FILM: Lincoln’s Moment

Leading by Example: Lincoln’s Rhetorical Strategies ■ by Tom Prasch

After recounting of an ominous dream to his wife in Steven Spielberg’s magisterial unbiopic Lincoln, the President reaches for a handy quotation: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” His wife Mary, while complaining “I’m your soothsayer, that’s all I am anymore,” nevertheless dutifully tries to interpret the dream’s portent: perhaps the campaign against Wilmington, or no, it’s the struggle for the amendment.  But her interpretive work would have been speedier had she heeded the quotation. The lines Lincoln quotes are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a conversation between the Danish prince and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the theme is ambition. As Guildenstern notes in the lines that immediately follow, “dreams indeed are ambition,” and at this point in the film’s condensed chronology Lincoln’s own ambition is being made abundantly clear: to secure the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

But beyond the explication of the dreamwork, the quotation also highlights Lincoln’s central, time-honored rhetorical strategy, which becomes a centerpiece of Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln: when commenting or seeking to sway, Lincoln’s constant recourse is to exempla, stories or quotations that illustrate his point. He opens with a joke (even if his dark-edged humor sometimes falls flat, like the apocalyptic pigeon tale he tells to a couple of clearly baffled constituents). He offers up stories about past heroes, like the jocular tale he tells of revolutionary-era hero Ethan Allen, with its crude punchline: “nothing’ll make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington.” He shares a personal anecdote, tending to favor humorous tales from his law career, but recalling his own epiphany on slavery to convince one wavering congressman. He reaches for an analogy, as when he draws on Euclid’s First Theorem (using an older translation, he calls it a “common notion”) to convince a telegraph operator about the principles of equality, or when he compares his cabinet to whalers with their “harpoon in the monster’s back.” (Senator Wade complains after Lincoln’s exit: “The man’s never been near a whale ship in his life!”)

Lincoln

And he quotes (or nearly quotes) from sages past. When Lincoln intones, as the naval bombardment of Wilmington commences, “Old Neptune, shake thy hoary locks,” it recalls the deluge scene in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (in Dryden’s translation); in the same scene, his “Thunder forth, God of War” echoes Milton, unless it’s Horace; shadows of the Bible, in the poetry of the King James version, are everywhere, most directly in the Second Inaugural Address that closes the film. And then there’s Shakespeare: Hamlet for that dream scene; Macbeth as he argues with Seward about the timing of the push for the amendment (Banquo’s address to the witches: “If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me”); and when he meets with Bilbo and his crew late at night, he quotes from Falstaff (“We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Swallow”), appropriately enough for that boozy crew.

Lincoln never footnotes his references; the quotations presume a common (now largely lost) cultural legacy, and a common strategy of lessons through exempla. He is not, after all, the only one given to quotation in the film. The soldiers he encounters in the film’s second scene conclude their exchange with him by reciting his own Gettysburg Address (and it is indicative that the uppity black in the scene—the same one who complains that black troops do not get equal pay and cannot attain officer’s stripes—knows it all the way to the “of the people, by the people” closing). Senator Sumner drags out a fragment of Washington Allston’s period poem “On the State of an Angel” (1842) when he praises Mary Lincoln’s “celestial face.” But in Lincoln’s case, the constant recourse to quotation and example illuminate both his own tactics and those of the filmmakers.

Constructing History

Lincoln is not, despite its title, a biopic. The stories Lincoln tells may illuminate his past (we can tell he was a lawyer; he confesses his self-education and its gaps when talking Euclid; the tale about his epiphany on slavery also notes his difficult relations with his father), but that’s not the point here. This is Lincoln without logsplitting (even if, when the fire gets low, he puts a fresh log on himself), Lincoln without log-cabin backstory, Lincoln without that “Honest Abe” epithet mentioned even once.  Brief scenes do convey the personal beneath the political—Lincoln’s struggles with his moody wife, his own grief over their dead son—but they constitute mere asides. Daniel Day Lewis wonderfully conveys the burdened character of the President (Grant notes at the surrender: “By outward appearance, you’re ten years older than you were a year ago”), but the burdens, like the rest of the backstory, are incidental to the business at hand.

Other figures are even less fully filled in; we never even hear the stirring story that gives Thaddeus Stevens his limp and his cane. Nor is this a broad portrait of America in the last year of the Civil War. A bloody opening scene captures the dire, personal dynamics of hand-to-hand combat, and a visit to a military hospital (with a trench filled with amputated body parts), a brief view of the bombardment of Wilmington, and a post-battle landscape of the dead near the film’s end re-anchors the “war is hell” point, but battles occur mostly offstage here. Only the magic-lantern slides young Tad Lincoln obsesses over (drawn from Alexander Gardner’s portfolio) suggest the actual horrors of slavery in the United States. But these allusions to the wider picture all figure as mere asides.  Rather, Lincoln focuses in on a single year—and really a single month—of a politician’s life, and it centrally depicts the complex struggle to pass that amendment.

In this sense, the only odd thing about the range of Shakespearean quotes is the relative absence here: except for jolly Falstaff, no echoes of the history plays through which Shakespeare constructed an argument about ideal kingship (as well as largely less than ideal kings). In those plays (and perhaps especially in the Second Tetralogy that takes us from Richard II’s failures to Henry V’s triumphs), Shakespeare excerpted and twisted his history to meet his ends, compressing chronologies, dropping out inconvenient facts, reworking historical events and figures in the interest of an argument. Nothing in Tony Kushner’s screenplay comes close to Shakespeare’s willingness to bend historical fact; indeed, the film showcases a care with its construction of a historical past unusual for Hollywood, and, aside from quibbles (how many stars are there on that flag?), historians critical of the film have complained less about distortions of record than about less focused and more debatable issues of interpretation (how important was this amendment?).

But still: Kushner’s tactics are strikingly Shakespearean in at least one respect: in the use of careful selection to construct from the material of history a clear argument. Taking from Lincoln’s career the single year (his last, the war’s last), just as Shakespeare ignored a couple decades of Richard II’s rule to focus on his deposition, and further detailing a day-by-day account of the few weeks between his second inauguration and the passage of the amendment, allows Kushner to make an argument about the mechanics of power brought to serve a greater end.

That end is the abolition of slavery. And no, the Emancipation Proclamation did not finish that work. Kushner’s Lincoln carefully lays out the issue in a meeting with his cabinet; it’s a long speech, but one worth lingering over, for the care with which the key issues are elucidated. After a story, of course, Lincoln plunges in: “I decided that the Constitution gives me war power, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are…. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could take the rebels’ slaves from ‘em as property confiscated in war. That might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the rebs that their slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don’t … [but] if calling a man property, or war contraband, does the trick, why I caught at the opportunity. Now here’s where it gets truly slippery. I use the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. But the South ain’t a nation, that’s why I can’t negotiate with ‘em. … And slipperier still: I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in rebellion, but only the rebels in those states, the laws of which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in force. That means, that since it’s states’ laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property—the Federal government doesn’t have a say in that, least not yet…. I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I’m hoping still. Two years ago I proclaimed these people emancipated—then, thenceforward and forever free.” But let’s say the courts decide I had no authority to do it. They might well do it. Say there’s no amendment abolishing slavery. Say it’s after the war, and I can no longer use my war powers to just ignore the courts’ decisions, like I sometimes felt I had to do. Might those people I freed be ordered back into slavery? That’s why I’d like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House.”  In other words, the executive power seized in wartime to proclaim emancipation could not be sustained when the war (as it soon would) ended. Thus the push for passage.

