Thursday, December 28, 2006

Againt the Recent Reich . . .

Regarding Robert Reich’s Wednesday, December 20th commentary on "Marketplace" on American Public Radio:

While I usually appreciate Robert Reich’s astute analyses of the country’s economic peccadilloes, I find him way off the mark in suggesting that the tax code should limit charitable deductions to “real” charities and not to the arts and cultural institutions. Few would quibble with the excesses Reich offers as examples: yes, a donation to Harvard, which already boasts the largest university endowment in the nation, might seem self-indulgent, a ruse of the rich to ensure their progeny’s future access. It’s also easy to mock a gala dinner held by captains of industry for New York’s Lincoln Center arts complex.

But obscured by Reich’s heavy sarcasm is the fact that public educational institutions now receive very little federal or even state support, and that the arts have been summarily taken off the list of federal funders’ priorities because they’ve been made a political football by the conservative right.

If the wealthy can’t declare deductions for their largess to education and the arts, to whom could more upstart, avant-garde, community-based arts organizations turn for support as they struggle to establish themselves? In Austin, Texas, where I live, yes, we watch with despair as our public university pours millions of dollars into expanding its already mammoth stadium and upgrading the perks for its star student athletes, while the College of Fine Arts cowers, under-funded and under-appreciated, in its shadow. Would that every “Texas-ex” who gives a dollar to the Longhorns would kick in another for the arts.

But legislating against charitable donations such as these would also mean that Austin’s rich array of small arts organizations would no doubt expire. Without the deductible donations that support their operating budgets and their capital campaigns, and that pay their artists a living wage to use their imaginations to improve the world, we’d see the quick demise of the dozens of performance companies that enhance our local quality of life daily.

These arts organizations also serve the Austin community, engaging residents in the performance, music, film, art, and culture who might not otherwise be invited to share their stories on stage, or to participate in a filmmaking event, because of their race, class, or level of education. The arts in Austin do, as Reich proposes, try to make a difference for the poor.

I hope Robert Reich can nuance his argument, so that he’s not advocating that the bathwater of wealth donating to wealth be thrown out with the baby of tax incentive-supported private patronage for the arts and education.

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Drag King Dreams

[Note: Once again I apologize for the six week lag time between entries. The academic semester foiled me again. With the December holidays here now, and looking forward to being on leave next semester, I should be able to meet the challenge of bi-monthly writing.]

I read Leslie Feinberg’s classic novel about transgender experience, Stone Butch Blues, 10 years ago, although the book itself was published in 1993 (by Firebrand Books; a 10th anniversary edition was published by Alyson Press in 2003). Feinberg has always been at the forefront of transgender politics, well before they became a more visible issue in progressive movements around gender and sexuality. Hers was the first fictionalized autobiography to address the complications of being a subject born a woman, living in a body purposefully constructed as masculine. I recall being captivated and moved by the story of his/her (or hir, the compromise, composite transgender pronoun Feinberg uses in his new book, Drag King Dreams) challenges and triumphs, and learning more than I knew about what it means to be (as Max, the hero of Feinberg’s current novel describes it) fluent in the languages of gender, but only able to articulate yourself in one—and not the one that dominant society has assigned to you.

Reading Drag King Dreams 10 years after Stone Butch Blues is a less revelatory experience. The book’s heart is large and earnest; Feinberg remains a righteous crusader for not only trans rights, but for a progressive coalitional politics that draws careful connections among gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and ability oppressions, as well as immigration rights and the complex suppression of freedom prompted by the post-9/11 security crackdown. By demonstrating these interlocking systems of power and their tactile effects on people’s lives, Feinberg brings home polemics that might otherwise feel abstract and distant. I applaud the novel for the sincerity of its passionate political vision, even while the construction of its sentences sometimes makes me wince.

Max Rabinowitz, the hero of Drag King Dreams, is an aging transman, a denizen of the night who scrapes by without bank accounts or credit cards, eking out a living in a twilight cash economy by working as a bouncer and then a bartender in two different Manhattan clubs. Both cater to drag kings and queens, and other queer people who consciously perform their genders of choice and likewise choose their names, rather than living under the proscriptions of the ones assigned them at birth. Thor, Deacon, and Weasel all act as men; Ruby and Jasmine act as women, although in the trans cosmology, it’s more apt to look at these characters through degrees of gender performance and desire.

Max’s family of choice is a panoply of race and ethnicity, drawn more tightly together by the brutal death of their friend Vickie, who was most likely killed by someone motivated by lethal hate. Vickie’s death haunts the narrative; it’s the sign of fate with which each character grapples as they make their way through a social world where everything is dangerous for their people. (Or, as they call each other, their “family,” neatly resignifying the conventional understanding of the now fraught word.)

Thor, for example, is arrested for using a bathroom; Feinberg doesn’t specify if Thor used a “men’s” or “women’s” room. It doesn’t much matter, since Thor clearly doesn’t quite “fit” in either. His liminality causes his arrest. Feinberg positions the police throughout the novel as agents of oppressive, uncaring, unchecked power and hatred. They roughly cart Thor away to jail, where they beat him up and most likely assault him in other ways that Feinberg leaves us only to imagine.

Ruby, the drag queen who is Max’s intimate, falls ill early in the story, and is taken, although she’s uninsured, to a local hospital, where she is humiliated by nurses who call her “sir” and sneer at the transgendered caregivers who stand staunchly by her side. Unwilling to be subjected to the physical and emotional brutality of those for whom her birth gender is fixed, static, and determining, Ruby insists that Max sign her out of the hospital, and leaves, regally leaning on his arm.

Jewishness crosses trans in Drag King Dreams as another part of an identity that requires Max to stage his public resistance. His cousin, Heshie, is a differently abled computer geek, who lives in a cold water warehouse dreaming up virtual reality games and developing software that frees people from the limitations of their flawed or otherwise constraining flesh. Through Heshie’s technology, Max explores alternate realities in which he can look for others like him, or feel what it might mean to fly, unleashed from the gravity that ties him to conventional notions of identity.

Max and Heshie fight over the politics of Israel and Palestine, with Max arguing for a Palestinian homeland and Heshie for a two-state solution. Their Jewishness and the strength of their history as mishpoche (or birth family) isn’t enough to make them the “same” or to let them find “home” with each other without struggle or accommodation. Heshie instantly offers shelter when unknown assailants with most likely political motives trash Max’s apartment. Max appreciates the temporary solution to his transience, but they both know that while they might be blood family, they’re not “home” to one another.

Max’s search for “home” in fact propels the narrative’s fits and starts. The book refuses more conventional crises and resolutions. While Vickie’s death begins the story and her memorial service happens near its end, other incidents crop up and melt away with what feels like little consequence. Max befriends two Arab men who live in his neighborhood; one of them disappears mysteriously after a political demonstration, which teaches Max about the precariousness of life for people of Middle Eastern descent living in the States after 9/11. He finds common cause with Mohammed, the man left behind, who protects Max’s belongings when the thugs trash his place, and feeds him with a tenderness exactly opposite the brutality he finds at the hands of the police who supposedly keep the nation safe.

Max entertains several tentative flirtations, one with his friend Jasmine, the Asian-American transperson who manages the clubs at which their friends work together as a team. Another flirtation happens on line, in a game Heshie gives Max called AvaStar, an LGBTQ environment that nonetheless requires players to enter through two-gendered locker rooms where they assume identities that even in virtual reality can’t accommodate the kind of flexibility Max needs to feel whole. Max, entering under the screen name “Pollygender,” signals his more complex gendered performance by awkwardly translating the semiotics of the street through the controls of the virtual space. Several other players are astute enough to read his signs and ask to meet him privately. One is a femme, the other more ambiguously described, but both seem to “get” Max and his multifaceted difference, even in this simulated place.

These moments of virtual play mix with historical time in Drag King Dreams, as the people Max meets in these futuristic internet environments reveal themselves as rather old-fashioned gender rebels, some of whom even call themselves lesbians. When asked if he’s a lesbian, Max responds yes, even though the material world through which he moves requires more complicated identifications. The AvaStar moments are at once the book’s most hopeful and most strangely nostalgic, sentimental, perhaps, for old gay and lesbian and butch and femme communities of face to face interaction, support, and love. While his screen interactions highlight Max’s loneliness, they also gesture toward the possibility of connection, both online and off.

The book’s central tension lies in its effort to recreate community through the eyes of a character who’s become an inveterate loner. Over the course of the book, Max begins to remember an earlier activist moment in which he and Ruby planned marches and plotted proactively to make change. The story’s finale finds him and his friends back in jail, arrested at a march against injustice they planned and led. But in between these two eras of his character, the story meanders a bit, as Max slowly works his way back toward the possibility of his own liberation.

Feinberg’s writing lacks a certain nuance; Max’s feelings tremor close to the surface of the author’s language, and often, his politics overwhelm any depth of characterization the story might otherwise achieve. Max’s conversations with his friends often devolve into polemics, whether he’s arguing about Israel with Heshie or talking about the old days with Ruby. We don’t learn much about anyone aside from how they proceed through the trials of the present. What Feinberg imagines of their pasts seems contrived only to explain current oppressions.

Yet if Feinberg skimps on her characters’ depth and individuality, she’s committed to drawing out what connects them to each other and the tenaciousness of their bonds. At Vickie’s memorial service, Max relates a proverb passed on by the Yiddishe aunt who raised him: “Tell me who you know; I’ll tell you who you are” (220). This crystallizes Feinberg’s point: that a relationship, or a community, or a movement consists of the lines drawn between us by history, by labor, and by commitment to an idea of family much deeper than origins, because these new ones are families we make and nurture and refuse to see sundered.

Feinberg’s generation of transgendered activists claimed their connection to gay and lesbian, feminist, and civil rights. Although Feinberg never places her characters in specific age groups, they acknowledge that a younger generation has come up after them whose issues and lives are different in myriad ways. Yet another of the hopeful moments in the novel comes at the team’s climactic march for gender rights in Sheridan Square, the historic site of the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Ruby fights a cordon of obstructive police to join her cohort with a younger generation of transpeople working their way toward them to protest by their sides. That commitment to trans-generational thinking and coalition demonstrates Feinberg’s insistent faith in the potential for change.

