We Are The World

Why We Need Lotus Fest More Than Ever This Year ◆ by Paul Sturm

Bloomington’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival turns 20 this year. Over the course of two decades, Lotus Festival has become one of the most important arts events in Bloomington and the Midwest, now annually attracting 11,000-plus attendees and utilizing more than 500 volunteers. Through the years, Lotus Festival has broadened its scope, adding free concerts, visual art components, and interactive all-ages activities that have become requisite elements in the Lotus gestalt.

This anniversary year — Lotus at 20 — features an amazing roster of remarkable talent: 32 musical performers and ensembles from across the globe. Lotus at 20 also has been expanded to five days (September 25-29) with two additional concert events: an African Showcase and an IU+Lotus Campus Concert.

Twenty years of celebrating the diversity, beauty, and joy of music from cultures around the world: That’s impressive. Twenty years of continuous successful operation is a great accomplishment in any arts discipline, even more so in the esoteric field of world music.

Most remarkably, everything is consistently superb in Lotus land.  Each year’s artist bookings by Lee Williams carefully balance musical styles and cultures and even instrumentation. Each festival schedule strategically mixes extraordinary artistry in performance and opportunities for communal creativity. Each facet of the Lotus Festival microcosm is perfectly attuned to the aesthetic context in play.

I don’t know how they do it and so I admire the Lotus staff and the festival all the more for reliably producing a thoroughly conceived and intricately interwoven creative happening. I love Lotus for its people, its street theater, its gentrified boheem vibe. Most of all, I love Lotus for its truly and wholly global cultural diversity.

I’ve been an avid listener and collector of world music since high school. The exploration of new sounds — harmonies, rhythms, instruments, voices, languages, melodic lines — has been as natural and essential to me as breathing. I’m delighted, intoxicated, rejuvenated when discovering musical sounds so unexpected that my brain seems to spin. I want a world as culturally vibrant and hugely variant as our global artists provide. I find solace in the wonders of an undefinable, unattainable musical horizon. But that’s me.

Not everyone enjoys, or desires, or even tolerates music and arts that are exotic, unfamiliar. Most people don’t, to be candid. And that’s OK; that’s the way we are. If in the past I once was hellbent on changing American aesthetic tastes, that phase has long passed. I’m comfortable with our postmodern You do you and I’ll do me compact.

And Then We Had Our Summer Of Hate

Across our country, the George Zimmerman saga let loose an eruption of hate-speak and reprehensible commentary from individuals as varied in demographic segment as our big bad-ass nation could muster. The topic clogged and consumed traditional media, Internet media, social media, and conversations face-to-face and virtual. The trial and verdict invited a nationwide exhale of angry opinions and ill-informed remarks more accusatory than productive, intentionally hurtful and argumentative.

Coinciding with — perhaps emanating from — the Zimmerman vitriol was a startling tsunami of angry tweets from viewers of the 84th MLB All-Star Game, maligning Marc Anthony’s performance of God Bless America. Most were critical of having a “foreigner” singing this patriotic song: “Marc Anthony singing God Bless America on the MLB Allstar Game…am I the only person that finds that un-American” (all sic) tweeted an MLB fan; “Why is a Mexican singing ‘God Bless America’??” and “Shouldn’t an AMERICAN be singing God Bless America?” wrote others. Anthony is a New Yorker, born and raised — of Puerto Rican descent, not Mexican — and none of that even matters.

A similar flood of hate-tweets were made last June when a San Antonio-born 11-year-old Latino mariachi singer, Sebastien De La Cruz, sang the national anthem during the NBA finals.  “Mexican kid singing the National Anthem now that’s pretty fucked up! #AmericaFirst” tweeted a viewer.

These overt displays of xenophobia extended further than the divisive race-focused commentary we witnessed around the Zimmerman ordeal; these insults were also framed in angry, self-righteous nationalism (and were erroneously nationalistic at that).

I was surprised and appalled by the rampant jingoism as much as — perhaps even more than — the disgraceful racism. I shouldn’t be. I know that, as a national people, we’re not yet “past it” in issues of racial, cultural, sexual, political diversity.

So I found myself reflecting with increasing frequency on Lotus Festival, and everything about the festival that makes it so easy for us to access diverse musical traditions from around the globe. Lotus doesn’t simply represent or exemplify multiculturalism — like an important illustration of some attribute to which we might aspire. Lotus embodies and integrates internationalism at its very core. When we participate in all that Lotus offers, we immerse ourselves in a healing multicultural balm; we step through a wonderful and fleeting gateway to deepened appreciation of our huge world, and our country’s patchwork quilt culture.

I like to think that by understanding different cultures, nations, peoples we strive to be our best selves, our most empathetic selves, our most human selves, and I believe that fostering a welcoming multicultural community is when we are most American, not least. We need Lotus Festival, as we need each other.

If you’ve not yet given yourself the treat of experiencing international music in its vast array of sounds and styles, you need only attend one of the many free Lotus events. For those who revel in all the global goodness that is Lotus Festival, you’ll find Lotus at 20 a delight beyond measure.

The Ryder ◆ September 2013

Art Interrupted

Modern American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy: Art and politics converge at the IU Art Museum ◆ by Jenny McComas

In December 1949, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs George V. Allen, notified readers of The Department of State Bulletin about a new and increasingly sophisticated weapon in the diplomatic arsenal—propaganda. “Propaganda as a conscious weapon of diplomacy has increased tremendously during recent years,” Allen explained, noting that radio programs such as the Voice of America directly targeted foreign populations, whereas traditionally diplomacy engaged only with government officials. With its more direct approach, and its use of mass media and cultural forums, propaganda was better able to persuade people to support democracy over communism. Although Allen made no mention of the use of the fine arts within cultural propaganda, the State Department itself had organized one of the most highly publicized—and ultimately controversial—propaganda exhibitions just a few years earlier.

With the emergence of the Cold War, art became a powerful tool for cultural diplomacy. Beginning in the mid-1940s, the State Department, and later the CIA, utilized art exhibitions to spread information about democracy, freedom, and American culture to countries deemed susceptible to Communism. The ambitious traveling exhibition Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, on view at the IU Art Museum from September 14 through December 15, is a reconstruction of Advancing American Art, one of the earliest exhibitions to be conceived as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. Organized by the State Department in 1946, Advancing American Art was divided into two sections, one intended to travel to cities in Eastern Europe and the other to Latin America. To accomplish this goal, the State Department appointed J. Leroy Davidson, a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to purchase paintings by leading and emerging American artists for the exhibition. With just under $50,000 at his disposal, Davidson purchased 79 oil paintings by artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Marin; styles ranged from social realism to geometric abstraction. A further selection of watercolors was assembled with the intent of sending them to China, although this plan never materialized. Although Davidson selected a relatively wide range of artistic styles and subjects, art critics at the time felt that the exhibition was biased towards more “advanced” styles—“extreme expressionism, fantasy, surrealism, and abstraction” according to the New York Times’ critic Edward Alden Jewell. However, for Davidson and the State Department, the emphasis on “advanced” styles was justified, for the exhibition was intended to persuade international audiences not only that the United States had a sophisticated artistic culture, but that American artists working in modernist styles enjoyed great freedom—in marked contrast to artists in the Soviet Union.


The State Department Purchased Works By Georgie O’Keeffe

In October 1946, Advancing American Art received an inaugural showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The 49 paintings destined for Eastern Europe were then sent to Paris, where they were seen in an exhibition celebrating the creation of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), before finally arriving in Prague in early 1947. The Latin American section of the exhibition, comprised of thirty oil paintings, traveled to Havana, Cuba in late 1946 and was then sent on to galleries in Santiago de Cuba and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The ambitious plans for Advancing American Art called for several additional European and Latin American venues, including Budapest, Hungary, and Caracas, Venezuela. William Benton, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, believed that Advancing American Art “is an exhibition in which I believe the United States may well take pride.” However, the State Department learned that modern art had powerful enemies within the U.S. government, including even President Truman, who characterized the works in Advancing American Art as “merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people.” The opponents of Advancing American Art had many different reasons to protest the exhibition. Some disagreed with the use of taxpayer dollars to fund cultural programs, while others disliked the modern styles featured in the exhibition. Others had more ideological disputes with the show, for example taking offense at the inclusion of paintings that did not show America in a completely favorable light. Most astonishingly of all, however, were accusations that some works in the exhibition would disseminate communism. Considering that the exhibition was organized to help combat the spread of communism, this accusation seems nothing less than bizarre. However, certain artists included in the show, including Ben Shahn and William Gropper, had in fact been involved in leftist politics during the 1930s. This seems to have provided enough reason for some politicians to condemn modern art as inherently subversive.

The controversy over Advancing American Art eventually led to the cancellation of the exhibition’s tour in May 1947. The works were returned to the United States and auctioned off by the War Assets Administration, with the majority of the paintings finding homes in university collections. The outcry against Advancing American Art merely foreshadowed the vehemence with which modern art would be denounced by some conservative politicians and artists as the Cold War intensified. During the McCarthy era, Abstract Expressionism ensured American art its first serious recognition abroad, yet anti-modernist rhetoric reached a fever pitch in the United States. For example, the Michigan Congressman George Dondero denounced modern art repeatedly in the late 1940s and early 1950s as “communist” and morally depraved. Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, responded with a program of lectures and articles defending modern art. In 1952 he published an article titled “Is Modern Art Communistic?” in the New York Times, in which he reminded readers that abstract and other non-naturalistic forms of modern art were in fact proscribed in the Soviet Union, as they had been in Nazi Germany. Instead of allowing artists the opportunity to paint as they liked, the Soviet authorities required them to conform to the idiom of Socialist Realism—a style of realist painting which idealized life in the Soviet Union.  Barr, like Leroy Davison before him, argued that the diverse styles of art practiced in the United States represented the artistic freedom and cultural tolerance fostered by democracy. Despite the continued attacks on modern art during the 1950s by rightist politicians, organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art and the United States Information Agency (USIA) continued to organize exhibitions featuring modern art for circulation abroad.

