Monday, February 25, 2008

Books: Sarah, by JT LeRoy

Over the opening pages of Sarah, I was breathless. I was startled, shocked, thrilled, horrified, and generally flabbergasted. The writing wasn't good, by any literary standard, but it was so piquantly bad that it was hard to believe that it was accidentally (or incidentally) so. I had read a tiny bit about the Who is JT LeRoy? scandal (indeed, that's why I had even heard of the book and decided to read it), and I wondered whether the writing was actually brilliantly bad, a kind of po-mo mock up of the fetishization of punk-rock-sparkle-crackhos that seems to appeal to the 14-19 year old alternative set these days. As the book wore on, the magic wore off (rather quickly), and I dropped the torch I carry for all writers of fiction.

If you don't quite know what I'm talking about, here's the controversy in a nutshell (Wikipedia outlines it much more thoroughly): Sarah is the breakout novel, published in 1999, of an author who had published short stories in a variety of publications, including the online erotic magazine Nerve, under the name of "Terminator," but was now (or so it seemed) giving up his nome de plume for his actual name, JT LeRoy (the "T" is for Terminator). In 2006, the New York Times (which wasn't the first finger pointer, but perhaps the biggest finger) told the world that JT LeRoy was yet another nome de plume, for one Laura Albert (born 15 years earlier than JT supposedly had been, and apparently woman identifying (at least to some extent) as a boy, rather than a boy identifying as a girl, as the constructed JT did, as explained in his read-as-memoir novel Sarah). Meanwhile, if you google JT LeRoy today, the first thing that comes up is a website (dare I say "his" website?), which conforms to the pre-cat-out-of-the-bag biography: JT was born a boy in 1980 to a hooker mother, sold his body for gay sex at a variety of Southern truck stops, arrived in California when he was fourteen, and now writes and sings in a rock band. There's an online diary, a blog about the band, including concert dates, and a hotmail address where you can email le Terminator. If you hang around the home page long enough to scroll down (there aren't any visual cues that you should, because all the links are up top), you'll find a link to "JT LeRoy's Blog By Sarah Albert," but if you never scroll down, you'll never see that woman's name.

I'm less interested in the concepts/tropes of nome de plume and constructed identity, and more interested in the workings of the wrathful reading machine (as soon as the JT LeRoy scandal broke, everyone felt like talking about James Frey again); that's why I decided to read Sarah (not out of a morbid curiosity about what it's like to be an adolescent gay truck stop prostitute, surprisingly). After reading the book, what's most surprising is not the wrath of the reading machine (although in my opinion, if a writer of fiction writes such good fiction that the readers think it's real, then that's just damned good fiction; unlike Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Sarah is billed as a novel, not a memoir), but its gullibility. The reading machine is so prurient, so lascivious, and so repressed—in fact so Victorian—that it consistently latches onto tales of young people's woe, and the more beatings, the more homelessness, the more vulgarity, and the more sex, the better.

Albert hands that shit to the populace on a Tiffany's silver platter, and if the reading machine, including such illustrious figures as poet Sharon Olds, were so blindsided by the glittery grime of Albert's "raccoon penis bones" and "pump knot" soakings* to notice the extreme incongruity of the casually-mentioned items off his truck stop's menu ("liver with crème fraîche strudel," "walnut tart tatin," "calf liver reduction sauce on fresh corn ragout," and "cider-cured spit-roasted pork loin with sweet vidalia onion puree," never mind the "osetra caviar dressing" or the "miso-butter poached chard," then they are total idiots who deserve to be "hoaxed" (or, in my opinion, simply let down).

Hindsight may be 20/20, but it seems to me that only a completely naive tween (that is, one who hadn't read any serious literature at all, and not even seen enough movies to identify the narrative tropes of bildungsroman, the hero and his quest for the holy grail, the gothic tradition of imprisonment of the young innocent by the evil uncle upon orphanage, etc. etc. ad inf.) wouldn't recognize that this book was 98% pure, constructed fiction (and not very original at that, aside from a few fun slangy bits contained mostly in the first few pages). I could believe that it was written by someone only two years older than I am; the fact that it's written by someone actually 17 years older makes it, in fact, better (assuming that it's more difficult for an adult to get into an adolescent's persona than a teen to do same), or worse (assuming that a writer in her forties is less forgivable than one in his late teens for writing a novel that, ultimately, is racked with clichés, unless, of course, that forty-something writer is particularly conscious of those clichés—if they are intentional, and crucial to the illusion of the narrator. I want to believe that Albert is that clever, but I have my doubts. Based on the back-story of the "hoax"—the fact that Albert spent hours on the phone posing as LeRoy with other writers, musicians, editors, and all varieties of new "friends," I sense in her the same fragility and need for approval "worn on the sleeve" of her narrator in Sarah. I'd like to think that she's a wicked clever, elusive post-modernist, but she's probably just (another) fucked-up romantic, and immature to boot. How tedious.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Books: Warlock, by Oakley Hall

Let's not waste any more time weighing No Country For Old Men against (the clearly superior) There Will Be Blood, complaining that Casey Affleck had his rightful Oscar snatched away from him despite his weird and brilliant performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or bemoaning the fact that I missed out on 3:10 to Yuma in the theater, which I never really wanted to see anyway. The only western that I really want to see hasn't been made (at least, not the way it probably needs to be made—there is a 1959 version that I now must see starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda). Forget Cormac McCarthy. It's all about Oakley Hall.