In fact, Max’s belief in possibility resurrects itself over the book’s arc. By the end, despite their incarceration and the uncertainty of their release, Max and his friends are planning their next demonstration and making more connections to others who are disappeared or dispossessed. A loud, aggressively supportive, activist crowd lobbies for them on the station house steps.

Throughout the book, Feinberg writes obliquely about each characters’ race and gender; for example, we don’t know if Deacon is female or male, black or white. We know Max is “he” and Jewish; that Thor is a drag king; that Ruby dresses like a woman; that Jasmine, too, dresses like a woman and is Asian. But their chosen names conceal their bodies and identities of origin on the page, requiring us to accept them according to what they call themselves and by the gender and sexuality Feinberg tells us they perform.

Only at the very last moment of the novel do we hear their birth names, as each of Max’s family of friends is called out of the common jail cell in which they’ve been conveniently held. As policemen come to collect each character individually, the officers read from clipboards their original names: The stolid Thor, who took his name from the Norwegian god of thunder, is called out of the cell as “Carol Finster.” For the glorious, glamorous Ruby, they call “Tyrone Lanier.” The enigmatic Deacon is harnessed to the prosaic “Ronald Jackson.” And finally, as he dreams of the resurgence of community in which the living mingle once again with the dead (the literary equivalent of the fantasy party that ends the first gay film about HIV/AIDS, Longtime Companion), an officer comes for Max, sneering at his Jewish surname, then attaching it to his first, calling, “Maxine Rabinowitz.”

With these final two words, Feinberg drives home how far “Maxine” is from describing Max and his world, and let’s us feel that the state’s investment in this official identity (which Max has long since overthrown) is superfluous, ridiculous, and archaic. And yet by that name, Max remains affixed to state power as closely as a photo is laminated to a driver’s license, always subject to its ability to maim her physically, emotionally, and politically. Hence the need for drag kings to dream.

Drag Queen Dreams isn’t great literature. But it does manage to bring home how ideology pierces our flesh, and to illustrate how the complications of identity overflow the apparatus of a state (and a body) that would contain it neatly and enforce it brutally.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

On "The Road"

Cormac McCarthy isn’t an author I’ve ever before read. Even in good reviews, his books have always sounded rather male-identified. That is, they seem to be resolutely, openly, avowedly, unashamedly about men. And that’s fine. It’s just that those aren’t the kinds of novels I usually pick up and enjoy.

But reviews of The Road intrigued me, and reading the book, I was powerfully moved, so I’m recommending it here. I can’t offer you background on McCarthy, or compare this latest novel to his oeuvre. I can only offer you my impressions and how it felt to be carried along by this story and the searing images McCarthy has wrought.

The story is simple, bleak in its desperate elegance. A man and a 10-year-old boy walk empty interstate highways in a post-apocalypse environment, consulting frayed pieces of an ancient map to find their way south or to a coast. McCarthy doesn’t explain how they came to be on their journey. The little bits of back-story he provides appear like moments of color in an otherwise black and white film. No exposition cushions the catastrophe of the world through which they move.

Pushing ahead of them a shopping cart that holds meager possessions covered by a rotting tarp, the man and the boy (neither have names) follow the blistered black top, watching behind them for the “bad guys” that might not just impede their journey, but ruthlessly end their lives.

Their lives, such as they are, seem hardly worth saving. They forage for food and approach starvation numerous times through the short narrative, which takes place over the course of a few months or so. The road they walk is covered in gray ash, the landscape unrelieved by color or even movement, except when the weather shifts and cold winds or lashing rains drive them under their makeshift shelter.

Their clothes are ragged, their shoes long since disintegrated. Their bodies are filthy, their hair matted, their bones sharp under their skin, and the father’s lungs are wracked by a hacking cough that sometimes incapacitates him. Both wear face masks covered with soot to protect their breath from the toxic air through which they move.

Their conversation runs in fits and starts, short, declarative sentences often as simple as “okay” or “I don’t know.” Few adverbs or adjectives adorn the prose, and yet you can hear, as you read, the quality of their voices, the care they take with parceling out their emotions in a world in which despair and desperation seem the only logical things to feel.

Their exchanges are full, the father’s with his concern for his child, the child’s with a protective silence about the truth of their existence. They perform for each other a kind of normality, a refusal of resignation, a determination just short of hope, that keeps them trudging toward a destination they can barely even imagine. Their interactions are tender, full of love they never directly express.

In the spare, waste-free poetry of his words, McCarthy renders the intimacy of utter solitude. The man and the boy could be the last people on earth; there’s no way to communicate outside of their brief exchanges with each other. They know they’re not alone, that bands of villainous cannibals who roam this perverse world could appear at any moment. This keeps the narrative tense with the unknown and unexpected, even as McCarthy underlines the tedium of days and weeks lived simply pushing the fragile cart through a landscape of obstruction and debris.

The horror the father and son encounter is unimaginable, and yet seems such a likely outcome for a world in which nuclear annihilation is always possible. Cities stand empty and gray, their buildings rifled by the few survivors that people the place. Houses are ransacked for food and firewood, clothing and blankets. No one, it seems, can stay anywhere permanently, because the danger of the marauding bands of “bad guys” is too grave.

The bad guys are the cannibals, who roast headless infants on spits in the woods, soulless haunts who ramble like anarchists through a world in which rules no longer apply. The few close-ups McCarthy provides of these degenerate beings are chilling. The fact that the women among them are pregnant is both frustrating in its apparent misogyny—that even in a post-nuclear holocaust landscape, women would be barefoot and pregnant—and nauseating, in the presumption of a future signaled from within the wombs of this new world’s most evil antagonists. Perhaps the women are simply growing their own food.

In fact, when the man and boy come unexpectedly to a house with a locked cellar, the father works fiercely to open it, assuming that only food could be guarded so securely. When the door opens and he ventures down the stairs, finding his way with an old lighter, he sees filthy, naked men and women huddled together, blinking in the light. One person lies on a table, the stumps of his legs bleeding freely. One of these creatures approaches the man, saying simply, “Help us.”

But in this ethical economy, survivors can only help themselves. Any care they might extend would mean less to keep themselves alive. The man retreats up the stairs, relocking the door behind him. He knows he’s leaving fellow human beings to their fate as food; he knows that he did indeed break into a trove of nourishment, one palatable only for those who could bear to eat their own kind. McCarthy inverts the comforting domestic tropes of so much fiction; if this house is a womb, then like the women the man and boy see through its windows, it can only be incubating a new supply of humans to be eaten by others.

The father responds dispassionately to these horrors, saving his rage for moments late in the obsidian nights when the boy sleeps and the father is up, coughing and railing at a god he knows doesn’t exist. He recalls snippets of a “before,” not before this holocaust, but before he and the boy set out on the road. His wife killed herself, refusing to stay alive only to wait for a sure and violent death. He can remember only flashes of color, light, and sound, of birds that used to fly. His memory holds references to signs that no longer have meaning; the boy has never seen live birds, has never known a world that wasn’t covered with gray sludge and inflicted with vicious weather.

The boy, though, is the story’s moral voice. When he and the man meet a little boy his age, darting in and out of abandoned buildings, the father’s boy wants to save him, take him with them on their journey. But the pragmatic father shunts aside his own compassion to save themselves.

Later, a lone man robs them, stealing their cart and its contents. The father and son track him down and when they overtake and disarm him, the father forces the thief to strip, taking his clothes along with their belongings and leaving the man alone in the road. The boy is stricken with grief, knowing that there are tantamount to murdering the man. But the father insists that the thief intended to kill them. The world around them might be monochromatically gray, but the father’s actions brook no shadings. Survival can only accommodate black or white, yes or no, life or death.

The boy and his father “carry the fire,” which seems both metaphorical and mystical in The Road. One way or another, even when they don’t have food or water, the father lights a fire every night, gathering wood that remains plentiful, and starting the flame in ways McCarthy never describes. The fire also seems internal; the father and son are the “good guys,” plodding forward toward a future they don’t even know exists.

[Spoiler alert.]

When they arrive at the coast, when they can go no further, they still keep walking, tracing their way along the shore, weaving inland and back again to the beach. The ocean is no longer blue as the father remembered and the boy had hoped, but now just pestilential waves of gray water crashing on blackened sand. The father falls fatally ill and won’t survive. He tries to secure the boy’s safety, teaching him to go on as they have before, keeping with him the pistol that’s the barest insurance of their potential security, even though all but one of its bullets are carved from wood and wax instead of metal. They go on, determined:

“They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.
The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly
at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting
blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and
lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he
would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back
at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle”

This strikes me as a powerful statement of faith in a desolate, spiritless world.

I won’t reveal The Road’s end, since part of what compelled me through the book was wondering how McCarthy would finish a story that only seemed able to close in one cataclysmic way. Instead, the final moments of the book accomplish the most remarkable feat of all, which is to instill hope in the midst of utter despair.

I looked at my world through new eyes as I read The Road, suddenly aware of the depth of color and texture and sound and life that surrounds me every moment. McCarthy’s achievement is to capture so viscerally what it would be like to be the only living beings in a dead landscape, and the utter desolation of trying to keep not only your body, but your spirit, alive.

The world he paints so horribly, though, doesn’t seem that far-fetched, given North Korea’s posturing about its nuclear program, and the fear that Iran, too, is building a nuclear arsenal. McCarthy refuses to draw these analogies, or to lay blame, or even to explain what’s happened to the world as we think we know it.

He doesn’t have to. Reading The Road, you instantly understand that the landscape he depicts is the inevitable outcome of the insanity of human power gone tragically awry, of human dominion taken to one of its logical, malevolent extremes. That McCarthy also persuades you by the end that benevolence and love can continue to exist in such an ethical wilderness makes The Road an intense and moving read.

And strangely analogous to a stunningly hopeful historical moment in which the Democrats have regained Congress.

