Monday, January 31, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me: An Introduction

"You think...that bad old science made the magic go away?" - Jenny Calendar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1

I've had my reviewer's copy of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me sitting on my bedside table, unread, for a shamefully long time. Part of the reason for this is that I wished so badly to have something to do with it. The editor, Kate Bernheimer, runs the Fairy Tale Review (along with being a teller of stories in her own right), and it's really no one's fault but my own that I haven't yet contributed. But on to my reading.

I've just begun, truth be told, and I've decided to make dispaches along the way. This is the first. It's going to be all about front matter.

The book is dedicated to Angela Carter as it should be. She is, in some ways, mother to us all. The brilliance with which she wrote both fiction and criticism, much of it pertaining to story telling of all different varieties is very nearly unparalleled. She influenced Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, Marina Warner, and on and on and on. Warner, formidable novelist and critic in her own right, first met Carter in the London Vogue offices in the 70s. She writes of Carter in her indispensable book From the Beast To the Blonde: on Fairy Tales and Their Tellers:
Her humor was of the unsettling variety, that made it necessary to examine one's own received ideas. It was so very impolite, with its particular idiosyncratic feminism, its blend of the irreverent and the gothic, its dazzling linguistic intricacy and relish for imagery...It is uncomfortable to list to the iambic distych, to know you are identifying yourself as an outsider by what you say, that all the disguises in the wardrobe will never fix identity, all the voices in the repertory will not tell the complete story.
She was a subversive and an intellectual and wore both on her sleeve. She, the greatest writer of the last half of the 20th century mostly worked in the form of the fairy tale. Carter's quote from the front-piece of this collection reads:
Ours is a highly individualized culture, with great faith in the work of art as a one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of domestic arts. "This is how I make potato soup."
In other words fairy tales live in the realm of the folk, of the collaborative, of women and fools and children and magic. I've seen a few bits of writing (supposedly very clever) recently, where people (mostly boys) examine very finely the mechanics of magic. Sometimes there is talk of what could happen, what couldn't happen, and what is real. This, of course, is very stupid indeed, as none of it is real. It's a fun parlor game to wonder how things work, but I've so often seen these sorts of writing serve as a denial or a cursory dismissal of the fictional magical or divine. It's all fiction. The ordinary workaday waiter or firefighter or coal miner could just as easily sprout wings and fly away. The realms of the literal might be more real, but I very much doubt they are more true. Literal mindedness in the face of fictional magic is the province of petty minds.

Kate Bernheimer's introduction made me tear up. It's one of the most passionate and beautifully written defenses of the form that I've read. Her mission, to gather all different kinds of writers to tell fairy tales is a magnificent thing. Along with usual suspects such as Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman who work in the form constantly, she has drafted people like Michael Cunningham and Neil LaBute who seem to be rather unlikely participants in such a project. But then one thinks of that often repeated quote of Nabakov's (which Bernheimer repeats): "All great novels are great fairy tales" and you realize that maybe these unlikely writers aren't so unlikely as they first appeared.

The forward by Gregory Maguire reads as something of a clarion call as well. It calls up the ghosts of Tolkien and Emily Dickinson and Prospero himself; Star Wars and the pre-Raphaelites and nursery rhymes and Hollywood's current little girls lost; Elsinore and Marley's chains and the leopard and his spots; Kensington Gardens and spiderwebs and the illustrations in old psalters and Bob Dylan and Sherwood Forrest. Fairy tales are held as something lesser, partly as Carter says above because there is no clear author in our great age of the individual. As Maguire quotes Hans Christian Andersen's translator: "The fairy tale belongs to the poor. I know of no fairy tale which upholds the tyrant, or takes the part of the strong against the weak. A fascist fairy tale is an absurdity."

Folk tradition is egalitarian by nature, whether they be tales of Baba Yaga or the songs sung by Woody Guthrie or Foolish Jack or The Cat in the Hat - they are subversive by nature, and they are all worth listening to.

As I read my way through this book, I'll be back with more opinions and things to say.

The Continuing Story of Carla Rhodes

I've been meaning to catch Carla Rhodes's act for a while now, and finally made it down to her monthly jaunt at Arlene's Grocery a frigid Sunday night a week ago.

Carla is a cool rock 'n' roll ventriloquist who escaped a miserable childhood and adolescence in Kentucky to make it to the big time here in Gotham. After seeing more solo shows (both live and on video) than, well, most people, I think she possesses in spades the most important element: being the sort of performer that people are happy to watch for an hour. It sounds so simple, so obvious. Yes, it's sometimes ever so elusive.

Carla is full of self-deprecating Southern charm, and her interactions with the awful under-bed alligator, a homeless squirrel and disturbing vaudevillian Cecil Sinclaire (pictured left) are all hugely entertaining. The show as a whole needs some work. Though Carla is a terrific performer, I felt the need for a little more forward momentum. The show is divided between her bedroom at home and her arrival in NYC, and there are simply too many numbers that all take place in one setting and don't really lead her anywhere new.

This really does seem to be ventriloquism week here at The Cabinet! That said, feel free to give Miss Arkansas a miss, and head downtown (or, uptown or into town, depending on where you're coming from), and catch Carla's very cool show. She'll be back at Arlene's Grocery on February 20.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Octopus Chandelier

One of the more delightful things about having a blog is that people send you stuff. Books, press tickets, what have you. But one of my favorite things to be sent are links or pictures. I once, in this very space, described my over-riding theory of interior decoration to be something like, "Dear God, please don't let me turn into the Collyer brothers.". But, realistically, I'm not within a million miles of being a Collyer. Really. I've seen Hoarders (but, honestly, I find it too upsetting to watch).

One day, if I am a multi-millionaire, I would like to have one of those mansions that is large enough to have theme rooms. Unsurprisingly, I would like one of these rooms to have the look of something one would find under the sea. If one was living in a nineteenth century comic book. My BFF recently steered me toward the work of artist Adam Wallacavage. Primarily a photographer, he also creates octopus chandeliers. Needless to say, I want one. Or two. I covet an Adam Wallacavage octopus chandelier with a passion that nearly frightens me.

Incidentally, his blog is also delightful.

If you wish to purchase me an Octopus Chandelier, Adam Wallacavage is represented by the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York City. All photos belong to the artst.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Exists?

Apparently, Jones Soda Co. has a limited edition six pack of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 soda. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Particularly, as the name suggests, the artwork is from the abysmally drawn Dark Horse Comics.

But I still kind of want a six pack. Though I think the idea is sort of gross. Insane troll logic. I know.

Palaces, Freaks and Mae West

Last night, my inamorato and I traveled out to the glorious Landmark Lowe’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City to meet up with friends and to watch a really odd, yet completely entertaining double feature consisting of Freaks and She Done Him Wrong. I’d never seen Freaks on the big screen and this was my first viewing of the Mae West flick.

First, though, a word about the movie theater itself: It’s a gorgeous, half-restored old time movie palace. Though marred by decay and neglect, it’s still romantic and beautiful. There’s even an organ that rises up through the floor Phantom of the Opra style. Oh, to see the Abominable Dr. Phibes there! It’s just across the street from the Journal Square PATH station, so it’s incredibly easy to get to from Manhattan. There’s really no excuse not to visit.

