Saturday, June 27, 2009

The N-Spot: Review of A.S. Byatt's 'Possession'

For a year and some change, A.S. Byatt’s Possession beckoned to me from the rocky crags of my various bookshelves; first, from the ten-foot-high, cheaply-minimalist shelf of my high-ceilinged dorm room (the bookshelf my friends were convinced would crush me one day, toppling over from the sheer weight of my book collection). But no, I would say, I want to save the book for a time when I can immerse myself entirely in it; not while I’m reading five others for classes. And then this summer, the siren’s call echoed throughout my shoebox of a bedroom. This time, however, I kept putting it back on the shelf for no other reason than that when I ordered it online over a year ago, I received the unfortunate film-tie-in edition—yes, those dreaded reprints of novels that infect serious scholars of lit-ruh-chah with embarrassment, for we would never wish to seem as though we were reading a book because of its film adaptation! Instead of the arresting Burne-Jones’ painting, “The Beguiling of Merlin,” that was the original cover of the novel, I was subjected to Gwyneth Paltrow’s bland half-smirk and a strangely dizzying—not to mention unfitting—neon landscape of London.

And so Byatt just had to wait; yet, as the summer wore on and I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with my reading list thus far, I figured, what the hell? I gathered my courage, I steeled my easily-flushed cheeks, and I dove into the novel—each time convincing myself that when I closed its pages, ol’ Gwyn wouldn’t be staring back at me. The novel overcame my initial reservations, and broke the procession of good-but-not-great-novels I’ve been reading of late. You see, it was on the shining recommendation of a favorite professor, and a favorite fellow student in said professor’s course, that I picked up Possession. We were reading, I think it was, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (blech) and talking about woman-monster figures; and what comes up, but the myth of Melusina! Instantly, aforementioned professor and fellow student begin gushing over Possession, by some woman—A.S. Byatt?—with enough brilliance, evidently, for ten master novelists. Who was this Byatt woman? And why hadn’t I—a serious lover of contemporary women writers—heard of her?! Of course, I rationalized this for myself; they must be speaking of some Victorian novelist, right? Professor is a Victorianist, and student is a Medievalist who dabbles in Victoriana. So that would explain it—a Victorian woman writer, fallen into obscurity and possibly poverty because of the vicious patriarchs that dominated her era.

Oh, how wrong was I. I added Possession to my account, noting sourly that the novel was published in 1990. I would have been three years old; my Victorian fantasy instantly deflated. Imagine my surprise, however, that my limp fantasy was, indeed, a central conflict of the novel! (I’ll derail again here momentarily to say that once I swallowed my pride and ordered Possession, I also threw her short fiction collection Elementals into my shopping cart. That one I did manage to read in the whirlwind of last semester—and my god, it was a whirlwind in and of itself! If you are at all in doubt that short stories can be moving, powerful, life-changing, or simply beautiful, read Elementals. A longer story within, “Cold,” is quite possibly one of the most incendiary and breathtaking stories I’ve ever had the fortune of devouring. And that’s just one masterpiece among five others!

Okay, that said. I should preface this, too, by saying that there were two things working against Possession as I embarked upon the journey: 1) I had hyped it up over the year-and-change so much that it would be next to impossible for it to live up to or exceed my expectations and 2) I discovered very soon after beginning the novel that this is undoubtedly a ‘winter experience’ sort of novel. It’s intended for frigid nights and five-P.M. moonrises and reading tucked away in your favorite blanket in your favorite chair. It is by no means a summer novel, a beach read, or something to be engrossed in while you swat mosquitoes from your thigh. For this very reason, I’m looking forward to a delicious re-read over Winter break.

