the cheap student tickets sold out. So I'll be seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company doing both The Seagull and King Lear. I'll be seeing Ian McKellen as King Lear but William Gaunt as Sorin in the Seagull because that was the way it worked with my schedule and ticket availability. I'll also be seeing Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's Blind Date. So I'll be getting a little bit of culture this fall.

I also purchased a ticket to Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell, which I totally put off to the last minute.

And finally, I'm going to see Invasion! The Musical, which I'm totally excited about. Maybe I can put it in my dissertation.

Speaking of dissertation, there's one more dissertation-relevant performance that I want to see: Rufus Wainwright performing Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall Show at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 23. My problem is that I haven't yet found someone to go with me to this one, and the Hollywood Bowl is one of the few places I'd feel really weird attending on my own. So my dilemma is, do I buy a ticket anyway and be alone and proud, buy two tickets and hope I can convince someone to come with me later, or put it off until I can find company. This is my eternal question, to attend theater alone or not, and it's often a reason why I put off seeing things. I tend to be reluctant to buy just one ticket, and hope that later I'll be able to find someone to go with me. So if there's anyone out there who knows me and is interested in Rufus doing Judy, I'd love company.

Monday, August 20, 2007

State of LA Theater

Frank's Wild Lunch points to this article in the LA Times in which Charles McNulty describes the problem with LA theater as a lack of directors and the general decline of the director as auteur. It's an interesting and in some ways incredibly insightful observation of the LA theater scene, from a man who admittedly has seen a lot more theater in LA in the past year than I have (hey, if I were getting paid to do it, I'd be there). But, while I think he's dead on in describing the LA theater as intensly (perhaps overly) actor-driven, I'm not sure the auteur-director is the solution. I think that there is a problem with a general lack of intelligent vision in theater here in LA. And I think McNulty does a pretty good job at pinpointing the major directors that we know to follow (Bart DeLorenzo, Jessica Kubzansky) and a few less well-known ones to watch. But in crediting the director, McNulty ignores the ensemble, which produces some of the better LA theater in my personal opinion. A creative ensemble can produce amazing work, while the vast majority of director-auteurs, brilliant or not, tend to be straight white men speaking from a position of ultimate power. While it's good to have someone intelligent making the decisions, instead of all of the actors' vanity projects running around LA, I think our local theater scene is designed around companies that need good playwrights, good directors, good actors, and good artistic directors working together. The problem for me is a lack of cooperation around a shared vision, rather than a lack of one person with a dominant vision. We need smarter, more dedicated, more visionary theater people of all stripes, but subsuming everone else to a dominant vision is not the answer. I agree that we have a lot of actors doing a lot of not-so-good productions here, which would be helped by more and better direction, but I think it's better to get more good people committed to a good project, rather than just skillfully but mindlessly following the vision of a leader. Theater in LA needs more passion from everyone, not just good directing.

I totally have to see this

OK, I've been hiding my head from the LA theater scene recently. I have absolutely no excuse for the fact that I haven't yet seen Zorro in Hell. I haven't even reallly been following the listings or reviews for local theater. But today, I checked the list of shows opening last week, and I was delighted to discover Invasion! The Musical. It's even set in the '50s!

Invasion! The Musical, with book and lyrics by Aaron Matijasic and music by Billy Thompson, is a provocative satire reminiscent of Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show, with a dash of “South Park” and a spritz of Mel Brooks thrown in. On a hot summer night in 1952, the residents of Tucker County, New Mexico are at a moral crossroads. Suddenly, aliens attack! Faced with their impending doom, the townsfolk seize the opportunity to do and say all the things they’ve been keeping bottled up inside. As one would expect, all hell breaks loose. Themes of discrimination, social immorality and political hypocrisy are skewered without mercy.

Just as I was wondering about sci-fi theater, along comes a sci-fi play just for me. I must see it. But maybe I should watch the 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers first.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Science Fiction Everywhere

I didn't know Frederic Jameson wrote a book about science fiction. Clearly I must read it. Even though I'm not a huge fan of Postmoderninsm, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. It's not because Postmodernism isn't brilliant; it is. It just seems to me (in my admittedly brief and superficial reading of his work) that Jameson really wants to claim that James Joyce is the epitome of all culture and everything after moderism is just a poor imitation. His aesthetics and biases seem very privileged straight white male to me. I could be wrong; this isn't really my subject. I wonder if his opinions on sci-fi are equally biased. But anyway, yay for academics writing about sci-fi.

