Ed Bernstein’s Avenging Angels

ImDepBerns

◆ by Sarah Burns

 

[Editor’s Note: Almost Illuminated: Edward Bernstein is a retrospective exhibition of work created during Professor Bernstein’s tenure at Indiana University from 1991—2013. The exhibition will be on display in the IU Grunwald Gallery from January 17 through February 14. On January 17, The Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts will host a Gallery Talk at 5:30; reception follows.]

 

Ed Bernstein’s visual universe is not for the faint of heart. It is a place of barely contained elemental energy, where flames consume, waters engulf, earthquakes shatter, and avenging angels hover in the air. In this world, frail boats drift through dark seas, fragile chandeliers shed feeble light into the shadows that deepen around them, and buildings await imminent destruction by fire or flood. This is a universe where forces both natural and supernatural make mockery of whatever humans have wrought in the name of power, culture, civilization, religion, beauty.

Yet however grave the danger and however imminent the disaster, Bernstein never relinquishes the hope of some ultimate redemption: for every raging fire or wrathful tempest, there is also light struggling through the darkness. To express such large themes— both timeless and deeply romantic—Bernstein uses and re-uses an array of seemingly simple yet richly connotative visual metaphors closely bound up in our own domestic and imaginative lives: the burning house, the storm-tossed boat, the beacon of hope, the guardian angel.

GuardAngBerns

Guardian Angel, 2008

Ed Bernstein is a native New Yorker who has hardly lived in New York. He was born in NYC and grew up in Long Island until he left for college first in Ohio where he got a degree in Political Science from Miami University and then to Rhode Island School of Design for a BFA in painting.

He left Rhode Island in late 1967 for Rome and then Paris to work with SW Hayter at Atelier 17 and where he met Wendy, his wife now of 44 years. He returned briefly to New York in late ’68 to teach art in the South Bronx ghetto as alternative service to Vietnam and then back to Rhode Island 1969 to do the same in inner city Providence.

Ed and Wendy arrived in Bloomington first in 1970; Ed studied with Rudy Pozzatti and Marvin Lowe for his MFA in Printmaking. In 1973 Ed got his first teaching job at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where their daughter Sacha was born but soon left for Oxford, England where Ed became Head of Printmaking at the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford.

From 1978 when they returned to the US, the Bernsteins moved many times across the US including Berkeley as well as back to Oxford for his many temporary and various gigs until finally returning to Bloomington in 1991 as Associate Professor in printmaking in the Hope School of Art. Bernstein just retired in August as Professor of Art and Head of Printmaking.

Over the course of his career, Bernstein has cycled through successive themes and variations on those potent—and often portentous— symbols. In the 1991 Escape Hatch and Stormy Voyage and other works of that time, we see an iconic house form, of the sort that very young children so often draw, the peaked roof and centered door promising security, warmth, family, refuge from the world outside. But Bernstein’s houses promise no such thing. They are skeletons, stripped to studs and joists. Dense plumes of smoke and licks of fire stream upward through the bare rafters. Standing precariously on circular mirrored platforms atop teetering conical towers, these houses remind us of spinning tops, cyclones, or whirlpools. At their bases and all around seethe restless waters, surging, heaving, undulating, powerful enough to suck the whole jerry-rigged structure down beneath the waves. If this happens, the flames will be doused. But the house is doomed to destruction either way.

EscHatBerns

Escape Hatch, 1991

It is not symbolism alone that conveys the drama and emotion we feel in these images. Those properties also are communicated through chiaroscuro effects and violent gestural animation. In Stormy Voyage, for example, everything is intensely dark save the flames, which, by contrast, deliver the blinding visual shock of a lightning flash. In the flames and—even more—in the roiling waves, our eyes “feel” the artist’s hand, activating the surface with a riot of marks that coil, surge, dash, flare, and bristle. Light, shade, and drawing combine to create effects of sheer chaotic, boundless motion. It is almost as if we are given a glimpse of untamable forces lurking beneath the ordered and ostensibly well-regulated façade that civilization has built to contain them. Indeed, the rectilinear geometry of the house and the perfect symmetry of its conical base stand as emblems of human-engineered order and measure. But in the Voyage series, geometrical order seems powerless to withstand the primal energy of nature and entropy: the epic of making and unmaking unfolds before our eyes. Permanence is only a dream, turmoil the reality.

Some prints, though, revel in the sheer joy of light. Constellation VII (2004) is another close-up view, a dazzling tangle of looped bead chains, dangling prisms, swooping arms, and crystalline candle cups, every element sparkling in tints of icy blue. In Mutations (2006), the peachy tones and extreme close-up accomplish what the title suggests: the chandelier has morphed into an alien life form—part plant, part animal—with bulbous growths on its legs and a glowing, translucent heart. In Illuminata (2012), we zoom out a vast distance to see an infinity of chandeliers and candle flames. Duplicated many times over, they become a spangled galaxy of stars shimmering against a velvety dark ground—or, perhaps, fireflies dancing in the dark on a summer night.

Light and the metaphors it generates are intrinsic to our existence. Light gives life. When we learn the truth, we say we have seen the light; we are enlightened. To be enchanted is to be bedazzled. That special person lights up our life. We hold candlelight vigils in memory of those who have died. Our ancestors relied on the light of their campfires to keep the wild beasts at bay. And almost without exception, our religions use light as a metaphor for the unknowable. Rich in connotation, these images invite us to reflect, ruminate, and remember.

Bernstein’s chandeliers dangle in space; his angels swoop through it. The artist first conceived of moving his printmaking into three dimensions in conjunction with a group show at the airport in Richmond, Virginia, where some sixty-five artists were invited to design a three-dimensional paper airplane on the theme of “No Danger.” What better than an angel to symbolize the transcendence (rather than the inconvenience, fear, and discomfort) of flying? Printed on fabric, Bernstein’s Guardian Angel (2008) joined the many other flying objects—identified and otherwise—watching over passengers coming and going. But this was no sentimentalized, smiling angel with white wings, a long robe, and a halo, but, rather, one straight out of the biblical imagination, a six-winged seraph, wondrous and (despite the theme of the show) more than a little terrifying. With its vividly colored wings inset with eyes, its projectile body and baleful stare, it is a genuinely supernatural being, celestial, inhuman, a hybrid of bird, butterfly, and spirit, a creature from a vision or a dream. Its siblings—Nemesis (2010) and the Avenging Angel (2008)—are equally formidable and even forbidding, one in somber shades of purple and violet, the other azure blue, trailing a long stinger. One can easily imagine vengeance and doom riding on those wings.

The three-dimensional figure of Icarus (2009) is structurally similar to the angels but of a different stripe. More like a giant moth than a seraph, Icarus is a creature of the earth whose dream of flying symbolizes his hubris and spells his downfall. The paired prints, Icarus Ascending (2010) and Icarus Ascended (2011) elaborate on what the three-dimensional Icarus more subtly suggests. To symbolize Icarus and his doomed attempt to soar, Bernstein marries a pair of bird wings with one of Leonardo’s impossible flying machines. In the first scene, Icarus has flapped his way out of a hellish pit (courtesy of Breughel the Elder) where the fallen rebel angels, hideous monsters, battle their heavenly adversaries. But in Icarus Ascended, the wings now bear the imprint of Breughel’s hell and the figure of the Archangel Michael beating down the monsters with his sword. Rather than rise into the firmament, Icarus seems to have plunged into an infernal night to become one with the demons he (like so many of us) tried so hard to escape. But at least for a few inspired moments, he tasted freedom. Was it worth the price? It is up to us to decide.

Bernstein’s latest work is decidedly more down to earth. These recent prints and constructions came out of the artist’s two extended visits to the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. These pieces graphically symbolize the extreme divisions of class and power endemic to modern Brazil. Inhotim (2011) represents a lush grove of palm trees in the eponymous park outside Belo Horizonte and mostly frequented by the middle and upper classes. The mesh of red chain link fence that screens the entire surface conveys meaning in an elegant visual shorthand that needs no further translation. Chain link is also the armature for the far more intricate 2013 Tapecaria (Tapestry). Resembling a quilt at a distance, close up it resolves into an interwoven grid of diamonds, some printed with smiling faces and ramshackle dwellings from the slums, the rest with images of Inhotim’s inaccessible palms. This dizzying visual kaleidoscope is at once a heartbreaking landscape of inequality, an acerbic commentary on social justice, and a tribute to the citizens of the favelas, who despite hardship and discrimination have created a vibrant culture.

As these latest works show, Ed Bernstein continues to invent, evolve, and engage with enduring social, ethical, and political issues, as he has throughout a long and productive career. He continues to experiment, too: for all his meticulous craftsmanship and command of traditional printmaking techniques, he strives to push beyond those boundaries, incorporating novel technologies with the old to produce ever new expressive forms. Like the best artists, he embraces change. The great Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai styled himself “The Old Man Mad about Art” and dreamed of the work he would create at age eighty, ninety, one hundred, one hundred and thirty, forty, and beyond. Ed Bernstein is an artist in that identical mold. Like Hokusai, he will keep going, always looking ahead, following his star.

[Sarah Burns is the Ruth N. Halls Professor Emerita in the Department of the History of Art at IU. The featured image is Imminent Departure, 1995.]

The Ryder ● January 2014

Bloomington: One Puzzle Piece At A Time

Tschida Jigsaw

Marc Tschida creates handcrafted jigsaw puzzles ◆ by Hannah Waltz

Bloomington’s Marc Tschida hesitates to call himself an artist, but his handcrafted jigsaw puzzles have caught the attention of the local arts scene. His puzzles feature images of downtown Bloomington and the Indiana University campus, drawing heavily from the work of local artists. “As a point of pride I’m just working locally right now,” said Tschida. “Mainly Bloomington-themed items. That’s what I’ve been specializing in.”

When he enrolled at IU at 19, the eclectic Bloomington arts scene exposed Tschida to a vibrant world he had never had access to growing up in Gary.

After two years of college, Tschida traveled to Alaska and worked on a fishing boat, spending thirty to forty days at sea at a time. The crew worked 18-hour shifts, seven days a week, to which Tschida attributes the growth of his patience and discipline. “The majority of time I stood in one place, at a conveyor belt sorting the catch. This extended period of time standing in one place concentrating on one thing, really has helped prepare me for what I do with the puzzles, standing at a saw for hours at a time manipulating the wood around a saw blade.”

