THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Television

"Orphan Black"

The Most Cutting Edge Series of 2013 ◆ by Robert Singer

 

Television in 2013 has shown us that it’s evolving at a rapid pace both technologically and conceptually. Where Hollywood seems to be stuck in a creative rut with every other film release being an adaptation or a remake, television is proving to be the breeding ground for uniquely original visual storytelling. Fueling this creative renaissance in television is the understanding by today’s showrunners that the serial nature of television lends itself perfectly to delving deeper into the development of characters and experimentation with form in ways that few films these days can. The following list is the best that TV had to offer in 2013.

Arrested Development ● Netflix

"Arrested Development"

The return of a cult classic started off rocky but ended up worth it by season’s end. While this fourth season of Arrested Development was its weakest, it proved that it is still smarter and funnier than the majority of comedies on television today.

Doctor Who ● BBC

"Doctor Who"

The classic British sci-fi import celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a bang and shattered ratings for BBC America. This season had its ups and downs but the Anniversary Special and Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor made up for the season’s flaws. The popularity of Doctor Who keeps rising not just in Britain but also around the whole world.

Legend of Korra ● Nickelodeon

The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Air Bender came of age this season as we saw the series tackle questions of spirituality, political persecution, and the connections between good and evil. The animation has skyrocketed from its already top-notch quality to create some of the most striking visuals on TV this year, especially when paired with the show’s exquisite music. This is definitely not just a show for kids.

Fringe ● Fox

The best hard science fiction series on television ended its five-season run with a suspenseful, thrilling, and heartbreaking fight for our Fringe agents against a dystopic future. This show needed a shot of energy after its mediocre season four and it got one with this game-changing final season. It is outrageous that John Noble has never been properly recognized at the Emmys for his brilliant performance as Dr. Walter Bishop.

Mad Men ● AMC

"Mad Men"

Just when you think that Mad Men might be losing steam with its characters devolving back into old habits, Matthew Weiner and company throw a whole bucket of wrenches into the gears, forcing every character to have to deal with a myriad of status quo-altering changes. Don’s evolution (or degeneration depending on how you look at it) provided many entertaining shocks this season.

Downton Abbey ● BBC/PBS

Really Julian Fellowes? Really?! Killing not one but two major and beloved characters? Ugh! I’ll never forgive you. Ever. But seriously, can January hurry up and get here already? We need more intrigue and melodrama of the highest order. Fine Fellowes, you have me for one more season and then that’s it! I mean it! (Let’s be honest this show is too addictive.)

Orange Is the New Black ● Netflix

"OITNB"

Netflix has a gem in this show that feels like OZ meets Weeds, making for one of the best surprises of the year in TV. Orange Is the New Black began as a send up of white privilege but eventually evolved into an absurdist dark dramedy about the necessity and power of human connections, especially when we are at our most desperate.

Orphan Black ● BBC

 

[Photo of Tatiana Maslaney at top of this post.]

 

The sleeper hit of the year is this British-Canadian sci-fi drama about a young woman who discovers she is a clone when one of them commits suicide right before her eyes at train station. Tatiana Maslaney deserves every major television-acting award for her portrayal of six, yes six, different characters (the clones) that all have their own unique personalities, idiosyncrasies, and body language. If Orphan Black is any indication, Maslaney is an actress to watch in the years to come.

Game of Thrones ● HBO

Dragons. Giants. Undead. Murder. Betrayal. Torture. Honor. Weddings. Just a few words that could be used to describe the latest season of the HBO series based on the George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire books. The first two seasons saw change come to the Seven Kingdoms and the Free Cities across the Narrow Sea, but this season showed how change begins to truly affect the show’s ever expanding cast of characters. No one felt the change more than the victims at the Red Wedding, the most shocking and horrifying plot twist in the history of television.

Breaking Bad ● AMC

TV’s best drama the last five years finally ended in 2013 with one of the strongest, most satisfying final seasons ever broadcast. The conclusion to the saga of Walter White’s evolution from glum schoolteacher to cold-blooded drug lord was everything a fan could have hoped for: intense, shocking, bloody, funny, and, much like Walter, precise. We’ll never look at Stevia the same way again.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: Ten (Plus) Sound Bites

Cruz

◆ by Kevin Howley

 

On August 21, Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. In a press statement Manning said, “If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” Manning’s sober assessment of his life and times was one of the more moving sound bites of 2013: a year marked by dramatic revelations of NSA spying, a divisive and costly government shutdown, and all manner of gaffes, blunders, and apologies uttered by politicians, pontiffs, and other media personalities.