To the future, then,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why I Blog: On the Theories and Practices of Feminist Blogging

I’ve been invited to contribute a linked essay on blogging to Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, a web journal at Their next issue is called “Theories/Practices of Blogging,” and includes a special section of posts on blogging, along with about a dozen essays addressing the practice. If you’re interested, do follow the link to see what other writers have to say.

I’ve been blogging now for a year and several months. I was inspired to create my own space in which to write by my desire to comment from a feminist perspective on contemporary theatre and performance, film, television, and novels in a free and unfettered space.

I’d approached editors of Austin’s daily and weekly papers, interested in reviving what had been an earlier part of my career as a more regular critic, which I distinguish from my work as an “academic” critic only by the frequency and limited number of words a trade critic has to make his/her claims. Those limitations of print journalism, though, persuaded me to look for another forum in which to ply my critical wares.

In my critical work, I’m inspired by the same things that persuade any critic to write: the desire to be in dialogue with cultural production and to open another space for social discourse about the representations that fuel us. Theatre, performance, film, television, novels, and other forms of artistic expression and representation tell us who we are and help us imagine who we might be.

By identifying with or against various characters, framed by new narratives or unique perspectives on old ones, we shape ourselves as acquiescent or resistant to normative (that is, popular or dominating) cultural understandings of what we should be, especially around the identity markings of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, age, and ability. Because of culture’s influence on our selves and our relationships, critical engagement with its meanings is imperative.

But it’s also fun and moving and emotionally—as well as intellectually and politically—affecting. I love popular culture as much as I love high art. I’m as easily drawn to write about a television show as I am about a performance piece I see locally, in New York, or elsewhere. Part of my love comes from the community I imagine forged around our habit of watching and then discussing shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty, for instance, or films like Little Miss Sunshine or V is Vendetta, or performances like Anna Deavere Smith’s.

My pleasure in viewing is enhanced by reading about, talking about, and writing about how I’m struck by these shows and films and performances, and how they represent social relationships in new and often insightful ways.

Blogging gives me an outlet for rumination on these artifacts of culture. This more free-form writing lets me reflect on what I’ve seen and felt and fulminated on, and extends my imagined community to a wider sphere.

Twenty-five years ago, I was part of a group of feminist graduate students in the Performance Studies Department at New York University debating about starting a publication called Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. We had a nagging sense that we weren’t the only ones concerned with how gender is produced and represented in theatre and performance. Somehow, we knew that our concerns, inspired by the heyday of second wave American feminism, were probably shared widely.

First we thought a newsletter would be enough, a way of connecting people around common concerns about the status of women theatre artists, as well as about how art inculcates certain notions of gender and other aspects of identity. But our ambitions quickly grew because we knew that feminist performance theory and criticism, nascent as it was in 1981, would be an important academic subfield as well as a popular critical practice.

We decided it deserved the gravitas and visibility of a quarterly or (more likely, given our resources) biannual journal. Sitting with our thoughts in our department’s lounge, the eight or ten of us knew that we represented hundreds or thousands more, people eager for a feminist critical perspective on the performance that shapes and propels our lives.

I have that same feeling these many years later when I sit down to write in my blog. “The Feminist Spectator” is named after my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988), in which I launched a feminist critique of performance, poaching theory from film studies and anthropology and psychology.

The book argues that we need to look at art and representation as feminists, to turn the lens on culture away from conventional, dominant understandings. I argue that we need to look from the margins, to see what culture reveals about expectations of gendered relations, and about the possibility for radically reconfiguring what our social roles and identities mean.

A feminist perspective on culture is, happily, no longer radical in American life, but it’s still vital. I write “The Feminist Spectator” blog to keep reminding myself that a feminist critique tells us things about ourselves and our world that somehow aren’t seen or said by more conventional critics (whether academic or trade).

Despite my own move back toward what I like to call “radical humanism,” and my own recent to desire to track social commonality instead of differences, my critical perspective still begins with a keen sense that the world could and should be changed, to be made equitable, kinder, inhabitable, loving, and open to innovative ways of leading our lives. I learned that perspective from feminism.

I blog to keep honing my feminist critical skills. I blog to feel myself part of a larger community of readers/spectators/viewers who care about culture and what it means to our everyday lives, as well as to the possibilities of our futures. I blog to work out my own confusion and to chart my own emotions when I’m stirred by cultural productions that affect me strongly.

I blog to reach people with whom I’d like to have a dialogue. I blog to be part of a public sphere I can’t see but can feel on some intimate, ineffable level, the way I feel myself part of something larger than myself when I’m physically present at the theatre. I blog to retain the sense of community that’s necessary before I can believe in social change. I blog because talking about the arts makes life rich and meaningful; writing about it lets me hold onto those feelings just a little longer.

A year and two months past the inauguration of “The Feminist Spectator,” I only wish I could blog more. I’ve promised two entries each month; sometimes I’ve managed more, sometimes less.

But my blog is constantly present as a “place” in my mind, somewhere that lets me devise things to say, to germinate reviews and essays I want to write, to mull observations about culture I want to share and the feedback I hope to receive.

While I’ve always engaged with culture, now I have an always ready imagined audience for whom I’m always thinking of things to write. Being part of this dialogue makes me an even more avid spectator and cultural consumer.

That’s why I blog.

I’ve come to cherish this rather imaginary place, and want to thank anyone reading this for visiting. Come back often, and stick around to comment.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More Fiction: The Emperor's Children

Like Anna Quindlen’s Rise and Shine, this novel by Claire Messud sits on The New York Times bestseller list, probably on the basis of rave reviews by their own staff. Intrigued by the idea of a pre-9/11 story of three Brown University graduates approaching 30, I joined the queue and bought my copy. But as with Quindlen’s book, Messud’s disappointed. What promised to be incisive social critique read to me as self-involved, narcissistic, and shallow, a rather tiresome attempt to “say something important” about our lack of deep social vision, our self-serving American propensities to superficial intellectualism and ambition, and the petty complications of emotional lives that don’t resonate beyond the Manhattan environs that lend them their only edge or color.

Messud’s impeccable pedigree would lead a reader to expect more. Her books have been finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her work has achieved various “Books of the Year” or “Notable Books” lists; and she’s been awarded all the requisite high end, visible fellowships. Her prose, in fact, is impressive; she writes with a kind of dense, descriptive fluidity that captures place and character exceptionally well. Her sentences are long and introspective, precise and detailed. The problem is that the characters she draws don’t elicit empathy or interest beyond the surfaces they represent.

Murray Thwaite is a famous essayist, a public intellectual to whom New Yorkers turn for words of wisdom and pithy insights. In his desk drawer, however, resides a novel, his dream of telling the truth in a more fictional form, kept under lock and key perhaps because of his buried knowledge of his own limitations.

The book-in-progress is found, however, by his brilliant but socially awkward nephew Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, who’s come unannounced and uninvited from upstate New York to live under his famous uncle’s tutelage. Reading the unrefined prose, Bootie sees through his uncle’s pretensions and decides to unmask him as a fraud in The Monitor, a new magazine of social critique about to be launched by Thwaite’s daughter, Marina, and her louche Australian new husband Ludovic, whose own dastardly ambitions require his proximity to his wife’s father.

Marina, meanwhile, works doggedly at her own manuscript, a social history of children’s clothing called The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes that was commissioned on the basis of a short article she wrote some five or more years before. Marina’s effort to become her father’s protégé, the rightful heir to his intellectual legacy, seems paltry and trite beside his grander, theoretically more important literary pronouncements.

Messud also gives us Marina’s best friends from their days at Brown: Danielle—a would-be documentary filmmaker with her own radical pretensions, stuck doing a story on liposuction when she’d rather be filming Australian Aborigines—and Julius, a gay would-be journalist whose relationship with a wealthy Jewish stock-trader derails his own career while it temporarily enhances his material life.

To twist the circle one last time, Murray, for no good reason, starts an affair with Danielle, who too quickly (and not terribly believably) falls in love with her friend’s famous father, a womanizer twice her age. The secret affair lasts until the first time they spend the whole night together turns out to be September 10th, 2001.

They wake the next morning to a too-perfect view of the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers, and as Murray trudges uptown to his long-suffering but loyal (and socially noble, given her work with underprivileged children) wife, Danielle understands that she’ll never truly be significant to him, and promptly falls into despair. That her friends think she’s devastated by the events of 9/11 is one of the novel’s more bitter twists.

To give Messud the benefit of the doubt, I have to assume she means to critique her characters’ petty emptiness, but what might have been meant as the novel’s satirical edge never cuts through these people’s pampered lives and distasteful actions. The plot meanders without signaling ironic or critical intentions clearly enough for the reader to bear the superficiality of its characters’ feelings.

When in the last eighth of the book the Towers go down, Messud’s description of the event—despite all the television and newspaper and magazine and web stories we’ve seen or read since—is original, wrenching, beautiful, and somehow right, as she delivers the images with the benefit of hindsight to characters seeing it happen in the moment.

But there’s something crude about using 9/11 as a plot device to facilitate the end of Murray and Danielle’s affair, and to propel Danielle to recognize her insignificance to him. The social tragedy is reduced here to a personal one, and a predictable one at that. Of course Murray, coated by the dust of the Towers, will return to his wife. Of course Murray will resume his place as the omniscient commentator on the world’s events, a man whose smooth surface isn’t even ruffled by his betrayal of Danielle (his wife expects his adulterous interludes and refuses to let him confess to her). Of course, for the powerful and the lucky, life goes on.

Julius, too, suffers an ill-fated relationship, in which David, his lover, furious when he finds Julius in a bar bathroom having sex with another man, beats him senseless and bites off a piece of his cheek. (That David, who along with Danielle is one of only two Jewish characters in the novel, is a rich, spoiled banker from Scarsdale with an ugly mean streak is really unfortunate.) When Julius calls himself “scarred for life” (388), his tragedy, too, is personal, not social.

Although no one deserves the brutality of his attack, the wound seems to give him dignity (perhaps Messud means to draw parallels here between the attack on the US and its brief receipt of international empathy generated by the world’s horrified reaction). But (perhaps like the US) Julius learns nothing from what he suffers. With the despicable end of his relationship, he returns to his Lower East Side walk-up and proceeds much as he did before, despite the indelible mark on his face.

