April 2017: The Sheer Uncertainty of the Whole Enterprise

 

daffodil

Illustration by Amy Jean Porter via The Awl

 

2 criticism crash courses, 6 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast,” 2 musicals, 1 validation of my Luddite leanings, 3 “failed” “feminist” startups, 1 re-appropriated Bible verse, 1 professor I wish I’d taken classes with, 2 novels

*

Two specific “criticism” events this month, very different from each other: a lecture at DiverseWorks by Claudia La Rocco—poet, artist, critic and editor-in-chief of SF MoMA’s Open Space—and a day-long workshop at WriteSpace about writing food and restaurant reviews with Houstonia’s managing editor, Katharine Shilcutt.

I’m thinking of these two events in tandem, even though they work at cross purposes on the surface level: one posits thoughtful criticism as an art that is an antidote to noise, the other is more “service journalism” than art. The two events were good complements to each other in reminding me of the power of good criticism—and considering how much to insert the self into a review or response.

I only have scattered notes from Claudia La Rocco’s lecture, but one exercise stands out: we watched a performance by Lime Rickey International, and she asked us to take notes and review it as it unfolded. Then, near the end of the talk, she read her own observations, as thoughtful and lyrical as one would expect from a poet. Between this and the Experimental Action panel in February, I feel much more prepared to review performance art.

Criticism is a container for people’s confusion
Susan Sontag: rules of taste enforce structures of power
The moral clarity of the immature
There are worse things than being obvious
Practice criticism (remain present and stay open) 
We owe criticism attention and thought
When reviewing or responding to performance art: what does it do to your body? 
David Foster Wallace: To be literate is to feel stupid all the time

What can we do to reduce the noise of social media and instant gratification?

We could do the painstaking work of looking/listening/deepening our thinking

We could create a worthy container for expansive discourse

I didn’t leave this lecture thinking “gee, the next logical step from here is to write restaurant reviews.” I’ve never really had a desire to write them, but I love the day-long workshop format that WriteSpace offers, and I was curious. The day included a history of food reviews (did you know restaurants didn’t really exist before the French Revolution, when all the cooks were put out of work?), reading good and bad examples of reviews, taste testing paired with writing exercises, going out to lunch, and then writing a review of that lunch in the afternoon. I went to the Australian-themed Platypus Brewery and got to gleefully use a lot of bad Australia puns in the review (and the meat pies were DELICIOUS). The other three women in the class were good writers, and Katharine was a totally delightful teacher who graciously took us through an entire issue of Houstonia pointing out how to best pitch each section.

Common threads: listen, educate yourself, and always remember that there are worse things than being obvious.

*

After the Women’s March in January, I ducked into a movie theater and watched a Sailor Moon movie. After the Tax Day March on April 15, I did the same with the new live action version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the 1992 animated version of which is probably my favorite Disney movie. I think it’s interesting that I went to see these two Romantic, female-centric films right after both of these marches, but why write about that when I could just list my super hot takes?

  1. Emma Watson is great and all, but if Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame is going to play the beast, Lady Mary should have been Belle. I don’t care if she doesn’t pass for a teenager. In fact, the story would probably be better if Belle had been written a tad more spinstery, and at 35, [totally gorgeous] Michelle Dockery would have been considered that in Renaissance France. “Spinster Belle” would have a more stern authority. Then maybe Belle and the beast would have actually had chemistry, and all of us who were callously [willingly] sucked into “Downton Abbey” could get some payback for Matthew’s clumsy car crash exit.
  2. Why is the librarian in Belle’s village relatively young and attractive? Wouldn’t she have just married him, since he obviously gets her?
  3. Remaking beloved animated classics into live action versions that repeat the script and songs verbatim totally sucks the joy out of the entire endeavor.
  4. The new songs I could take or leave, but I understand why they were added. The emphasis on this sentimental angle isn’t what I would have gone for (see point about “Spinster Belle”) but it was sweet to behold and very Disney.
  5. The credits rolled with French titles, with the English translations artlessly underneath. JUST COMMIT TO ONE ARTISTIC CHOICE, DISNEY. It’s not like we’re still saying “freedom fries.”