The present touring exhibition, Art Interrupted, brings together most of the works from Advancing American Art, providing today’s audiences with the opportunity to consider how the arts have been impacted by politics, censorship, and issues of national identity in the 20th century. Indeed, the presentation of this exhibition in Bloomington illuminates Indiana University’s own connections to the cultural Cold War. The university was drawn into the world of foreign affairs when university president Herman B Wells became cultural affairs advisor to the American military government in occupied Germany in 1947. Likewise, Henry Radford Hope, who founded the IU Art Museum and chaired IU’s fine arts department from 1941 to 1971, was deeply engaged in American cultural initiatives abroad from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. His activities demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting artistic expression from government censorship or political interference, and revealed his belief that artistic freedom was an integral element of a democratic society. Hope’s concerns about artistic freedom were likely based on his experience in 1930s Europe, where he had gained insight into the aims and ideologies of Nazi Germany. For example, while living in Paris as a student at the Sorbonne, he would have seen the Third Reich’s imposing pavilion, designed by architect Albert Speer, at the 1937 World’s Fair. After returning to the United States in 1938, Hope found that the relationship of the American government to arts funding and sponsorship was complex and ambivalent—as indeed it still is. He was obviously disappointed by the censorship imposed on Advancing American Art, signing a petition to President Truman in 1947 in protest of the exhibition’s recall. In 1949 he participated in a symposium on “Government and Art,” organized under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts. The symposium was conceived partly as a response to the virulent anti-modernism expressed by members of Congress in reaction to Advancing American Art, and in recognition of the “country’s growing international role, and our increasing realization that both guns and butter as exports (or gifts) are insufficient international vehicles” of American foreign diplomacy. In the 1950s, Hope deepened his commitment to art as a vehicle for international understanding and cultural diplomacy. From 1951 to 1963, he served as the United States’ delegate on art activities and advisor on cultural affairs to UNESCO, a position that aligned well with Indiana University’s ever broadening activity in the field of international education during the same decade.

Hope’s most direct involvement with cultural diplomacy, however, was in 1959, when he served on the selection committee for the American National Exhibition, which was organized by the USIA for display in Moscow. As an example of cultural exchange, the exhibition was a first in U.S.-Soviet relations, as it exposed Soviet audiences for the first time to a range of western artistic styles, including Abstract Expressionism. Yet, in an apparent repeat of the controversy sparked by Advancing American Art, some members of Congress protested that the abstract art included in the exhibition was itself Communist propaganda. The House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) even scheduled hearings, issuing subpoenas to three of the participating artists—Jack Levine, Ben Shahn, and Philip Evergood—all of whom had previously been featured in Advancing American Art. In 1959, unlike in 1947, however, the exhibition’s organizers refused to be intimidated or to cancel the exhibition. In an open letter to President Eisenhower, Hope and the other jurors wrote that:

Contrary to misleading statements by certain artists and members of Congress, the exhibition is not communistic, negative or un-American. Nor does it consist of pretty idealized pictures of our country, such as artists of totalitarian nations are obliged to paint. It demonstrates the freedom of artistic expression and the variety of individual viewpoints that mark a democratic society. It is unquestionably the broadest and most balanced representation of recent American art ever sent abroad by our Government…. The current attacks on the exhibition are based almost entirely on the alleged personal opinions and backgrounds on some of the artists, in most cases dating back many years. We believe that such considerations are irrelevant. The Government is not exhibiting the artists, but their works…. We believed…that the freedom of artistic expression shown in this exhibition is a living demonstration of the freedom of democracy, and that exclusion of any works would give communist propaganda the weapon it needs.

Although Eisenhower requested that twenty-seven paintings dating from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries be added to the American National Exhibition, he refused to censor any of the modern works selected by the exhibition’s jury. Twelve years after Advancing American Art, the American National Exhibition was allowed to remain on view, where it apparently fulfilled the goals of its organizers. Soviet visitors to the exhibition expressed surprise that America had no “official” art and made the desired connection between artistic and political freedom.

Although the use of art within government-sponsored diplomatic initiatives is not as prominent today as it was during the Cold War, government involvement with art and culture continues to be a controversial subject. Exhibitions such as Advancing American Art and the American National Exhibition—and the accusations leveled against them—reveal that art and politics have long been intertwined.

Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy was organized by the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at University of Oklahoma with funding provided by the Henry C. Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.The presentation of the exhibition in Bloomington was made possible by the Class of 1949 Endowment for the Curator of Western Art after 1800 and the Indiana University Art Museum’s Arc Fund. Additional support was provided by a challenge grant generously issued by David Jacobs and matched by the IU Art Museum National Advisory Board.

Art and Cultural Diplomacy in the Cold War: A Symposium

The Symposium will run in conjunction with the opening of the IU Art Museum exhibition, Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy. The symposium will examine the role of the visual arts in the Cold War. Friday, September 13, 2013, Hope School of Fine Arts, Room 015, 2:00-5:00 p.m. Information.

Symposium Presentations:

◗ Scrambled Eggs: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of Advancing American Art

Dennis Harper, Curator of Collections, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University

◗ Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke and American Films on Art in the Post-WWII Era

Natasha Ritsma, Curator of Academic Programs, Gund Gallery, Kenyon College

◗ Art and Politics in Occupied Germany (1945-1949)

Cora Goldstein, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California at Long Beach

◗ ‘A Little Too Strange for the Average Russian:’ Abstract Art and Cold War Diplomacy at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959

Michael Krenn, Professor of History, Appalachian State University

The exhibition opening reception will immediately follow the symposium, 5‒7 pm in the Thomas T. Solley Atrium of the IU Art Museum.

Both the symposium and the opening reception are free and open to the public. No pre-registration for the symposium is required.

In November, the Ryder and the IU Art Museum will co-sponsor the film Hidden Hands: Art and the CIA.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

Jenny McComas is the Class of 1949 Curator of Western Art at the IU Art Museum.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

Expanded Cinema

The Film Art of Sandra Gibson, Luis Recoder and Olivia Block at the IU Cinema ◆ by Joan Hawkins

Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (2000; University of Minnesota Press) and numerous articles on horror, experimental and independent cinema. She is currently working on a book about the New York Downtown Movement.

In this increasingly digital age, film as a medium seems doomed. But despite the difficulty of obtaining, processing and projecting film stock, a number of artists and filmmakers stubbornly cling to the film medium (celluloid) as an inexhaustible source of beauty and wonder. With their groundbreaking work in the realm of “expanded cinema,” Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder have emerged as two of the most inspired and inventive of these cinema artists. Since their first collaboration in 2000, they have produced numerous installations and performances that make full use of the optical and mechanical qualities of film projection. Employing 16mm and 35mm film projectors, celluloid strips, prisms, deviation lenses, manual interventions and gesture, they create elusive and hypnotic light sculptures, which transform the projection room into a sensual three dimensional space.

Historically, “expanded cinema” meant that celluloid film was just one means among many of producing “cinema.” The term was first used in the 1960s, notably by experimental filmmakers Carolee Schneemann and Stan Vanderbeek to refer to multimedia performance. By the 1970s “expanded cinema” had come to stand for a kind of media melting pot. As Gene Youngblood theorized it in his 1970 book Expanded Cinema, it had three goals. The first was to blend all art forms, including film, into multimedia and live action events. The second was to explore electronic technologies and the coming of cyberspace, as it had been described by Marshall McLuhan. The third was to break down the barriers between artist (or art works) and audience through new forms of participation.

But as new media began increasingly to displace or replace traditional forms (like celluloid) the term “expanded cinema” took on a different—some would say counter-intuitive—meaning. Contemporary expanded work, like Gibson and Recoder’s, restores the materiality of film to the center of cinematic practice. In opposition to the earlier melting pot idea, it draws sharp distinctions between film and other, newer, moving- image technologies. It is still an “expanded” cinema because it preserves the notion of participation and it foregrounds the processes by which film images are created. Filmmakers perform with multiple film projectors, films and film loops, and with light itself. They use gesture and lenses to bend light, to refract it. In so doing, they “expand” cinema from a two (or even three-dimensional) image in front of the viewer, and turn it into a three-dimensional, all-encompassing, wrap-around experience.

Gibson and Recoder began collaborating as Gibson+Recoder shortly after meeting in 2000 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. “You could say that a certain enthusiasm for ‘found-footage’ brought us together,” Sandra Gibson notes, “as each of us were working with ‘archival’ material before hooking up.” Since “hooking up,” however, they operate as a unified entity, using a joint CV (curriculum vitae) to sum up their work,. And they gently resist talking about the shows and exhibits they had as solo artists early in their careers. In writing this article, I was not able to find any information about their pre-collaboration period. And my inquiries about their pre-collaborative careers brought patient reminders that the collaboration is what is important here.


Luis Recoder and Sandra Gibson

In an era saturated with computer generated imagery, Gibson and Recoder are able to achieve an amazing array of effects using only analog technology. Indeed, many of the performances unfold as a kind of illusionism, and indulge visual pleasure in a way that earlier forms of expanded cinema did not. The artists manipulate projectors loaded with abstract, handmade film loops. Simple acts such as slow or subtle changes in focus, slight movement of the projectors, manual interference with the projector beams create a surprising array of visual effects, and audiences frequently ask the artists how they manage to create such stunning imagery with such “old-school” technology.

Gibson calls the process of adjusting to analog special effects “natural projection, because it’s a soft-focused image. When people come in, it takes time for their eyes to adjust. They come in expecting this kind of Technicolor HD image and then they’re challenged to figure things out and have an experience.” “They have to work and kind of explore,” Recoder adds. “It’s almost like giving them a found footage element to work with. Each individual has kind of a viewing apparatus built-in and it adapts differently. Our work addresses the uniqueness of one’s own viewership.”

Gibson+Recoder have won a number of prestigious prizes for their groundbreaking work. In 2001 they won a Helen Bing Fellowship and participated in the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. In 2003 and again in 2006, they won the Museum of Contemporary Cinema Foundation Award in Paris, France. In 2005, they won the Japan-U.S. Creative Arts Fellowship Award (JUSFC/NEA) and participated in the Youkoba Art Space Tokyo. They have also won the Kodak Fellowship Award (2009), the New York Foundation for the Arts Award (2004), and the James D. Phelan Art Award in Film (2004). Most recently they were nominated for the Alpert Award in the Arts (2012).

In addition to residencies in Japan, Paris, and Bellagio Italy, they have performed and exhibited throughout Europe and Japan; they were chosen for the 2004 Whitney Biennial and took their work New Frontiers to Sundance in 2009. As Recoder puts it, in all of their exhibitions, they blend the formal vocabulary of art and cinema. “We use the cinema or the cinematic to go to an earlier stage: to imagine what its like to go and sit and observe a moving image; an image that’s actually being formed right before you.”

Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure is a live collaborative cinematic work that reflects Gibson and Recoder’s research on light as optical illusion. It revolves around the light play of two projectors, fractured and dispersed by a series of lenses. The performance exploits the intrinsic properties of the “changeover” system, which is used in film theaters to ensure the smooth transition from one film reel to another (so when viewers watch a movie in a theater setting, they do not notice when reels change). The result is a stimulating game of illusion and disillusion. As Gibson describes it, “in ‘Aberration of Light’ we perform an undisclosed work of feature length found-footage film. Our working concept is that the 35mm changeover system undergoes its re-appropriation as a collage/montage technique of sorts.” In their promotional material, Gibson+Recoder call it “a surrealist dream from the point of view of the projectionist.

This is the second project that Gibson and Recoder have created in collaboration with Chicago-based Olivia Block, whose sound work seeks to examine and redefine the limits of cinematic experience. Block began her career as a pop musician until she turned to field recordings in the 1990s. Since then she has developed a unique musical language, in which she brings together refined textures of environmental material with raw noise and elegant sound architecture in which wind instruments are predominant.

The Jorgensen Lecture will take place at 3:00 p.m. at the IU Cinema. The performance, Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber of Closure, will be presented at the Cinema, with live sound accompaniment by Olivia Block. The performance will take place Friday August 30 at 6:30 p.m. These events are presented as part of the Underground Film Series, in partnership with the Indiana University Department of Communication and Culture, and Film and Media Studies. They are free but ticketed events, open to the public.

This will be a unique opportunity to see a live cinematic event that can only be performed at theaters with expanded technical capacities. Previous live 35mm projector performances of Aberration of Light include the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, Conversations at the Edge at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Serralves Foundation in Porto, and Courtisane Festival in Ghent Belgium. Ticket information at the IU Cinema website.

Photo caps
Luis Recoder and Sandra Gibson
Photo #2
Olivia Block
Photo #3
Manipulating images with multiple projectors in a live performance

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

Gimme Shelter

From Cats to Bats and Dogs to Raccoons, the Animal Shelter Helps Boomington’s Furry Friends ◆ by Dan Melnick

It’s almost impossible to resist those big eyes staring back behind the cage bars of the Bloomington Animal Shelter. Brief biographies are clipped to the outside of each cage that tell similar tales of stray animals or donated house pets. All have descriptors stating how friendly and lovable they are if only someone else would be willing to find out. Usually, through no fault of their own, hundreds of perfectly lovable and healthy animals end up in the city’s care and they’re all looking for the same thing — a second chance. At an almost breakneck pace, the staff of the shelter helps hundreds of animals find new homes every month, but for every life they save, two more come in their door in need of assistance.

The Bloomington Animal Shelter differs from shelters in surrounding communities which typically host private facilities run by the Humane Society. As a branch of Bloomington city government, the Bloomington Animal Shelter employs trained animal care and control officers. These staffers take calls about wildlife issues or stray animal complaints. About a third of animals in the Bloomington Animal Shelter are former pets, found as strays by wildlife officers.

“If they’re strays then we’re hoping to find [their] owner. Some animals already have identification and it’s easy,” says Lauri Ringquist, director of the Bloomington Animal Shelter. She and her diligent staff of twenty paid employees and more than a hundred volunteers work tirelessly to return any lost pet to its owner. However, most of the dogs and cats brought in either don’t have proper identification or never had a home to begin with. The others come from citizens bringing in strays they find themselves or people relinquishing their current pet and giving it up for adoption.

Cat for Adoption

When asked how difficult it is to accept someone’s pet, Ringquist says, “it’s very hard.” Many owners give up their animals for what is often a very fixable problem. Ringuist explains most of the complaints owners give are related to the behavior of the pet rather than an actual issue. In cases like these, the shelter has a trained animal behaviorist on staff who can recommend a number of training specialists throughout Bloomington. With proper time and a willingness from the owner, animal trainers can work with the family and help the problem animal. But even with these resources, talking someone out of giving up their animal is rarely successful. Many forget that Fido isn’t a toy that can be turned on and off at will or has the mental capacity of a person that can be reasoned with.

“By the time they get to the shelter,” Ringquist says, “mentally, they’ve already said goodbye to the dog. They’ve already decided I’m done, the kids have said ‘goodbye’ at home, whatever the story is, by the time they get here, there are very few people who are willing to go back and try again.”

That’s not to say that all behavioral problems result in abandonment, but for those willing to discuss their case, the shelter can offer help and advice by phone. “And sometimes we present people with a solution,” Ringquist adds “and they’ll say, ‘Well my problem is X.’ Great, we can help you with X. ‘Well really? And Y.’ Well, we can help you with Y. ‘And Z.’ And you realize they just don’t want the dog anymore and you just have to smile and realize that we can find them a new home.”

It’s sad when any animal that was once a house pet is turned in for adoption, but ultimately the creature is better off as the shelter can find them a new home where they will be appreciated and loved. To avoid situations like these, the shelter counsels applicants, covering as many scenarios as possible so new owners learn the responsibilities involved with owning a pet. But some people are stuck in a puppy love phase and don’t want to listen.

Dog for Adoption

Ringquist says, “We just had two situations this week with someone who adopted a puppy and brought [it] back because it was too much work and told us we didn’t counsel her enough.”

Other applicants feel the counseling is condescending and that the staff is talking down to them by reminding them about basic facts of animal maintenance. Sometimes it’s the people who are the problematic ones, but the shelter tries to do right by their animals by streamlining the adoption process in an effort to make the transition into a new home easy for their furry friends.

The adoption process is pretty straight forward for any animal, but getting to that phase is a little bit different for dogs and cats. Before a dog is available for adoption, whether it was donated by a visitor or found as a stray, the animal is put through a temperament evaluation.

“It’s a set process developed by an animal behaviorist through the ASPCA and the staff has been trained as to how to administer it looking for flat-out signs of aggression,” Ringquist explains. The test puts the animal through a series of scenarios to see how the dog reacts to various stimuli. The staff sees how the animal interacts with other dogs or other people, how it takes to getting its paws played with, what happens when people pet it.

“We’re trying to gauge how they respond to just being handled and are there any guarding behaviors we can identify and see if they’re going to be safe to be adopted,” Ringquist says.

Without another option, if the animal displays signs of aggression, not a nervous or a correctible behavioral quirk, the dog is euthanized. That doesn’t happen too often as most dogs pass with flying colors or have minor things to work on. The staff knows the signs to look for and only resorts to euthanization as a last resort.

Dog for Adoption

Cats are a different story. The felines aren’t put through a temperament test; it’s usually easy to tell where they fall on the spectrum. They’re either in the front of the cage looking to be petted or backed in the corner showing you their fangs. Unlike dogs, the primary issue surrounding cat adoption isn’t their personality, it’s their numbers.

“Cats have a definite breeding season,” Ringquist explains, “So they start having kittens in the late spring through early fall and then they don’t have kittens in the winter months.” This means that throughout the winter, the animal shelter may take in 80 or more cats in January, but come summer, they report numbers of over three hundred cats in the month of July alone. “There’s an imbalance,” Rinqust says, as to how many cats are taken in by the shelter at any given time, “and there’s a finite amount of space and a finite amount of kennels that you have.” The shelter tries to compensate for this by hosting promotions for cats during the summer, offering deals of reduced adoption fees or two-for-one specials in an attempt to move cats as fast as they can; any cat taken in after the shelter runs out of space is euthanized. Many of these pets are perfectly healthy animals, but there just isn’t anywhere to keep them.

“Our adoptions have gone up and our euthanasia has gone down,” Ringquist says. “It’s not perfect, but it gets better every year.” Last year, 137 dogs and 229 cats were euthanized by June 30th, compared to the 91 dogs and 189 cats euthanized by the same time this year. The numbers of found cats has also gone down. This is in thanks to the many organizations throughout Bloomington in addition to the Animal Shelter that help to make sure the animals are properly spayed and neutered such as the Humane Society, the Pets Alive clinic and the Feral Cat Friends who trap strays and neuter them before returning the cats to the wilds of the community.

The Bloomington Animal Shelter has a unique problem. As the number of animals moving through its cages increases, so too does the work load. There are twice as many kennels in the back that visitors don’t see, with animals undergoing the five-day holding period to determine if they’re capable of being adopted. A week before this writing, the shelter had half of its cages free, but now, they’re filled to capacity. At full usage, there are about sixty kennels for dogs, which may sound like a lot, but if no one adopts an animal, that space stays full. Typically, there’s no time limit as to how long an animal can stay at the shelter. When full, the Bloomington Animal Shelter also works with a group called Canine Express, a service that transports some of their animals to the New England states, hoping that a change in location will mean a change in demand. The shelter does it what it can for the animals within its doors, but taking care of the animals requires both time and money.

In addition to their annual budget, the Bloomington Animal Shelter also accepts donations. As they are a branch of the government, they receive most of their funding through a public budget. More often than not, they break even on adoption fees. The $75 they typically charge per animal covers the cost to care for and feed the animal during its time at the Shelter. The small amount of revenue left over that doesn’t go to normal expenses, they can put to good use on unique situations outside their typical budget.

“Like right now we have a little puppy with a broken leg and when her stray-hold is over, she’s probably going to need that leg amputated and that’s a more expensive medical treatment that our regular budget can’t always absorb,” Ringquist says.

But more than financial compensation, the animal shelter is always looking for donations of items, food for the pets and toys, specifically. They like to give every animal at least one toy. They also take sheets and towels to use as bedding from anyone doing a little spring cleaning. “We go through laundry like you wouldn’t believe,” Ringquist jokes.

From an outsider’s eye, the hardest thing about working at the Shelter would be resisting the urge to adopt everything yourself. “Probably everybody that works here ends up adopting something,” Ringquist agrees, “but we all have to realize that we can’t solve the problem ourselves.” Many of the staff participate in the foster program and take care of sick dogs or temporarily house kittens who are too young to be spayed or neutered, before returning the animal to be adopted. It frees up needed space in the Shelter’s kennels and ensures visitors find healthy and happy pets waiting for them inside the shelter doors.

