Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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Man, this has been a great year for music biopics (a genre that tends to follow the predictable old “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” structure). Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton? In the same year? Both films are on my (ever-growing) list of favorite films of the year. (Thoughts on Love & Mercy here). (and FYI, my favorite films so far: Girlhood, Ex Machina, Ocean of Helena Lee, Welcome to Me, Magic Mike XXL, It Follows, Mad Max, About Elly (made in 2009 but just getting a release now), and Phoenix.)

Love & Mercy was an unconventional look at two crucial periods in Brian Wilson’s life, with Brian Wilson played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, a bizarre choice on the face of it: they look nothing alike, they don’t even have the same essences as actors – but in the context of the film, and its non-realistic and poetic emotional landscape – it worked. It was about the art and it was about the psychology. That was what it cared about, not “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The biopic structure is so seemingly set in stone that it’s refreshing when a film decides “Nope. Not gonna do that.” (Another pet peeve is the focus on salacious details, drug addiction, the horrible side of fame, the bad behavior. Boy do biopics like to revel in that stuff. Yes, all of these things may be true. But do they illuminate anything about the MUSIC of the genius at the heart of the film? Do they let us know (or even care) WHY this person was so important that they deserve a biopic in the first place? (I have bitched about this before, in terms of biographies, especially in this piece about Peter Manso’s vicious biography of Marlon Brando.) There’s been a bit of controversy about Dr. Dre immediately following the release of Straight Outta Compton, due to his “misogny” and past mistreatment of women – but honestly … well. The controversy got an eyeroll from yours truly – and I thought Dre’s apology was heartfelt and sincere. We saw enough in the film to know these guys were partying hard and exploring the boundaries of promiscuity like all rock stars have done before them, with women mostly irrelevant except as crowds of barely-clad available sex partners… but there were far more important things going on with NWA than their personal foibles as men or boyfriends or husbands. Maybe it would have been interesting to show Dre’s early history of assaults. Who knows.Dr. Dre is a pioneer, and one of the most important figures in music in the last 30 years. His personal flaws were plenty in evidence in the film, as it was, but what matters in the story is his music, his producing, and his thought-process, how he thought about music. That’s what I care about anyway.)

Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, and produced, in part, by NWA member Ice Cube (whose son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his dad in the film – spitting image!), has all of the trappings of the typical biopic (origin story, growing fame, rock-star acting out, controversy, etc.) but brings to the table more anger, more heart, and an intense understanding of why it was that NWA struck such a nerve (and why they still matter – maybe even more now). If NWA had come along earlier, it might not have gone down the way it did. They may have stayed in their corner of Compton, putting out little records on little labels, and wouldn’t have become superstars. The time was right. The connection of men was right. The zeitgeist was right (something the film really gets, and represents in just one or two scenes. Eazy-E bailing Dre out of jail, asking him: “So why’d they arrest you?” Dre: “I was just standing there. Literally. I was just standing there.”) If the Rodney King beating hadn’t happened in the middle of their heyday, (basically proving that their most controversial song was not “inciting” or “dangerous” – it was just a bunch of guys explaining what they saw when they looked out the window, and what they experienced in their own neighborhoods – or, as Ice Cube said in an interview, “That song is a warning“), perhaps they wouldn’t have become such a cultural flashpoint, argued about in the highest halls of power in our nation. Who knows. But the fact remains that it did happen and NWA changed everything. And the proof is in the fact that all of those guys (except, sadly, Eazy-E, of course) are still around, superstars, moguls, producers, Renaissance men. These guys meant business.

In telling the origin story (and further on, but it’s set up from the get-go), the film does not sacrifice the most important element, the thing that holds it together: why these guys were friends, their dynamic as a group. God, it’s great. Each man is so distinctive (and I’ll rave about the casting in a second), and you can tell how the group operates. There’s such a sense of camaraderie – not just in the early scenes, but it’s most apparent there because later on, conflict arises and they all (famously) go their separate ways. But there’s such humor and listening and goofing off between all of them, open arguments about who does what and they work stuff out, and a give-and-take – none of it seems forced. This cast!! There’s a great scene that takes place after Ice Cube left NWA and came out with a solo album, with a song (“Vaseline”) dissing everyone in NWA, calling people out by name. The remaining members of NWA sit around listening to it, and there are some girlfriends there too, and everyone is rocking their head to the beat (almost against their will), and bursting out laughing when their name comes up, even if it’s in a mean context. Is it a betrayal to say, “Uhm … yeah, that’s a good song. I liked it.”? They all can’t help it. It’s good. Then, of course, the situation changes, and people get pissed and NWA decides to retaliate, with their own dis song. But that first reaction is where the glue of the film is, why it all works so well. It’s human. The biopic can be so strict in its linear story-telling, in its emotional thru-line that humanity and subtlety and nuance sometimes is wiped out. Everything becomes black-and-white. Not so here. These people are connected. They all grew up in the same block. They’ve known each other forever. Of course there’d be some humor and appreciation of what Ice Cube created, even if he’s rocking the insults. They know the score.

The casting is superb. When we first see each character, we get a little credit beside them, so we can locate who is who, but honestly, even without those credit lines we would know. Corey Hawkins (so excellent as Dr. Dre) looks a little bit like Dr. Dre, the high cheekbones, small eyes, the wide planes of his face. He’s enough like Dre that you accept it immediately. He also has the same sense of absorbed gravitas that Dre brings to the table. He’s a man being treated like a boy by the culture and he’s had it. Jason Mitchell, too, as the wiry energetic Eazy-E, the crazy curls jutting out from underneath the baseball cap, as well as the hyperkinetic intelligent essence. Jason Mitchell doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name, and while Straight Outta Compton is a true ensemble drama, he has one of the most challenging roles in the film, the guy with the most going on in a lot of respects, and Mitchell is extraordinary. Eazy-E was the one who financed NWA’s first record, with the massive amounts of money he made as a drug dealer. Eazy-E was the one who found them a manager, the controversial Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti – who also played Brian Wilson’s agent in Love & Mercy). Eazy-E didn’t seem to see himself as a rapper in the beginning, but once he got into the booth, at Dre’s encouragement, he went nuts. He was brilliant. It’s subtle, but that scene makes you understand why Dre is a brilliant producer. He senses things in the person in front of him that even the person doesn’t know is there.

I mean, remember that famous line from Eminem’s “White America,” the first song on The Eminem Show, an album that busted him through to the next level of fame/notoriety/omnipresence/legend-icon-villain status:

And kids flipped when they knew I was produced by Dre
That’s all it took.

