4 art things from 2019

A photo of Lee Miller with her eyes closed and head flung back by Man Ray, circa 1930

Man Ray Portrait of Lee Miller – Flying Head, c. 1930. Paris Vintage gelatin silver print (Lee Miller Archives via WBUR)

In 2019, Critical Read published my article about Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Ray’s painting “Le Logis de l’Artiste” (1931). I pitched them after reading a call for “artwork biographies” and realized I had maintained some (not much, it turns out―thank God for libraries) knowledge about the story behind the painting from 2013, when I wrote and directed a short play about it in a friend’s gallery. This time, it was very special to correspond with Antony Penrose via email―and for him to say, when I sent the finished product, that it characterized his mother well.

The article will eventually go behind a $1.99 paywall (not yet, as of this publication). If it has, I encourage you to pay up―not to feed my ego, but because Critical Read pays authors 70 cents per word, fact-checks, and were wonderful editors. Here’s a bit from the intro:

As [Ray’s] apprentice, collaborator, lover, and muse, [Miller] often posed for him at the Paris studio that the two shared during their romantic relationship, which lasted from 1929 to 1932. Man Ray’s photography from this era made Miller’s face and body world famous. Yet one photograph in particular nearly didn’t survive: 1930’s Neck is a haunting view of Miller’s profile craning from the side, neck and face forming one ethereal, phallic column slanted against a void. Miller fished the negative out of the trash moments after it was discarded, and developed it in the same session, employing the bold cropping method she had learned from Man Ray to make a striking final product. Then she informed him that she was claiming it as her own work.

It was common for Miller to tease Man Ray, and even for their work to be misattributed to each other—such was the closeness of their professional and personal relationship. But on this day, a more serious quarrel than usual ensued. Man Ray threw Miller out of the studio, and when she returned, he’d slashed the print with a razor and pinned it to the wall, with red ink splashed across her neck. The following year, the same image of the neck appeared in his painting Le Logis de l’Artiste (The Artist’s Home), among other objects of the artist’s creation, in a pointed statement of ownership.

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Portrait Seventeen - after Ingres' 'La Grande Odalisque

“Portrait Seventeen – after Ingres’ ‘La Grande Odalisque'” by Dinorá Justice, 2018 – oil and acrylic on canvas, 30×40″

I managed one art review this year―the Peabody Essex Museum’s excellent Olivia Parker retrospective―but have been losing steam on these for a few reasons. One, researching and writing the Critical Read article took up a lot of my weekend work time. Still working a full-time job over here. Two, finding shows to review in Boston takes a fair amount of effort as there is no central listing page (like Glass Tire in Houston). Three, I’m unreasonably altered after truly wanting to buy a painting I saw in a press release (above), so much that I reached out to the gallery to inquire―a new thing for me.

Learning that the painting (comparable to the one pictured above, which was no longer available) cost $10,000 was, for some reason, like a trapdoor for my will to write about art. This doesn’t exactly make sense: I knew it would probably cost around that much, given its size. And I want artists to be paid what they’re worth, especially if a work will be hoarded in a private residence instead of a public venue for all to enjoy.

But receiving a definitive answer about what I can afford―that my visceral reaction did not make me worthy―enacted a clear split between the self who felt welcomed and engaged with the art world and the reality that no matter how thoughtful a review I write, no matter how much I “get” an artist (some very encouraging feedback I received for this review and this review in 2018), I still won’t be able to live with their art. Maybe my priorities have changed. Maybe I’ve shifted too far into a capitalist dreamland wherein I find less meaning in learning about and highlighting artists and more in what I can GET, feeling subconsciously entitled to it as an educated, privileged person and super duper sad that I can’t get it. It’s not rational or fair―after all, I didn’t start writing reviews so I could someday afford paintings―but it’s a gut feeling that’s difficult to ignore, particularly as I advance in my day job and have a little more spending money. I’m grieving the fact that I have this feeling at all, when I have so much (eg. the time to see and review art). But somehow, that “exclusion” is the straw that broke the art reviewer’s back this year. That, and having limited time because reviewing art doesn’t pay a living wage.