September 11th does nothing more to these characters than to secure their hollowness. The Monitor’s launch is cancelled; the first we hear that the magazine was meant to satirize American social mores is when Ludovic complains that 9/11 makes it irrelevant (I guess this is Messud’s nod to that quick moment people thought was the end of irony). As Marina and Ludovic walk through Union Square a day or two after the Towers fall, Ludovic calls the posters searching for missing people “necrophiliac pornography,” (376), insisting that all the people pictured are dead.

“This is what we should have a cover piece about, this,” he went on, in an apparent seething fury. “About how in this country everybody wants a happy ending. To the point of dishonesty, as if sticking up these posters can somehow undo, or fix, or change what’s just happened. Who’s going to say to them, ‘Go home and face the facts! Your son, mother, niece, is dead, dust, gone. [. . .] But it’s the fucking land of lies here, isn’t it? So nobody’s going to say that. And we’re not going to say it, either, because we don’t have a fucking magazine.” (376)

Marina comforts him in the park, knowing that passers-by have no idea he’s angry for his own material loss, assuming instead he’s sharing the common grief.

Moments like these could be powerful indictments, but Messud hasn’t set the tone early on to prepare us to read her characters as lynchpins of a satirical critique. They’re inherently unlikable from the start, but we’re somehow invited to admire them, rather than see them for what they are, as an author with a better hold of social parody (like Richard Russo in The Straight Man or even Tom Wolfe, at his best) would do.

Messud could be suggesting that without this critical perspective, no one is keeping an eye on American culture, that the voice of critique is officially silenced. But if this is her intent, it’s too obfuscated by her characters’ unbearable privilege to read clearly. They’re all finally spoiled brats crying over toys crushed by the hammer on the anvil of the “real” that was 9/11. Toward the end of the book, Julius and Marina exchange what’s perhaps meant to be an ironic, self-aware social temperature reading:
“No, no,” Julius laughed. “We just want to be at the Party of Big Ideas. Ideally, to throw it. We see there’s no contradiction.”
“Only the insufferable suffer for art. That’s what Ludo says. ‘It’s so déclassé.’”
They laughed, a little awkwardly.
“Does he really believe that?”
“He doesn’t believe in suffering, no.”
“Like suffering is a choice?”
“Whatever.” Marina had stood, put their cups in the garbage, and they had gone back out into the cold. (407)

“Whatever” pretty much sums it up.

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, September 25, 2006

Rise and Shine and The Closer

First, The Novel

I’m usually quite a big fan of author Anna Quindlen. I read her op-ed columns “Life in the 30s” and “Living Out Loud” in the New York Times in the 80s and 90s, and remember feeling so heartened when she was appointed the managing editor. Her columns were full of self-reflexive, humane and even feminist thinking, usually about difficult subjects like the ethics of journalism and a reporter’s place, interviewing, for instance, a family who’d just lost a child in a violent death. I looked forward to her insights, her humor, and her rather quotidian humanity, which her words always elevated to an exemplary level.

I’ve also been a fan of her fiction since she left the Times to write fulltime. One True Thing and Object Lessons, her first novels, were excellent reads, if a bit melodramatic and predictable. Black and Blue was a vivid depiction of an abused woman running away with her son. And Blessings, her most recent novel, was a lovely story about an unlikely couple raising a child unexpectedly left in their care. So despite rather tepid reviews for her latest novel, Rise and Shine, I read the book.

The story concerns two sisters, one a famous television talk show host on the level of Katie Couric, the other a social worker who heads a non-profit that serves women and children in the Bronx. At the story’s opening, the highly successful Megan gets into trouble by cursing a morally suspect guest on her show. Thinking her mic is off, she calls him a “fucking asshole,” since he’s left his wife to marry the surrogate they’d hired to carry their child.

Much of the book illustrates how one false move can topple even the most miraculous career. The media circus around Megan’s mistake prompts her to retreat to Jamaica, where she stays in a remote but comfortable home with a view of the ocean, nursing her wounds and (theoretically) getting in touch with her true self.

Her sister, Bridget, who narrates the story, is younger and was once washed up, until Megan insisted she pull herself together. After some time as an artist and a waitress, Bridget finds her calling working with abused and homeless women and children of color.

When Megan leaves town, Bridget takes Megan's son Matt under her wing, and he, too, finds his higher self with Bridget’s organization, driving women and children to appointments. Working with little black kids who come to love him, Matt is the young white hope. Close to the end of the story [spoiler alert], he’s shot by an irrational and soon repentant African-American teenager jealous of Matt’s relationship with an African-American girl from the projects where they live.

The shooting, of course, brings Megan back from her self-imposed exile in Jamaica, and resuscitates her career, since the shooter asks her to come meet him in the projects and bring him to the police. She delivers him with aplomb in front of national television cameras—even though he nearly killed her son, and in fact left him a paraplegic—and insists that he not be hurt, which turns her into a martyr and returns her to her status as a must-watch “it” girl in the bottom-feeding culture of wealthy Manhattan.

On the level of literature alone, the novel disappoints. The dialogue sounds stilted and self-conscious, with none of the warmth and truth that Quindlen’s characters usually display. The awkward talk could be a result of the first-person narration by a character who’s ultimately not that interesting; it could be the Manhattan setting, which might be too close to Quindlen’s own milieu to let her stand back and see it artistically. While parts of the book want to critique the social-climbing back-stabbing fickleness of rich and famous New Yorkers, the book also seems enamored by this culture, and never really launches an incisive analysis.

As a result, even the “good” characters appear blind to their own excesses—or rather, blind to everything in the city that’s not about them. Bridget, for instance, works alongside and with almost exclusively women of color. But rather than drawing out their characters, these women remain wholly subservient to the white women’s story.

Tequila, the most egregiously colorful character of color, is a caricature of the large, hands-on-hips, self-righteous, big-hearted, effective, and sassy middle-aged African-American woman. She listens in on Bridget’s phone calls, and manages to find information not available to other people. But although Tequila has her talents, she has no real life in the story, except when she’s assisting Bridget, who’s her boss.

When Megan flees to Jamaica to lick her wounds, she’s cared for by local people of color, who drive her around the island and cook for her, then eventually follow her back to New York to work for her there. Megan’s old servant/assistant is passed along to her sister when Bridget has twins. People of color in this story are narrative chattel, exchanged to further the lives of the white people in whose power they bask but never share.

Even Matt, the tragic, selfless white boy, finds his own soul by working with the cute African American children who climb on his shoulders and cling to his pant leg. That he’s shot by those he thinks he’s helping could have been played as a difficult racial irony; instead, Quindlen portrays the incident as somehow inevitable, as though it’s a given that a black man Matt’s age would fire at him senselessly on one of his trips to the projects.

The white people in this novel are the only ones who grow emotionally, intellectually, professionally, or spiritually. The people of color only get to change jobs, working for an interrelated line of white people who can’t see them as anything but people who do a great job answering the phone and driving Miss Daisy around town.

Too bad Quindlen lost her progressive touch with Rise and Shine, and capitulated to New York City as people think it is, rather than how it might be, if fiction were used to imagine other ways for white people and people of color to interact.

Second, The Television Show

On The Closer, Kyra Sedgwick plays Brenda, an Atlanta-born detective who's been transferred to the LAPD to work under a long ago ex-boyfriend who’s now the Chief of Police. Heading the Priority Murder Squad lands Brenda a promotion to Deputy Chief, which her colleagues (many of them men) resent. Over the course of the first season, they grudgingly come to admire her work, and offer their allegiance and respect.

Sedgwick plays Brenda as an unflappable, smart, if rather scattered, working woman. She thinks about several things at once—often, in fact, the murder in question on any given episode is solved when Brenda’s engaged with someone who figures in the subplot rather than the central narrative. Her ability to multi-task and think on her feet is her chief asset as an investigator, hampered only by her tendency to lose personal things and to eat, almost constantly, sugary, high fat foods.

It’s refreshing to watch a female television character who actually eats, let alone to watch one compulsively eating things that no health-conscious, weight-obsessed middle-age woman would ever go near. Brenda’s donuts and cookies and candy, strewn across her desk or flowing out of her purse, seem to help her think; she uses them the way TV characters once used cigarettes. Of course, Sedgwick is slender and pretty—the food she consumes in character doesn’t seem to affect her slim waistline. Unfortunately, under the conventions of the show, this character would never work if she were overweight.

Brenda’s munching is a source of bemusement to her squad, a ragtag group of mostly men in ties who represent the racial and ethnic diversity of LA (and who seem much more weight conscious than she does). Her next in command is an African-American man, having a not-so-secret affair with the only other woman on the squad, who also happens to be African-American.

Two of the other men are white, rather crusty old hands who’ve been there and done that but find themselves constantly surprised by Brenda’s antics and impressed with her results. The last two men are an intellectually curious Asian-American with a penchant for technology, and a taciturn Latino. To a person, they struggle with how to look up to such an unlikely boss, yet each week, find themselves affirming and admiring her skill.

The Closer is one of the few television shows I’ve ever watched that seems aware of how it’s using gender relations. Brenda is portrayed as feminine (Sedgwick is beautiful without really trying) but professional and sadly lacking in fashion sense. Rather than the effortless allure that other female detectives achieve (think, for instance, of Poppy Montgomery’s character on Without a Trace, or even Kathryn Morris as Lilly Rush on Cold Case) and need to work against to be taken seriously, Brenda wears overly flowery, flowing dresses and sweater sets, and looks quite out of place in the hard boiled LA environs she investigates. She’s sexy in an awkward, unself-conscious way that’s much more real than how younger, more purposefully calculated women detectives are usually drawn.

Mostly, Brenda is good at what she does and she knows it. Her interrogation style uses her gender to catch her suspects unawares; her femininity is a tool in her box, rather than something defining. She can turn her feminine wiles on when she needs them to make progress, but the script makes sure the audience knows that she’s making a choice, not falling back on biological destiny. And she makes choices that work against her gender just as often, shouting down suspects and intimidating them as well as any of her male colleagues.