*

In other “your faves are problematic” news, I read this interview at The Interval with Pam McKinnon, director of the new “Amélie” musical, based on the 2001 film that I still watch sometimes when I’m depressed. The interview is fantastic, but I twitched at some particular language in the intro:

“Netflix describes [the character of Amélie] as impish; a precursor to the manic pixie dream girl, bathed in the same French aesthetic that makes Americans buy books like French Women Don’t Get Fat. How does one turn a très male gaze film into a musical in 2017?”

The twitching is almost certainly because of my teenage attachment to the film (so badass watching it in French class!), but it that phrasing still made it feel like feminist buzzword clickbait. It wasn’t so much as the misuse of the term “manic pixie dream girl” (which the internet shamelessly applies to all cutesy young women even when they’re the protagonist, which makes the term invalid) that irked me as “male gaze.” McKinnon goes on to say that since they barely “let” Amélie speak in the film, even though she’s the main character, she’s being subjugated.

I understand fatigue in terms of the type of women we see in films (and McKinnon was a grown woman when she saw it, while I was a high school student), but here, a shy feminine person is the lead, and it’s hard to see Amélie as being created for male pleasure: she’s dressed in cardigans and combat boots for most of the film, she eschews sex as boring, and she is the pursuer, not the pursued. Maybe it’s just because she’s attractive (in a fiendishly aesthetic film)? Or are McKinnon and the interviewer viewing the fact that she’s shy and doesn’t talk much as a reflection of men’s desires for women to shut up? I’m grasping here.

Amélie is 23 years old—she’s naive, but she takes action, even if it’s twee action that gets her mislabeled as a manic pixie dream girl. It would have been a shitty characterization if Nino or another male character had been the lead and she only existed to help them accomplish their goals, but that wasn’t the case. I know that I’m hauling my adolescent baggage in my critique, but I wish we could recognize different types of heroines without labeling them as manic pixie dream girls.

Defensive griping aside, the musical version is sounding better and better. After the initial disappointment that Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack wouldn’t be included, McKinnon’s account of the creative process has me all excited again.

*

Speaking of musicals:

“My family’s story isn’t one that you would have seen in a Hollywood movie or a Broadway musical. For one, it doesn’t conform to stereotypes that white executives and producers have about us. There are no silent and sexualized Asian women. There are no conniving and emasculated Asian men. And there are no white men.

Instead there’s a South Vietnamese English-teacher-turned-soldier, my father, fighting the Viet Cong. He meets a South Vietnamese woman, my mother. They fall in love and exchange letters for two years, before he travels 200 miles, from Qui Nhơn to Đà Lạt, to ask for her hand. There is a turning point, April 30, 1975. The teacher is imprisoned. His wife, now a mother of two, is left alone to support her family.

You won’t see this love story on Broadway. Instead, what you will see is Miss Saigon.”

— Diep Tran at American Theatre: “I Am Miss Saigon, and I Hate It”

*

“I miss the days when the most stressful thing about popularity was the sheer uncertainty of the whole enterprise. Back when popularity was cool and aloof, identifiable only by the feelings of desire, envy, and yearning experienced by those who looked upon it. Today, there is no mystery. The metrics of popularity are pervasive and unavoidable. News stories, video clips, music playlists — everything comes with view counts, share counts, and crowdsourced ratings.”

— Maureen O’Connor at The Cut: “Remember When Popularity Was Cool? Now It’s Just Work”

*

“It’s very rare that the person who starts a company in their garage or dorm room is equipped to lead it when it has a thousand employees or $150M in revenue. Those are radically different skill sets. So, my purpose here is to criticize the venture capital model for sometimes destroying, as the cost of doing business, perfectly viable, sustainable, and beloved businesses. But also to say that bigger and faster are not always better.”

— Jen Dziura of Get Bullish: “The ‘Failure’ of Feminist Companies is Due to What, Exactly?”

*

“In Christian circles, “worldly” is shorthand for being of the world. In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul encourages Christians not to ‘conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Many Christians interpret this invective as a call to eschew popular culture…. Engaging in popular culture, we were told, was like shaking hands with someone who has a cold—just by being near them, you risk exposure. And for the faithful, it’s not your immune system at risk, it’s your mortal soul.”