10. But the difference with Green Eggs and Ham is when Americans tried it, they discovered they did not like green eggs and ham and they did not like ObamaCare either. They did not like ObamaCare in a box, with a fox, in a house, or with a mouse.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz [pictured at the top of this post] channels Dr. Seuss during his “sort of” filibuster of the Affordable Healthcare Act, September 24.

9. Women go to the doctor much more often than men! Maybe they’re smarter or maybe they’re hypochondriacs. They live longer. Who knows?

FOX News “analyst” John Stossel offers his expert opinion on women’s healthcare, October 31.

8. Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to.

When asked what Bashar Hafez al-Assad could do to avoid US military strikes, Secretary of State John Kerry stumbles toward a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, September 9.

7. Words are important. I understand that, and will choose mine with great care going forward. Behavior like this undermines hard-fought rights that I vigorously support.

Baldwin

Serial offender Alec Baldwin makes amends with GLADD for homophobic remarks the actor hurled at a member of the paparazzi, November 15.

6. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

President Obama explains “American Exceptionalism” during a nationally televised speech on the prospects of US military intervention in Syria, September 10.

5. I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden explaining his decision to leak classified documents detailing the scale and scope of US surveillance programs, June 9.

4. If I knew, I would tell you.

House Speaker John Boehner, when asked when the government shutdown might end, during an appearance on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, October 6.

3. I would never do that. I’m happily married. I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.

Toronto “crack mayor” Rob Ford defending himself. Again. This time for allegations he propositioned a female staffer to perform oral sex, November 14.

2. If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?

Picture 3

Humility becomes Pope Francis in comments regarding the Catholic Church’s
position on homosexuality, July 29.

1. I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now.

Armstrong

Cyclist Lance Armstrong reveals a gift for understatement during his
“worldwide exclusive” interview with Oprah Winfrey, January 20.

Honorable Mention

Now people expect me to come out and twerk with my tongue out all the time. I’ll probably never do that shit again.

Miley Cyrus has second thoughts on her headline groping grabbing performance at the Video Music Awards, September 24.

In Memoriam

If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

The Dark Genius Of William S. Burroughs

Burroughs

◆ by Laura Ivins-Hulley

[The Burroughs Century, a five-day festival at Indiana University and in local venues, will take place February 5-9, celebrating what would have been Burroughs 100th birthday and featuring  events devoted to the author’s written and visual artworks, his life, and his legacy. There will be a film series, art and literature exhibits as well as a display of Burroughs’ shotgun paintings, speakers and panels, musical performances, and more.] Though slight of build, William S. Burroughs was no gentle soul. His life and writings are marked by a certain violence. Not the violence of those literary adventurers — though Burroughs certainly had adventures — who went to war and ran with bulls and reveled in masculinity, but a violence nonetheless. Fascinated with guns and possessing a morbid streak from an early age, Burroughs’ life had many close calls and a few formative tragedies, something reflected in the form and content of his novels.

A member of the Beat generation of writers, Burroughs’ impact on 20th century art and literature is far reaching. He helped inspire cyberpunk literature, and such musicians as Roger Waters and Kurt Cobain have cited him as a primary influence. In 1992, while in his late-70s, Burroughs collaborated with Kurt Cobain to create an album called The ‘Priest,’ They Called Him, a mixture of Burroughs spoken-word art and Cobain’s music. In 1989, he appeared an aging addict in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and in 1991, David Cronenberg adapted Burroughs most well-known novel, Naked Lunch, for the big screen.

Notwithstanding his longstanding influence as a counterculture figure, William Burroughs was born to rather innocuous circumstances, on February 9, 1914. His grandfather invented an adding machine for banking, and a century ago, one would associate the Burroughs name with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, which remained a key computing company well into the 20th century. His parents were well-to-do inhabitants of St. Louis, and the young Burroughs grew up with a maid and a nanny.

