Friday, April 25

Racism on stage

I never thought the class I would most explicitly deal with racism would be Beginning Tap Dance. I could very easily imagine it happening in English where so much of the theory seems interested in problematizing the Protestant, white male canon and drawing out marginalized voices, but gender has received greater play there than racism. Even in a hard science or philosophy class by means of mea culpas for granting legitimacy to theories of degeneracy and social Darwinism could I see racism cropping up before dance. Knowing what I do now, it should not surprise me that much. The origins of tap lie with the rhythmic dancing of African slaves in the Americas. Until suits and spats and class were integrated into the dance, clear references to clumsy, oafish slaves were a major component of performances and moves based on these slurs still remain in the canon.

The other thing is, within those other classes, we would have approached racism detachedly. We could have seen what these people in the past believed and wrote; said they were wrong, stupid, wrong, bigoted, wrong; and gone on with the lesson. In Beginning Tap, however, we created a piece which told the story of tap. You cannot just say then that racism and slavery are wrong but must show it too. Naturally, the question of how do we deal with this emerged, and we had to consciously deal with it.

Allow me to lay down the story from the beginning, to the end, in its entirety. The idea of a collaboration piece in which all of the dancers would perform in isolated segments according to a narrative was proposed early in the semester, and our instructor expressed her desire to integrate some sort of social statement on class or race issues or whatnot in it. That was the extent of it for a while since we got distracted by practicing for our '50's rock medley and Singing in the Rain. However, as the time of the recital grew closer and we still had not begun developing the piece, I grew nervous with how it might go down without time to re-evaluate or debate.

I am really uncomfortable with race issues. They are simply something that has not immediately appeared in my life. My hometown in northern Minnesota was homogeneous enough that not having a pure Scandinavian or Germanic heritage was enough to make you stand out, and diversity in ethnicity and race is a continuing problem at Gonzaga where roughly only 15% of the last few freshman classes have not been white. All I ever needed to learn about racism I learned from Sesame Street and believed it should be enough to simply accept that people are people, all bleed red and should be treated according to how they act and what they do, not the color of their skin. That is the solution, end of story, all that needs to be said regarding racism. Time to move on to ending poverty or some other problem. What good is it to keep harping on a past of injustices when we know better know?

I finally spoke with our instructor after class and expressed my concerns that we were not adequately prepared to deal sensitively and appropriately with this issue. Thankfully, she agreed with me. While not willing to scrap the idea, I gave her the name and contact information of one of the heads of Gonzaga's multi-cultural program. Eventually this turned up another multi-cultural director who agreed to help the class out. He originally came just to teach us the hambone but eventually became the reader of our story and accompanying drum player. I was content at this point. Accusations of insensitivity would be harder with him to vet our decisions.

The major problem emerged when the piece was finally assembled. Our instructor began the piece by describing how the masters took away the drums of the slaves to kill their culture. This was accomplished on stage by having a student whip the floor as the drum, played off-stage, faded out. Despite the class' discomfort with this, the strongest protests were not raised until the second-to-last rehearsal. Then our instructor added a white hood to the whipping student's outfit.

She gave two reasons. First, to shield him from any potential backlash for playing a disgusting part. Second, to draw the racism into the present, remind the audience that racism is not simply a vestige of the pre-Civil War era but was still present decades ago. This lead to near mutiny. I do not remember a single student in support of this in the least and the featured student tried to go over our instructor's head when she refused to bend. He was met with the same answer at all levels. Racism and a history of slavery are not something we should be comfortable with. Why should we present it in a less than uncomfortable way?

We ended up doing the piece as she wanted it, but that does not settle the question, unless your question was "Who would break first, instructor or students?" I still stand by my original conviction. People are people and should be treated according to who they are and should not be tainted by any stereotypes of any group they belong to. I think that is where the class was at. For us, "racism is bad" is redundant. We know that and have never been told differently. The challenge for us is to figure out exactly what is racism. Our instructors, however, remember when large segments of the American population and public officials were still fighting integration. A good number of people still had to be convinced then that blacks should share the front of the bus with whites, a far cry from affirmative action to be sure. Partially, I think their resistance to our protests was based on this experience of racism.

In general, I think our student understanding of racism is better. The debate whether racism is right is over. Racism is wrong, so let us treat one another equally. We do not need to keep every imperial colonial power, every act of oppression, every genocide in mind at all times. They were wrong, if not outright evil, and we must not repeat their mistakes. The past cannot be atoned for, but we can do better in the future because we realize we all deserve some measure of respect and kindness just for living and being human.