Possession, then, is a sort of patchwork quilt. There are two central narrative threads—the clandestine affair between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, and the research-based affair-of-sorts with Roland Michell and Maud Bailey—but that is only just the beginning. For we have, too, the narratives invoked through Ash and Lamotte’s poetry; we have the sordid history and expedition of Mortimer Cropper; we have Ellen Ash—that original Hillary Clinton—and her correspondences; we have Leonora Stern and Beatrice Nest and James Blackadder (three very distinct academics, each with their own motives and passions); and interwoven myths and fairytales and legends and more. With such a hodge-podge of characters and events, each offered up in what one might term a post-modern relativist sort of way (the author’s slant is ever-ambiguous, so to speak), the reader—here, Me—may find him or herself liking bits and being bored to tears by others. At times, it felt like a salad-bar sort of novel; for example, no matter how I tried, I found Ash’s poetry—which often ended up being ten or fifteen page stretches of awful(ly) Victorian prose-poems—an insufferable chore. I tried reading aloud to grab the cadence, with no such luck. Lamotte, on the other hand, works with a lucid, precise, melodic poetic voice—and her subject matter, the fairy Melusina and the City of Is, grabbed me by the gut. Likewise, the detours into fairy tales—again, like the one we are given to ‘by’ Lamotte—are engaging and stunningly written. Byatt has a knack for fairy stories, and the several featured throughout Possession could be published on their own (in fact, I think two of them are featured in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye).

But ultimately, love or hate ‘em, you have to appreciate Byatt’s depth of investment into the various threads of the novel. She clearly had a grasp on Victorian poetry and the contemporaneous interest in evolutionary principles (remember that Darwin’s Origin of Species was 1859), and the strangely conflicting obsession with supernatural haunting (which Byatt also ties in in a very well-researched and historical manner)—all this to generate a convincing poetic style and voice for Ash. Without a doubt, she knows her fables and myths to such an extent that they seem almost to infect the novel. You begin to recognize the motifs of the overt myths in the shadowy undercurrents of the entire novel, in places you simply hadn’t noticed them before. Take, for example, the Melusina myth; at first you think, okay, okay, I get it. A woman-monster is feared for her power; likewise, Christabel Lamotte’s poetic voice is silenced because she’s employing poetry—a male-dominated world—as an outlet for her particular identity (feminine, sexual, and authoritative). Lamotte writes a poem about Melusina—all right, I get it. Then out of nowhere, you realize that Maud Bailey, over a century later, is not only doing that same sort of ‘frightening’ female self-authorship, but has become a forbidden spectacle for Roland, and suddenly, you can trace the images and the hints all the way back to the beginning of the novel. I realize this sleuthing sounds geeky, but think about who’s writing this for a moment. I am an unabashed book nerd/slut/obsessive.

Likewise, the theme of the ‘academic mystery’ probably appealed to me because it felt like gazing into a crystal ball; everything’s still a little murky, but ‘signs point to yes’ that the novel was reflecting (at least in some distorted way) my future back at me. It won’t be for everyone, I know. It’s thrilling for me to watch at Roland and Maud seek out hidden letters and discover secret hair-locks behind doll collections, and so forth, all in the name of scholarship!—because that’s kind of/sort of what I want to do for the rest of my life. But that, and Byatt’s ever-present and self-conscious erudition are potentially grating for the reader with little patience for vulgar displays of the Ivory Tower. The primary setting is academe, the novel is peopled with scholars—the only escape you’ll find from that is within the magic-and-mystery-laced flashes into Lamotte and Ash’s ‘lifetime.’ And then, if you’re not big on Victoriana or Celtic myth and superstition, you’ll be trapped once again. I guess what I mean to say is that I’m a bit shocked to hear so many people gush over the novel (and not just the two from that class I mentioned), because it seems the kind of book directed at a very, very particular audience—and the kind of book that can easily break a reader’s last nerve.

I suppose the ‘affair of sorts’ I mentioned between Roland and Maud, too, drew my interest in. Evoked in contrast to the almost burning passion of Christabel Lamotte and R.H. Ash, Maud and Roland’s attraction to one another was all the more fascinating—because, through them, Byatt captures the truly icy quality that seems so peculiar to modern romance. Their intellectual barricades against one another, and their desire sublimated through a chaste yearning for solitude and quiet seem somehow to reflect a more pervasive question in the so-termed post-modern era: are we too self-aware for romantic love? When Roland wonders whether he can verify any of his thoughts or feelings—because he has taken up the pomo flag for the idea of an incoherent Self—I think about my own alliance with post-modernism and my inextricable connection to the Age of the Internet. I’m blogging a review of a book that was tactile, that had a texture in my hands—in the process of writing this, I still feel the keys beneath my fingers, but the words are no longer anything but creations on a detached screen. I don’t mean to get wildly philosophical, because these are old and frequently cliché questions, but nonetheless, Byatt captures one of the greatest predicaments of the modern age—what does it mean to assert an identity in an age where identity is almost wholly unstable? And how can we justify thinking or feeling anything if we can’t subscribe to some sort of stable order of understanding? Interesting that the book even preceded the sort of spiral into the internet, because it seems the questions have become more pertinent in the last decade than when the book was originally published. There’s a nostalgia in Roland and Maud’s mutual attraction for, I guess we would say, a ‘simpler’ age—a time in which they could put faith into their emotions and their ‘love.’ Likewise, the book’s evocation of fables and superstitions and Wuthering Heights-esque moorlands and cliffs gives the nostalgia that seeps through a more definable quality.