— Lyz Lenz at Hazlitt: “Lead Me On.” Romans 12:2 was always my favorite Bible verse as a kid, but because I purposefully mangled it to mean “outcasts are cool! I prefer to read” instead of how the patriarchs actually mean it. This essay, which pivots on Amy Grant’s fall from grace in the Christian music industry, is a long but worthwhile read.

*

“Poetry is political. Period. It has often been remarked that the so-called ‘apolitical’ poem, the objet d’art, is of course political in its acceptance of the status quo. But while I agree with that view, that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. I believe poetry is political because a poet is always both working with and straining against language.”

— Richard Hoffman at AGNI: “Poetry is Dissent”

*

“You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine” by Alexandra Kleeman
Novel
Harper Perennial, 2015

I’ve been seeing great reviews of this book for more than a year, and finally picked it up. The narrative follows A, a woman who is roommates with a woman B and dating a man named C. B is creepily trying to mimic and transform herself into A, while C is addicted to pornography and all the characters are addicted to television. This is a special kind of dystopia that already seems like it could be real: C wants him and A to be contestants on a game show called “That’s My Partner!” in which couples try to identify their romantic partners through a series of unsettling challenges; dads, specifically, are disappearing; it’s not uncommon to see bedsheet-wearing families; and “Wallys,” helpful associates at the local superstore who are fully obscured by foam heads, have a very specific workplace code of conduct.

A and B are also addicted to their eating disorder, which is not named but prevalent as it describes their endless search for the right food, and how they end up eating only oranges and popsicles (the reason why this was another not-great “before bed” book for me). The “right food,” for A, is Kandy Kakes. Her description of the commercials featuring Kandy Kat, who desperately wants the Kakes but can never reach them, like Tom chasing Jerry, are the most engaging part of the book. A as Kandy Kat is the conceit. Except what she’s really chasing is far more elusive, muddled by the pervasive static of this recognizable dystopia.

While the story was unpredictable, “a female fight club,” as blurbed by Vogue, it is not. I love Kleeman’s sentences, but the progression of the narrative and meditative tone made the novel feel more like a short story to me. I didn’t find the ending particularly satisfying—but A can’t be satisfied, so why should the reader?

*

“The Wangs Vs. The World” by Jade Chang
Novel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

Jade Chang writes the most painfully real failing stand-up routines I’ve ever read in a novel. They are performed by Andrew Wang, the middle Wang child who, at 21 years old, has been pulled out of college by his father’s sudden bankruptcy. The story revolves around the entire Wang family: Charles, the Taiwanese patriarch who is sure there is family land waiting for him in China; Barbra, his childhood classmate and second wife; Saina, Charles’ oldest daughter, a stylish but disgraced artist who has bought a big old house in the Hudson Valley; the aforementioned Andrew, who is also a virgin (by noble choice!); and Grace, the youngest daughter, a 16-year-old fashion blogger who was sent to, and abruptly removed from, boarding school.

When the incredibly rich Wangs realize Charles has lost all their money in a bad business deal, they pack up an old station wagon and drive from L.A. to Saina’s house in upstate New York. Most of the book is about the journey, and the diversion from character to character will make a smooth transition to a Netflix series, if Chang decides to go that route (she lives in L.A. so let’s guess yes). The parts of the book that do not describe bad stand-up routines (most of it) are also excellent. A funny, sly and tender read.

 

 

October 2016: The Old Divination Standby

aries

“Aries” by Eugenia Loli, from her new zodiac collection. Really kind of her to use a picture that looks just like my grandma in the 60s for my astrological sign.

1 (unsettling) art review, 3 interviews, 1 exaggerated headline, 1 Screwtape musing, 1 accidental feminist classic, 1 of many similarities between me and Ron Weasley, 1 report from Australia, 2 Halloween costumes

*

Black & White, the KKK, and the Enduring Banality of Evil: “The Beginning is Near (Part 1)” by Vincent Valdez
October issue of Aeqai (9-minute read)

“The City I” by Vincent Valdez

Vincent Valdez’s first solo show in 10 years was phenomenally eerie, important and complex. The unsettling centerpiece is more than 30 feet long and six feet high, and not one, but TWO middle-aged couples skittered in and out nervously while I was at the gallery.