For the piece though, I have since come around to agreeing with our instructors. I am still wary of the hood since the Klan was formed after the Civil War, but cruel things are a part of tap's history. It did not begin with Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire but with slavery. I doubt anyone in the audience needed to be reminded that treating people as property was wrong, but to treat something so cruel in a way gentle to the audience and even us as performers would be disingenuous. If we are going to deal with evil, let us deal with it honestly and not as we would prefer to. Beware excess and hyperbole, but do not forget that whips were used.

Tuesday, April 22

Considering "The Cult of Sincerity"

Lately I have been discovering something about those movies which most resonate with me. These are not merely the films which grasp my attention with brilliant artistry or stick in my mind with a clever line but those which strike a deep chord and firmly wedge themselves in my mind, the movies which ask to be mulled over and actually emerge in my life. These are the movies whose characters fight this sense that things are not quite right, not just in their own lives but with all of society are off. The characters strike off on their own to try and discover the truth and the ways things ought to be. Fight Club and American Beauty did it in 1999, and Into the Wild went after it again almost a decade later in 2007.

The latest of these films to catch my attention is The Cult of Sincerity. Released early this April, much of the accompanying press has been about its unique method of release, straight to YouTube. You can find the entire film there, free of charge. Revenue is generated through a partnership with the music site Amie Street. Undoubtedly, this is a fascinating idea, and I hope it works because I would very much enjoy the opportunity more independent films receive a broader release. However, my concerns lie less with the economics than the film itself, something which has been passed by in favor of singing the praises of its new business model.

The titular Cult of Sincerity is an idea developed by the lead character, Joseph, at open-mic night. Driven by his parent's recent divorce, the twenty-something lashes out against the entire hipster generation and a bar full of them. Joseph calls them to task and disparages their philosophy, their fashion, their lack of caring in the strongest terms possible. He wants out. He wants something to believe in and care about. Once off the stage, he goes about it moronically.

At first Joseph strives for doing the right thing all the time and generally makes a nuisance of himself rushing to open doors and give directions. After getting arrested for turning a dime bag in to the police, he tries to apologize for everything and only ends up revealing his own ignorance in the process. At least, he is trying. The majority of his friends, stuck in their respective narcissistic, nihilistic, juvenile ruts, fare no better, and their scenes demonstrate excellently what Joseph is striving to throw off. I am not ready to say "Sorry for the atom bomb," but I am bloody well not planning on falling asleep playing Guitar Hero and waking up to it in the morning or shooting the edgiest, most hyperreal film yet.

Still, Joseph's desperate search for meaning and the right thing does bear some fruit by the end. With the help of a friend, whom he screws with something terrible, and a guy at the bar, Joseph bears witness to either the most beautiful thing you will ever see or the most stupid, love. It all depends on whether you believe in it. And that is the trick, is it not? If you are not willing to believe in it, it can never mean anything.

I do not dispute that Joseph is spot on in identifying the problem. Though his attack is broad and against a segment of the population that is not terribly hard to disparage, there is something vile in hipster culture. It neither celebrates nor honors anything except that which can provoke a response, and the response itself does not matter so long as it exists. I have no argument with his antidote either. The only proper response to apathy is passion. The only remaining problem is telling us exactly what love is and what it demands of us. Joseph certainly does things that look loving and knows an awful lot of other people pursuing the same thing in their own ways. Certainly some are better than others, but none seem quite right. The rest is up to us, I guess. Normally, I would rail against a work that merely asks the question and fails to provide much of answer, but it seems appropriate here. Like Joseph, we need to go out and discover it for ourselves. We need to know that it is right and not merely be told so.

As for the film itself, it is an enjoyable watch. Understandably low budget, it excels in creating an appropriate mood and tone through its location, soundtrack and acting, Joseph's roommate particularly impressing me. The writing is generally strong, not quite ready for an Oscar, but honest. The Cult of Sincerity's only severe weakness is its failure to distinguish itself artistically. Its shots, varied and engaging, feel as if they have been lifted straight from film school textbooks. Its creators are young though, and I anticipate seeing their later works as they mature and their unique voices develop. Then, of course, there is its true independent aesthetic, shot guerilla style and on-site. It makes for a much different experience than any sharp studio film or "independent" movie starring Nicole Kidman or George Clooney.