Speaking of sci-fi, I just finished reading The Last Days, Scott Westerfeld's sequel to Peeps. I need to talk about it because I have a very conflicted reaction to Westerfeld's books in general, and Peeps in particular. I find them both brilliantly provokative and terribly unsatisfying. First, I must congratulate Westerfeld for writing female characters who are important to the plot and demonstrate skills and confidence in their chosen fields of endeavor. Peeps was dominated by the voice of Cal, the geeky male protagonist, and that might have been part of my problem. Also, the concept behind Peeps and The Last Days is excellent; it's about vampires but recasting vampirism as a parasite, so the book talks interestingly about vectors and infection rates. It's a mythology that I'd love to see in queer hands with echos of HIV and lesbian vampires. But while the idea is great, the book itself didn't always keep me engaged. It seemed like it would be great for geeky teenage boys, but not always for me.

The Last Days is set in the same world as Peeps, but it focuses on several teenagers forming a band as the infection comes to a head in New York City. And I also found it frustrating, but for different reasons. It focuses on the members of the band, with the world seemingly coming to crisis behind them, but the potential end of civilization was not quite threatening enough for me. While it's probably brilliantly accurate in describing how purposefully ignorant people can be about the crumbling of an empire or a civilization, I wanted the bigger picture. I wanted to see the loss of infrastructure and feel the world fearing that this really was the last days of the U.S. or technology or the world. I wanted the characters to experience what it would be like if cell phones and power grids and the internet were unreliable. I wanted to feel the power and hope and terror of teenagers facing the crisis by playing weird new music, or just going to clubs and hearing weird new music. Again Westerfeld's concept and world are excellent, but the story itself is not enough for me. I want more. I want a bigger picture.

I've also been watching Masters of Science Fiction on ABC, and I must say, I'm rather enjoying it. These one-hour TV sci-fi mini-movies remind me of The Twilight Zone, which is awesome. So far, I think they're a little too obsessed with being contemporary and politically relevant and risk making the storytelling secondary as a result, but overall I'm very much enjoying them and glad such things are making it to TV.

Plus, I watched the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a friend the other night. I have thoughts on this, but I'm going to hold them until I've seen the 1950s version. I don't hear good things about Invasion, but I am curious.

Thinking about sci-fi across all of these genres and time periods makes me want to talk about theater. But I can't think of a lot of sci-fi theater that I've seen recently. Or at all, really. I remember in high school we did a project that adapted some Twilight Zone scripts for the stage. And I think I saw a stage version of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles also when I was in high school. And in college we did R.U.R. But I can't think of any professional theatrical sci-fi. Unless you count Evil Dead: The Musical. So, theater folks and sci fi geeks out there, do you know of any good sci fi on stage? Or have any theories about why we don't see it as much? Is it because of the fear of being cheesy? Lack of special effects? Some other demand of the genre? Is it really out there and I have just failed to see it? Does it happen places other than LA? What do you think?

Things to do

There are a couple fun events on my calendar, so I thought I'd encourage others to check them out.

Tomorrow (Saturday 8/18) El Vez, my very favorite queer Chicano punk rock Elvis impersonator, is doing a free show downtown at California Plaza. It's part of that whole revitalizing (and gentrifying) downtown project, but free shows are pretty cool anyway and El Vez rocks. Yay!

And then next Saturday, there's a night of queer performance about queer female sexuality. From myspace:

She/Ze Sex: the varying degrees of gender identiy and sexuality"
Saturday, August 25th
LA Gay and Lesbian Center's Village at Ed Gould Plaza
1125 N. McCadden Place Los Angeles, CA 90038
7:30 pm
$10 event
What is feminine sexuality? Our show will explore feminine sexuality (or not) through enjoying the work of high femmes, butches, FTM's and MTF's artists/performers. Join us won't you?

With emcee D'lo.

Gabriela Garcia Medina
Adelina Anthony
Ryka Aoki de la Cruz
Miracle Whips
Nova Jade
DJ Claw-d
Trannysaurussex (from SFO)

They're also screening a couple of short films and have vendors selling queer-friendly clothing. It should be a great show!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Gay Debate

I just watched the Logo/HRC Presidential Forum. Yes, I'm a couple of days late.

I liked the structure of the event, with each candidate getting a short interview on a very specific topic. What the candidates actually said, however, was not particularly novel or suprising.

Since it was the HRC, the focus of the whole thing was heavily weighted toward marriage, which means that all of the major candidates (Obama, Edwards, Richardson, Clinton) spent a lot of time trying to explain that they were for fully equal civil unions complete with all the rights and benefits of marriage, as long as we don't call it marriage. Which is an inherently stupid and essentially indefensible position.

