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.