I’m getting off track, and this has become college-paper length. As I said, there are bits of the novel that felt like chores—Ash’s poetry, Cropper’s narrative—not to mention the fact that I was two-hundred pages into the novel before it became a ‘can’t-put-down’ kind of read. At first I was disappointed with the conclusion’s tidy precision, but as I think more about it now, I realize it actually wasn’t as neat as I originally thought. It was no Austenian dash to knot up the frayed ends, that’s for damn sure. No, as I think about it, the tidiness of wrapping up the plot points seems almost to play into the construction of the Victorian novel, where that sort of reassurance was expected, indeed almost required, of the novel; Byatt’s wrapping-up is a sort of defiance of ‘factual’ ambiguity, again bringing up the nostalgia for the past that we’ve spoken of already. But the ideas of the novel remain in limbo—again, questions of the unstable identity arise, as do fears about the state of modern romance; perhaps most importantly (and one of the more obvious inquiries of the novel), what is the meaning of possession? How does one possess another person, or an idea, a text—or even oneself? Byatt gives us no assurance on that point, and of course (I won’t spoil here), the very last three pages throw us for a bend as to even our understanding of those aforementioned and ‘resolved’ plot points. A hundred new questions materialize, and poof! Thar’ goes the last page; we’re left to ask ourselves about the possibilities involved in…well, again, I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, if you had the patience for this review, you’ll likely have a much more tolerant patience for Possession. It’s a dense read; it’s metafictional to an almost tiresome degree; Byatt teases, but never satisfies—but it’s well worth your parched tongue by the end.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Funny Shit Roundup

Not literal shit, my friends. A few things I found on Jezebel (seriously, read it! I don't know what took me so long to come around!) today struck my fancy, and I wanted to share.

First, we've got a lovely Public Service Announcement; the question is whether it was a Twilight fan or Stephenie Myer herself who designed it:

Now see, this is just one of those things I suppose my mother left out when she taught me things like "look both ways before crossing the road" and the five-second rule. Little girls, beware! Not only do older men now have the superhuman ability to transmit AIDS through deceptive (and suspiciously large) bulletin boards, you might get a side-dish of 'broken family' without even asking for it! Oh, and also, in case you were wondering, it's obviously *only* older men who can transmit AIDS. Older men that wear diagonally-striped ties and have dark, Ken-doll haircuts, circa 1995. Remember, little Betsys and Sues, if an older man attempts to infiltrate your holy, Lolita-temple with the AIDS-box, simply push his 'gift' back at him and say, ever so politely, "No thank you, sir, I've already eaten."

There's also this laugh-so-hard-you-piss-yourself post from the lovelies at Jezebel, who revised a 70s-era Dutch sex-education book for children:

Hey, baby, ever watched a fetus crown from a hairy cartoon twat?

And finally, a hilarious interview with Betty White and Cloris Leachman, the Grand Dames of Old Broad-dom. I grew up on The Golden Girls and I can still cite, verbatim, many of Rose's tales from St. Olaf. It's tragic that both Estelle Getty (Sophia) and Bea Arthur (Dorothy) have passed recently. Rest in peace, you fierce old sluts (I think they'd like that). These raisins taught me more about sex than any abstinence-only program I went through in junior high!