And two other notes, implicit in Lincoln’s argument, should be clear as well. Abolishing slavery through constitutional amendment would place abolition above judicial review; it could not be overturned, Marbury v. Madison style. And passing the amendment by the mandated two-thirds vote could only be accomplished if the war was ongoing: if the House held no Southerners.

Making Sausage: The Political Process

If you want to enjoy your sausage, the old saying goes, don’t look too carefully at how it got made.  Politics, when it comes right down to it, looks a lot like sausage-making. As Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln’s reluctant ally, puts it, after the amendment abolishing slavery has finally passed: “The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Complicated stuff .

Lincoln’s instructions to his cabinet make the political problem clear. He needs two thirds of the House to approve his amendment, which requires keeping all his own party in line (both the conservative and radical wings of the Republicans, each with their own rather different agendas) and pulling in a handful (or, well, a few handfuls) of additional Democratic votes (looking especially to those Democrats who, in the congressional lame-duck session, had already lost re-election votes).  To appease the conservative wing of his own party, he has to seem to be making efforts to end the war, but he also has to ensure that those efforts do not bear fruit too soon. He has to have the support of the radical wing, but he simultaneously has to depend on them to “temper,” as he puts it to Stevens, their own message. The centerpiece of that project is Stevens’s floor-debate insistence that the amendment is only about “equality before the law,” not equality of condition (that is, not racial equality). Meanwhile, through a combination of patronage quasi-bribery (with recourse to the skulky Bilbo to do the convincing) and personal appeals (lots more stories told), he has to bring around (or to abstention) enough Democrats to secure the needed numbers. And he has to keep the peace delegation at bay in the meantime, and almost (but not quite) lie about doing that, to keep the timetable.

The great body of the film—broadly everything between the two opening scenes of battle and interaction with soldiers on the one hand and the quickly limned post-vote surrender, assassination, and Inaugural Address gracenote—center on the struggle to get the votes. Against the major task at hand, everything else is mere aside. And the film’s climax comes with the vote, not with Appotomax or Ford’s Theatre after that. This is a film, less about Lincoln, than about Lincoln’s crowning political achievement, and the complex coordination of multiple strategies it took to accomplish that.

Lincoln’s Moment

Spielberg, it has been reported, deliberately held back the release of Lincoln until after the election because he did not want the film to become “political fodder” during the campaigning season. Was it concern over all that talk about enfranchising blacks, or perhaps worry over what people might make of the very different Democrats (and even more different Republicans) of the 1860s? Spielberg didn’t say. The film was released, instead, in the election’s immediate wake: as petitions urging secession circulated, and as the fiscal cliff loomed.

For this moment, the film constitutes a different sort of political fodder. It offers up a closely conceived argument over the combination of strategies—from the compromising to the coercive—that the mechanics of capitol politics sometimes require to accomplish change. The question it leaves us with is whether we have a Lincoln, or even a Thaddeus Stevens, with us today.

The Ryder, January 2013

STAGES: January (& More)

■ by Ryan Dawes

◗ Father John Misty with Magic Trick
Friday, January 10 / The Bluebird / 9pm / $15
A former member of the Seattle-based Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty performs a warmly oaken folk-rock with swaggered bits of C&W.  Like so many beloved artists from the Northwestern US, Misty was guided by “immobilizing” depression in creating his first solo album Fear Fun.  However, rather than licking his wounds through song, Father John emerged with a new narrative, more mischievous, independent, horny, and weird.  Warming up the stage will be the pet project of Tim Cohen, Magic Trick, which combines 60’s psychedelic rock and 70’s folk.

Father John Misty

◗ Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel) with Tall Firs, The Briars
Tuesday, January 15 / The Buskirk-Chumley Theater / 7:00 pm / $33.50
While Neutral Milk Hotel released only two full-length albums, the band’s success and influence was expansive throughout the late 90’s and continues to be heard in bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists.  Mangum himself has largely avoided fame and only very sporadically tours, making this appearance in Bloomington a rare treat.  The evening will also include sets by cousins Jeremy Thal and Gideon Crevoshay of The Briars of North America and the Brooklyn-based Tall Firs, who plays mellow, guitar-centric indie rock.

Jeff Mangum


◗ Percussive Dance Extravaganza
Thursday, January 17 / Rhino’s / 7:30 pm / $15
This particular extravaganza features the fiery feet of local dancers specializing in flatfooting, clogging, tap, French Canadian and English wooden shoe, and Long sword dancing, which originates in early 20th century England and uses “rapper swords.”  Traditional folk/old-time dance music will be supplied by a makeshift band of all-stars, led by fiddle master Brad Leftwich.  Featured dancers include Annie Bartlett, Suzannah Edgar, Mary Beth Roska, Allana Radecki, and Tamara Loewenthal (that lady from the farmer’s market). Tickets are available at Bloomingfoods, who will also supply the evening with refreshments.

◗ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Friday, January 25; Saturday, January 26; Wednesday, February 6 & Thursday, February 7 / Ivy Tech Waldon Arts Center / 7:30 / $15-$25
Set within a high-brow university after-party, this US American play by Edward Albee was first performed in 1962 and won several Tonys, including Best Play in 1963.  Considered Albee’s best production, this emotional work confronts and exposes domestic abuse, alcoholism, and embarrassment within two relationships.  This particular production is cast by, among others, Bill Simmons and Diane Kondrat, who have acted together in several productions and have both worked under local acting teacher Martha Jacobs.  This will be Kondrat’s final performance in south central Indiana before moving to Portland, OR.


◗ Old Blue Eyes: Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack
Saturday, January 26 / Brown County Playhouse / 7:30 pm / $22.50
Summoning the showmanship of Frank, Sam, and Dino, this performance will feature many hits by the Rat Pack, with choreography by Cynthia Pratt and David Hochoy.  The evening will also serve as a memorial to the late Brown County-based philanthropist and entrepreneur, Howard Hughes, who passed away just over a year ago.  The services supported by Hughes includes a venerable list of who’s who in the NPO realm of south central Indiana, including Dance Kaleidoscope, who is co-producing Old Blue Eyes with the BCPH.  Tickets are available online.

◗ Dark Star Orchestra
Wednesday, February 6 / The Buskirk-Chumley Theater / 8 pm / $27.50
Come all ye Wookiees, Wharf Rats, and Spinners to behold the transformation of Kirkwood Avenue into Shakedown Street, albeit a more wholesome version. This Grateful Dead cover band places as much focus on precise historic accuracy as it does on jamming out.  Each DSO set is based on a particular concert from the Dead’s extensive touring history.  During each concert, they announce the venue and date of the Dead show to be replicated and strictly abide by that night’s set list and stage setup.  Tickets to this living rock-history lesson are available one door east of the Buskirk, at the Sunrise Box Office during normal business hours.

Dark Star Orchestra

Menomena
Thursday, February 14 / The Bishop / 8:30 / $12-14
Incorporating sax, brass, piano, synth, and abundantly intricate percussion, this Portland, OR-based experimental pop group might remind you of outfits like Islands or tUnE-yArDs.  Recently reshaped into a duo, Menomena’s latest and fifth album ‘Moms’ contains five songs by each member, one whose mother passed away and the other raised by a single mother.  This diversely orchestrated set will be preceded by the New York City band Guards, whose most recent album included contributions from members of Cults and MGMT.

