Video killed the day’s productivity…

Sort of surrendering this week to listlessness; much of today was spent browsing music videos, starting with mid-2000s ones i’d watch as a young teen, then veering off. But! Not completely irrelevant. Music videos are pretty fascinating capsules of history—cultural, aesthetic, and personal. A sampling of those viewed today:

1. “Like a Prayer,” Madonna (1989)

Um, pretty sure it would take a book to unpack all the racial & sacred/sexual shit going on here…Has someone written that book? Can i? Just a few points of interest: the featured lady gospel singer forcing a (happily compliant) Madonna to her knees by the forehead, after the choir joyfully welcomed M into the fold. Kissing Black Jesus’ feet. Soft core-ish shots of Madonna & Black Jesus interspersed ~between 3’50-4’14. Madonna’s stigmata, and eventual rescue of Black Jesus. Assaulter dude’s fancy entrance at 2’36. Madonna’s slightly prescient slip dress+a bullet-type bra. So much to discuss!

2. “Countdown,” Beyoncé (2011)

Beyoncé does modern mod! To an exuberant little love song! Pregnant! When i was watching this video compulsively last summer, i recall thinking how this song would feel different if/when Beyoncé and Jay-Z broke up.

Welp.

Still great!

3. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Eurythmics (1983)

Annie Lenox, tho. And, the bindi (ugh) turning into a crosshair, and the cows, and the carrot hair, and the ending that makes me lol.

4. “Objection (Tango),” Shakira (2002)

Odd video i was obsessed with as a 10-year old. That dirty dancing at the beginning. Them campy-cheap superhero renderings. Those pricked balloon-breasts.

5. “Take On Me,” A-ha (1985)

Neato! Did you know they were Norwegian?

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Formal Roast: “Wish I Was Here” & “Free Fall”

Today has been stupid thus far so i’m going to be mean to 2 movies via form poetry.


 

1. Wish I Was Here, directed by Zach Braff (2014)
(summer movie release, viewed at the Alamo)

Things learned: It is hard
for white men when the bit part’s
for a black actor.

But in such moments,
mocking Spanish accents brings
fun & therapy.

Life is ramshackle;
movies about it should be
too. Substance? For dweebs.

Sometimes, characters
should remain sketches. It keeps
things fresh, keeps things free.

Sprinkle a few pop
philosophy monologues
over bed of jokes

too Raw to be called
“half-baked.” Unfunny? Nah, yr
just too fake. Add Cat

Power*, Bon Iver.
Stir; the audience wants you
-r wizdom (deepass Shit).

Sorry, man.

2. Free Fall, directed by Stephan Lacant (2013)
(random Netflix pick)

The first German film i’ve seen—
i was not impressed.**
The gay relationship lacks substance
(did you come for hott sex?).

& i was not impressed
with a plot stolen from my high school play.***
Did you come for hott sex?
Well, it’s lukewarm, at best.

A plot stolen from my high school play
with less delightful characters, it must be said.
Lukewarm, at best,
my reaction to the protagonist’s implosion.

And the less-than-delightful characters
paint baby-rooms and do prenatal yoga.
My reaction to the protagonist’s implosion?
You’re really late

to painting your baby’s room and doing prenatal yoga
because you were fucking a man against a truck in the rain?
I really hate
how tidy that makes the universe.

Because it’s mostly a fuck against a truck in the rain,
the gay relationship lacks substance.
How tidy it makes the universe,
the first German film i’ve seen.****


*i mean, not to say that i’m not listening to Cat Power as i type…
**obviously not at all to say that this little number represents German cinema at large.
***seriously, huge parallels!!
****more srsly, i am well aware that, given the fucked-up culture that prevails concerning sex, sexuality, and desire (among other things), many same-sex relationships are: ill-fated, clandestine, unmanageably complicated, downright tragic, or some combination thereof. and yes, brokeback mountain makes me cry like no other. but there are other kinds of serious gay (love) stories to be told! and i want those.

