Julius Caesar: But Brutus Says He Was Ambitious

Friends keep telling me to see Donmar Warehouse’s all-female production of Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison.  It’s a lovely recommendation, and a funny one, since I actually saw it just a day or two after it opened. That I haven’t, until tonight, found my way to writing about it speaks perhaps to its impact on me as as much as to my schedule.

Although it felt muddled at times in terms of devices — Was this Julius Caesar set in or performed in a women’s prison?  Was the rupturing of the forth wall about placing us in the prison or having prison escape its bounds? — the heightened reality and evocation of war through petty politics and electric guitars evoked more Oz than Orange is the New Black, and the acting was uniformly stellar.

But nothing mattered so much as the performance of one of Mark Antony’s critical speeches, which continues to haunt me some four weeks later.  The role is performed by Cush Jumbo (my Whovian readers may remember her as Lois Habiba in Torchwood: Children of Earth). In it, he (the production does not change pronouns for these women) attempts to make sense of why Julius Cesar has had to die, while also grieving his friend.

But Brutus says he was ambitious is repeated throughout the speech with increasing bewilderment, contempt, and even bitter acceptance by Mark Antony.  It’s always been a powerful moment, but in this production, it carried even more force — justifying both the all-female cast and dwarfing the other elements of the production both stylistic and narrative.

Nothing in the play felt like it mattered more than that speech as I watched it, and four weeks later, I remain in the same place — clutching at the indictment of Antony’s words, at a woman pronouncing ambition (and gossip) the reason for the death of another woman. A group of women decided Caesar was ambitious and whispered about it, curse and sentence.

The nature of the ambition, the form of its execution, was ultimately rendered irrelevant, because of how the moment forced the audience to confront its own beliefs not just about ambition in general, but about competition and ambition amongst women.  It is not comfortable and requires an eye towards misogyny both internalized and external.

Since seeing the production, but Brutus says he was ambitious has become something of an internal catch phrase for me, a reminder of the spaces between ambition as generalized virtue, gendered sin, and useful tool for specific achievement amid the also often gendered consequences of desire.

Having been reminded of these spaces, however, I am left with no answer, not for Caesar, not for the Donmar’s production which reaches far and stumbles often (mostly around the characters that were also female in the original text), and not for myself.  But I do keep wondering if there was some way Caesar could have wanted the world — a world, any world, no matter how small — politely, and if that would have made any difference.

Julius Caesar runs through November 9 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY.  Catch it if you can.

Cabin in the Woods: The horror is in the tropes

One day, I will celebrate Halloween again.  Despite it being Patty’s favorite holiday, since we got together over six years ago, it’s pretty much been a wash.  I’m often out of the country.  One of us invariably has the flu.  It rains.  Last night was no exception.

I tried to be festive though, and told Patty we should watch a horror movie of her choosing, even though my relationship with the genre is largely one of complicated disinterest, general anxiety, and eye-related phobias.  Thankfully, she chose Cabin in the Woods.

Unfortunately for me as a blogger (a blogger who is, by the way, doing NaBloPoMo instead of NaNoWriMo, since the traditional November activity feels sort of redundant to the many writing tasks I have going on right now, mostly involving critical revisions on several projects and a lot of stuff I’m hoping to be able to discuss RSN), Cabin in the Woods is best experienced if you know absolutely nothing about it going in.  Which means it’s ow my job to convince you to watch a movie I can’t tell you anything about.  Ooops.

For me, because Cabin in the Woods plays with tropes and the fourth wall, it was a really fun viewing experience, but I know that’s a YMMV stylistic choice for a lot of audiences.  Perhaps more interestingly, and to my surprise, I was even disappointed when it got markedly less creepy (and a little bit lazy for it) in its second half.

It also made me feel a fondness for Joss Whedon’s work that I haven’t in while.  I like Buffy and I love Angel (despite that terrible “Connor is annoying” season that’s unfortunately structurally essential), am fond of Firefly; and am actually intrigued by Dollhouse. Yet, there’s only so much of the patented and interchangeable Joss Whedon tough!waif heroine device I can take.  My attempts to care about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I don’t; it’s low-rent American Torchwood) have highlighted my irritation with that persistent weakness in Whedon’s work, while also leaving me deeply resistant to the idea of clever being enough in any script.

If you don’t like horror, Cabin in the Woods is the horror movie for you.  It’s funny in its send-up of the genre; it gets less scary after the first 30 minutes; the gore is extremely fake; and Bradley Whitford as a guy with a really important job that is death by 1,000 paper cuts is always a joy.

Anyone else got any horror movie recommendations for people who hate horror?  Because after another foiled Halloween, they would fill my house with peace, joy, and microwave popcorn.