I hadn't ever heard of Hall, nor his book Warlock (which sounds deceptively Fantastic) until I read Thomas Pynchon's introduction to Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. The two authors knew each other in college, and both adored and found inspiration in Oakley Hall's Warlock. Pynchon may not be my favorite author, but I've read every one of his novels (except Against the Day, which is on my list), and while I ended up not liking Fariña very much, Pynchon's endorsement was enough to make me add Warlock to my list. And I ended up liking it much better than anything by Fariña, Pynchon, and most any other man who wrote a novel in the mid-to-late 20th century. It's brilliant.

Mind you, I've never read a Western before, and furthermore never thought I wanted to read one. I didn't know that the deceptively-named Warlock even was a Western until I opened it up and saw the little gun wingdings gracing the top of the first page. And yet, Warlock is without the campy trappings I so dislike in Westerns (which are, let's face it, Romances for boys); instead, it's spare and raw and real, like a clean, shiny bone that's been chewed on for a while. Hall's good guys have inner weaknesses, and his bad guys do, too—that is to say, his characters (unlike No Country's infuriating Anton Chigurh) are human. . . really human. Whether a character is a rustler, a bar owner, a gambler, a deputy, a judge, or a whore, motivations are not black-and-white, and the concomitant existential pain eradicates differences (for the reader, that is—not within the confines of plot, although more philosophical realizations are made than one might expect for a Western).

Warlock itself—the lawless mining settlement which these characters inhabit—embodies the same existential crisis as its inhabitants: a need for definition, and recognition. It's in the midst of major growing pains, and the novel is as much a bildungsroman of a city (in fact, our country) as of the not-quite-protagonist John Gannon (who, in the movie, will definitely need to be played by Casey Affleck). In Warlock, the tensions between law and order versus freedom, profit versus humanitarianism, and pride versus ethics are taut, and give the novel its intense, page-burning vibration, low-pitch, but loud (like a cello rather than a violin). Hall so organically addresses these issues that we begin to see the cracks in today's America not only as fissures grown from our country's particular history, but (and even more darkly) from the human condition in general; as the alcoholic and misanthropic Judge says toward the novel's end, "We will fight fire with futile water or with savage fire to the end of this earth itself, and never prevail, and we will drown in our water and burn in our preventative fire. How can men live, and know that in the end they will merely die?" I don't know that Oakley Hall gives us any hope, but I don't know that I wanted any, either. After all, it would probably be false. Like the people of Warlock, we all do whatever best we can, never knowing, like sometimes narrator Henry Goodpasture, whether we made the right value judgements or decisions, and having to yield to old age and death either way. Warlock, though it eventually gets its legal charter, nevertheless ends up an abandoned ghost town.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Movies: Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton: a perfectly serviceable film that everyone kind of wanted to see, but not enough to actually make them go see it. I, too, saw the trailer long ago and said to myself, oh, yes, I'll see that, but then never quite got around to it until the night before the Oscars (and I doubt that most people even made it by then. Honestly, it's a drama (hard enough to bring the crowds out for that) about lawyers. Starring George Clooney, but come on, he hasn't been People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive since 2006, and the average moviegoer gets bored fast. Plus, there's no sex—not even one kiss!—so who cares?

The fact of the matter is that Michael Clayton felt like a lot of George Clooney movies (it was surprisingly similar to the Oceans movies, except set in a New York law firm instead of a Vegas casino, and with a neurotic type A executrix instead of buxom honey): excellently filmed, cleanly scripted, proficiently acted, satisfyingly moraled, and kind of dispassionate. Considering that the entire plot circles around an attorney who's gone off the deep end (expertly played (as always) by Tom Wilkinson), one might expect some passion. But while the audience certainly sees Wilkinson accurately portraying passion, we don't get all that jazzed up. We just feel the kind of reticent smug-ness that George Clooney/Danny Ocean constantly emanates.

Which brings me around to the moral behind the movie: it's kind of heavy-handed. Corporations are bad and little people on farms are their innocent victims; corporate lawyers are bad, mood-stabilizing medications (produced by pharmaceutical corporations!) are bad, and only those who step outside of the box can save and be saved. I don't think that the points made are not valid, but I do think that they are rather. . . shall I say unproblematized? I don't demand that movies be realistic, or fair, or intelligent, but if you are marketing yourself as such, you ought to realize that your thinking audience is going to expect a well-shaded, somewhat nuanced argument. Otherwise, your audience is going to walk out feeling a bit dispassionate.