Back to the movies. As I said, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen Freaks. It’s still so wonderful, creepy and dreamlike. I’ve always loved circus stories, and this one is just great. I wonder how much influence it had on Angela Carter when she was working on her brilliant novel Nights At the Circus? It has that strange air so common in the films of the 20s and very early 30s, in which the setting is ill defined, is it America? Is it Europe? Is it modern? Is it Victorian? It’s impossible to tell, as they exist in a fictional film world dreamscape that you could never find on an ordinary map. Also of great interest to me, was seeing Olga Baclanova, one of the stars of The Man Who Laughs in a talkie role as the devious aerialist, Cleopatra.

She Done Him Wrong is a crazily over plotted hour of melodramatic, musical comedy, crime drama. Mae West was a wonder. Her sexual aggression is still completely transgressive and pretty shocking. Cary Grant is handsome as "The Hawk" and, really, I'm bound to be a fan of most anything where a shady character is known as "The Hawk". West spends the whole movie draped in diamonds and sequins and feathers, heavily corseted and in early middle age, she is a wonder. It's a performance that has launched a thousand drag queens, but I wish it had launched more lady performers, too. Women tend to be punished and mocked for sexual forthrightness, so it's not an easy path to take.

As my inamorato wrote a couple of days ago, the Landmark holds a special significance for us, as it was the site of our first date. We had time to kill before the start of the double feature, so we had gin and tonics in the dive next door, where we happened to make the acquaintance of the Landmark Lowes organist. He seemed very nice. Sadly, last night we found out that organist Ralph Ringstad, Jr. passed away in December from a fall. He was still a relatively young man, so his loss is particularly sad. He will be missed. You can see video of him performing here.

Tonight, continuing their weekend long pre-Code Festival, The Landmark Lowes will be presenting a double feature of Morocco (starring Marlene Dietrich) and Baby Face (starring Barbara Stanwyck). Information can be found here. These are two of my favorites, so you can bet that if it wasn't for tonight's performance of Dainty Cadaver, I would most certainly be in attendance!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Reality Bites Back

As regular readers of this blog know, I've broken up with Project Runway, but I'm still BFF with Top Chef.

Just to be clear.

While crawling through a depression a couple of years ago, I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I watched hours upon hours of Reality TV (while completely missing Mad Men and 30 Rock, an oversight that's been since remedied). As a writer and lover of fiction, I find it terrifying that so much broadcast (and basic cable) real estate was being taken over by Reality Competition or "unscripted" television. But, documentaries are good, right? And people like watching people, right? And lord knows I need to parse this to separate disdain and snobbery from actual alarm. But no. Most of it is truly awful.

It has recently been estimated that Americans, on average, spend 31 hours per week watching television. That's an astonishingly high number, and maybe, just maybe we should be paying just a tiny bit more attention to what is being shoveled into our fair citizens craniums day after night after day. Which brings me to the point, which is Jennifer L. Pozner's excellent book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. In it, she takes careful stock of the practices, politics, economics and larger cultural implications of Reality TV.

Pozner makes as good an argument as any I've heard for why shows such as The Bachelor are regressive, truly terrible and likely dangerous. I find dating shows to be particularly repugnant. In them, a crowd of seemingly interchangeable hot women are placed in a house to compete for the affections of some dullard they've never met before. Okay. That's completely unfair, I have no idea if the "bachelors" are dullards - they might be interesting and likable in real life. But in "Reality", they are edited to be achingly, painfully dull. But that's just a matter of taste. What isn't, as Pozner points out, is the question of agency.

I cannot watch the Bachelor (and really, Pozner deserves some kind of award for sitting through all of it so you don't have to) because it literally makes no sense to me. A large group of women meet their prospective boyfriend and not one of them says, "You know what? He's not for me. Bye." One might posit that they don't do this because of contractual obligations and whatnot. Which, fine. But that's what we call extratextual - it's outside of the narrative being presented. So what we have a group of marriage mad women, all seemingly enchanted with a stranger, waiting for him to tell them that they are good enough for him. Or not. Ew.

Something Pozner doesn't bring up, but I think is worth stating, is this complete lack of any sort of differentiation between prospective dating partners is a dangerous idea to have pounded into people's heads every week. In rape case after rape case, it is implied that if a woman freely had sex with one man, she is likely to have sex with any man. Otherwise sexual history would be inadmissible (I always wonder why in cases of theft, the defense attorney isn't allowed to ask the victim, "You lent some guy 60 bucks that one time - how do we know you didn't just lend my client (who is a complete stranger, and hit you on the head) money in this instance?"). Women on the Bachelor are edited to be stupid, greedy and backstabbing. Executive Producer Mike Fleiss comes off as a particularly nasty piece of work with quotes like: " It's a lot of fun to watch girls crying. Never underestimate the value of that."

Pozner also spends a lot of pages looking at the really appalling racism of Flavor of Love, and does a nice job of tracing particular racial archetypes all the way back to the minstrel shows of the 19th century. She also spends a great many pages dealing with the muddled brew of race and gender one slurps up while watching America's Next Top Model. Really, someone needs to write an entire book long study on this show as I think after 15 Cycles (as the seasons of Top Model are called) it encapsulates so much that is wrong with America today as it looks to young girls.

The producers of Flavor of Love and The Bachelor are deeply cynical business men, out to make lots and lots of money. Tyra Banks, I think, honestly believes what she is saying about girls and equality and opportunity. She's drunk her own Kool-Ade and to be honest, it's often riveting viewing. She congratulates herself for admitting larger sized (by modeling standards) girls onto the show, and then punishes them for it. She does this again and again. She seems pleased to give a pretty girl who is also a burn victim a shot, or a transgendered person (which was handled surprisingly well), an Orthodox Jew, some truly weird hipsters. But they always wind up being punished by Miss Banks for their differences. Watching her is a little like watching Henry VIII in action: she really thinks everyone should be super grateful for this bounty she is distributing, and when they aren't, she goes completely freaking ape shit. The decisions on ANTM all seem so weirdly... personal.

Pozner also applauds the stars in the crown of reality TV: Project Runway, Top Chef and The Amazing Race (in the new season the Harlem Globetrotters and the Goths are back!) for showcasing the best in people, celebrating differences and talent, and not approving or rewarding (for the most part) bad behavior. She does call out the two Bravo competition shows for Excessive Capitalistic Tendencies, which: granted. But I see no harm in a sometimes craving for Kobe beef or a ball gown.

What these three shows have in common is that they, by and large, respect the people participating. They don't trade in humiliation or cruelty. Which is what I think is the most damaging part of these shows: that people are rewarded for being cruel assholes. Watching hours and hours of this is good for no one without context, and in most of these shows there is none. The edit is often on the side of the bullies, as this makes "good TV". There's a celebration of brute stupidity and cruelty that I think is potentially culture destroying.