Just as they counsel owners to be responsible, the employees and volunteers of the Shelter need to follow their own example. Inevitably, care givers become attached to particular strays and long to take the animals with them after a shift, but ultimately, it’s all the more rewarding to have played a part in finding the pet a new home. “[We get] attached to different animals,” Ringquist says, “and knowing that we can find them a home and they’re going to get adopted means that I don’t have to take them home myself. I know I can find them a home.” The Animal Shelter has already saved over a thousand lives this year. Shelter employees are thrilled with those numbers, but not for too long — there’s always another cage to cleaned for the next animal in need.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

The Pope & Sex

by William Orem

The earliest Christian documents we have are not the four canonical gospels—
Johnny-come-latelies written, anonymously, by Greek-speaking theologians far from the events they describe. Rather, they are the epistles of Paul, a Roman Jew who was signally responsible for both the character and spread of the new faith. Paul’s Jesus Christ was primarily a mystical being, met in visions: to judge by his letters, he may not even have believed Christ lived in a body on earth. The relationship of Paul, and the other epistle writers, to Gnosticism—with its central thesis that the body is a low, scurrilous thing, a mere trap for the spirit—is a fascinating subject in itself. Whatever Paul’s metaphysics, though, the deep concern with which he viewed the flesh is famous.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul hotly chastises the brethren for behavior unbecoming of the saved. Christian brothers have been, in the colorful King James elocution, “fornicating”; Christian brothers have been visiting prostitutes; one has been having sex with his mother (stepmother, if you wish: “his father’s wife”). Paul seems also to be stepping into an active debate over whether sex should be permissible at any time, inside marriage or out.

The apostle lays into the libertines here with some of his most memorable ire: 
“Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind [ . . . ] shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9-10) “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot?” (1 Cor 6:15) “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.” (1 Cor 6:18).

“It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” Paul sums up his position (1 Cor. :1), drawing an association between holiness and sexlessness that would echo for millennia. Ideally, everyone should just be celibate, as the world is about to end anyway. He himself avoids sex altogether—though some, Bishop John Shelby Spong as a recent example, have suspected a homosexual subtext among the guilty denials. Regardless of the source of Paul’s anxiety, his message is clear: If you absolutely must, go ahead and have sex with your wives, just to keep your animal lust from driving you to worse things. But, honestly, God would like it best if people didn’t touch each other down there . . . or here, or here . . . or under there . . . at all.

And so forward through the centuries. Catholicism has been marked by a recurrence, among its primary names, of deep confusion and alarm regarding sexual drive. One thinks, even at a quick glance, of Origen, the Church Father who took a knife to his own genitals (inspired by this act, a Christian sect called the Valesians are reported to have castrated not only themselves, but others). One thinks of Augustine, who wallowed in a decade of unbridled, if guilt-poisoned, libertinism—“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” was his prayer—before encountering Paul’s own Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof, whereupon he became a great condemner of sex all around. Sexual desire is mud, he tells us in Confessions; it is chains, thorns, an itching, open sore. One thinks of Aquinas, who, in his Summa Theologica, turned the most powerful intellect of the 13th century to the pressing matter of all “monstrous and bestial manners of copulation” (Is masturbation a worse sin than rape? Is “nocturnal pollution” an offense to the Almighty?)

It was to Aquinas, by the way, that the recently self-deposed Pope Benedict advocated the modern, science and reason-based West needed to return. Benedict was also a great Augustinian, once saying Confessions is the only book other than the Bible he would need on a desert island. This was in the early days of Benedict’s papacy, before his name was forever linked to a massive, international practice of both sheltering and enabling Catholic priests who rape children.

Sex, as it turns out, is a normal function. Some 250,000 years of natural selection acting on our own species, with perhaps a billion years of laying the biological groundwork before that, have formed us in exactly this way. The wandering symphony of sexual behaviors is a great many things, but first of all, it is human.

This basic recognition has serious consequences for any orthodoxy that seeks to subdue, or vilify, healthy sexual expression. In an imaginary world, leaving the body behind may be commendable. In this one, the result can only be great numbers of people who are lonely and unfulfilled; sexually repressed, with the consequent psychological effects; sexually covert, living a life of hypocrisy and self-alienation; or, in the worst cases, pathological.

In his book Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle With Faith and Love, Father Albert Cutié makes a blunt statement:

“After several years in the ministry, I came to the understanding that most of my priest acquaintances—with very few exceptions—fell into three basic categories, with some falling into two or even three of them:

1. Those removed from the Church
2. Those accused of sexual or other crimes
3. Those who felt disgruntled and/or isolated.”

Cutié, known throughout the U.S., Spain and Latin America for his radio and TV outreach, was “outed” having a sexual relationship with a woman. Rather than retiring in shame, however, he converted publicly to Episcopalianism, married his love, and started a family. (By contrast, Thomas Merton, a previous Catholic apologist of international repute, kept his relationship with a woman almost three decades his junior a secret.) Cutié’s insider exposé of the celibacy myth makes harrowing reading for anyone raised to believe that all clergy . . . or even the majority . . . follow Vatican instruction on matters of sexuality.

In a gentle, almost crestfallen voice, “Padre Alberto” details the astonishing number of seminarians, priests, bishops and others who lead active sex lives:

“There are more priests and women in this situation than anyone can imagine. I once met a bishop in a Latin American diocese who confided in me that every priest in his diocese had a girlfriend; most of his priests had fathered children in these relationships. [ . . . ] But, with the passage of time, and as my ministry in the media took me all around the world, I began to understand how impossible celibacy is for most people. The phenomenon of Roman Catholic priests who are officially celibate but leading secret lives is present all over the world [ . . . ]”

Nor are all “men of the cloth” men. Just recently I had lunch with ex-nun Mary Johnson, whose excellent memoir An Unquenchable Thirst chronicles her time in Mother Theresa’s order. While working in the Missionaries of Charity, she had a lesbian relationship with a fellow sister who turned out to be a sexual predator; a love affair with a priest; and a personal awakening to the cost of loneliness that caused her to leave the Church altogether.

Among the covert, of course, is the great number of male homosexuals. Father Donald Cozzens, in The Changing Face of the Priesthood, holds that some 60% of Catholic clergy belong in this latter category. Cutié, in a recent television interview, accepted this rough figure, further underscoring how many of these gay men are “promiscuous”—meaning actively engaged in sex with multiple partners. Such claims have been vocally challenged by their detractors, to be sure; but anything remotely like what these ordained men are describing would make the Vatican’s celibacy rule, its anti-homosexuality stance, and its position on sexual behaviors in general, a farce.

For relatively healthy clergy—gay, straight, or bi—and for their parishioners, the cost in hypocrisy alone of all this duplicity must be extreme. A cleric who is using prostitutes while preaching that even masturbation is a sin is a terribly fractured entity. Beyond such cases, though, stand the truly pathological: those clergy whose sexuality is misshapen to the point of predation.

The very existence of an organization like SNAP—the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests—tells a chilling tale. According to BishopAccountability.org, a public database by lay Catholics on the sex abuse scandal, “Thousands of Catholic clergy and religious have raped and sodomized tens of thousands of children—perhaps more than 100,000 children—since 1950.”

This figure is jaw-dropping.100,000 children, in a crime so painful it is almost certainly underreported. That’s over 1,500 assaults every year, or another Jerry Sandusky striking every six hours, every day, since Quo Vadis was on the big screen.

Can such an evil possibly be happening? Must it not all be some terrible mistake, or malicious rumor—the “few bad apples” defense?

The Vatican, whose Cardinal Sodano dismissed clerical abuse as “idle gossip” in 2010, first tried to downplay the extremity of its problem. (Sodano now has his own scandal, involving his having pressured then-cardinal Ratzinger not to investigate sex abuse charges against Archbishop Hans Hermann Groër and Father Marcial Maciel, of whom more below.) Yet huge numbers of cases continued to be revealed—in the U.S.; in the Netherlands; in Austria; in Poland; in Canada; in France; in Germany. Settlement cases, according to AP, had already cost the Church two billion dollars in 2007; Bishop-Accountability puts it currently past three billion. In America, whole dioceses had to declare bankruptcy. The more Catholic the country, it seemed, the more profound the pain: in Ireland, government investigations brought to light an astonishing 15,000 cases and cover-ups, going back fifty years—causing four separate Bishops to offer resignation and dealing the Irish church a blow from which it may never recover.

When denial became impossible, Pope Benedict blamed society. In his year-end address to Vatican bishops and cardinals, 2010, he said:

“We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times . . .”

Here was an unexpected tu quoque move that many felt tasted bitterly of justification. The then-head of the RCC was apparently contending that this molestation business is all a quite recent development, and the Church itself is somehow one more baffled victim of “the times.” Moral relativism, it turns out, is the real culprit. Also, the secular culture of the 1970s did it. The abuser priests themselves are a kind of victim, in Benedict’s view—victims of permissive modern society and all its temptations (including, evidently, the “temptation” afforded by terrified underage boys). If only the West hadn’t fallen away from the true Church, its weakest members wouldn’t have found themselves—by the tens of thousands—assaulted by that Church’s representatives.

Many Catholics had had enough. Earlier that same year, Swiss theologian Hans Küng, in an interview in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, called on the Pope to apologize personally for the scandal, saying that “no other person within the church had seen so many cases of abuse pass through their office.” Now, Catholics and non-Catholics alike began to ask why abusers in a collar, and those Bishops who enable them, should get a sinecure instead of a sentence.

By the end, when Benedict broke with six centuries of tradition to “retire” from the Papal chair, the rumors advanced in the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica and elsewhere that the Vatican was being blackmailed by Rome’s prostitutes, that there is a gay faction inside the Curia itself, that the Holy Father was forced from his seat to avoid the Crimes Against Humanity charge being organized by SNAP and other victims’ groups, seemed less like idle gossip than more of the tragic same.

And thus to the new Pope.

One hears, of him, the usual roster of encomia. Pope Francis is a deeply humble man, one who cares for the poor, committed to ecumenical dialogue. Let it be so: though not untouched by their own abuse cases, the Jesuits in many respects shine as an order, and having one in the disgraced papal seat has filled many with new optimism. My own experience of the Society of Jesus, for whatever anecdote is worth, has been a strongly positive one: I maintain a meaningful friendship with a priest who taught at my high school and later spoke at my wedding. (Another Jesuit at the same school has since been defrocked, with painful predictability, for molestation.)

But Francis is a bit like a man who comes to the doctor’s office bleeding out of both ears and wanting to talk about other things first. There is a single, fundamental issue that must be addressed before Rome can turn its thoughts anywhere else: its multifaceted, multidimensional, and interlocking problem with sex.