When her very long ago affair with the Chief of Police is rudely announced to her squad by his ex-wife on a recent episode, the moment is mortifying not for the typical melodramatic reasons, but because Brenda worries that her gang will think she got her job only by sleeping with the boss, not on her own merits. This is still women’s concern in the 21st century: that no matter how good we are at what we do, we’re still measured and judged in relationship to men, whether sexually or professionally, or in that episode, both.

Although the multi-cultural face of the squad room might be calculated, the men who surround Brenda are fully drawn characters, each with his own idiosyncrasy, but with something of a heart instead of just a caricatured sketch on which to hang his actions. These people are likable, unpredictable, funny, and smart, and their respect for Brenda is refreshing because the show never takes it for granted. In fact, Brenda earns their esteem anew each episode, not because she’s trying, but because she’s very good at what she does.

That’s a show I can get behind. I was disappointed that Sedgwick didn’t win an Emmy for last season’s work, but perhaps this time around, Emmy Award voters will recognize the layered complexity of the character she’s created and reward her for creating a professional woman whose life seems real.

In reading and viewing pleasure,
The Feminist Spectator

On Teaching . . .

I recently had the good fortune to be selected as a new member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach. I was inducted into the Academy on September 21st; I'd like to share the remarks I made at the dinner:

Thank you so much for this honor. As a theatre professor, and someone who was herself once a performer, I know many people who dream of standing up to say thank you to the Academy. We dream of being in front of millions of television viewers, clutching in our trembling hands a statuette that’s evidence of our value as artists.

I long ago gave up the dream of receiving an Oscar, which never seemed real to me anyway because, truth be told, I was always a better critic than I was a performer. But I think all of us yearn at some point for public recognition from our peers and our community. It’s to our collective chagrin, I think, that teaching remains a mostly private, unrecognized activity.

Lots of people presume to know what and how we teach. Some of those people insist that we’re not teaching enough, or not teaching the proper subjects, or not producing measurable outcomes (as though what students experience when they learn can ever, finally, be measured). We’re often excoriated by those who drive the agenda of education without ever giving us the basic resources for good teaching and good learning. And these folks, of course, would never tell us we’ve done our jobs well.

So we look within for our rewards, and happily, find them frequent and rich. The hours I spend in the classroom always require the best of me—that’s when my mind and my wit needs to be sharpest, when I feel (just like I do at the theatre), that what’s happening in the present of our meeting is the only thing that matters.

In class, I continually take my own measure, as I respond to students’ questions, suggestions, and challenges. In class, I develop my ethical commitments, which often hinge on an instantaneous decision about how to redirect a comment or resolve an incident. I never sweat as much as I do in class, whether the session is going well or poorly, because I’m working so hard mentally and physically and emotionally to weave the threads of anecdote and theory, of experience and knowledge into a fabric strong enough to bounce us into the future.

My last book was about utopia in performance. In it, I argue that our willingness to join friends and strangers in a live, present moment to watch vulnerable actors perform before us creates a rare, precious moment of community. We note a feeling of belonging together, of feeling ourselves lifted temporarily above the present into a hopeful sense of what a better future might be like.

I’m thrilled when I feel that same fleeting utopia in the classroom. I mark when my students and I think so hard together that we hear what musicians sometimes call the “phantom note.” It rises above the chorus of our thoughts as something both apart from us and of us; it creates a common vibration in an often bare, windowless, hardly utopic room.

My students and I are artists, scholars, and citizens all, people with the unbelievable good fortune to think about the magic of the performance we create or study, and how it matters to the rest of our worlds. My students and I are people who desire to see ourselves not just as we are, but as we might be, through the crucible performance provides.

So although I’m not receiving an Oscar today, I’m glad to thank the Academy. I’m more than glad, because I know that teaching lasts longer than performance. Teaching generates those fleeting moments of utopian possibility on a regular basis, semester after semester, year after year. They linger as generative pieces of collective memory.

I’m delighted to join the Academy, and look forward to working with all of you in what I know is our mutual desire for ever-better worlds. Why would any of us teach otherwise?

Thank you.

And thank you all for reading,
The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Summer Movie Wrap Up: The Descent, Little Miss Sunshine, V for Vendetta

Film critic A.O. Scott wrote an article in the New York Times shortly after the latest Pirates of the Caribbean extravaganza was released in July ("Critics Notebook: Avast, Me Critics! Ye Kill the Fun," July 18, 2006, B1, 7), addressing the perennial accusation that critics are out of touch with popular taste. They look for art where “regular” people look for fun, he says, and bring expertise and intellect to bear where the movie-going public is eager to suspend its disbelief and give itself over to pure entertainment.

Often the victim of what he calls “populist anger” about bad reviews of popular films, he says, “[T]he discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.”

Scott goes on to suggest that studios market their films hoping to influence the zeitgeist, whetting the public’s appetite for months or sometimes years in advance for their next big release. The public, in Scott’s scenario, become cultural dupes of studio marketing, acquiescing to the establishment of taste set out for them in advance, which critics then have difficulty counteracting.

“So why review [films]?” Scott asks. “Why not let the market do its work, and let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcane—the art—we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t.”

Although I don’t believe my role as a feminist critic is to disparage public taste, I share Scott’s associations with art—pleasure, wonder, and surprise—and look for it wherever I can find it. I read other critics—on films, I read Scott, Stephen Holden, and other Times reviewers, Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly, J. Hoberman and other Village Voice critics, and even Leah Rozen in People—for a sense of collective critical response and some guidance to my own spectating choices. Part of the pleasure of seeing films is lining up my feminist perspective against these critics' views, since they sometimes see gender, politics, or ideology as factors in a film and sometimes don’t.

My feminist critical perspective sometimes sees through the ploys of marketing. But I can’t say that I, too, am not lured to see films by ads that tell me I should. And I can’t say that I don’t often suspend my politics and critical voice in favor of my guilty pleasures as a spectator, letting a film’s narrative or images temporarily overrule my feminism (at least until the lights come up).

Some would suggest that even more than mainstream criticism, feminist commentary takes the fun out of popular entertainment. I'd argue to the contrary, suggesting that although looking at films or performances or television shows with an eye to how they represent gender and other identity relations is a necessary act of civic engagement, feminist criticism can add to viewing pleasure by opening other avenues of consideration. Perhaps that's an idealistic suggestion, but isn't there something fun about turning the cultural lens and seeing what others seem to have missed?

Risking, then, the disapprobation of criticism in general compounded by the dread perspective "feminist," here are my thoughts on three end-of-summer films.

The Descent

I went to see this summer’s horror film The Descent because enough reviewers I trust told me it broke genre conventions and represented its women spelunkers with unusual grit and determination. Schwarzbaum noted the pleasure of seeing buff women’s bodies getting a workout, squeezing through tunnels and finding footholds on impossibly steep cave walls. Well, I might not know enough about the horror genre to see how this film breaks the mold, but I found its plot an overworked women-fighting-over-a-man story that failed to amuse or entertain.

The story takes a group of women on a cave-diving trip, propelled by the tentative return to psychic health of their friend Sarah, who lost her husband and daughter in a freak car accident directly after she and two of the friends triumphed on a challenging white water rafting trip.

The rafting scene, the first in the film, clarifies that one of those friends (naturally, the dark, raven-haired, ethnic-looking one, played by Natalie Mendoza), Juno, was having an affair with Sarah's husband, which indirectly causes the crash in which he and the daughter die (he’s distracted and clearly unhappy, and doesn’t watch the road as closely as he should).

Juno wants to make it up to the fair-haired heroine Sarah, by taking her and a group of their 20-something friends into a cave that no one’s ever explored before, so that they’ll have the opportunity to name it and somehow immortalize themselves. But because Juno at first keeps her motives for misleading her friends secret, her decision seems nefarious. Told they’re descending into a cave that’s already been explored, the women are soon furious when they learn they’re traveling uncharted territory, and Juno's noble purpose seems flimsy and ridiculous.

The women all promptly get lost in the claustrophobically small tunnels between caverns, and begin glimpsing signs of malevolent life. One by one, each meets a bad end, some from the folly of wandering off alone, some because Juno's obvious immorality lets her leave the wounded alone to die, eaten by the flesh-eating monsters who appear in ever-more frequent waves of terror.

Despite wading through pools of muck and one encounter too many with creatures of the dark (who look like a cross between Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and actors from the chorus line in Cats), Sarah, the blond-haired heroine, prevails, watching the creatures kill off her human nemesis and finding her way out of hell. But reaching her car and speeding out of the Appalachian woods, she realizes she’s still in purgatory when she’s haunted by Juno's ghost, just as she was haunted earlier by the voice and image of her child.

Finally, The Descent is just another movie in which family doesn’t work. The struggle to avenge its inevitable disintegration propels women into betrayals, the consequences of which ripple across the landscape of female friendship. Although the film quickly dispenses with the husband, its one male character, and although the women try to defeat the cave’s decidedly masculine creatures, they can’t bond together as women to escape from their physical (or, metaphorically, political) confinement.

No irony propels this film—it holds hostage any potential critique of the family dynamics that indirectly prompt the women’s descent. They’re haunted by a patriarchy whose tunnels are as deep and confusing as the cave’s, and although Sarah returns to the surface alive, she remains emotionally and ideologically trapped, still seeing ghosts.

And honestly, the actors aren't even that buff.

Little Miss Sunshine

Lisa Schwarzbaum was one of the few critics who didn’t like Little Miss Sunshine, which I found a smart, warm, funny film. Its plot is usually described by character and situation: This is a dysfunctional family “road trip” movie, in which the youngest child, a pudgy, bright, emotionally open daughter named Olive, is somehow invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in LA. The family piles into their broken-down VW bus to make the trip from New Mexico and encounter obstacles typical of road trip comedies along the way.

Schwarzbaum sees the characters as stock, ripped from the indie film casting book. The father (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be motivational speaker/author who can’t close a book deal, a wanna-be winner who’s actually an ordinary loser. The mother (Toni Collette) repeats platitudes about family while hers disintegrates. Her brother (Steve Carell) is a gay Proust scholar who’s just tried to commit suicide because a competitor was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. The son Dwayne reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence, which doesn’t prohibit him from scrawling communications on a notepad he carries along. And the grandfather (Alan Arkin) is a crusty porn connoisseur whose bad habits get him kicked out of an extended care home. Put together in the close quarters of a rickety vehicle, their idiosyncrasies begin to collide.