Menomena

The Ryder, January 2013

FILM: The Perks Of Being A Critic

■ by Andrew Behringer

As 2012 finishes its run, my annual craving for Best of the Year lists and awards starts to kick in.  This year however, the films that have affected me the most aren’t getting the recognition that they should.  So instead of trying to make a list of the year’s best all-around films, I will talk briefly about the three films that have most moved me.  They each have elements that make them must-see movies for any filmgoer who appreciates filmmakers who do not play it safe.

◗ Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik’s follow up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford continues the director’s pattern of subverting genre conventions. Dominik has put a new spin on the gangster movie.  The movie is deliberately slow-paced and filled with conversations that don’t further the plot, but instead focus on developing characters and establishing mood.  Sharp social commentary adds an element of intellect absent from most mob movies.

◗ Amour

Michael Haneke’s latest left me greatly appreciating a European approach to an oft-tackled topic of American cinema. Both the characters and the universe they live in are devoid of the clichés that often accompany movies that explore love. Rather than distract the audience with busy camera work, Haneke frequently lets the camera sit motionless for an entire scene. This encourages the viewer to focus on the subtlety in the acting, which is the driving force behind Amour’s success.

◗ The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

Without a doubt this is my favorite movie of the year.  I was surprised by the level of maturity found in the film’s tone, as well as the tremendous performances from the gifted ensemble cast.  Originally a novel, author Stephen Chbosky not only wrote the screenplay, but also directed the film.  One gauge of the success of a novel-to-film adaption is the extent to which the film is able to make the viewer forget the book.  Movie adaptations are often characterized by uneven pacing and rushed character development; these are difficult-to-avoid pitfalls when adapting a long-form novel into a two hour movie. Chbosky has risen to the challenge.  Chbosky does not attempt to clone his novel; he understands the constraints of storytelling in film form, and gives the film a heart of its own. After watching Perks, I feel more authors should learn the art of filmmaking so they can ensure the success of their work across all mediums.

The Ryder, January 2013

BOOKS: James Joyce

A New Biography of an Old Master ■ by Brandon Cook

The publication of Gordon Bowker’s new biography of James Joyce, last year in Great Britain and this year in the United States, did not occur on a particularly auspicious date — a fact that might very well have set the famed Irish writer quivering in the fear of bad juju.

In 2011, the most renowned literary figure of the 20th century celebrated his 129th birthday. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the work that gave Joyce his definitive claims as a modern literary icon, turned 95 while Ulysses, the perennial “greatest novel ever written” but more commonly known as a bane to book clubs, required reading lists, and ambitious readers, marked its scorching debut 89 years ago .

Seventeen years went by after that, through which Joyce suffered the treatment of his schizophrenic daughter, a milieu of crippling debts, and the outbreak of the Second World War, not to mention years of 16-20 hour workdays. At the end of these travails came Finnegans Wake, a volume so dense with linguistic erudition (there are a purported 60 languages at work) and cultural polytonality that even the writer’s closest disciples abandoned him. Ezra Pound, that quintessential mad genius with Lucifer beard and manic eyes who first serialized Ulysses in his magazine, promptly abandoned the writer with the claim that he was wasting his genius. Joyce, spurned by readers and critics alike, mentally flushed and physically exhausted, died less than a year after its publication.

Sylvia Beach, Who Published Ulysses, And James Joyce

Faced with these ostensibly random dates, it’s curious that Bowker believes that now is the time that we need a new perspective on Joyce to merit an all-inclusive biography. Any serious devotee of the Irish writer, when asked about biographical material, will point immediately to the 1959 work by Richard Ellmann (revised in 1982) as the source from which the purest Joyce flows. Novelist Anthony Burgess even dubbed it the “greatest literary biography of the century,” and all those who have read it are inclined to agree.

Ellmann foregoes the listing of dry fact and spurns the tired, pedantic diction that dispels so many readers away from biography. Equipped with the unequivocal mastery of language, his subjects yearn to speak for themselves and unlike most writers Ellmann is able to let them do so. The numerous letters, journal entries, and corresponsive limericks that Joyce shared with his acquaintances and that Ellmann picked, painstakingly, like grapes from the vine, provide a portrait of the artist in three crystal clear dimensions.

But Ellmann is a rare case, with a passion centralized on Irish modernism and little else. The biographer, sensing Ireland’s literary revolution when he produced his first two volumes on Yeats, ended up serving all four of the nation’s masters: Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and Wilde, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

By no means does Bowker’s biography attempt to outdo Ellmann’s and this is a good thing. There are obvious nods to the master text when he borrows from it, liberally quoting the same anecdotes, exclamations, and even textual interpretations (his rendering of young Joyce’s Et Tu Healy reads almost verbatim). His portraits of the Joyces owe much to Ellmann’s conception as well. Father John Joyce begins the text highlighted as a witty Parnellite while adoring Stanislaus fervidly dog tails and copycats every action of his older brother James, from his precocious interests in literature to his dramatic sundering with the Church (Stanislaus, in typical little-brother fashion, took the action too far and abandoned God whereas James merely abandoned man’s corrupted perception).

Bowker’s eye for detail serves him well in many of his corresponding episodes with Ellmann. One such episode takes place with Joyce’s former medical peer, literary admirer, and one-time roommate Oliver St. John Gogarty, forever immobilized to readers of Ulysses as the doggedly cynical, “stately plump Buck Mulligan.” Each biographer  lets the reader know that this literary eternity was a fate the young Buck had coming to him. Following recent quarrels in their already strained relationship, in 1904 the destitute Joyce nevertheless allowed himself to be housed in Gogarty’s ridiculous, militaristic Martello Tower along with one of his lackeys, Samuel Trench (Haines in Ulysses). Trench, prone to horrible nightmares and screaming fits, kept a loaded gun by his side. It was during one such terror that he awoke and, in hysterics, fired his gun several times against the back wall, narrowly missing the startled Joyce. Bowker, preferring a continuation of this scene, asserts that Gogarty later awoke and repeated the gesture as a ruse so that the brooding, disdaining Joyce would move out of the tower.

Joyce

Unfortunately, many of the relationships become increasingly dense with Bowker’s chunks of fact-driven prose. When John Joyce begins to decline from amiable jokester to failed father and hapless drunk, the tragic loss of his verbal wit to the consumption of spirits (which so hauntingly foreshadows James’s future struggles) can easily pass the reader unregarded. Ellmann, who quotes from John’s brilliant pub chat and ample limericks that he shared with James, presents a far more life-loving spirit than Bowker.

So it goes for many of the dynamics that exist in the relationship between Stanislaus and James. Bowker’s description of the brothers’ intermittent stay in Trieste between the years 1904 through 1920, fails to capture Stanislaus’s complex and contradictory emotions. Summoned in order to provide company to James’s beloved Nora while he completed Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist, Stanislaus arrived enthusiastic, only to become one of the countless many from whom Joyce would siphon money to pay for lavish meals, tips, and shopping sprees. Readers will wonder why he suffered his pockets to be picked for as long as he did, to which Bowker meekly posits filial duty and admiration for James’s talents. What’s missing is Stanislaus’s fascinating diary, wherein the brother records how his duties to the capricious James reflect a greater duty to literature itself. James’s lauding as ‘literary genius’ did not spring from the Pound/Yeats/Eliot brigade, but from wholesome, second-best Stanislaus.

James fairs better under this at times toilsome prose, but not by much. In the midst of the controversy surrounding the Ulysses publication, Bowker writes that Joyce was “becoming [more] famous for being spoken and written about than for being read.”