To problematize my own argument, I will point out that a certain amount of dispassion is absolutely integral to the film's plot and tone, and that all of that dispassion is simmering under the flesh of the brilliantly sweaty Tilda Swinton, who manifests precisely the reasons why I decided not to be what I once thought that I wanted to be (that is, a neurotic type A executrix). I didn't recognize her from any other movie I had seen before, so was even more impressed when I saw her in "real life" at the Oscars, and saw the intensity of the transformation.* Swinton's lid-on-a-pot-boiling-over intensity aside, the film is, as I said at the beginning, simply serviceable. A little more gray area (no jokes about Clooney's hair, now) could have made it great.

*Explanatory digression: Some actors and actresses (like, I think I'm arguing herein, George Clooney) always exude themselves, no matter how strong their performance is. Cate Blanchett is a brilliant Bob Dylan, but she's still Cate Blanchett the whole time. . . the only time I've ever seen her almost not Cate Blanchett is in Coffee & Cigarettes, when she plays two versions of herself having a conversation, one much more Cate-ish than the other.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Art: Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim

Once again, I'm hesitant to write a response to something I've seen. I can't say that I understood, or much liked, what I saw at the opening of the Guggenheim's Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective, and I feel somewhat unqualified to write about it. Frankly, I'm probably unqualified to write half the nonsense I write here, and I will therefore get over myself, presently, and tell you what I saw and what I didn't feel, and why that was a problem.

The Guggenheim's spiraling gallery (if you've never been there, imagine yourself walking up through the tube of a giant compact fluorescent bulb) is an odd space that lends itself quite well to some art, and quite poorly to other (the Rosenquist retrospective was a disaster; his long, flat panels awkwardly popped off of the curving walls). Most of Cai's work suits the space; three-dimensional installations that the viewer either walks through or along-with are lent some sort of movement-imperative by the museum's ever-curving ramp, and the central installation, involving the suspended bodies of nine identical compact cars in an upwardly-cascading spiral, is the most absolute use of the museum's central space I've seen.

The four or five pieces that take the most space are probably the ones making the biggest impressions on the audience. There is, of course, the aforementioned car "explosion;" the suspended vehicles, turned upright then sideways then upside-down and so forth, spit tubes of blinking lights that simulate fireworks. Then, there are is a parade of stuffed tigers, each stuck with hundreds of wooden arrows (PETA, fear not, no actual tigers were harmed in the making of this imitation-taxidermy). A Chinese scroll painting of a parade of tigers in suspended motion accompanies the piece; we are to infer that Cai is contemporizing and sculpturizing the traditional genre of scroll painting, and, like I said, the space of the museum works well to this end. The next memorable piece, as the audience marches up the ramp, is another group of imitation-taxidermy; this time wolves, running, in a pack. They run up into the air, so that at the piece's beginning, they are on the ground with us, and near the end, they are suspended above our heads. At that point, they charge head-first into a glass wall and fall to the ground in a writhing mass, snipping and snarling at each other. (This piece was created for a commission by Deutsche Bank. If you don't see the criticism inherent in the metaphor, I can't help you. I would have liked to see Deutsche Bank's response included in the show.) After the mitigation of stuffed animals, we begin to walk through a parade of unfinished figurative sculptures: old Chinese men carrying sacks, old Chinese women bent at the waist and digging in the dirt, etc. (everyone is laboring, and everyone has a bent back). You wouldn't know that it is a re-creation of Cai's recreation of an often-re-created piece of propagandistic, pro-Communism sculpture unless you had a personal volunteer tour guide, as I did. His original recreation was for the Venice Biennale in 1999; he won a prize. In this iteration of the piece, the sculptures are unfinished, and the higher up the ramp we march, the less finished they are, so that at the end of the piece, we see only wire and wooden frames. The last piece I'll mention in particular is in a separate gallery from the spiral, where the floor is flat. Amongst a menage of other, smaller pieces, a standing canal has been erected to wind through the room, in which a tiny boat, big enough for one person to sit in while he pushes himself from one end of the canal to the other, gripping the sides of the canal, floats. Visitors are welcome to take a spin, and are escorted by two uniformed museum guards. The effect is part Disneyland, part detention center.

The rest of the show (it's quite a sizable one) consists mostly of work relating to what Cai might be most famous for: explosions. Since it would be impractical (to say the least) to recreate Cai's explosions, which are usually done out in the middles of giant fields, in the gallery, the curators have instead included a large number of Cai's gunpowder "paintings," which are studies of a sort for those big, outdoor explosions. On canvas and rice paper, Cai has made small explosions with gunpowder, leaving brown patterns burnt into the surface; he also scrawls handwritten notes on these pieces, recalling the elusive Cy Twombly. These pictures are basically tedious, and fairly repetitive.

