Sunday, March 12, 2006

Catching Up with Culture

I guess they say April is the cruelest month, but for me, February and the beginning of March proved most crushing. My resolve to write twice a month was foiled by other commitments and obligations, and while I longed daily for the time to write, it just never transpired.

I’m now posting from a Sheraton Hotel, looking out at the rainy banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, where I’ve escaped for spring break. We’re seeing a production at the Oregon Children’s Theatre later today; leaving tomorrow to make our way to Eugene through the pinot noir region of the Willamette Valley; and arriving the next day in Ashland, to spend a couple of nights seeing productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m looking forward to a rejuvenating week, one that should give me plenty of things on which The Feminist Spectator can ruminate in these cyberpages.

To catch up, however, from this unfortunate six-week lull, I have various things on which to report and discuss, which I’ll do in backwards chronological order. First, the controversy over the New York Theatre Workshop’s “postponed” production of My Name is Rachel Corrie; second, the Oscar broadcast and Brokeback Mountain’s upset by Crash; and finally, in my next posting, three productions I saw in New York over the blizzard weekend in February 2006.

My Name is Rachel Corrie Postponed at NYTW

My Name is Rachel Corrie is a play based on the journals and emails of an American peace activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer she was attempting to keep from destroying Palestinian property. Devised by British actor Alan Rickman and The Guardian journalist Katherine Viner, the play was produced to strong reviews at London’s Royal Court Theatre, which apparently negotiated a transfer to New York Theatre Workshop for this spring. Last week, however, Jim Nicola, artistic director of NYTW, announced that the theatre intended to postpone the production indefinitely. Nicola said, “We were not confident that we had the time to create an environment where the art could be heard independent of the political issues associated with it” (see for the story and Nicola’s quote).

NYTW does have a track record for producing risky theatre productions with a decidedly political slant. In fact, I opened this blog last August with their production of the Five Lesbian Brothers’ Oedipus at Palm Springs. Right now, they’re presenting Will Power’s The Seven, which tells in hip-hop verse, with choreography by Bill T. Jones and direction by Jo Bonney, Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes. NYTW brought us Jonathan Larson’s Rent, Tony Kushner’s Slavs, various Naomi Wallace productions, including The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, and various other productions by playwrights whose commitment to critically engaging the social is clear-eyed and articulate (the many problems with Rent notwithstanding). Nicola insists in Playbill that his theatre is committed to “help our audiences and our community engage in an open and civil discourse on issues of our time. Our purpose for being is to create the most conducive place for these conversations.”

Yet many see his stance as a dodge for what they perceive as his capitulation to the local Jewish community, which stood fast against the production. Earlier stories in the New York Times—first reported by Jessie McKinley on February 28, 2006—reported that Nicola “said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work. ‘The uniform answer we got was that the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,’” McKinley notes. Artists from around the world—including actor Vanessa Redgrave and New York playwright Christopher Shinn, a member of NYTW’s affiliated artists’ group, The Usual Suspects—slammed the theatre for retreating from the potential controversy.

I haven’t seen the play, and obviously can’t judge it myself on anything but the reports I’ve read and its glowing London reviews (the producers have secured a transfer to the West End, after which they’re looking for another New York theatre to which to move it). But I can, like many others, consider NYTW’s decision to postpone the production and find it lacking.

Given the recent passing of the second iteration of the Patriot Act; given the wiretapping scandal that Bush’s administration has so neatly sidestepped; given the debacle of Dubai’s operation of US ports; given the lack of open public discourse about these and so many other issues, doesn’t a theatre company with a reputation for social commitment have a responsibility to offer its stages to for discussion and debate, however acrimonious? As Edward Rothstein points out in his March 6th “Connections” piece in the Times, the backlash NYTW sought to contain by the postponement has erupted in any case, without giving audiences the opportunity to actually see the play and decide for themselves what it means and what it might tell us about the state of global politics and our common humanity. We might, in fact, find that the play is slight or even trite, and not worthy of the political burdens it’s now been forced to bear. If we do find it moving and illuminating, better we should come to those conclusions by witnessing the production ourselves.

Nicola’s decision isn’t surprising. How can theatres not feel cowardly, when resources are shrinking, when public support for the arts is practically non-existent, when theatres rely on donors to fill the gaping holes in their budgets? But if the bottom line drives artistic decisions, then why continue to produce? Nicola should have produced My Name is Rachel Corrie this spring, and invited those of us who would have attended the production—to decide for ourselves what it means—to help support NYTW by becoming donors ourselves, by supporting not just this production, but future work that might take what some consider political risks. By bowing to pressure (real or imagined) not to agitate the sympathies of present donors, Nicola and company missed an opportunity to cultivate those who might have surprised him by assuming their own places on his donor rolls, happy for the chance to support a company willing to take a risk by producing a topical play.