On how to smile-with-your-eyes in your 80s:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Film Review: "Drag Me to Hell"

Confession: a good friend of mine (who is notorious for loving absolutely god-awful movies) pointed this out to me when the trailer surfaced, saying he thought it would just be so. great. I was, not surprisingly, unimpressed. Sure, I like Alison Lohman; she was fabulous in White Oleander (a book and movie I find severely underrated), and, well, what has she done since then? I have no idea, but I was excited to see her getting work, especially with a big name director like Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead and Spiderman fame). Back to the trailer. Whatever else I’m called, I’m really not a film snob; many of my favorites are a bit weighty on the pretension scale (see: Lars Von Trier’s films, David Lynch, The Hours, underground stuff like Birth, Margot at the Wedding, and foreign directorial empires like Hayao Miyazaki and Wong Kar-Wai), but I’m assuredly not above seeing complete and utter train wrecks. Especially with the horror genre, to which I am entirely and nerdishly devoted. I saw The Eye (with Jessica ‘Don’t Call Me Latina’ Alba) in theatres, for christ’s sakes. So when my friend said that Drag Me to Hell looked ‘great,’ my skeptically-arched brow rose, even though I knew my seeing it would be inevitable.

The sister paid for my ticket last night. She owes me, as usual, and none of her prissy/skanky Twilight-loving accomplices would see it with her—so she came to me. We have a history of sibling-bonding over horror films; last summer, we saw The Strangers in a deserted theatre, late at night, and spent the entirety of the film with our knees at our chins and our shrieks echoing through the soiled seats. (At the end of the film we discovered that there had been only one other person in the theatre with us—a shadowy man sitting in the very back row, directly behind us. Needless to say, that alone would have scared us shitless.) So we waded through the previews; Orphan looks like a really eerie The Bad Seed remake; Bruno will likely play right into the hands of the homophobic audiences of America; a couple of bang-bang-boom-boom action flicks look just the same as all the many, many others that are infesting the silver screen now—and have since the dawn of time and scrotal ignorance.

Then, the opening of Drag Me to Hell, replete with a scene as likely to come out of an INS cautionary video as a creature feature. Cue entrance of small, cursed Latino boy, worried, Spanish-spewing parents, foreboding gypsy (?) medium, bad music, and somewhat laughable special effects. Sister whispers in my ear: “Is this going to be really fucking dumb?” I glance over at her. “I don’t know.” And you know what? At several points it was pretty fucking dumb, in the most wonderfully campy of senses. At turns horrifying, gag-inducing, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and a bit puzzling, Drag Me to Hell has a little something for all horror-lovers. My sister said at the end of the film that she simply didn’t have an opinion; she didn’t know what to think of it. For me, the film evoked the same kind of schizophrenic experience as watching a zombie film often does. I think, for example, of the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, where you spend half your time shrieking in terror, and the other half guffawing, as when the survivors blow out Zombie-Jay Leno’s brains, or when the pregnant woman propels a zombie infant from her rather unfortunate twat.

Here, however, we have a vomitous octogenarian Gypsy woman who inflicts the—DUN DUN DUH—curse of the Lamia on well-meaning, former porker, Alison Lohman. Until the Lamia arrives, however, Lohman is subjected to the old woman ralphing a bucketful of maggots on her face, the woman futilely attempting to gnaw on her with toothless gums, and a nosebleed of epic proportions. My sister claims to have not caught the humor; but when Lohman shrieks at her coworker to get his “Filthy pig knuckle off my desk!” or when the gross-out moments are so over-the-top as to have you giggling and holding back bile simultaneously, I don’t know what else to call it, but incredibly dark (and yucky!) humor. The premise is simple enough, and Lohman’s guilt is something any viewer can sympathize with; she makes one vaguely cruel decision in the effort to grab onto a promotion at work, and suddenly she’s got a demon throwing her across her own kitchen, and eyeballs exploding on her porcelain cheeks. Not to mention the fact that the films offers quite a bit of worthwhile character development—the boyfriend is a psychologist without much faith in Lohman’s fears (though he ends up tugging our heartstrings), the potential in-laws are sneeringly blue-blood, the aforementioned coworker is a sexist bovine who actually deserved the curse of the Lamia. In the end, we are inextricable from Lohman’s character, because we’ve all been in these situations with our coworkers or our family members and friends; and we’ve all got guilty consciences that may have us rolling between the sheets at night, praying that we never have a nasty run in with a half-blind gypsy freak.