I'm really happy that Pozner called out irony as the corrosive force that it is. Look. I'm as guilty as anybody of ironic distance, but that doesn't make it good. It enables us too look on people crying and being humiliated and making really ugly fools of themselves and call it "entertainment". It's almost terrifying.

All this aside, I found the final chapters in which Pozner carefully breaks down the economics of Reality television to be the most interesting. She carefully lays out how deregulation has made broadcast television a nearly entirely advertising driven product. Most Reality shows are completely paid for by advertisers, and are promoted via the network's other properties (broadcast, radio and print). In other words, they don't cost a dime, so they can keep airing them even in the numbers of viewers are low. The profit margins are wide indeed. It's chilling and depressing reading. But Pozner, rather delightfully, seems to be mostly an optimist at heart, writing passionately for the cause of net neutrality, and calling for people to write and blog and make things that are outside Network hegemony. She also likes Pop Culture, and doesn't advocate throwing your TV out the window, just the making of informed choices and being an engaged and aware viewer.

We all spend a lot of time watching and sneering and ignoring, but I really think this stuff matters. Nothing makes me angrier than people telling me to "Lighten up. It's only a TV show/movie/ whatever". Mainly because it's complete and unadulterated bullshit. This is our culture. This is all we have. This is what separates us from the chimps. It matters. The producers of this garbage know this - that is why it makes so very much money, and it costs so much to make a product placement (apparently, Coca-Cola pays more than 25 million dollars to have those coke cups on the judges table on American Idol). If it was "just" anything, it wouldn't be the case. This is powerful stuff. This is something people in power: Popes, Kings, Premiers, Presidents have always known. People used to be arrested for creating media that the powerful didn't like - in some places they still are. People used to be burnt at the stake for creating media-when media was called "books".

So it matters.

More information about Women in Media and News can be found here. More information about Reality Bites Back can be found here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mother Finds A Body (What a Mother! What a Body!)

You really can have no idea how distraught I am that Gypsy Rose Lee (and whoever her collaborators may have been), penned only two mystery novels and now I've read both. Ever since my reckless youth, when I swallowed the oeuvres of both Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers whole, I promised myself I would be more careful in the future. But what can one do with only two books except read them? Nothing, that's what.

I adored her first The G-String Murders, and this one was almost as good. It's set during Gypsy and Biff's (her comedian boyfriend, now husband) very peculiar Honeymoon. Seemingly half the burlesque population of New York has hitched a ride with the newlyweds in their vacation trailer: burlesque dancers, comics, Gypsy's mother, and one corpse hidden in a bathtub.

Of particular interest, of course, is Gypsy's mother. As portrayed in the musical Gypsy she's an overbearing nightmare of a stage parent. Here, well, she's more subtle in her methods. She's a champion emotional blackmailer who manages to charm her way out of anything. When she exhibits a shocking level of callousness and fearlessness, Gypsy tells a remarkable story about her being a direct descendent of the Donners. Yes, those Donners. It's kind of amazing.
The setting is a vacation trailer park outside of a honky-tonk Texas town. The description of the floor show in the local saloon is alone worth the read. In it, Gypsy has just started to make a little money in movies, but she is still pretty much ensconced in the world of burlesque: dancers and comics and sleazy management and booze. It's both honestly hard-boiled and light hearted which is a pretty neat trick to pull off. The setting is gritty and down at the heel and makes you think twice about any thought of being a burlesque queen in the 30s and 40s. But the people are funny and the writing is kind of great in its pulpy way.

I wish she'd written more.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dainty Cadaver!

Just a reminder, boys and girls, that I will be participating in an exciting theatrical experiment brought to you by the delightful folks at Piper McKenzie and The Brick Theater, Inc. It's a series of plays written Exquisite Corpse style. That is to say, each playwright only saw just what came before and proceeded as they saw fit, and then the next playwright in line only saw what they wrote. And so on. It's essentially a Surrealist party game.

I will be in Saturday's group ("B") which will be directed by the always fetching Miss Hope Cartelli.

Information an tickets can be found here.

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

This past weekend my Darling Inamorato and I paid a truly delightful visit to the Brooklyn Museum with the purpose of seeing the Norman Rockwell exhibit (which we did!), but we also saw many other beautiful and wondrous things.

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera was a great deal of fun and also served to illustrate how both underrated and maligned he has been in recent decades. Rockwell was one of the best commercial illustrators who has ever lived, and this exhibition’s purpose is to show how he used meticulously staged photographs to create his images. Rockwell is so often spoken of as if his work is saccharine, or even embarrassing. It isn’t. As I quoted Elizabeth Peyton (another representational artist who works from photographs) saying, "If it [art] can be understood, it [is thought to be] somehow dumb". And she has a point.

I think sometimes people assume that if they understand something, it’s simple. But it’s not. Rockwell in some ways painted an idealized America, but he also had a real talent for grotesquerie. Just compare the faces in his illustrations to what we look at in magazines and on television today. Seemingly all character has been erased in favor of blank, perfect uniformity. It's downright unAmerican. And my goodness could he paint. There were a few pencil sketches on view, and I wish there had been more. They're full of so much life, and I really do need to learn how to paint properly. But enough about me and my problems.

One of the issues with Rockwell is that he does, admittedly, paint a very narrow view of the world. This is likely where the limits of being a commercial, rather than a fine artist come into play. One must please the client, and there were intimations in the exhibit of a contentious relationship with the Saturday Evening Post. In the 40s and 50s they had policies abut how African Americans were portrayed (subservient, secondary) with which Rockwell disagreed. Later in his career, he painted some remarkable work depicting the murders of Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner, and of other civil rights scenes. I wish there had been a little more about his relationship with his long time employer, but I suppose that sort of discourse is better suited to a book that a gallery show. Looking around at the people visiting the exhibit, I saw real enjoyment. People were pretty uniformly happy and engaged. People like looking at other people and always will.

One of my favorite things about the galleries at the Brooklyn Museum is that the American art is hung thematically, so that there's a really delightful mix. I feel as if I could continuously keep going back and never get tired. One highlight was an early Edison film of Coney Island.Some unfortunate "comedy" aside, seeing what Coney looked like during its real glory days was so exciting, and made me realize doubly, triply, what a shame it is that it's all been plowed under. One really wonders what people are thinking sometimes. See part one, below:

Whenever I go to the Brooklyn Museum, I always wind up asking the same question: Why don't I go more often? After all, it is within walking distance of my house. Maybe visiting less frequently serves to keep it special. I certainly do live in the City of Kings!

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera runs through April 10. Information about visiting the Brooklyn Museum can be found here. For a large selection of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers available for purchase go here.

(Inamorato's brilliant take can be found here)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Historical Fiction: Unfairly Maligned, Having a Renaissance

I talk a lot about gender disparity in terms of art and fiction here at The Cabinet, but today I’d like to talk about a genre in which the books of most interest to men are just as sneered at and looked down upon as those geared towards women. By that I mean, Historical Fiction.