 

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White Girls, by Hilton Als

First, some housekeeping:

First post in almost exactly (neato) two years; see revamped About page for info.


Basically: A collection of super-smart essays exploring often unconventionally-defined “white girls,” analyzing their respective emotional landscapes & cultural significance, all from a queer/black/critical perspective.


More: Well, this book educated me in ways i didn’t even know i wanted to be educated. Like, take this:

Our recourse in reinventing the love affair with no love, or a surfeit of it, the memory misremembered or tossed altogether, is learning how to write our name—in blood or whatever—on that clean and wide and high wall which only learning to admit oneself to one’s home, recumbent with memory, can destroy.

Or, like, this:

“But aren’t we born of her? Didn’t we queer her body being born?”

Not to mention in terms of the premise itself! Als selects fascinating, complicated figures from both his own life and American culture at large and weaves them into rich critiques which engage pop culture, history, critical analyses of race/gender/sexuality, his personal perspectives & history, & etc. In the cast of his examined, of particular interest to me were Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, Richard Pryor (as well as Pryor’s fictional older sister, in a brilliant re-take of Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare), Michael Jackson, Vivian Leigh, Louise Little (mother of Malcolm X) & the one and only Truman (too perfect!).

The book is smart, and sexy because it’s smart, and also too-smart-for-me-feeling at times because it is relentlessly inventive and intensely intertextual. But moments of lostness didn’t really bother me because i was otherwise so trusting of Als’ wisdom and design—that is, willing to surrender the need for immediate and total comprehension. Usually that gamble paid off by the end of each piece. Parts will probably offend some people. You will have to read some parts 2-3 times to understand them (which is i guess what you make of it).

I was continually impressed by the dual complication and humanity Als lent his figures of inquiry, whether he was writing about them or as them—and the incredible fluidity of perspective demonstrated in that process.

Take aways: General cultural literacy has skyrocketed! As has interest in Richard Pryor and essay-writing. Leaves me with contemplations of twinship, desire as raced and as we learn it from our parent(s), the negative space of the (colored) mother, distinction between “emotional” and “actual” truth—and an exciting, gendered reading of Truman’s career: In Cold Blood as Tru’s first attempt to write not as a “white girl,” but as a (white) Man? Answered Prayers (his last, unfinished, destruction-inducing book) as his first and sadly only attempt at writing as himself?? Tell me more!

Cool quote from Salon’s interview with Als:

Life is short and art is long.

And i love that Als is critiquing both lives and art, past and present, from his particular and at times intimidatingly well-considered perspective.

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Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden

Ed. note: I wrote this several months ago and have read many books since, but just thought i’d give an update. Contains spoilers.

It probably undermines my credibility as a literature blogger to admit that books rarely move me to tears. They move me, truly and often, but very rarely to the point of actually crying. Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind is one of the few that can.

Avery gave me this book as a birthday present last year, as a much-needed addition to my ever-expanding collection of LGBTQ (emphasis on L) books—Annie, after all, is more or less the premiere lesbian young adult novel. And as such, it broke many, many rules.

The book takes place during its protagonist, Liza’s, final year of high school. As student council president and all around good girl, she’s very involved in her small, private high school, and only happens to meet Annie, an oddly playful but intriguing fellow senior from another high school, at the Met one afternoon. The two become fast friends and, eventually, end up kissing at Coney Island and realizing that their feelings exceed friendship.

This whole process is extremely organic, contrary to what one might expect. When a book is so obviously—notoriously, if you will—queer, you might expect that the queer relationship will seem forced, or obvious, or inevitable. Garden, however, manages to create such a natural trajectory from strangers, to acquaintances, to friends, to lovers, that it is nothing short of the beautiful, pure young love—love that even the most straight-laced would have trouble finding qualms with (i’d imagine).

Annie and Liza become progressively closer and more comfortable with their love, with one another, and with identifying as gay though neither of their families or communities—Annie’s Italian immigrant parents and inner-city school, and Liza’s kind but conventional family and insular private school—would approve of any of it. After several months of dating in secret, Annie and Liza decide to have sex. Yes, sex, young, lesbian sex.