One is tempted to think that the biographer might take note and allow more of the authentic Irishman to be heard, instead of reining  him in and paring his statements down to increments seldom exceeding three or four sentences. Joyce, in several documents, provides the best interpretation and criticism of his work anyway, showing that once freed from the words of intellectuals and pedagogues, the text is actually much simpler and accessible to the reader than before. Such is true of the Nausicaa episode, in which the resting Bloom pleasures himself to the exposed stockings of the simple-minded soubrette Gerty McDowell. Joyce writes the chapter in what he calls “namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy (alto là!) style.”

A part of the author seems to want to keep its figure shrouded in mystery. How does the man who guffawed boomingly at farts and funny-sounding words become the century’s literary mastermind? Why did this man, who once scooped up dirt and declared it in a hushed reverence to be “wonderful,” continually empty his pockets for a life of inflated decadence? How did a mind whose contents more often resemble the residue found in a vacuum cleaner bag grapple with man’s most sprawling questions? Bowker may have the answers but he won’t say so, just as he won’t allow Joyce out of the lenses of his scope.

Even so, there is at least one moment when this tactic is beneficial to the reader. Finnegans Wake is treated by Bowker with bold hypotheses and then tidily explored: something for which more readers are likely to clamor than the confusing textual excerpts that Ellmann offers or the expansive Finnegans Wake Skeleton’s Key by Joseph Campbell

Contrary to the belief that the unconscious ‘dreamscape’ of Finnegans Wake, (Work in Progress as it was known until publication) was the natural point of development from the monologue intérieur of Ulysses, Bowker asserts that Eliot’s The Waste Land is the true inspiration, providing the “fractured” and “unstable” form while encouraging the necessity of the various portmanteaus. It’s a valid argument that one may push further, contrasting even the drought and dearth of Eliot’s parched, dead ground with Joyce’s cyclical “riverrun” of life, the river Anna Livia Plurabelle.

There are other such strong scenes upon which Bowker lingers that other biographers have passed by. This is the outbreak of World War II. Ellmann dismissed it as Joyce did: unrelated to and disturbing the production of art, and therefore unworthy of much consideration. Bowker’s war blazes across the book’s last thirty pages, reminding the reader that Joyce’s singular artistic obsessions, admirable in their way, were nevertheless far from realistic. Lucia, his schizophrenic daughter, was being treated in a French mental hospital during Nazi occupation of the country and could not be brought out despite the family’s frantic efforts. Joyce could forget about the war, but the war never forgot about Joyce.

One of the most poignant scenes in the biography occurs in the beginning of the now-famous treatment of Lucie in the early 1930’s, when Joyce’s obsessive work on Finnegans Wake had to be halted so that his daughter could receive treatment for a condition the doctors would only say was baffling (and still is; perhaps the most accurate diagnosis came from Joyce himself, who believed she was suffering a combination of megalomania and an inability to transform artistic vision into reality). Years of doctor-hopping and expensive bills had got the couple nowhere and only after much pressuring did Joyce reluctantly agree to treat his daughter with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, an admirer of Joyce’s genius who ambiguously declared that Ulysses “could be read the same backwards as forwards.” The meeting of these two mental geniuses reads as two wolves sizing the other up; for the palpable tension Bowker quotes Jung: ‘ “it was impossible not to see and feel his resistance.” ‘

“There is nothing your hand wants to reach for except a volume of Joyce,” reads Chris Proctor’s endorsement on the biography’s dust jacket. This rings truer than one might expect. Bowker’s book still manages to provide small insights that one will not find elsewhere. Less so than Ellmann, the book is effectual. One will look to Joyce afterwards and see that nowhere else in the English language can such humor be drawn from words, and such powerful life as from Molly Bloom’s final, affirmative “Yes.” Bowker’s biography breathes no new life into Joyce but the reader cannot expect this. The 20th century’s greatest literary innovator needs no new life–he resonates with as much vitality today as ever.

The Ryder, January 2013

Photo caps (Joyce in bookstore)

Sylvia Beach (who published Ulysses) and Joyce in the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.

Photo cap (Beach and Joyce standing)

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach (who published Ulysses) outside the door of Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de l’Odeon in Paris in 1920

Use one of these bookstore pictures and or/one of the posed headshots.

I’ve also attached two versions of the bookcover. I don’t think the bookcover or the headshots require photo caps. And I’m not sure it’s necessary to reproduce the book cover – neither image does much for me, although I’m certainly not opposed to using one of them as space permits.

BOOKS: James Joyce’s Day Of The Dead

A Latino Reading of Finnegans Wake ■ by Carlos Bakota

The Irish were the first Mexicans in the United States – at least, that’s what I tell my good friend John, a bartender at the Irish Lion.  Both of our ancestors were thought of as lazy and a threat to the culture and institutions of America.  This summer, after reading Gordon Bowker’s new biography of James Joyce, I revisited the novels and stories of this literary giant. In struggling through Joyce’s work, I was struck by the recurrent themes of colonialism and identity.

Dublin’s Joyce Statue, Known As “The Prick With The Stick” (Photo: David Pace)

But can we talk of Joyce’s dense, often impenetrable body of work—the work of an Irish author—and the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in the same breath? The Latino celebration of the Day of the Dead is also important in Celtic myth. In fact, the Vatican incorporated All Saints Day from the Celtic traditions. There are indications that the Celts absorbed Egyptian and Phoenician as well as Germanic forms of early cultural practices.  Looked at from Joyce’s historical, transcultural and multicultural perspective, the dead were important to all ancient and modern cultures of the world. To fully understand the significance of both the Irish and Mexican relationship to the dead it is useful to keep in mind, as Joyce reminds us, the long history of our shared humanity.

Joyce’s work stubbornly rejects the 1900’s racist discourse of the occupying British when speaking of the “Irishman.” A line in Finnegans Wake reminded me of the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, who saw himself caught in a colonialist trap. To paraphrase: the European writer is born as if in the highest floor of the Eiffel tower; the Latin American writer is born as if in the core of the earth. After a colossal effort, he is barely able to peek out of the surface of the ground.

James Joyce in Finnegans Wake similarly wrote: “When the soul of a man is born in this country [Ireland] there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight –those that remain are destined to die or suffer spiritual decomposition.”

I don’t think I could have made my way through Finnegans Wake without first understanding the fairy tale of the Mookse and the Gripes, Joyce’s retelling of the Fox and the Grapes. In Joyce’s version the Mookse represents the British and Roman colonizers while the Gripes represents the Irish.  What is striking to a Latino reader is that the Mookse uses all of the same colonialist stereotypes that the British and Romans used to describe the Gripes, who is portrayed as an essentially one dimensional, lazy, worthless individual.

One possible moral can be found in the fact that neither the Mookse nor the Gripes can sympathize with the point of view of the other. This is the central problem in colonial societies and was the central problem until very recently in our country when Americans of color engaged xenophobic Americans in conversation.  It seems as if our country kept being swept back into the 1850s and the creation of the xenophobic, secretive Know Nothing Party. (When a member of the party was asked about its activities, he would reply, “I know nothing.”)

Most important is the fact that the Gripes refused to let the Mookse define who he was. Today, Latinos are empowering themselves by refusing to allow xenophobic minorities define who they are.