Kindle Worlds: Not bigger on the inside

Today Amazon announced Kindle Worlds for Authors, which is a self-publishing tool to allow authors of fanfiction to monetize their work as long as it adheres to certain guidelines, including no porn, no offensive language, and no crossovers.

It’s not the first time someone’s tried to make money at the corporate level off fanfiction and it won’t be the last.  As a big believer in the idea that creative people deserve compensation for their creativity and that as a legitimate form of storytelling fanfiction should not be considered a pale shadow of traditional professional writing, I’m not even, necessarily, inherently opposed to the idea.

But Amazon’s project raises a bunch of compelling questions that we’ve been hurtling towards for a while now, especially as fanfiction has increasingly received positive, mainstream, and significant news coverage in outlets like Time Magazine and a property of The Washington Post.

Question 1: To what degree does Kindle Worlds suggest that fanfiction can only be legitimized through the eradication of fan culture’s gift economy?

Question 2: Fanfiction has significantly changed our media culture.  Kindle Worlds isn’t just capitalizing on it, but arguably represents an attempt to shape it.  Is this a feedback loop in action or an attempt to stop the catalyst that is fan work?

Questions 3: The contractual terms of Kindle Worlds are the sort traditional professional writers would be strongly advised against signing on to.  Is fannish work worth less?  Should it be?

Question 4: Fanfiction has, arguably, always been about the option to use use all the tools, particularly those often discouraged by corporate content production (e.g., sexuality), to tell story.  If the toolbox is limited, whether a given writer would choose to use all the tools or not, is it fanfiction or is it some other form of derivative (vs. transformative) work?

Question 5: How will fan readers view/treat fan writers who use a tool like Kindle Worlds? And how does that impact our communities, hierarchies, and barriers to entry?

Please play in comments below.

Vikings: Death, faith, and politics… also, threesomes

Last night, Patty and I, as a chaser to Game of Thrones, finished History’s first dramatic series, the 9-episode Vikings.  By turns exceptional, terrible, and delightfully baffling, it was worth our time far more than I anticipated. And even if it probably taught us nothing reasonable factual about Vikings (more on that later), a fictional series with a few fact-like tidbits on Vikings strikes me as far preferable to many of History’s “non-fiction” offerings: Aliens, for example, did not build the pyramids (despite a t-shirt Patty owns that illustrates this concept with the note teach the controversy).

Below are nine great reasons to watch Vikings that highlight all the ways in which its first season is filled with great responses to our current pop-culture moment.

1. Vikings is smart enough to make its central drama not just about family, but about many different types of families.  Romantic love, sibling rivalry, parent-child, and chosen family narratives in multiple forms thread through all nine episodes, guaranteeing something familiar and emotionally engaging for pretty much any viewer.

2. Vikings goes out of its way to show joy even in desperate, difficult, and violent times.  This is why so many people are watching it after Game of Thrones where joy seems merely a concept outgrown or a feeling vengeance occasionally briefly evokes.  (Look, I love Game of Thones, but its name is Despair).

3. Vikings gets that sex is part of who people and cultures are.  Mostly, it avoids falling into the sexposition trap HBO’s programming is often chided for, and instead integrates sex into the narrative as consistently but passingly as food, except when someone’s sexual choices becomes a major plot point.  But often sex is just sex and it’s talked about like the weather.

That said, can anyone tell me what was up with all the threesomes? I’m not being snarky. I’m just trying to figure out if the multiple offers (some declined not) of threesomes and moresomes were supposed to tell us something about Viking sexuality or represented the results of market research regarding fandom in general and Tumblr in particular.  The prevalance of F/M/M moments particularly generates this question, considering that History historically has a much larger male audience than female audience.  Who did they think was watching this?

4. Vikings has great female characters.  From political cunning to battlefield skill to domestic excellence these women are all accomplished in radically different ways. The desire to have it all is clear in many of them, and the fact that that’s not easy is just as present.  They’re heroes and villains and, most importantly, almost never plot devices. If you have a thing for political power couples, this is your show.  And while rape is present in the plot, we also see rape averted, punished, and addressed as a community concern.

5. Speaking of fighting, the fight choreography on Vikings benefits from being well-done and relatively realistic (fight choreography never truly realistic, because in order for it to be visible, people have to take wide swings so you can see it — in a real conflict that gets people killed).  Fighting styles and weapon choices tell us things about characters on Vikings, and the ways in which women fight acknowledge that geometry is all, but if you get into a bad corner, size and strength can and do matter.

6. Since we’re talking about fighting, let’s also talk about death.  Vikings is obsessed with death, and does a fantastic job of presenting a culture that has a completely attitude about death than our own.  It does this three-dimensionally, through diverse situations (death from sickness, the desire to die in battle, the religious use of human sacrifice) and a lot of fantastic acting that allows the characters to exhibit sorrow and fear even in the face of deaths both revered and glorious.  The way Vikings handles death is one of the most harrowing, interesting, and moving things I’ve seen on TV this year, and worth it for that alone.