But although the characters and the situation provide the basic ingredients, considering Little Miss Sunshine only through the lens of family dysfunction short-changes the critical work the film conducts on a deeper, more satisfying level. The film is really about how people navigate their lives, especially when their lot is thrown in with people they didn’t choose to be with, even though they’re related to them. When the mother keeps pulling everyone together to insist that no matter what, they’re a family, her words sound pathetic, rote, and hollow. To the contrary, “family,” in Little Miss Sunshine, is a vow everyone takes not by fiat but because they choose to affiliate instead of walking away.

For example, when Dwayne inadvertently finds his hopes of being a pilot dashed when Olive diagnoses him with color-blindness during the long trip, he bursts from the van and runs down a hill beside the road to end his vow of silence with heart-breaking sobs. His mother can’t persuade him back into the fold; Dwayne shouts that his parents and uncle are losers, pathetic failures with nothing to offer. They listen stoically. Everyone knows he’s telling the truth, but they also know that they'll soldier on anyway, as they always do. They don't judge Dwayne for judging them; they aren't angry with him. The moment is poignant and somehow sweet.

Although his mother can’t rouse him, when Olive comes down the hill to put her head on Dwayne's shoulder, he recovers quickly. This moving show of empathy doesn’t have (or need) dialogue; Olive might be younger, but she intuitively feels her own confusion and incipient despair at the choices that land in our laps, whether or not we want them there, at the vagaries of a life over which we have so little control, biologically or politically. Dwayne helps Olive back up the hill, where he apologizes to his father, mother, and uncle, and proceeds to get on with his life in the midst of people whom he’s been consigned to love by an accident of birth, but whom he loves nonetheless.

This isn’t a conventional dysfunctional family, but a family of rule-breakers who find their confidence through their collective refusal to conform. When the grandfather drops dead in his hotel room in the middle of nowhere one night, an officious hospital administrator insists they interrupt their trip to the pageant to attend to paperwork and burial arrangements. Instead, the family steals his body, storing it in the Volkswagen's trunk to take to a funeral home when they arrive in LA. They happily if rather haplessly flout the authority of one of many pompous gatekeepers who would try to enforce social norms against their desires.

Along the way, they even get a pass from a state trooper who stops them when he hears their horn beeping erratically (hysterically, mournfully calling attention to their progress). The trooper doesn’t notice the grandfather’s body in the trunk, because he finds instead the pornography the grandfather left behind, and forms a fellowship with the father over what he assumes is his similar taste in women. What officials of the state like the trooper and the hospital administrator perform as “morality” proves bankrupt.

By contrast, the family's idiosyncratic, goofy ethics of caring proves effective. When they finally arrive at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, all the work (physically and ideologically) they did to get there has prepared them to see through the event’s smarmy self-importance to its inherent pedophilia. Watching each member of the family begin to “get it” is one of the real pleasures of the film; to a person, they look around them, look at the performances before Olive’s, look at the other parents and spectators, and understand that the event is corrupt.

The other kids all look and act like Jon Bonet Ramsey. Their mothers primp them and preen themselves and sit in the audience mouthing the words to their silly, amazingly sexual routines. Olive’s competitors are little girls with come-hither poses, their tiny bodies dressed and painted to look sexy. But when Olive performs a routine choreographed by her grandfather that--without the rest of the family's knowledge--turns out to be a striptease, the audience is horrified.

Olive, though, dances with joy and gusto and a surprising athleticism, proud of her moves and happily unaware of the vocabulary of sexuality from which they’re borrowed. Overcoming their own surprise and confusion, Olive’s family understands that they can turn the tables on the event. They join Olive onstage hooting and hollering and clapping, taunting the mortified audience by revising Olive’s routine into a pointed pep rally and implicitly critiquing the other girls' performances as kiddie porn. With her father, mother, brother, and uncle onstage with her, Olive is a happy kid dancing with the people who love her. By comparison, the other little girls look like miniature Hustler models, luring leering spectators (including a probable pedophile who sits beside Olive's father in the audience). The pageant's hypocrisy couldn't be clearer.

Little Miss Sunshine deftly critiques how inconsistently the U.S. treats child sexuality. The scene is a hysterical send-up of the pornography of baby beauty pageants, but it’s also the moment when this family finds its agency. Olive’s bravery in going on with her number, even though she senses her difference from the other girls (and her touching dedication of the act to her dead grandfather, who “taught me all these moves”), inspires the family to support her, and in the process, to find their own strength, their own rebellion from a superficial, hypocritical, restricted set of social conventions.

The characters seem to have “nothing,” limping down the highway in their broken down Volkswagen bus. Watching them roll the car to get it in gear, then jump one by one into the open back door as it picks up speed, is at once the film’s recurrent sight gag and its central metaphor. Despite their differences from each other, despite how little they have in common, they all need each other. They can’t make their lives move alone, but if they help each other jump on, they can all get where they're going.

The family's quiet victories—over the hospital administrator, the pageant official, the state trooper—mark their humanity and their humility. Their simple hope and faith win out, and although they might be bankrupt financially and professionally, they are rich in their relations with each other and in their ironic but generous and finally hopeful understanding of the limitations of their lives.

V for Vendetta

Although it’s set in Great Britain in the future, and full of references to British historical figures like Guy Fawkes, V works well as an allegory about the nefarious machinations of the current Bush administration. V (Hugo Weaving) is a masked, black-caped crusader, whose vengeance is apparently ignited because he was burned in a fire at Larkhill, a secret government facility set up to conduct tests in preparation for biological warfare (or defense, I’m not sure, as the plot is complicated). We never see his face; flashbacks show the outline of his body roaring out of the flames, intact and furious, animal-like with what could be superhuman strength wrought from experiments gone wrong.

Through a quirk of fate, V meets Evey, played by the smart, always watchable Natalie Portman. Evey's parents, it turns out, were also unwilling subjects in the Larkhill experiments, captured and imprisoned there because of their radical activism against the fascist regime. Scenes peeking at the collective cultural memory of Larkhill show sullen, acquiescent lines of victims, heads shorn and clothing drab, walking like Holocaust or HIV/AIDS victims to their doom.

These scenes are intercut with shots of bodies dumped in mass graves then covered with lime and dirt, unmistakable references to Nazi concentration camp atrocities. These pointed allusions to fascism underscore the narrative, as the film sets out to unmask the government as self-serving power-mongers who manipulate the citizenry for their own gain.

Those in power have hidden their connections to the Larkhill experiments, in which they all took part. When you control the means of production and the dissemination of information, the film suggests, it’s easy to write and enforce your own version of history. The film is chilling as a parable about what happens when leaders exploit terror as a way to govern.

The prime minister of this fascist state (played by John Hurt with all his wrinkled dignity in tyrannical overdrive) is seen only by screen, his twisted face looming large over his cabinet, a cluster of self-important white men who watch him warily, as he treats them nearly as badly as his other subjects. As V begins to wreak havoc on the city, the cabinet carefully covers over his actions with lies spread to the public via the televisions they watch obsessively.

Many of the short scenes between the main action show a revolving handful of families sitting together in front of the tube, commenting with frustration and resignation on the lies they’re being fed. The “telly” is clearly indicted as a delivery system for ideology, but in one of the film’s more hopeful moves, V easily commandeers the national television station and broadcasts his own message of rebellion and redemption.

One by one, V sets out to track down and kill the Larkhill villains to avenge their malevolence. In his bootlegged television address, he inspires the citizenry to revolt with him, inviting them to the Parliament on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, where he will stage his resistance to state power by blowing up the building. Hearing his entreaty, people we’ve only seen watching television in their homes or in pubs feel their complacency and complicity lifted and march off to the battle lines, all dressed in V’s costume, with its black cloak, long-haired wig, and the bleak, frozen smile of his mask.

While the army guards the Parliament, these would-be activists descend on the building en masse, marching together down long avenues. As they approach, the military leaders try to raise high-level officials for operating instructions, but no one responds. This moment of disorganized confusion resonates with the image of Bush sitting in that classroom in Florida while planes hit the World Trade Centers (shown in Farenheit 9/11), as well as the unbearable mystification of the FAA officers represented in United 93, floundering in utter disbelief that the government could be asleep at the wheel, nowhere in evidence while the world as we know it implodes.

Although the crowd of people dressed in the same rather outré outfit could resemble something out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, as the Parliament begins to explode they all lift their masks, revealing their individual humanity to distinguish them from the potential fascism of the uniform crowd. They’re revealed as the anonymous, ordinary people we’ve seen before in front of their televisions, people moved to join the cause and free themselves from the ravages of power.

Parliament finally explodes in a fiery montage of light and sound. The demonstrators gaze with wonder, as though they’re looking at art. The explosives go off like fireworks, breaking into the night sky in beautiful aesthetic arcs of sparkling color and light that makes the scene look very much like the 4th of July, and is in fact a kind of Independence Day. Rather than the false promise of agency and awe that the American holiday has come to represent, this performance of citizenship is filled with hope and possibility for a different kind of future.

This final moment of unmasking and empowering the citizens also reminds me of one of the very first films about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Longtime Companion, when in the end, all the people who’d died earlier in the film are resurrected for a utopian moment of partying together on the beach in Provincetown. In V, the resurrected are people who have been killed at Larkhill, notably a lesbian couple imprisoned and executed for their sexuality, whose story Evey reads when she too (supposedly) is incarcerated in the facility and tortured for information about V. That sexuality is under heightened scrutiny, and that those in power inveigh against "homosexuals" as depraved, makes this Britain of the future seem even more like today's United States.

Portman’s Evey character offers an interesting representation of someone both participating in history (because of her parents’ activism and their disappearance) and an ordinary person quite oblivious to the real situation of her life. When first seen, Evey works for the national television station as a functionary without power, watching news come in but not registering how it might affect her life or her own complicity in the events of the day. As such, she becomes a neat conduit for viewers, as we learn along with Evey about who V is and the violence he means to avenge.