The movie falls in line with the aesthetic of old-school horror, with the added benefit of a strong cast (which in itself is an achievement for the horror genre) and modern moviemaking techniques. It’s got the gore of a slasher flick, the camp of a zombie flick, and the psychological depth of a character piece. It’s not perfect; American horror movies really rarely are these days (the only ones in recent memory are The Ring, The Descent, and The Strangers)—but if you’ve got a sense of humor and a non-existent gag reflex, Drag Me to Hell will prove an enjoyable little feat of escapism.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The N-Spot: Review of Jeanette Winterson, "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit"

Background: Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959) is a recent discovery, thanks to my incredible—now former—thesis advisor, who suggested I check out her novel The Passion. Ever anxious to please, and interested after hearing shining things from another friend who had read it, I grabbed a brand spanking new copy of the novel from Barnes & Noble as a Christmas present for myself. Now, if you know what a compulsive used-book buyer I am (I binged on the other day, in fact!), my buying a brand new book is fairly momentous. And momentous was the result: The Passion wowed me in every possible sense; the prose was like glittering velvet, the characters fleshy and whole, the plot and elements of magical realism were glittering and engrossing. It concerns an androgynous young trickster woman who becomes involved with a soldier from Napoleon’s army—the plot details themselves aren’t all that showy, but Winterson’s verve makes all the difference. I can’t say anything but that it was one of my favorite novels of the year thus far.

That said, I went into Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with similarly high expectations. Keep in mind that this is a sort of fictionalized memoir about her rather unique growing pains; Winterson was on the path to become a Pentecostal missionary, raised by a truly cracked out evangelical mother, when she began to experiment and come to terms with her sexuality—which, as it turns out, leaned more towards women than towards men (or perhaps preferably, in her mother’s mind, to chastity through Christ). The ‘novel,’ in turn, follows these awkward experiences, beginning with Jeanette’s childhood in a hyper-religious community and following her up through her excommunication, so to speak, from said community (along with some interesting uses of exorcism). Winterson weaves in elements of myth, fairytales, and legends; Perceval of Arthuriana makes a few cameos, as do interesting accounts of another knight’s quest for perfection, and a young girl’s enslavement to a father-wizard. With these and biblical references so abundant, Winterson’s own history becomes inextricable from the sort of quest narratives we’re all familiar with, even if we aren’t particularly knowledgeable about evangelism or lesbian experience.

Ultimately, Oranges didn’t quite live up to my expectations, having read The Passion, but not because it wasn’t a good novel—because, I think, it was so pervasively quirky and frequently hilarious. It was, simply, different from her other novel, which was seductive and magical and foreboding and powerful—but not all that humorous or naïve. These are almost inevitable when dealing with the sort of experiences Winterson narrates here, and she certainly makes them work. Perhaps I’ve overdosed on the lesbian comint out memoir—I took a course last semester that dealt a lot with this, and read things like Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle; in effect, I felt like I’d gone through some of this before, though the religious aspect of Winterson’s text certainly raised the stakes. I suppose my one legitimate complaint was that there were times where I felt the novel could have elaborated further—I was often lost in a sea of names; Mrs. This and Mrs. That—who are they again? And why the hell do I care about them, if you give me nothing to go on? Though The Passion was also quite short, the characters were fewer, and each felt whole to me. Here, I understood the positions of the primary characters, but the supporting cast felt unfortunately like tracework at times. In any case, I hear this novel is pretty much Winterson 101, if you’re interested. I have my complaints, but they’re mere surface—the novel itself is quite good, often laugh-out-loud funny, and Winterson is such a skilled writer that a handful of passages from the novel make the entirety worth it. I’ll leave you with one of these:

I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn’t rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup. As it is, I can’t settle…

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Aural-gasm: Review of Little Boots, "Hands"

Her stage name derives from the film Caligula, so Wikipedia informs me, but Victoria Hesketh (aka Little Boots) does far more than pilfer on her debut album Hands (out June 8th in the U.K.—not sure if the U.S. date is the same). I’ll confess up front, I wasn’t expecting much from her/the album; I’d heard intermittent hype from the likes of myspace and one of my favorite forums (geek alert!), but she sounded as though she’d end up being just another blowup doll in the ceaseless line of pop tart automatons that crop up from time to time on the ‘hot’ music scene and fade away. With comparisons to Lady Gaga more than abundant, I figured she’d be riding the wave of Gaga’s fifteen minutes (see: Duffy on Winehouse’s spotlight) without offering anything new. Like Gaga, Little Boots has been playing the piano since she was five (only a bit later than another favorite of mine with a recent album—Tori Amos, with May’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin), and though the piano isn’t particularly prominent here, the synth work is fabulous, and really a highlight of the album—which, by the end of the twelve tracks, seems an almost perfect dance-pop confection. From the opening Goldfrapp-esque synth flourishes of “New In Town,” to the infectiously dark verse riff of “Hearts Collide,” I’m pretty much hooked in for Little Boots’ sparkling escapades.