This, of course, sends so many alarms blaring. You may recall an earlier discussion of Judy Blume’s Forever, which still graces top banned books lists thirty years after its publication for its inclusion of adolescent (premarital) sex. Between a young woman and man. So if that was bad, one can only imagine the taboo against the same situation with two young women. And further, Garden blessedly refrains from portraying the sex as confusing (though, realistically, feelings of confusion do play into the girls’ relationship), or destructive, or empty, or frightening—it is portrayed as warm, sensual, loving, safe, and, yes, beautiful. However, it is not explicit; the descriptions of the sex are appropriately vague, able to strike a balance between age-inappropriate detail and total unnecessary sugar-coating. I’d like to commend Garden’s guts in not only writing one of the first lesbian YA novels, and not only including sex in that novel, but also portraying the sex as ultimately positive.

Inevitably, however, shit does hit the fan, and the girls are discovered—won’t say how or by who in case you decide to read it, and this part is surprisingly intense even though you saw it coming from a mile away. After all, the novel is set up as Liza looking back on her relationship with Annie a year after they first meet, after Liza is already away at MIT and—for reasons unknown to the reader initially—has not spoken to Annie for several months. Which brings us full circle, to the reason for my tears: after going over the story of their relationship in her mind, Liza decides that she is secure enough in her sexuality and love for Annie to call her and hope that things can be resumed after the long hiatus. And things end happily.

In this, Annie perhaps breaks the biggest rule: that gay love stories have to end unhappily. And so, so many do, especially when their characters are young and have even less control over their lives. And of course this is understandable: many real gay love stories, due to unfortunate and unethical forces of culture, society, and prejudice, end unhappily. But it is nice to have happy models out there, especially when they are designed for young people’s consumption. Even better, Annie is not mindlessly happy—Liza and Annie face many complications, including their comfort in labeling themselves as gay, not being able to spend as much time as they want together, coming out to their families and friends, etc., not to mention universal relationship drama. But in the end—even after a lengthy separation—they find each other again, and the reader is left with reasonable hope that they will stay together for as long as the relationship is happy for them. Which is what brought tears to my eyes.

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We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve been meaning to get at Joyce Carol Oates for a while. I even heard her speak in the fall of 2009 at the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference (a grand old time). But yeah, it took me until fall 2011 to pick up one of her novels. And honestly, in part, this was because i was intimidated by the sheer volume of her bibliography. The woman has written over fifty novels (some YA, some for kids, most under the name of JCO, but some under one of her two noms de plume), as well as an impressive selection of drama, poetry, essay, memoir, and short stories. This woman is prolific. So how on earth, i wondered, was i supposed to pick just one work to start with?

In the end, it was a matter of convenience. Avery happened to have a copy of We Were the Mulvaneys on her shelf (which was, i believe, purchased at that same Women Writer’s Conference). WWtM is one of Oates’ more popular novels, perhaps due to its membership in Oprah’s book club.

What struck me the most about this novel, initially, was its male protagonist, Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaney brood. This not an interesting fact in and of itself, but i have found that men authors tend to write from the point of view of female protagonists more often than women write from male protagonists’ POV, at least in my reading experience. This aspect became even more intriguing when the central conflict of the novel became apparent: the rape of the protagonist’s sister, Marianne, and the repercussions this violent act cause in her life and in the lives of her family members.

Oates is masterful in the simultaneous primacy and mystery she grants Marianne—the reader is almost never given access to Marianne’s thoughts—indeed, for a good part of the novel, she is not even present. Yet, she remains in the forefront of the reader’s mind throughout, and the characters’ minds. In fact, i take back my designation of Judd as the novel’s protagonist simply because he is the one “telling” the story. In fact, Judd’s voice and perspective is often latent, resurfacing only at crucial intervals; the collective voice of the Mulvaney family, which tells the story of Marianne, speaks louder than Judd, who ultimately is little more than a figurehead.