7. All the death content means we get lots of material on faith as well.  This could have been full of annoying Christianity vs. paganism cliches. Instead it’s murky and complex all the way around.  People question their faith constantly and are seen taking refuge in it as often for truth belief as for community and the comfort of habit.  This is an accessibly, and appropriately, modern worldview that makes the characters deeply relatable.

8. At its heart Vikings is about ambition and its consequences.  It offers no firm answers, but suggests that ambition is both a disease and a gift that can neither be eradicated or refused. This isn’t just compelling, but freeing. Because while the ambition feels familiar, odds are you aren’t losing sleep over not having raided England yet this season.

9. Finally, Vikings is populated by characters with widely varying types of intelligence, not all of whom are as skilled as estimating their abilities as they think. This allows the audience to do work, characters to fail believably, and everyone to be treated to Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok’s delightfully sly grin.

Vikings is certainly imperfect.  While the acting from most of the leads is exceptional, some of the actors in minor roles are unable to conquer the show’s often clunky dialogue.  Historical (and I’ve been told geographical) accuracy, while better than “aliens built the pyramids,” is deeply dubious.  Some episodes are intentionally strangely paced (e.g., episode 8, “Sacrifice”), and the show’s choices around illustrating the language differences and communications difficulties between the Vikings and the English are nearly impossible to divine the rationale behind, despite being central to one of the show’s plot devices.

That said, it’s only nine episodes, which is a perfect bite-sized introduction to a surprisingly thoughtful, yet strangely produced, basic cable curiosity that largely gets by on charisma, momentum, and ambition alone.

David Bowie is: Infestation

A month before my fifteenth birthday, I saw David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour with my mother at Madison Square Garden.  She came with me because I wasn’t allowed to go to concerts alone then, and because she loved him.  In fact, my mother loved David Bowie so much, she forbid my father to come with us, lest he be uncomfortable with her excitement.

The Glass Spider Tour and the album it was in support of, Never Let Me Down, aren’t terribly well-reviewed or considered significant in the canon of Bowie’s work, and I knew that, even then, holding my breath for the older songs – like “Time” and “Heroes” — I had fallen in love with largely because they were on the cheapest cassettes for sale at Tower Records.

But the show had no less mesmerizing impact on me for all that, in large part because of the work done by choreographer Toni Basil and a character danced by Melissa Hurley, who, during “Bang Bang” is seemingly plucked out of the audience.  Chosen, she then rejects Bowie; then once he is chastened, goes after him, and leads him in something resembling a tango.

While the ruse was obvious, and I had even read about the moment in a music magazine in advance of the show, it still had the barest tinge and hope of authenticity to me. After all, I was a teenager and there was no mainstream commercial Internet at the time, so I had not read a description of this exact moment appearing night after night as a reminder that I would never be that girl.  With my dark curly hair, a dress at home that looked like the performer’s, and too many hours spent in dance classes, I had a tiny bit of hope, that one day….

I’ve had a lot of daydreams though, and that one faded faster than many it seems.  Certainly,  it was something long forgotten by the time I went to the David Bowie is exhibit at the Victoria & Albert in London last month and had what is certainly the most extraordinary museum visit I have ever experienced.

Even as the exhibit is far too crowded (it is sold out; without advance planning, the only way to get in at this point is to have, borrow, or purchase the same day a year long membership to the V&A) and chaotic in its isolation (as a guest you wear headphones for most of the journey that trigger music and interviews to scatter across your ears depending where you are in the exhibit) it is a trove of memory, evidence and technique that spans Bowie’s history and puts tangibility to details you may only have heard in passing: Diamond Dogs was supposed to be a stage musical; he performed on SNL with Klaus Nomi; he uses a computer program that cuts up sentences from other sources into his song lyrics.

This archive of sketches, sound and video clips, costumes, and artifacts, however, is not actually the highlight of the exhibit.  Rather, it’s the other people there with you.

The structure of the exhibit renders nearly everyone completely silent.  If they make sound, it is unlikely that you will hear them.  Yet, sometimes I caught a random peel of laughter, or looked to my left or right and found someone staring open-mouthed at the video of a performance video of “Boys Keep Swinging.”  Then, unavoidably, I was put in mind of Velvet Goldmine when the character of Arthur fantasizes about pointing at a television performance of the film’s Bowie avatar Brian Slade and shouting, “That’s me Ma!  That’s me!”