Tschida

Marc Tschida At The Jigsaw

After Alaska, Tschida moved in and out of Bloomington through his mid-twenties, eventually calling it home “when I realized it was a sense of community drawing me back,” said Tschida. “By the time I was 26 I was helping define some of the cultural activities. I just feel blessed.”

Growing up, jigsaw-puzzling was a popular holiday pastime for Tschida’s family, so his affinity for puzzles is deep-rooted and linked to childhood memories. But it wasn’t until his adult life that he returned to the hobby. “I used to work in the music industry, so when I transitioned out of that line of work, my biological clock kept me up really late into the night,” said Tschida. “I did jigsaw puzzles to stay out of trouble.”

Tschida managed Second Story and Bullwinkles until both closed in 2006. “What started me on the arts was when I became a music photographer and my photos were used by Wilco’s Steve Harris.” Tschida crossed paths with the band when he roomed with the brother-in-law of Max Johnston, one of the band members. Oftentimes Johnston would crash at Tschida’s place when Wilco wasn’t on tour.

But his involvement in the local arts doesn’t stop in the music industry: Tschida also served as the performance and technical director for the Waldron Arts Center as well as general manager of the Cardinal Stage Company–both positions that he held for three years–and continues to volunteer at WFHB. “One of the advantages I’ve had is experiencing about every perspective you can imagine in the music field and entertainment field,” said Tschida. “I got to a point where I was talking to people as a human as opposed to a fan.”

Tschida first conceived of creating his own jigsaw puzzles in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2012, a wait “due to time and confidence,” that he was able to begin learning more about the craft when he recognized a potential market for Bloomington-inspired souvenirs. Tschida’s incentive for the project came from a holiday exhibit at the Waldron Arts Center that called out for local artists. “I felt that there was room for a high quality Bloomington memento craft item, and it was a couple years later that I combined that idea with my enjoyment of jigsaw puzzles.”

As a kind of jigsaw puzzle town troubadour, Tschida uses his puzzles to express his admiration for the  Bloomington arts scene. “When I say these are Bloomington themed, I mean performance arts groups, Bloomington visual arts work, iconic Bloomington images.”

Tschida has been collaborating with local artists, using their pieces of art as images for his puzzles; he describes himself a “manipulator of the image. . . .It’s so important to work with the artists, but the puzzle itself isn’t valuable. It’s the image that’s valuable.”

Tschida’s relationships with other artists and art organizations have granted him access to many of the images he uses in his puzzles, such as local graffiti and band flyers, including the flyer for Andrew Bird’s first show in town. As former manager of the Cardinal Stage Company, Tschida’s materials come from the theatre company’s recycled lumber. “Since I’ve worked in the arts in many capacities in Bloomington in the past fifteen years, it’s been simple to contact people in the community. I’ve generally worked with the artist Joel Washington’s art. I think [the pieces] would lend themselves very well to a super limited edition of puzzles.”

Collaborating artists sometimes share in Tschida’s profits, but he works on a case-by-case basis. But since he’s just getting the ball rolling, many artists are happy to let him just “run with it.”  Alas, it seems his time supporting and working for the arts has roped him into the world of creation. “It’s a blast, I’ve always been a facilitator of the arts, so this is my first foray into being on the other side.”

Whether he considers himself one or not, the grueling process of crafting jigsaw puzzles requires the skill and patience of an artist. The “grizzly process,” as Tschida calls it, entails multiple steps for each puzzle. The first step involves securing the rights to an image (to avoid copyright infringement), and then printing that image on glossy paper that will be adhered to the wood. Once the image is sealed, Tschida uses a scroll saw to make the cuts in the wood, yielding the individual pieces of the puzzle. And here comes the tedium — he then finely saws the ends of every piece for an easy fit.

Having honed his skill at the scroll saw, Tschida is now producing unique puzzles with irregularly shaped pieces. For example, a puzzle depicting the Buskirk-Chumley features a center piece that looks like a dog bone to mimic the Indiana sign in front of the theatre. “I use a scroll saw with a hair thin blade that just goes up and down, so I maneuver the wood around the blade of the saw, allowing me to cut any shape I want.”

Tschida has cut about fifty different puzzles, each with a unique image. His largest puzzle has 280 pieces that fit together to display a local roller derby girl. Although a few are based on original art, most of the puzzles feature landmarks such as the Monroe County Courthouse, the Buskirk-Chumley, and views from the B-Line Trail. Tschida chooses images based on their aesthetic appeal and a high level of contrast. He plans to continue learning more about photography so he can work with self-shot photos of Indiana University such as the Jordan River.

The real sacrifice a handmade puzzle crafter like Tschida must make is one of time. Tschida admits it’s hard to put a price on his puzzles for all the energy poured into their construction, though he sells them for modest prices of about $20 to $30 per puzzle. “People are used to going to Walmart and buying a puzzle for $7.99, so they aren’t used to wood, handmade puzzles and their prices.”

The origins of jigsaw puzzle crafting dates back to the Great Depression when they were called “dissected maps,” and provided hours of entertainment at a cheap price. Conventionally, puzzle makers did not include a picture of the puzzle’s image, but Tschida likes the frame of reference, because, to him, it’s about the image as opposed to the puzzle itself. “Tradition states that you’re not supposed to know what the image is, that’s part of the joy, but I think that’s kind of bullshit.”

For Tschida, the image sells the puzzles, which he says are almost worthless without the image. He sees the human contact with the artist as invaluable. “There’s a buy-in with the image, which is why I’m focusing on Bloomington,” said Tschida. “You’re buying it for its connection to the town, it’s like a bottle of Oliver wine. I’m very much into the local shopping and economy. That’s what everything I’m doing revolves around.”

Recognizing a potentially collaborative opportunity to encourage “puzzle awareness,” Tschida hopes to reach out to IU’s Lilly Library, which currently hosts one of the largest collections of mechanical puzzles in the country.

Although their entertainment value may have lessened since the Great Depression, the market is still alive. For example, in 1974 family-run company Stave Puzzles was founded and still exists today, selling some of their puzzles for up to twenty-six thousand dollars. The national market for hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles sells individual pieces from one dollar to thirteen dollars.

Tschida plans to host a jigsaw tournament next spring, using the event to launch a new line of puzzles featuring the artwork of local artists, most likely Joel Washington’s art, his new focus for upcoming puzzles. For now Tschida is taking his business, officially named Press Puzzles, one step at a time. But his love affair with theatre has him figuring out how to marry his two interests.

“It’s the sheer amount of community involvement in theatre,” said Tschida. “I’m one man in my garage making puzzles, but the performance events bring the best of community out.”  Eventually he hopes to break into the national theatre scene, designing puzzles customized to particular productions. “That is part of where I’m heading towards, but I don’t have the capacity yet,” said Tschida.  “The next step is raising puzzle awareness.”

Tschida was able to place puzzles based on the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County into the hands of both Stephen King, a jigsaw fanatic, and John Mellencamp, as well as a puzzle to the Chief of Staff of the National Endowment of the Arts, Jamie Bennett.  “I’m beginning to get a lot of commissions too. For example, I’m making a puzzle with arrowhead-shaped pieces for a ninety-year-old as a birthday gift.”

But Tschida is still uncertain, perhaps you could say “puzzled,” about what the future might bring. “Whether or not this will ever become a career, I don’t know if that will ever happen, but time will tell,” said Tschida. “But my next weird career transition will be marine oriented. My next bucket list goal is to cage dive with sharks.”

[Marc Tschida’s Jigsaw Puzzles will be on display November 30th at the City of Bloomington Holiday Market; December 21st at the west side Half Price Books
on W. Susan Drive from Noon-5pm; and during a puzzle-making demonstration at WonderLab, January 3rd, 2014. His puzzles are on sale at The Venue Fine Art & Gifts and the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The image at the top of this post is Tschida’s Buskirk-Chumley Theater puzzle.]

The Ryder ● December 2013

Film: The Winter Of Our Discontent

Scene from "Winter's Bone"

◆ by Craig J. Clark

When the temperatures start to drop, there’s no better time to make a mug of hot cocoa, curl up in a warm blanket, and bask in the glow of your television set (or computer monitor). While you’re doing so, here’s a selection of wintry movies to help you pass the time and make you glad you’re not outside.

Scene from "The Lion in Winter"

Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion In Winter”

The perfect film for anybody who’s obsessed with the doings of the royal family or can’t stand to be around their own is 1968’s The Lion in Winter. Set in the year 1183 and written by James Goldman, based on his own play, it stars Peter O’Toole as the title character, the roaring King Henry II of England, who decides to spend his Christmas holiday picking which of his sons will succeed him. The candidates are Richard (Anthony Hopkins, making his feature film debut), Geoffrey (John Castle, a stage actor who had previously appeared in Antonioni’s Blow-Up), and John [Nigel Terry], also making his film debut), all of whom are jockeying for position. Also present for the festivities: Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Best Actress-winner Katharine Hepburn), who’s receiving a brief reprieve after being imprisoned for ten years; his mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), who was once promised to Richard; and King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton, also making his film debut), Alais’s half-brother, who plans to put the screws to Henry one way or the other. Spend two hours with this dysfunctional family and your own relations won’t seem nearly so bad.

Familial dysfunction can also be found at the center of 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which heralded the arrival of an exciting young talent. A devastatingly bleak film, its stars Jennifer Lawrence as a 17-year-old high school dropout in rural Missouri who’s raising her younger siblings because her mother is pretty much a basket case and her absent father is a wanted meth cooker. Director Debra Granik (making an assured second feature) and her co-writer Anne Rosellini establish their desperate situation in the space of a handful of scenes (the one where Lawrence has to give up her horse because they can’t afford to feed it anymore speaks volumes about her character) before making it even more desperate. Seems her father has put up their house and property as collateral on a bail bond, and if he fails to show up for court they’ll lose everything.

Scene from "Winter's Bone"

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree in “Winter’s Bone”

Thus begins Lawrence’s quest to find her father or, failing that, prove to the authorities that he can’t be found because he’s dead. It’s not always a pleasant journey – the threat of violence is ever-present and when it rears its head it’s profoundly disturbing – and Lawrence doesn’t get much help, even from people she’s related to by blood. (Calling them “family” would be something of a stretch.) Her steely eyed determination does win her some converts, though, including a former classmate (Shelley Waggener) who dropped out to get married and have a baby, and her quietly menacing uncle who goes by the unlikely name of Teardrop (John Hawkes) and backs her up at a critical juncture. Suffice it to say, everything that Lawrence does in the name of keeping her family together has weighty consequences, and no one knows that better than she does. It’s easy to come away with the impression that this is far from the first crisis she’s faced — and it won’t the last.