Burroughs

Burroughs never quite fit into the respectable life of the bourgeoisie, which many of his classmates and neighbors inevitably noticed. He looked, they thought, “like a sheep-killing dog” or “a walking corpse” and one of his schoolmates considered him “a character” of “the wrong kind.” Fooling around with a chemistry set at the age of 14, the young Burroughs nearly blew off his hand. He received morphine for the surgery and spent six weeks in the hospital, but luckily did not lose the limb. This would be his first close call, and the trauma coincided with his first experience with morphine, a drug that would come to dominate his life three decades later.

Around this same time, Burroughs discovered a memoir, You Can’t Win, by a cultural outsider with the pen name Jack Black. Black was a high school dropout, an addict, and a crook; he was just the sort of hero Burroughs didn’t know he was looking for. The book contained colorful characters like “Salt Chunk Mary,” who dealt in stolen goods, and detailed a world of criminality that was foreign to the adolescent Burroughs. You Can’t Win remained a touchstone for the author into adulthood, and after several years of living his own outsider lifestyle, Burroughs modeled his confessional first-published novel, Junkie, after Black’s memoir.

Despite this early inspiration and a few interesting pieces written in his youth, Burroughs did not become a “writer” until almost 40. And moreover, he was older than his Beat generation comrades, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. By the time the trio met, Burroughs had traveled through Europe, explored a never-realized career in psychoanalysis, and plunged himself into an ill-fated affair with a hustler named Jack Anderson, a relationship that ended with Burroughs cutting off the tip of his finger in a bitter, Van Gogh-ian gesture. When he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in 1944, he was 29, Kerouac nearly 22, and Ginsberg 17. Well-educated and with a self-possessed demeanor, Burroughs quickly became a mentor to these two young writers, though it had been several years since Burroughs had written anything himself.

Later that year, though, Burroughs did pick up the pen again, but the circumstance that led to him writing represents one of the formative tragedies in his life. In August 1944, two good friends of his got into a drunken argument by the Hudson River, and one (a man by the name of Lucien Carr) stabbed the other to death. Carr immediately sought out Burroughs, who told him, “Get a good lawyer,” and “make a case for self-defense.” Carr then went to see Kerouac, who helped him get rid of the dead man’s glasses and the murder weapon. After Carr turned himself in, the police arrested Burroughs and Kerouac, though both were promptly bailed out, Burroughs by his parents and Kerouac by his girlfriend. The murder shook up the three friends, and they each attempted to write about the event, with Burroughs and Kerouac collaborating on a novel they never managed to publish in their lifetimes.

Burroughs, Carr, & Ginsberg

Burroughs (l), Lucien Carr (c) & Allen Ginsberg

Still, though Burroughs was doing some writing, he was not yet “a writer.” He had to undergo more hard living and an almost overwhelming tragedy before he would earnestly begin his writing career.

Enter Joan Vollmer.

Like Burroughs, Vollmer hailed from a well-to-do family, but rejected following her parents into a bourgeois life. She was intelligent, attractive, and sexually free, and although Burroughs had long expressed a sexual preference for men, the pair developed a personal intimacy that led them to become common-law spouses. Their relationship continued between poles of intimacy and frustration. A friend once commented on their telepathic connection, and their devotion to each other — as they traveled from New York to Texas to Mexico, on some scheme or escaping failed schemes — was clear. Still, Burroughs maintained more sexual interest in men than in his wife, and both were addicts. Burroughs alternated between opiates and alcohol, while Vollmer preferred Benzedrine and later turned to tequila while in Mexico. Vollmer was often left frustrated, but the pair did manage to conceive a child, William S. Burroughs III.

While living in Mexico, Vollmer’s health deteriorated, and their relationship grew volatile. However, no one could guess how things would actually end. During a night of heavy drinking with some friends, Burroughs joked, “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell act.” Unbelievably to the others in the group, Vollmer put a glass on her head, laughing somewhat as she did it, and then Burroughs took aim at the glass and shot. The glass fell, unharmed. The shot through Vollmer’s head was fatal.

Through some shady legal wrangling, Vollmer’s death was ruled an accident, and Burroughs ultimately spent only 13 days in jail. The event, however, haunted him throughout his life, forcing him to write as a means to chase sanity. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,” he once claimed. “So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write my way out.” Burroughs son and Vollmer’s daughter from a previous relationship went to live with grandparents, and Burroughs began a series of adventures in South America, hunting for a drug called yage which had purported mystical properties.