Little Boots wears her influences on her sleeve; there are distinct traces of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue (perhaps most of all, and LB claims to have written single “Stuck on Repeat” with Kylie in mind), and even a hint of fellow Brit Kate Bush (on the album’s standout lament, “Ghosts”). There’s no shame in her five-finger-discounts from these musical predecessors—in fact, the album is all the better for it, because fans of these women will hear their footprints, but find something radically new to love in Little Boots’ wide-eyed interpretations. On “Ghosts,” the almost alien background vocals and accordion-imitating synth sounds call to mind tracks from Bush’s The Dreaming, while simultaneously allowing Boots’ own evocative voice and more dance-heavy aesthetic room to breath. It’s a track that evokes a sort of offspring between Bush’s album and Madonna’s “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” from last year’s Hard Candy. There’s a little lure for everyone, though: tracks like “Ghosts” and “Stuck on Repeat” seamlessly blend the discotheque with the sob-fest, while “Meddle” unveils an undercurrent of menace, with LB cautioning an unidentified suitor not to “Meddle with her heart / meddle with her mind / meddle with the things that are inside / —you don’t know what you’ll find / you don’t know what she hides”. The breakdown with distorted synth and a battle between Boots’ sirensong and a male vocalist (who sounds almost as though trapped in a frightening hymnal) inspires fear, perhaps even moreso, because for five tracks we’ve been accustomed to fairly bubble-gum style niceties from the girl.

“Mathematics” and “Symmetry” are pure, unadulterated (and unembarrassed) cheese-fests. With lyrics like “Take just a little of my mind / and subtract it from it my soul, / add a fraction of your heart, / and you’ll see it makes me whole. / Multiply it by the times / that we’ll never be apart, / you’ll see nothing can divide / just a heart plus a heart” (in the former track), you’ll find yourself giggling and grinning like a complete goof. Somehow it works. Though the ‘OMG HART + HART = LUV’ equation has been done before, and is always at least somewhat laughable (especially when sung in earnest), by this point in the album, you want to like her and forgive her her follies—besides, on a dance pop album as fun as this one assuredly is, the macaroni lyrics are somehow more accommodating to the experience. After only a listen or two, I found myself singing the silly stuff as loudly as any of the more serious lyrics (though I should be honest and say that the lyrics more generally are certainly not going to be printed in a separate book of poetry at any point in the near future). “Hearts Collide,” another standout track, is the best impersonation of Kylie Minogue since Kylie’s last album, X.

There are the weak links, of course, but for a debut album (and especially for a dance-pop debut), Little Boots actually manages to dodge a few bullets. “Tune Into My Heart” is so saccharine and bubblegum that I couldn’t muddle through the track’s molasses without a toothache; “Click” is underwhelming to the point that I honestly can’t remember my complaints with it. The album closer “No Brakes” isn’t insufferable, but is certainly unmemorable—and for an album closer, that strikes me as a definite downfall. I’m of the mind that every album should strike in with a bang and leave on another explosive note. If the middle falls by the wayside on occasion, it’s forgivable, but always ensure that the album’s bread stands out. But of twelve tracks (and again, on a debut, no less), three weak links (which aren’t even awful, just forgettable) do not an album destroy. In fact, it excites me to think how much more seamlessly incredible LB’s next album might be, with such an even debut.

If you’re into the European dance aesthetic, into the aforementioned leading-lady-predecessors, or simply looking for a handful of incredible summer anthems, check her out. I’ve had “Stuck on Repeat,” well, stuck on repeat, and have likewise been playing the upbeat tracks like “Mathematics” and “Symmetry” on my way to work, to distract from the drudgery—LB’s world, after all, is as far away from the filthy dishes and frugal rednecks of my serving job as one can get. She evokes the illusion that elementary math can tie two people together in passion, that there’s a disco ball for every experience, and that a glittery evening out dancing can cure any malady. It’s the kind of summer illusion anyone can be glad to get lost in.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Milk" post, part deux...