Another film that puts the ties that bind people together at the forefront is 1997’s The Winter Guest, which stars real-life mother-and-daughter Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson. The directorial debut of Alan Rickman, who co-scripted with playwright Sharman MacDonald based on MacDonald’s play, The Winter Guest is comprised of four interlocking stories, each of which follows a different pair around a small coastal town in Scotland. In addition to Law and Thompson, who talk around Thompson’s desire to move away after she’s widowed, the film follows two schoolboys who play hooky from school, two teenagers (one of them Thompson’s son) who embark on a tentative relationship, and two old ladies who are in the habit of attending funerals of people they don’t know. Considering how dead the town is at that time of year, there doesn’t appear to be much else for them to do.

Scene from "The Winter Guest"

Emma Thompson and Phyllida Law In “The Winter Guest”

In a way, a theatrical troupe can be like a family – at least as long as the show is still running. This is illustrated by Kenneth Branagh’s 1995 film A Midwinter’s Tale, which was originally called In the Bleak Midwinter before the American distributor decided a black-and-white comedy-drama about a group of struggling English actors trying to mount an underfunded production of Hamlet was a hard enough sell without the word “bleak” in the title. Something of a serio-comic warm-up for Branagh’s own star-studded adaptation of the play, which came along the following year, A Midwinter’s Tale stars Michael Maloney as a frustrated actor who tries to lift himself out of his creative torpor by directing and starring in what turns out to be a rather ramshackle version of Shakespeare’s most famous play.

A knowing look at the clash of egos that goes into any creative endeavor, A Midwinter’s Tale is also notable for featuring some actors that went on to appear in Branagh’s Hamlet in different roles, starting with Maloney, who was demoted from the title character to playing the role of Laertes. He’s joined by Nicholas Farrell, who made a lateral move from Laertes to Horatio, and Richard Briers, who went from playing King Claudius (opposite John Sessions in drag as Queen Gertrude) to Polonius. Newcomers to the fold include Celia Imrie (as frazzled production designer Fadge), Absolutely Fabulous alums Julia Sawalha (as Maloney’s myopic Ophelia) and Jennifer Saunders, and Joan Collins (as his straight-shooting agent). All involved bring their own baggage, both personal and professional, to bear, but to a man (or woman — or man playing a woman) they live up to the old adage that the show must goes on.

Scene from "A Midwinter's Tale"

Jennifer Saunders and Joan Collins In “A Midwinter’s Tale”

Even with its less portentous title, A Midwinter’s Tale underperformed at the box office, but one film that actually benefited from a title change was the one-time cult favorite Chilly Scenes of Winter. A winning story about a hapless romantic that didn’t do so hot when it was initially released in 1979 under the title Head Over Heels, it made out much better a few years later when it was re-released with the original title and downbeat ending of the Ann Beattie novel on which it was based.

Written for the screen and directed by Joan Micklin Silver, Chilly Scenes of Winter has an Annie Hall-like quality, which isn’t too surprising since both films are about a doomed romance that is being remembered by one of the participants after the fact. The one doing the remembering is civil servant John Heard, who is still pining for former co-worker Mary Beth Hurt one year after she left him to return to her husband. Heard’s inability to move on leads to some stalkerish behavior, but he only acts that way because he believes he’d be better for her than a husband who loves her too little. What ultimately drives her away, ironically, is the fact that Heard loves her too much. Now, is that really such a crime?

The forging of tenuous connections comes into play in a big way in Tom Tykwer’s Winter Sleepers, which was made in 1997 but not released in the U.S. until 2000 (after the runaway success of Run Lola Run). Based on a novel by Anne-Francoise Pyszora, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tykwer, the film follows a quartet of 20somethings whose lives intersect in unexpected ways over the winter holidays. Nurse/aspiring actress Marie-Lou Sellem and translator Floriane Daniel live together in Sellem’s villa, Daniel is seeing self-centered ski instructor Heino Ferch, and Sellem takes up with cinema projectionist Ulrich Matthes, who suffers from short-term memory loss thanks to a head injury and has to take pictures and record conversations on tape to maintain some semblance of a life. This comes into play when Matthes is involved in a freak car accident with farmer Josef Bierbichler, whose daughter is critically injured in the crash, and neither of them is able to clearly remember what happened – or who was at fault.

If that plot strand sounds vaguely reminiscent of Memento, keep in mind this film was made three years before Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough. And instead of jumbling the chronology, Tykwer emphasizes the interconnectedness of his characters by cutting between them at crucial moments, as if they had a weird kind of low-level psychic bond. He also relies on the propulsive score (which he composed with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek) to move the action along and pieces by minimalist composer Arvo Pärt to get at the sadness and melancholy of the story. It’s a combination that makes for an extremely compelling film about the ways coincidence shapes life, a theme to which Tykwer would return with a vengeance the following year.

Anyone who wishes we could skip winter altogether might do well to check out 2006’s The Last Winter. Directed and edited by Larry Fessenden, who also co-wrote the film with Robert Leaver, it’s a chilling environmentalist fable about what happens when an American oil company gets permission to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The short version: it ain’t pretty.

The long version: Ron Perlman is flown in to find out what the holdup on the project is and why James Le Gros, the expert hired to do the environmental impact reports, won’t sign off on it. Seems there’s some concern about the melting permafrost, making the creation of ice roads impossible, but Perlman is less troubled by this than the fact that Le Gros has taken up with fellow outpost employee Connie Britton. Then things start happening that he can’t ignore, like crew member Zach Gilford going missing for several hours; he returns, only to take off his clothes and walk out into the night. Then mechanic Kevin Corrigan also starts acting weird, at which point it’s decided to get everybody out of Dodge, but Perlman and Le Gros continue to butt heads until the bitter end. (And considering how cold it is, that end is quite bitter, indeed.)

So, if The Last Winter is anything to go by, maybe a little cold weather isn’t such a bad thing after all. Plus, once spring arrives it’ll be time to get a jump on the summer movie season. And what is one of the first tentpoles being erected? Why, it’s Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier! How about that?

The Ryder ● December 2013

Theater: The High Cost Of Freedom

Cloud Nine at IU Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine” comes to IU ◆ by Colin Bridges

Indiana University Theatre, fresh off a successful production of the Tennessee Williams classic Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, turns its attention to the work of a more contemporary European playwright – the female British playwright Caryl Churchill and her celebrated Cloud Nine, which received its world premiere in London in 1979.

The first act of the play is set in Colonial Africa during the Victorian era, and examines racial, sexual, and gender politics through the lens of a large British family, and their circle of friends and servants. The second act, set in 1980s London, ages the same characters only 25 years. This theatrical feat of time-travel allows us to compare our modern day mores with those of the past, as we question how our society has changed – or not changed – over the last tumultuous century.

Churchill subverts all audience expectations by casting women as men, men as women, a white man as an African servant, old men as young children, and even portraying the youngest child as a mere rag doll. In doing so, she crafts a dizzying, darkly humorous satire on the nature of sex and power, and the way these tidal forces can bring people together or tear relationships apart.

We spoke with second year MFA Directing student Rob Heller, who helmed this newest production of the gender-bending play that leaps across centuries and continents. After growing up in Philly and spending eight years in New York City developing new musicals, he was recruited to join the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance at Indiana University. We spoke with Rob about bringing this challenging play to life with his group of talented IU students and designers.

Ryder: What is this play about? Can you give us an elevator pitch for it?

Rob Heller: This play is about how we contend with issues of family, gender and sexuality throughout all of time…How do we know how to function? What are our roles and how can we come out of it somehow loving each other and having community?

Heller

Rob Heller

Ryder: Why did you choose this play?

Heller: Caryl Churchill’s a playwright that I’ve been wanting to contend with. It’s lovely because she’s a female playwright and she also deals with a lot of issues that seem important to the world at large so it seemed like a good time, particularly now, to contend with this play in the midst of a lot of political issues about sexuality and gender and gender roles coming to the forefront at the moment.

Ryder: What’s your directorial take on this particular production that makes it different than others that have happened in the past?

Heller: [The original 1979 production] was created by the Joint Stock Company collaboratively. It was a collaborative workshop with a particular group of people with Caryl Churchill at the time, dealing with issues of the time and out of that came this play so I think the challenge each time is to create a group of people that will be unique in their approach to this play – that’s about them as much as it is about the play. So I think what’s unique about this production is that these particular actors bring just something different to the table.

Ryder: One of things that people always latch onto is the gender switching and the very obvious sort of theatrical devices. Could you talk about how that’s going to challenge the audience and how you worked with it?

Heller: Our first choice… was to put it in the round because there’s no tricks. We got no tricks for you. We’re showing you all our strings. It is a theatrical event.
It’s a great gift to an actor to have to play something that’s far from themselves. We talk so much about type (in America especially): What is your type? Who are you going to play? So it’s great fun to see sort of a light in an actor, just as a human, and say, “You’re going to play these two drastically different things.”

What we’ve discovered from going to the Kinsey Institute and from talking amongst ourselves is that these lines between male and female are so fuzzy; it’s not one or the other. Everyone is sort of in the middle somewhere.

Ryder: Does the gender switching play into a sense of comedy?

Heller: The humor comes from the moments. We are playing up some of the – “grotesque” is not the right word because we have connotations with that but – the clear differences in character vs. actor. And I think you’ll find that it gives the audience permission to look at the play in a different way: “Okay, It’s not realism . . . it’s realistic, but there’s clear things that are a little bit off …” I think in seeing the gender switch is it gives the audience a little bit more permission to laugh.

Ryder: In the first act we meet Clive, who the audience might see as the most emblematic of imperialism and male dominance. Do you make those sorts of judgments about the characters when you’re coming into it? Do you see Clive as a symbol or a character?

Heller: You know off the page early on that’s the investigation we have to do – myself and the creative team, the designers. Of course we look at those implications but once you get in there with an actor all you think about is: What does he want? What is he afraid of? Why is he putting on this mask? Who’s telling him this is what he’s supposed to be and when does that break? Because all these characters break relatively quickly from what we think they are into what maybe they really are.

Ryder: Without revealing any of the plot points, I think we can say that there is a very complicated set of romantic relationships between all of the characters, including some relationships we might consider unconventional or illegal. How did you approach that?