Personally, I thought Obama did it best, convincing me that he actually understood that this was a civil rights and equality issue. He said that the focus should be on legal rights under the law and not the word marriage, which I happen to agree with (even though I also firmly believe that separate but equal is not equal).

Edwards started his interview pretty badly, seeming stiff and uncomfortable, but he warmed up by the end. He did his best to dodge the marriage question by saying that he sees why the word marriage is an issue for gay people, but he's still not for it. I was impressed by his closing statement, in which he brought up immigration issues and antidiscrimination.

Kucinich was awesome. Total hippy. Actually in favor of gay marriage. Gravel was also in favor of gay marriage. They both talked about love and equality. Good for them!

Richardson was the loser in this 'debate.' He said more or less the same things as everyone else about marriage, but looked uncomfortable and unsupportive while doing it. And then, he got asked "is it a choice?" Which I personally think is a stupid question to ask a candidate. How would he know, really? Is there a good way to answer this? But he didn't deal with it well, said it was a choice and then mumbled something about science. Basically sounded dumb.

A lot of people apparently liked Clinton at this event. I wasn't particularly impressed. While she was in favor of civil unions and equal rights, she seemed to think it's OK to leave marriage up to the states rather than actually legislating for equality, which is honestly unconscionable when you have states like Ohio that keep working to take away rights for queer folks whenever possible.

Unfortunately, because everyone was asked to defend their position on marriage, there was very little discussion of other issues. They all seemed to be in favor of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act (although Hillary was rather defensive of both, but I guess she'd have to be because they're Bill's laws). Everyone seemed to be in favor of an Employment Non Descrimination Act that includes sexuality (what about gender and/or gender presentation?) Obama was asked about homophobia in the black community, and I think he answered that beautifully, saying that it's important to talk about gay issues not just in front of a gay audience but in all his speechs. Edwards got asked about whether or not he supports transgendered people, but in a way that he couldn't have said anything but yes. I think there could have been a much better transgender question*. I would have liked to hear everyone talk about immigration laws and health care and how to combat homophobia. What about asylum for people who are persecuted for sexuality in other countries? What about adoption?

Overall, I think the candidates did OK, and I'm still generally positive toward Obama, Edwards, and Clinton even though Kucinich and Gravel were the only ones with decent positions on gay marriage. I wish Biden were there - I would have liked to see where he fell. But I just keep asking, why the hell can't Obama, Edwards, and/or Clinton just come out and say, "I believe that men and women and straight people and gay people are equal, and must be treated equally under the law." Why, in 2007, is that still a position that is too revolutionary for a mainstream candidate? Why don't they support equality and civil rights for everyone, without exception? I don't even like gay marriage as an issue, but I do believe in equality and I don't think there should be a single presidential candidate (even Republicans) who should be able to get up in front of the nation and say that any law should treat people differently based on race, religion, gender, or sexuality. If men and women are truly equal (which they aren't yet) then why does it matter which one you marry? And since men and women aren't equal yet, how in the world can we go forward until they are? Why isn't this everyone's issue? Why aren't we talking about it in those terms?

UPDATE: Read this post at Pam's House Blend on trans issues and the debate!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Summer Movies

I saw Transformers this week. Honestly, I actually quite enjoyed it. it was pretty much what a summer movie should be. It had a serviceable but not particularly intelligent plot, but exciting battle scenes and lots of explosions. I feel like perhaps it got a little more attention than it actually deserves, but that's OK, it was fun. Annalee Newitz says it's ok to just enjoy the movie at face value, so I'll go ahead and do that. At least it gestured toward having a kickass female sidekick (Megan Fox) who knew something about cars, even though she didn't actually do much except look hot.

Speaking of summer movies, I'm super excited for Startdust, which opens tomorrow and looks like it will be a fabulous action-packed fairy tale film with witches and sky pirates and a fallen star and all sorts of fun things. I'm predisposed to love this movie because I'm a huge Neil Gaiman fan and I absolutely loved the book. It's sweet and clever and fun and I highly recommend the Charles Vess graphic novel version to anyone who's interested. The movie opens on Friday, and Neil himself is encouraging people to attend the opening weekend, since that's so important with films.

As appropriate for a summer movie, I attended Transformers on a date, and I must say that I was dissapointed that the parts where Transformers dragged didn't involve more date-related activities to keep me entertained. Stardust, however, seems like the perfect movie to attend with a date. It's got nice cuddly romance as well as fun action and adventure. Now, if only I could find the right girl (or boy) to take me.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On Genres and Media Recommendations

I read a lot of fiction. More fiction than is strictly justifiable for a grad student working on a dissertation and therefore morally compelled to spend vast quantities of time reading history, theory, and other non-fiction works. But I find solace in fiction, and I'm frequently reading several fun books at once. I read sci-fi and fantasy, queer literature, occasionally mysteries, graphic novels, young adult lit and, in the summer, chick lit. I tend to plow through these books pretty quickly and generally gravitate toward things that are fun and lightweight.