In this sense and in many others, WWtM is a spectacularly subtle novel. Though it is driven by a violent, devastating act of rape, it refrains from becoming morose or frightening or, more to the point, either glamorizing or sensationalizing of the rape itself. The novel instead is permeated by an insidious tension, sadness, and silence that feels exceedingly authentic. *SPOILER ALERT* As a result of the rape, Marianne is sent to live with a distant relative; oldest son Michael moves out and becomes a drunken womanizer; middle son Patrick goes away to school and distances himself from the family; parents Michael and Corrine are forced to declare bankruptcy and sell the family farm; the Mulvaney family and Michael and Corrine’s marriage deteriorates. But none of this is dramatic or overwrought—rather, it is a slow, sneaking, sorrowful process. Oates is so good at drawing the reader in that i almost felt like these characters were my people, that their problems were my own.

It’s a depressing novel, no doubt, but in the best way, and doesn’t end on an overly sad note, either. If you want a dense, character-driven novel that you can sink into—and keeps you interested—We Were the Mulvaneys—or many of Oates numerous other titles, i’m sure—may be for you.

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Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown

How much could Rubyfruit Jungle and The Well of Loneliness have in common, besides being novels about lesbians? After all, their basic stats are very different: They were published 45 years apart, Rubyfruit in 1973, The Well in 1928. The Well takes place between around the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century; Rubyfruit, from the mid 1940s to the late 60s. Their physical settings, too, are quite different, as are their protagonists: Radclyffe’s Steven is a refined, reserved, horseback-riding, book-writing Englishwoman who divides her time between her beloved manor in the countryside and a community of lesbian expatriates in Paris; Brown’s Molly is a corn-fed American girl who, though very intelligent and motivated, comes from an impoverished, broken family and grew up in a tiny Pennsylvania farming community and a rural working-class Floridian town. What the hell could these protagonists and their stories have in common beside the fact, as mentioned, that they are both sapphic? Well, as it turns out, a hell of a lot.

Well, firstly, both of the novels are bioptic in scope, ranging from their heroines’ childhoods to developed adulthoods, and both of their childhoods contain such elements as isolation from their families and communities, especially their mothers; the desire to act “like a boy”; a close, empathetic bond with their fathers; strength of character with which their mothers disagree; the sudden death of said fathers who were among the only people in their lives to understand them; ill-fated childhood infatuations and adolescent affairs. In fact, as i was reading Rubyfruit, it felt a little like a condensed version of Well fast-forwarded sixty or so years and translated into folksy American dialect. One may wonder if Brown lifted some of her ideas from an invert author foremother. But it must be pointed out that Rubyfruit is a highly autobiographical novel—as is, indeed, The Well. So what do these similarities indicate?

I think they point largely to the commonalities shared between closeted lesbians as an oppressed group, similarities that span time and space—and also indicate how little changed for lesbians between Radclyffe and Brown’s lives—despite the arrival of radio, television, the microwave, and airplanes in the intervening years, it still was common for young lesbians to feel at odds with their mothers over their gender identities to the point of total alienation. And for adult lesbians to write novels based on their own troubled childhoods.

Plotwise, Rubyfruit is a textbook Bildungsroman, tracing Molly’s evolution from child to young woman. Like Radclyffe’s Steven, Molly encounters a tough relationship with her mother, the death of her father, gets cast out from her home, and makes a name for herself in a more glamorous place than from which she came (New York City). However, unlike Steven, Molly is consistently unashamed of her sexuality, revels in sex and having multiple partners, and is very open about her sexuality with others—and Rubyfruit, unlike The Well, contains somewhat (homo)sexually explicit scenes. As such, of course, it joins the ranks of The Well, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Go Ask Alice, and scads of other frequently banned books.