Joyce found that by leaving Ireland and working in exile, he could escape the identity imposed on him by the occupying British. Working within a larger transnational, multicultural, and fluid community freed him from the limiting constructs of both British imperialism and the nationalist Irish revivalist movements.  Those two forces formed the two sides of the binary opposition which disfigured clear representations of the Irish and the British.

In the British magazines at the turn of the century, the Irish were often characterized as Paddy, the brutish uncivilized ape. This racist discourse served to cover and justify the occupation of Ireland by Britain. Sadly, many Irish escaped to the United States only to find that the majority of Americans continued to see them through the old Irish-British dichotomy, lazy brutes, violent drunks, story tellers and jokers versus the industrious, religious (the true Protestant religion), civilize and sober British citizens.

James Joyce reacted unsympathetically to the nationalist revivalist movements in Ireland, viewing their conception of Ireland and Irish nationalism as backwards. Basically Joyce said “I am what I am today.” Today Latino are what they are now. We are a mixed group of nationalities with infinite shades of Latino-ness.  The vast majority are American citizens.  In the late seventies I would have had a difficult time writing that last sentence without some reference to the colonial framework. But today, demographics, social mobility and politics have changed significantly.  There are even plans to build a National Latino Museum in the Smithsonian Mall. Because of such rapid change on the national scale, the question of how to represent the Latino becomes more and more critical. In this context, Joyce’s rejection of a limited view of his own identity constructed by a dominant group becomes of greater relevance to the Latino community, as well as all excluded groups on the planet.

So Joyce, for all his genius, difficulties and his personal ordeals which are rather harshly presented in the recent biography by Gordon Bowker (who spends a lot of time on fornication and flatulence in the personal letters of Joyce) can easily be seen more and more as a political writer of sorts, a voice against racism and colonialism.  This may be a welcome turn away from the efforts to try to explicate his enormous, erudite, and complex works.

Junot Diaz, in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, takes Joyce as a sort of model to free himself from the constraints of the Eurocentric canon. Joyce’s influence on Diaz is obvious even without such aesthetic similarities. Diaz references Joyce in two of his works: once when a character is advised to become the Dominican Joyce, and another when a character enrolls in a university course on Joyce. Moreover, in interviews he has spoken of Joyce as a source of inspiration. The influence is clear. And there are a growing number of writers who, like Diaz, set their works within transnational frameworks, frameworks that shatter the self-inflicted, deprecating Latino stereotype so prevalent in American culture. Joyce’s reluctance to subscribe to the nationalism of turn-of-the-century Irish literary movements was due, in part, to his belief that they would be unable to escape their own romanticizing of a clichéd Irish past, one that no longer existed outside their own writings.

Now that Latinos are roughly a quarter of the US population and a major pillar of the Democratic party, and now that the GOP is slowly weeding out its half-threatening, half-condescending  Latino discourse, some Latinos are rethinking the colonial framework of their history and moving towards a framework  that would appeal to Joyce’s sense of justice: economic democracy.

Francisco Vazquez, a Latino philosopher at Sonoma State College, in the concluding essay of his book, Latino/a Culture, points out: “If America cannot move away from the exclusionary racist discourse of fear and xenophobia, it may signal the death of inclusive participatory democracy not only in our country but throughout the world.”

Joyce stated that his work was his personal attempt to escape the nightmare of history, and now the American people have a chance to escape the nightmare of American racism by finally recognizing the fact that Latinos and other citizens of color are as American as Taco Bell. James Joyce, for all the talk of his contribution to modernism, is still a potent voice against the nightmare of colonialism, racism, and fear.  Like Joyce, Latino writers have opened themselves up to transnational perspectives in which the individual can express who he or she is within a much broader framework than the colonial oppositions of a racist discourse. Latinos have been here for centuries and our realities and political and economic values and culture are made in America.  I am what I am because what I have been; this story of becoming is what Joyce was telling us in his own transcultural, deeply historical, experimental and wonderfully beautiful way.

The Ryder, January 2013

FILM: Top Picks From The Multiplex To The Arthouse

■ By Craig J. Clark

2012 had plenty to offer the discerning moviegoer, if only they knew where to look for it. Sure, there were plenty of flashy action movies like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, and such adventurous fare as Prometheus, Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, but there’s more to the movies than big-budget spectacle (although I do count the crazily ambitious Cloud Atlas among my favorites of the year). In order to get a handle on the vast array of good-to-great films that came our way last year, I’ve separated them into categories. There are a number of films that I haven’t gotten the chance to see, though (like The Loneliest Planet, Django Unchained, Amour and Zero Dark Thirty), so this round-up is at best a work in progress.

FOREIGN

Before he teamed up with Lana and Andy Wachowski to bring David Mitchell’s sprawling Cloud Atlas to the screen, Tom Tykwer turned out 3, his most stylistically inventive film since Run Lola Run, which follows the lives of two men and one woman, observing how they intertwine in unexpected ways. As confounding as those connections can be, though, they have nothing on the plight of the protagonists in The Turin Horse, which is the film Hungarian master Béla Tarr has chosen to retire on. An ultra-bleak drama, which Tarr co-directed with Ágnes Hranitzky, The Turin Horse recounts the hardships faced day in and day out by a cab driver, his daughter and their broken-down horse. Not an easy film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one that rewards those with the patience to see it through to the end.

It’s impossible to sum up the achievements of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in a couple of sentences, but the one thing I will say about last year’s Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards is that its tightly constructed screenplay was robbed. (As much as I liked Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, its comparatively lax script can’t help but pale in comparison.) At the other end of the spectrum is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which is all over the map, but in a way that’s completely exhilarating. An unabashed love letter to cinema in all its permutations, Holy Motors is without a doubt my favorite film of the year, built around a virtuoso performance by the incomparable Denis Lavant. A Best Actor nod, as well-deserved as it might be, is probably too much to hope for, though. (Incidently, if you missed it at the IU Cinema you’ll have a second chance to see it in January when it returns as part of The Ryder series.)

HORROR

On the horror front, Daniel Radcliff attempted to break out of the Harry Potter mold with Hammer’s The Woman in Black, which had atmosphere to burn but was a lot creakier than it needed to be. Much better was the genre-busting The Cabin in the Woods, which director Drew Goddard co-wrote with Joss Whedon (who had an exceedingly good year between this and The Avengers). A clever deconstruction of slasher-movie tropes, Cabin stands as a rebuke to those in the industry who think the lowest common denominator is something to aspire to. And while not every segment in the horror omnibus V/H/S worked, it was another reminder that Ti West (whose The Innkeepers sadly never made it to theaters here) is an up-and-comer to watch.

Cabin In The Woods

DOCUMENTARY

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see all the documentaries that came through town last year (which means The Queen of Versailles and The Imposter are conspicuously missing from my list), but leading the pack was Oscar nominee Pina, which was Wim Wenders’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch, a daring choreographer who never stopped taking risks and pushing herself. That could also be said about the subject of David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about an 85-year-old sushi master and the son who’s very eager to take over the family restaurant. And family matters were also front and center in Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory, which charts the acclaimed documentarian’s difficult relationship with his adult son while giving him the opportunity to explore his own past.

ANIMATION

In the field of animation, 2012 was a very strong year, with robust offerings from Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty), Aardman (The Pirates! Band of Misfits), and Pixar (Brave). It also brought us Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s latest, the gleefully anarchic Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), which was screened as part of a retrospective of his work at the IU Cinema. And Tim Burton expanded his early short Frankenweenie to feature length using the medium of stop-motion (an improvement over his previous such effort, the listless Corpse Bride). The biggest surprise of the year, though, was Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, with its fully realized video-game world and well-developed characters. It’s also the strongest indicator of the influence Pixar has had on its parent company to date.