*

America has a long and proud tradition of taking in individuals and families who are fleeing violence and persecution, including my parents. Houston has always played a significant role in resettling refugees. When a city takes in victims of tragedy, it demonstrates to the world its compassion and humanity. Houston should continue to set an example for the country and the world.

–Teresa Messer, immigration attorney. Her parents were refugees of the Vietnam War, and now she serves immigrants and refugees in her home city.

*

“Quiet leadership” is something I learned to emphasize during the M.A., or the idea that you can lead by example. You don’t always have to be that extrovert leading the charge — that’s not what leadership is all of the time. Leadership is listening, assessing, finding the people and matching them to their strengths, and you can only do that by listening and assessing.

–Alyson Landry, Professional Communications instructor at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I wish I’d been able to take her class in high school!

*

My responsibilities of my new appointment is to manage the day-to-day operations of critical access hospital that serves a community of 12,000 Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in the Cass Lake Minnesota area. My goals are to collaborate with local tribes to foster a relationship of cooperation.

–Dr. Robert Brady Malone, who simultaneously earned an M.B.A. and his doctorate in medicine, and is now the CEO of Cass Lake Hospital in Minnesota. I conducted this interview before the protest at Standing Rock was widely visible — I would have liked to ask him about how it affects his constituents, if at all.

*

Favorite exaggerated headline: Thousands of Wild Buffalo Appear Out of Nowhere at Standing Rock

In reality, from what I can gather on the internet, about a hundred of them were purposefully released by protesters nearby. But the appearance of a sacred animal in a time of injustice… morale is morale and it doesn’t get more poetic.

*

Speaking of spirituality: this passage of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” in which an elder demon gives epistolary advice to his young demon-nephew about how to sway humans toward their “father below,” is indeed more appropriate than ever this election season:

screwtape

I briefly dated a guy who flippantly said that C.S. Lewis is an idiot. Key word: “briefly.” Regardless of your thoughts on Christianity, “The Screwtape Letters” is a damn classic.

*

Another damn classic: “George of the Jungle,” the 1997 kids movie starring Brendan Fraser. Having a cold will do funny things to a person, and on a sick day this month I found myself renting and watching this movie in its entirety. Why, you ask? Because I read this super right-on Tumblr analysis of how it’s a femininst flick, and felt slightly less bad about how much I liked it as a kid. Does it hold up? Not necessarily — you have to be eight or nine years old to truly appreciate it. But the analysis is still right-on, and I was delirious while watching anyway.

*

I’ve been rereading Harry Potter before bed, and was tickled to find that in “The Goblet of Fire,” Ron Weasley perfectly sums up how I survived a number of avant garde movements, including surrealism, in a French literature class in college. It’s not that I dislike the avant garde — I was just very, very bad at French. But, I got much higher marks in that class than in any of my other French classes using similar tactics to Weasley in the hapless wizards’ Divination class:

“You know,” said Ron, whose hair was on end because of all the times he had run his fingers through it in frustration, “I think it’s back to the old Divination standby.”
“What — make it up?”
“Yeah,” said Ron, sweeping the jumble of scrawled notes off the table, dipping his pen into some ink, and starting to write.
“Next Monday,” he said as he scribbled, “I am likely to develop a cough, owing to the unlucky conjunction of Mars and Jupiter.” He looked at Harry. “You know [Professor Trelawney] — just put in loads of misery, she’ll lap it up.”

It’s surrealism, Harry.

*

Jane Howard on the state of Australia’s culture of art criticism:

Criticism works in conversation. This conversation takes many shapes: the conversation between critic and art, between critic and reader, between critic and critic. . . . But we’ve lost these conversations. . . . And the less this conversation exists, the less it is able to exist.

Here’s to keeping the conversation going, even if it’s about “George of the Jungle.”

*

Happy Halloween from the bridesmaid from hell and thift-store Thor:

bridesmaid-from-hell-2016

thor-2016

Cover Image/“Aries” by Eugenia Loli