One would like to think the new Pope, who comes out from behind the bulletproof barriers to embrace the faithful he clearly loves, will make changes that dignify his wounded Church. The possible avenues are many:

He could begin by lifting the morally repugnant ban on condom use—a policy that would immediately dial back the spread of AIDS in Africa, surely a greater opprobrium than the supposed crime of strapping a piece of rubber over a man’s penis. Francis has shown some flexibility here, early reports suggesting he is open to considering condoms for the purpose of preventing disease.

He could remove the widely ignored celibacy rule, allowing priests to marry. “For the moment,” Francis says in his book On Heaven and Earth, “I’m in favor of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures. It’s a question of discipline, not of faith. It could change.”

He could announce as formal doctrinal position what, to many in America, has long since been recognized as fact: that gay men and women are not just contributing members of the Catholic community, but vital ones, and always have been. (In the same book, Pope Francis refers to gay marriage as “an anthropological step backward.”)

He could lift the prohibition on divorce. (“While [divorced Catholics] live in a situation on the margin of the sacrament of marriage, they are asked to integrate in the life of the parish,” Francis says, reminding divorced laity—apparently in all earnestness—that they “are not excommunicated.”)

He could recognize the full equality of women, opposition to which is surely the tacit agenda behind so much body control, from Catholic Rome to Muslim Saudi Arabia. (Francis: “A philosophy of constant feminism doesn’t give the woman the dignity she deserves.”)

Then, setting aside the Emeritus Pontiff’s attempts to pin priestly abuse anywhere other than on priests, he could begin to address the horrific and overwhelming number of clergy who molest children and adolescents as an expression of their distorted sexual development. The questions that must be asked are terrifying: Is the seminary process forming pedophiles, or just attracting them? What part does celibacy play in dysfunction, even pathological dysfunction? What has the actual effect on humanity been of Christianity’s millennia-old teachings on sex, on women, on the body?

“I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporate spirit to avoid damaging the image of the institution,” Francis says of the clerical abuse scandal. “That solution was proposed once in the United States: they proposed switching the priests to a different parish. It is a stupid idea; that way, the priest just takes the problem with him wherever he goes.”

For a Pope even to say this much—setting aside the odd suggestion that shuffling around molesters is only a solution “proposed once in the United States”—whispers the possibility of change. But behind even such updates as Francis may achieve, I would suggest, lies the core problem.

While excellent, allowing condoms in order to prevent the transmission of disease—to take one example—would still be notable for what it is not. It is not sanctioning human sexual pleasure; it is not recognizing sexual joy that does not have procreation as its purpose to be both a personal right and an end in itself. It is not throwing over the mistaken belief, with us since Gnostic times, that the body is a disgrace or a distraction or a burden to be overcome; it is not admitting that intimacy and orgasm are so much more—physically, psychologically, spiritually—than the side effect of child-making. It is not recognizing that healthy, adult, mutually consensual, self-respecting and partner-respecting sex is a high moral good, and one of the brightest birthrights of the human experience.

Until a Pope can acknowledge this—and, in truth, I do not see how any Pope can—the particular species of suffering that started with Paul will continue to take its toll.

There is a moving photograph, taken in 2004, of Pope John Paul II placing his hand on the forehead of a gentle-looking older man. The moment of benediction, a spiritual and emotional bond between two elderly clerics, feels genuine. That man is Father Marcial Maciel, the Roman Catholic priest who founded the Legion of Christ. Maciel was a model cleric to the late Pontiff, who praised him in talks and in print. His was a sanctified life.

At the time that this blessing was being bestowed, however, things were quite otherwise than they seemed. Among various transgressions, Father Maciel had been sexually abusing seminarians, and others, for decades—including, by some accounts, upward of thirty boys. He had sired as many as six illegitimate offspring, with two different women; two of whom, the allegations run, he sexually abused as well.

To put it bluntly, when that picture was taken, the saintly Father Maciel had been a rapist for some three decades, his victims including his own children.

“For his own mysterious reasons,” the Legionnaires of Christ website states, “God chose Fr Maciel as an instrument to found the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, and we thank God for the good he did. At the same time, we accept and regret that, given the gravity of his faults, we cannot take his person as a model of Christian or priestly life.” The Vatican formally denounced Maciel after John Paul II died, admitting that he had lived a “life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.”

I believe the new Pope should have that 2004 photograph on his wall, and should consider it deeply. It is not to be passed over with a wince; it is not to be discounted as freakish or inexplicable. Above all, it must not be classified as the doing of some supernatural force. Rather, it is telling Catholics, and all people of good will, something we desperately need to understand.

That image—and everything it says—is where the new Pope needs to turn. That is the problem he confronts.

[William Orem graduated from IU in 1999 with an MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction, poetry and plays can be seen at WilliamOrem.com. Currently he is a Writer-In-Residence at Emerson College. William’s article, The Threshold of Popes, appeared in The Ryder in January, 1996.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

Do It Yourself

The Maker Movement is unified by a shared commitment to open exploration, intrinsic interest, and creative ideas ◆ by Jenett Tillotson and Kylie Peppler

In the 1920s, Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers famously stated, “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” As the beginning of this most recent recession loomed over the American economy, George Bush urged Americans “to go shopping more.” Consumerism drives the American economy.

But consumerism becomes unsustainable when it goes unchecked. According to the EPA, Americans produced 479 billion pounds of trash in 2008 – that’s equivalent to 2.4 million blue whales. The amount of materials and energy required to make the goods that result in that much trash is enormous. And America’s taste for cheap consumer goods means materials and products are often shipped around the globe before it reaches the hands of a consumer. People no longer know where their goods come from, how they were produced, how they work, or where they go to when they are no longer of use.

Enter the Maker Movement. The larger Maker Movement or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement has emerged in response to the growing need to transform the nation’s consumer culture to one that empowers people with the knowledge to make it themselves, fix it themselves. Doing so connects people to the objects in their daily lives and empowers people to be makers instead of consumers of new technologies. While the roots of this movement date back to the early 18th century, making came into more common practice in the 1950’s and included DIY activities referred to as handicrafts, decorating, zines and home repair. A thread that runs across varied applications of DIY is the act of creating, most often through hands-on activity, as a conscious rebuttal of the cultural predisposition toward consumption and an emphasis on self-reliance–the choice to take on a challenge that could readily be outsourced to a professional.

Dan Halsey

Dan Halsey Builds An E-book Reader Stand

Today, the DIY mindset has been revived as a growing culture of hands-on making, creating, designing, and innovating. A hallmark of the Maker movement is the desire to bring individuals together with shared interests around a range of activities, including textile craft, robotics, cooking, woodcrafts, electronics, digital fabrication, computer programming, mechanical repair, and making nearly anything. Despite its diversity, the Movement is unified by a shared commitment to open exploration, intrinsic interest, and creative ideas. And it is spreading; online maker communities, physical makerspaces, and Maker Faires are popping up all over the world and continually increasing in size and participation.

Moreover, there is growing national recognition of the potential of the Maker movement to transform how and what people learn in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and Arts disciplines. As President Obama put it in his remarks on the Educate to Innovate campaign, makers “see the promise of being the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things.” This orientation towards personal fabrication rather than blind consumerism is also seen as the foundation for a new, more prosperous economy.

Nathan Heald Project

Electronic Fireworks Launcher Built By Nathan Heald

The maker mindset empowers people not just to seek out jobs in STEM or creative fields, but to make their own jobs and industries, depending on their interests and the emerging needs they see in a rapidly changing society.

Readers may have already seen evidence of this movement creeping into the Bloomington culture. The Monroe County Public Library, for example, has sponsored “Maker Days” this summer. The library is hosting more than 10 programs for youth ages 9-20 this summer ranging from designing e-Fashions, touring the digital fabrication center (FabLab) located in the Fine Arts Building on IU’s campus, building Pizza Box Solar Ovens, making stop action animation, and much, much more. Steven Backs, Adult and Teen Services Manager at the Monroe County Public Library, is excited to provide access to new information and skills through partnerships with local organizations. “The library’s vision is an educated, engaged, curious, and creative Monroe County, with the library at its center. Being involved with local makers has opened up opportunities to help us make that a reality.”

There are also a host of organizations in the Bloomington area that celebrate DIY and Maker culture on a daily basis. Bloominglabs, the first makerspace in the state of Indiana, is a group of makers that cooperatively share a space, tools, and ideas for the purpose of increasing the making capabilities of the average person. “Making allows me to specialize an object to my needs, and I love making unique objects,” says Nathan Heald, a founding member of Bloominglabs. “I can personalize a project including choosing more durable or locally sourced materials.” Makerspaces help individuals like Heald access resources that in the past were only available to industries. “By combining the prospective talents and resources of our members,” says Heald, “Bloominglabs has put high-end tools, materials, and processes in the hands of the average person. Now I have the knowledge and ability to build about anything including objects that don’t yet exist. And has new resources become available, the Maker movement is poised to take advantage of the situation.”

Some groups tackle the waste problem head on. Discardia focuses on “upcycling” by converting materials from the waste stream into new products to sell in their “ReBoutique.” “I always say that you can’t throw anything away because there is no away,” says Discardia member Gail Hale. “We take commonly discarded materials such as clothing, plastic film strips, and plastic bags and turn them into dresses, cloth shopping bags, rugs, art – anything to give them new life.”

Other groups making in Bloomington include the Bloomington Print Collective, Bloomington Clay Studio, Ivy Tech courses, IU fine arts groups, and IU student organizations. This summer, organizations such as these as well as independent makers, will be coming together to showcase their talents at Bloomington’s Makevention on August 24, 2013 held at the Convention Center in Bloomington. Makers of all types, including tech enthusiasts, artists, educators, crafters, hobbyists, and tinkerers, will gather to share their projects as well as learn to make new things together in this family friendly event. If you catch the making bug, the Maker movement is welcoming of all ages and skill levels. All that’s needed is a willingness to learn and a desire to make.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

FILM: Late Summer Movies

Reviews ◆ by Lucy Morrel

◗ White House Down

From director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), White House Down is a summer action flick revolving around the hostile takeover of the White House and is not to be confused with the earlier released Olympus Has Fallen, which has a similar premise. White House Down is basically an imitation Die Hard with more patriotism and higher stakes. Channing Tatum embraces the average, just-doing-his-best action hero role, as John Cale, like John McClain before him, struggles to save his estranged family member (in Cale’s case, his eleven-year-old daughter Emily), who’s been taken hostage. He takes some punches and manages to kill a reasonable amount of men (as far as these movies go) all the while acting as the good ole American underdog, who’s not highly educated but is entirely competent and extremely dogged. Channing Tatum, like Bruce Willis, is easy to root for.