Burroughs Burro

In 1953, a dime-back press published Burroughs novel, Junkie, the cover marketing it as a pulp confessional. The book proved a relative success — selling over 100,000 copies — but Burroughs was still in South America looking for yage and seemed not to care. Like his childhood inspiration, You Can’t Win, Junkie plunges into an underworld of drugs and criminality and was culled from many of Burroughs’ own life experiences. Written in a matter-of-fact style, the novel contains explicit descriptions of drug use and the culture of addiction, but moments of philosophical candor pervade the text. It is not simply a dime-back confessional, but a vivid meditation on the meanings of addiction.

Returning to New York from South America, Burroughs attempted to kindle a relationship with Ginsberg, but his friend rebuffed his advances. So, rejected and tormented, Burroughs path eventually led him to Tangier, Morocco, where he continued his junk habit and wrote the bulk of his most famous novel, Naked Lunch.

The years spent in northern Morocco proved a dark, lonely period in Burroughs’ life. He had difficulty in getting over his affection for Ginsberg, his addiction intensified, and his physical appearance assumed a ghostly character. He wrote compulsively, but could not manage to organize his many pages of script, and though his friend had rejected him, letters to Ginsberg served as a lifeline during this period.

In 1955, at the age of 41, Burroughs had hit an emotional wall. Alienated from his friends both geographically and emotionally, he lived a hollow cycle of need sated briefly by needles. Later, he would remark, “I suddenly realized I was not doing anything. I was dying.” At this point he made a decision. He was determined to quit junk.

Of course, Burroughs had made this decision before, quite unsuccessfully. Somehow, though, now it worked. With renewed vigor, Burroughs returned to his writing, experiencing a level of productivity that was completely new to him. Soon, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky, traveled to Tangier to visit Burroughs, marking an end to that tormented chapter of Burroughs’ life. Ginsberg and another mutual friend spent a few months helping Burroughs edit Naked Lunch, and the novel was published in 1959.

Violent, relentless, and lacking any coherent linearity, Naked Lunch was a revelation. As with Junkie, the author drew from his own life while writing, but it cannot be characterized as autobiographical. The story moves promiscuously through different times and settings, with mysterious agents and explicit sex and, of course, frank descriptions of drug use. The purposefully obscene content prompted multiple bannings of the book, as well as an obscenity trial in Boston. Considering Naked Lunch a great literary accomplishment, Norman Mailer testified in Boston on the novel’s behalf. At one point he told the court, “There is a sense in Naked Lunch of the destruction of soul, which is more intense than any I have encountered in any other modern novel.” Mailer’s observation assumes an additional air of truth when we think about Burroughs tormented existence through much of Naked Lunch’s writing.

In Naked Lunch, we can see Burroughs marrying violence of content to violence of form, but it was not until he discovered the “cut-up” method that this impulse was fully realized. A form of verbal collage, the cut-up method involves literally slicing up pages of text with a pair of scissors, and rearranging those pieces to create unexpected juxtapositions. Not everyone in the literary community appreciated such a method (Samuel Beckett once referred to it as “plumbing”), but through it Burroughs produced a fascinating set of novels called The Nova Trilogy.

The three editions of The Nova Trilogy — The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express — contain pieces drawn from multiple sources. Readers familiar with Naked Lunch will recognize its presence in the trilogy, and it also contains scraps from Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The novels possess a similarly explicit content as Burroughs’ previous works, but the cut-up method leads to text that is more fragmented and yet more rhythmic than Naked Lunch. Phrases recur like a refrain in poetry, but it is not always clear how they relate to the scenes surrounding them. Partially inspired by surrealist methods for creating art, the novels lead readers to explore their own associations, making it impossible to pin down definitive meanings for the disjointed imagery.

Burroughs

Though Burroughs’ career as a writer began later than his peers, his influence is wide-reaching. Ultimately, despite being several years older than both Kerouac and Ginsberg, he outlived them both, dying at the age of 83 four months after Ginsberg. Now, in the 21st century, Burroughs continues to be a touchstone for a new generation of writers and artists who seek to push the limits of language and adventurous living.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

Wiiliam S. Burroughs At The Bluebird

Dancing Cigarettes

◆ by C.K.