“That’s all it took.” says Eminem, one of the biggest stars in the world. Eminem always gives Dr. Dre the props, for seeing his talent, ignoring his skin color as irrelevant, and investing in him. Dre’s involvement was a message to the black rap fans: “This white guy is cool.” The two of them are both rigid tireless perfectionists, who would rather make music than … live life outside the booth, basically. But that line from Eminem speaks to Dre’s power, his influence, how meaningful his involvement in any project. This is not news, obviously, and Straight Outta Compton starts out 10 years before Eminem came around, but in the scene when Eazy-E gets into the booth and Dre works with him, you understand HOW and WHY this became the case. Dre helped other people realize their potential, be bold, go for it, but make sure you do it all on the damn beat.

Eazy-E was separated from the rest of the group due to his loyalty to Jerry Heller, and the money issue (the money is a huge plot-point in the film). And then, of course, his death from AIDS. That’s a lot. Jason Mitchell is extraordinary navigating all of this. A beautiful character: smart, scared, righteous, fun, funny. You can see why his death would bring everyone together again, because he was so essential. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as mentioned before, is Ice Cube’s son, and doesn’t have to work hard to get his father’s mannerisms or voice tones down: he already has them. What an honor, right? To play your famous dad? But also what a challenge. It could be daunting, it could be setting yourself up to fail. He’s excellent. Ice Cube knew that something was not right with the money, he knew they were being stiffed somehow, but he looked at contracts and didn’t understand what they were saying. This is such a common problem with young stars who suddenly make a lot of money. People who barely have a high school education are suddenly millionaires and have to trust other people to manage their money, and how often does that go totally south? But Ice Cube knows something is “off.” He can smell it. It’s due to that conflict that he leaves (but not before smashing up label exec’s office with a baseball bat. Great scene.) In this particular thru-line of the film, knowing Ice Cube’s eventual career (movies, writing, music), you can see that this guy is going to learn everything he has to learn about the business side of things so that he will not be beholden to anyone else ever again.

And then there’s Dre. DJ-ing, trying to take care of his girl and his baby, but they’re all crashing at his aunt’s house, and everyone is getting pissed off and impatient. Dre is the focal point, or … more like the fulcrum of a wheel. The other people gravitate towards him, and then circle around him. This is true as well of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, in a chilling performance), who steps in later, sets up Death Row Records, and runs it like a criminal operation, complete with barking vicious dogs and sketchy characters who beat people to a pulp in order to get what they want. It’s a terrifying “scene” and you can start to feel the East Coast/West Coast rap war building. Dre gets sucked in, and then finally extricates himself, setting up his own label, Aftermath. All of these things made headlines, but Straight Outta Compton invests in the details, the small details that make a “scene” seem real, that make us understand what was going on, the vibe, the motivations, the needs of all of the parties involved.

More great casting: Keith Stanfield (so wonderful in Short Term 12, and heartbreaking in his small role in Selma – I met him at Ebertfest when they played Short Term 12) walks into the studio later in the film, a new face, and his mannerisms, his voice, his attitude, his entire ESSENCE, just screams “Snoop Dogg.” I saw it with a huge audience and the second he showed up I felt the rustle of recognition around me. Amazing. The same is true with Marcc Rose, who is only seen once or twice, through the glass in the booth, starting to record, Dre focused on him, and my God, that’s 2Pac Shakur. He was so beautiful, had that glamorous look to him, the huge blinding smile, the open vibe. This was at the height of the Death Row Records situation, with barking attack dogs down the hall, and Suge Knight looming over everything in his strong-arm capacity. That one scene, with 2Pac in the studio working with Dre, and Suge Knight having a raging (horrible) party down the hallway involving torture and humiliation, told us everything. This shit was going to get ugly. And we all know it did.

Straight Outta Compton gets the little details right, the interactions, the various friendships, the arguments about money, the nuts-and-bolts of behavior, eloquent and unselfconscious, that is part of the reason I love movies. But it also gets the social and political aspect, something that demands to be addressed with a group like NWA, who got warning letters from the FBI about “Fuck Tha Police”. The FBI. They were told not to perform the song during a concert in Detroit, a warning that they (famously) ignored. A riot broke out. Cops swarmed the stage. The audience flooded out into the street, shouting “Fuck Tha Police!” It was unbelievable, and reminiscent of the nationwide controversy involving Elvis, the riots at his shows, the protests, the smashing of his albums by PTA groups and outraged DJs, the warning from police in Florida that he NOT MOVE during his concert, or else they would arrest him afterwards. Elvis obeyed, and yet rebelled by wiggling his little finger during his performance, and sexual frenzied riots broke out because of THAT. (The concert scenes in Straight Outta Compton, in general, are superb. They film a lot of it from the stage-side, looking out at the audience, so you can see the masses of people, black and white, jumping up and down, middle fingers raised. The cops glowering on the sidelines.) That song brought them national headlines, and there are news clips of poor white Tom Brokaw, trying to describe what was happening, and I like Tom Brokaw but boy he comes off as patriarchal and scold-y. This has happened with rap from the beginning, but it was the innovation of “gangsta rap” that got the white folks nervous. These guys, like NWA and Public Enemy, were saying shit that nobody wanted to hear in mainstream America. Rodney King made it palpable to the rest of us. Anyone who saw that beating video (and we all saw it) and thought that Rodney King “had it coming” is not just part of the problem, they ARE the problem, a problem still alive today. Ice Cube joked at one point that the big yellow warning stickers put on their records helped them make their millions. Kids are gonna check out anything the grown-ups say is “bad” for them. And, as always, the audience was “in on the joke.” White kids, black kids … they may have responded to those raging songs in different ways, but they all know the difference between Art and Reality. Or that art expresses reality, art is personal, art comes out of a personal landscape, and these guys were personal. They were not created by a label. They were not following a trend. They WERE the trend. You cannot “create” something authentic like that. It has to emerge on its own, and Straight Outta Compton, showing the police presence on the streets of Compton, with cops completely over-stepping their bounds, flat out harassing any group of black men who dared to stand together on a corner shooting the shit, shows the landscape from which these guys emerged, and does so in a visceral way. You can’t harass an entire population like that and then be SURPRISED when they’re pissed off.

So I’ve talked a lot, right? Clearly I loved the movie. It’s beautifully put together, it focuses on character and friendship, the ties that bind, it also focuses on money and business, the way young artists can be taken advantage of, especially when they rely on others to take care of things. These guys learned shit the hard way. It shows why and when the breaks between them happened, but it also shows that throughout it all, they were doing things FOR each other. Maybe the feud got tiresome to those watching. Maybe everyone wanted NWA to bury the hatchet and fucking get back together already. Everything that happened happened because these guys were connected. The river runs deep with all of them. Dr. Dre’s sweet younger brother was killed, and it’s horrible. I loved the scene between Dre and his brother where they talk on the phone while NWA is on tour. The brother is young, he’s in high school, he wants to join his brother on tour, he begs to be allowed to come with. Dre counsels him to hang in there, keep going to school, he can join him in a bit. Before they hang up, Dre says, “And make sure you always use a condom.” The brother says, “Yeah, I still have that pack of condoms you gave me!” Like, 2 years ago? It was adorable, the audience burst out laughing. These are very important scenes, not only story-wise, but to show the bond between the men in the group. Eazy-E’s illness, heartbreakingly portrayed by Mitchell (Eazy-E has no idea why he’s so sick, he assumes and his wife assumes that it’s a respiratory infection) … mortality is serious, and these guys lived with it every day on the streets of Compton, the threat all around them, and maybe none of them expected they’d make it to adulthood anyway. But when people close to them actually die, the mourning is intense, wordless, devastating.