Heller: We have so many stigmas about nontraditional sexual relationships in our society, especially in America. The actors ask the question: What is it to have an intense love for someone? And what are the lines between love for an uncle, or a father, and a lover, and when you’re nine, how do you know the difference? It’s a bunch of very difficult questions.

Is sex only about lust? I don’t know. It might be about many things: about power, about status, about acceptance as much as anything else. (laughing) So, I only have more questions. We are exploring answers.

But you know, I think more powerful than the sort of large questions being asked here are the more personal: How do you create a family in the face of something different? Parenting by committee is a big theme throughout Churchill’s plays – this idea of having seven parents all sort of doing it together and some sleep with each other and some don’t and some do this and some do that. We have these very firm boxes that we try to put everybody into and maybe that doesn’t quite suit everybody.

Ryder: This is Indiana and, not to paint too broad a brush of Indiana, but I would say this play would clash a little bit with the conservative, Midwestern, almost bible-belt mentality. Can you talk about what you’re expecting from the audience?

Heller: I have never been a person that’s trying to goad you and to get you to be angry and to get you to leave here frustrated or angry. I want to question what we believe to be true. I think, like science, we keep coming up with hypotheses and proving them wrong…I would love for people to at least question what they believe to be true, and if they return to their previous beliefs – fine, that’s great and I hope it serves them, but if not – at least taking one evening’s coffee after this play to talk about why do we have these sort of roles that we’re meant to fill: Duty – they must say duty 70 times in the first act. “It’s my duty to do this its my duty to do that.” Well, is it?

Ryder: Martin at one point toward the end says, “There’s no point being so liberated that you make yourself cry all the time.” Do they lose anything by throwing away these established social structures?

Heller: Yeah, That’s what’s lovely about Churchill and I think about playwrights in general is that they’re not offering an answer.

The first act is very rigid. [Churchill] talks about it being almost “corseted” and Act Two is very wide open. The first people you see are the lesbians and the gays. All of this freedom and we can talk about it and we can say all these things out loud….

Yeah, It’s a double-edged sword. Is the freedom just as bad as the sort of corset?
And where’s the middle ground that we need to find?

Ryder: You don’t have access to Caryl Churchill except through her play. As someone who has worked primarily with new works, what is it like not having access to the playwright?

Heller: You know it was interesting coming here because in New York, my niche has been developing new musicals – it’s all I do. My whole resume is new work, which is exciting and cool and different but I came here to contend with a playwright who – the piece is written and I have to deal with it. So it was exciting for me…You have to unlock the answers for yourself; and Churchill’s a smart lady. She didn’t leave anything vague accidentally; so it’s for us to fill it and that’s a gift to an actor.

Ryder: There are a lot of different types of parenting going on in this show. Did you find yourself judging character’s parenting styles? Playing “good parent/bad parent?”

Heller: My parents divorced when I was in first grade… so right off the bat with divorce there was some sort of failure there. So I don’t think about good/bad; I think we have this assumption that suddenly you get married and have kids and you know how to parent. Its really hard, it’s really hard. We all fail at times and succeed at others.

There’s lovely moments: In Act Two, if you watch Cathy — who’s the young girl — if you follow her perception it’s really satisfying in that her mother will do something very awful to her – shocking to us probably – and 30 seconds later she hugs her mother. There’s forgiveness. I think that’s a big thing: to forgive others, to forgive yourself and to move forward, as opposed to sort of getting stuck in the past.

[Image at top of this post: Evelyn Gaynor (the boy) and Nathan Robbins (his mother) rehearse. “Cloud Nine” was presented at the Wells-Metz Theatre, December 6th & 7th. Colin Bridges is a filmmaker and visual artist. He holds an MFA in Theater from Sarah Lawrence College and currently works as the Video Coordinator for the Indiana University Office of Admissions. You can find more of his work here and here.]

The Ryder ● December 2013

The Rise Of E-sports

E-sports

The Decline of Deodorant ◆ by Benjamin Atkinson

Ten competitors took the stage. They didn’t look like athletes. They were mostly small, scrawny, and gave no indication of recent exposure to sunlight. A single look on at their faces, however, belied an intensity, dedication, and focus that Peyton Manning or Lionel Messi would instantly recognize. After all, there was a $1 million prize riding on their performance that night.The stage was inside the Staples Center and the e-sport was League of Legends. “Sport” usually conveys images of sweaty bodies being tamed and shaped by endless hours of exertion, locked in a very physical contest. There is often an almost savage aspect reflecting a life-and-death struggle that was all too literal for many cultures throughout history. E-sports does not disparage participants in the classical sports, but seeks to take aspects from sport such as tenacity, focus, determination, ingenuity, teamwork, and a host of others that play out in a formal competition. Competition allows each player to take stock of his or her abilities and chart improvements from match to match in a public forum.

E-sports have been around for decades, maturing mostly in Korea where they have become a national pastime. Starcraft is practically the godfather of e-sports, but many other games receive the attention of millions of fans from across the globe. Street Fighter is a classic of the fighting genre, while Counter Strike is a leader among first person shooters. League of Legends is the top among the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, and its producer Riot Games has invested heavily in marketing e-Sports in general and its own game in particular.

Riot even arranged for a professional athlete visa to be granted by the U.S. government to Canadian Danny “Shiphtur” Le. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determined that the League Championship Series met the stringent requirements of a professional sports league and issued Le a very selective P-1A visa, reserved for professional athletes who want to work in the US in order that they might “enrich the nation’s cultural landscape.” As far as the U.S. Government is concerned, e-sport competitors command the same status as Olympic athletes.

Attending an e-sport event is similar to attending any sporting events — thousands of fans, many rabidly exhibiting exuberance for their favorite team in the form of swag and signs. Thunderous applause for impressive plays. The competition among the fans is intense for a chance at an autograph or photo opportunity from the professionals. Viewers who stream games on their home computer can follow the play by play provided by professional “shout-casters” who offer color commentary and increase accessibility for those who don’t closely follow the professional scene or are new the game.

Video game enthusiast and former Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe was featured in a Riot-produced video during the League of Legends World Championship match (it can now be found on YouTube). He notes many of the positive attributes shared between participants in classical sports such as football and those in e-sports, as well as the potential ahead for e-sports with its own unique advantages. The physical threshold for participating in classic sports is rather high, especially if one hopes to achieve any measure of success. The only threshold to cross in e-sports is access to a computer and time to dedicate.

NFL players enjoy the largest sports fan-base in America today, and e-sport gamers aren’t going to replace them anytime soon. But if this is the first you are hearing about it, you’re guaranteed to hear more soon. Viewer numbers for the championship match are not available yet but over 18 million world-wide tuned in for the All-Star game back in May. Kluwe notes that while there is indeed important physical aspects such as reaction time (watch any clip of professional gaming and it the movements seem prescient), e-sports focuses on mental challenges. Sport grew out of the vital need for teamwork and physical aptitude that have helped communities across the ages thrive and prosper in the face of harsh competition with nature and other cultures. But success in the modern economy depends upon intelligence, creativity, and other aspects of mental agility that are hallmarks of successful e-sport gamers. It seems fitting that as humanity dives into the computer age, sport does as well.

It was in this spirit of sport that Riot assembled 14 teams to compete for the title of best League of Legends team in the world. Representatives had been narrowed down in the professional leagues of China, Southeast Asia, Korea, North America, and Europe. A special International Wildcard tournament allowed the winner from other regions without their own burgeoning professional e-sports organization an opportunity for the title. But the lack of professional experience showed and the wildcard team was quickly eliminated. North America and SE Asia’s representatives fared no better, with all of their teams ousted at the earliest opportunity. Two of Europe’s teams managed to claw their way into the later stages, but the tournament was mostly a showcase for the prowess of the Chinese and Korean teams, who took three of the four spots in the semifinals.

Sports come and go. Baseball was “America’s Game” for a long time, but many fans have fled the ballpark for the football stadium. Boxing and wrestling are alive and well but neither command the public’s attention in the way they had throughout the centuries. Video games tend to have a short half-life as technology improvements pull players towards newer games. League of Legends may soon fade into the background but e-sports are just getting started.

The Ryder ● December 2013

The Boy Who Plays The Piano With His Elbows

Keys

◆ by Willis Barnstone

During the civil war in Greece, in one of the villages in Epiros at the foot of the Pindos Mountains, there is a boy musician who plays the piano with his elbows. He lost his hands and forearms on a hike near the Albanian border. There was not much action in the northern mountains, but somehow he stepped on a land mine. Soon after he came back from the hospital in Yannina, he took up the piano again, now with artificial fingers attached to the stumps where his elbows should have connected with the forearms. He no longer plays classical music in which he was a prodigy. Rather, he makes the piano sound like the Greek clarinet in the soprano trilling tunes of the tsamiko, the Greek mountain music. He uses a small portable piano, made in and donated from Athens, and he plays it with the local musicians whenever there is a baptism or wedding or a saints day party. When the older singer is too busy, he sings his heart out. No one sings like the boy musician.

These are cruel days. When the andartes (Communist guerrillas) are captured by government forces, they are routinely executed. In the areas where the andartes come in, even for a few days, they execute the mayor, the schoolteacher and the priest. Then in late 1947 Markos, the leader of the andartes, enacts a policy of abducting Greek children, taking them to the socialist countries where the dream is that they will be trained to return when they are older as dedicated officials of a Greece run benevolently by Papa Joe Stalin. They will be the new Janissaries. It is not a practice that wins friends among the mutilated families. Yanni, the child musician, is among the boys abducted.

Boy PIanoThey take Yanni away one night. His captors, making the rounds of a village fallen that very afternoon, seize the boy and his sister Xanthí, without realizing that the boy has no hands. Xanthí manages to escape. They see her run off but are reluctant to fire on her, and she is gone. Before long a fighter from another unit hears about the boy without arms, and informs his comrades that he has a special instrument so he can play the piano like an angel. And that he also sings. He is called, they hear, the boy with the voice of gold. But he won’t sing for the andartes or play their pianos. It is not the politics. Without his friends, his family, his own mountains, he has no desire to sing.

Since he won’t cooperate with them, they more or less abandon him, not sending him to one of the sanctuary countries across the border, nor giving him indoctrination of their own. It is not specifically a punishment. In time of war why waste energy on a mutilated child musician, who won’t even sing? They give him food, but ignore him, and he hangs around the village like a stray animal. And that is fine, for Yanni determines to make friends again, on his own, and away from the andartes.