This is all said with no ire toward the artist, Dinorá Justice, or Gallery NAGA, which represents her―I hope I will have it in me to review her work in the future. Please buy it if you can afford it.

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The Frank case has so many polarizing elements: religious, racial, gender, class. It’s one-stop shopping for all the things your parents told you not to talk about in company. Mary Phagan was an oppressed worker, a child laborer toiling for pennies an hour in a sweatshop. Leo Frank was an oppressive capitalist industrialist. Jim Conley was a black witness against a white man living in the Jim Crow south in a time when life was hard for all blacks. Frank was a Jew and excited an anti-Semitism he didn’t know existed.

―Historian Steve Oney, quoted in an article by Aimee Levitt in The Forward (June 23, 2017)

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The cast of the Moonbox Productions’ staging of “Parade.” (Photo: Sharman Altshuler via WBUR)

I can’t hear the word “Atlanta” without mentally pronouncing it with drunken southern drawl à la the character Britt Craig in “Parade” during his big song, “Big News.” So naturally, when I traveled to Atlanta for the first time this year I seized the plane ride as an opportunity to re-listen to the “Parade” original cast recording. I’d first heard it in college, when you had to pop in a CD and listen to the whole album, so the entire thing is pretty much imprinted on my brain for better or for worse.

The show is a hard sell, which is why it’s not often produced: a musical adaptation of the trial and eventual lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner in 1913 Atlanta accused of murdering his 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. Lucky for me, Moonbox Production staged it this month as a twisted holiday gift (read my friend Josh’s review here for more details about the show). Some issues with staging (Mary’s ever-present ghost was a huge misstep), but overall the production featured a fantastic cast, great choreography, and multiple haunting moments. I was, appropriately, a wreck at the end. Always a risk to see a production you’ve only listened to before―worth the wait.

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A favorite tune from Esther Rose’s fantastic 2019 album (h/t the Hype Machine weekly stack newsletter, which is essentially the only way I find out about new not-mainstream music):

May we always be changing in 2020.

 

July – December 2017: A Piece of My Mind to Feast Upon

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“Winter is for House Mice” – Illustration by Amy Jean Porter via The Awl (click for her lovely short accompanying essay)

The Ghost of Christmas Present’s admonishment of Ebenezer Scrooge was eerily prescient this Christmas, as the GOP’s “tax heist” passed to thunderous applause from the rich. (This analysis breaks it down pretty clearly.) I wonder if lawmakers detected the slightest hint of irony as they gathered with their families for Christmas, with healthcare at the middle of it: these newfound gains will be literally forged on the backs of the poor—especially children like everyone’s favorite urchin, Tiny Tim.

SCROOGE: Tell me, spirit, will he live?

GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT: I see a vacant place at this table…. if these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.

S: No, say he will be spared.

G: If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, none other of my species will find him here. But if he is to die, then let him die, and decrease the surplus population.

S: You use my own words against me.

G: Yes. So perhaps in the future you will hold your tongue until you have discovered what the surplus population is, and where it is. It may well be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.

Watch this clip from the 1984 George C. Scott/Edward Woodward version (the best version) for the two most righteous bits of this ghost’s visit, if you want Ignorance and Want to haunt your nightmares:

A lot to do this year.

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Art reviews for the second half of 2017:

You Might Not Like Your Reflection in “Windows on Death Row” – A traveling exhibition featuring the art of death row inmates. I struggled with this one.

Character Studies in a Post-Cultural Revolution China: “Chinese Dreams” at MassArt – A bright, sharp-edged show featuring a variety of media that gelled effectively—both as exhibition and history lesson.

Eddie Martinez and Contemporary South African Prints at Wellesley’s Davis Museum – Eddie Martinez’s mandala paintings were the highlight here, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the small hallway of South African prints. I wouldn’t normally go outside the T for an art show, but this one proved to be worth the trip.