Straight Outta Compton is affectionate, that’s for sure, but it’s also important. It understands what these guys meant, what they still mean. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time when America was fracturing openly, trying to understand itself, trying to hold off the forces of chaos and being unable to do so. Marginalized voices were taking over the airwaves. NWA was the voice of that political and social chaos, the voice of the oppressed who decided they could not, would not, take it anymore. And what better way to spread that message than through art? The montage-clips that roll during the final credits are pure celebration of their accomplishments since then. It was incredibly moving.

NWA were First Amendment champions. Ice Cube was asked about his controversial lyrics in some interview and he said, frankly, “This is rock ‘n’ roll.” Like … put it in the right context, people. Since when has rock ‘n’ roll been “nice?” The best rock ‘n’ roll rocks the boat, upsets the apple cart, speaks the truth, changes the world.

NWA weren’t prophets so much as they were truth-telling reporters. Like Thomas Paine in 1775 waving his inflammatory pamphlets around on the streets of Philadelphia and igniting a revolution, the match to the flame. NWA ignited something. Something that continues to burn today.

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Gena Rowlands to Receive 2015 Governors Award

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The announcement just came in that the 2015’s Governor Awards will be going to Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee (what a pairing – although it seems to me Spike Lee is damn young for an Honorary Award. Strange.), and the Humanitarian Award is going to the well-deserving Debbie Reynolds.

Unfortunately, the Powers That Be have now moved the Governors Awards to another night, and don’t include them in the regular broadcast (a travesty: celebrate the history of the industry as well as the accomplishments of those who are giants in the field, and let everyone see it!). But still, the news of Gena finally being honored is so exhilarating.

Here’s a brief clip from the video-essay written/narrated by me about the work of Gena Rowlands, included in the special features on the Criterion release of Love Streams., Rowlands’ husband John Cassavetes’ final film (in which he also appears).

The film is a wild and unpredictable masterpiece and one of those films I couldn’t quite process when I was a younger woman, and now that I am no longer young, it doesn’t seem “out there” at all. It almost seems like a documentary. Purchase it at that Criterion link if you haven’t seen it already. It is not available elsewhere, and had long been un-see-able, except at festivals. In this recent post for Rowlands’ 85th birthday, I put up a bunch of links to other Rowlands essays I’ve written.

So congratulations, dame Gena. It was nice to see the excitement spreading on Twitter and elsewhere after the announcement was made.

Gena Rowlands is one of the best actresses who has ever practiced the craft. She has no heirs.

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Happy Birthday, Tuesday Weld

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From the great “Pretty Poison” (1968) with Anthony Perkins. And below you can see her as the creepily blank and heart-achingly gorgeous teenage majorette in the fantastic opening sequence of the film.

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See Pretty Poison if you have not. Don’t miss Kim’s rhapsodic essay to Weld in general, and Pretty Poison in particular. In Pretty Poison, Weld shows up as the bombshell blonde teenager, restless in her small-town life, bored out of her mind (Weld was thrilling when she was bored because then she started yearning for excitement/stimulation/something to DO … and by that point, look out). She’s looking for escape and release, she’s empty on some level, and emptiness can be filled by bad-ness just as easily as it can by goodness. Bad-ness is certainly more exciting.

Also:

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From the wonderful “Wild in the Country” (1961).

Weld was only a teenager when she made Wild in the Country but she is sexy as hell in this as the wild-child bored-out-of-her-mind so-horny-it-hurts bad-girl who torments Elvis Presley’s character, a man trying (under court order) to stay good, clean, on the right side of the law. She practically begs him to “take” her. With all of her wild and impulsive shenanigans, there is a quiet moment in the middle of the film, with Presley and Weld perched on a rickety back stairway, and he sings, and she listens. There’s a stillness, a communion between these two hard-to-be-pinned-down and misunderstood-sex-outlaws … when everything slows down, and they can just be. They’re kindred spirits.

Elvis puts her off until, in the kitchen scene, after he adjusts her dress strap (because he’s aroused by that flash of uninterrupted creamy shoulder), he finally succumbs in an act of aggression that you rarely saw in Elvis films after this, where he was basically the somewhat submissive and amused recipient of the attentions of hordes of women. But Weld brought out the tiger in him.

I mean, who can blame him? Tuesday Weld was (and still is) irresistible.

Weld and Presley dated (if you can say that either of them ever “dated” in a traditional sense) and Weld had this to say about Presley:

He walked into a room and everything stopped. Elvis was just so physically beautiful that even if he didn’t have any talent . . . just his face, just his presence. And he was funny, charming, and complicated, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. You didn’t see that he was complicated. You saw great needs.

You could also say that she didn’t wear things on her sleeve. She was complicated but she didn’t walk around broadcasting that. You could also say that you look at her and see “great needs.”


Tuesday Weld and Elvis Presley.

Tuesday Weld has one of the most passionate and devoted fan bases on the planet.

I mean, remember this?

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That album came out in 1990. She now works so rarely. Her heyday was decades ago. But there she was. Aggressive. Insolent. Knowing. And stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous. Her self was in her face, but you wondered what life was really like for her. You were never quite sure. It made her compelling. Unforgettable.

She’s still out there. Happy birthday, Tuesday Weld.

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Phoenix (2015); dir. Christian Petzold

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The collaboration of director Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss is one of the pleasurable partnerships of our day and age. It’s exciting that these two have “found” one another, and that they continue to make films together, the latest being Phoenix, one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

The roles Hoss has played for Petzold, in Barbara, Yella, Jerichow (and others, but these are the three I have seen), are different but all utilize her considerable gifts of transformation, complexity, withholding, tension, sometimes unbearable release. She’s a phenom of an actress. She’s also got that old-school movie-star awareness of the camera, and how her body moves through space and what stories that body language can tell. (This is almost a lost art.) It’s not news that many of Petzold’s films are basically unofficial remakes of classic Hollywood films, the most obvious being Jerichow‘s lifting of the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice. And now, with Phoenix, with its clear Vertigo inspiration. The stories Petzold tells are about Germany, either now, post-Berlin-Wall collapse, and Germany in the past (recent, like Barbara, which takes place in 1980, or Phoenix, which takes place in the direct aftermath of WWII.) Yella is about the post-collapse period, as is Jerichow, with the undeniable legacy of decades of separation, with East Germany undeveloped in comparison to its stronger Western sibling. Integration was not easy and brought up many issues about history, economics, family, identity. This is Petzold’s milieu. (My first review for Rogerebert.com was Petzold’s Barbara, and I’ve also discussed Yella here on my own site.) I highly recommend all of his films.