COMEDY

After a long absence, Whit Stillman emerged from the wilderness with his campus-set comedy of ill manners Damsels in Distress, which hopefully heralds a Terrence Malick-like renaissance for the much-missed chronicler of the upper crust. He was joined by Richard Linklater, who returned to form with the wickedly funny Bernie, which gave Jack Black his best role in years (as a beloved mortician who’s so charming, he almost gets away with murder). Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love was less substantial, but still enjoyable, and it was neatly counterbalanced by Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, about the aspirations of less worldly individuals. When it comes to dark comedy, though, nothing this year came close to William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, his second collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts. Not a film for everyone (there’s a very good reason why it got slapped with an NC-17 rating), but its most infamous scene (involving a piece of fried chicken) will be talked about for years to come.

DRAMA

When looking for dramatic source material it’s hard to go wrong with Shakespeare, as Ralph Fiennes proved with his directorial debut, which transformed the less-heralded play Coriolanus into a dynamic war film. And with the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut, fresh in people’s minds, I imagine Lynne Ramsay’s chilling We Need to Talk About Kevin is due for a reevaluation. At the very least, it should be more widely recognized that Tilda Swinton turned in a riveting performance as the mother of an unrepentant high school shooter. Failing that, if Rachel Weisz doesn’t score a nomination for her work in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, based on the play by Terence Rattigan about a love affair that’s essentially doomed from the start, we can officially declare the Academy completely out of touch.

AUTEUR CORNER

Finally, we come to the place for directors with such singular visions that they transcend genre. The ever-industrious Steven Soderbergh delivered a powerful one-two punch with the ass-kicking Haywire (which re-teamed him with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, late of Kafka and The Limey) and the buns-baring Magic Mike (which Matthew McConaughey effortlessly stole out from under Channing Tatum). I loved Guy Maddin’s existential gangster fantasy Keyhole and Wes Anderson’s whimsical coming-of-age tale Moonrise Kingdom so much I saw both of them twice. And Japanese humanist Hirokazu Kore-eda continued his winning streak with the down-to-earth I Wish, about two brothers trying to reunite their divided family.

 

Unsurprisingly, the second half of the year was just as strong as the first. Newcomer Benh Zeitlin burst onto the scene in a big way with the Sundance favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild. David Cronenberg took on Dom DeLillo and the challenge of trying to get Robert Pattinson to act in Cosmopolis. Paul Thomas Anderson took on Scientology-by-proxy with The Master (which featured mesmerizing performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams). And David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook proved that you don’t have to be nuts to fall in love with a mentally ill person, but it doesn’t hurt.

I could go on at length about any one of these films, but I’d like to close by highlighting Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise, which was restored and re-released to great acclaim last year. For as great as 2012’s crop of films was at times, I don’t think any of them transported me in quite the same way as Carné’s 1945 classic. If you managed to see it when it screened at the IU Cinema, you should count yourself lucky. I know I certainly do.

The Ryder, January 2013

BOOKS: The Year In Books, 2012

The Year of the Velvet Hot Mama, or Darwin’s Reality in the Age of Supernormal Stimuli ■ by R.E. Paris

I thought perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey should be the book topic of the year. Not because of the way it is written, but because any book that can get millions of women to masturbate in waves and no doubt sometimes in time-zone unison, across this mighty, mighty nation, is part of the spirit of a new age.

In response, HarperCollins announced that it is set to republish Nine and a Half Weeks, though the actual release date has not yet been screamed at the top of the publisher’s lungs, nor muttered in guttural tones.

More importantly, the personal as political in 2012 marked a year of velvet revolution. Reality outwitted the spin and masturbatory fantasies, even if it didn’t outsell them. Looking at the year in books, I wondered who was wrong and who was right about the current events and future prospects.  Here are some authors worth reading.

John B. Judis and Ruy Texeira outlined the current world more than a decade ago in The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner, 2002).  Yours truly was talking up that book back then. Judis and Texeira were the Nate Silvers of the long-term.

◗ Silver is the author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (Penguin, 2012). The book is a manifesto for reality-based thinking. Silver correctly predicted the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections with stunning accuracy. Silver has gone on to recommend that conservatives return to their roots and back marijuana legalization.

Nate Silver: A Manifesto For Reality-Based Thinking

◗ Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana (Scribner, 2012), by Martin Lee.  The cannabis re-legalization votes in Washington State and Colorado were historic political events, ceasefires in the war on drugs.  No one expects Indiana to be a leader in this ground shift even though the social conservative demographic has repeatedly been on the wrong side of history since the 1960s.

◗ All In The Family (Hill and Wang, 2012), by Robert Self, discusses the Reagan re-alignment that began in the 1960s as a reaction to race, gender and sexuality politics.  Self walks the reader through the landscape of the American culture wars. That landscape now includes the impact of science denial.

◗ Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers by James Balog with a forward by Terry Tempest Williams (Rizzoli, 2012). Balog’s work has been exhibited in museums and published in National Geographic, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. His work was also featured on the PBS documentary, “Extreme Ice.”

Two hundred color photographs compiled from Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) team chronicle changing glaciers since 2005 in France, Switzerland, Iceland, Greenland, Nepal, Bolivia, Antarctica and the United States.

◗ Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012). by Katherine Boo, is a stunning look at the reality of economic disparity through the lives of more than 300 people.

Katherine Boo’s Stunning Look At Economic Disparity In Mumbai

◗ Memoir of a Debulked Woman, (Norton, 2012) is by Susan Gubar, a feminist scholar from IU. The Madwoman in the Attic, which she co-authored, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her memoir unravels the ribbons of a cancer story to talk about one women’s view of her changing world read through the body.

◗ Real Man Adventures (McSweeney’s, 2012) by T Cooper is a memoir centering on gender and identity by a female-to-male transitioned citizen. Cooper’s exploration of gender and culture is part of a move beyond binary thinking.  The book raises interesting questions about stereotypes, the author’s as well as our own.

T Cooper’s Exploration Of Gender And Culture Moves Beyond Binary Thinking

◗ The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press, 2012). Young formerly taught poetry in the writing program at IU; this is his first book of prose. These essays parse Young’s experience as a person of color within the context of American cultural life through the work of artists in various genres.

◗ Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Delacorte, 2012), edited by Indiana author and Vonnegut friend Dan Wakefield (Going All The Way), is the first collection of Vonnegut letters. The Lilly Library’s holdings were pivotal for this first compilation. Wakefield’s commentary provides background information for the collection.

Michael Martone is the Indiana author who has taken on the mantle, or hair shirt, of the Twain/Vonnegut humorist in postmodern garb. Read his work. He is also one of the editors of the new Indiana University Break Away series of paperback originals.

◗ An American Tune (Indiana University Press, 2012), by Barbara Shoup, is one of the latest titles in the Breakaway Series. The story takes place in Bloomington as a woman confronts her radical past and suddenly complicated present. Shoup is an author of seven novels and is also the Executive Director of the Writers’ Center of Indiana

More 2012 Fiction to read:

◗ Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (Grove Press, 2012) by Sherman Alexie

◗ Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012) by Michael Chabon

◗ The Round House,  (Harper, 2012) by Louise Erdrich

◗ The Real and the Unreal: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth (Small Beer Press, 2012) by Ursula Le Guin

◗ This Is How You Lose Her, (Riverhead, 2012) by Juno Diaz

◗ Building Stories (Pantheon, 2012), by Chris Ware, is a book that is designed to be experienced as a physical object. Ware’s book house shares stories of individuals who are as separated from one another as the physical contexts that hold their stories.