To revisit the last post, Milk did what—in my humble opinion—any good work of art should: it inspired self-reflection, a curious indictment of one’s identity and space in the world. In this vein, and in a sort of homage to what Milk evoked for me, this will be more personal, an emotional rather than an intellectual reaction to the film. I think these are often as significant as any literary or filmic analyses I and others might care to offer.

Of late, I’ve thought much more frequently on my, to sound pretentiously academic, subject position in this country, and moreover, within social systems founded on heteronormative lifestyles and ideologies. Maybe a month ago I penned a memoir-style essay for a campus literary publication aimed at voicing expressions of male sexuality (a really great magazine, too, manned by a close friend, and fellow nerdy queen, of mine). The piece began as a slapdash effort to make the submission deadline, sort of an addendum to a poem I had offered up, and my primary goal was to be satiric, biting and, in turn, coldly impersonal in ‘expressing’ my understanding of my sexual self. In the strange, and strangely violent, process, it transformed; the end-product was intimate—perhaps more than I would have liked—and still biting, but also vulnerable, deeply felt, and not at all what I had expected to ‘express’ while trying to voice a few purportedly dealt-with emotions related to my sexuality.

I came out at thirteen. A trying age for any kid, and exponentially more so in the case of the only openly gay kid in a predominantly upper-class, WASPish middle school (kid in question had also recently received a regrettable haircut that left him looking like early-N’Sync-era Justin Timberlake). I was more or less friendless, a self-proclaimed loner/loser, and even though I knew what being gay supposedly meant, because I had been labeled a faggot from fourth grade onward, I recognize now that I certainly hadn’t a clue on how to conceptualize myself as a distinctly gay—and sexual—entity. The path of least resistance soon became the one in which I allowed myself outwardly to perform a series of stereotypes—I wasn’t the unabashed queen of Will & Grace’s Jack, but I became the desexualized shopping buddy of many a girl (though my own style remained sorely underdeveloped until later), the theatre and art fag, the cynical and often boisterous bitch of each class I waded through. I became widely known as a know-it-all and, paradoxically, as a witty and self-deprecating (but again, asexual) faggot.

By the time high school came to a close, I had a number of friends (only a couple of whom remain so to this day, four years later), the grocery list of accomplishments beneath my belt (an above 4.0 GPA, honors, a prestigious college acceptance, varied extracurriculars), and an identifiable identity. What I suppose I wasn’t prepared for was having to cope with that outward identity on the inside, once I finally had time to clear out the clutter of the interior. So as to return to the overarching narrative of this post, I believe now that it wasn’t until that specific reflection (for the aforementioned mag) that I began to think of my sexuality on my own terms. It had always been as though through a predetermined lens. I’ve explained the middle-school and the high-school. Of course, while I was desexualized externally, I had been having sex (admittedly intermittently) for a few years by the time my college identity began to take form. First, I retreated into myself; later, I performed exactly as would be, I hoped, the most functionally shocking. I was a self-defined Wilde-ian figure of miniscule proportions; along with several friends, there was now a space in which I could be a flaming faggot if I so desired. We dressed up to scare the masses of our increasingly conservative college; heels, smeared crimson lipstick, teased hair, a stint as the Tran-derson Sisters (a la Hocus Pocus)—none of this was too outrageous when we were feeling either drunk enough or frisky enough. So I thought I had come to terms with everything—with my femininity, with my gayness or queerness, with my body, with even that sense of myself as loner which I had harbored for so long. I had covered, so I presumed, every notch along the spectrum.

But on writing that essay, and then again on crying for the last fifteen or twenty minutes of Milk, I had to face the fact that my sexuality will never be, simply, an issue that I’ve dealt with. I can’t cordon that fraction of my self off and say, ‘have done with it!’ As with any other experience or event or identification or struggle—those that are truly significant in life—my sexuality is an ongoing process. More and more, the question of my positioning, not only outside of, but within the gay community surfaces—particularly in the question of the frequent assignment of me (by others, and sometimes by myself) as a femme. It’s a trying category, I must confess. But for now, that’s going to have to be relegated to a future post. I’m enjoying a half-vodka, half-orange juice cocktail and I’m half through (after two glasses of wine), so the booze-fog is descending. I’m heading out to—none other than—a gay club, to have a much-needed evening out of dancing, boozing, and cigarette-ing. And maybe a little hands-on training with how to ‘cope’ with my sexuality. Kidding. Adieu, for now.

While I finish part II of the last post...