I’m not sure why the genre gets such a bad rap. Mostly, I guess because so much of it is aimed straight at the middlingest part of the middle brow: James Michener, Colleen McCollough, stacks and piles of various bodice ripping romances, those terrible doorstop size Civil War battle novels. Not to mention the awful, embarrassing Outlander novels. So, yeah, there’s a great deal of not so terrific historicals out there. But, but… some are really good, and I’ve always had a real fondness for the genre, and it seems to be going through something of a Rennaissance.

I’ve written here before about Historical Mysteries, such as the excellent Maisie Dobbs series, but for once I’m going to leave mysteries alone and write about some Literature, the kind with a capitol “L”, that has come out (semi) recently, and I have enjoyed immensely. The protagonists of all three are also, happily, teen girls.

I first encountered the work of Irish novelist Emma Donoghue in 1997 when she published her book of intertwined and reimagined fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. It’s a lovely and haunting book, one well worth your time and not often enough spoken about. I read her 2001 novel Slammerkin a few months ago and found it utterly unputdownable. As Donoghue explains in her frontpiece, a Slammerkin is an eighteenth century noun meaning either a loose dress or a loose woman. Her book is about both. The idea for the novel came from an actual murder reported in a contemporary broadside. Mary Saunders killed her employer with a cleaver as she wanted fine clothes.

Like Ms. Donoghue, I’ve a fondness for eighteenth century crime reportage and have a stack of stories I’d like to write at some point that I’ve found in places like the invaluable Newgate Calendar, or in this wonderful book of broadsides I have sitting on my shelf. It’s a wonderful period for crime reportage, and Slammerkin fairly leaps off the page in its vividness. Mary is a wonderful creation. She slides from the home of her poor working parents into one of prostitution and instead of it being a sad lament, it’s more a cry of freedom. Life was short, hard and brutal for everyone, and if one could get some pretty things along the way, all the better. There’s a fearsome amorality about her that rings true.

As I’ve said about another true life murderess, her life is fascinating because it seems as if things might have worked out for her – gone another way. But she just couldn’t stay straight, and the world was completely unforgiving, virtue being a mostly black and white affair. There’s crime and murder and sex. And Donaghue writes beautifully. Poor Mary was a mess and a monster.

Judith Merkle Riley, I was sad to discover while writing this article, died just last September of ovarian cancer. I am very sorry to hear of her passing, as she is a delightful novelist. Like Emma Donoghue, Riley has an advanced degree in history but writes like a novelist, not like an academic. Her book The Oracle Glass is the rarest of modern achievements: an intelligent, well-written entertainment.

The protagonist is Geneviéve, a teen girl who falls in with a group of devil worshipping, abortionist, fortune telling witches, masquerades as a one hundred and fifty year old sooth-saying dwarf, and is a part of events that nearly collapse the reign of the Sun King. There is romance and murder and double-crosses and politics and espionage. And, remarkably, the central story is true. A group of poisoning witches very nearly toppled the French government. They operated like Murder Inc. for French female aristocracy. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard and can’t believe no one’s made a move yet. The people in Hollywood are morons.

I have no doubt that in many people’s hands this material would be preposterous, but Merkle was a savvy writer who understood that melodrama isn’t necessarily a dirty word, had a smart sense of humor and always stays in control of her story. She also knows her politics, and is excellent at conveying the nuances of court life and those whose livelihoods are dependent on it. There is also an interesting ambiguity in the the way some of the women's crimes are portrayed. Some are no doubt wicked and greedy to the core - but women were truly powerless in seventeenth century France, and it's fascinating to see the peculiar byways they wound up taking to control their destinies and fortunes.

Patrick McGrath is up there with Emily Brönte in the competition for who is the Gothic Novelist with the most Gothic upbringing. His father was Superintendant of Broadmoor, the hospital in Britain that treats the criminally insane, and MacGrath was raised on its grounds. I’ve read lots of his books, and particularly like his short stories. Ghost Town, his book of three connected Gothic tales which all take place in Manhattan, one in Revolutionary times, one in the 19th Century, the last right after 9/11, is wonderful. I most recently read Martha Peake: A Novel of the American Revolution, and I think it’s my favorite of his.

It’s told as a story within a story, and McGrath manages to write naturally in the atmosphere of the 19th century Gothic without it feeling anything like pastiche. Young Ambrose Tree listens to his old and sick Uncle William, a formerly eminent scientist, tell the story of Harry Peake, the “Cripplegate Monster” and his lovely daughter Martha. The two narrators, William and Ambrose are utterly unreliable, and though this is clear, one forgets. The depiction of decaying, Gothic England, in contrast with the New World the American Colonists are creating for themselves is wonderful. McGrath manages to convey how the rebelling colonists may have felt in a way I never really considered before. The whole thing feels both heart-breaking and complete in a way a normally associate with 19th century novels rather than modern ones. It's pretty extraordinary stuff.

The stories of all three of these books are carried by remarkable young women. They’re all wonderful creations, all interesting, all flawed. The plot is driven in all three by a rape. The vulnerability of women in the pre-nineteenth century world depicted in these three book is the stuff of horror, truly. But nothing is simple, ever, in life or in good fiction. I think sometimes stories set in modern middle class America or Western Europe often feel trite, the stakes feel so low. Romance really meant something in centuries past as the booby prize wasn't meet with ice cream and cocktails, but could be poverty and misery and death.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Poor Evelyn Nesbit: American Eve Part 1

A few months ago I read Paula Uruburu's excellent book, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century, and I've been sitting on my inevitable Evelyn Nesbit post for a while. As its fairly endless subtitle would indicate, Nesbit's life story encompasses many features and touches on many different things, all of which I find interesting: show business, the aesthetics and fashion of female beauty, the problems inherent in being professionally pretty, teen girls, art and crime. This post will not be short. Bear with me.

Part 1.

For a few years at the very dawn of the 20th Century, Evelyn Nesbit was considered the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Now, as my Darling Inamorato sometimes says, when you hear about a supposedly great beauty from pre-movie days, you oftentimes look at a picture of her and she winds up looking something like Ruth Buzzi. Before Miss Nesbit hit it big, the ne plus ultra in terms of beauty and glamour was singer Lillian Russell. Looking at pictures of her, or some of the earliest Ziegfeld stars, one has to make adjustments and allowances for the aesthetics of the time: the women are far heavier than current taste dictates, the corseting is madness, they have crazy hair dos. It’s clearly a totally different world.

Although she did work as a chorus girl, like Olive Thomas ten years later, Evelyn Nesbit achieved her first and greatest fame as an artist’s and photographer’s model, and looking at her pictures no mental gymnastics of any sort are required: she is unspeakably lovely according to modern sensibilities. What I find so interesting, is with her, the modern aesthetic of female beauty is born. Next to her, the rest of her contemporaries look old fashioned. She’s uncorseted, slender, natural and very, very young. Looking at some of Evelyn Nesbit’s photos, I was reminded of those early pictures Corinne Day took of Kate Moss for The Face, when Moss was 15 or 16. They too signaled a similar sea change in terms of aesthetics, from the very bosomy, made-up, grown-up women of the 80s (or 1890s), to the skinnier, natural looking teen girls of the 90s (or 20th century).