 

[On March 19, 1981 William S. Burroughs gave a reading at the Bluebird, accompanied musically by Bloomington’s legendary Dancing Cigarettes. The following is an excerpt from C.K.’s journal.]

 

Thursday saw my last day of class, and the long-awaited William Burroughs/John Giorno gig at the Bluebird. I could scarcely wait. Michael C. declined to go at the last moment, so I went with Melanie and my brother Jim, who was recording the show for posterity by agreement with the Cigs.

John Giorno of “Dial-A-Poet” came on first and read (or shouted) four or five poems which were very aggressive and anti-woman, yet amusing. (“Making love to you is like making love to someone on the subway!”) After a long and dramatic pause, Burroughs came forward led by a young preppie-looking asshole said by the Cigs to be his secretary. Burroughs was shorter than I had expected, and skeletal, and frail, yet he read his selections with a vengeance which everyone loved. He sneered and snarled and hung over each word like a hooded viper in a way wonderful to behold. I was sitting with Melanie and Bill Weaver and the Cigs and a few other artsy friends right before the stage by the steps, and had a view of him which could not be equaled anywhere else in the house.

Burroughs finished all too soon, and accepted the crowd’s roars of applause, deigned to give a short encore of a piece about the origin of the universe (our universe is a drop of grease which a giant billions of years ago shook from his fingers, the grease not having quite hit the floor yet) and departed amidst tumultuous acclaim. There came an intermission while Burroughs sat down and signed autographs on copies of Armies of the Red Night and the Cigarettes set up their equipment. I talked to Jim, who had been recording in the same corner with Burroughs and Giorno all night. He was not much impressed with either of the two poets’ readings as such, but was impressed with their repute. He said with evident pride that he had shared a joint with Burroughs, and Giorno had had a pleasant conversation with him and tried to pick him up. I was amused to see that Jimmy was having such fun.

The Cigs began and I danced. I lasted through two sets, yet I had little encouragement from any of the Cig devotees except Bill Weaver. Melanie split early, Laurie didn’t have the money to attend tonight, and Margot went home feeling ill after Burroughs ended. It was discouraging. My screams and shouts lacked enthusiasm or wit. I danced almost all the songs but did not cross over the border. Bill praised my efforts and made it all worthwhile.

[Feature image: The Dancing Cigarettes.]

 

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

FILM: 12 Years a Slave (2013) For Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927)

From "12 Years a Slave"

◆ by Brandon Walsh

 

12 Years a Slave has received near-universal acclaim and in the coming weeks is a good bet to win several Best Picture™ awards. The story of Solomon Northrop, a freeman kidnapped and sold into slavery, is not only the best visual representation of the horror of American slavery, but helps Hollywood look past its own sordid history of racial representation. One ledger in this history is Harry Pollard’s 1927 film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of Hollywood’s most famous, and troublesome, depictions of slavery.

Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and 12 Years a Slave are close Hollywood adaptations from period works, told with A-list actors, addressing slavery with epic stories of African-Americans enslaved on plantations with abusive owners. But this is where the similarities end. Although they may be cut from the same cloth of history, the two films apply very different stains.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was given a big Hollywood treatment ($1.8 million, one of the highest budgets for a film at the time). Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, overshadowing Solomon Northrop’s 1853 autobiography, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time. Between 1903 and 1927, at least 10 silent film adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were produced, culminating in the famous 1927 adaptation.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens to a scene of a vibrant Georgian plantation scored by “Swanee River,” immediately eliciting nostalgic imagery of the lavish American South. Slave children dance around the hero of the film, Eliza, a mixed-race maid entered into slavery. The film was progressive for its time in casting James B. Lowe, a black man, as Uncle Tom, however all other slave characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface. Eliza’s portrayal by a white actress assumes that 1920s moviegoers could only empathize with slavery when white characters were in bondage. Uncle Tom himself is given less than 10 minutes of screen time, the film paying more attention to large action scenes, laden with stigmatic black characters. While the story itself largely faithful to Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery story, Hollywood’s habit of exploitation is equally present.