That they fall in love is rather silly; he’s an effete costumed vigilante who speaks with 19th century cadences of Classical and Renaissance topics, quoting Shakespeare and speaking in couplets. When she finally kisses him, it’s his mask her lips meet. All this is cold comfort, but at the same time, the moment is old-fashioned, chivalrous, and chaste. When V confesses his love for Evey (on his deathbed, of course), he seems more like Camille than an action hero, leaving Evey to play the surviving lover and pull the lever that sends the explosives--with V's body packed alongside them--to the Parliament.

The love story seems a cheesy ploy, one that reduces Evey’s power to a rather stereotypically female set of emotions. On the other hand, it’s her love for V that persuades Evey to the justice of his political perspective, that brings her to avenge the personal tragedies of her own life and to see them as widely political rather than simply individual events. The romance at once consigns its female lead to being enlightened and motivated by a very strange man and on the other hand, suggests that political radicalism might be achieved through love.

Happily, an action-hero who quotes Shakespeare, is clearly intellectual, and wears a mask that he never takes off breaks the generic mold. We never learn who V was (his name stands only and literally for “vendetta”), which doesn’t really matter because as Evey says in an elegiac moment at the film’s end, he was all of us. He wasn’t an individual, but an archetype, an idea to whom to attach hope and faith and belief.

In fact, V for Vendetta is one of the most politically acute and hopeful narrative films I’ve seen in a long time. Watching people throw off the yoke of illusion, hearing them curse the screen that feeds them lies and don the uniform of revolt, made me hopeful that we, too, could be inspired to protest, and achieve our own independence from unlawful, corrupt power.

V for Vendetta is also wonderfully stylish, allusive, and witty, visually and textually. Critics mostly liked it, even though it didn’t do exceptionally well at the box office (despite its filmic pedigree, adapted from a graphic novel, and produced and written by the Wachowski brothers of the Matrix fame). The critics found art in this film, with all its pleasure, wonder, and surprise. I also found a rather feminist critique of a fascist future, in which finally, Evey, along with V, is something of a hero. And I was quite entertained along the way.

Feeling populist,
The Feminist Spectator

Friday, August 04, 2006

"Grrl Action" and "American Fiesta": In Response to "Anonymous"

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful August 2nd comment on my "This I Believe Post." I think you've described exactly what I mean by a "utopian performative"--those moments of being moved and lifted outside of ourselves into a sense of communal belonging and hopefulness.

I agree that these moments often happen when we least expect them. I, too, have found them in amateur productions as often as professional ones, and in fact find that the price of the ticket or the training level of the cast doesn't necessarily predict when these moments will occur. That's partly why I try to go to all different kinds of performances, bringing with me the hope that those moments of transport will happen.

I felt a moment similar to the one you experienced at the amateur production of West Side Story last weekend here in Austin when I saw Grrl Action, a performance of solo work by local girls, ages 13-16, produced by the Rude Mechanicals Theatre Company at the Off Center ( The summer community-based theatre project now has an established, several year history; in fact, a few of the girls performing this year had been with the project since they were 13, and were now "graduating." In the audience were a group of girls who had participated in earlier incarnations of Grrl Action. I was moved by their presence, and moved by the graduating girls' testimony to how the performance project had affected their lives.

The group this year was perhaps the most diverse, in terms of race, sexuality, and, most salient, class. The juxtaposition of their stories highlighted how different girls' experiences play out in a social world with enormous class disparities.

One Mexican-Amiercan girl performed a piece about immigration, decrying the Bush administration for limiting opportunities for people looking to improve their fates, not to terrorize the United States, as he claims. A white lesbian girl performed a piece about crawling back from an abusive childhood and numerous suicide attempts, propelling herself into a future in which she intends to go to college and make more of herself than her younger years predicted. A middle-class white girl performed her own personal "history of dance," flying about the stage gyrating and grinding to various dance styles and reminding us of their heyday. Another performed a silent dialogue with two chairs, pushing them toward and away from each other across the stage in a crystal clear illustration of ambivalence for an unseen partner.

The group moments were equally affecting, because they made palpable the girls' respect for one another across their differences as well as their commonalities; their commitment to telling their stories; and their sense of freedom at their ability to speak into a public forum some of their most important feelings and ideas. The audience was moved to respond to the girls' call several times through the performance, offering support, love, the power of their answering presence to move the stories forward and honor their meanings.

These girls are trained to write and to perform in a short three-week intensive workshop environment. They craft personal narratives, and they learn to embody their stories and their ensemble moments with movement exercises and Boal-based techniques. A director (this year the very talented Madge Darlington) joins them near the end of the workshop to help them stage the performance. The performance, presented twice over one weekend, is free.

As a spectator, I had little investment in the performance (except that I'm on the advisory board of the Rude Mechs Company). I hadn't paid for my ticket. I was giving up 90 minutes of my time. And yet my experience was filled with moments of hope, moved as I was by the work these girls' had done, and touched as I was by our presence listening to them. I believe that their experience with Grrl Action changed their lives. I know that seeing them perform changed mine.

A few days before, I'd spent more than $30 and 90 minutes to see a production of the play American Fiesta, produced by the Austin Theatre Alliance at UT's McCullough Theatre. Written by Steven Tomlinson, a local favorite on the solo performance scene, the play has been lauded as the Osborn Winner for the "Best New Play By An Emerging Playwright" by the American Theatre Critics Association; selected as "The Best Play of 2005" by the local newspaper, the Austin-American Statesman; and was the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award Finalist. Tomlinson, who also teaches in the business school at UT, is an accomplished writer and performer, with a commanding presence, a smooth, personable delivery, and a coherent, pleasant story-telling style.

American Fiesta uses Tomlinson's new penchant for collecting Fiestaware as a trope for coming to terms with his conservative parents, who refuse to honor his intent to marry his Latino male partner in Toronto. Across this narrative frame, Tomlinson weaves wry observations about Americana, democracy, domesticity, and politics, searching out the contradictions of queer experience in a moment when gay people are vilified by the US religious right and conservative center while we're being granted the right to marry in numerous countries across Western Europe and Canada. Collecting the Depression-era dishware becomes Tomlinson's way to displace his emotions and to order a life that isn't always in his control.

The production is beautifully staged by Christina Moore, using two butcher block tables and chairs in front of a geometrically compelling arrangement of shelves, onto which Tomlinson loads his new purchases. By the piece's end, the colorful assortment of plates and cups, pitchers and bowls glow under pinpoint spots, shining with love, history, and the fingerprints of relationships sustained and nourished.

But unlike my experience at Grrl Action, while I appreciated Tomlinson's story, I didn't find myself moved by the 90 minutes I spent with him. Even though American Fiesta's content is right, as they say, up my alley, I felt strangely distanced from the performance. The story sounded didactic to me. As Tomlinson related the events of his disagreement with his parents and his descent into the obsessions of collecting dishware, it seemed he was telling us how to think and feel, instead of leading us there through metaphor or style, and really hammered
home the obvious "message." And even though his parents basically reject his queerness and his partner in the most cruel ways, Tomlinson's emotions remain one-dimensional. He doesn't seem to suffer at all, never blows his cool, and never seems hurt by their oblivious homophobic rantings. As a result, the stakes seem rather low.

Tomlinson impersonates the other characters, from his dithering mother and pompous father, to his warm but cautious partner, to the mythical man in an antique store outside his parents' town in Oklahoma who sells him his first piece of Fiestaware. Because he distinguishes each character with only one or two gestures and a distinct vocal pattern, his performance of their idiosyncrasies gets a bit repetitious as the evening progresses.

It's always nice to see a warm, pleasantly told story about a gay man and his partner and family, especially one with a poltiical analysis that draws a relation between the microcosm and the macrocosm of US domestic policy and its blindness. But unlike my experience at Grrl Action, I felt "addressed" instead of moved. I couldn't sense the audience surrounding me drawn closer together; we remained surprisingly solitary in our respect for Tomlinson's work. We seemed to receive the piece in a syncopated timescape, rather than in the lovely unison with which the Off Center audience heard Grrl Action.

I'm glad I saw American Fiesta, and I'm glad that Tomlinson's work is receiving accolades. But I'll remember my afternoon at Grrl Action for much longer, and carry it with me when I think about my own nieces and how they might grow up to share their stories.

The Feminist Spectator

Sunday, July 23, 2006

For "This I Believe" . . .

As many of you know, NPR has been running a series of personal essays/statements every Monday for the past while on "Morning Edition" called "This I Believe." It's based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, which was hosted by Edward R. Murrow (see

As I've listened to the stirring, often inspiring essays each week, I've been inspired. I love the historical connection between the series’ first incarnation and the present, and I admire the opportunity it provides to speak publicly about faith and belief in a secular forum.

My latest book is an extended argument about my own faith in the power of theatre to change people’s lives by letting us feel, together, what a better world might be like if we could share the moments of wonder and even love that often temporarily bind us together at the theatre.

So I decided I’d like to share my thoughts in the “This I Believe” forum.

The hardest thing about writing the essay was trying to capture in a few words how much performance means to me and the belief I hold in its power for all of us. But crystallizing your thoughts, though difficult, is always gratifying. And the possibility that your ideas might be shared with others makes it all worthwhile. (I've felt this keenly for this last year, writing this blog.)

Since I don't know if my essay will be selected for broadcast, I'm sharing it here. I encourage you to comment and to share your own beliefs if you'd like (I've reenabled the "comments" function on the blog, which was mysteriously turned off for the last month).

Thanks, as usual, for reading.

I Believe . . .

in the transformative power of performance. As a teenager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I took acting classes that allowed me to transcend the constraints of my daily life at school and at home. By trying on various characters, I experimented with who I might become.

At fourteen, I played the dowager Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals, costumed in a heavily draped dress with an excessively long train, wearing a stuffed bluebird as decoration in my wig. I loved the fun of pronouncing her ill-chosen words and the laughs I got kicking that train around the stage.

At the theatre, my life as a solitary, introspective teenager was brightened by the stage lights and became, most importantly, communal.