Found on Jezebel, this video has proven the shining rainbow highlight of my morning. Picture this: Joe Jonas on the stand in Tranny Court. He's been sworn in on the latest issue of XY magazine. Drag Queen acting as presiding judge. Me, fitted pantsuit and outrageously-neon stilettos, prosecutor. Keep in mind that the Jonas Sisters not only act as though they're 'waiting for marriage' with those vending-machine promise rings, but continue to uphold the laughably ludicrous farce that they're 'straight.' Ha! I smell incest porn within five years. Oh, don't feign discomfort--it's totally ethical, as long as they just jerk off next to one another on a couch (with an American Flag blanket laid along the back, of course) without touching! That's what xtube tells me, anyhow. I give you, ladies and gentlemen, exhibits A, B, C, and GLBTQIIBBQ.

Joe Jonas needs a dildo!

Do I even need to proclaim that I rest my case? Not only have I done the 'Single Ladies' routine better (while blackout drunk, no less), I've managed to do it...less gay than Joe Jonas does here, even as he purports to do so in a self-consciously and clumsily 'straight' way. The least he could do is get a fiercer pair of heels and shave that damn crustache!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

On Van Sant's Milk, and faggotry...

After months of narrowly-missing opportunities to see Gus Van Sant’s Milk, I finally finally got around to it today, between my morning pot-of-coffee/Gilmore Girls-rerun combo and afternoon domestic duties (the household bullshit I use to keep myself sane while imprisoned at home on break). What can I say, but that the film is positively brilliant? It’s, quite simply, made of win (look! I’m internet-lingo-savvy!) on all fronts: the cinematography is stunning, not to mention the seamless blending of old news footage; the performances are nuanced and haunting; and of course, the story (‘true,’ or as close as we can get to it in the medium of the biopic) is both emotionally resonant and politically relevant. Sean Penn is, gasp!, suddenly a warm and empathetic performer! James Franco is darkly brooding eye candy, made strangely to resemble Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. Emile Hirsch is adorable and borderline-fanatical, but a joy to watch; Diego Luna is, well, sort of frightening and not particularly likeable (until his, uh, final scene). Also, that kid from High School Musical plays a super-twinky hanger-on, and looks great doing it. It’s a brilliant (sorry to recycle the word here) ensemble cast, a great script, and a powerful reminder of how great a distance the gay movement has travelled—but also a reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.

I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, though I’m leaning towards the former, but Van Sant’s decision to meld news footage with the film (without calling attention to it as old news footage) was a particularly evocative way of tying the gay movement’s present and past along a sort of ‘spectrum of struggle.’ There is not as visible or identifiable a divide as we like to think—there isn’t so much a delineated post-Stonewall era that so many tend to cite in discussing our so-called progress. It’s easy, today, to say that we reside in a progressive world where sexual orientation is no longer a factor in deciding our social position; that we can move about freely amongst the ‘enemy’ without fear of oppression. But then think of the fact that California has not only passed Proposition 8, but upheld it amidst much protest. I wonder what Harvey Milk would think of that. And I wonder how the fuck the proponents of Prop 8, and those who has supported and subsequently upheld it, sleep at night, knowing that they’ve consciously taken action to limit the civil rights of their fellow (alleged) ‘citizens’ of Our Great Country (I say this last part with a wink, if you can’t tell).

My concern is, of course, first and foremost related to myself—a gay male ‘citizen’ of the United States—and my rights, or lack thereof, in this country. And this extends to everyone else who has risked harassment, financial/legal/emotional/social discrimination, or even physical violence in living their lives in the way they choose. But below the surface, perhaps the deepest well of fear to be drawn from here, is the kind of slippery slope this places our legal system on. It’s very easy to say that one group’s rights are ‘justifiably’ regulated in order to uphold the moral fiber of this ‘great’ nation; but where do we fall from there? I’m no paranoiac or conspiracy theorist, but the association with Hitler’s persecutions certainly comes to mind, even if only in the most extreme of moments. I’m not saying that we’re heading towards a fascist state, but that it frightens me to think that I’m living in a world where people are still capable of validating the legality of the denial of basic human civil rights. And mind you, all of this political babble is coming from a fag who doesn’t even believe in the marriage institution! I have no interest in anything but universal civil unions; the whole she-bang is far too inextricable from religion for my personal (and atheistic) tastes.

to be continued (with more personal matters)...