Interested in seeing it for yourself? Here is the link to the complete movie. Not ready to sit at your computer for the next hour and a half or want a better sense of whether it is worth your time? Here is the trailer. The cultofsincerity channel offers scenes of some of the more philosophically engaging moments and the other two links, in case you want them all in the same place or whatever.

Sunday, April 20

Father and son

And here we have my accepted submission to this semester's Charter and the partner piece to "Off-balance," my last photo post. Content-wise, it is more of the same: a chuckle at how out of place these suburban types look at a downtown skatepark, but I find the photo's structure far more interesting here. It was simpler in the other, just a single, dominant subject, but a bit more is going on this time around. The two subjects, a father and son, are sitting in near identical positions on one of the park's walls, both looking towards the right, but a sharp division, several times repeated, separates them. The line of graffiti breaks between them, two poles stand in the middle and the background becomes considerably darker on the son's side. The presence of the convertible Beetle, half-hidden by the wall, gives a little more weight to the father's side, too. Still, there is a general similarity in the fore- and backgrounds that delivers a sense of unity that transcends these differences.

It is unfortunate then that I have no clue what this all leads to. There is a lot going on and I feel there must be some meaning that lies beneath it all, but I do not see it. I could suggest that the two are the same person. The son is the father a few decades younger, and the son will eventually grow into an adult and become just like his father. The father looks towards his past, the son towards his future and they find it in the same place, but that all sounds awfully pretentious. Ultimately, I guess this all just feeds into my friend Emmett's understanding that the artist is hardly ever aware of all that they put into their work, but that just raises the question "How much is a snapshot art?" art with me, a question I am not now prepared to answer.

If you have the time, it is worth kicking around and checking out the other submissions to Reflection. Personally, I recommend Anthony DeLorenzo's "Untitled," Martha Buttry's "Love Song to the Argentine Mullet," Sabrina Mauritz's "On my way to lunch," and Spencer Allison's "The Grieving Process."

Monday, April 14

Understanding art

While covering the new art exhibition at Gonzaga for the student newspaper, something fascinating happened to me. I had the opportunity to ask an artist whether my understanding of their work was right. Okay, I can think of things far more fascinating, especially for the bulk of any audience I might have attracted, but for a guy who has been bothered for some time now by questions of whether priority in artistic interpretation lies in the artist or audience, this is a big deal. Trust me.

To cut to the short of it and avoid the extensive narrative of multiple attempts to make contact with Ms. Ingalls, a tale replete with wrong phone numbers and conflicting schedules, my interpretation of her exhibit was right. She was celebrating everyday life in her paintings of domestic spaces and stovetops. Eggs on the stove? A bathroom several times removed from those found in Home & Garden? All common and beautiful and worthy of our attention. How much of that interpretation was purely mine is debatable as I did interview the museum's assistant curator and read the associated tri-fold first, but, when I asked whether she would agree with my interpretation, her agreement was enthusiastic. I must say, it is kind of a heady feeling to not merely believe but know you get it.

But then that feeling kind of fades. After all, part of the fun in art is arguing to the point of broken friendships whether the artist is offering a message of hope or despair, being satirical or serious. Debates revolving around art, unlike those on physics or political science or anything with numbers really, retain a good deal of subjectivity. When the majority of evidence is drawn from only your own opinions and experiences, no research or history necessary, anyone can play the expert, but if the artist goes ahead and judges which one of you is right, that all kind of falls apart unless you honestly feel like telling the artist they had no idea what they were actually creating. What's left then besides analyses of technique, placement in some historical context and relationship to other works by other artists, topics not so readily approached by lay folk because they actually require some level of knowledge?

A fair bit, I think. There are the piece's emotional effects and style of representation or lack thereof. It seems arrogant, too, to leave the analysis at such a broad level. Even if the artist's theory never develops a single iota in some new direction, every piece approaches it in a unique way that bears a little reflection. Okay, so these are all celebrations of the common and everyday. How is she demonstrating that in this glance of a friend's living room?

Art, in the words of my design professor, is not all about the message. Otherwise it would be an editorial. This should be a no brainer. There is this whole aesthetic component after all. Obviously though, I had problems with it, and I think others may as well. I blame abstract modern art, the sorts of works which first cause the audience to question what exactly they are seeing before any other response rises in their minds. When we are distracted by attempts to figure out who exactly is doing what to whom, questions of whether we even like the piece or not tend to take a backseat or shift quickly to the latter due to unnecessary complexity.