I was struck by certain similarities between Olive Thomas and Evelyn Nesbit. Both hailed from small town Pennsylvania, both were Irish Catholic, both were poor, both began their careers as extremely successful models, segueing into the most popular stage show of the day (Thomas to the Follies, Nesbit to Floradora), both were assisted by older, powerful lovers (Thomas by Flo Ziegfeld – and likely others, Nesbit by Stanford White), both were romanced by the young scions of show business royal families (Thomas by Jack Pickford, Nesbit by John Barrymore). The similarities are striking, but the differences are far more interesting.

Thomas clawed her way out of brutal, coal town poverty using her moxie, beauty and smarts. She died young, but I can’t imagine anyone saying they feel sorry for her. As a small child, Nesbit’s family had been part of the seemingly secure middle class. Her father died when Evelyn was eleven, leaving her mother nothing but a boatload of debt. Mrs. Nesbit seems like she was a deeply stupid woman who was incapable of adjusting to changed circumstances. While trying to cling to Victorian middle class respectability, she seemingly willfully shut her eyes to the reality of what was going on with her daughter, and bestowed her with resentment, guilt and financial responsibility, all the while shamefully mismanaging her daughter’s career. She’s someone who wasn’t capable of being an effective ordinary or stage parent. And Evelyn suffered grievously for it.

Now, this is where we talk about Stanford White. Before I read Uruburu’s book, and subsequently did some other research, all I really knew about Nesbit was from the movie Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel. From it, I had a kind of vague perception that the affair between White and Nesbit was the typical chorus girl/rich guy exchange. He got to squire around and sleep with a very pretty girl, and he bought her nice things and they had a decent time together and it was consensual and vaguely glamorous.

There is a lot of ambiguity and confusion about what went on between the two of them, but certain things are clear. First, White saw Nesbit when she was appearing in a musical review with the Floradora Girls, and was instantly smitten with the pretty fifteen year old. White was forty-six. The first time she met him at a luncheon (essentially using another of his teenage girlfriends as a procurer) she was dressed in short skirts and pigtails. This is pretty much where I lost any respect for Mr. White as a person (rather than as an architect, which is a whole other ball of wax). Now think. Let’s take this out of history, out of legend and into the real. A middle aged man, any middle aged man, asks a pretty girl out to lunch. He’s seen her in a circumstance where it might be easy to confuse her age. But when she shows up for the lunch date, she is clearly a child. And he proceeded with a long seduction. Unambiguously appalling, right?

History is rarely fair, and like many women before her, Evelyn Nesbit has been painted as a gold-digger and a whore. What’s ignored, mostly, is that she was a child, and a fairly innocent one. When she moved to New York, Evelyn and her mother had a few letters of introduction from artists she had modeled for in Pennsylvania. Upon meeting an eminent New York illustrator, after seeing how pretty and innocent Evelyn was, and how incapable her mother was of managing her daughter’s life and career, he gave them a warning. Saying that not all artists were as nice as he was, he gave them a list of people he thought would be okay for her to work with: lady artists and men he knew wouldn’t take advantage of her. The way White insinuated himself into the Nesbit household is really distressing. He set the whole family up in an apartment, paid for her brother’s education and gave them an allowance.

The seduction itself has become the stuff of legend. White coerced Mrs. Nesbit into taking a trip to Pennsylvania during which he offered to be responsible for looking after Evelyn, who was sixteen at the time. Up until this point, their relationship consisted of dinners and culture and art. White also arranged for series of photographs to be taken of Evelyn, the one above of her asleep on the white bear skin rug was taken a day or two before Mrs. Nesbit left town. No one knows exactly what happened between them the night of what Evelyn referred to as her “unvirgining”..

Evelyn wrote two autobiographies, one in 1914 and one in 1934, and her accounts differ slightly. Whether he drugged her and raped her, or if she just drank too much champagne, no one knows. What is clear is that from whatever cause, she at some point lost consciousness, and White raped her. She woke up and was terrified. Nesbit never used the word rape, as she lived in a place and time where being alone and drunk in White’s 24th Street studio would have put the onus of blame pretty much entirely on her. But this story isn’t new, and it isn’t over as all the press surrounding the allegations against Terry Richardson attest. White told Evelyn that her life would be ruined if she told anyone. She later referred to him as a “benevolent vampire”. She stayed quiet, and as she said later, numb.

White remained and continued to be the most important person in her life for the next couple of years. Her feelings for him were complicated, to say the least. She said herself that in some ways he destroyed her, but he also educated her and opened up the world for her in ways for which she remained grateful. I think it's also extremely important to point out that Nesbit lived in a time when there were hardly even words for what was going on with her, and that she pretty much had zero recourse or options.

In the days before Ziegfeld glorified the American Girl, the lovely young women of the chorus remained largely anonymous. Which makes Evelyn’s rise to fame even more remarkable. After being cast in her second show, The Wild Rose, in 1901 she received boatloads of unprecedented publicity in the papers and in pages long spreads in prestigious magazines like The Theater. She was seemingly poised for major stardom.

Next up: Part 2: Harry Thaw & Part 3: The Murder

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Demise of Law & Order and the Reading of Helter Skelter

I really think more notice should have been taken of the latest Great American Institution to be consigned to dust and ashes. By that, I mean of course, what I’ve been referring in recent years as Law & Order: Classic. For twenty years it mined the Post’s headlines for stories, filmed in NYC, and gave untold numbers of actors lots of work between theater gigs. But – alas – it is no more.

Truly, though, in its final seasons it was but a shell of its former gritty, glorious self. It was a little sillier, a little less realistic; both the court buildings and the police station looked a little too shiny, too spacious, a little too clean, almost like – gasp!– sets. If that’s what you want, you may as well film in Los Angeles.

Recently, they aired a block of episodes from back in the 90s, when Clair Kinkaid (Jill Hennessey) was Jack McCoy’s ADA. Sigh. They were truly wonderful. So smartly written, so believably filmed. I think it’s pretty unanimously agreed upon that out of all the lovely young women who have played second fiddle to Assistant District Attorney McCoy (and before that, Stone. I have no truck with that Englishman who filled in the last season or two), Claire Kinkaid was the best, by far. Jill Hennessey is an attractive woman, but she looked like an attractive woman who works in the Manhattan DA’s office. Angie Harmon and Elizabeth Rohm did not. They were too made up and their clothes were both over-styled and expensive looking. Junior ADAs earn a pittance and usually have crippling Law School debt. Claire Kinkaid wore an office uniform and looked like she worked crazy long hours. She looked like the young women on the subway you see riding to work every day.

It’s a funny thing. If there was some distant planet where people received all their knowledge of American life from watching television and movies, their view would be a warped one indeed. So many criminals, so many actors, so many policemen, so many spies. Most people in this country work in service oriented jobs or in offices. By and large, the entertainment industry has done an abysmal job at showing what most people do every day and what their lives are like. In the recent Jason Reitman film, Up in the Air, I was so impressed with how Anna Kendrick's character was played. The thing is, in most movies that show someone’s work place, they have to usually care about what they’re doing. Most people in real life kind of don’t. Which I guess is undramatic, but it also can be very funny. In the first decade of Law & Order, the right balance was struck between the workaday and the dramatic. The last decade or so, the scales tipped wildly in the direction of the dramatic, which I find a little tiresome.