The book is a big box with 14 items, including books, pamphlets, and a comics section. The book-as-object aesthetic is one McSweeney’s has consistently maintained. Ware has worked with McSweeney’s in the past, most notably with the McSweeney’s 13 Comics Issue and the McSweeney’s 33 newspaper facsimile edition.

◗ “Maker culture” in tech and beyond is part of this 2012 revolution, beyond the bindings of books. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (Crown, 2012), by Chris Anderson, will start you on your journey.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (Liveright, 2012), by Jim Holt, provides a maker underpinning by examinng something and nothing while questioning the assumption that “nothing” is the “default” of existence.

You are here.

The Ryder, January 2013

 


FILM: The Year In Film, 2012

The 5 Most Enjoyable Films Of The Year ■ by Robert Singer

◗ The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This coming-of-age tale is an adaptation of the beloved novel by the same name and was written and directed for the screen by the author himself, Stephen Chbosky. The film tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), an emotionally fragile teenager navigating the treacherous pitfalls of his freshman year of high school following a year of intensive therapy after the suicide of his best friend. Charlie learns to come out of his shell as he makes friends with misfit upperclassmen, including the fabulously loud and proud Patrick (Ezra Miller in a scene-stealing performance), anti-establishment punk chick Mary-Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), and the beguiling but insecure Sam (Emma Watson). Many films about teens tend to feature implausible plots that overshadow or undermine the complex realities of growing up, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower avoids this problem by avoiding clichés, instead focusing on how raw and painful the early emotional wounds gained in high school can really be. The film takes an honest look at how powerfully important the feeling of belonging is during one’s transition to adulthood and how crushing heartache can be when experienced for the first time. In a film beset with great lines, a simple yet brutal truth uttered by Charlie to Sam encapsulates the intimate honesty of this film, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

◗ Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s latest film just may be his best. Yes, I’m serious. Moonrise Kingdom features many of the director’s signature tropes: meticulous attention to minute detail, glorious mise en scene, 1960s inspired costumes and sets (although this time it really does take place in the 1960s), and his trademark wry humor. But Moonrise Kingdom diverges from Anderson’s previous work because the story feels more organic, establishing an intimate sincerity that is lacking from his earlier classics Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which have often been criticized for being too ironic. This is the filmmaker’s first film in which the characters feel like characters rather than caricatures, a clear sign of maturation on the part of Anderson, the film’s director, producer, and co-writer. Revolving around the story of two star-crossed adolescent lovers Sam and Suzy (played with aplomb by newcomers Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward), Moonrise Kingdom subverts the clichés of stories about young love by allowing the film’s characters as well as its audience to root for the kids to be together.

Moonrise Kingdom

◗ The Avengers

After the colossal commercial and critical success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight  in 2008 (the same year Marvel released Iron Man) it was likely very tempting for Marvel Studios to skew all subsequent films with a darker, more serious tone in an attempt to “Nolanize” all of its characters. The company has yet to do so, however, and this year, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige made the smart choice in hiring geek god Joss Whedon as director of The Avengers. Whedon handles the larger than life cast of characters ably, giving the impressive ensemble of established and rising stars moments to shine as a group as well as separately. Whedon’s trademark wit, humor, and passion for drama are evident in every exchange, and equally impressive are the action sequences, the likes of which have never been seen before on the big screen. Sure, we’ve watched New York trashed by aliens dozens of times, but not on this scale, and never for so long! The final 45 minutes is just one scene after another of adrenaline pumping, nerdgasmic, utterly epic action. Never before in the history of cinema have so many powerful superheroes fought on screen together as a team, fending off a threat that no single hero could handle alone. It sounds corny and goofy, and it is, but it’s also what people have wanted to see all this time, a movie that manages to satisfy your inner eight-year-old without abhorrently offending your cultivated aesthetic sensibilities. The Avengers is the epitome of what a superhero movie ought to be: epic, dramatic, and most importantly, fun.

◗ Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), a bi-polar history teacher recently back from an eight month stint in a mental health facility and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young cop’s widow who is coping with the loss of her husband through manic rage and sexual promiscuity. Both characters are living at home with their parents after losing everything and are struggling to manage their respective conditions. Then, they meet. Pat and Tiffany are tremendously vocal about how disturbed each thinks the other is, but that doesn’t stop them from forming a steady bond that leads to friendship, love, and the possibility of recovery. Also, it’s a comedy. Dramatic, funny, and edgy from start to finish, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best romantic comedies of the year. The film moves at a frenetic pace, navigating the bizarre lives of the two leads and their quirky, dysfunctional families and friends, as they follow their beloved Philadelphia Eagles through an NFL season. The film is bolstered by great supporting turns from Robert De Niro and Chris Tucker, who steal scenes every chance they get, but its real heart and soul lies with Cooper and Lawrence, who give the most mature and emotionally charged performances to date and whose chemistry is undeniable.

◗ Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a quintessential American film that recounts the intriguing and powerful true tale of the most important legislative battle in our nation’s history: the passing of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery by the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner were wise to base their film on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s mesmerizing account of the Lincoln administration, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; the result is a film equal parts period-piece biopic and compelling political thriller. Spielberg’s direction is the best it’s been in over a decade and the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List) is his finest work to date. Lincoln boasts a tremendous ensemble cast including David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, and John Hawkes. However, the true strength of Lincoln lies in three terrific and key performances. Sally Field’s portrayal of feisty and emotionally drained First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is one of the most memorable supporting performances of the year, and Tommy Lee Jones as racial equality Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens deserves every nomination and accolade he will most assuredly receive this awards season. However, the crux of the film’s power lies in the performance by the impeccable Daniel Day-Lewis, who evokes the haunted, brilliant giant of American history perfectly, cementing his own legacy as the greatest actor of his generation.

The Ryder, January 2013

FILM: Monika Treut’s Gender Warriors

Treut

Filmmaker and visiting lecturer Monika Treut explores sexual and gender identities of the under-represented. A retrospective of her work will be presented at the IU Cinema October 22-24 ◆ by Filiz Cicek

Before there were male gods, there were fertility goddesses, bare-chested priestesses. In time the Amazons were defeated. Pagan priestesses were burned at the stake in Spanish Inquisitions. The male Greek god of fertility, Pan, would become the most ubiquitous devil. Once a symbol of renewal, the serpent would evolve into Eve’s slithering aide as she bit into a forbidden apple. The biblical female, the first mother, is forever guilty of knowledge. Adam had no will power against his temptress sinner, born of his own rib. Adam did not have an Adam, Eve did not have an Eve.

Whether mothers or prostitutes, women on the silver screen function as body projections of patriarchy’s fears and desires–bodies to be to objectified and demystified from the male gaze. “Torture the blondes,” Alfred Hitchcock said. And in Vertigo, he killed not one, but two blondes: the wife and the hired mistress, for they tortured the male anti-hero Scottie with their sexual allure and deceptions. In Hollywood cinema, the female character aids the male hero in his quest to greatness. In melodramas she is given temporary agency, a parenthesis in time so to speak, to be the main protagonist who furthers the narrative in the absence of the strong the male character, whose masculinity is in crises. She is forced to explore her whorish persona, usually by being a nightclub singer or a prostitute in order to provide for her nuclear family.