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But PhoenixPhoenix with its pure appreciation of melodrama (another lost art), and its devastating plot-twists of betrayal and hope, brings Petzold (and his partnership with Hoss) to the next level. This is a great film. Vertigo is everywhere, in this story of a dead woman who is seemingly resurrected, and the man who is haunted by her, his wife’s double, or is it his actual wife? Questions of identity proliferate in increasingly complex ways. These issues also made me think of the wonderful A Woman’s Face, where Joan Crawford in one of her best performances plays a woman with a disfiguring scar across her cheek.

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Her self-esteem is nil and she hangs around with a group of corrupt Germans, and she’s a thief and a liar. She’s not a thief BECAUSE she has a scar, but her personality has been formed by outside perception of her, the cringing reaction of others, placing her on the outside of the human community. Once she encounters a kindly plastic surgeon (basically while robbing his house), he tells her he can make that scar go Bye-Bye if she likes. Give her a fresh start with a new face. Once the scar is gone, and Joan Crawford herself emerges, in all her striking beauty, her problems have only begun – because: beauty is skin-deep. And someone who has cringed from human attention for her whole life will not suddenly blossom into a Swan without any set-backs. She is still suspicious and terrified, unused to beauty. And Crawford’s acting is superb because even in the “beautiful” scenes, the character always has an awareness of the scar that was once there. These are melodramatic plot-twists, and melodrama is something today’s modern audiences find too neat, too clear, too “obvious”. Ah, someday I hope our culture will be released from its love affair with realism and its suspicion of the obvious. (I talked about that a little bit in my review of Joe Swanberg’s latest, Digging for Fire.) . Shakespeare didn’t care about realism. Viola and Rosalind dress up as boys, cavort about, sometimes in the presence of those who knew them as girls, and nobody goes, “Huh. You look awfully familiar …” The disguise is accepted because that’s the way you get the good juicy misunderstandings and deception required to make the classic Shakespearean final scenes, of recognition and resolution, so satisfying.

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Phoenix, with its reliance on coincidence and suspension-of-disbelief, is a melodrama and a noir, with a great understanding of its themes and what it wants to express. Along with identity, the main question here has to do with guilt. Who feels guilty? Who doesn’t? Even when someone’s lack of guilt is right in front of you, it’s common for humans to forgive, or at least try to excuse it, especially if it’s coming from a loved one. There has to be some other explanation, right? This person I once knew can’t actually have been a monster … can he? Petzold looks at these questions unblinkingly, with a relish in the build-up of tension, the withholding of Nelly (Hoss’ character), her submissive cringing character, her health and face destroyed by the concentration camp, and her disoriented hope that her husband Johnny may still be alive, that a reunion with her German husband is still possible.

Petzold keeps it simple, the period expressed simply in the clothes, the cars, the music, and a huge pile of rubble on a street. You don’t need much more, CGI reconstructions of the entire destroyed city, for example. Petzold’s one pile of rubble is theatrical, evocative.

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The action is confined to a couple of blocks, with one foray into the country suburbs of Berlin. Nina Hoss walks through the rubble, unsteady on her feet, lost in a huge man’s raincoat that hangs on her thin shoulders. Her face, destroyed by a gun-shot in the final days of the war, has been re-constructed, and she wants to look exactly as she did before. Or at least as close as possible. She doesn’t want a fresh start. She wants her old life back.

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At first with bruises around her eyes, and a swollen nose, she wanders through Berlin, and slowly her face heals, and she emerges, beautifully, as her former self. But are there changes still? We only see her former self in blurry sepia-toned photographs, laughing and free with her husband and German friends, photos she stares at longingly, trying to imagine her way back into that lost world. Does Nelly look the same? How much is there a resemblance? Petzold does not care about the reality, or the plausibility: it is enough to know that the plastic surgeon did a pretty good job, and she is now back to looking like herself. And yet her soul, her spirit, no longer “fits” her appearance. Her soul rattles around inside her, bucking against the walls of her body. Emotion throbs across her surface, coming upon her in uncontrollable waves. She appears to be always on the verge of hyperventilating. She seems so frail that you are amazed her fingers can even hold onto her purse.

Nelly has one friend left, a Jewish woman named Lene (the equally extraordinary Nina Kunzendorf). Lene works with the American-led coalition to help identify the Jewish returnees, of which there were a couple, and the piles of dead scattered in the camps and mass graves throughout Poland. She puts on glasses and stares at piles of corpses through a magnifying glass, cross-checking any tattooed numbers visible, with her piles of lists on her desk. Lene looks to Palestine, though, as her new home. She is resourceful, she already has a lead on an apartment in Haifa, she wants Nelly to come with her once she has healed. Staying in Germany is not an option. They are surrounded by monstrous collaborators, former Nazis, and regular citizens who did nothing to help the Jews. The atmosphere itself stinks, and Lene’s posture and gestures show the superhuman level of endurance of the character, devoted to her work, but desperate … desperate … to get out.

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The plot twists and turns, the appearance of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, a wonderful actor who is also part of Petzold’s regular repertory company), the scenes in the Phoenix night-club filled with American soldiers and regular Germans and German show-girls, with Nelly standing on the side-lines, looking for her husband through the black netting falling over her face from her hat … seep the film in its own atmosphere of emotional intrigue and doomed powerful hope. Nelly is a ghost. As she says to Lene early on, “I no longer exist.”

But maybe reuniting with Johnny will make her exist again. Maybe life is still possible. Johnny stares at her, through her, before doing a double-take. Boy, she is the spitting image of …

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What unfolds is so fascinating, so upsetting, so deep with the ultimate questions of our human condition (what IS identity? does having someone look at you and KNOW you mean you exist? Or can we exist in isolation? Who should feel guilty? What does guilt mean and what does it look like? What do our faces mean, the faces we were born with? Is it who we are? If we change our faces, do we change our souls? Can a leopard change its spots? And, taking that further: can Germany change? Can Germany get back to where it was before? – I mean, this is what the film calls up, constantly, with echoing reverb … in every single scene). The set-up is strong and theatrical. As with Vertigo, you must believe. And once you believe, the implications of the film expand, encompassing you, encompassing me, in ways that approach the Mythic. Myths help us understand who we are, why we are, and where our faults may emerge from, the deep wells of collective experience from which we act, behave, think, feel, are.