But at the moment, I'm in the mood for something different. I wouldn't say I'm interested in something heavy, exactly, but none of my usual standbys or the things in the "to be read" pile is really calling to me and I'm not sure what I want to read. I might want to read something more literary than my normal genres. Probably something by and/or about a woman. Maybe with some serious emotion. Perhaps I could use a tearjerker, I'm not sure. So, if anyone is out there reading this, tell me about your favorite novels. Can you recommend classics that I've missed in my education? Books with drama or romance or heartbreak? Amazing female protagonists? What should I read?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Where you should be tomorrow (even though I won't)

Peggy Shaw in LA! Menopausal Gentleman at the Hammer Museum.

Peggy Shaw is the master of butch performance art. She's brilliant and campy and sexy all at the same time. And she very rarely makes it out to the West Coast to perform. So imagine my devistation when I discovered that she's performing at the Hammer Museum tomorrow, Wednesday, July 25th, at exactly the time I'll be on a plane flying over the midwest. I'm going to miss this show, even though it is clearly a must-see for me, but I expect a full report from anyone who does manage to go.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Notes from a Border Skirmish

The Gendercator. Catherine Crouch. Outfest. 7/21/07.

I attended a screening of the short film, The Gendercator here in LA this weekend. The film caused quite a lot of controversy within the LGBT community and was pulled from the Frameline film festival in San Francisco after transpeople and their allies protested it as a hateful and transphobic piece. Outfest, instead of pulling the piece entirely, removed it from the catalog and rescheduled it to a screening followed by a panel discussion. First and foremost, I believe that censorship is never the right solution and that Outfest handled the situation rather well by facilitating discussion about the piece. I didn't necessarily feel the discussion itself reached any major breakthroughs of understanding, but I'm glad it happened nonetheless.

The real controversy surrounding the piece is the director's statement:

Director’s Note - Things are getting very strange for women these days. More and more often we see young heterosexual women carving their bodies into porno Barbie dolls and lesbian women altering themselves into transmen. Our distorted cultural norms are making women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world. This is one story, showing one possible scary future. I am hopeful that this movie will foster discussion about female body modification and medical ethics.

While this statement is offensive, it's also misleading about the film. Nowhere in the film does anyone seem to be pressured to present themselves as more feminine. The film doesn't really attack gender norms or medical ethics. I encourage you to read Crouch's explanation and defense of the statement on her website, which doesn't necessarily get less offensive.

The film itself is slightly less offensive than the director's statement, if viewed charitably. It is the story of Sally, a 1970s lesbian feminist (but a kind of dumb one) who wakes up in 2048. The future Crouch depicts involves mandatory heterosexuality and gender normativity. Because Sally is vaguely butch, she is referred to "The Gendercator" to be evaluated and recommended for sex reassignment. The Gendercator is a trans man (though I believe all of the trans male characters in the film are played by people who were born male, I could be wrong about this) and tries to convince Sally that she would be happier as a guy. When she doesn't consent to surgery, it is performed against her will.

The problems in the film itself arise because, though the director claims it is a film about Sally and the pressures she feels to be gender normative, Sally herself isn't a particularly compelling character. She says very little throughout the film, seems drugged most of the time, and the most articulate statement she can make about her gender identity is "I just want to do my own thing." As a result, The Gendercator and the world Crouch creates are much more interesting than Sally.

I just want to say here that Crouch seems to think she's made a film in which a butch woman just wants to be butch, not trans. There's nothing wrong with that. I like butch women (a lot). I'm very happy about the existance butch women and don't think anyone should transition unless it's something they're absolutely sure is right for them. I will gladly go see films about butch women who consider but decided not to transition. I will see films that compassionately articulate issues surrounding butch women feeling pressure to be trans. But lesbians and/or butch women don't have to be threatened by trans men, and a film that has to make trans men the enemy doesn't really achieve any sort of actual understanding of gender issues. The problem with the film is not that Sally is not trans and doesn't want to be trans, it's the fact that trans men are in the film portrayed as the enemy and wrong. Transition is portrayed as this horrible thing forced on lesbians by the medical establishment, religious conservatives, and transmen. This is, clearly, an ignorant position. It is possible for butch lesbians to exist without making transmen the enemy, and this film fails to understand that. As a result, it comes across as closer to hate speech against transmen than an articulate portrayal of not being trans.