But the true magic is in he penultimate moment of David Bowie is that leads viewers into a large, multistory room coated in video monitors.  There are some exhibits scattered throughout this space, but they are secondary to the visual and auditory display and the many seating areas provided finally for guests.

Everyone stares up, mouths open yet again (we are tiny birds, there to receive this very fundamental piece of pop-culture nourishment and benediction; after all, one of the exhibits main arguments is that Bowie is in everything, including us).  Eventually, people realize the sound is no longer coming through their headphones, but is piped into the room directly, and the isolation of the exhibit structure has gives way to the communal concert experience.

A woman near me laughed at the wonder of it, and a security guard tried to shush her, but the crowd told him no.  A man to my left had tears tracking down his cheeks.  I had to look away from a monitor close to the floor that showed 9/11 footage during a performance of “Heroes,” which for me in high school was a song about how I felt I would never be loved.  Later I had to sit down as the whole of the room lit up with that long-forgotten performance of “Bang Bang” on The Glass Spider tour.

Exiting the exhibit one is given the proof, no longer needed, that David Bowie is in all of us.  Photos of artists who have borrowed, begged, and stolen from Bowie’s various incarnations and looks, or even echoed him seemingly accidentally and disturbingly (Tilda Swinton must be noted, especially), line three walls.  A periodic element chart of figures relevant, some as influence and some as influenced, is painted on the desperately meaningful fourth. Sometimes I would see names – Harvey Milk – and have to look away.

David Bowie is argues aggressively that Bowie’s presence, if not his work itself, is necessarily political in our cultures, and personal in the way that it does not just inspire, but infests.  It reminded me of the relief I felt as little more than a child to see portrayals of desire and loss and otherness that I was entitled to access in private amongst the public.

And it reminded me that there are some strange gems in the Bowie’s canon, not just in the truly great albums (Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and the Berlin triptych), but in the lesser ones.  In fact, I walked out of David Bowie is with an obsessive need to revisit Never Let Me Down, and while I (re)discovered an album with many legitimately forgettable tracks and an excessive abuse of the signature-80s unnecessary sax solo, I also found in it the feminine counterpart to Diamond Dogs through “Bang Bang” and the rather spectacular “Time Will Crawl” that clearly returns us to the unresolved narratives of Hunger City.

David Bowie is runs through August 11 at the Victoria and Albert in London.

The Great Gatsby: Horror, property, and nostalgia

When I was a baby my family rented and lived in a guest cottage on an estate in East Hampton until one day, the neighbors poisoned our dog.  I don’t remember this, but it’s one of several stories I’ve heard about why we came back to the city, my entire life. And I can’t talk about my relationship with any iteration of The Great Gatsby without mentioning both this and my years in private school where things like old vs. new money (assuming you had either) and East or West Hampton mattered pretty desperately.

For what it’s worth, Gatsby has never been a book that I’ve liked.  It’s characters are viciously flat, its plot too neat, and its point, as argued in high school literature classes eludes me as clear or clearly good. Money, instead of corrupting good people and true love, seems merely a symptom of internal disease. And the notion of social climbing and its attendant passing as poisonous suggests, unsettlingly in book that’s also filled with racism, that people are better off if they stay with their own kind.

Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the book (with a script penned by himself and long-time collaborator Craig Pearce), resolves none of these things, but eschews all romance except that of nostalgia in order to showcase Gatsby for what is has always been, a horror narrative plodding inexorably towards its perhaps necessarily obvious end.  Daisy is positioned as an object, not only by her suitors, but by herself, too startled or sad to react fully to either the desire (her arms hang limp at her sides, her face freezes in nearly every on screen moment of sexual content) or to the wealth possessed by both Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan.

Gatsby, for his part, is so wound up in his narrative of possession, he doesn’t see her, and aggressively and insistently insists she rewrite her own emotional history simply because he cannot fathom her having existed in any moment in which they are separated.  Buchanan, meanwhile, for all the ways in which he is repellent (in a remarkable performance by Joel Edgerton), at least manages to place Daisy as a key accessory in his own self-invention, which is as vivid, if not as creative, as Gatsby’s.

Nick Carraway, however, is of course the central raconteur of both Jay Gatsby’s construction and that of the narrative. But he is no everyman. Rather, he is only poor in contrast to the wealth around him, and his startlement and collusion and and in the drama that unfolds at his doorstep is also presented as an act of passing.  In the walk-up Buchanan rents for Myrtle and later at the barber shop, he must pretend to be more worldly and normative than he is in regard to booze, women, and business.  He’s no good at it though, and the night he stalks around one of Gatsby’s parties brandishing an invitation in order to prove he belongs proves, in fact, only the exact opposite.

While Carraway is well-handled, if uninteresting, the script misses a major opportunity to address long-standing scholarly speculation on his possible sexual interest in Gatsby, when homosexuality is not present on the list of diagnoses with which we are introduced to the character.