With the understanding that the piece contains spoilers, I must point you to my friend Farran’s the various cinematic references utilized by Petzold in Phoenix, essential in trying to understand Petzold’s intent, both cinematic and realistic, his understanding of story, his nods to the past, his spins on familiar themes. But again: SPOILERS.

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Phoenix is so strong in its particulars that by the time the final scene comes (and it is a doozy) you have been waiting for something like this, hoping for something like this, the tension of Hoss’ performance is so great, with its silent quivering unbearable withholding … and yet the reality of the final moment, as it unfolds, as Hoss and Zehrfeld perform it, what actually happens, in other words, is far more powerful and heart-stopping than anything you or I could dream up. A guy sitting behind us said, even before the screen went to black, “Wow.” And he kept saying it to his friend as the credits rolled, and he was still saying it (among other things) as they picked up their belongings and went to leave the theatre. We stayed to watch the credits, and as the guy exited the theatre, still talking about the movie with his friend, I heard him say, one more time … “Wow …”

It was a beautiful underlying accompaniment to our experience of the final moment, and the film entire.

Yup. Wow.

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 1 Comment

“She would always say, ‘People have to make sense.’” – Ingrid Rossellini on her mother, Ingrid Bergman

This year is the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth, and there is a huge retrospective happening at MoMA and BAM here in New York, programmed by her three children, Isabella and Ingrid Rossellini, and Pia Lindstrom. My friend Dan Callahan interviewed all three for this gorgeous piece on Rogerebert.com. So many wonderful insights into Bergman’s life and career and attitude towards her work. The quote I pulled out for the title of this post is my favorite, but there are so many more. Good work, Dan.

Posted in Actors | Tagged | 2 Comments

Hamilton Is Everywhere

Seen in the Columbus Circle subway station last night:

Hamilton

Heart-stopping. I can’t believe I got a clear view of the whole thing, that subway station is always so insane.

Here’s one of the many many MANY posts I have written about Alexander Hamilton.

September 13th can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Theatre | Tagged | 4 Comments

An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

I post this every year at the beginning of the school year, in honor of all the teachers out there – the teachers I know, and the teachers I’ve had. Here is my favorite teacher-story of all. You make a difference, teachers. You really do.

An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led to the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
E.B. White, Stuart Little

I have a friend who grew up in a nightmare, surrounded by chaos and abuse. He and his siblings clung to one another through childhood, putting their heads down and enduring the abusive and reckless nuthouse into which they were all born.

This essay is an ode to a teacher. A teacher who saved my friend’s life. She did not drag him from out of a burning house, or leap into a whirlpool to prevent him from drowning, but what she did do was recognize the light within him, his sharp intelligence, his essential self, and she made it her business to protect that light. She made it her business to make sure that that light survived.

My friend is extremely intelligent. His parents did not value this in him. On the contrary, it threatened them. It implicated their ignorance. To add to this, my friend, from a very young age, knew he was “different” from other boys. Somehow. How many other boys enjoyed putting hot-rollers into their sister’s Cher-doll’s hair? How many other boys could recite Meet Me in St. Louis? How many lip-synched to Barbra Streisand albums? He couldn’t put a name to what was different because he was just a little boy. But he knew it was there.

The teasing he got was brutal. Teasing of this particular kind has one goal and one goal only: to crush what is different. The difference in him was like a scent and other kids could smell it. His father could smell it. To avoid the terror that school had become, he would stay home from school playing with his sister’s Barbies.

The little boy reached the second grade. He had already learned some very hard lessons. He had already experienced cruelty, betrayal, fear. All of the cards were stacked against this person, and the end of his story could have been a terrible one, were it not for his second grade teacher. Her name was Miss Scofield.

I did not meet the “little boy” until college when we became fast friends, and in my view, Miss Scofield was directly responsible for the fact that he actually went to college (the first one in his family to do so), that he broke the expected pattern of his life and got out, saying No to what seemed to be his logical fate.

What did Miss Scofield do to accomplish this? It’s very simple. She read E.B. White’s Stuart Little to the class.

And my friend, then seven years old, had what can only be described as a life-changing experience, listening to her read that book.

Stuart Little is a mouse, born to human parents. Everyone is confused by him. “Where the heck did he come from?” My friend, a little boy who was so “different” he might as well have been a mouse born to human parents, a little boy who was, indeed, smaller than everybody else in the class, listened to the story unfold, agog, his soul opening to its implications.

First of all, for the first time, he really got reading. By this I mean the importance, and the excitement, of language. Language can create new and better worlds in your head. Language is a way out. To this day, my friend is a voracious reader. I will never forget living with him while he was reading Magic Mountain. We lived in a one-room apartment, and so if I wanted to go to sleep and turn the lights off, my friend would take a pillow into the bathroom, shut the door, curl up on the bathmat, and read Magic Mountain long into the night. I believe that this voraciousness is a direct result of Miss Scofield reading Stuart Little to the class.

It had to be that particular book, too. Stuart Little is “different”. Just like my friend was “different”. In hearing the words of that story, my friend rose above the pain, the torture, the abuse, and realized that there were others out there who were “different” too, and that different was good!

His major revelation was this: Stuart Little’s small-ness ends up being his greatest asset. That which seemed like the biggest strike against him is not at all in the end! My friend, in his seven-year-old epiphany, embraced his size. Small didn’t mean weak. Not at all.

Somewhere, in his child-like soul, he knew he was gay although he did not have a word for it. It wasn’t a sexual orientation so much at that time, but a sensibility. He wasn’t like the other boys. He didn’t know yet what that would mean for him, in his life, but it certainly isolated him at school, and it isolated him at home. Hearing about the adventures of Stuart Little my friend realized that the life that he was living right at that moment, the narrow circle of endurance, did not have to be his life. He suddenly knew, for the first time ever, that everything was going to be okay. He was going to be okay.

As Miss Scofield read the story to the class, my friend had the unmistakable sensation that she was reading it directly to him, and only to him. It was such a strong feeling that he was able to describe it to me vividly, years and years later. The rest of the class fell away, and it was as though she had singled him out and was trying to give him a message of some sort, through the words of E.B. White. That book was for him, and for him alone.

By the time high school came around, my friend had learned that wit was the best defense against teasing. His humor, his sarcasm, became his armor, and it also was the way he made friends. In a very short time, he acquired a Praetorian guard of sorts, high school football players, who thought he was hilarious, and who protected him in the locker room, pushing anyone off who tried to mess with him.

His high school friends, all intelligent, artistic, interesting people, pushed him to apply to college, because they all were applying to college. So he applied to college. He got in. He went to college. He graduated college.

Years later, many years after college, he ran into Miss Scofield in a breakfast restaurant in Rhode Island.

She (a teacher to the core) recognized him immediately even as a grown man. She said, “My goodness – it is so wonderful to see you! I have heard so many wonderful things about what you are up to – how are you?”