So, mostly, I'm disappointed by this film. It fails to actually provoke discussion about the real tensions and concerns about being masculine and female and instead repeats an old and uninformed argument allying transgendered people with the religious right and patriarchy, asserting that they are oppressing or betraying lesbians who just want to be butch. I think that there are good things to be said about not being trans, but this film doesn't say them. I also think that there's an interesting undercurrent in this film about the heritage of 1970s lesbian feminism and contemporary issues, and it would be nice to see more dialogue between lesbians who came of age as separatists in the 1970s and younger trans and genderqueer folks. I can't help but wonder what would happen if this film were redone with Crouch working in conjunction with a trans filmmaker to articulate the issues in a way that actually raises intelligent conversation between butch women and trans men. This, sadly, was not it.

As for the discussion, Outfest didn't promote the screening very much, so the audience was mostly trans activists and allies who were upset by the film and the director's statements. They mostly wanted the director to understand why and how they found the film hateful and transphobic, and she didn't seem to be able to hear and understand that. She, understandably, seemed to be very defensive. The audience just wanted to be heard, and as a result, not a lot of real discussion occurred. The panel didn't really get a chance to frame the discussion in the way I would have liked to have seen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Queer Fossils

Queer Fossilization, Or, A Tour Through the Museum of Gay Unnatural Herstories. Outfest. 7/14/07.

This fascinating program of queer shorts is actually, shamefully, the first Outfest screening I've attended in the four years I've lived in LA. Professor Jose Muñoz and performance artist Nao Bustamante curated this program and I found their overall concept and sensibility the strongest part of the evening.

The program began with a live performance by My Barbarian, who performed excerpts from some pieces they recently did in Amsterdam. Their spectactular and irreverent performance style combined with intelligent social/political commentary make them a delight to watch.

The first film of the evening was Nelson & Christina directed by Robert Coddington. It featured footage from 1989 filmed by video artist Nelson Sullivan. It was a compelling document of life and art in the Lower East Side in the 1980s and personally I found this piece exceptionally fascinating. There were appearances by Ethyl Eichelberger and Jayne County and in general the piece captured the feeling of '80s New York as a locus of queer art and performance history, bridging gaps between filmmaking, performance art, and life.

Several of the pieces in the evening, particularly Artist Statement by Daniel Barrow, Dynasty Handbag: The Quiet Storm by Jibz Cameron and Hedia Maron, and Bra Burn by Marget Long, played with the film genre, particularly the relationships between image and text or sound. In these I didn't feel the emphasis on history and archive that was the theme of the evening quite as strongly but they did play with different ideas and uses of technology and the concept of film.

In contrast, Mata Hari directed by Alexis Del Lago felt extremely historical with a 1930s silent film Marlene Dietrich aesthetic.

The final film of the evening was an excerpt from A Family Finds Entertainment by Ryan Trecartin and it was absolutely insane with bright colors and crazy makeup and an innovative spirit. The piece was a only barely decipherable explosion of playful anarchy. It had a chaotic spirit reminiscent of the downtown queer art of the 1970s and 1980s that linked nicely with Nelson & Christina and with the My Barbarian live performance to show a continuity of queer creative spirit and subversion. This piece, though a bit bewildering, was my favorite of the films, but I'm not sure if it would have been if not the context and the reminder of its place in queer herstory. All together, Muñoz and Bustamante put together an exciting program and I very much enjoyed my first Outfest experience. It was delightfully queer in an experimental, nonlinear, creative way.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Perchance to Dream

Dreams have been a recurring theme in my life recently. As in, I've been having really intense dreams that articulate the issues worrying me right now (you know, relationships and work, generally). The kind of dreams that wake me up at 4am. But also, I've apparently been appearing in other people's dreams as well. In the past week, a friend has mentioned that I appeared in his dream - it was one of those random dreams that occurs every once in a while. Totally normal. But the more suprising one was that I got a call out of the blue from an ex-girlfriend saying that she dreamed that she was having my baby. That was disturbing. I have no idea why she would be dreaming about me or about babies. Weird.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Amorphous Number of Questions

So apparently this started by asking the internet 8 questions, but has morphed into random ponderings. I don't usually play such games on this blog, but I don't have much to say right now, so when my beloved roommate tagged me, I figured I might as well. Unfortunately, it's summer and the things I'm pondering at the moment are exceedingly prosaic.