Ultimately, for all of its flash (and all the money and man hours that go into each piece), Cai's work leaves me feeling pretty empty. I can appreciate certain tropes—appropriation, re-creation, etc.—but I can't, for the life of me, find an over-arching reason for Cai's work—an explanation of what makes it art rather than entertainment, an adherence to a coherent theory of what art is or should be (decoration, political commentary, "cool" experience, etc.) While I am more than hesitant to invoke the word "inscrutable" to describe the work of anyone of Asian descent, thanks to a long history of sickness-inducing racist associations, the seemingly-random assortment of small pieces in the separate gallery (the one with the canal) warrants no other term: snakes in a basket, dangling sculptures of crudely-carved wooden putti and bodhisattvas, anatomical diagrams—is there some personal mythology in which these objects have some greater meaning?

While my personal tastes are often that of the proverbial throwback (I hanker after quattrocento religious painting), I feel as though I have a fairly evolved and open mind when it comes to looking at modern and contemporary art. I'm not particularly mad about political art, but I can accept that some art is political, and discern good political art from bad. I'm not particularly mad about minimalist sculpture, but I can look at it, and often even enjoy it; I prefer Judd to Andre, and Andre to Smith. I don't love land art, but I bet Spiral Jetty is pretty rad in real life (as opposed to in pictures, which is how most everyone experiences it). My point is that art doesn't need to be beautiful, or political, or historical, or in any other way meaningful for me to enjoy it. It just has to get me: preferably in the gut, but via the brain is acceptable as well. Cai doesn't get me at all: not in the gut, not in the brain, not in the eye. It's not funny; it's not pretty; it's not edifying; it's not condemning (except for maybe the piece with the wolves, which is the best thing in the show, despite the fact that it's a bit heavy-handed). Walking through this retrospective is something like walking through a carnival as a jaded adult, when none of the fried food smells good, none of the rides look exciting, and none of the people look attractive. That is to say, rather tedious.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Movies: Step Up 2: The Streets

In a failed attempt to convince a friend to watch this with me, who asked, "what is it about?" I named a variety of unenticing prospects: teenagers, dancing, rap, and a dental floss-thin plot line. Of course, all of these were actually extremely enticing to me, and each of the non-white tweens in the school-holiday matinee audience as well, and not a one of us was disappointed (so long as we didn't think too hard about it afterward).

I am sorry to say that I haven't actually seen the original Step Up, but I am assured that none of the characters reprise in The Streets. The dental floss-thin plot of the sequel is as follows: Andie (Briana Evigan—much less annoying than Julia Stiles pretending to dance in Save the Last Dance (in which she is equally unconvincing as ballerina and hip-hopster), but still a bit. . . preppy) happens to be white, but grew up in the less white part of Baltimore, and therefore has been hanging out with some "hooligans" (actually, a pretty off the hook dance crew that occasionally engages in a bit of social pranksterism) that call themselves the four-one-oh. Her guardian can't deal with her anymore, and is about to send her off to live with her aunt in Texas when a friend intervenes and convinces said guardian to give Andie one more chance—if she enrolls in the dance program at the local school of the arts. Here, Andie is momentarily ridiculed for not being able to dance inside the box, but Chase (yes, Chase, danced by Robert Hoffman), the hottest boy in school (who also happens to be the best dancer, and is, believe-it-or-not, straight) has a thing for her, and talks her into starting her own crew when the 410 kicks her out for missing rehearsals. It turns out that there are a few outside-the-box students at their school, who readily join up and start rehearsing. The prepsters prank the 410, and the 410 retaliates, in true ghetto fashion, by busting up the dance studio at the school, and then busting up Chase's face and ribs in a little midnight 3-on-1 brawl. Andie gets expelled for her involvement in the shenanigans that led to the graffiti on the walls of the smashed-up studio. But, the night of the big competition at the club (called "The Streets"), the prepsters come together to remind the 410 and everyone else what the streets are really about: dancing. In the rain.

So let's talk about the dance sequences, since the plot is basically negligible. The movie opens with a kind of surprise performance: a bunch of random people get on the subway—an old lady, a young thug, a woman with a baby, and executive, etc. Then, one by one, they don masks and start dancing, in a potentially ominous, in-your-face kind of way. They taunt the other passengers, do flips, and basically totally fucking rock out. I wish I saw that shit on the subway. Damn. The next off the chain dance sequence (I'm skipping the less-than-awesome dance sequences, FYI) is the prank that Andie's new crew has videotaped and posted on YouTube, where the 410 watches it: to the Digital Underground's rap classic The Humpty Dance, the members of Andie's crew, wearing funny disguises, follow Tuck (Black Thomas) around and dance behind him without his noticing. Then they sneak into his house and leave a smelly fish behind. It's a pretty brilliant prank. And the dancing, while not virtuoso and gymnastic, is more subtly hilarious and interesting. At this time, a massive shout out must go to Adam Sevani, who plays the nerdy Moose, and who is hands down the best (and most liquid) dancer in the film.