Luhrmann has always excelled particularly in the construction of the onscreen party, and in this film that construction is shot through with a profound menace embodied often, but not exclusively, by Jordan Baker. As an audience member I did not feel the desire to get lost in the night’s out presented, but to cut through them like her naked back, a shark in a sea of lesser and far more uninteresting creatures.

The obsession with personal commerce (prostitution narratives are explicitly and implicitly present in all of Luhrmann’s work) that I expected is certainly present, but disturbingly muted. No one seems to notice what they are buying and selling and nothing and no one is cherished for it, making the commerce present one of several elements that unexpectedly lend this film a surprisingly mature air.

Just as I cannot engage Gatsby without noting my own biography, I cannot engage this film without noting Luhrmann’s. Surely something personal is implied even if it is not actually present in a man who grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Australia and now runs a playground of creation out of a historical mansion in Sydney choosing to take on a story that is about the invention of persona to ends eventually lost sight of.

The music, which much has been made of, felt not nearly as intrusive or surprising as most reviews I have encountered have noted.  Frankly, after having listened obsessively to the soundtrack of the last week, there were many songs I couldn’t even find in the course of the film, and I often wished for music to be a more present element, even as silence is employed to great effect in one pivotal scene.

In particular, I remain most puzzled and haunted by Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” because neither youth nor fading looks seem to be remotely present in the fears of the characters. As such, it seems to serve as peculiar and really gutting commentary from some place outside the events of the film in a way that lends to the sort of melancholy maturity of the piece as a whole.

The use of 3D is at times remarkable, especially in the opening of the film, where it leads us literally back into the past as the gold logo border of the film recedes into the the screen and then sets up the deeply haunted feeling of the film through wisps of fog and a lens flare you can practically touch. My own ability to track effectively in 3D remained present, giving the film a flickery quality, which annoys me about the technology, but at least worked for the period setting.

Aside from Catherine Martin’s always exceptional design work, the other visual element that must be noted here is how great a debt this construction of New York owes to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in architecture, in the narrative presence of the financial markets, in the congestion and flow of crowds, in the choreography of work, and in the presence of a biplane, the crash of which seems inevitable, but never arrives.

Like the rest of Lurhmann’s work, The Great Gatsby is a celebration of the idea of the creator — here, again, the writer in particular. This is most clear, perhaps, not in the presence of the words of the novel on the screen as Carraway writes his story, but in Lurhmann’s own cameo in the film, where he plays a waiter who serves Nick and Jordan at their rooftop appointment.  Here, the director places himself explicitly in service to the writer character and the author’s avatar, in a coy and delightful wink at, at least, the over-interested members of the audience.

While not unflawed — the film drags in places much as the book does, and grapples somewhat clumsily with the racism of the source material — Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby manages to be a haunting, and at times even shocking film, that makes its audience drunk and then shoves it, as the unbelonging outsider, unceremoniously out the door, leaving the viewer uncertain as to what degree they should feel relief.

Nick Cave: A laying on of hands

(For the uninitiated, Nick Cave sings a lot of songs about murder, religion, and violence (often against women). His lyrics at times contain slurs, and his themes are often disturbing. In light of that, advance warning that this may not be the blog post for you).

The holidays have been a little funny this year, although in some ways, they always are: My mother is Jewish and my father tends to rotate through religions biannually and is the type of guy who has self-published his own version of the Bible. Combine this with two family birthdays in April (my father’s and my partner’s) and it can get more than a little wacky pretty quickly. Trust me, when Easter Sunday and the first day of Passover are the same day and the birthday of your dad who writes poetry in the voice of Jesus, things get a little intense and a lot weird.

This year, though, the holidays got cancelled.  A pipe burst in my parents’ apartment, flooding the entire space with about 6 inches of boiling water. This took down a huge part of a wall, destroyed the flooring, and resulted in significant property damage.  It was also a re-lived trauma; something similar happened about 35 years ago in which most of my mother’s artwork was destroyed.  She works in water color, my father in oils, so his work was fine.

it suffices to say, Passover got cancelled this year, and Easter was already off the table because I would be in the air at the start of a business trip.

But for all that I attempt to distance myself from some aspects of them, I am a product of my eccentric family and its religious shenanigans (I haven’t mentioned other conversions, various conversants with Jesus, or my late cousin who joined a cult which allowed her only to dress in red), and so the season and I didn’t quite pass each other by.

I’ve seen Nick Cave in concert dozens of times.  The first was about 25 years ago, in high school.  He was so drunk or high, that not only could he not remember the words to his own songs, and not only could he not read the words to his own songs successfully off of a piece of paper, he couldn’t even sit on the stool from whence he was trying to do this without falling off of it. 