In fact, the major question on my mind at the moment is what I should get a friend for her birthday. She's a friend from college whose birthday is on Wednesday. I've known her since I was 18, had a crush on her before I came out of the closet, and lived with her at various points of my life. She has introduced me to various wonderful things, including the joys of dark chocolate, Sandman comics, and good red wine, but her taste has always been more advanced than mine. She's in the middle of studying for the bar exam, so I never get to see her. And I'm always lousy at getting her presents. She, however, is amazing. For my 21st birthday, she presented me with a young adult novel that went on to become one of my favorite books ever because it so clearly represented her, what she means to me, and conceptions of home and family and Los Angeles that are both exciting and comforting. I still return to that book whenever I'm lonely or homesick and I've given it as a gift to several other people. Last year, she gave me the most adorable tiny, shiny red evening bag that is perfect for the femme that I want to be. How can she understand me so well, and yet I can never think of the perfect thing for her? So, what is the perfect gift for this genius goth-girl-turned-lawyer who means so much to me?

Vying for the top of my list of current concerns is a very messy romantic entanglement that recently blossomed from minor flirtation to downright disaster. I don't need to tell the internet the details, but BB knows all about it and I am pondering it obsessively. Should I do the honorable thing or the thing I want to do? Should I tease? Can I turn away?

Here and away. I should have been done with my dissertation by now. Two of my classmates have finished and walked and I have chosen to remain behind for another year. I'm still within a perfectly reasonable timeframe for finishing, and I have drafts of 3 of 4 body chapters, so I'm not in horrible shape, but I wonder if I made the right decision. As my best friend left last year, and my beloved roommate is packing to leave now, is it productive for me to be staying in the same place? Am I being left behind and alone? Who will I tell my problems to now? Am I a bit of a failure to be very steadfastly single and underemployed at this point in my life and will these things ever change? Will I be able to finish and get a job? Will I be able to withstand moving alone to a new place?

Retro-fabulous. Is retro-affectation something that's really happening or something that I just see because I'm looking? Are we living in the 50s? Did Cold War politics every really go away? Do I really have something to say about this? Is it worthwhile to be looking? And do I like to wear 50s style dresses because of my research or is that something that evolved independently? Is it just me? How does it relate to queerness? What does that say about me?

Theater. Why am I feeling uninterested and unispired by LA theater right now? Is there really nothing good going on or is it me? Where are the exciting queer things I should be seeing? Is it because it's summer?

Reading. My roommate doesn't read fiction, except for the occasional trashy novel he picks up in the airport for plane flights. Me, I read fiction constantly, obsessively sometimes. I just reread Harry Potter 5 (to prepare for the movie). I read sci-fi and queer lit and mystery novels and young adult novels and all sorts of other things. And I love it. If a friend is reading something I've ever considered reading, I will often pick it up so I can discuss it with them. Is this bad for me? Should I be spending my time reading dissertation-related non-fiction instead? Why can't I convince myself when I want to settle down with a good book that something academic is just as interesting as the trashy things that I end up reading instead? Why do all the non-fiction books I buy because they sound interesting and fun sit on my shelves unread or used only as reference when I'll read and reread novels that I like?

OK, that feels like a good number of ponderings thrown out into the universe. If there are any brilliant thoughts or answers or reciprocal ponderings out there, I'd love to hear them, but I don't really feel the need to tag anyone.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Rats in the Kitchen

Ratatouille. Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios. 7/2/07.

Spoilers in this one: Read a proper review instead if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know what happens; they're all pretty much glowing.

Ratatouille may be the most complex, detailed, visually stimulating animated movie I have ever seen. Throughout the film I was intellectually and critically engaged, while marvelling at the beautiful visual imagery and the amazing detail of every scene. As I'm sure you know, Ratatouille is the story of a rat who wants to be a chef, so he teams up with a clumsy kitchen underling who is "good at looking human" to be his beard. Remy, the rat, provides the artistic genius while human Alfredo Linguini provides the manual labor. Reviews offerBrad Bird extensive and well-deserved praise as the creative genius behind this film about artistic creation.

First and foremost, this movie is sensory delight. Action sequences feature amazing clarity and exhilarating sense of motion, while the details of the individual characters, human and rat, are rendered in impecable specificity. Color and texture delight the eye, while the depiction of tastes and scents through sight and sound translate the pleasures of the kitchen into the pleasures of spectatorship.

Besides taking joy in art of all kinds, Ratatouille takes a firm stand about relationships to food and the importance of cooking, with the evil producer and marketer of frozen food as the unmitigated villian of the piece. The film emphatically and repeatedly states "anyone can cook," implying that everyone should, despite the fact that Remy's cooking skills are at least partially the result of an innate gift (his sense of smell). This tension between cooking as inherent genius and as an art that everyone should practice paralells the tension between the inherent snootiness of haute cuisine in a Parisian restaurant and the conception of cooking as tasting fresh, simple foods and putting them together. Even the signature ratatouille of the film is a simple vegetable dish evokative of peasant fare and home cooking. While the film aims to be accessible, it does ultimately preach that everyone (even rats) can and should appreciate the finest of cuisine.