The other two major dance sequences are of course at the end: the 410's show-stopping performance inside the club, which doesn't appear top-able, and the prepster's climactic performance outside of the club—in the streets!—in the rain, in the dark, with little lights, which of course tops the 410. But because these dance numbers are a bit more typical, I will at this point move my area of focus to issues of race, which had slowly been creeping up on me throughout the movie, but completely revealed themselves here: for all of its glorification of hip-hop and b-boying (that is, breakdancing, if you're so white you don't know), this is a movie for white people. Not because the protagonist is white, or because her love interest is white, or because the members of her crew are ambiguously bi-racial rather than as black and Puerto Rican as the members of the 410. Because, during the medley of songs that play during the prepsters' final number, we hear guitars. It's that post-metal pop that's so appealing to all those white people out in the middle of America, playing, interspersed with rap, while the white kids dance in the rain, showing the black kids how it's done.

That's a disappointing 180 from my favorite part of the movie, which has nothing to do with dancing at all: the fight in which the white boy gets his comeuppance. Although the same old racial stereotypes are being reinforced, I had to give a bit of a war whoop. Here's how it goes down: after a fun-filled fiesta, Chase (aka white boy) is walking home. A car pulls up, and Tuck and two of his buddies from the 410 get out. Words are exchanged (you might want to be aware of some jealousy subtext—Tuck seems to have once either dated or at least wanted to date Andie), and Chase tells his thuggish antagonists to step off. He says (can you believe it?) "I'll see you at The Streets," referring, of course, to that big dance competition. And then, the best part: "This is the streets [motherfucker!]" That's right, Tuck. No fucking kidding. Dumb-ass white folks, think they know anything about the streets.

Tuck punches Chase in the face, knocks him down on the floor, and kicks his ribs in, with the help of his accomplices, demonstrating what the streets are really about. Now, I'm not one for gratuitous violence, nor for the un-problematized enactments of racial stereotypes. Plus, I'm a white girl who listens to rap and goes to hip hop dance classes and watches movies like Step Up 2. And I'm not self-hating. And yet, it's good to see a posh white kid getting schooled for mindlessly appropriating the affects of contemporary urban black culture.

I'm not saying whites shouldn't listen to rap (they should) or dance hip hop (they should), but they really ought to have a little. . . not shame, exactly. . . not reverence, quite. . . but maybe deference. Just a little bit. Some gratitude. Some fucking respect. And the people who made this movie should have had enough respect not to include retarded post-metal pop in the climactic scene, even if the movie's target market is middle America. Because there's a bunch of black tweens in that audience, too, and how are they supposed to have any pride if they see their own culture being scooped up, hollowed out, and refilled with whipped cream?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Movies: Hoop Dreams

I'm less a fan of basketball than the hair and fashion trends of the urban African American community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Luckily, Hoop Dreams offers plenty of this (and enough basketball to entertain my movie-watching pal, who played high school basketball and lived in Chicago (though not simultaneous), and who was therefore very helpful to have at hand for real-time basketball and Chicago explanations); it came out in 1994, but follows two high school boys for more than four years. At the beginning of the movie, one is wearing teal and purple biker shorts. Don't deny that you owned teal and purple biker shorts in the 1980s. You did, and you thought they were hot.

The two boys, both middle school graduates at the beginning of the film, are recruited off the cracked neighborhood blacktop to attend a prestigious Catholic high school three hours away from their homes (one in the projects, the other in what appeared to be Section Eight housing) in the inner city—via public transportation, of course. One is skinny and lithe, and hasn't hit his growth spurt yet; he moves like a dancer on the court. He seems to come from a supportive family—mom, dad, sister, brother. The other clearly has hit his growth spurt; he looks like a linebacker and plays basketball like a bull. He doesn't have a father, but his older brother (who had also dreamed of playing for the NBA, but who now works as a security guard, and has put on some weight) is something of a mentor for him, at least on the court, where we see them playing together, and his mom seems quite involved in his life as well.

Although, as high school freshmen, they are working at a fourth-grade level, both boys are offered full scholarships to the prestigious "St. Joe's" (Joseph), where the basketball coach once coached Isiah Thompson (he won't let you or anyone forget that, either—the school hallways have an Isiah shrine; Isiah comes to speechify to the new students in the gym, and the coach constantly compares his new players to Isiah. My movie-watching pal made a point of cursing Isiah Thompson each time we had to see his image or hear his name; if we had been in a public place, onlookers might have thought she had Tourrette's). Unfortunately, after one year, the more slender of the two boys (who started on the junior varsity team, while the other went straight to varsity) still hasn't hit his growth spurt, and isn't playing well enough to warrant his scholarship. His parents can't afford the tuition (especially now that his father has walked out on the family thanks to a crack cocaine addiction, and his mother can't work because of (an invisible) back injury, and the welfare isn't enough to pay the bills, and the electrical company shuts off their lights and gas), and so he transfers to the local public school, and joins the team there.