At night he slips away from the village, follows a rocky goat path into the fields, and there, in the scant light from overhead, sits down among the thistles and herbs and sings alone. Soon animals came near. His songs have no words. They are scarcely songs of a human voice. At first his main audiences are stray dogs and cats. Soon every beast and bird knows he is there. When he sings the bats are disoriented and the love star Aphrodite never sets. He learns the voices of wild pigs and silent hare. He detects the melodies of every wild brook in the region, and those waters enter his voice. But one morning when he has stayed out all night, a foolish soldier takes out his belt and whips him brutally. The next evening he goes out and doesn’t come back.

There is no piano in the woods. Yet there are hollow trees, trees rotted out, which are perfect drums on which he strikes with his wooden forearms attached to his stumps. While earlier he played melodies with his artificial fingers, now, without a keyboard and piano, he makes the forest his percussion instrument. When the moon comes up like goat cheese in Artemis’s bowl, he gives his concerts. He sings and sings and leaves the animals dazed.

The writer Dante woke one day in a dark savage wood, and was visited by fearful animals. The forests on the Pindos Mountains, which run into obscure Albania, are also wild, but they are not very dark during the day, since Greece hardly has dense mountain forests, even in green Epiros, and except for the occasional explosion of mortars and rifle shots when the war drifts near, the region is not at all fearful. In fact, with the amazing singing of the boy, even on a rare starless and moonless night there is illumination for all the animals. It comes to the speechless beasts in the lake of the heart.

Getting food, however, is not easy. The boy lives on herbs, acorns, nuts, berries, even chamomile and wild orchids. He uses his stumps like chopsticks to gather, eat and store, with full dexterity. It is fine during the Greek summer, but with the first snows of winter—and there is much snow in the Pindos—he begins to starve. He can’t eat the meat of animals who are companions. Even if he found a dead rabbit or deer and found some way to consume it, it would have been a form of cannibalism. As snows begins to cover much of the forest, even the places where he has stored supplies of nuts and now frozen berries and honeycombs are emptied, and he begins to eat bark, some of which has a sticky sweet taste, and he survives. But barely. He is now so thin when he sings in the freezing evenings, his voice is not much more than a remote birdcall, but it is, nevertheless, exceedingly poignant. It pierces the wind, and reaches the ears of fellow beasts, including the vultures, who are not friends.

Yanni is in trouble. Unless he does something to change his existence in the mountains, he will die. He tries to eat what bigger and smaller animals ate, but grass, rodents, insects are impossible, even for the handless boy, though he has no pride of human habit. It is only bark now and frozen water, and he get weaker by the day.

Finally, he lies down and schemes. The andartes are gone. There are no thuds of bombs or rattling guns. For all he knows the war was over. He will go back. By now he almost talks to the beasts. Early in the morning they go with him as far as they dare, to fields bordering a small village in the lower mountains. Yanni can make out the Turkish‑style balconies of stone houses, the Byzantine dome on a small church, a ramshackle building, half‑destroyed, that seem to be the town hall. Smoke rises from the stone houses. There must be food and heat. He doesn’t want to leave his forest companions. The beasts lick his face and arms, and he stumbles toward the village.

Piano Elbows

When he get to within sixty meters of a granite block wall along the road climbing to the village center, he rests. And he sings a dirge, very quietly. Not a human but an animal song and his words are also the words of beasts. He lies quite a while in the field, and though flat on his back he holds his arms straight up, hoping he might be spotted. He even dozes off — these days he is not always fully awake — remembering long ago, or so it seems, the special piano, and wonders if someone in the village has some old instrument. He can stand on a stool, as he did before they gave him that special low keyboard from Athens, and start again to play. It will be a good life. But his immediate thoughts are how to be found and taken to some hearth, with bread and fire. He is ready.

As the boy musician lies there with his bare arm stumps raised like two crosses into the almost spring‑thawing air — he’s almost made it through the winter — a villager catches sight of the strange creature moving down below in the frozen wheat field. Several villagers gather. These are good people, mainly old peasants. The young are in the armies or gone to Yannina or Athens for jobs. They might be back for a few weeks in the summer. Peace has come. The village has been wrecked by both sides. As for children, there are none. This is a village from which the children were taken, and none has returned. At least near the Yugoslav frontier, most came back. The old peasants are bitter. The politicians are making a lot of noise on the radio, and the Albanian Greeks, in the more popular demotic Greek, are broadcasting horror stories, not about themselves, but about the Greek rightist troops and officials who are hard‑hearted and corrupt, or so they claim. The old people hear the anger from both sides of the Pindos Mountains, but anyway there is peace, at least, and food, though not very much.

But then the creature. It makes a strange noise, and is bigger than a dog. It can be a starving deer, with its legs in the air. Yet deer never howl. Deer are beasts of silent dream, and a staple of the local diet. Yanni, weary and beginning to freeze, abandons hope of immediate rescue, ceases to sing and tries to get up. They can’t find him, so he must go to them. He reaches upward as if the air is a post. But he falls down. He tries again. And as he almost gets back on his feet, the best shot among the older hunters in the village, takes aim at the rising animal, rubs the wet icy trigger, the cold metal trigger, and fires.

[The Boy Who Played the Piano with his Elbows previously appeared in the South Carolina Review. Author Willis Barnstone, born in Lewiston, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin, the Sorbonne, Columbia and Yale, taught in Greece at end of civil war (1949-51), in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War, and in China during Cultural Revolution, where he was later a Fulbright Professor in Beijing (1984-85) A Guggenheim fellow, he has received the NEA/NEH/Emily Dickinson Award of the PSA, Auden Award of NY Council on the Arts, Midland Authors Award, four Book of the Month selections, four Pulitzer nominations. His work has appeared in APR, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, Paris Review, Poetry, New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement. Author of seventy books, recent volumes are Dawn Café in Paris (Sheep Meadow, 2011), The Poems of Jesus Christ (Norton, 2012), Borges at Eighty (New Directions Press, 2013). He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Indiana University.]

The Ryder ● December 2013

Bloomington Blue

Lovelace

The Forgotten History of Porn at Indiana University ◆ by Sean Smalley

Though it may not have been Times Square, from the late 1970s to mid-1980s screenings of hardcore films became a contentious fixture of campus life at Indiana University. By the time student groups and dorms started screening 70s hardcore classics such as Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones, Behind the Green Door, and Insatiable, the allure of porno chic had already started to dissipate. The simultaneous rise of the religious right and anti-porn feminism at the end of the 1970s rolled back the ground of mainstream acceptability pornography had gained in the wake of Deep Throat. The fight over pornography was one of the most visible battles of the culture wars and university records show that this battle was especially heated at IU in the 1980s, leading to protests, bans and eventually prosecution.

This history is documented primarily in the Arbutus yearbooks, which are accessible through the Indiana Daily Student website. The Arbutus from 1977 is the first to reference a screening of an X-rated film on campus. The screenings were opportunities for the dorms to raise money for recreational activities such as Intramural sports and Little 500. Though they screened mostly mainstream, non-pornographic films such as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and The Exorcist, they made the greatest profits with screenings of Deep Throat. University administration debated whether allowing a screening of Deep Throat would tarnish the respectability of the university or not. The administration allowed the film to be shown to avoid being charged with suppressing free speech or acting as censors. The screening went on to gross close to $2300 for the Parkes House. Because the screening was such a financial success more hardcore films followed.

Movie Poster

By the time students began screening hardcore films at IU the porno chic period was already coming to an end. No hardcore film had received the kind of mainstream coverage that Deep Throat did, and no hardcore film has been able to repeat Deep Throat’s accomplishment. The attention that the press gave to Deep Throat made it one of the most profitable films of all time. The film did run into censorship issues in various cities across the country, but the grosses were so high that it led to an increase in film production. Not only were producers of hardcore films intent of riding the wave of popular interest, but they would do it with higher production values and a greater interest in building coherent narratives. A film like The Opening of Misty Beethoven owed as much to art cinema as it did to porn films. Deep Throat’s director, Gerard Damiano, even expressed hopes that his film would open Hollywood up to making more sexually explicit pictures. And given the high profile visibility of Deep Throat, they came close. Even President Nixon’s commission on pornography returned a report concluding that sexually explicit material did not have a harmful effect on those who consume it. This general goodwill towards hardcore films would eventually die down as the political winds began to change in the late 1970s.

There is little information about what took place from 1978 to 1983, but by 1984 the university administration felt prompted to re-open the issue. The administration seemed apprehensive about the fundraising methods and likely received complaints from students. However, regulating screenings became increasingly difficult by the end of the 1970s into the early 1980s. When Deep Throat played at the Parkes House in 1977 it was shown on film. However, the screenings were so successful that by 1979 the student groups could afford to furnish the common areas with playback machines for multiple video formats. In his history of home video, Lucas Hilderbrand noted that X and XXX-rated films were extremely popular, with the adult film industry reporting 950,000 tapes sold in 1979 and 1.3 million tapes sold the following year. Perhaps this explains part of the sudden urgency with which the administration responded to the issue in the mid-80s. The ease of showing films on VHS or Beta instead of 16mm would make it much more difficult for the University to monitor and regulate future screenings.

Meeting minutes of the Board of Trustees in 1984 shows that multiple groups filed complaints against the screenings and wanted the administration to encourage alternatives to hardcore for student group and dorm fundraisers (Indiana University Board of Trustees, October 6 1985). The IU Student Association was successful in passing a resolution in opposition to advertising and displaying pornographic material on campus. IU Dean of Students, Michael Gordon, saw this as the perfect opportunity to put an end to the X-rated events. He placed a moratorium on all screenings of hardcore films. Gordon’s moratorium did not last very long. Students, citing violation of their free speech rights, protested the ban and enlisted the Indiana Civil Liberties Union to help fight the administration. The threat of legal action prompted the administration to lift the ban. Once the ban was lifted the university took a different approach to managing pornography.

Lovelace

Linda Lovelace

The debates over pornography before the emergence of anti-porn feminism were centered on notions of taste and the perceived negative influence of obscene material on society. While the arguments of anti-porn feminism had inherited many assumptions on taste, cultural value, and moral corruption from the religious right, they attacked hardcore pornography as dehumanizing to women. While the porn wars were raging at IU, Deep Throat’s star, Linda Lovelace, was touring the talk show circuit to give the Reagan administration and the anti-porn feminists the ammunition they had desired: women who appeared in hardcore films, she claimed, were being manipulated and abused behind the scenes and raped on camera. Lovelace even testified under oath that the adult film industry had been in the business of producing snuff, though no instances of snuff films have ever turned up. So, by the time the university administration opened up the discussion about how to handle the “porn problem” it was largely framed in a way that would avoid direct censorship, but acknowledge the way it “frequently denigrates women” (Indiana University Board of Trustees, May 1985). With the embarrassment of the ban fresh in their memory, they encouraged student groups opposed to the screenings to distribute literature about the harmful affect pornography has on women. Instead of banning films, they would “educate” the larger student population into ending the screenings.