Publicity Still

White House Down

The parallels between the two films, however, go deeper than their leading men. There exists a similar inside/outside dynamic with miscommunication or mistrust often resulting in problematic attempts at rescue or attack. In White House Down, different agencies and political players like the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and the Vice President (Michael Murphy) debate and vie for control of the situation, although it is mainly secret service agent, Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who communicates and guides Cale through the White House. The goal here being, not so much to save the hostages, but to protect the idealistic and affable President, played with surprising humor by Jamie Foxx. Refreshingly, this President seems to understand his responsibilities to the world and doesn’t just hand out his nuclear codes at the first sign of trouble.

With a couple of predictable betrayers joining their ranks, most of the terrorists never stray far from the expected, and some are even laughably suspicious “bad guys.” Their actions seem certain to end in nuclear war, yet unsurprisingly Cale manages to disarm, kill, and uncover the last of the villains during an eight-minute countdown to total destruction. For the moviegoer, though, it takes all of the last twenty minutes, and the characters even get to stop for some quick hugs. For all the intense buildup and fighting, the final confrontation with the last accomplice seems like the conclusion to an episode of Scooby Doo; one almost expects the accomplice to shake his fist and curse the “darn kids!” for not letting him get away with it.

The movie is fun and the characters likeable, but it suffers from having been done better before. Nonetheless, it embraces American culture, giving the audience patriotic, if a little too familiar, amusement for the summer months.

◗ The Lone Ranger

In Disney’s reboot of The Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), an uncompromising and idealistic lawyer, returns to his hometown, and in the process of trying to capture outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), is shot along with all of the other Texas Rangers, including his more capable and brawny brother Dan (John Badge Dale). John alone returns from death to administer justice with the help of Tonto (Johnny Depp) and a Native American spirit horse. John is, unfortunately, a principled dunce, able to rattle off some John Locke but unequipped for life as a lawman on the Texas frontier. While this makes for the occasional comedic moment, his transformation into a skilled gunslinger at the end is unbelievable, making all of the jokes throughout about John being “the wrong brother” ring sadly true. In the end, John just has to shoot the men desperately trying to kill him rather than try to take them to trial, and lucky for him, he doesn’t even have to learn how to shoot or fight at all because there is Native American spirit walker magic flowing through him. So all he really does in a two and a half hour movie is go from morally upright gentlemen to morally upright, but slightly less law-abiding, ranger.

At least Tonto is committed to frontier-style justice, but as an idiosyncratic character who defies understanding and has questionable sanity, he might as well be the wild west version of Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp is fun to watch, but a Native American actor could have done just as well and help make up for the one-dimensional portrayal of actual Native Americans. Victimized and certain of their demise, the Comanche are slaughtered in droves, with their very deaths providing for a convenient escape and plot point. The film seems to highlight the fall of the “noble savage” with even the elderly Tonto relegated to a sideshow diorama, but it doesn’t give American Indians any agency or their culture any validity. It capitalizes on a whole history of real problems and sorrows to give a couple of reflective minutes more punch.

From "The Lone Ranger"

Tonto & Friend

Overall, the film spends most of its time just throwing together all of the elements of a classic western, including the threat of Native Americans, the railroad and its expansion, silver mining, the traditional settler woman, saloons and prostitutes, and gunfights between outlaws and lawmen. There are a couple of nods to John Ford, but most of the elements seem flung in cavalierly, incorporated every which way into the plot, and punctuated by unnecessary anachronisms. It has moments of humor, but it is like the less successful, hodge-podge cousin of director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.

◗ Pacific Rim

In Pacific Rim’s not-so-distant future, giant alien monsters called Kaigu emerge from a portal under the Pacific Ocean and wreak havoc on coastal cities. The governments of the world respond by making huge fighting robots called Jaegers, which two drivers operate through a mind-melding process known as drifting. Bipedal and scantily armed for the circumstances, the Jaegers are like boxers thrown into semi-aquatic bear fights, and yet are somehow capable of inflicting more damage than any arsenal of traditionally available weapons and vehicles. The Jaegers tend to win, mostly because the fights lack consistent logic.

When the jaegers do begin to fail, the international governments quickly abandon that project (and any remaining common sense) in favor of building an idiotic wall on the coasts that touch the Pacific Ocean. Clearly, a good premise won out against good judgment in this fun, but flawed movie.

The movie does deliver some exciting fight scenes with the Kaigu, which resemble Godzilla and marine animal hybrids. Director Guillermo Del Toro brings the same level of creativity to the Kaigu, as he traditionally has for his creatures in movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Unfortunately, not everything in the movie is equally creative; the dialogue is trite, and no more so than in the fight scenes when (despite effectively sharing a brain with his co-pilot) protagonist Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) shouts such unnecessary platitudes as “we can do this together!” and “hang in there!”

It may be easy to find faults with the film, but it is also hard not to enjoy it. As every relationship and scene attempts to be fraught with emotional intensity, the movie can come across as melodramatic, but sometimes even the most over-the-top elements pay off. Two oddball scientists, played by the easily distraught Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, bicker and interact with an equally eccentric black market dealer played by Ron Perlman, producing some of the funniest scenes of the whole movie. This movie is not perfect, but it has gems of good humor and fun, predictable and otherwise.

◗ Red 2

With director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) taking over the Red series, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) attempts to settle down with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but soon a former Cold War-era assignment forces him to join up with old friends and emerge once again from his restive retirement. This movie hopes to capitalize on the same successful humor as the first Red, namely, seeing an older generation wield weapons with gusto. There is a certain shock and awe that comes with the esteemed Helen Mirren whipping out a couple of pistols in slow motion amidst the turmoil of a car chase, but that sort of attention grabbing, based on upset expectations, is not enough to sustain the film.

Publicity Still

Red 2

When it comes to an actual plot, the movie fails to deliver anything worth the interest that it initially generates. With all of its locale changes and new characters, Red 2 a convoluted mess, seemingly aimed at having Frank and Sarah kiss various other people. It can be humorous watching them act like normal jealous lovers in strange situations, but it overshadows everything else—like what exactly they are trying to accomplish and why.

The sheer scope of magnified destruction, perhaps drawing on its comic book roots, is tallied in anonymous human lives and leaves an unsettling feeling. In order to prove just how amazingly awesome they are despite their age, Frank and his friends kill droves of people, distinguished only by nationality. The gratuitous killing of a dozen or so Russians and Iranians is intended to be lighthearted and creative; still, watching all of those unknown stooges get mowed over renders the film’s poor attempts at depth that much more difficult to believe.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

To Surly With Love

The high school experience as refracted through the lens of ’80s comedies ◆ by Craig J. Clark

“Believe it or not, there’s life after high school.” So sang Daryl Hall and John Oates in their 1983 hit Adult Education, but it’s a message that may be cold comfort to anyone preparing to hit the books for another term. For the rest of us, all we have to do is look at the high school comedies that flourished during the ’80s to remember what it was like to be the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal, or whatever combination thereof that we were.

A good place to start, naturally, is with the work of former National Lampoon scribe-turned-writer/director John Hughes, who spent the mid-’80s cataloguing the travails of the modern American teenager in such films as Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The one that most accurately replicates the feeling of being trapped inside a brick building all day with no chance of escape, though, is 1985’s The Breakfast Club, which gathers together one of each archetype (as Hughes saw them) and bounces them off each other as they endure a Saturday detention together. As played by nerd Anthony Michael Hall, jock Emilio Estevez, flake Ally Sheedy, stuck-up Molly Ringwald, and troublemaker Judd Nelson – in many ways, the core of the so-called “Brat Pack” — these five individuals learn a lot about themselves and each other, and the audience is given a handy, if somewhat unrealistic, reminder of how codified the high-school caste system could be.

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The Breakfast Club

A rather more nuanced take on the experiences of high schoolers – and one that features some actual schooling – is 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (To be fair, Ferris Bueller does include some classroom scenes, but the title character is notably absent from them owing to his having taken the Day Off.) Directed by Amy Heckerling, Fast Times was the screenwriting debut of rock journalist Cameron Crowe, who based the script on a book he had spent a year researching at a high school where he was able to go undercover as a student. The result is a perceptive, well-observed comedy-drama that gave early exposure to the likes of Sean Penn (as the spaced-out Jeff Spicoli, the film’s breakout character), Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Nicolas Cage (back when he still went by Nicolas Coppola). Even more importantly, it didn’t give short shrift to the teachers, in particular Vincent Schiavelli’s creepy biology teacher, who takes his class on a field trip to the local morgue, and Ray Walston as the indomitable Mr. Hand, who has no illusions about his ability to reach his charges.

From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

“Mr. Spicoli”

Appropriately, the side of the educators is also represented in 1984’s Teachers. Director Arthur Hiller had previous experience exploring the inner workings of a public institution with 1971’s The Hospital, which benefited from having been written by Paddy Chayefsky. For its part, Teachers is centered on a popular social studies teacher played by Nick Nolte who tries his best to defuse the tension between his students and the rest of the faculty, which can run high at times. Comic relief is provided by Richard Mulligan, who plays a mental patient who wanders into a history class and begins teaching it, taking on the roles of such iconic historical figures as General George Custer (he of the last stand fame) and President Abraham Lincoln. The less said about the subplot about the gym teacher who sleeps with one of his students and gets her pregnant, though, the better.

Then again, the line separating the teen-sex comedy from the high school film can be so thin at times as to be nonexistent, as in Bob Clark’s surprise hit Porky’s and its sequels and imitators. And then there’s the teen-slash film, which gave rise to such lifeless parodies as Student Bodies (which was so bad director Michael Ritchie disclaimed all responsibility for it), National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (which incredibly enough was the feature screenwriting debut of John Hughes), and Slaughter High (which took the “stalking and slashing people at their high-school reunion” trope to new lows).

If you’re looking for something you can sink your teeth into, you would be better off seeking out something like 1985’s Once Bitten (which gave Jim Carrey an early starring role) or 1987’s My Best Friend Is a Vampire (which did the same for Robert Sean Leonard). In the former, Carrey is a virgin who’s targeted by an older, female vampire who needs his blood in order to stay young. In the latter, Leonard has to deal with the consequences of a similar encounter. Neither of them spends too much time worrying about their studies, though.