Brokeback Mountain’s Best Picture Loss

Those of us who thought for sure that Brokeback had a lock on the Best Picture Oscar last Sunday (March 5th, 2006) were surprised when Crash won instead. Plenty of speculation surrounds the Academy’s decision. Ultimately, this matters very little in the scheme of things, except perhaps as a fleeting cultural moment in which we might learn something about the preferences and prejudices of a very small, self-selected group of artists who represent “the Academy,” artists given an undue amount of power to sway public opinion on the movies.

Some commentators decided the nod to Crash demonstrated Brokeback backlash, a gesture of dismissal for the “gay cowboy movie” that had stirred so many sympathies and inspired so much editorial ink and tabloid images. Oscar night host Jon Stewart captured the spirit of the thing with his amusing, cleverly edited montage of cowboy films past, all spliced to underline the homoerotic implications always present in the genre. Nothing new about Brokeback, the clips seemed to say, except that Ennis and Jake consummate what in many of these films is an unstated, inarticulate longing.

Brokeback might not be a “great” film—but then, is Crash? Or Lord of the Rings, or many of the films that won Best Picture in years past? Crash’s ensemble drama offers terrific performances by actors often lost in the shuffle of the Hollywood cash cows they’re stuck milking—Sandra Bullock, Brendan Frasier, Ryan Phillipe, in particular, all turn in wonderful moments in the carefully intercut narrative that let them transcend the one-note acting of their previous work. In Crash, they remind us that they’re artists of a sort, willing and able to stretch themselves out of stereotypes and into characters whose ambivalences and racism and corruption (examined or not) seems real and painful and somehow instructive. Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, and the terrifically talented Terrence Howard (whose turn in Hustle and Flow provides the perfect social counterpoint to his upwardly striving, assimilationist, soul-deadened television director in Crash) also provide moments of complicated insight into the murky, always gray but sometimes illuminating and hopeful areas of contiguity in a city (or country) where so many cultures cohabit and collide.

But Crash’s conceit—determined as it is to let lives bump against each other and to find, in that serendipity, moments of both brutality and redemption—is finally a bit too pat, as the stories line up surprisingly neatly in how they touch the central and radiating tragedies. I found Crash thought-provoking and at times moving, although I’m not sure it told us anything new about bigotry and class privilege or offered us original perspectives or ways out of the quagmire of racial suspicion and disregard.

While I couldn’t turn off the Oscar show applauding Crash as a “first” (the first film to address racism in LA and in the US so trenchantly, for example, would be an overstatement, applied here), I could have left the long evening of tepid television moved by Brokeback’s distinction as the first film with gay or lesbian content to win Best Picture. Brokeback, too, might not be a “great” film (a distinction with no doubt as many definitions as there are viewers), but its story—told so majestically by Ang Lee and his cinematographer, and so poignantly by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal—does offer us something new. I chafe when people call it the “gay cowboy movie,” because its story resonates more widely than that. Brokeback tells the historical yet resonant story of two men in the 60s who killed their spirits living lies because they couldn’t see anything in their futures but certain violence if they chose to own up to and publicly live out their passion for each other.

The wrenching image of the two shirts hung one over the other, first seen in Jake’s abandoned closet in his parents’ house, and finally seen as the signature, underscoring image in Ennis’s closet in his trailer, provides the moving history lesson that’s ultimately Brokeback’s greatest contribution to contemporary culture. The image crystallizes the painful reminder that these men’s love for each other was forbidden to be seen, and could only be demonstrated metaphorically by intertwining the arms of the fabric in which their arms once held each other. The two shirts on one hanger remain tucked carefully away behind the firmly shut doors of the closets in which Ennis and Jake were forced, by social convention and constricting morality, to lead their truncated lives.

Leaving the Oscar telecast knowing that a Best Picture award for Brokeback might have opened those metaphorical closet doors would have meant a lot in a cultural moment in which gays and lesbians feel their own version of public backlash, when state after state holds referenda about constitutionally closing off marriage and sometimes adoption rights, and when conservative legislators and far-right watch dog groups monitor televised images for “pro-gay” content. Under the social extremism of the Bush administration, it’s “hard out there” not just for a pimp (the rap anthem from Hustle and Flow that provided its own, more pleasing upset when it won Best Song), but for queer people trying to live their lives with dignity and to take pleasure in our sameness and our difference from other Americans. I would have been moved to witness Brokeback be named the first film about gay people to win Best Picture.

But I guess we’ll have to keep waiting.

In “Catching Up II,” I’ll report from a feminist perspective on the New York productions of Sweeney Todd (starring Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris), The Little Dog Laughed (the Hollywood closet play by Douglas Carter Beane), and The Color Purple (the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s award-winning novel).

I hope to keep this blog up-to-date from now on, because it’s so important to keep the dialogue going. I always appreciate your responding posts and comments—let’s keep talking about what all this means and what we might observe and say and do to keep our culture progressive.

The Feminist Spectator