From "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

Little Eva and Topsey in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

12 Years a Slave is an unflinching view of slavery, devoting its screen time to accurately depicting the labor, politics, and violence of slavery, documenting the machinery of society and using Northrop as its spectator. British director Steve McQueen, fresh off his provocative films Hunger and Shame, which deal respectively with political and psychological imprisonment. McQueen continues his sustained, metonymic visual style, which translates well to Northrop’s story. Though making more use of dialogue than his other films, uninterrupted images carry the film’s emotional weight. In one torturous shot, Northrup is left to tiptoe for his life in the mud as he is left halfway-hung on a lynching tree. This shot is a far cry from the “gentle rule typical of the south” mentioned in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and illustrates why 12 Years A Slave is the better film — it stings.

Where Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a harrowing adventure film designed to entertain, it is almost impossible to relax during 12 Years a Slave, a subversion of Hollywood entertainment. The whipping of Uncle Tom and other travesties are merely hinted at in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Northrop’s story is unsentimental. Skin is flayed, children are torn from their mothers, drunkards are patriarchs, and survival is granted by blind chance. Pollard uses slavery as a backdrop for popular Hollywood conventions: love defying the odds, the thrill of the chase, a child’s innocence. Throughout Hollywood’s history, films have too often used social issues as a frame for Hollywood narrative without historical consciousness, making 12 Years a Slave all the more important today.

Hollywood congratulates itself when given the opportunity in the best picture category, to the point that the subject matter can be a stronger consideration of a film’s worth than aesthetic/cultural value of the film. (Look no further than Crash, or even last year’s best picture winner Argo, where the hero who saved the day was Hollywood.) Awards are a way of writing history, and what else is history but a rewriting of history? If McQueen’s film is selected as best picture, it won’t be in the most comfortable company, but its inclusion, as well as the attention to Northrop’s story, is nonetheless overdue. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin showed audiences that social issues can be brought into popular entertainment, 12 Years a Slave shows a modern audience that history can be rewritten the right way, packaged in a piece of unsettling entertainment. It’s a film that wants to remind us, in every image, “Never forget this crime against humanity.”

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing films at Indiana University. Caption for Featured Image: The opening shot to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight).]

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

DANCE: Hot Times On A Hard Floor

Percussion Dance

by ◆ Paul Sturm

 

As a kid, I had square dance class every other Friday in my grade school gym  It was part of our requisite phys ed regimen. Not ballroom or ballet, modern or tap, mind you; not Lindy Hop swing dances for jitterbugs (which I only saw in movies); not sassy “jazz” dance moves, which hadn’t yet migrated from Broadway to rural vernacular. We were years away from rock bands’ dominion over school dances. Our media piped the likes of Mitch Miller and Lawrence Welk, and the American folk music revival was in full voice — and no one really danced to Burl Ives, The Kingston Trio, or Joan Baez.

So square dancing, and occasional contra dancing, was what we had to know to be socially adept in our ‘50s/‘60s farm-&-coal belt heartland. At church socials and barn dances, in schools and public gatherings, if people danced to music – and people love dancing to music – square dancing was it.  (It’s still the official state dance in 21 states and the official state folk dance in 3 more.) In some communities, they peppered their square and contra dancing with the hard-soled rhythmic stomp of flatfooting and clogging. More visceral than tap, clogging gave every reluctant pre-teen Terpsichorean a much-welcomed invitation to make noise with their feet. Add fruit punch and white cake, and what’s not to love?

What I didn’t then know was that square dancing, contra dancing, clogging — all of these “American” dance forms derive from European dance styles that extend back centuries.  And what I couldn’t then predict was that I’d end up living in a bodacious hub for traditional American dance: our humble burg of Bloomington.

In 1972, IU folklore student, Dillon Bustin, and a cohort of likeminded B-town twenty-somethings began a weekly gathering to revive traditional American old-time music and dance, becoming known as the Bloomington Old-Time Music and Dance Group — an informal army of old-timey enthusiasts who gather weekly to this day.

[For those who want to learn more about this grand Bloomington tradition, John Bealle has written an affectionate history entitled Old Time Music and Dance: Community and Folk Revival, published by IU Press.]

One of the more significant outgrowths of BOTMDG was the formation of Shuffle Creek Dancers, a cadre of five dancers whose skill and dedication to traditional dance moved into a professional caliber and aspiration. Shuffle Creek Dancers became Rhythm In Shoes, which continues as a professional trad-dance ensemble, now located in Dayton, Ohio. Even though the dance company, and many of its members, came and went, a few local souls have kept percussive dance alive in Bloomington — most significantly, Tamara Loewenthal.