The same goes for Michael J. Fox in both of the movies he had out in the summer of 1985. In Teen Wolf, he’s just your average, underachieving, van-surfing nobody until his latent lycanthropy gene kicks in. Far from turning him into an outcast, though, his new abilities transform him into Mr. Popular, especially when wolfing out improves his skills on the basketball court. Fox then traded his basketball for an electric guitar and the werewolf suit for a time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future, in which he bumps into his parents in 1955 and prevents them from bumping into each other, nearly erasing himself from existence. At least in the course of correcting his mistake he manages to improve things for his family in the present.

The question of how much you would change about your past is also the theme of 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Kathleen Turner plays a soon-to-be-divorced housewife who faints at her 25-year reunion and wakes up in her own body in 1960 with all of her memories of future events intact (as well as the fact that she’ll have no need for algebra whatsoever). Theoretically, this gives her the chance to alter the course of her life by not marrying her high school sweetheart (Nicolas Cage, showing that he’s long had an affinity for making off-kilter performance choices), but she soon finds out what some things are harder to change than others.

That’s also the lesson learned by the dim-witted title characters in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who are gifted with a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to ace a history presentation, thus saving the future from something totally bogus. The end result isn’t nearly as inventive as the similarly themed Time Bandits, which Terry Gilliam co-wrote and directed at the beginning of the decade, but it’s still a lot of fun watching Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (as the titular dim bulbs) stumble their way through time, picking up historical figures like Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates and Joan of Arc along the way.

The protagonist of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, played by Casey Siemaszko, probably wishes he had a time machine, that way he could go back and prevent himself from meeting new student — and ticking time bomb — Richard Tyson, who takes such exception to being touched that he challenges the honor student to a fight at the designated time. Considering the lengths Siemaszko goes to try to get out of it, it seems like nothing short of blowing up the school would have done the trick.

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Speaking of blowing up a high school, that’s the endgame of two films that bookended the decade: 1979’s rebellious Rock ’n’ Roll High School and 1988’s pitch-black comedy Heathers. The first, with its story of Ramones superfan P.J. Soles standing up her school’s strict new principal (cult movie legend Mary Woronov), cheerfully set the stage for the decade to come, and the second effectively closed the door on it. In it, Winona Ryder stars as the newest member of the most exclusive clique in school who falls under the spell of transfer student Christian Slater (literally playing a character named J.D.), who takes a page out of the Massacre at Central High playbook and starts methodically ridding his new school of its most popular (and, to his mind, least essential) pupils. Featuring a corrosively funny and endlessly quotable screenplay by Daniel Waters and dynamite direction from Michael Lehmann, Heathers is the ’80s high school comedy to end all ’80s high school comedies. You certainly wouldn’t be able to get away with making it today.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

The Papaw Project

A Family Re-enchantment ◆ by Shayne Laughter

This story from the Papaw Project collection, “The Stronger,” was published in the Spring 2011 Bacopa Literary ReviewShayne will read “The Last” — based on her great grandfather’s encounter with a mystery on the Kansas prairie — at 1:30 pm, Saturday, August 31, at the 2013 Fourth Street Festival’s Spoken Word Stage.

It was a classic setup.  In 2007, I moved back to Bloomington from Seattle to get Mom through knee replacement surgery. “Would you please go through this trunk,” she said, “and throw out some of Papaw’s papers?” A classic setup, and a classic payoff.  Granddaughter meets Grandfather’s writings in a file folder stashed away in a trunk.

My Papaw died in 1976, age 81.  An autopsy showed that he had been enduring Alzheimer’s, which explained the bad temper of his last years. Elmer Guy Smith had been born in Tipton County in 1895, the late baby of four children.  He had two years of military service in Paris and fifteen years as a Veterans Administration payroll accountant in Washington, DC, but lived most of his life in Bloomington and Monroe County.

Elmer Smith had more poetry in his nature than was entirely helpful to a farming family teetering on the edge of poverty.  His parents had come north from Kentucky to work more fruitful land in Indiana. After a few years in Tipton County, they wound up south of Bloomington on South Rogers Street, on acreage bordering the Monon track between Indianapolis and Louisville.


Elmer Guy Smith, 1920

The farm house was built in 1848 and burned in the 1930s, after Elmer finally sold the place. Elmer called it Glen Echo Farm. He wrote in a 1976 letter (all quote marks are his):

I have never “set foot on the 28 hopeless acres” since 1924. Highway #37 came later, but when I sold, it was very inaccessible – across two railroads and the creek that often flooded, carry (sic) raw sewage from the “city plant” and creosote from the plant ¼ mile north. In dry weather the R. R. engines set fire to the pasture grass, and I would have to run down the hill, & grab the bucket of water and jute-sack I kept there, to try and beat out the fire, before it ruined the pasture-land.

(The creek he mentions is Clear Creek, and the creosote plant was still in operation at the south end of the Monon [now CSX] Switchyard, during my childhood in the 1960s.)

At Bloomington High School, Elmer won honors for his poetry and essays.  He graduated and went off to the Great War in 1918, came down with the Spanish Flu and shipped to an infirmary in a chateau the minute he set foot in France. He had trained as a machine gunner; the flu was probably what saved his life. Few of his unit survived battle.

Being six feet tall, Elmer was reassigned to Military Police once he had recovered his health.  His post was Gare Montparnasse in Paris, after Armistice and during the peace talks at Versailles. Elmer kept a diary and asked his family to keep the letters he sent home; he had an idea he wanted to be a writer.

From the same 1976 letter:  From that house one could hear the “echo down the valley” as the trains went a-whistlin’ south-bound. From there I went “down the valley” on the “troop-train” with a lot of other Monroe County boys, in 1918.

In the early 1930s, his wartime letters and diary entries were published as weekly columns in the Bloomington Evening World  (he took his five-year-old daughter with him to deliver them, and she got bit by the newspaper bug).  He carefully clipped the columns and glued them into the pages of blank books he paid to have printed with the column’s title on the cover and spine: Away From Glen Echo.  It was a poor man’s vanity publication; just three copies were made.

Then, when Elmer was forty years old — husband and father of two, eking out a living as a Library Assistant at IU under the WPA — he was finally able to take college courses, thanks to Depression-era schemes for WPA workers and War veterans.   Accounting turned out to be a breadwinner, but English Composition was where his heart had been aiming since boyhood. In these classes he was finally able to play with his memories and family tales, to shape them and see what could come up from under his pen.

By the time Elmer died, I was already familiar with Away From Glen Echo.  I didn’t like my grandfather’s writing at all. He was sentimental and used far too many “quote marks.” I felt deeply embarrassed for him.

Yet when I read through the little class assignments, something was different.  He wasn’t giving an account; he was using bits of his memories to tell a story. He still wasn’t terribly good, but he had a knack for descriptions of country life. That knack beamed like a sweeping radar arm, showing me where jewels lay buried. I knew I could reach them, with fiction.

Four years later, I have finished three stories of a four-story collection based on these writings. Does that mean the stories are now mine?  Or are they still his? Papaw did plenty of fictionalizing himself, since he obviously changed place and character names to mask his loved ones and his home.

My mother – now eighty-six and a long-retired newspaper editor — isn’t sure she agrees with my enthusiasm for fictionalizing her father’s life. I’m okay with that. For me, this “Papaw Project” isn’t about reporting what happened. It’s about fiction’s re-enchantment of a hard country life – and the jewels Elmer could not quite reach.

Shayne Laughter, is the author of the novel: YU: A Ross Lamos Mystery.

In the early 1930s, Elmer Smith’s wartime letters and diary entries were published as weekly columns in the Bloomington Evening World.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

FILM: Radiation’s Rising…

“…but one mustn’t grumble too much” – Nuclear apocalypse in Richard Lester’s film, The Bed-Sitting Room ◆ by Tom Prasch

Some readers may find this hard to believe but many years ago, before the zombie apocalypse was all the rage, nuclear apocalypse was quite fashionable.  The nuclear nightmare may have been somewhat less alarming than a world consumed by zombies but nevertheless, at the time, it seemed equally plausible.  Frightening books were published, grim PBS documentaries aired, and of course there were movies, most somber but a few satiric. One of the best of these was Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room.

A man in tattered formal wear—it only looks proper from the chest up—knocks on a door that no longer leads to any house.  He announces “I am the BBC,” and he sticks his head behind an empty television box to read “the last news.” The Central Line tube still works, thanks to a lone man on a bicycle, England’s sole source of power, but when a family that has been riding the circuit for years decides to leave (because the vending machines in the underground have run out of chocolate bars), the still-functioning escalator drops them into piles of ash.  A policeman roams the ruined landscape in a Volkswagen beetle dangling from a hot-air balloon, shouting warnings to the meandering nomads below to “keep moving.” A postman carries a cream pie across the blasted landscape, through ponds of muck, across mountains of ruin; you probably know what will happen when it reaches its destination. Such are the conditions for what’s left of London and Londoners (all twenty of them) in the wake of nuclear apocalypse in Richard Lester’s dark farce.

Bizarre nuclear mutations beset the population: Lord Fortnum fears (quite rightly, it turns out) that he is turning into a bed-sitting room; mother transforms into a chest of drawers (we get a hint of the direction of her change when she can no longer move and, weeping, opens a drawer in her chest to fetch a handkerchief) and father turns into a pigeon (who then commits suicide, providing a dark last meal for the family). Penelope, meanwhile, the daughter of the roving family, is 17 months pregnant and worries about the “monster” in her womb (when she tells her boyfriend, Alan, “I can’t bear to go through with it … having this monster,” he reassures her, sort of: “Well, no one else can have it, can they?”). Meanwhile, raucous instrumental music-hall tunes play constantly in the background, suggesting a sort of deranged Kurt Weill, save when they are replaced now and again by strains of “God save Mrs. Ethel Shroake, of 393A High Street, Leytonstone” (the awkward refiddling of the traditional tune to accommodate the nearest surviving relation to the preapocalyptic queen).