The early seasons of L&O did a brilliant job of dramatizing notorious real life cases such as the Joel Steinberg and Tawana Brawley ones. But one of the most famous crimes of all belongs to California, and feels so deeply embedded in the culture of that state, that the thought of transposing in to NYC seems unthinkable. That’s of course the Tate/LaBianca killings by the Manson Family. I’ve read stacks of true crime books over the years, but I am embarrassed to admit I had never read one of the most important: Helter Skelter by Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Honestly, without it, I don’t know if Law and Order would be able to exist. It’s particularly awful that I’ve never read it as my Darling Inamorato wrote a Manson inspired musical called Willy Nilly a few years back.

Of course, the most important (and likely the best) true crime book of the modern age is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But the modern non-fiction procedural was born with Helter Skelter. It’s a fascinating case in so many ways, and touches on so many aspects of society and how it was changing in the late sixties. I was surprised how much I didn’t know. Mostly about how the police and District Attorney’s office finally cracked it and tried the perpetrators. It was a mess. Most of what I know about the LAPD and LA County Sherriff’s office is from reading all of James Ellroy’s novels, and from reading Bugliosi’s account, he was pretty accurate. Basically, there was gross negligence on the part of the LAPD and the case should have been broken far earlier.

Reading about Manson’s Family, living out there in the desert forging their own crazy Heaven and Earth, reminds me mostly of things I’d read about towns in pre-modern times that were stricken by madness. Too much drinking or drugs, too much fear, one lunatic with a strong personality, a frightening world filled with threat and dread, powelessness: all these ingredients were in play with the Manson Family, and likely with some witchcraft trials and some of the weirdness surrounding some of the stranger dissenters. And maybe some real evil. Who knows.

The human race is forever fascinated with chaos and order, which is the real payoff of crime (both true and fictional) drama. The chaos of death and murder and wickedness, then made sense of by the cops or the detectives or DA’s office. Solved is such a comforting word. And the word that I think best describes Law & Order is satisfying. The same way that crime books –most of them anyway – end with an arrest, or a trial or a hanging. They are finished. Manson outlived the final episode of Law & Order, still in jail, still mad.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

OctoChair, OctoArt, OctooMuch?

Spanish artist Máximo Rivera is currently at work on an Animal Chair project that looks extremely interesting. Currently, the only completed work (or at least the only one available for viewing on his website, if his Octopus Chair. He will also, at some point, complete Rhino, Lion, Bettle, Whale and Walrus chairs. To be clear, this is Art, not Interior Design, so this will not (sadly) be mass produced. I'm actually of two minds. In some ways it's absolutely extraordinary work, but... it's a little ugly, isn't it? But that's okay, right?

Just think how incredible it would be if the tentacles were silently mechanized. One would be quietly sitting, reading the newspaper, or drinking a cup of coffee. Or maybe taking a nap. You wouldn't hear anything. Until...

(picture via

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Happy 30th Birthday, Buffy!

As well as having to sing Happy Birthday to one one of my all time favorite literary greats, we must also sing, or raise glass, or point a crossbow at Buffy Summers, who today, in imaginary fiction land, turns 30. Wow, right?

As anyone who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows, no one in the history of all media: print, comics, film whatever, had more traumatic birthdays than poor Buffy. As she said herself, "... you could smash all my toes with a hammer and it would still be the bestest Buffy birthday bash in a good long while."

Season One was birthday-free as it was a mid-season replacement. In Season Two, Buffy lost her virginity on her 17th birthday, to her (vampire) boyfriend, who she loved. Who then proceeded to lose his human soul, revert to his evil ways, and kill lots of people. As Buffy saw it: All because she had sex with him. Friends died. Of course, the genius of writer Joss Whedon is such that Buffy blamed herself, but the show did not. But, seriously. Worst. Birthday. Ever. In Season Three, her father continued his streak of lousy parenting by canceling his trip to spend time with her and, oh, she was subjected to a wretched 18th birthday Slayer test where her powers were taken away, her mother wound up kidnapped, and Giles, her watcher, fired. More horrible family drama in Seasons Five and Six, commingled with mystical problems that made her more typical young adult fuck up-ery even worse. Poor Buffy.

Creator Joss Whedon's instincts are pretty solidly on the money much of the time. Making Buffy's birthday a big deal on the show (rather than, Christmas, or some other holiday) is so smart. For one thing, it brings everything back to his protagonist. But mostly, because of the particular circumstances Buffy lives with. As she says often and is continually reminded, she is one of a long line of mystical warriors who die very, very young. As Spike once tells her, she has to be lucky every day, a monster just has to be lucky once. So birthdays carry a particular significance for her, narratively, that they would not for another character. One year older matters more as the odds of her not getting older are spectacularly high.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a unique phenomenon. A young girl's coming of age tale (rare enough itself), combined with a hero's journey - made specifically female in way no one else has quite done. So Happy 30th Birthday, Buffy, wherever in the aether you might be!

Hey, Bitch!

I've seriously curtailed my magazine purchasing in these recessionary times. When I'm flush, one of my luxuries, which feels almost as embarrassing as porn, is the purchase of expensive European fashion magazines. Slightly contradictorily, I have also mostly stopped the acquisition of the paper version of Bitch Magazine (Feminist Response To Pop Culture). Bitch Media is a nonprofit concern based out of Portland, OR which also has a lending library, a political agenda, and a really wonderful blog.

The blog is really what I wanted to talk about here. It has many contributors, and touches on wide ranging subject matter, but the primary book blogger, Chally Kacelnik, has really blown me away of late. Part of the issue is that our tastes and interests overlap to a remarkable degree (once or twice I've seen one of her posts and said, "Crap! I was going to do a post on _____ this week, too!"). She's written about George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, Morgan La Fay, why Harry Potter isn't a girl, crime novels and James Tiptree Jr. She recently wrote a post about romance novels that I just love, as it says pretty much exactly about the genre what I would like to write. About how needlessly dismissed and problematic they are. I don't know much about her, even after some fairly wide-ranging googling. She's an arts student in Sydney who blogs about books, and about being a disabled person. She's awesome. Read her.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

FringeNYC: Year 15 :::faints:::

Though I haven't yet enacted my scheme to teach a Learning Annex class on "How To Get Accepted By FringeNYC"*, I still react with great excitement and anticipation when the applications are posted to the Fringe NYC website. So, they're here. They are due, as always, on St. Valentine's Day.

Sometime in the near future, I will likely be writing something long and epic about the wonderful and sometimes maligned Festival, possibly somewhere else, so I wil keep my remarks here to a minimum. FringeNYC is a monster and a wonder. It changed things, not least of all me. Many of the complaints seem inexplicable and over-privileged to me. And I have no interest in arguing about that here. If you don't like it, stay at home and run yer own damn festival.