This approach had little impact on the events. The controversy over pornography at IU spilled into the community in 1986 when the Monroe County prosecutor, Ron Waicukauski, received public complaints and filed a civil suit against IU student David Henderson on obscenity charges for organizing a screening of the Marilyn Chambers film Insatiable. On the day of the second screening the police obtained a warrant through Waicukauski’s request and seized the film, effectively shutting down the event and costing Henderson and the student activities group in his building at least $700. Waicukauski argued that IU events (the Insatiable screening was open only to students, staff, and faculty) were not exempt from the laws of the community. Waicukauski also stated that he would prosecute other students who planned show X-rated films in the future. Henderson faced up to a year in jail and a $5000 fine.

Chambers

Porn & Advertising Icon Marilyn Chambers

The attempt to prosecute an IU student outside of the university was likely the deciding factor in the end of X-rated screenings in the dorms. With pressure from inside and outside, such screenings were no longer feasible. And as VCRs continued to drop in price throughout the 1980s it became more common for students to hold smaller, unpublicized screenings in communal and private spaces. The documents seem to beg other questions about these screenings. For example, how did those who participate react to the films? Where these screenings treated earnestly? Were they treated as participatory midnight-style screenings? It is difficult to gage from what is given. Also, the gender makeup of the screenings is never addressed. Historians of hardcore have shown that the appeal of these films extended beyond the typical heterosexual male, especially as pornography shifted from theatrical space to the home. Sadly, very little is mentioned about the gender breakdown. One could speculate based on the titles that were shown, but only a few of those are on record. What is on record, however, sketches an outline that reveals a fascinating synchronicity between the local and national that is rare.

The Ryder

Exploding The Senses

LuminoCity

Crossing Into The Unknown with Wine, Cheese and Music ◆ by Brenda McNellen and Kristen Strandberg

In the past, high-end restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York City have encouraged the transcendence that can come from focusing on one sense at a time; fully engaging with the spirit of the food by isolating it from the realm of the everyday. Its menu was a model for controlled experiences: a minimalist grid that looks almost like a periodic table, isolating each ingredient of a meal. The diners would select four elements they wanted and the chef would prepare a meal incorporating these as the center of each course. This mindfulness about food spread to other parts of the diner’s experience—serious diners would limit the amount of conversation during meals in order to focus on the food. Classical music resided in a similar realm—during the late 18th century a hush descended upon audiences when the culture of listening changed to include expectations of absolute quiet during performances and restricting applause to the correct places in a performance in order to avoid breaks in focus.  In many classical performances today, this tradition of a purely musical focus continues: consider the outburst of anger by the New York Philharmonic’s audience members and conductor, who stopped a 2012 performance when a patron’s cell phone rang during Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Demand for multi-sensory experiences however, is increasing, even in the realms of classical music and food.  This past August, the Cincinnati Symphony performed a free outdoor concert with images and 3D animation projected onto the front of its home building, accompanied with music by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Strauss. In a move that shocked the restaurant world, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park announced in 2012 that the restaurant would be doing away with its grid menu in favor of a four-hour narrated meal encompassing the history of New York and including visuals such as a cheese course hidden inside a picnic basket, and a magic trick predicting the dessert. There was a lot of buzz about this change. Would Eleven Madison Park stay in business if diners had to commit to a four-hour meal experience? Would patrons see this change as a kitschy degradation of the dining experience? Would its ranking as number 10 in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list be jeopardized?

As with Eleven Madison Park’s announcement, most of these changes, sometimes couched in terms of attracting a new generation to participate, are often met with a good deal of skepticism. What could happen if experiences become meaningless because of all this sensory overload? In an April Fool’s day post about the Jacobs School of Music from 2009, the school is (falsely) reported to have hired popular violinist Andre Rieu and installed in the Musical Arts Center a “new jewel-studded shell, incorporating festive colors, over 5,000 energy-efficient twinkling LED lights, and several dozen miniature mirrors with gilded Rococo frames,  . . . [and] a mechanized chandelier, capable of ascending and descending in under seven seconds.”

But what if these combinations can actually enhance or reframe our experiences? In Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (which made New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s 10 Favorite Books of 2012), the author discusses sensory deprivation as an aid to altering experience, but also includes the epiphanies produced by experiences in combination. He mentions being unable to remember how the color indigo really looked to him until it reappeared to him at a musical concert in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “a Monteverdi piece was performed, and I was utterly transported. I had taken no drugs, but I felt a glorious river of music, four hundred years long, flowing from Monteverdi’s mind into my own. In this ecstatic mood, I wandered out during the intermission and looked at the ancient Egyptian objects on display—lapis lazuli amulets, jewelry, and so forth—and I was enchanted to see glints of indigo. I thought: Thank God, it really exists!” (Sacks, 110-111)

In a quest to find out how those around us felt about multisensory experience in the realms of taste and music, we interviewed some well-known Bloomingtonians that were likely candidates for immersion in these types of experiences. We wanted to know whether the mingling of senses was a distraction for them or an integral part of broadening the mind and remembering experiences.

Patricia Stiles, IU Jacobs School of Music professor and renowned opera singer who has performed in the Kennedy Center and opera houses across Europe, describes how for her, as a performing opera singer, music was almost never experienced in isolation from touch, smell, and taste.  As a performer, Stiles said, the tactile experience of singing in an opera–the smells and feelings of being onstage—were inseparably linked to her experience of the music.  “That’s the thing about opera,” she says, “it’s everything at once.  Even the smell–there are a lot of different smells you would like to forget from the other people who have worn the costume, the sweat . . . and that’s part of the experience.”  She recalls love scenes in which the singer opposite her was drenched in sweat, and says that this changes the experience of the music for her, and becomes a part of her sensory experience as a whole.  Costumes bring a similar tactile element to the production.  She says that “the sensory feeling of the costumes and the whole look of the stage goes a lot with music for me.  The physical feeling of the costumes . . . [provide] a tactile sensation, and even the rustling sound when you move . . . it has a life of its own.”

One of Stiles’s most memorable costumes was that of a tree/human hybrid in a production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in Germany.  She describes a bizarre ensemble that included fake tree limbs with leaves on her arms and head, high heels, and very realistic fake bare breasts.  She says that felt very odd, but was also liberating and fun to have such a bizarre costume that so drastically changed her appearance. She felt that she was transformed by the costume when onstage and will always remember the shift in perception that came from the feeling of wearing that costume in combination with performing the role of Erda, goddess of the earth.

For Jeffery Schauss, who is married to Patricia Stiles and also a wine buyer for Sahara Mart, analogous experiences like tasting wine and listening to music inform how we think about and describe them. Within both tasting and listening experiences there are layers of complexity. Individual wine tasters may focus on texture, flavor notes, or unexpected combinations of tastes that change from moment to moment as music listeners may focus on rhythms, harmony, sudden key or chord changes, or repeated patterns in music.

Schauss looks for balance in pairing wine with food or music, as he recommends that one sense not overpower another when layering sensory elements, even within a single sensory experience.  Cheaper wines, he says, possess one “note” or category of flavor that often takes over the taste of the wine, such as fruity, floral, or nutty.  By contrast, a higher-end wine “is like a symphony,” says Schauss, “it just keeps working,” as the taste evolves and changes over time.  Along with the taste itself, texture also plays a role in Schauss’s experience with wine.  While acknowledging that each person’s experience will be different, he says: “My mind goes more to that symphony . . . [or] to that velvet–not so much red raspberry or black cherry.”  Schauss considers texture, complexity, and layers, while sometimes describing the wine to customers in tactile or aural terms.

Dmitri Vietze, the director of Rock Paper Scissors, a Bloomington company that nationally markets and publicizes world music ensembles, feels that music and food are each accessible introductions to different types of people and cultures. He says, “People are trying to get a sense of who they are through understanding who other people are, and also expand the horizons of their own identity by experiencing other tastes, whether it’s musically or culinarily . . . it’s that diversity of options and opportunity that marks the era that we live in.” Similar to the complex wines referenced by Schauss, one of the main attractions of world music is its combination of familiar musical elements with unexpected sounds, rhythms and patterns that grab the attention of listeners.  The most frequent tactile sense associated with music, says Vietze, is not the taste of food or wine, but the feel of dance, including a heartbeat and moving body along with “the nervousness and the sexuality . . . the relationships, and the happiness” when music and dance are combined.

For Vietze as well as Stiles, a combination of sensory elements is what distinguishes unforgettable memories. One of his own most vivid memories stems from the day of his daughter’s birth.  “It was raining when my wife went into labor so there was the smell of rain. We played music in the early stages of labor . . . by Ayub Ogada, a Kenyan singer who also plays a little traditional lyre and taps his feet with jingles on his ankles.”  Vietze says that whenever he hears that music, “the rain, the smell, the music, the new hope and innocence of a new baby come right back to me.”

But is it possible to deliberately create these unforgettable memories for people with different sensory preferences by combining smell/taste/touch, and hearing/sight, in the way of Eleven Madison Park? Christine Buras, opera singer from the Jacobs School of Music and wine and cheese buyer for Bloomingfoods, thinks that while focus on certain aspects of the tasting experience are important, multi-sensory experiences can and should be constructed to deepen our enjoyment and understanding.

Buras remarks that getting customers to try a type of cheese may often entail convincing them to favor one sense over another. “Cheese doesn’t taste the way it smells. One of the smelliest cheeses we have is Taleggio, which is an Italian cow’s milk, soft-rind cheese, and it’s a pink, washed-rind cheese, cured in beer or wine. When you think of smelly, ugly cheeses, this is definitely in that category—it has green and white mold all over it normally, but the cheese inside is very mild, milky, clean and delicious. We don’t advise that people eat the rind. You would have to close your mind to the look and the smell of the outside, and open it to the taste of the cheese inside.” Very often, however, the texture of a cheese will complement the taste—people who know a lot about cheese will come in and ask for an aged cheddar or gouda with more granularity, which makes it crumbly.