So things might look up for one player and down for another, but by senior year (that is, by flat-tops with fades), the tables have turned—the St. Joe's player has sustained a knee injury (we get to watch a surgeon pull out his meniscus and throw it on the operating table), and his playing is suffering; the team doesn't win the championships (the coach huffs and puffs and looks like he's having a coronary every thirty seconds). Meanwhile, the other player has finally grown taller, and scores the winning points for his team's key game; his career is looking a lot more promising, and his father has meanwhile found Jesus and come back to the family, and mom has graduated from nursing school and will presumably be working again. Before graduation, the college recruitment gets hot and heavy (thought not ending up quite as well as the two players could have hoped (or as well as it went for Isiah)), but both end up getting accepted into college on scholarship (a massive feat in and of itself, considering the fact that one has to take the ACT five times to score the minimum score of 18 (out of possible 36—wikipedia places 18 in the 32nd percentile), and already has one baby and another on the way).

It's impossible not to watch this movie and see only race relations, and to shake your head in disgust to see a wealthy school, Catholic nonetheless—hypocrites!—toss a needy kid back into the ghetto they've just plucked him from once the investment appears to be paying poor returns. I myself attended a wealthy Catholic high school, and while the majority of the students were upper middle class, intellectually-inclined whites and asians, there were a handful of disturbingly tall black men in my class who, I noticed, were not the brightest kids in class (don't mark me as a racist—we also had a number of very white, very dumb men in my class, but they played sports as well—and, before you accuse me of being anti-jock, I will conclude by noting that there were a few very tall, very brainy men on our basketball team), and so this practice is not completely foreign to me (though it is completely distasteful). But race aside, I'm still uncertain as to why sports and schools are in any way related, and why there isn't simply a junior and pre-junior feeder league into the NBA that isn't NCAA (maybe I'm so anti-jock that I think there shouldn't be one) or high-school level basketball.

It's not any more frustrating to see thirteen-year-old boys dreaming about playing in the NBA (to the demise of their studies) than it is to see them dreaming about being actors or rock stars (also to the demise of their studies). And I don't think that schools shouldn't offer extra-curricular activities and have holistic admissions policies. But these admissions practices aren't holistic; and as we see, St. Joe's cares nothing for the whole person. I don't know who frustrated me more—the blustering coach, or the my-welfare-check-doesn't-cover-electricity mom; one is evil, and one is stupid. It's a dangerous combination, and it's stunning enough that the lithe young player made it out at all.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Books: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

Not only is Edith Wharton the first female author I haven't loathed in quite some time, she is also the first author of a certain genre and period (circa Henry James) I haven't loathed either.

Perhaps it's because she recognizes the obscene frivolity of her protagonist (and her protagonist's entire "set"), and yet refrains from outright criticism, instead playing our expectations for the genre (the marriage novel) against turn-of-the-century cultural realities (like the rise of socially-accepted divorce and quick remarriage) and, perhaps more importantly, the existential crisis particular to women prior to their eligibility for employment.

Undine Spragg is a vivacious beauty with not much in her head other than blind ambition. I call it blind because she doesn't quite know what she wants, only that she wants something other (or should I say better) than what she has. This applies to her as a teenager in middle-of-nowhere Apex (an American town on the rise, where her father has just landed quite a bit of wealth (though Wharton has plenty to say about the nouveau riche, she's not on the side of old money, either)), when she elopes with the dashing Elmer Moffatt, only to be divorced two weeks later, and as a young hopeful once she's moved her family into a fashionable hotel in Manhattan, where she insists on hiring a box at the opera, and thereby finally lands the "established" Ralph Marvell as a husband (whom she drives, after forcing him to get a job in business, bearing him a son that she ignores, and gallivanting around town with other, more wealthy men, to suicide), as a Parisian Countess cramped into the lower-floor apartment of the family palace, filled with priceless antiques that put no money into her pocket and married to a man who injects no children into her womb, and as an at-last filthy rich woman, divorced yet again and married, yet again, to now-railroad-robber-baron Elmer Moffatt. It's at the end of the novel when she realizes that, despite all the time she spent chasing wealth, she's still not satisfied, for she would have liked best to be an ambassador's wife (men who married divorcees would never be named ambassadors).

Observing Undine's solipsism, conflicting judgments tugged at me; her treatment of Ralph Marvell (and little son Paul) is obscene (particularly since her father warned her weeks before her wedding that he didn't have the money she thought, and that she had better break off the engagement); I would never do the things she does, and yet I can't quite blame her for doing them. In the moments when she realizes that her conversation bores her husband and his friends, and that her new families don't respect her, her humanity—her weakness—and her distaste for that weakness, and her raging against her confines, in whatever way she can, remind me of me.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Movies: Summer Palace

I was snookered into seeing this movie by a friend who usually knows what she's talking about. She said it was great—not to be missed!—so I went. By the way, it's in Chinese, and from Ye Lou, a female director.* If you know me, you know that I like some Chinese movies (the romantic ones less than the violent ones), but I tend to loathe female artists of all stripes (authors are the worst, but even the average slag on the street usually drives me to wit's end).