Everyone else, apply if you want. See theater. That's all.

*I'm kidding. I'm always willing to proffer general advice but (and I can't say this strongly enough), you cannot game the system. I will not help you "get into FringeNYC". The end.

(the above is the postcard from my first FringeNYC show in 2000. Illustration by me)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Robbed, I say! Robbed!

I missed Saturday night's airing of the Miss America competition, mainly because it's awful and, really, who cares? But, BUT I missed Miss Arkansas's talent presentation which, as it turns out, is unforgivable. She's a country-western singing, yodeling, VENTRILOQUIST.

She was clearly robbed, the girl who won - Miss Nebraska - just played the piano and did nothing else. Yawn. I haven't run this past my darling inamorato yet, but I think she was born about 100 years too late. I also learned, that when she did this act for the Teen Miss America Pageant, she ended with clog dancing. Really, this girl was made for vaudeville. She's obviously been doing this same crazy five minutes of material for years and years.

This also seems like a perfect time to point out that Miss America is still the largest scholarship organization for women in the United States, which is just pathetic. Apparently, the largest scholarship organization for women requires one's scholars to sport sequined jump suits with impunity and to answer leading political questions without saying anything substantive or offending anybody. It's just not good enough. And, for the record, I think sports scholarships for men who can't keep up academically are stupid as well.

Oh. If you've never seen it. Watch Smile. It's awesome.

"Now is the time to make real the promises of Democracy..."

You're Skinny Fat. Yes, You.

Two things:

1. My coverage of current celebrities here at The Cabinet is minimal, to say the least.

2. I rule my facebook page with an iron fist. If your comment makes me either the tiniest bit annoyed or pissed off, and I don't feel like arguing or discussing or explaining: I will delete it. To be fair, I delete my own comments all the time. If you do this, say, twice in one week, you will have your commenting privileges taken away.

Last night I was half watching the Golden Globes, mostly for the outfits as I haven't seen any of the movies (expensive! no time! fear of bedbugs in movie theaters!), so I only really have an opinion on Mad Men and 30 Rock.

I read what people were saying on facebook and twitter and the interwebs and, as per my usual reaction, most of it made me want to vomit. Women come in five flavors: voluptuous (but only if they're not white), fat, anorexic, pregnant (with a baby bump as an "accessory") and asexual (includes lesbian and old and children under the age of eight). So, I wrote the following status update:
Also, I know there has to be a sweet spot for actresses between anorexic and fat, but according to what I'm reading, I'm beginning to doubt it.
Lots of people missed the fact that I wrote "reading" and not "seeing", so I spent all night deleting comments bemoaning how "anorexic" various actresses are. Because, I suppose, in the circles I run in, it's frowned upon to say someone is too fat, but it's perfectly okay to say one is too skinny. Or that some actresses used to be "normal" and now they are not. Fie! Fie!

Unsurprisingly, much of the chatter revolved around Angelina Jolie. Of course, whether you like her dress and think it's gorgeous or if she stole it out of Crystal Carrington's closet or if you're over sequins or if you're just sick of her in general is pure personal taste (and some of it was very funny, especially the worry surrounding the reappearance of shoulder-pads). But, the constant referral to her as "anorexic" or "skeletor" was disturbing.

It's such a fine line. These women work in an industry where their appearance matters and is a part of their work. I'm a fan of movie stars being gorgeous, and I think that fashion magazine in Germany that uses non-professionals as models is ridiculous and looks terrible (or "real" women, as they are referred to. I suppose as opposed to the imaginary ones so commonly hired. My god, do I loathe that phrase!). So I know what shaky ground I'm on. But there seems to be a factor of unwinnability about this. One group of people thinks you're too fat. This is bad. You lose weight. Another group of people thinks you're too thin. It's just completely preposterous.

There's all this raving about unrealistic body expectations, which is completely true. It's terrible. And there's the problem of obesity in this country. Also bad. But, who is where they are supposed to be? There's a constant conflating of skinniness and health that is simply made up. Women think of themselves (and are referred to) as overweight, when they are just larger than the current fashion dictates. This has nothing to do with health and everything to do with aesthetics. Look, if you want to be thinner, fine. But I really hate the world pretending it has anything to do with health. I'm not saying being 200 pounds overweight is healthy, let's get that argument out of the way. But most times, weighing 20 pounds more than you would like is no big deal in terms of "health".

This is a complete rant. I don't understand when it became a part of polite conversation to talk about women's weight and body size incessantly. And to their faces! It's ludicrous and weird. The world is an inherently unfair place. Some are thinner, some are larger. Some people work out and are athletic and super fit. Some people eat cake all the time and don't exercide much and are thin anyway (raises hand). I'm not that healthy. When I was in my twenties my eating habits were abysmal. I had no eating habits. I had no idea how to feed myself, and I wound up hardly eating at all. I was completely unhealthy. But I looked great, apparently. I was rewarded more or less constantly. So, please, don't give me any more guff about "health". It's all aesthetics. Some people like looking at curvy women. Others like looking at skinny ones. That's pretty much it. Some women lose weight to get more work. They could be doing so by exercising more, or cutting out sugar (I stopped eating cookies at one point and immediately dropped significant weight). Who knows? But none of it is empirical. Oh: and you cannot tell if a person is anorexic by looking at her.

I thought Miss Jolie looked freaking gorgeous. I thought a little more of the dresses Adrian made for Joan Crawford in the later 30s and 40s, which were the inspiration for the glam 80s Dynasty moment everyone was referencing last night. And found it fascinating that so many women wore green. And I think Olivia Wilde looked stupid. And I think brown sequins are ugly. And Tilda Swinton, that crazy Scottish aristocrat, can do no wrong; she just makes everyone else look a little tacky and like they're trying way too hard. And, Tina Fay (Bless her!), cannot dress herself, but clearly doesn't give a shit. And Elizabeth Moss looked stunning. And I'm worried about Megan Fox as she seemed really off, but I should just shut up as I don't know her. And how weird was it seeing David Straithairn like a week after I saw him in person? And, I don't watch Glee, but that boy's acceptance speech was just lovely.

I'm just full of opinions today!

Pinup Postcards in Paris!

My new found obsession with the magazine La Vie Parisienne has certainly been well documented, but as wondrous a tool as the internet is, it has its limitations. I spent a lot of time trying to find some images from the magazine by its most popular illustrator, Raphael Kirchner. It was incredibly difficult to identify the source of the many illustrations, so I pretty much left him off my posts. He's most famous for creating an untold number of pinup postcards which were extremely popular with soldiers during the Great War.

He worked along side other luminaries like Alphonse Mucha, and achieved a huge amount of popularity in his adopted home of Paris. Overall, I think his work is charming and happy, and I think I like the idea of these being the sort of pictures lonely young men look at. I guess I'm a total prude, and though I believe people should do whatever makes them happy, I find the state of the world with its constantly available internet porn, a little depressing. Kirchner used his wife as his model for all of his postcards and for most of his illustrations, and I find that sweet.