Loewenthal was one of the founding members of Shuffle Creek Dancers, back in 1980. Today, she is half of the performing duo Fiddle ‘n’ Feet, with her partner, Jamie Gans, on fiddle. She is an Indiana Arts For Learning Artist as well as an Arts Learning Artist for Ohio and Kentucky). She teaches percussive dance classes, and she is a multi-year Indiana Arts Commission (IAC) Individual Artist Grant recipient. In addition to performing and teaching traditional dance, Loewenthal calls square and contra dances for the Bloomington Old-Time Music and Dance Group and for Bloomington Contra Dance. (She called a great afternoon of square dance at Lotus in the Park during Lotus Festival 2012.)

The weekend of January 23-25 will be chock-full of BOTMDG, On Thursday, the 23rd, Loewenthal is presenting her Seventh Annual Percussive Dance Extravaganza at the Ivy Tech Waldron Center.  This year, with the support of IAC funding, she’s also offering a series of master class workshops on clogging and old time music on Friday and Saturday. (See the lineup of events below). She’ll call a public square dance on Saturday night in the Harmony School gym.

I asked Loewenthal how rehearsals are going for her upcoming Dance Extravaganza. “The process has been going really well. With the IAC grant, we started the rehearsal process earlier, and the body of work has grown;  the concert this year allows the presentation of my accumulated body of work which includes several new pieces. I choreographed everything that we’ll perform.  Even when I began dancing, I was choreographing. I love figuring out the dancers’ directions, how to ‘get there.’ What’s the pathway? How are we going to move in the space? I like seeing shapes, like those old Busby Berkeley movies where the camera pans over the dance scene and you see these great, kaleidoscopic shapes and patterns, and you wonder where everything will go next. I’m inspired by that effect in creating my dances.”

Many know Loewenthal as a solitary dancer/clogger. She and Gans often perform at the Farmer’s Market and elsewhere, and she has danced on stage with several Lotus World Music and Arts Festival performers over the years. But it’s in the ensemble dances she features in her annual concert that Loewenthal’s choreographic talents shine. Whether for duo, trio, quartet, or larger forces, she keeps her dancers moving, and she moves them across the floor with inventive interplay and geometric design.

Loewenthal also maintains variety in her annual Dance Extravaganza concerts by presenting much more than clogging. Each year, the concert incorporates a range of traditional dance styles, and this year’s extravaganza is no exception.

“The largest portion of what we’ll be doing is in the clogging and flatfooting tradition. It’s very conducive to the old time style of music I feature in our concert. We add a little bit of hand clapping, some body percussion, and a little bit of tap on some dances. Clogging is very much about the downbeat and keeping everything steady, while tapping has a lot of syncopation and is often about pushing the beat.

“We’re also doing some French Canadian stepdance, which is different than English clogging. It’s a very ‘up’ style because the French doublé rhythm is more upbeat. You shuffle more with double-toe movements rather than the heel-toe of clogging. So you dance more on your toes, with a lot of precision, and your arms are more at your side.

“But clogging is my favorite style of dance because I feel so clearly how it connects to the music. In terms of dance, for me, I loved the music first, and then I social danced to it through square dance, and when I realized you could make rhythms to this music, that’s when I got excited about dance.  I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Traditional American dance forms aren’t readily taught anymore, so it requires a special commitment to master the many dance styles in Loewenthal’s repertoire. “In 1981, I began going to dance camps around the country where people could go and learn more about traditional dance styles.  I went to several of those dance camps, and that’s where I learned about and studied all these different dance styles.”

Loewenthal has studied with many great step dancers including Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, Brenda Bufalino, Benoit Bourque, Pierre Chartrand, Mandy Sayer, and John Timm. She’s won awards for her clogging, including a blue ribbon at the Mount Airy (NC) Fiddler’s Convention, and in 1999 she received a prestigious Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Fellowship to study with masters in the French Canadian stepdance field.

In many ways, and to many people, Loewenthal is the irrepressible engine for Bloomington’s clogging revival of the last decade. Between classes, concerts, Farmer’s Market performances, school programs and more, she keeps this tradition alive in our town and in the Midwest. I asked her how she stepped into that role.