They talked for a while. He caught her up on his life and she listened and supported him. She still was invested in what had happened to that small special boy from her classroom many many years before.

Then, in a burst of open-ness, my friend said to her, kind of blowing it off, laughing at himself, “You know … this is kind of silly … but I want to tell you – that I remember so vividly you reading Stuart Little to the class. It had a huge impact on my life … and … I know it’s crazy and everything, but at the time, I truly had the feeling that you were reading it just to me.”

Miss Scofield looked at him then, smiled, and said, “I was.”

Posted in Books, Personal | Tagged , | 22 Comments

Survivor’s Remorse Season 2 Premiere

brendanomalley

… cheers from the O’Malley clan spread out across the country erupted when this credit came up on the screen.

Congratulations to my brother Brendan! So proud of you!

Posted in Television | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Books: The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17; “A New Woman’s Movement: The Need for Riotous Living”

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve done my excerpt-thing, so I want to get back on that train. The Young Rebecca is a compilation of many of the op-ed columns, book reviews, and long-form essays written by the mighty Rebecca West in her earliest years as a journalist. I mean, she was 18, 19, 20 years old at the time of these essays, to make me feel even more bad about myself. Her writing! Her thought! Her political analysis! The sheer bravado of her prose. Not to mention its biting funniness (I often laugh out loud reading these essays). She had her pet obsessions. She hated Strindberg so much that she literally could not stop writing about him. She was so mean to him. (Whether or not you like Stridberg is irrelevant. Put aside your personal preferences and get into the prose itself. People miss so much good writing by just focusing on whether or not they “agree” with the content. It’s such a limited view. I like good writing, period.) Her book reviews could be vicious. She made fun of things she hated in a way that makes you think, “Wow. She is not just swiping at the thing she hates. She is knocking it over entirely.” It’s such a confident writing style, and that’s essential if you want to be a social/political/artistic critic.

Of course her main topics were feminism, socialism, and social reform. She was at the vanguard of all of these movements, and had been going to protests and rallies and political meetings ever since she was 12, 13 years old. Reading these essays is fascinating because you start to piece together her actual philosophy (which is already apparent if you have read her other great non-fiction books, especially the magnificent triumvirate of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Train of Powder, The New Meaning of Treason.)

Her feelings about feminism were wrapped up in her Socialist convictions. Right-wingers who throw that word around today as though it is equated with Evil do not really know their history. Yes, Socialism taken to its logical conclusions makes room for a Stalin figure. But Socialism arose because of the Industrial Revolution and the absolutely devastating effect it had on the lower classes (which then moved up into the upper classes). It created a completely hierarchical and rigid society and it happened in a generation or two. Radical change. It destroyed family life, it destroyed quality of life (poor people in a rural community at least could grow shit in their yards, and had the support of a small community of people if they fell on hard times. Not to Utopianize it – but the Industrial Revolution eradicated such protections.) The lower classes did the majority of the back-breaking work, and were paid next to nothing. Because the mills and factories and such were all clustered in cities – the lower classes moved to the cities and then were packed into squalid tenements and company housing where the conditions were deplorable. Men and women worked. Birth control was illegal and so everyone had a bazillion kids that they could not take care of (due to low wages and due to the fact that everyone needed to work. The fantasy of Daddy going to work and Mummy sitting home having tea parties was a Victorian invention and only occurred in the middle/upper classes). And if the Industrial Revolution was terrible to the lower classes it was also brutal to the upper classes although in a less-obvious way. It created a stratum of human beings who made their money off the work of others. Which is bad for everyone involved (spiritually). And in terms of the women question, it also created a population of totally useless women, women who did nothing, contributed nothing (except for having babies, but anyone can do that), lived in the protection of her husband’s money, “kept house” (which West did not value – anyone can keep house. You dust, you clean, you wax floors, get over yourself if you think any of that is difficult, and besides: once women reached a certain level of financial stability they promptly out-sourced the housekeeping/child-rearing anyway to nannies and maids – therefore making themselves even more useless.) West referred to these women as parasites. It wasn’t their FAULT, the world was just set up that way, but in West’s view: it was an unsustainable situation. The economic system was starting to break down and these women were going to have to go to work. And so what Socialism was trying to combat was the unfairness of all of this. Everything could be boiled down to: citizens deserved protection, citizens deserved to paid better for the work they did, and everyone needed to have a CHANCE to make a good life for their families.

For West, and for many others, all of this was tied up in feminism. Men were too much in charge. Women just went along for the ride, whether it was marriage, economics or war. It was not right that men should have so much power over women. Get women into politics. Get women into the work-force. Pay them appropriately. It was only right and fair. Women were capable enough to take leadership roles, to have SOME say over their own destinies, especially when the men had botched it up so completely.

Here is where she eventually started to break with mainstream feminism. I’m generalizing but here is the gist of it: the “stars” of the feminist world began their agitation for the vote. There were centuries of tradition behind that ban on women voting and that tradition was what the feminists were up against. Women were seen as too emotional, not politically savvy, too personal to be trusted with the vote. West conceded that that may be true to some degree: you ban an entire group of people from participation for centuries then of COURSE they won’t be politically savvy. You haven’t allowed them to stretch those muscles. Women were relegated to the home, they didn’t even circulate all that much as young single women – they were holed up in their parents’ homes. (This was, as always, not so much the case with the lower classes.) And so where exactly would women gain experience? West got that. But by the early 20th century, as the economic situation started to fracture, as a huge war started to become inevitable, West knew that there was no longer any excuse. The Victorian fantasy was over. The system was broken. Women needed to stop being parasites. And men needed to get over themselves. (It’s funny to think that women were supposed to be the more emotional sex, and yet the men around this time, holding onto their power, sound like frightened panicked over-emotional ninnies in comparison.)

Mainstream feminism’s focus on the vote was important and West was a part of that, but she was dismayed at the lack of general interest in economic reform, which went hand in hand with feminism. She wondered, in print, if it was because feminism was started by middle-class ladies, those who came out of the “parasite” class. She writes a lot about it. She wondered why the lower-classes didn’t jump on the band-wagon and start their own agitations, and she realized that it’s because they working-class women flat out could not relate to the middle-class woman’s concerns and entitled attitude. Working-class women were too busy working, and burying their babies, and hauling clean water from the well downstairs up 6 flights of stairs. You know? Totally different experience So West was like, “Yes. Let’s get the vote. But let us not ignore the reality of what women’s lives are like. The vote is not going to change that.” (She was right.) But mainstream feminism didn’t listen. One thing at a time was the attitude.