Math is Hard, and Beautiful (In Context): The Concinnatas Project at Krakow Witkin Gallery – I was determined to visit a gallery instead of a college, and found this fascinating little show at Krakow Witkin, a fantastic space with a friendly Mr. Witkin present to discuss the art. I mostly love this review because it features Paul waxing poetic about math at the end. Read it, if only for that.

The Half Hour Hold: Subjective Stare-downs with Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – Reading Jeanette Winterson’s “Art Objects” (essays, 1996) was one of the more pleasurable experiences of 2017. In my last full week of underemployment, I took her up on her challenge to stare at a painting for an hour, even though it turns out I can only manage 30 minutes at a time. But I did manage to fully fall in love with one painting at the MFA that I would have barely glanced at otherwise.

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Almost all of the plays I’ve seen in the second half of this year, with the exception of Houston-bucket-list-item “Tamarie Cooper’s Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets” (I guess past years have been better), have also been reviewed by my buddy Josh Garstka for Talkin’ Broadway, so I’ll link to his more comprehensive, eloquent takes.

“Men In Boats”
SpeakEasy Stage Company, September
Written by Jacklyn Backhaus

This play chronicles John Wesley Powell’s expedition of the Grand Canyon—but the playwright mandates that all actors must be women or non-gender-conforming individuals. While the characters face dire circumstances, I found it impossible not to feel jubilantly (dare I say) buoyant during their energetic navigation of the “river” and Jenna McFarland Lord’s cool set. (The creative team are all or mostly female, too, as far as I can tell from their names.)

My main takeaway, though, is that this play would be, with very minor cuts, PERFECT for a Girl Scout troop to perform. The action is straightforward, the props minimal, the language often appealingly anachronistic. Plus, it’s outdoorsy, and a fun way for girls to place themselves in a written history dominated by men. Bump-set-spike, scouts.

“Merrily We Roll Along” 
*Huntington Theatre Company
Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth

I basically wept throughout the entire show: I could never review it objectively, not after my constant consumption of the soundtrack throughout college and my current quarter-(or is it third)-life-crisis as someone who isn’t quite living her art dreams. This is also the age, it seems, when you start to realize how many friendships you’ve lost over the years. I left the theater insisting we have a homemade performance so I can play Mary.

The only slightly disappointing thing that stands out now, a few months later, was Charlie’s entirely-seated performance of “Franklin Shepard Inc.” I love this song, and the actor was great, but why was he directed to sit in what should have been a high-energy nervous breakdown? It should have been more of a foil to the more low-key songs it’s sandwiched between. Still, I was dancing in my seat.

*(Josh’s colleague actually wrote this one, I forgot because we went together)

“A Guide for the Homesick”
Huntington Theatre Company, October
Written by Ken Urban

Pound for pound the best play I’ve seen this year. Its two actors, McKinley Belcher III and Samuel H. Levine, do a tremendous amount of heavy lifting while managing not to bludgeon us into a stupor. Read Josh’s full review for more on the story and premise.

“Sense and Sensibility”
American Repertory Theatre, December
Written by Kate Hamill, from Jane Austen’s novel

Josh has some great lines in his review about how this production’s staging and light energy sheds the bulk of Austen’s “Masterpiece Theater” trappings, so refer to that, and take the fact that I was incredibly bored by halfway through the second act as an optional footnote. That was probably the point when the “dizzying” conceit of characters hurling each other about on the wheeled scenery stopped meaningfully reflecting their inner turmoil and confusion and became rote. I was reminded of the A.R.T.’s presentation of “The Tempest” a few years ago, which incorporated very cool effects and music while ultimately managing not to elevate the story in a meaningful way.

I am apparently the only one annoyed by thisif Kate Hamill can sell tickets to female-driven dramas by refreshing staid classics (she’s also done “Pride and Prejudice” and “Vanity Fair”), more power to her. And the actors were of course wonderful. I can never deny Nigel Gore, especially if he is wearing purple tights.