“By around 2000, Rhythm In Shoes had already moved to Dayton, and several of the dancers had left Bloomington to pursue other career opportunities, and there just wasn’t any percussive dance presence in town anymore. So I began teaching classes in 1998, 1999; and as my students wanted an outlet for more of this kind of dance, I wrote an Indiana Arts Commission grant in 2007 for a concert. It got provisionally funded, so the first Percussive Dance Extravaganza concert was in January, 2008.

“I think there are two reasons why it’s difficult to sustain a performing dance troupe. Learning to dance a rhythm in an accurate way is difficult, and keeping the stamina and fitness to continue practicing this kind of dance performance is difficult. So when I was interested in starting up a group again, I started with lessons because that was an easier way to attract and engage people. As dancers realized that one class a week was enough to only learn one dance over several months, we were able to add more classes and more rehearsals. Everyone lets me know how much they want to do, and I build my percussive dance concerts around how the dancers want to participate. It’s such a joyful, shared art form that people love doing it, and viewing it.”

This growing posse of traditional dance practitioners has allowed Loewenthal to plan more performances, with more frequency. She’s coined these dancers her “Foot Squad” and she and Gans did a couple Fiddle ‘n’ Feet concerts last year where the duo was expanded with Foot Squad dancers.

Led by Loewenthal, the “Foot Squad” company for the Percussive Dance Extravaganza will feature dancers Annie Bartlett Stowers, Suzannah Edgar, Mary Beth Roska, Cliff Emery, Allana Radecki, and Katie Zukof, as well as students from Loewenthal’s percussive dance classes.

Given her love for old time music, Loewenthal gives each Extravaganza concert an added blast of artistic excellence by recruiting all-star old-timey musicians from Indiana and beyond. This year’s Extravaganza Old Time Band includes Jamie Gans and Brad Leftwich on fiddles, Sam Bartlett on banjo and mandolin, Robert Widlowski on bass, and special guest John Schwab on guitar. Additional musicians will include Eric Schedler on piano and accordion, Zach Moon on Irish flute and whistle, and Marielle Abell on vocals. Hudsucker Posse members Paula Chambers and Clara Kallner also will perform.

Following the Thursday concert, and as a big-hearted invitation for Bloomingtonians to “embrace all things old-time,” Loewenthal has organized the first ever Extravaganza Weekend with a series of classes and events all held at Harmony School, 909 E. 2nd Street.  All events have paid admission; contact Loewenthal for pricing and registration info online or at 812-219-1890.

Friday, January 24, features an old-time guitar workshop with John Schwab (7-9pm).

Saturday, January 25, events include:

  • Clogging master class with Tamara Loewenthal (2-4pm)
  • Old-time guitar workshop with John Schwab (2-4pm)
  • Irish fiddle workshop with Jamie Gans (2-3pm)
  • Old-time fiddle workshop with Brad Leftwich (3-4pm)
  • Old-time banjo workshop with Sam Bartlett (3-4pm)
  • Square Dance in the Harmony School gym, 8pm.  (The Extravaganza Old Time Band pulls out all the stops for a square dance called by Extravaganza Weekend artistic director, Tamara Loewenthal.  No experience — and no partner — necessary!  Just bring your most comfortable dancing shoes.)

For newbies and the uninitiated, the Seventh Annual Percussive Dance Extravaganza will offer a memorable evening of exceptional old time music and traditional rhythmic footwork – including English clogging, flatfooting, tap, French Canadian stepdance, and a longsword dance – conceived and choreographed by Tamara Loewenthal, and performed by Loewenthal and her Foot Squad dancers.

According to Loewenthal, “I think anyone who comes to the concert will experience an incredible amount of joy and beauty, not only in the complexity of the dance but also in the wonderful, dynamic interplay of dancers and live musicians.  The exactness of everything commands attention.  It’s very exciting and filled with joy.  The Extravaganza is an expression of the vital old-time dance and music scene in Bloomington, and a celebration of the joy of making beautiful and powerful rhythms with our feet.”

Tamara Loewenthal’s Seventh Annual Percussive Dance Extravaganza is Thursday, January 23 at 7:30pm in the Ivy Tech Waldron Center auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St.  Admission is $15 in advance, $18 day of show; tickets are available at Bloomingfoods or from Loewenthal online or 812-219-1890.  The concert always sells out, so I recommend getting tickets in advance.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

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

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