As someone whose life revolves around wine, cheese, and music, Buras naturally thinks of ways to bring the three together. We asked her how she might create a beginning-to-end-of-evening experience with these three elements and she created a specific plan.  She would start with something “light and playful and spontaneous,” with a white wine, as moving from lighter to heavier is a good rule of thumb.  She would pair the wine with a fresh goat cheese or Saint-André, a French triple-crème cheese.  Buras suggests the piano music of French composer Erik Satie for this course, as it is fun and quirky without being intrusive.

For a second course of cheese, wine, and music, Buras recommends a full-bodied red wine such as a Malbec with Old Amsterdam (an aged Gouda), or an aged Cheddar or Gruyère.  The aged Gruyère, she notes, is something “we don’t see a lot of in Bloomington, but it’s worth finding.”  As an after dinner course, Stilton is often paired with Port. Some Stiltons have holes drilled in them and are then soaked in a ruby port. “By the time you get to that you’re fully into British culture,” says Buras, so she would pair it with Howells organ music, Elgar, Vaughn Williams— “something with really lush chords.”  For the wine, she recommends a fruity red such as a Zinfandel or Port.

While we may be losing the intensity of focus on one sense in realms like classical music and food (that have often tried to keep these experiences pure at their most elite levels), the trend of creating indelible memories by experimenting with new combinations of sensory experiences will probably be too great for most customers to ignore. What happened to Eleven Madison Park after their change to a four-hour experience menu? They jumped from number ten to number five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and business is booming.  The World’s 50 Best Restaurants website calls it “a dining experience that is as delightful as it is engaging.”  Perhaps an “engaging” experience is just what diners and concert-goers are looking for, as multi-sensory stimulation is becoming the norm, creating new experiences with innovative combinations of existing elements.  Can’t afford the trip to New York and the $200 meal at Eleven Madison Park?  We hope that you take inspiration from them by experimenting with your own memorable combinations.

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

 

Falling In Love, With Panache

Photo Courtesy Jenny Grise Photography

From salsa to hiphop, local dance studio celebrates five years of mad moves ◆ by Rachael Himsel

Tom Slater’s first time happened after watching Saturday Night Fever.

He was 16, and he got hooked on the hustle. After watching John Travolta’s gyrations, Tom danced his own first dance, and will never forget his intro to dance: that first Latin hustle class, that fake ID, that first trip to a nightclub in Boston to try out his new moves.

Today, Tom is a World Exhibition Champion with a host of dancing, teaching and judging credits to his name; he’s toured cross-country and internationally, appeared in national commercials, and coached movie stars. Now, he spends much of his time at the dance studio he’s been with since the doors opened: Panache Dance.

Age 16 is considered a late entry into the art – but one of the key messages at Panache is that it’s never too late to learn to dance – and that anyone can dance.

And no one knows that better than Scott and Sandy. The two were in their mid-twenties when they discovered dance, after attending a free dance lesson in Fort Wayne. They fell in love with dance, and when they moved to Bloomington, they sought out a similar studio but had trouble finding one. They spent hours driving back to Fort Wayne and to Indianapolis to keep up their dance chops. They realized there was a need for an inclusive, fun dance studio in Bloomington and decided to build one.

That was five years ago. Today, Panache Dance Studio is home to over a dozen series dance classes and dance fitness classes every week. It is a place for people to lose their dance virginity, or deepen existing relationships with movement to music.

From the Pulitzer to Paris

Douglas Hofstadter’s first time was in Paris.

“It was 2010, and I was on sabbatical from IU and working very hard on a book on analogies. I started attending group classes in Cuban salsa twice a week at ‘Paris Mambo’…I loved salsa music and the astounding sensual grace of it, but I was a total beginner and, I must say, a rather slow learner. But I stuck with it and hung in there and in those eight months I learned quite a bit,” said Doug, the  Pulitzer-prize winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (GEB), renowned academic in the world of cognitive science, and Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University.

But even Pulitzer Prize winners have their fears. Before he discovered the Parisian dance studio, Doug described the idea of dancing as terrifying. “I can’t say exactly why, but watching good dancers made me feel both very inferior and very jealous. Graceful dancing is just so beautiful and so natural that seeing people who could do it well always used to make me feel as if I was missing out on the true secret of what life is all about, and that sense of profound loss was a horrible, gut-wrenching feeling.”

“The aching yearning that I felt to be able to do that kind of thing myself is almost indescribable. In Paris, though, I finally screwed up my courage and bit the bullet. I took the first steps toward changing that sad frame of mind.”

When Doug returned from Paris, he felt he had to continue his salsa lessons, and found two excellent possibilities – Ritmos Latinos on campus, and Panache Dance. 
At Ritmos, Doug continued Cuban salsa, while at Panache he started learning LA-style salsa with Sandy, and cha-cha with Tom. “Both my Ritmos and Panache classes were inspiring to me and wound up having lasting impacts on my life, especially the classes at Panache.”

Lasting impact for Doug came in the form of Baofen Lin, a woman in Tom Slater’s cha-cha class.

“I had a crush on her from the very first time I spied her – but I didn’t know her name or a thing about her. Luckily, in Tom’s class, we had to rotate partners every few minutes, so I got to dance with this mysterious Chinese beauty every so often…I was a bit unsure of myself, so when we danced – and I was holding her in my arms! – we hardly exchanged any words at all. And it didn’t hurt that she was also one of the best dancers in the class, so that I had not just one, but two reasons for looking forward to her coming around to me every 20 minutes or so.”

One evening after Tom’s class Doug and Baofen began talking about their mutual interest in foreign languages, and walked down to Subway for tea and discussed having a ‘language exchange’ – what Doug says was, “A thinly-veiled way of saying, ‘Let’s get to know each other.’” A few days later, they had a real date at the Runcible Spoon, and soon “one thing led to another.”

Baofen and Doug were married on September 1st, 2012, at Deer Park Manor. To start the evening’s festivities, the couple performed an elaborate dance routine, beginning with the cha-cha (of course), then moving into a lively Cuban salsa “rueda”, a circle made up of the bride, groom and five other couples (including Sandy and Scott) in which everyone constantly changes partners. “That evening, was amazing for me – not only getting married to someone terrific, but also dancing up a storm, doing cha-cha and salsa and swing and a bit of rumba and fox trot,” remembers Doug. “I was nothing like the toe-tied teen-ager I’d been in Geneva, nothing like the guy who for so many decades was terrified to death of dancing of any sort at all. It was like I was a completely reborn person! What a revolution in my life!”

The Myers’ quickly discovered another need they could fill – dancing for fitness. The term ‘dance fitness’ includes a variety of styles – from hip hop to Zumba to Bollywood. Panache instructors are also known to take two styles and meld them together, creating unique dance fusions that are both fun and challenging for students.

One instructor, Darrelyn Valdez, has created several new dance classes. “That’s one aspect that I love about Panache. Sandy and Scott allow us to be as creative as we want. We have done some crazy fusion stuff!”

Darrelyn has been a driving force behind creating a class called Triple Threat, which gives several teachers the chance to lead dance numbers. At least four or five teachers lead songs in the 50-minute class, and as many as nine teachers have participated.

Besides Triple Threat, Darrelyn teaches Bollywood classes at Panache, and other dance fitness classes for IU, Monroe County Community School Corporation, and St. Marks Church, for a total of about 15 classes per week – all while juggling being a mom and working for MCCSC.

“I truly believe in everybody moving – that’s what’s important. It doesn’t matter what they do, as long as they’re moving. It’s about having fun and not worrying about whether you’re getting it right or not.”

A dance studio for the rest of us.

The fear of ‘getting it right’ is what holds many people back from walking into a dance studio, a worry that Donna Macri Stevens understands well. Mix in a busy schedule – Donna is Director of HR at IU’s School of Education and a mom – and it’s a small miracle Donna and her husband Phil made it to Panache. “I had wanted to take lessons for years, but couldn’t seem to find time for lessons in our busy schedules. Plus, all kinds of fears jumped to the surface – would we make fools of ourselves? Would we meet anyone our own age? Would it be all work and no play? Would people laugh at us as we stepped on one another’s toes?”

Donna and Phil were thrilled to discover their fears were unfounded. “The instructors helped us feel comfortable from day one, and all our fears melted away as we learned new moves and began to dance! Dancing at Panache was fun, and we found ourselves both comforted by others who were also just learning, and inspired by those who had been taking lessons for longer. Both groups of dancers, as well as the instructors, helped us to know that we had nothing to fear and inspired us to want to learn more…we’ve now made time for dance every week since.”

Donna and her husband Phil have taken classes in waltz, foxtrot, tango, rumba, mambo, salsa, East and West Coast swing, and the hustle. Like Doug, Donna also feels that she has found deep personal relationships at this little dance studio: “Through our lessons at Panache, we’ve developed lasting friendships with a wide variety of people, and we now have a fun and healthy hobby that brings us closer together and gets us out and about a bit more with a new group of friends. Panache is not only a dance and fitness studio – it’s also a family.” This family is made up of all genders, sizes, and sexuality. Many same-sex couples have come to Panache because of its welcoming reputation.

“Bloomington offers lots of opportunities to be a passive participant in the arts scene….you can go to the opera, take in a show, attend a gallery opening or hear a local singer songwriter perform. But there are few opportunities for the rest of us to be a more active participant in the arts scene,” Donna pointed out. “Dance is one way that each of us can actively participate, and it’s something that is accessible to people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. Panache helps provide a way to bring more people into the world of social dancing, making dancing a possibility for us all.”

Whether falling in love with the beautiful woman whose name you don’t yet know, or falling in love with your husband all over again after thirty years together, the power of dance is immense. Most of us remember our first time dancing – whether feeling a hot, sweaty post-dance buzz or gazing into your partner’s eyes, we experience dance in our muscles, in our bones, and in our souls. And here in Bloomington, Scott and Sandy Myers have created a safe haven for anyone wanting to be more physical, meet new people, hear new music, or maybe – just maybe – fall in love, one dance step at a time.

[Author’s Note: This month, Panache Dance Studio celebrates its fifth anniversary. As she looks to the future, co-owner Sandy Myers plans to continue creating an all-inclusive yet family-like feeling at Panache, while bringing in new clients: “I want to include more people in our community. I want more people to know what we’re about and come try it out. We are always growing, always learning.”] [Editor’s Note: Panache students will show what they have learned at their semi-annual showcase, a weekend of performances that lets Panache dancers of all skill levels share their talents: November 1st and 2nd @ 7:30 pm 
$15 adults, $12 students with valid school ID, $8 children 12 and under. Live band and dancing after the Saturday show at Panache Dance Studio, 325 E Winslow Rd.]