Yu Hong (Lei Hao) is a quiet, emotionally hungry (annoying) girl, resigned to unenjoyable missionary sex in an abandoned lot with her callous, boorish boyfriend, until she gets into Beijing University (never mind the fact that both she, her boyfriend, and all of her soon-to-be-schoolmates look old enough to be advanced grad students) and meets a much better looking (but also pretty callous) young man with whom to have (perhaps slightly more pleasing) missionary sex. When she's not having sex, she's engaging in proto-lesbianic behavior with new female friends, going out for political adventures (the film was marketed as being "about" the Tiananmen Square incident, but the few scenes that fulfill that promise are less pleasing than boyfriend #1), and writing in her journal in any empty outdoor pool while pollen motes float all around her body and she writhes around in some unspecified (and rather nineteenth-century psychoanalysis-style) neurotic ecstasy. After a fit of jealousy possesses her will (she sees her man eating noodles with another woman), she picks a fight with him and then proceeds to burn through a string of alternate lovers—including a graduate student instructor, a married man, and a dopey mailroom clerk—as she gets older, finds a job, and moves from one city to another, all of whose hearts she trounces, in the name of "the one who got away."

Meanwhile, the one who got away moves to Germany, following his (married) lover, who was Yu's own best (proto-lesbianic) friend, and who might have been sleeping with him all along. When he decides to at last leave Germany, the proto-lesbianic friend (in another fit of womany-ness), drops herself off the roof of a building (echoing the young Yu, whom she had years ago "rescued" from a potential jump off a roof back in school, when her relationship with boyfriend #2 had dissolved). Eventually, he finds himself with his life put somewhat back together, and is riding a pleasure boat with his new girlfriend and his coworkers when he sees an old college friend come out of the mist—she gives him Yu's email address, and he contacts his old flame, who has been (believe it or not) married for two years (why we aren't subjected to lengthy scenes of her having sex with this new lover is beyond me; we've already seen about 30 accumulated minutes of fucking). They meet at a gas station, and he drives her to his apartment. Before they have sex, she decides to go out and buy some liquor, and she doesn't go back. And then it's over.

Aside from reinforcing my distaste for the irrational emotion defining femininity in general, this film reminded me just how absolutely ugly communism is. Except for the scenes shot in Germany, everyone wears abominable combinations of hideous rags in a range of taupes and grays (as well as the occasional clashing prints), and Yu constantly makes unforgivable fashion faux-pas such as two-inch chunk-heel strappy sandals with drooping ankle socks (offset, of course, by a mid-calf A-line brown corduroy skirt). I don't mean to be shallow or catty, but ugh, watching two hours of people dressed like this makes you glad to see them undress. But then, watching a man's writhing naked backside while a woman underneath him makes faces can be rather tiresome, too. It's interesting to note that Yu, for all the sex she has, doesn't find herself (put herself?) anywhere but flat on her back until she has the affair with the married man. One sees a lot of stereotypes about certain women's submissiveness cemented here, and I don't much like that. It's rather sad to see a female director so willingly buy in to femininity as culture served it up in the 19th Century.

*Please read the comments below, as this post contains serious factual errors.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Dance: Chunky Move's Glow at The Kitchen

I'm ashamed to say that I was less impressed by the show than my dinner prior at The Red Cat (where they did something astounding with grilled endives, melted cheese, and balsamic vinegar), but considering the fact that the dinner was longer, more expensive, and less mannered, I suppose it's forgivable. What can you really expect from a 20 minute, $8 dollar performance, with only one (seemingly inexhaustible) dancer?

Don't get me wrong. Kristy Ayre (or was it Sara Black? The program is somewhat ambiguous. . .) danced her bloody brains out, and she was amazing—energetic, strong, lengthy, and almost disturbingly quick. The choreography was actually pretty interesting, being mostly floor-based, and in a parallel (rather than the typical perpendicular) engagement with the floor. The music (listed somewhat pompously as "sound design" in the program) was interesting and complemented the movement well.

So what was the problem? Well, I would have liked more of all that, and less of the gimmick—the "glow." The piece places the dancer on a white square in the middle of the Kitchen's black box, and a ceiling-mounted projector points down at her. While she spins and writhes and stretches across the floor, the projector, using motion-detecting software, projects different patters (think of your childhood Spirograph) on the floor all around her body. At intervals, the type of pattern would change, and while there were a few moments that I quite liked (in one, the "stage" was all dark with tiny pinstripes and pinpoints of light passing through, and the music matched the planetarium-like tone; the dancer's body could only be seen where the rationed light passed over her), but for the most part, the glowing was a tiresome distraction from the dancing.

Additionally, toward the end of the piece, the choreography became more aggressive—the dancer found some perpendicularity, and began to make choreographed noises—heavy breaths and growls—and grimaces. I have always been of the opinion that dancers should be seen and not heard, and, excepting Ralph Lemon's Tree, I have never seen a dance that involved dancers making sounds in which the sounds were not ugly and distracting. Ugliness might have its place it art, but only when it enhances a depth of emotion and thereby beauty (c.f. Egon Schiele's despairing portraits).