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Two articles on art, social media, and call-out culture:

While contemporary white authors are allowed to freely write complex, misanthropic characters into their work without incident, writers of color consistently confront culture cops who take issue with the portrayal of those characters in a diverse context. But what is a story without evolution of character anyway? Who is a character, really, without flaws? What’s the point of writing if not to tell some basic truth?

—From “Why Culture Cops Are Bad for Writers of Color” by Daniel Peña on Ploughshares Blog

I thought of Peña’s excellent blog post earlier this week when I read Artsy’s op-ed about the art world’s year of sociopolitical controversy“Don’t Equate Today’s Culture Wars to those of the 1990s” by Isaac Kaplaneven though they cover different media (visual vs. literary). Here’s Kaplan’s set up:

In 2017, a recurrent call to ‘take it down’ echoed throughout the art world. It was a year in which a handful of artworks provoked outrage for what critics, largely on the political left, deemed to be an exploitation of marginalized peoples’ suffering…. This call to take down work for being offensive (to put it very reductively) elicited quick comparisons to the ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1980s and ’90s, when conservative politicians tried to cut off government funding for exhibitions featuring artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano whose art dealing with queer and Christian subjects irked their religious sensibilities.

The “culture cops” are, though, very different between both of these articles. Peña talks about writers of color facing backlash for creating nuanced, perhaps unlikable/bad-influence/villainous characters, while the visual artists in question are either white or do not belong to the same ethnic group as the one they are “using” in their work. We can’t pretend that context and consequences don’t exist, especially when the artists involved ostensibly bank off marginalized people’s suffering.

Sam Durant realized that after meeting with Dakota elders, and ultimately agreed to remove “Scaffold,” and pledge never to recreate it. His interview with the L.A. Times is well worth the read, and illuminates the controversy in a less nebulous way.

Kaplan’s article doesn’t land on an answer about whether the art should or shouldn’t be removed—it focuses on the facile, unproductive comparison to conservative censorship 20 odd years ago, which is worth examining. So it is disheartening to see Facebook commenters who obviously didn’t read/process the article, parroting that all “censorship” is bad, waving away context and history.

Speaking of:

Social media is designed to keep us trapped in the present and devoid of history.

—Clive Thompson in a fascinating, unrelated analysis on This.org.

DEVOID OF HISTORY. How will we learn?

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More reads on relationships, feminism, class, and creativity:

Who actually wants to experience trauma? As Weissman writes, “one’s own place in the hierarchy of suffering has much to do with one’s professed ability to ‘feel the horror.’ A person’s intellect and moral fiber are measured by the degree they have come to ‘endure the psychic imprint of the trauma.’”Also known as: moral performativity. Non-witnesses want an authentic relationship with trauma; witnesses wish they never had one. 

“Hell is Real” – Leah Finnegan in one of the better Leah Letters of 2017


You say the problem with the phrase “happy wife, happy life” is that “it implies that marriage is not an equal partnership.” But it’s worth bearing in mind that the truth about marriage is that it often 
isn’t an equal partnership, despite our good intentions. The institution has a long, ugly history of placing women in “a secondary position.” And let’s pause to recognize that it is hard for both men and women to notice this.

“Mixed Feelings: Happy Wife, Happy Life” – Mandy Catron for The Rumpus


Male bumblers are an epidemic. These men are, should you not recognize the type, wide-eyed and perennially confused. What’s the difference, the male bumbler wonders, between a friendly conversation with a coworker and rubbing one’s penis in front of one? Between grooming a 14-year-old at her custody hearing and asking her out?

“The Myth of the Male Bumbler” – Lili Loofbourow for The Week


The lineup of celebrities who appeared in the promotional video for the Democratic Convention struck a weird chord not only with conservatives but also with anyone who was actually hungry for a “fight song” against the entrenchment of a political machine that has left them without access to jobs, health care or education. Why should anyone being buried in student loan debt automatically assume that the stars of 
Pitch Perfect are fighting for the same things they are?

“A Resistance Led By Celebrities Will Always Be Bullshit” – Anne Orchier for L.A. Weekly

If you went to boarding school and are bankrolled by your parents, own it, and be honest about your privilege: don’t think donning an Adidas tracksuit and tweeting about going to Greggs for lunch is anything other than offensive and embarrassing.