When the war broke out in 1914 he emigrated to NYC, where he worked for Flo Ziegfeld and various magazines, including Metropolitan. I've featured him earlier as he painted Olive Thomas several times, once for the cover of the Midnight Frolic program, and at least once more as a part of a series of scantily clad Ziegfeld girls called "Pierrot's Dream" which were displayed in the lobby of the New Amsterdam Theater.

Sadly, he died (fairly) young in 1917. After his demise, his beloved wife descended into madness and drug addiction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Lesser" Tennessee Williams is Still Better Than Most Things

Many, many years ago, in the first paragraph of the first review I ever received for a play I had written, I garnered the most ridiculously over the top complements any human ever received in the history of theater criticism. Here it is in its entirety:
It is tempting to compare playwright [Caviglia] to many great American dramatic writers. In [title], her stunning one-act play, her psychology is as deep as Sam Shepard's. Her characters' neuroses are as frightening as Edward Albee's. Her poetry may not be as rich as Tennessee Williams's (whose is?), but her plots and characters are less forumlaic than Neil Labute's. She is confidently staking out her territory in our country's strong history of poetic realism.
Seriously, I could never even use it as a pull-quote. I have no idea who the reviewer was, and a big "Thank you!" to you, wherever you may be all these years later, but (and it pains me to say this), you're dead wrong. Or, maybe you're right. Because upon recovering the file (it's old) and rereading it, what the play is, is pastiche. I mean, I was what? Twenty-five? It was the second play I ever completed, and the first one I ever had produced. I was an intern at Circle Rep and on the running crew for a play by Joyce Carol Oates, and I brought in pages every day which were then subsequently read, and critiqued by actor John Seitz. I was immersed in this world that had been built by Lanford Wilson. I was taking heaps of playwrighting classes and I wanted to be another genius American writer, maybe the first one in a silver mini-dress. So, yeah, I was a young writer just finding my own way. And I read all the American greats: Williams, O'Neill, Albee, Shepard (I freaking loathe Arthur Miller). I was obsessed with Paula Vogel who was the playwright that made me come to Circle Rep to begin with. I wanted to be an artist.

But I'm no fool. I was a child. To speak of my writing in the same sentence as Williams's, was ludicrous.

Last Friday night, I saw Green Eyes, the premier of a late period Tennessee Williams one act that is being presented as a part of PS122's Coil Festival. A site specific production, 14 audience members cram into a small room at the Hudson Hotel to watch what happens on Mr. and Mrs. Claude Dunphy's honeymoon. It's strange and intimate and beautifully acted. To be honest, I've read or seen very little later Williams, and have mostly heard it described disparagingly. But I thought Green Eyes was wonderful. Maybe tastes have changed. His dialogue is unmatchable, and the layers and complications and lies and unhappy truths that are brought forth in its 40 minute running time are deep and even possibly true.

Claude is a young army man home on leave. His new wife is a bombshell, teasing and smart, played by Erin Markey in a really remarkable and interesting performance. She looks as if she's stepped directly out of a time machine directly from 1970. She's often nearly naked, her face is right in front of us in the tiny room, she's completely exposed. There always seem to be about six simultaneous and often contradictory things going on behind her eyes, but it all looks effortless. I remember getting invites to the show she had up in SoloNova, and now I really regret not going.

I have no idea what is real and what is not in Green Eyes and it hardly matters. It's pure Southern psychodrama and Williams is a stone cold genius the likes of which come around only once a half century or so. It was such a smart move to stage this in such a tiny space. It's crowded and slightly uncomfortable and it's all right there in front of you. Director Travis Chamberlain made lots of very smart choices and his actors are more than game. My lord, I've seen so much theater that calls itself "transgressive", sexually or otherwise, and I nearly always wind up staring at it stony-eyed, as those words so often wind up meaning "creepy" and "misogynistic" or, like, just "not transgressive." But this is, it's about sex and violence and war. And mostly about where sex and violence overlap, and the desire - of a woman - for this violence. It's disturbing as hell, but it's complicated and believable.

I think I thought of that one act I wrote a long time ago, and that ridiculous review, because I think I was trying to do something a little similar, and lord knows I mostly failed. When I used to read plays we would call works like this "hotel plays", you know you've read and seen far too much when you acknowledge genres that don't really exist. But they're one of the hardest things to do. Because it's just two actors, mostly naked. Talking. Fighting. Screwing. And getting tossed around in some scenes of really tense and believable violence. They can't hide a thing. It's wonderful.

Green Eyes was extended through the 30th. Purchase tickets here (if there are any left), and find information about the show here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell

This has been an action packed week indeed: library talk in West Egg, beginning again at my old day job, Dainty Cadaver chapter to be written, apartment hunting commencing, big decisions being made all over the place, and lots of theater being seen and reviewed.

Oh, theater. There's been so much to see, with Under the Radar over at The Public, and Coil in full swing over at PS122 (and points North - more on that later). Inamorato and I began our week of theatrical viewing with the anger-making depression factory (pun intended) Gob Squad's Kitchen, then the next night we were lucky enough to catch Stories Left To Tell: Created from classic and unpublished work of Spalding Gray. Sadly, I was never able to ever see Gray perform when he was alive - aside from the films of his solo performances and his often inexplicable movie roles (Beaches - need I say more?).

It's funny, even though I've read his novel (and I use the word "novel" advisedly, as it is clearly as autobiographical as anything else he's done), I never really thought of him as a writer - but as a storyteller and performer. We live so much in the world of the theatrical one man band, the idea of a performer's voice as a writer and that writer's performance have become nearly unseperably linked. I mean, can any of us picture someone else performing one of Mike Daisey's shows? No, me either. So I wondered how it would be seeing a bunch of other people read Gray's words.

All I can say is that screw everything else - Gray is a writer. Not only does it hold up, hearing and watching his work being performed by others was nothing short of a major revelation.A disperate group of four performers read pieces of Grey's monologues, letters and journals and it was incredibly moving and hilarious. His work is a gift. Kathleen Chalfant (who I last saw on stage many years ago in Angels in America), Hazelle Goodman (who, I was thrilled to discover, played Georgia Rae Mahoney on Homicide: Life On the Streets), Bob Holman (poet and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club), and playwright Ain Gordon performed for the audience and for each other. The guest performer on the night I was there was David Straithairn. It was completely joyful.

I know it's silly, but like with Calvin Trillin and his Alice, I feel as if I knew Spalding Gray. He wrote about an acting exercise in which he was supposed to tell his acting partner a secret he had never shared with anyone. And he had nothing, he had no secrets. Following his work over the years, you knew about his long time girlfriend Renée, about his mother's suicide, about his childhood in Rhode Island, about his affairs, about his hypochondria, about his health problems, about his work, about his sexual hang-ups, about his children when they were born, about everything. So, when he committed suicide in 2004 is was such a shock, it seemed such a waste. But hearing further details about the terrible car accident in Ireland, about some possibly botched surgery, about what sound like debilitating health problems, about going mad - it's all devastatingly sad, but understandable.

So, Spalding Gray was a writer, maybe one of the best. He is missed. Read what my inamorato and fellow Rhode Island native has to say.