Monday, February 4, 2008

Movies: Last Year at Marienbad

My first experience of this film was via a dreadfully dull and lengthy article I was assigned my first semester of grad school. I hadn't seen the film (and we didn't watch it in class—one of my biggest complaints about the program was that we never looked at art, though we were supposedly there to talk about it), and therefore couldn't make much sense of the article (and by the way, it wasn't a film class). My boyfriend at the time rented it on VHS for us to watch—turns out the screenplay is by one of his favorite authors, Alain Robbe-Grillet (the source, I imagine, of the film's repressed weirdness)—but I fell asleep. Twice. That was almost five years ago. And so, when I found out that Film Forum was screening it, I felt a kind of obligation to give the movie another try.

I had vague recollections of a very manicured French garden, with parallel lanes and topiaries, a nearly blinding sunlight that rendered the black and white film completely matte and almost gray, and a coy blonde sitting on the balustrade. So, the first half hour of the movie, in which the camera roves around the empty architecture of a baroque palace-like hotel, scanning over the ceilings dripping with painted plaster, the chandeliers, the paintings, the marble, the mirrors, while a man's voice nostalgically describes the space (in French, of course), repeating certain phrases again and again (a very Alain Robbe-Grillet thing to do, mind you), in a dreamy, nostalgic, subdued-but-intense voice, seemed even stranger to me than the other people in the theater, who didn't have expectations. Eventually, after this long introduction, the hotel becomes populated with people (they look like models at a Ralph Lauren photo shoot, waiting for Helmut Newton to finish his espresso). The camera roves around, observing their cocktail dresses, their heavily-made up faces, their diamond jewelry. It pauses now and then, and everyone freezes; then it starts again. The guests are watching an odd play, one with a very wooden set (modeled on the garden of which I had some recollection) and two equally wooden actors. The actress' monologue will be repeated at the movie's end, in another Alain Robbe-Grillet linear twist.

We are soon introduced to the main characters: a woman, (brunette—odd that I remembered her blonde) attractive but deathly thin and with heavy eyebrows, whose psyche manifests fully in her posture—the bent, cowering figure and buggy eyes of Space Ghost's Zorak, a man, the possessor of the heretofore disembodied nostalgic voice, and a taller, thinner (actually, disturbingly tall and thin) man, who constantly engages the other guests in a simple game involving the alternate picking up of items (playing cards, matchsticks, no matter) arranged in a specific pattern—a game that he always wins. As the film develops, the man with the voice hovers near the brunette. The hotel guests seem to be trapped at this vacation spot, dining together, drinking together, joining together in the game room to pass time. Inevitably, the camera seeks out either the man with the voice or the woman with the eyebrows—we can't tell which, because the man is always hovering disturbingly near the woman. He talks to her in that subdued, intense voice (which mounts, as the film continues, as if the hotel itself were a pressure cooker), about their time together last year—it must have been at Marienbad—there was a garden. . . and she denies it; no, she does not know him; no, she was never at Marienbad. Now and then the tall thin man arrives, and hovers as well—we begin to understand that he's her husband, though he doesn't seem to pay much attention to her until it's too late.

The man with the voice continues to stalk the woman with the eyebrows around the hotel. They have the same conversation again and again, in which the man with the voice hypnotically describes the garden; they go outside and talk about the statue there; he tries to touch her face and she warms for a moment, then freezes over again and cowers away from him, enacting a feminine melodrama we don't see in movies today. The soundtrack, eerie at first, becomes more and more excruciating, and the woman begins to have flashbacks to a scene in her bedroom, at which point the film, overexposed, bleaches everything white in a kind of proto-psychedelia. They discuss where the mirrors are in the room, and whether she could have seen him when he walked in, last year (although she still denies that she knows him, that she knew him, or that she saw him last year). Meanwhile, we see her in her room now, her husband coming in, and asking where she was all day (she had been walking the sun-bleached, wind-blown grounds with the man with the voice, who has started to demand that she come away with him, insisting that last year she promised she would, in one year's time). Flashbacks to her bedroom come again, and the man's voice becomes more insistent, less subdued; the music comes to a screeching crescendo, and he insists that he did not force her—never did he force her—and the culminating pressure infers the semi-repressed memory of a rape.

Now the film is nearly over, and the two are having a conversation that mirrors very closely the script of the play at the film's beginning. Mind you, this makes no logical sense, because time has collapses and inverted; how could something be commemorated which hasn't yet happened?

This is only the crown weirdness, set atop all the weirdness we've already encountered, and the ever-so-slightly slowed pace of the man's hypnotic voice, along with the roving movements of the camera, along with the electrifying soundtrack, have beaten us into a kind of suspension-of-logic submission; we are tangled up in reality and memory and flashback and fantasy, locked in a hotel filled with mirrors and dripping with the sickness-inducing distractions of filigree, a garden with paths that seem to march in rigid lines, but then double on themselves, labyrinth-like. And so, when the film ends, we grin, drugged, duped, elated; the movie isn't unlike a drug. If I knew what article that was, I might try and read it again; perhaps it might make sense. Then again, if it's anything like the film (and indeed anything like everything else that was assigned reading that term), there is no chance.