Although I’ve long since stopped performing, I remain a committed spectator. I know of no other secular gatherings at which I’m regularly inspired to laugh and cry with strangers. In those moments of breathing together, the people we watch on stage reach the audience with little bits of their souls through the transmogrifications of character or the illumination of language.

I feel this heightened community, this warm if temporary belonging, watching high school students perform diverting musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as seeing serious Broadway performances like Fiona Shaw in Medea. Professional or amateur, performance captivates me with its enactments of the possibilities of our lives.

A friend and I, both of us white, middle-aged, Jewish theatre professors, went to see ten young people of color reading their slam verses in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, an exuberant evening of stories not regularly heard in that forum. We smiled even when we didn’t understand a reference, moved by the obvious delight of the younger people surrounding us.

Walking up the aisle after particularly affecting performances like Def Poetry Jam, I rub shoulders with fellow audience members embraced by the warmth of communal pleasure. These moments elevate us to a plane far above everyday life, and surprise us with a depth of present experience that brings us closer together, if only for a moment.

I prize these opportunities to experience public life in tandem with others, despite whatever differences of upbringing and identity might in other social circumstances keep us apart. I’m filled with hope knowing that strangers keep gathering to see people transform themselves into others or to tell us stories about their lives and our own.

I believe in the power of the collective creating and viewing performance inspires, when we confront each other in all our tender mortality and yearn together toward a common future. That bluebird in my hair as Mrs. Malaprop was a harbinger of belief in the possibility of theatre’s magical potential to let us laugh, feel, think, and dream together.

Yours, believing,
The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"Mrs. Harris" and "Huff": Good Summer Television

I just got a chance to watch Phyllis Nagy's film Mrs. Harris, which I'd taped from HBO some weeks or months ago (see The film stars Ben Kingsley as the Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower, who was murdered in the early 1980s by his long-time lover/companion, Jean Harris (played by Annette Bening), the headmistress of a girl's prep school in Washington, DC. Written and directed by playwright Phyllis Nagy, the film is a smart, compelling combination of narrative fiction and mock-documentary, investigating the sometimes murky, sometimes clear reasons that drove Harris to commit the crime and, most importantly, telling her story against a cultural backdrop that explains more about her motivation than any of her actual actions.

Nagy tells the story in a non-linear way, beginning with the literally stormy night of the murder and jumping back and forth in time to relate how Tarnower and Harris met and how their complicated affair proceeded over the years. Interspersed are "interviews" with friends and other people who knew Jean and Hy, including Hy's mother and sister (played satirically as a Jewish suburban matron by a nearly unrecognizable Cloris Leachman). The story is distanced in a Brechtian way, while at the same time, the narrative pulls us into complicated identifications with Harris, from whose perspective the emotional details unravel.

Harris is a straitlaced middle-aged white woman in the 1980s, and her relationship with the Brooklyn-born Jewish doctor lifts her into a more reckless, carefree style of living. Tarnower seems a cad from the outset, although Kingsley plays his charisma as infectious, if offbeat. These two wonderful actors make it plausible that such an unlikely couple would be attracted to each other. Tarnower seems uncouth within the ostentatious displays of his wealth, which ground the film's production design--he boasts of his money, of his less than privileged background, and of his sexual prowess (in an amusing, highly theatrical scene in which Kingsley appears to strut naked through a locker room, literally turning the heads of the men he passes). His laugh is a caustic bark and his sexuality is narcissistic and infantile.

While Nagy's screenplay doesn't quite explain what draws Harris to him, Bening's performance demonstrates how she comes alive in his presence. His disregard for convention appeals to some hidden anarchistic streak in an otherwise proper life. Her own more radical subconscious is hinted at when she uses the precisions of language to dessicate the egos of people she disdains, typically men with power over her, or Hy's family, who disapproves of his relationship with Jean. She's clearly a powerful woman, constrained by a traditional role and traditional expectations, who's straining against everything she's been brought up to be. Bening's performance is wry, mordant, and deeply respectful of Harris's intellect, even when the choices she makes seem incoherent or insane.

When Tarnower brutally rescinds the marriage proposal he offered, for instance, Harris nonetheless stays with him, accommodating his need for other women until his relationship with a nurse in his office (played by Chloe Sevigny) seems to drive her over the edge of jealousy. The murder is staged as accidental; the fatally depressed Harris apparently means to kill herself, but the gun goes off when she visits Tarnower late on that fateful rainy night, and he dies from the gunshot wound because the storm has knocked out the phone lines and they can't call for help. By then, Harris is nearly catatonic with grief, jealousy, and rage.

Bening's ability to capture the far edges of the character's sanity--from her sometimes priggish, impeccably bred bearing and her sharp retorts to lawyers and police officers she clearly finds beneath her, to the disheveled, exhausted, vulnerable woman taken into custody the night of the murder--makes her sympathetic and captivating, a real study in feminist dignity from a woman who at the same time seems to have debased herself in this relationship.

Mrs. Harris is a smart, thoughtful, funny, feminist film, capturing the irony of Harris's position and the absurdity of Tarnower's posturing while at the same time narrating the complicated set of emotions and attractions, needs and desires that made them an explosive, doomed couple. In the process, Nagy recalls something of the early 80s zeitgeist, that moment when the first rush of second-wave feminism was receding, beat back by the avaricious, masculinist capitalism of the coming decade. As Harris tries to maintain her self-respect and her position, she finds herself battered by the very anti-feminist forces that Tarnower in some real way represents. The diet he popularized, for instance, controlled women just as he controlled his lovers. The audience can't help applauding just a little when Harris inadvertently kills him (although the film also suggests that the murder might have been premeditated--rumination on the possibility isn't the most interesting aspect of the narrative).

Phyllis Nagy is a playwright I've long admired. Her plays include the surrealistic time-traveling romp, The Strip, as well as the chaotic, compelling Weldon Rising (see It's heartening to see someone with an original voice and an insightful feminist perspective working in cable television. Rent it.

Huff is another cable network presentation, this time Showtime, that was recently cancelled (according to People Magazine) after a two-season run (the season one DVD is now available). Hank Azaria produced the series, and stars as a pychiatrist whose home life is more neurotic than any of his patients' (see Although he's presented as a successful professional, married, with one teenage son, an alcoholic mother (played by the masterful Blythe Danner, who was nominated for a 2005 Emmy Award for her work here), a schizophrenic brother, and a father emotionally missing in action, Huff is one of the more long-suffering, introspective white male characters I've ever seen written for television.

The show is ostensibly about this man, yet it's the women who carry it, from his wife, Beth, who begins the series with a career as a caterer and ends it with profound doubts about every choice she's made in her life; to his mother, Izzy, who was traumatized when her now hospitalized younger son tried to kill her; to his secretary, Paula, an African American woman of great faith who brings a kind of certainty into a household of doubting skeptics, to Maggie, the secretary who cleans up emotional and physical messes for the lawyer Russell, Huff's self-destructing best friend.

In addition to the surrounding cast of layered, interesting female characters, Huff himself is femininized, his position as family caretaker and certainly as patriarch always challenged and placed in doubt. His own shrink (played with an ironic twinkle by Angelica Huston) calls attention to Huff's own propensity to try to save everyone but himself, guiding him through an acid trip meant to loosen his somewhat constipated relation to his own emotions. His actions always seem wrong, his anger and his concern ill-timed and misguided. While he's also written as a sympathetic character, the narrative disavows any need to protect him as its protagonist or to make him an unambivalent hero.

The most fascinating male deconstruction on the show is Huff's friend Russell, played with astonishing virtuosity by Oliver Platt (also Emmy-nominated this year). Although Russell is the epitome of a self-involved, fast-traveling LA corporate lawyer, the character is written as entirely flawed, flailing about carelessly in the crumbling protection afforded by his privilege. He excuses his behavior as taste, insisting he's a guy who likes to "party hard." But his actions become more and more irresponsible as the series progresses, his drug and alcohol abuse and sexual proclivities more alarming, and even his inexplicably loyal secretary finally can't clean up his messes. Meanwhile, he's also written as very smart, a wily lawyer who despite his cutthroat power, seems to side with the good guy.

In a drunken bacchanalia, he impregnates a rather ordinary woman (played with deep respect, in a role that could have devolved into cruel parody, by Broadway performer Faith Prince) who decides to keep the baby. The second season narrates Russell's lightning fast flips between the seductions of a faithful fatherhood and the enticements of his prostitutes and drugs. Kelly, the mother of his child, recognizing that Russell might not be trustworthy, empowers herself as an erstwhile single mother, working with a doula (who ironically turns out to be less dependable than Russell) who insists on assisting her baby's arrival into a birthing pool set up in Kelly's small apartment. The season two finale ends with the inadvertent overdose of Russell's prostitute friend and the birth of his son, who he delivers himself when the errant doula fails to show.

Although there's something a bit smarmy about recuperating a character who's most interesting for his flaws by the marvel of childbirth, if the series had continued it would have been interesting to see how the writers addressed Russell's refusal to bow to convention, despite the birth of his son. And Kelly was never written as someone who wanted Russell fulltime in her life; she's more concerned with his character because of what he might genetically pass on to her child.

Likewise, although Huff's mother, Izzy, seems to pull herself out of her alcoholic haze (which allows Danner to deliver some of the best lines I've ever heard on television), and although the last episode shows her coming to the rescue of her schizophrenic son when he suffers a very dangerous psychotic break, Izzy has been established as too richly contradictory to be pulled into a conventional narrative of motherhood. Huff, suffering a midlife crisis when his marriage with Beth falters, takes some time away from the family, and is shocked when Beth doesn't automatically welcome him back when his self-imposed separation comes to what he thinks is an appropriate end.

The series is full of surprises, and holds interest with the sometimes curious, always imaginative and compelling quirks of character that comprise its texture. After the very dramatic cliff-hanger of a season finale, I was dismayed and disappointed to hear that Huff might not be back (I'm determined to believe that People didn't check its facts). We need all the smart, feminist-inclined television we can get. Rent season one and look out for season two on Netflicks.

Yours, with TIVO,
The Feminist Spectator