I didn’t know what to think of it, and I suppose on some level, I didn’t care.  I had my freedom for a night in New York without lying for a change, and that was enough.

But despite that particular gig being the way it was, I didn’t lose interest in Nick Cave.  I’ve seen him with his band, The Bad Seeds; I’ve seen him solo, crooning as he noodled on a grand piano at Town Hall.  And I’ve always been mesmerized, by his jangly charisma, a sort of Neil Diamond spit up from the pits of hell to sing about religion and murder and drunks all taken out of some fictional, horrific, and supernatural Dust Bowl America.

So this past friday, I went to see Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds again, because I always do.  And while there are no terrible seats at The Beacon, I had terrible seats, up in the lodge, but I became thankful for them, nearly instantly.  Because when Cave took the stage, he crouched down, and beckoned the audience to him, cajolling them, praising them closer, telling them to ignore the security guards, come closer, come closer.

And, of course, eventually they did. 

When I was seventeen, and just a week or two into college, I walked up to Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in a rainstorm to see Cave play.  A lot of things happened that day and night, but one of them was that same beckoning.  And I was close to the front, so when he called, I was right there, and in fact watched half the show sat on the lip of the stage and twisted ’round to see him.  He sang “Hey Joe” just inches from my face, into my eyes, long fingers touching my hair.

To see him work that particular magic — and horror, there’s a lot of horror at Nick Cave shows — on Friday night was a moment come full circle.  For every gentle caress as he sang of murder or men who make bets with the Devil and win, there was also his palm smacking onto the top of someone’s head, a laying on of hands as they vibrated under him to the music.

I watched this for two hours, a hand over my mouth smiling into it, as Cave performed this ritual on dozens of fans, going out into the crowd at one point and saying no to those who would try for the moment twice.  And it wasn’t just girls this time, not like it was back in 1990, and I was grateful for it, because this a man whose songs I feel I can never recommend to anyone because they often contain lines like “a fag in a whalebone corset draping his dick across my face.”  Those lines, for the record, usually aren’t even the ones most likely to upset or offend; Cave has a lot of seven-minute story songs, and they are all a long dark road. 

In all these years nothing about his songs has really changed; some are slower, some are almost gentle; but it’s still a body of work that’s often about dead prostitutes (and lately mermaids, actually, but I think that’s just a one-album phase). The songs remain dark, unsavory, lit by a strange religiosity, and desperately romantic.

At Friday’s show Cave sang a lot of older ones I didn’t expect to hear: “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry” (from which the previously quoted line comes), “Deanna” (which is only particularly harrowing if you’ve heard him tell its backstory), “The Mercy Seat” (performed in the voice of a convict as he is being executed in the eletric chair), “The Weeping Song” (performed solo now that Blixa Bargeld is no longer in the band, a gesture I appreciate, even though the song, which tells the difference between children’s tears and adult sorrow, was always better as a duet), “The Ship Song” (perhaps the most shattering love song I have ever heard), “Tupelo” (which, clearly, it’s just easier if I link to), and “From Her to Eternity” (the night’s closest moment to Cave’s original punk days, but remarkably listenable to all the same).

And amongst all of this, Cave did it with a string section and a children’s choir from Harlem. 

Now, there are a lot of dead and weeping children in Cave’s songs; having children’s voices support many of those songs (even if the truly violent and disturbing stuff was saved for when they were off stage) was brilliant and weird and that possible step too far that a performer with his roots in punk should generally provide.

Even so, a man that I have seen give pretty much every type and quality of concert imaginable, managed to surprise me and discomfort me all over again.  Which is, of course, why I keep coming back.

Somewhere in there, as the people around me whispered about how they wished they were down on the floor where Cave was still beckoning and cajoling between verses and laying on hands during, I realized that nearly everything I’ve ever thought about what it means to be chosen, and the burden of that, comes from being one of those people on the floor as a teen. 

How silly, how wasteful, how secret and lovely, it seemed to me all at once. 

The children lifted their voices again, Cave referenced a great and terrible God with incredibly elusive mercy, and I thought about the email I would write to my parents about seeing the show, like this, on Good Friday of all days, knowing my father might well be offended and my mother vociferously jealous.

After and leaving, I overheard two conversations: One from a woman who had clearly seen Cave before and had taken her seemingly new boyfriend in the concert.  She was relieved that he had liked it.  The other, two people, probably around ten years younger than me who’d never seen Cave before. They were in that wow, what was that, wow place some of us go to after really good concerts.  I followed them to the subway, listening to them try to talk about the way Cave touches his audience as if they are customer and pilgrims.  They wondered if the people in the audience who got that close wanted to fuck him or wanted to be healed.