Ratatouille even featured small bits of feminism in the form of the only real female character, Colette. Voiced by Janeane Garofalo, Colette calls attention to the inequality of the professional kitchen in which she has to work twice as hard and be tough as nails. Besides, who doesn't love a girl with purple hair and sharp knives?

As an aspiring critic myself, I found the film's approach to criticism provokative. The food critic character Anton Ego initally appears stuffy and evil, shut off from the world in his coffin-shaped room, as emphasized in Stephanie Zacharek's review and this over the top portrayal initially made me dismiss the character. He delights in giving restaurants negative reviews and glories in his power to destroy careers and reputations. But Ego also receives something close to the final word in the movie as he gives an extended glowing review, transformed by the power of excellent food. Of course, he's also transformed from food critic to investor, but I'd like to believe that the movie offers the opportunity for the interpretation that it is possible for a critic to support the arts and influence the field positively by praising skill and talent wherever it is found. Of course, this is reading a bit against the grain of the film, which vaguely suggests that anyone who isn't a great artist isn't really living. But really, as my brilliant roommate pointed out on the ride home from the movie theater, what other children's movie offers any kind of commentary on the role of the critic in modern society? Even if it's skeptical, Ratatouille asks important questions about the role of criticism in art that every critic should ponder on occasion.

Overall, the movie was wonderfully complex and layered, engaging me critically as often as it made me laugh aloud. I'm not sure I entirely agree with its ideology, which characterizes humanity as superiour beings because they make things. While it's possible for a rat to be upwardly-mobile, only an extremely gifted rat can do so; to be a rat is still to be a thief wallowing in garbage, a literal underclass lacking in gustatory sensibilities (though they do listen to music apparently). I'm immediately suspicious of this sense of the inherently superior young man (or rat) who is destined for great things.

Monday, June 25, 2007

On femme lit

Like Son. Felicia Luna Lemus. New York: Akashic Books, 2007.

I feel a little behind the times talking about T. Cooper and Felicia Luna Lemus. Even though I purchased both Lipschitz Six and Like Son months ago, I just got around to them now as the summer reading bug hit me. In the meantime, both authors of this literary power couple have achieved a little bit of well-deserved notariety, exemplified by this interview on Queeerty and a photo spread in Curve Magazine. All of which served to demonstrate to me that these two are one hot couple. Seriously. I want to pin up the Curve photos of them in my room so I can drool. But for all their hotness as a couple, their books each deserve individual attention and not much good is served by comparing them, so I will try to talk about Like Son on its own.

And, independent of all other thoughts and issues, Like Son kept my attention and made me want to keep reading. While it may not be the perfect book, it made me happy because it captured an attitude toward feminity that resonated with me. I didn't exactly love or identify with the main character, who is a disaffected punk transguy. I believe the character is interesting and well-crafted, but somehow he didn't feel right to me. He wasn't the heart and soul of the novel, even though he was the main character, and that in itself is a fascinating literary choice. The power and excitement in Like Son lies in its female characters, the mysterious historical figure of Nahui Olin, a bohemian artist and poet from Mexico City in the 1920s and 1930s and the equally mysterious figure of Nathalie, the protagonist's beautifully femme girlfriend.

For me, the utterly brilliant scene that exemplifies this book at its best occurs when the protagonist, Frank, first meets Nathalie. Within the story, "meeting Nathalie was like being hit by a force of nature" (98), but that held true for me as well. Lemus' depiction of this unique, flawed, creatively glamorous woman seduced me from the first hint of her appearance, foreshadowed by the narrator's revelation that "I can't tell you how many times I later wished I could go back to warn my naive self: Yes, she will be complicated. And yes, it'll be hot. But seriously, fool, brace yourself. Loving her will be the hardest thing you'll ever know"(32). From her first appearance, Nathalie is all colors and scents and textures and layers of femninity: "I smelled her breath as she laughed. Bergamot and peppermint and just a hint of expensive vodka. She had on this wrinkeld vintage Ginger Rogers copper-orange ballroom gown, teetering faux-leopard fur open-toe platform heels, and a rust-colored rabbit fur jacket -- an outfit that would have looked like costumed ridiculous on anybody else, but on her was just right. Her flyaway auburn hair was a tangled mess of a Vargas girl updo. Her perfume was incredibly sweet, almost too sweet, like rice milk about to turn" (99). As the relationship between Frank and Nathalie develops, she somehow remains distant and mysterious, her actions inexplicable but alluring. Thoughout the book, I want to know more about her, understand her motivations, hear the story from her perspective. In many ways, though I don't really identify with Frank on a personal level, I am drawn into his fascination with this woman and placed in his position and that is a beautiful experience.