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

Bobbing For Credibility

Goldthwait

Bobcat Goldthwait reinvents himself as a writer/director ◆ by Craig J. Clark

“If I had any goals, I really hope I can just keep making small movies. You know, I have a body of work that I’m pretty embarrassed of, so if I could just keep making small movies that appeal to a small group of people, I’d be very happy.” — Bobcat Goldthwait on the commentary for Sleeping Dogs Lie

Of all the standup comedians who entered the public eye in the mid-’80s, Bobcat Goldthwait may be the last one anyone expected to have serious filmmaking ambitions. An early fixture of the Police Academy series (in which he played street punk-turned-cop Zed), he soon graduated to the ensemble of Savage Steve Holland’s One Crazy Summer in 1986, played supporting roles in vehicles for Whoopi Goldberg (1987’s Burglar) and Bill Murray (1988’s Scrooged), and landed one of his own in the stock-picking talking horse movie Hot to Trot (also 1988). After that, the next logical step was behind the camera. The result was 1991’s Shakes the Clown.

"Shakes the Clown"

“Shakes”

On its painted face, Shakes seems like a film that can be encapsulated and dismissed in the same breath since it’s centered on the exploits of a foul-mouthed, alcoholic party clown (who is nevertheless capable of bringing joy to children and winning over their parents with his surprising professionalism). All one has to do is sit down and watch it, though, to see that there’s a profound strangeness at this Clown’s core that isn’t even hinted at by its surface trappings or even what is arguably its most famous scene, in which Goldthwait and his fellow greasepaint enthusiasts beat up a group of mimes (their mortal enemies).

For starters, the story takes place within the city limits of Palukaville (“The Nation’s Leader in Lard Production”), which has turned clowning into a cottage industry with businesses – including a clown bar called The Twisted Balloon – that cater directly to them. Naturally, Goldthwait’s Shakes spends a lot of his downtime between birthday parties hanging out at The Balloon with his clown friends (one of whom is played by a pre-fame Adam Sandler) and hitting on his barmaid girlfriend (Julie Brown), who dreams of being a professional bowler. As for Shakes, he hopes to succeed the retiring Peppy the Clown as host of the Big Time Cartoon Circus, but that job goes instead to first-rate asshole and drug fiend Binky (Tom Kenny, later to gain fame as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants).

What little there is of the plot kicks into gear when Shakes is framed for murder by a coked-up Binky, who’s in the middle of a drug deal with a couple of rodeo clowns (yes, the film also has rodeo clowns) when his boss (Paul Dooley) walks in on them. Forced to go into hiding as a mime, Shakes attends a class taught by an abusive taskmaster (Robin Williams, who’s credited as Marty Fromage) and eventually convinces his friends to help him clear his name.

Like its unreliable protagonist, Shakes the Clown doesn’t work 100% of the time, and Goldthwait could have stood to explore Palukaville’s odder corners a little more. (A visit to a rodeo clown bar is a real wasted opportunity since we never go inside.) We don’t even find out where he met single mother Florence Henderson, who comes to in the opening scene with makeup smeared on her face after a one-night stand with Shakes. (“You’re my first clown,” she says, without much conviction.) All told, it would be another decade before he stepped behind the camera again. I guess he figured he had more to learn about his craft.

When Goldthwait decided to get back into the directing game in the early ’00s, he started small with segments of Comedy Central’s The Man Show, Crank Yankers and Chappelle’s Show. This led to him taking the reins of the 2003 TV movie Windy City Heat, which is essentially a feature-length practical joke on aspiring actor/comedian Perry Caravello, who’s impossible to feel sorry for since he’s loud, abrasive, anti-Semitic, homophobic and – worst of all – untalented. Of course, even if he did have some acting chops, it would be difficult for him to show them off with chuckleheads Don Barris and “Mole” (Tony Barbieri) tripping him up at every opportunity.

In addition to directing the film, Goldthwait also plays the director of the film-within-the-film, which is also called Windy City Heat and is about a “sports private eye” named Stone Fury, a part Caravello is right to believe was tailor-made for him. First, though, he has to ace his audition with casting agent “Roman Polanski” (Dane Cook) and beat out his main rival for the role, Carson Daly (playing himself). Once he does and the filming commences, Caravello suffers numerous indignities, as well as a series of petty pranks that Barris and Barbieri play on him, culminating in the myriad delays that make them late for the film’s only public screening.

One’s enjoyment of the final product will depend greatly on how much patience you have for the tiresome antics of Barris, Barbieri and Caravello (and the less said about Tom Kenny’s turn as a gay costume designer, the better). Goldthwait picks up the slack, though, with his directorial affectations, including his insistence on speaking through a bullhorn at all times, even when not on the set, and the boots and jodhpurs he wears as part of his ensemble. Also amusing is his absent producer’s demand that he “get cracking or you’ll be out on the street shooting Hot to Trot 2.” Considering how Windy City Heat turned out – both versions – that may have been preferable.

A solid argument for the belief that nobody can – or should – know everything about their loved ones, Goldthwait’s 2006 feature Sleeping Dogs Lie is about a grade-school teacher (Melinda Page Hamilton) who frets about whether to tell her boyfriend (Bryce Johnson) her deepest, darkest secret after he proposes marriage. And she has every reason to tread carefully since she performed fellatio on her dog when she was a bored undergrad. (This we’re told right at the top of the film, with Hamilton narrating the whole story, so it’s not like it’s a big secret to us.) Even if it was a one-time thing that she immediately regretted, she intuitively understands it’s the sort of thing that can fundamentally change the way a person thinks of you.

Hamilton is still conflicted when she and Johnson head up to her parents’ for a visit, allowing Goldthwait to switch gears and observe how being around her conservative parents (Geoff Pierson and Bonita Friedericy) and bitter brother (Jack Plotnick) throws her even further off her game. Because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if Hamilton never owned up, she eventually does, and her revelation floors Johnson and gives Plotnick ammo to use against her – and he doesn’t hesitate to. Frozen out by her family and ultimately rejected by Johnson, Hamilton gets her own place and goes on the rebound with a fellow teacher (Colby French) who’s curious about her past but doesn’t push her too hard about it. Still, every interaction with her ex or her family is fraught with tension since any one of them could drop the bomb at any moment. That’s when it becomes crystal clear why some pooches should be allowed to slumber.

As dark as Sleeping Dogs Lie sometimes gets, it was a mere warm-up for Goldthwait’s 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad, which stars Robin Williams as a frustrated novelist who ghostwrites an eloquent suicide note for his douchebag of a teenage son (a sullen Daryl Sabara) when he accidentally asphyxiates himself while masturbating. What Williams doesn’t anticipate is the way this simple act will transform his preternaturally unpopular offspring (who was considered a crude, homophobic bully) into a tragically misunderstood martyr – and alter his own life in the process.

 

This change is most readily reflected in Williams’s relationship with fellow teacher Alexie Gilmore, who seems to be on the verge of dumping him when things turn around for him. On top of that, his poorly attended poetry class is suddenly filled to the brim with eager students hanging on his every word, and the school’s grief counselor is hot to publish Sabara’s journal (which Williams has to forge as well). The only fly in the ointment is Sabara’s sole friend (Evan Martin), who’s well aware of Williams’s deception and could blow the whistle at any moment. That’s really a call for Williams to make, though – just not before he gets his moment in the sun on The Dr. Dana Show, where he nearly loses it on air. In all honesty, it would have saved a whole lot of people a whole lot of bother if he had.

Since Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad established him as a director to watch, Goldthwait has periodically returned to television to work on such shows as Comedy Central’s Important Things with Demetri Martin and FX’s Maron, starring Marc Maron. The project he really poured his heart and soul into, however, was the 2011 satire God Bless America, which proves that as a writer/director he has a lot to say about the culture we live in.

The action revolves around fed-up divorcé Joel Murray (who previously had a walk-on in Shakes the Clown), a man who has had his fill of his inconsiderate neighbors, the braying jackasses clogging up the airwaves, and his undiscriminating co-workers who parrot it back at him, inciting him to rail against society’s ills. He also has to contend with an ex-wife (Sleeping Dogs Lie’s Melinda Page Hamilton) who’s getting remarried and a daughter (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) who doesn’t want to visit with him. On top of all that, he suffers from severe migraines, so after he’s unjustly fired from his soul-sucking insurance job he goes to the doctor and is told that he has a brain tumor, which gives him the chance to do some Ikiru-style soul searching. Instead, he teams up with a young rebel (Tara Lynne Barr) who convinces him that he can do a lot more good by killing others who don’t deserve to live.

To Goldthwait’s credit, it’s really hard to take issue with any of the targets they choose (although the scene where they pick off the people talking and texting in a movie theater can be somewhat uncomfortable to sit through). And Murray is vigilant about drawing the line, which extends to his refusal to sexualize the underage Barr. He’s also cognizant of the need to pick the right time and place to take his final stand against the culture that got him up in arms in the first place. After all, if you have a message for the nation, you want to make sure the nation is actually listening.

That brings us to Goldthwait’s latest, Willow Creek, a found-footage horror film about a couple (played by Alexie Gilmore from World’s Greatest Dad and Bryce Johnson from Sleeping Dogs Lie) who venture into the woods in search of Bigfoot. The true nature of what happens to them is shrouded in mystery, but if his past work is anything to go by, whatever they find (and capture on their ever-present video camera) will surely be worth talking about.

[Bobcat Goldthwait introduces his films God Bless America and Willow Creek at the IU Cinema on October 31st and appears at the Comedy Attic on November 1st and 2nd.]

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

 

PHOTO CAPS

Goldthwait.jpg

Once known for his screechy-voiced stand-up persona, over the past few years Bobcat Goldthwait has been carving himself a niche as a writer/director of darkly humorous independent films.

 

ShakestheClown03.jpg

Bobcat Goldthwait as the title character of his misunderstood directorial debut, Shakes the Clown.

 

greatestdadso012910.jpg

Bobcat Goldthwait, in his unbilled cameo as a limo driver, commiserates with Robin Williams in World’s Greatest Dad.

 

1_e_bobcat-goldthwait-_god-bless-america.jpg

Tara Lynne Barr and Joel Murray take aim at an increasingly intolerable society in God Bless America.

 

1 8 9 10 11 12 13