I shook my head to myself, but said nothing.  But 23 years ago when Nick Cave sang “Hey Joe” to me I stared him right in the eye and sung along when I could.  It wasn’t anything but a dare in my pretty little seventeen-year-old head, and that went both ways.

There aren’t a lot of interactions a person can have with someone we put on a stage, we put on a pedestal, we insert into a narrative that says we’re practically obligated to desire them, where you get to be that equal and that ferocious, no matter how much it looks, under those long fingers, like something else.

an stomach the themes of Cave’s work, it’s a never, ever miss gig.

Kinkstarter II: The 7 Deadly Virtues

It’s baaaaImageaack!

Please join us for an evening of cabaret as Dogboy & Justine alumni and friends once again bring Broadway to its knees by putting a naughty, kinky twist on musical theater classics with Kinkstarter II: The 7 Deadly Virtues.

The event will be at the historic Stonewall Inn on Monday, March 18, 2013 at 9pm. The Stonewall Inn is located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City.

There’s no cover and a two drink minimum for this event as we pass the hat in support of Dogboy & Justine‘s ongoing development.

Last time we did this it involved a BDSM striptease version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and the mouse was a dude.  Do you really need more incentive?

Glee: Deconstructing Moulin Rouge

When I first heard that Glee was going to do a Moulin Rouge episode, I was ecstatic. Moulin Rouge is a film that has had a tremendous impact on me; once upon a time I even took a month out of my life to run away to acting school in Sydney. As such, I’m always interested in both its themes and how its stylistic construction continues to move through the culture.

Of course, my enthusiasm was tempered when it became clear we would be getting a general tribute to the movie musical on Glee instead. However, having just watched “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” I am struck by just how closely id adheres to the themes of Moulin Rouge without retelling its story or offering any direct one-to-one character correlations.

Glee achieves this thematic resonance in part because it extends out significantly from this episode, appearing first in episode 4.08 (“Thanksgiving”) when Marley collapses on stage in a torrent of confetti. This echos Satine’s final collapse in Moulin Rouge and is truthful to the structure of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Cinema (RCC) in that RCC stories always begin with the end. In keeping with this Glee’s tribute to Moulin Rouge begins in 4.08 with a reflection of the end of the film.

But Marley, of course, hasn’t collapsed from consumption on Glee. Yet, the reference to Satine’s end is still clear. Because Marley has collapsed because of what she will not allow herself to consume (food) and what she is consumed with (fear that she will wind up like her mother), thanks to the gaslighting Kitty provides as one of the clear parallels to Satine’s rival, Nini Legs-in-the-Air.

Similarly, another key element of Moulin Rouge has only been foreshadowed in “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” yet spoilers tell us that Brody isn’t a drug dealer, but a sex worker, as is Satine and essentially at the denizens of the Moulin Rouge in Luhrmann’s film. That Satine desperately wants to be “a real actress” and engages in prostitution because of her engagement with art is echoed in the fact that Brody is the first NYADA student Rachel meets. His association with the aspiration to being “a real actor” is absolute and that is why it has been unavoidable that he gets this particular sex work narrative (which is hardly Glee‘s first). This is compounded by his history with Cassandra — the power differences and his multiple uses to his employers are as essential to Brody’s role in the story as they are to the women of the Moulin Rouge.

The bulk of the deconstructed Moulin Rouge content, however, does fall within “Boys (and Girls) on Film.” Characters constantly remind each other of what happens next in multiple films to determine their next courses of action, just as Christian writes and explains his future love story with Satine through the musical they have connived to have him create for the Duke and Harold Zidler.

Also in keeping with the themes of Moulin Rouge is “Shout!” which is reminiscent of our introduction to the Moulin Rouge in “Because We Can.” They’re both seemingly positive activity songs that don’t advance the narrative but lead us into the chaotic world of the action. Just as that number in Moulin Rouge has movement on multiple levels, “Shout!” also puts people crawling on the floor and climbing on furniture. Additionally, with the number being led by Blaine, who Glee codes as feminine, and Brittany, who Glee codes as masculine, much of the gender variance which is present throughout Moulin Rouge, and particularly in “Because We Can,” is also alluded to here.

Other key elements to Moulin Rouge are evidenced in Artie’s function as director; the commune-like nature of the ever more populated New York loft (where Santana also has a Nini Legs-in-the-Air function, but is equally the older woman who prepares Satine for her performances and serves as her dresser); repeated issues around sexual consent and assault (which have appeared most explicitly around Blaine recently, but are present all over the narrative on a nearly constant basis); Glee‘s intra- and extradiegetic pop-culture borrowing, and the central questions of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.