And later, as feminism developed, West was REALLY dismayed at where it went, into the personal lives and sexual lives of women, which she frankly thought irrelevant. And man-hating. It was divorced from the reality of most women’s lives, who lived with men, loved men, etc. Maybe man-hating is also a somewhat natural end-result of strong feminism (not to sound like an MRA advocate, I’m just talking about the potential for that – which we can see in some brands of feminism.) But West thought that that was NOT the way to go with feminism, that that would alienate the lower-classes even more. (West’s family once had money, but no longer did. She couldn’t go to school because they couldn’t afford it. She was pretty much self-educated except for a couple of years of formal education, which makes her erudition and vast frames of reference that much more extraordinary. Granted, she did not live in a tenement and work in an unsanitary dangerous factory, but she did not come from a cushy protected existence, her parents did not give a hoot if she got married or not, she was out having sex and having a baby out of wedlock – H.G. Wells the father – by the time she was 20, and I think that goes a long way towards explaining her singular outlook on economics and women. She was an Outsider.) So the leaders of the feminist movement (many of them anyway) began serious campaigns against STDs. Of course STDs were a huge issue – especially before there was medicine to combat it. And women, who had been kept in the dark about sexual realities, were completely unable to take car of themselves and protect themselves. Add to that the shame, and you had a lot of women who got very very sick because their husbands were tomcatting around and bringing diseases home. West wanted women to be treated like adults, not children, so women taking responsibility for their sexual health was important and they needed society’s help in that. HOWEVER: it became an obsession with the feminist leadership, and West thought that was unhealthy and stupid, especially when there were still major economic and political inequalities to be addressed. As happened in the 1970s too (just ask a woman of color about mainstream 1970s feminism, you’ll get an ear-full about the bull-shit), the feminist movement began to focus on the small and the personal, ignoring the economic inequalities, racism, sheer oppression that many of their fellow women suffered under. Instead, these middle-class ladies burned their bras and talked about how husbands don’t do enough housework and how they wanted to have more orgasms. (I know. I’m generalizing. They also focused on equal pay. So kudos for that, they got real change instituted. But still, there’s some truth in the criticism that the obsession with the personal is NOT helpful and can become AS bossy as the conservative interest in limiting women’s freedom.) You can certainly see why poor women and working-class blue-collar women and minority women would want nothing to do with such a movement, focused as it was on the tiny house-bound issues. You want to have orgasms? When most of us are paid 2 cents on the dollar? When women of color are virtually non-existent in certain professions? It starts to seem ridiculous, what the movement focused on – and it was a huge disappointment to those who wanted real radical political change. The same thing happened in the 1910s, 20s, and West was one of those who critiqued mainstream feminism for 1. focusing ONLY on getting the vote and then 2. turning their eyes onto domestic issues, and ignoring the political. “The personal is political” has some truth in it, especially when you consider that “the woman question” (what to do with the ladies?) is always on the table in politics, in war, in society. Women, who make up half of the population, are seen as “other,” a minority. It’s, frankly, insane. So of course, what we do with our personal lives is ALSO political. However, “the personal is political” was also an excuse for focusing on the unfairness of bra-wearing as opposed to economic/political injustice. There is a prudish strain in feminism, then and now, and the focus on sexual relations galled West when there were so many actually serious issues at hand.

West wrote a lot about the prudish-ness and asceticism of much “charity” work at the time. West was infuriated by the busybody attitude towards women’s lives. Pay them better, institute some kind of fairness in the work-place, improve conditions – don’t teach them how to clean better or mother better or how to be single in an appropriate way. YOU try to be a better mother when you have 8 kids, you live in 2 rooms, and you work 10, 12 hours a day at a back-breaking factory job. Much of the charity-work was Christian-based, and so it focused on living a clean life, going to church, and being “good.” West thought it was bullshit (this is the topic of the essay I’ll excerpt – eventually – today.) She wanted women to be free. She wanted women to have the freedom to have fun, even poor women. There was a high premium in Christian charity placed on never being “idle.” Busy your day with good works, with clean thoughts, with having a clean house, with working hard. She didn’t want the poor to be JUDGED for going to shows, or splurging on a pretty hat. West was not a “joiner,” despite her devotion to the big “isms” of the day. She had a very specific outlook, rooted in the details.

Why did single women have to live such upstanding perfect lives? Why was it required that they be invisible? That they live in a strict collective in a YWCA where their every move was monitored? Why couldn’t they go out by themselves? Why did they have to live such spare lives? Why was “fun” looked down upon? Why was “fun” seen as something evil, or leading to ruin? Yes, much of this is indicative of a different time and place, but it is worthwhile to remember that it is BECAUSE of the dedication of women like Rebecca West that true social reform started to occur. Some of the lead feminists at the time, the famous ones, eventually counseled celibacy and abstinence, since men were, on the whole, such monsters. In a lot of ways, West did think men were terrible (she called them “lunatics” because of their propensity to start huge catastrophic wars), but that was mainly in the political realm, because they were barring women from seats at the table. But out there in the real world, women fell in love with men, lived with men, slept with men, and to advise all women to reject normalcy like that … was totally counter-productive to the feminist cause.

Obviously I agree with her, and this may be due to my own circumstances. The personal is political, right? I do not participate in mainstream culture, or the “norms” of my age/gender. This is not because I abstain, it’s just the way it worked out. So a lot of the concerns expressed by the mainstreamer-s are not my concerns. I can sympathize, and of course I have friends who are in these positions, but who speaks for me? The clamor of voices tends to ignore me (and those like me) completely. Literally: completely. I’m not complaining. Nobody’s putting a gun to my head and saying “Live this way” (although the omnipresent bombardment of messages about what life SHOULD look like for women is, honestly, like living in a totalitarian state, complete with overwhelming 24/7 propaganda. You have to be really strong to withstand it and go your own way. You have to become comfortable with being an outlaw. That’s the term I prefer.)

West’s voice was a radical one. You will notice below that she focuses on bad food served to working women in boarding houses at YWCAs. This may seem trivial. It is not. It was part and parcel of a culture that enforced asceticism upon women “for their own good”, that infantilized women. And that was a political situation. The infantilization had centuries behind it as well, and came from the conservative judgmental “traditional” voices in politics, but it also came her own side. You can see this now, too, in some of the protests about sexual harassment or cat-calls in the street, and how women shouldn’t have to deal with that. Yes, it is annoying, but honestly? Grow up. There are real issues in the world, and your desire to be comfortable/safe every minute of the day is bizarre. Don’t cringe with shame when someone shouts something rude. Don’t go home and write on your blog that you were “triggered.” (Okay, now I’m being mean.) Shout “Fuck off” and keep on walking, head held high. Or, better yet, flip them the bird. Or even BETTER, shout, “Thank you so much!” Take a self-defense course. Second guessing women’s reactions to things is a huge issue, and infuriating (not to mention infantilizing), but when My Inalienable Right To Never Be Cat-Called becomes a hot topic, I gotta speak up, yo. This is Victorian-era bull-shit, wanting to protect women from the rough realities of the world. I want women to have a core self, a self not created FOR them by an unjust society that does not have their best interests at heart. People have varying degrees of sensitivities based on life experiences and I get that, but it’s reaching a lunatic stage at the moment. My opinions are hard-won from my own rough experience. Society ignores me anyway: I am not advertised to, catered to, or acknowledged. So fuck ’em. I’m not a joiner either.