Lester assembled a remarkable cast of comic actors, many with rich experience in theater, music hall, and television comedy (Dudley Moore, Rita Tushingham, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, Mona Washbourne, and Ralph Richardson, among others). He adapted Milligan’s stage play to the visual conventions of cinema, filming in a range of devastated rubbish-heaped locations. He mixed pun-heavy pratfalling music-hall comedy with the bleakness of Samuel Beckett (or perhaps just amplifying the vaudeville side of Beckett’s Godot). The result is a stark dark farcical vision of post-nuclear apocalyptic Britain. Comic and depressing in equal measure, the film offers a rich opportunity to examine the limits of genre in treatments of the apocalypse. Can sketch comedy make nuclear apocalypse its territory for the length of a feature film? Does the end of civilization as we know it work well as farce?


Rita Tushingham & Richard Lester

The short answer to the question, at the time of the film’s release, was: no. Lester had, in the mid-1960s, established a name for himself with a series of highly popular, inventive film comedies—the two Beatles films, Hard Days Night (1964) and Help! (1965), mod-London-set The Knack (1965), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), all of which seemed to catch something of the mood of the rapidly changing decade. But, later in the 1960s, the hit machine faltered; the two films that immediately preceded Bed Sitting Room, the antiwar comedy How I Won the War (1967) and a swinging-San Francisco-set romantic drama, Petulia (1968), failed to spark at the box office, and The Bed Sitting Room truly bombed.

Typical of the film’s reviews was the thrashing Vincent Canby gave it in the New York Times: “The movies of Richard Lester … seem to get worse in direct relation to the seriousness of their intentions. The Bed Sitting Room is Lester’s most seriously intended film to date…. Apocalyptic or prophetic cinema, whether it is in the form of science fiction or farce, demands more than picturesque sets and costumes and a decent, concerned sensibility.” Other reviewers were similarly unenthused. While making the film, Lester noted for the New York Times: “The fact that they don’t know what a bed-sitting room is in America poses a problem, of course,” but he seemed relatively unconcerned about the point. Perhaps he should have worried more, but the obscure title likely had less to do with the film’s utter failure than the inability of audiences to appreciate Lester’s tone and style. They stayed away in droves.  As Roger Ebert noted in 1976: “It was … a total disaster at the box office. So great was its failure, indeed, that Lester didn’t get another directing assignment until 1974 and The Three Musketeers.” The time was not ripe for apocalyptic farce.

Lester himself seemed to have second thoughts about the work, indeed, even as he filmed it. He explained to Mark Shivas of the New York Times, in an article tellingly titled “Well, the Bomb Is Always Good for a Laugh”: “The film will be much more barren than the play, much sadder and less frenzied. There are moments of people sitting alone in an empty field, hungry and trying to eat grass. It’s sad, and I didn’t feel sad at the play. I hope, though, that it’ll be as funny as the original as well. …I’m not able to tell whether it’s funny, because I feel terribly sorry for these people, cartoons though they may be. They’re cut-outs moving through abstract landscapes.”

Richard Lester


This hardly sounds like advance publicity that will bring audiences into theaters. Lester even shared some concerns about potential box office during filming: “farce seems to me one of the best ways to do this, partly because more people are inclined to see a farce and partly because the result of the bomb can perhaps be more easily suggested by giving surrealist parallels than by showing actual realistic desolation…. Actually, I’d have felt much more confident about this had How I Won the War been seen by a larger number of people.”

Decades later, talking to Steven Soderbergh, comparing his film to Milligan’s source play, Lester noted that the play was “funnier.” Soderbergh asked: “Do you think literalizing stuff hurt it?”, and Lester responded: “The only way we could try to literalize it was to produce excesses like a huge pile of boots and teeth and things like that…. Spike didn’t like the film particularly. He felt it was bleak and that worried him.…. It was a depressing film to work on. It was painful. And that came over.”

The Bed Sitting Room may have simultaneously anachronistic and ahead of its time.  For Lester, anachronism reflected a deliberate choice, as he explained at the time: “I was interested in how the Bomb has become a sort of period piece, how it’s almost ‘that old thing’ we mention rather apologetically after we’ve discussed violence, civil rights and Vietnam…. I thought it would be nice to remind the audience that the B-52s go on flying, and farce seems to me one of the best ways to do this.”   Roger Ebert, writing in 1976, argued that the film was released before its time: “If Monty Python’s Flying Circus had never existed, Richard Lester would still have invented it. In 1970 [sic] he directed The Bed Sitting Room, a film which so uncannily predicts the style and manner of Python that we think for a moment we’re watching television. The movie’s dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British.”  It is not clear, however, if this constitutes an endorsement by Ebert.

So what, finally, is this film about? Usually, the answer to such a question could begin with a quick outline of the plot for those who have not seen it or have seen it too long ago. But here, there is no plot to speak of. For the most part, there are disconnected characters or small groups whose courses intersect in arbitrary ways as they meander across the devastated postwar landscape.

We can notice some minor character arcs, perhaps most notably the romance plot between Penelope and Alan, although that is complicated by the fact that she is already pregnant and by her father’s decision to marry her off to Bules Martin for political reason (the father having just been selected to be the new prime minister, on the basis of the length of his inseam). Still, the longest monologue in the film connects to the romance plot, when Penelope talks about the boy then asleep in her lap, although as declaration of love her speech is rather odd: “I will say this for him, I can’t really say anything for him, except he’s like a sheet of white paper. I haven’t seen a sheet of white paper for years I could draw a face on.” And there’s another developing romance as well, between the bed-sitting room and the cabinet of drawers.

Beyond such stray bits, however, the only arc is downward. Through the course of the film, conditions worsen, and near its close, as a radiated fog arrives (made only slightly amusing by gasmasks with funny animal faces on them), as Penelope’s finally-born baby dies, as starvation looms, things look very bleak indeed until the police inspector arrives, dangling on a ladder from his balloon and announces: “I’ve just come from an audience with Mrs. Ethyl Shroake and I’m empowered by her to tell you, that in the future clouds of poisonous nuclear fog will no longer be necessary, mutations will cease any day…. All in all, I think we’re in for a time of peace, prosperity, and stability. The earth will burgeon anew, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the goat give suck to the tiny bee. At times of great national emergency, we often find that a new leader tends to emerge. Here I am, so watch it!” Even the rosy ending is undercut, however, by a final BBC news flash: “I have great news for the country. Britain is a first-class nuclear power once again.” (Never mind that the new status is only earned because one undelivered bomb has been returned to sender by the postman, with fees due; it still suggests something about lessons not learned.)

Over the course of this unstory, three broad targets for Lester’s satire emerge. The first and most obvious though in some ways least important, is the war itself, and specifically the dynamics of a possible nuclear war. The BBC man’s “final news” near the outset makes this clear, as he reports the Prime Minister’s speech: “On this, the third, or is it fourth, anniversary of the nuclear misunderstanding that led to the third world war, here is the last recorded statement of the Prime Minister, as he then was… ‘I feel I am not boastful when I remind you that this war was the very shortest war in living memory: 2 minutes and 28 seconds up to and including the grave process of signing the peace treaty. The great task of burying our forty million dead was also carried out with great expediency and good will.” The nature of this new war is such that no one served, or is sure what happened; as Bules Martin says, when Lord Fortnum tells him he slept through the war and never got to serve: “Neither did I. Mind you, I was standing by, ready to face the enemy, whoever they might be, but I couldn’t find them. Tell me, do you know, who was the enemy?”

But nuclear-war gags can only go so far, and indeed the broader focus of Bed-Sitting Room’s comedy is about two aspects of British society thrown into comic relief by the new conditions of the postapocalypse: deeply rooted institutions, and even more deeply rooted traits of character. Institutions held up for abuse range from formal political ones like the National Health Service to more socially constructed institutions like the class system. That political institutions have now tended to be reduced to a single person—a one-person military that carries out both sides of a conversation just to make up for the fact that there is no one to follow his orders; a single nurse comprising the National Health Service, and one played alarmingly by Marty Feldman; that man on the bike who is the Electrical Board, and who has to keep peddling to keep the juice flowing—makes the institutional comedy a bit easier. That they are still filling out forms (even for a custard pie’s delivery), or that, when only twenty people are alive in Britain, it would be anyone’s concern who among them was closest in line to the throne, seem absurd, but it is the sort of absurdity that makes us question those conventions in our own time as well. Social conventions, most notably the class system, work in a similar way. When everyone is ragged and starving, the logic of titles and privilege seems especially unclear (particularly when how those titles were determined is also fuzzy; Lord Fortnum notes that he “acquired the title from a social person who had fallen on hard times”). But that these aristocrats would seek to maintain their class views and prejudices under the changed circumstances seems more absurd still. Thus, when Lord Fortnum learns in what neighborhood he has made his final transformation he pleads with Bules Martin: “Put a sign in the window. No coloured. No children. And definitely no coloured children.” That such views are still appropriate for someone who is now a bed-sitting room—and, frankly, a rather shabby one at that, much improved when the chest of drawers joins him—makes  such views seem more absurd, but again in a way that opens them to question outside the limited realm of the film’s postapocalyptic timeframe.

Beneath these satiric targets, and informing the structure of them, is the film’s most central target and interest: that stiff-upper-lipped British character. Bules Martin, holding a bottle of milk up to the light and looking somewhat dubiously at the odd color of the stuff, comments to himself: “Radiation’s rising. Still, mustn’t grumble too much.” The theme is picked up by Alan later in the movie, when he tells Penelope, “We’ll just have to keep going.” “What for?,” she wants to know; “Because we’re British,” he tells her. Penelope, in fact, is having none of it: “British, what a lot of use that is. We don’t even know who’s won the war. Run out of food, no medicine, we’re eating our parents. British!” But even her protests serve to accentuate the theme: that it is the peculiar character of the British to soldier through whatever the circumstances, and to pretend as much as possible that there just is nothing wrong.

That Britishness makes these characters endearing, connects us to them in ways that their roles do not quite justify. That Britishness makes this story more tragic, since after all no one is ever convinced by deus ex machina as a way out of hopeless situations (it’s why Aristotle panned Euripides, after all). But that Britishness also makes the film more insular, since audiences outside Britain not only are unlikely to know what a bed-sitting room is but will have dim if any connections to the institutions the film mocks, the comic stylings it borrows from music-hall conventions and Goon Show bits, or the locations it ravages. That Britishness is thus the film’s great virtue and the source of its box-office doom.

Photo caption
Rita Tushingham and director Richard Lester.
Photo caption #2
A policeman roams the ruined landscape in a Volkswagen beetle dangling from a hot-air balloon in The Bed Sitting Room.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

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