Art is meant to be enjoyed as much as it to be understood. I just needed a reminder of that and maybe some others do to.

Granted, this little bit of analysis all comes from a guy who has not yet gone back to the original exhibit.

Saturday, April 5

Considering "Persepolis"

Beginning during my sophomore year, I took to decorating my room with newspaper clippings. Seemed appropriate for a Journalism major and, more importantly, was very cheap. You might even say it was free. Interesting articles and exceptional photographs from The Spokesman-Review and The New York Times have since graced my otherwise bare walls. Among them is a full-page advertisement for Persepolis, the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels. At the time, it represented more of an appreciation for the page design than any particular celebration of the film, which I had yet to see. Fortunately, however, Spokane's new non-profit, art house theater, The Magic Lantern, was able to bring it in for a few weeks, and I was finally able to see this remarkable French film, well deserving of its Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature but unfortunately placed against the equally excellent Ratatouille. Like few other films, Persepolis manages to successfully blend humor and drama and everything in-between, all while steadfastly remaining itself and not pretending to be anything else.

For an element that comes across so simplisticly in the stills, the animation really is brilliant. The black-and-white character designs are faithfully adapted from the original illustrations, no doubt due to the direct work of Satrapi on the film, but impressively infused with spirit by the animators. Motion is so beautiful in this film. Whether it is the young Satrapi practicing Bruce Lee's moves on a cousin or the history of Britain and the Shah re-enacted by marionettes, every movement is clean and distinctive. The serpentine attacks of two older women coming down on Satrapi for wearing Western clothing is a great example of the animators being able to bring personality into their characters so simply.

Which brings me to something curious, something I only realized several blocks after leaving the theater: no direct attacks were ever made upon religion. Given the strict, religiously-based laws of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic government and the prejudices of the Viennese nuns, this was quite the surprise. In fact, barring God's physical apparition a few times and the cross on the wall of Satrapi's room in Vienna, religion was hardly ever explicitly mentioned. Take this as you will, perhaps as a cynical attempt to not alienate potential audience members, but I understand it as an attempt to universalize the film. The problem is not religion but discrimination. Though religion is the particular form through which it appears in Satrapi's life, she does not confuse it for being the only source of oppression. Any force, any person which denies self expression and freedom based on gender or ethnicity or whatever is the problem.

Persepolis is a coming-of-age story. It follows Satrapi's life from child to adult, from Tehran to Vienna and back before the final journey to Paris. More than her failed romances, more than the fall of the Shah and rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, more than anything else, it is her maturation that gives structure to this film. Everything else is just another challenge she must deal with as she grows into adulthood. It is a timely theme for me. I am 20 years old and a junior in college. I am well past the age of consent and a couple of years past when a parent or guardian needed to sign papers with me. I can sire children. Next year I graduate, but I do not feel like much of an adult. Not long ago in America and still in many nations, I would be providing for my own family by now, but I very much remain dependent on my parents. Neither am I giving much to society, except for whatever being a consumer counts for. What does it mean to be an adult?

For Satrapi, adulthood is taking for responsibility for yourself and defining yourself on your own. When she is young, so much of what Satrapi says and believes comes off as parroting. Cute, especially in the bandanna, but parroting nonetheless. In Vienna, she falls in with nihilists and, after them, hippies. Satrapi becomes the people who surround her, and when they fail her, she runs. Through her grandmother's admonitions though, Satrapi begins to become herself. She reads and finds her own reasons for her beliefs. She stops pretending to be French and proudly stands by her Iranian heritage. She stops wallowing in self-pity and faces challenges rather than skirting them. The movie ends with her divorce and flight to Paris. By then has learned all she can from her family and leaves to stand on her own. Then she is an adult.

I do not agree wholly. Undoubtedly, these are good things, self-responsibility and self-definition, but their attainment alone is not enough to make one an adult because an adult is a member of a community. You do not become an adult in isolation but amongst other, through helping them on their own paths to fulfillment or adulthood or whatever. At some point, one must pass the lessons they have learned on to others, lead them further on. Then again, as already written, I am no adult myself and hardly in a position to be defining it, whatever inklings I might have. And not to appear too harsh to Ms. Satrapi, perhaps this film is Satrapi's lesson and its transmission.

Whether this assessment be true or not, it is a film with a few things to say about a few important things: adulthood, freedom, love. It is worth a see and a thought or two. Maybe even a discussion. At the very least, a blog post.