And that’s all before we touch the two key numbers from the film that actually appear in the episode — the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” / “Material Girl” mash-up (in which the line about Harold Zidler remains and Unique gets to be an explicitly sexual being) and “Come What May,” which visually references the “Elephant Love Medley” in its set and the first iteration of “Come What May” in its physical choreography.

Of course, several key pieces of the Moulin Rouge story and narrative remain missing, at least for the moment. These include Christian’s anguish in “El Tango de Roxanne,” Harold Zidler’s “The Show Must Go On,” and the final reprise of “Come What May” which features not just a wedding, but a gun.

It seems likely that “Against All Odds” in 4.17 (“Guilty Pleasures”) will serve the Blaine anguish purpose that slots in to the “El Tango de Roxanne” place. A reprise of “Come What May” for Kurt and Blaine’s eventual reunion seems a given, especially with the themes of spiritual marriage that Glee has underscored even more heavily than Moulin Rouge. But before that happens (and it may not even happen this season), we’ll certainly see a gun in 4.18 (“Shooting Star”). Meanwhile, any stand in for “The Show Must Go On” is virtually unnecessary in light of the obstacles the glee club deals with on a nearly constant basis.

Since the Kurt and Blaine break up, I’ve been reminding people that, as Leonard Cohen sings, “Love is not a victory march.” Additionally, Glee is not a love story. At least not that type of love story, which is easy to forget when you watch the show for one or more of its romances. But even as the romances seem to drive the plot forward and seem to be the central narrative, the fact is that neither Glee nor Moulin Rouge are actually, centrally, about romantic/sexual dyads.

Rather, both Glee and Moulin Rouge are about friends who make art together for fun, and for profit, and to survive, and because they are incapable, by their very natures, of not doing so. In both properties, creative acts are used as a proxy for sex and communication, while sex and communication inspire other creative acts. This feedback loop is incestuous, is an erotic drama-based pleasure, and is about loyalty and love and creative family.

Thus, the romances we think are the central story — whether Christian and Satine or Kurt and Blaine or Rachel and Finn — actually happen because of the magical space created by the community-driven narratives. That both properties also have emphasized in their supplemental material the creative family aspects of their production processes (is it any wonder that Glee‘s 500th song came in this episode?) should also not be overlooked.

Through its dialogue with Moulin Rouge in this episode and in this season, Glee has arguably never been clearer about what it is, where it’s going, and just how much it doesn’t want to let any of us watch it for merely a single strand of its many many diamonds.

MASH 2013: Journalistic Artifacts, Transformative Works, and the Assemblage of Persona

ImageNow it can be told.  I’ll be presenting a paper at Mash 2013, the Making and Sharing Conference on Audience Creativity.  The event will be taking place over July 4 -5, 2013 in Maastrict, The Netherlands, and registration will open soon.  Meanwhile, you can see the preliminary schedule at their WordPress.

My paper, The Media Tells Me So: Journalistic Artifacts, Transformative Works, and the Assemblage of Persona, will be presented on the first day of the conference and the abstract is below:

 Many texts with significant fan communities utilize journalistic media as characters in order to enhance the believability of narrative and support and encourage the free marketing that often comes with ironic believer communities (“Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes: Mass Culture and the Re-enchantment of Modernity.” Saler, 2003).  Such narrative use of journalistic media is often taken up by fan audiences in response to source texts.  These audiences not only include news media elements in the transformative works they produce, but sometimes create journalistic media artifacts – newspapers, magazines, video and audio broadcasts and recordings – specifically as transformative works.

Such use of journalistic media to enhance both original texts and transformative community participation does not represent a dialogue that flows solely in one direction, or that happens outside of the gaze of the news media.  In fact, there have been multiple instances of fan-created, transformative, journalistic artifacts that have been picked up by news outlets as factual reportage.

This paper will examine the use of journalistic media as a character in subject texts and transformative works. It will also document the dialogue that occurs between fan communities and news media outlets when transformative uses of journalistic media styles are encountered by naïve believers (Saler, 2003) and subsequently reproduced as fact, transmuting fiction into reported truth. This will be achieved through a focus on the relationship between FPF (Fictional Person Fiction) and RPF (Real Person Fiction) fan communities. It will examine how texts use journalistic media content to acquire naïve, ironic and enchanted believers (“A Tangible Reality of Absence: Fan Communities and the Mourning of Fictional Characters.” Maltese, 2010), and highlight the role fan-created, transformative, journalistic artifacts play in the invention and reinvention of both fictional texts and celebrity personae.

Can you see me rubbing my hands together with glee on this one?  I’m always talking about how I want to do serious work regarding RPF fan-culture, but this is the first time I’ve had a good excuse.  Of course, I’ve already found multiple instances of fandom accidentally morphing media and persona truth for this, but if you happen to know of any, I would love to hear from you in comments and email.