Like The Well, Rubyfruit Jungle is not a literary masterpiece. Its plot is somewhat predictable and its protagonist is static and flawless. However, it serves its purpose as a Great Lesbian Novel if nothing else, especially gaining weight as it is written by an author popular in the mainstream for her mystery novels. Perhaps Rubyfruit was to second-wave lesbians that The Well may have been to those of the turn of the century: a rallying point, a sliver of solidarity in a world where they were either ignored or hostilely rejected. And, highfalutin’ conjectures aside, it’s a fun, light summer read. (Ed. note: Because i did read this in the summer and am only just now posting it due to K College-induced time constraints on pleasure reading.)

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The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel

Like many others, my sole experience with comics for a sizable chunk of time ended with the newspaper funnies, and even that interaction was limited to Zits, Baby Blues, and Speedbump (how on earth can Dave Coverly pack so much humor into one panel while Brad Anderson, AKA father of Marmaduke, fails so miserably?). But in winter quarter of my first year at K i took a class called, half-truthingly, Reading the World: Identities—i say half-truthingly because although the texts of the class were concerned with identity, all of them were also graphic memoir, which became far more of a focal point than the identities bit.

I wasn’t exactly skeptical about this development, but—well. I guess i was. I’d like to say i was extremely open-minded to the possibility that some comics could go far deeper than, say, Peanuts, but i will be transparent and admit that when i first realized that the course would be taught in graphic memoir, i felt a little duped and disappointed. But it didn’t take me long to change my tune. We started with all-around classic Maus by Art Spiegelman which is, of course, just badass, poignant, intense, and masterful all at once, moving on to the simply drawn yet powerful Persepolis, David Smalls’ marvelous Stitches to, finally, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, which i’d been looking forward to since reading the synopsis (Bechdel’s memoir loosely about coming out in collage and her relationship with her father, whom she learned was gay after his death). I was struck by the intelligence of Bechdel’s work, her humility, and her honesty. So, i was overjoyed when a friend of mine presented me with a belated birthday present of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a collection of a long-running comic strip by Bechdel.

Basically, DTWOF is a twenty-one-year chronicle of the lives of a group of mostly lesbian friends. Because the strip ran for so long, it’s fun to watch how the characters, style, and animation grow and change over time. The plot points never fail to excite—and yet, in truth, they’re pretty down to earth. Stuff that would happen in anyone’s life. Which was Bechdel’s main purpose in creating the strip: to show that lesbians are just people, too. Well, one of the main reasons, anyway, the other being to critique current events and politics, especially as they related to the queer world. And critique she did. I mean, Alison Bechdel is so fucking smart. And i already knew she was after reading Fun Home—she’d pack a whole dissertation’s worth of literary references into one page—but DTWOF is equally amazing in its social and political consciousness, its attention to detail, its careful consideration of the world around us through its characters.

Which is a lot of the reason why Bechdel put the strip on indefinite hiatus in 2008. According to an interview with Roxanne Samer from the blog Gender Across Borders, the pressure to keep up to date on current events, especially with all the race and gender politics packed into the 2008 presidential election, made keeping up with DTWOF an intimidating prospect. Plus, it had been going on for twenty-one years. Bechdel claims she’d like to do a little tying up of loose ends, as the final comic is drastically inconclusive, but who knows if this will happen. And i’m not so sure that it should, at this point. Because DTWOF is so of its time, it would seem out of step to pick it back up three years later. And anyway, Bechdel wanted the comic to be like real life, which it is, and since when has real life been neatly summed up in 9 panels? It seems poignantly appropriate that the strip should end on an inconclusive note—not a cliffhanger, but definitely with some questions hanging in the air. And it’s up to the readers to decide if Mo and Sydney ever work it out, if Toni and Clarice ever finalize their separation, if Sparrow and Stewart ever adopt another baby.

So, for those of you L Word fans out there, let me just say, this strip reminded me a lot of the show if it was dragged back in time twenty years, if its characters were about 93% less physically perfect, and if the diversity of the cast was amplified by about 3005 times in terms of not only race but also class, gender identity, looks, age, and physical ability. Sound good to you? Sound good to me.

 

 

 

(Not that i’m knocking The L Word. Because i like it. A lot.)

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