Peasant Happiness

Celebrating the Cultural Revolution in China ■ by Molly Gleeson

It all started with a phone call.  “Do you want to go to Peasant Happiness with my mother this weekend?” my friend Marsha asked.  I thought perhaps this was the greatest oxymoron I had ever heard.  “What,” I asked, “is Peasant Happiness?”

“It’s a place that celebrates the Cultural Revolution,” she said.

“But Marsha,” I said, “wasn’t the Cultural Revolution a really terrible time for China?”

“Oh, it was really bad for the country, but for individuals it was really quite fun,” Marsha said.

This is the same well-educated, well-traveled woman who said to me when I balked at “registering” at the local police office, “It’s just so if anything happens to you you’ll be treated like a citizen.”  I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to be treated like a citizen.  In any case, I wouldn’t go to Peasant Happiness that weekend, but Marsha had put it in my mind and I was curious.

I convinced my student friends Alice and Ida to join me one spring weekend to visit one of these Peasant Happiness’s, just outside Chongqing.  We took a bus and then motorcycle taxis up a mountain and arrived around 9: 00 p.m.  There are hundreds of these places in China, and dozens of them around Chongqing.  However, only a handful of them have the Cultural Revolution as their theme.  This one was called Longjishuanzhuang or “The Spine of the Dragon Peasant Happiness.”  We met the manager, the indomitable Mrs. Luo.  She told us this that “old intellectuals who worked on farms during the Cultural Revolution” pass through its gate every week.  Indeed, from looking around it seemed that most people there that weekend were between the ages of 50 and 70.  I certainly was the only laowai (foreigner) and Alice and Ida seemed extremely young in this company.  Most people would only stay a night or two, watching a performance about the Cultural Revolution one night and playing mah jong the rest of the time.  Mrs. Luo said these old-timers come here to “remember history and to renew their memory” and although they were “tough times” it makes them “appreciate what they have now,” she said.  Over a meal of preserved duck eggs, sour vegetable and fish soup, egg and tomato soup, fried corn kernels and a local vegetable known as kongxin cai, Ida proclaimed: “I think these people come here because the food is very delicious.”

We got a room to ourselves, and proceeded to play mah jong.  I was getting pretty good at it.  When we got tired of that Alice and Ida borrowed my camera and took endless pictures of themselves while I read Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn.  The next morning my friends got up early to explore the place and then came to wake me up.  It was Friday morning and the place started to fill up.  We took a walk around the grounds – full of fruit trees in bloom and a spectacular view of the Jialing River and the district of Shapingba beyond.  There was a large pagoda with tables for mah jong along this route.  A group of older people were already hard at it.  We were curious about them, and they were a little curious about us.  We weren’t the average visitors to this place.  I asked one of the men, a Mr. Xu, why he was here.  “We’re here to honor our memories,” he said, and added, “We’re here to remember and celebrate our youth.”.  Mr. Xu is 58.  He said he and his friends go to different Peasant Happinesses every month.  He said they were teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, and were sent to work in China’s burgeoning natural gas industry.  Mr. Xu’s education was delayed ten years because of the Cultural Revolution.  However, he considers himself “very patriotic” and is proud of what he and his friends did for China.  Mr. Xu admitted that Mao Zedong made a mistake with the Cultural Revolution, but that he was still a great leader.  He went back to playing mah jong.  So did we.  I won three times in a row.

Later I went for a massage, a service provided on the grounds of this Peasant Happiness.  I attracted quite an audience.  The masseuse assured me that it could help me lose weight.  I thought, well, it sure beats exercise.

That night was the performance.  I counted on my friends to translate for me, but they had a difficult time of it because it was all in Chongqinghua, the local dialect.  The show began with the entire cast, all in Red Guard uniforms, singing popular songs of the time.  The audience was encouraged to join in on “All the Members are the Flowers Facing the Sun” and “A Song for Zhiqing” (“Young Members of the Community”).  The emcee for the evening said that the performance was meant to “remind us of the Cultural Revolution”.  The players chanted that the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was “to fight against the imperialists and to build China like Mao said.”

The performance went through the various stages of the Cultural Revolution.  There was an actor praising Mao but it was difficult for my translators to grasp.  There was a story of a young girl, forced to marry the feudal lord’s son because her father had no money for taxes.  There were scenes of “materialists” being punished.  One poignant scene was a teenage girl having to leave her parents to go work in the countryside.  An audience member walked up on stage and presented the actress with flowers.  Anytime an audience member was moved, they would go up on stage and give flowers to the actors.  Plastic flowers were provided in front of the stage.  I thought if there was one thing many of these audience members could relate to, it would be leaving their parents to be “re-educated” in the countryside.  The performance soon ended, with rousing songs and flags flying.  They marched through the audience.  And then the disco lights came down and there was a “dance party”.  We didn’t stick around for it.  I went back to reading about materialists and imperialists in Phineas Finn.


Karl Wu, who owns a bar in Shapingba, has gone to many Peasant Happinesses.  He was only a child when the Cultural Revolution happened, but he does remember that his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in the countryside because the situation in Chongqing was precarious.  Wu said he doesn’t agree with the politics of the time, but goes to these places because he wants to re-live his youth.  He said young people today don’t know the history of the Cultural Revolution, and they should.  He said Mao is “like a god in our minds.”  People don’t think of him like that anymore, however, he added.  ”It’s not to say he didn’t make mistakes, I’m not saying that, but he is the most important person in recent Chinese history.”

I contacted Dr. David Arkush, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Iowa.  I asked him if he thought it was weird to “celebrate” the Cultural Revolution in this way.  He said he could understand it because people have a need for nostalgia, and that was certainly what Peasant Happiness was all about.  In spite of the terrible things that went on during that time, he said it was a more innocent time.  There wasn’t the corruption that there is today, he added.  There wasn’t the disillusionment.  He said it was great for young people – they got to travel when no one was traveling.  They got to see some of China and to try new things.

Alice, Ida and I stayed until the next day.  We tried to get lunch, but Mrs. Luo said it was only for the groups that came and we weren’t part of a group.  So we left.  As we were leaving some of the workers there told us that we had been cheated badly – we were charged separately for our room and for meals, when everyone else just paid one fee.  This fee was considerably lower than what we had paid.   Laowai beware.  We took a bus down the mountain and back to our lives.

The Ryder, January 2013

BOOKS: James Joyce’s Day Of The Dead

A Latino Reading of Finnegans Wake ■ by Carlos Bakota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ryder, January 2013

FILM: Top Picks From The Multiplex To The Arthouse

■ By Craig J. Clark

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


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

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


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

Cabin In The Woods


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

The Ryder, January 2013

BOOKS: The Year In Books, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Silver: A Manifesto For Reality-Based Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Boo’s Stunning Look At Economic Disparity In Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More 2012 Fiction to read:

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

◗ Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012) by Michael Chabon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are here.

The Ryder, January 2013


FILM: The Year In Film, 2012

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

◗ The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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

◗ Moonrise Kingdom

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

Moonrise Kingdom

◗ The Avengers

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

◗ Silver Linings Playbook

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

◗ Lincoln

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

The Ryder, January 2013

FILM: Monika Treut’s Gender Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treut Films: Seduction of Cruel Women

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

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


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

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

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

Female Misbehavior

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

Warrior of Light

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

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

The Ryder ◆ October 2011

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