The thing is, I don't want to be Frank. I want to be Nathalie. Like Son is one of a few books that fosters and inspires my own femininity. As I was reading it, I felt more and more inspired to play up and play with my own femininity. I find myself wearing more skirts and dresses, putting on more makeup for going out, lusting after new clothes. It's the kind of book that inspires me to enjoy femininity, layering on too much glitter and gold nail polish and wacky accessories. Reading this book made me want to be more femme.

The character of Nathalie, with Nahui Olin as her historical referent, is a magnificent femme captured in a way that I rarely find in novels, and I'm sad that it's Frank that gets to do all the talking about her. I'd love to hear her voice more. It makes me want to think, though, about books I've read in the past. It seems that there would be many great novels in which a man (or woman, really) meets and is mesmerized by a woman so that she becomes the center of the novel, though without a voice of her own. But I can't necessarily think of examples. Perhaps Lolita? And are there novels with femme voices? When do you get to hear the perspective of women consciously cultivating feminity? What other books might make me feel femme? Or does writing about femininity instantly devolve into chick lit obsessed with men and shopping? Can a powerful femme character be the center of the novel, or does she become something else when the story is told from her perspective and she can no longer be mysterious? Are there queer femme fiction writers out there I should be reading?

Anyway, I may be missing the point of the book, since it really is also a beautiful and engaging story of a queer masculine protagonist fighting toward maturity and learning to leave his personal and imagined history behind. I loved Like Son and I'm decidedly inspired to find more queer femme writing if I can. I will immediately be reading Lemus' first book, Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, even though I'm highly skeptical about the phrase "dyke princess" which appears in several of the blurbs about the book. But I'll gladly take recommendations of other femme writing. I'd love to find more books that feel as beautiful and resonant and inspiring in queer ways as this one did.

Another good year of Fresh Meat

Fresh Meat. ODC Theater. 6/15/07.

Fresh Meat once again delivers a fabulous collection of performances by transgender artists. The show was well organized (except for the obnoxious bit where they sold out, had a huge line, and started the show about 15 minutes late) and, for once, didn't feel too long. It was heavily dance-focused with performance of Afro-Colombian dance by Columbian Soul, aerial acrobatics by Michael Chernus-Goldstein, and hip hop by Freeplay Dance Crew in addition to an extensive new piece entitled "Bully" by the festival's artistic director, Sean Dorsey. In the realm of music, the fabulous Shawna Virago performed delightfully provokative rock 'n' roll and Triple Threat Taiko were adorable and extremely powerful. But I'll focus on the performance art/theater type pieces, since that's what I know best.

I was impressed by Imani's Henry's performance of single monologue that was an excerpt from a larger work about slavery. I believe it's a scene from "Living in the Light" but I seem to have misplaced my program during the trip home from San Francisco, so the information I have is less accurate than it should be. The piece Henry performed was beautifully self-contained and coherent, while opening up to and suggesting the longer work. In it, he referenced himself as trans briefly by talking about himself as a young black girl, but that was in no way the focus of the performance. The excerpt was intellectually dense and engaging and definitely made me want to see the Henry's whole show.

ryka aoki de la cruz debuted a new piece of performance art called "≤1" (less than or equal to one). It was a piece that I look forward to seeing ryka perform again - it was intensly emotional and complex and funny at times and I think it will evolve in performance in good ways.

Sean Dorsey's "Bully" may have been the highlight of the evening for me. It's a lovely, poignant new work about bullying and queer friendship that will eventually be performed as part of a longer work called Untold Stories. Dorsey performs this piece with two other men, which I found interesting because I had only seen him partnering with women before. His work continues to employ lifts and mirroring to eloquently express the ways that people interact. The bullying felt most violent and violating to me in one moment that the dancer playing the bully character touched Dorsey's chest and hips, drawing attention to the feminine parts of Dorsey's masculine body. While the narrative of the piece describes much more dangerous violence, it was this move early in the performance that emphasized the sense of physical violation created by bullying for me. Dorsey's combination of music, choreography, and narrative continues to impress and engage me and I highly recommend this powerful work.

Overall, I had a highly entertaining evening at Fresh Meat, and I'm very glad I attended. Look for more great work by all of these artists throughout the year.