West rejected the “help” from others when it came with such strong strings attached (be somber, live in a YWCA, don’t stay out past curfew, don’t run around with men – regardless of your age, don’t have fun because it could lead to ruin – these strictures were coming at women from all sides. It’s similar to the weird-ness of right-wingers being on the same side as radical feminists in their interest in censorship and control of language. Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s campaigns against porn alienated a lot of us, who were, in general, on their side in other things. They sounded exactly like right-wing Christians. These people value ideology over freedom of thought. Read Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, a truth-telling bombshell about the educational system and the making of textbooks, with a disheartening look at the joining-of-hands of right-wing Christians and left-wing pressure groups in their desire to control how we speak. And as George Orwell showed in 1984 and his essays, limiting speech limits THOUGHT. I take this very very seriously. Ravitch’s book is truly dismaying to those of us who value freedom of speech/thought, even of our opponents – or, especially of our opponents, because that’s the only real way that freedom of speech can work. Engaging with opponents helps us sharpen our rhetorical skills, sorely missed in our culture, in trying to take on our opponents’ arguments. Ravitch’s book is one of the only books I have actually thrown across the room in outrage. That book came out a while ago and the situation has now worsened to such a degree that college students are demanding that Ovid come with a trigger warning and people are AFRAID to speak on college campuses because the language-rules have become so rigid and unforgiving that people literally can’t speak anymore without fucking up and “offending” someone. This is insane, people. It’s anti-democratic.)

West, in looking at the situation for working women, for single women, for women in general, decided that what the suffragettes needed was to inject a little “riotous” fun into their protests. Be bold. Be loud. Be free. REFUSE to participate in the society that infantilizes you. Make them obey. West gets quite funny when she imagines a world where women started being “riotous.” The shotgun over the beefsteak!!

And now, finally, West.

Excerpt from The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17: “A New Woman’s Movement: The Need for Riotous Living”, by Rebecca West

The schoolmistress is an example of this enforced asceticism. She does work of the highest importance, requiring not only a brain, but a heart. For the work she has done in the elementary schools in connection with the Free Meals and Medical Inspection of schoolchildren she can claim to be among the most efficient and humane public officials we have. We ought almost to allow her special privileges. But instead we bully her into an elaborate presence that she is not a human being at all, but some undecorative kind of vegetable. We impose on her a tradition that she ought to dress dowdily. We turn her out of her school if she takes any prominent part in political affairs, although we are worse than foolish if we want our children to be brought up by a mind so vacuous that it has no political opinions. If we are well-to-do, we object to her continuing to teach after she has proved herself human by marrying. And we underpay her miserably, so that she wastes half her efficiency in trying to make ends meet, as one tires oneself out trying to hold on a large hat in a gale. When she is in training at college she is underfed. But then, of course, wherever women are gathered together for the purpose of work their spirits are tamed by partial starvation. The students at Newnham and Girton are weakened (some of them for life) by underdone joints and rice puddings. In YWCAs the boiled egg is of more importance than it ought to be, and there seems far too much bread-and-butter in the world. Nurses in hospital usually enjoy a diet much too unpalatable and restricted for any better-class child of ten. The air of extreme solemnity possessed by many professional and business women is largely due to over-familiarity with milk puddings.

Another aspect of the artificial asceticism of women is the sacrifice of personal liberty she has to make before she can get a respectable roof over her head. If she is sufficiently prosperous to avoid the slums she must go to a YWCA and whatever her private convictions may be, step into an evangelical mise-en-scene. She may be fortunate enough to find a comfortable branch, but she may chance on one where the founders – although the YWCA is not run at a loss, and the inmates owe nothing to charity – gratify their appetite for vicarious piety. They rip phrases from the Gospels and hang them on the walls in the starkness of black print, unmitigated by the presence of other pictures. They insist on public prayer at certain hours. Public prayer at half-past eight in the morning, with the cold light falling through a basement window on to the dirty cups and saucers on the breakfast table, promotes asceticism more effectively than all the publications of the rationalist Press. And those of us with passions for going to suffrage meetings and music-halls – both excellent enthusiasms – must restrain ourselves, for we must not stay out later than half-past ten. But there we are in the same position as the inmates of ‘philanthropic’ institutions such as Hopkinson House (which pays a sleek five per cent), who, although they may be women of forty holding responsible educational positions, must not dare to stay out a moment longer.

Decidedly what we need is a militant movement for more riotous living. Schoolmistresses must go to their work wearing suffrage badges and waving the red flag. The ladies of Hopkinson House must stay out till tow in the morning, and then come back and sing outside till the doors are opened. And we must make a fuss about our food. ‘The milk pudding must go’ shall be our party cry. I can see in the future militant food raids of the most desperate character. I see the inmates of the YWCA inflamed with text-burning on Hampstead Heath, pelting the central offices with bread-and-butter and threatening a general massacre of hens if the boiled egg persists in prominence. Armies of nurses would visit the homes of the hospital governors and forcibly feed them with that horrid breakfast dish, porridge and treacle. And in Simpson’s some day the blenching stockbroker shall look down the muzzle of the rifle and hand over his nice red-and-black beefsteak to his pale typist … Wages would go up then.

But that is a dream. But not an unromantic one. The modern psychological theory of insanity states that impulses can never be killed, but only scotched; and if one denies an impulse its natural outlet, it will find an unnatural outlet. It may be that the repression of the animal in women, with its desires for food and freedom and comfort, accounts for her greater liability to nervous irritability and hysteria. If so, then what has always been a racial danger is becoming more and more dangerous every day, as women take more and more part in the world’s business. Many of the evils of our social system spring from perversities that arose when all education and much of the land was in the hands of monks and nuns who were professedly leading unnatural lives of repression. And in the same way the lady – who is simply the well-repressed woman – may be a source of danger to the State. So that though the doormat type of anti-suffragist is disgusted by the women who struggle for material comfort for themselves, we are doing sound service to the State by our selfishness.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Digging for Fire (2015); dir. Joe Swanberg

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I’ve been iffy on Joe Swanberg’s stuff. I loved Digging for Fire. It also features a host of awesome indie-stars strolling in and out of the action: Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, Melanie Lewensky, Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Judith Light, Sam Elliott – the list goes on and on. It’s really funny and entertaining – without sacrificing depth.

It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery and that is praise indeed!

My review of Digging for Fire is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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