“Privileged Kids Need To Stop Fetishising Working Class Culture” – Dawn Foster for Huck Magazine

A few years back, I spent a summer in Houston acting like I had money. Then I fell in with some white kids who came from money. I guess you could call it a scene. All gallery openings and coffee bars and stage-dives. We’d flit from club to concert to loft to bed, occasionally stopping to take stock of the time. Or at least I did. Because that shit was brand new to me, very nearly alien, a reality so divorced from mine (black, Caribbean, Baptist, middle class), that I couldn’t help feeling threatened by it, and enticed by it, very nearly always wondering exactly how far it could go.

“New Money” – Bryan Washington for The Awl’s year-end holiday series “Fakes.” Read the whole series, it’s fantastic.

May 2017: You don’t imagine them, they become unreal

mo willems

Drawing by Mo Willems via Twitter

1 dangerous mindset, 2 exhibitions at the MFAH, 2 very different states of loneliness, 1 Texas politician, 1 different approach to fundraising, 3 books, 2 big shows, 1 only slightly manipulative soundtrack, 1 Hello Kitty tank

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Jocelyn K. Glei’s concise article about the “what else?” mindset—in which we are always eager to move on to the next project instead of celebrating accomplishments, or exploring a topic further—is always appropriate. I highly recommend her weekly newsletter about productivity in the digital age, and taking time to appreciate and respond to accomplishments before moving on to the “next thing.”

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I reviewed Ron Mueck and “Adiós Utopia” for aeqai: both contain excellent work, but derive value from very different places. Ron Mueck is up through August. Here’s the picture of his head that’s been all over town:

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“Self portrait” by Ron Mueck

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When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters.

—Rebecca Solnit for LitHub. The full essay, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump,” is beautiful enough to let your mind to dwell on him for a few minutes.

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Asked recently which three writers she would invite to a “literary dinner party,” the prose stylist Fran Lebowitz offered the definitive desert island list: “None. I would never do it. My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book. That’s my idea of a literary dinner party.”

—Jason Guriel for The Walrus. I have a feeling that writers probably don’t like this piece—“What Happens When Authors Are Afraid To Stand Alone”—but the essay is friendlier than its ominous headline suggests, and doesn’t actually paint a comprehensive picture of this codependent future (unless we’re already in it?). It’s nice to remember there’s an alternative to the behavior that the internet and capitalism demands.

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The ones that helped make us great, that helped make the Texas miracle—we’re looking to throw them out like they’ve done nothing for us. We’re talking about people who have been here for 30-40 years and were treating them as trash that we can throw away.

—Gene Wu (D-Houston), one of our amazing representatives on the abhorrent SB-4 bill, at Roads and Kingdoms.

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I believe in many of the tenets of donor-centrism—don’t treat donors like ATMs, appreciate every gift of any amount, don’t take donors for granted, build relationships, be transparent, etc. I just don’t believe that donors should be in the center of nonprofit work, or even the center of fundraising work.

—Vu Le at Nonprofit AF, in a typically excellent and entertaining exploration of how donor-centrism facilitates inequity. 

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“Hausfrau” by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Novel
Random House, 2015

As I read this retelling of “Anna Karenina,” I was lulled into such a sense of security that I forgot the inevitable ending. Not to say that it is a relaxing book. I squirmed throughout at the “unlikable woman” protagonist, who is of course called Anna: an American housewife stranded in Switzerland with her Swiss husband and three young children. She struggles with the language, sees a cold therapist, and has multiple affairs that we waste no time getting to in the text.

I squirmed because I couldn’t help picturing and casting it as a film adaptation, and how much viewers would hate her complications. I hate that this is where my mind goes. Her story is captivating because Jill Alexander Essbaum is a masterful writer (I love her poetry and was definitely not disappointed by her prose), weaving passages throughout that remove us from Anna’s failings and through larger truths:

The Doktor continued. “Every mask becomes a death mask when you can no longer put it on or take it off at will. When it conforms to the contours of your psychic face. When you mistake the personal you project for your living soul. When you can no longer distinguish between the two.” 66-67

The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how. 205

I sometimes need to just let books be books, I think. I’m falling into the “what else?” or “what next?” mindset that demands more. Just let it be what it is: a beautifully constructed, viscerally sad book.