Soap operas, too, follow this binary formula: housewife and villainess.  Her ability to assert her independence comes with a social stigma. From Mexico to Berlin, from Istanbul to Delhi, the melodramas have been telling us that a woman who sins, who is sexually promiscuous and disobeys the norms must die or become a mother to redeem herself.

Binary explorations of female sexuality are rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions among others.  The absence of Mary Magdalene and Madonna in non-catholic churches in America is a testimony to our Puritanical history. Yet in the midst of all this, a man named Alfred Kinsey, a scientist studying insects, set out to study human sexuality. With the support of Herman B. Wells, and fellow scholars, he established The Kinsey Institute.

Professor Brigitta Wagner, who teaches German Cinema at Indiana University, saw a natural German connection with The Kinsey Institute. She considers Kinsey’s work the continuum of German scientist Magnus Hirschfeld. An atheist and a homosexual, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin in 1897 in order to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that since 1871 had criminalized homosexuality. Hirschfeld believed that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals. He then established the Institute for Sex Research in Berlin in 1919. Hitler declared him the most dangerous Jew in the world. The Institute was destroyed and its archives burned in 1933. Nevertheless Hirschfeld’s work inspired scientists, artists and filmmakers, including Alfred Kinsey.

Wagner invited the openly lesbian German independent filmmaker Monika Treut as a Max Kade Fellow to teach a course in collaboration with The Kinsey Institute on human sexuality in film. Treut’s students are learning about both Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Kinsey’s work and looking at the construction of sexuality and gender in a number of European films, as well as in The Kinsey Institute’s film collection. “Students will explore this historical visual material that documents human sexual desires and expressions,” explains  Liana Zhou, the head curator for the film archive. In doing so she is hoping that “the students will be able to provide social, cultural, historical, and artistic context to these unique examples of early erotic film to their audience after almost hundred years since these films were produced.”

Originally a scientist who set out to study insects, Kinsey began to study human sexuality only after getting married.  Before him, Germans had fought for the rights of the “third sex” with films like Different From Others (1919). These films came to a halt in the 1930s with the rise of the Nazi regime.

In American in 1934 the Hayes Code purified the silver screen. Gays, lesbians and strong female characters were among the casualties. Gone was May West shooting a gun at train robbers and coyly inviting Cary Grant, the chauffeur, to “come up and see me some time.” When Kinsey began his research, Donna Reed, Lucille Ball and Doris Day were all sleeping in separate beds from their husbands in their on-screen bedrooms.

Depictions of lesbians on screen were so subtle as to render them invisible.  Much later, lesbians, like their gay male counterparts, would be portrayed as self-hating villains. As  in heterosexual melodramas, death by redemption remained the norm.

In 1959, Billy Wilder, an Austrian born German-Jewish Hollywood director, experimented with gender identity in Some Like it Hot, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed as female musicians. William Wyler followed in 1961with The Children’s Hour, a drama exploring the budding sexual preferences of two housemates played by Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. MacLain has reflected back with  amazement that she and Hepburn have never discussed the topic openly, even while shooting the film.

We have come a long a way since then. The lesbian characters in cinema, independent cinema in particular, are not as incidental. LGBTQ film festivals are held across the globe. Yet it will be a while before Titanic becomes a love story between two women.

Treut Films: Seduction of Cruel Women

Since her directorial debut, Treut has been exploring sexual and gender identities of the under-represented, including lesbian, transgender, and transsexuals. Treut’s female protagonists are most often the strong ones, in charge of their own lives. Unlike Hitchcock’s blondes, Treut’s “cruel women” torture men—and men are willing slaves to their female tyrants.

In Seduction of Cruel Women, women take turns as the tortured and the torturer. Having written her PhD thesis on masochism, Treut explores sadism as well. “Visual art nourishes masochistic desires and emotions,” she explains.  In Cruel Women Treut converts an abandoned building in the Hamburg docks into the “Gallery,” a studio for sexual exploration. The set-design recalls oil paintings in the 16th Century style of nature-morte. Instead of fruits and bowls and dead rabbits and pheasants, you have fetish objects, furs and shoes. Lights and colors—a palette from white to red to black—reflect the desires and fears of characters who are seeking to dominate or be dominated. Treut explains, “it is often the powerful man who wants to be dominated.”

Gendernauts

Judith Butler defined gender as performance. Sandy Stone, “Goddess of Cyberspace” in Treut’s 1999 documentary film Gendernauts agrees: “Gender as performance is a series of signals we send to each other. How do we change ourselves and those around us, by moving from a narrow space to a larger one, to a space of greater psychological distance eventually ending up in a situation that invades the space that of the other?” But not all gendernauts concern themselves with identity, “and gender confusion is a small price to pay for social progress.”

But Treut is not a fan of this approach to identity. “In this country,” Treut explains, “people define themselves through their sexual orientation. They make a real strong point when they say ‘I am a lesbian.’ They think they have a concept for life, for a relationship. I don’t agree with that…we are more than our sexual orientation.”

Female-to-male transgender artists and performers, Texas Tom Boy and Max Valerio, explain why they chosen hormone therapy. Based in San Francisco, they perform their new identity both as artists and people. Receiving regular testosterone shots, Valerio had explored lesbian relationships before deciding that it is the traditional, heterosexual dynamic what he wants in a romantic and sexual relationship. And he wants to be the man. Charged with newly found energy, Valerio embraces his heightened sexual drive from testosterone. Valerio no longer cries and wants to be physically stronger than his female partners.

Female Misbehavior

Treut takes on the “decade of feminism” (mid-1980 to mid-1990s), including its anti porn stand. Female Misbehavior features Camille Paglia and Annie Sprinkle. Dr. Paglia’s inclusion in the film was controversial due to her blunt criticism of feminist scholarship. Paglia, with the flair of a stand-up comedian more than an academic, describes her critics as religiously oriented with a social agenda that lacks art, beauty and aesthetics. “I am bringing beauty back in to feminism,” she declares—“like Madonna.” More in love with regal and majestic Egyptian art than humble, turn-your-other-cheek Catholicism, she declares, “I am an Aries. War and conflict is my natural state, and this is how we come to find and define our identities.”

Warrior of Light

Not all of Treut’s characters are gender warriors. Often preferring real life stories to fiction, Treut travels to Brazil with Warrior of Light. In the midst of a ghetto in Rio, a woman runs Children of Light, a project committed to the protection and the education of poor and abandoned street children who are mostly of African descent and HIV positive. Artist turned activist, Yvonne Bezerra de Mello has a middle class background and was prompted to take action after a shocking police massacre of street children 1993. In a country where poverty is rampant, the wealthy see these children as nothing but thieving savages. De Mello, who was educated in the Sorbonne, has no illusions about ending poverty any time soon. Many of the children are descendants of African slaves with no records, papers, no sense of self and no love. She has three rules for her children: No drugs; no guns; no Bible.

A retrospective of Monika Treut’s work will be screened at IU Cinema from October 22nd through the 24th. She will host her students’ selection from The Kinsey Institute film archive on the 25th. So in the spirit of Hirschfield and Kinsey, and gender warriors and strong women everywhere, you are all invited to be a gendernaut temporary, permanent or otherwise, by Cyber Goddess Sandy Stone: “Join us, join the identity party, join the excitement, the challenge and the stark terrifying fear of playing in the boundaries between identities!”

The Ryder ◆ October 2011

1 6 7 8