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“Dietland” by Sarai Walker
Novel
Mariner Books, 2015

I bundled this with “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” (reviewed in April), which might have been a mistake: two body-centric, eating-disordered books in one month? At least “Dietland” is more fun, even if the ending fell a little flat. I loved shy, overweight Plum Kettle as a heroine who doesn’t achieve the transformation she expected, but transforms nonetheless. As a satirical revenge fantasy, “Dietland” is delicious.

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“Shoot Like A Girl” by Mary Jennings Hegar
Memoir
Berkley, 2017

Mary Jennings Hegar was an air force medevac pilot who deployed to Afghanistan multiple times, and her approachable memoir details not only combat situations, but her experience as a woman in the military. Main takeaway: this book would be a great addition to high school English classes. It’s easy to read and a common-sense primer on sexism in the military and out, with a personable, patriotic narrator. I wish I knew a 13-year-old girl or boy so I could give them a copy.

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“Snow White” by Donald Barthelme
Play – Catastrophic Theatre

When the New Yorker covers a Houston world premiere, you know it’s time to get tickets. “Snow White” did not disappoint: midcentury weirdo perfection, with satisfying monologues, flamboyant overtures, and charismatic choreography. Ryan McGettigan’s set was a star in itself. I only thought of my past playwriting student’s totally inappropriate, kinky interpretation of the Snow White story a few times. If only this had been public a few years earlier, I could have showed it to her.

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“Fun Home,” based on the book by Alison Bechdel
Playwright and lyricist: Lisa Kron
Composer: Jeanine Tesori
Theatre Under the Stars (National Tour)

Great musical, but I would have killed to see it in an intimate theater instead of the Hobby Center. It’s a musical of intimate relationships and the most intimate of physical spaces: the home. The low-key show just didn’t have the grandeur to fill the hall.

That missing grandeur is what Andrea Lepcio is talking about in the first few paragraphs of her recent essay in HowlRound, which ended up being very timely, given the show’s tour. Two points in particular stuck out: 1) there is still a man at the center of “Fun Home,” moreso in the musical than the book, I’d say, and 2) where are the woman-centered musicals where their actions are as big as, say, “Hamilton”? One commenter points to “Evita,” which is the only one I can think of.

That would be the end of the review, except I have to mention how much I loved the blue-hairs who went in with no idea what it was about. I heard them chattering afterward, bewildered. Most didn’t like it. So, I will like it twice as hard to spite them.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy 2”
Bonafide popcorn flick

I don’t want to delve too deep into this film, but I have to note the soundtrack. The first “Guardians” film featured a mixtape made for the main character, Peter Quill aka Star Lord, by his mother in the 1980s (“Awesome Mix”). This gave filmmakers the opportunity to feature a bunch of 70s and 80s hits, which of course conjure immediate connotations for the majority of the audience. I’ve heard it argued that this blinds us to the quality of the film, and that we only like it for the tunes, not the action.

I don’t think that was particularly true for the first film, since the tape was immediately introduced as an integral part of the main character’s background, but the second film leaned in a little too hard on the classic mix. “Mr. Blue Sky” at the beginning and “Father and Son” at the end was a perfect balance: most everything in between, especially “My Sweet Lord” (yes, really), felt gratuitous.

But ultimately it’s a lot of fun, especially Kurt Russell’s Farrah Fawcett haircut and bellbottoms. And with that, I’ve said enough.

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Mood for Memorial Day weekend:

Press-Corps

Drawing by Argyle C. Klopnik, Esq. via The Rumpus

April 2017: The Sheer Uncertainty of the Whole Enterprise

 

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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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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”

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“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”

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“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?”

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“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.

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“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”

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“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.