Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Grease.

C and I were at the movies Sunday night, so we taped the live TV Grease and watched it last night. A few thoughts:

1. Even sanitized, it's a much more interesting musical than it usually gets credit for. There's a thin plot, but most of it is kind of oblique commentary. The principals don't sing a lot. I love all the vignettes with supporting characters' stories that don't advance the plot but give depth and complexity to the world of the show. And some of those songs are flat-out great.

2. The production was huge! I loved the big dance scenes in the gym shot with aerial cameras. Alternating between long shots of joyful chaos and then zooming in to more focused sequences of the characters. Ambitious and thrilling.

3. I say this a lot, but I am in awe of the skill and precision Broadway musical performers bring to their work, sailing around that stage nailing every kick, every acting beat, every high note, every time. They amaze me.

4. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, but like the others it mostly left me wanting to see the film again. I mean, Stockard Channing?





Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thoughts About Transparent.

This article gets at something I was trying to articulate recently about Transparent: one of the things I love most about it, besides that it's just great story-telling, is that LGBT politics and history, even queer theory, are presented in a way that's smart and specific but doesn't set them apart from the characters and the story. The push and pull of those ideas drive the story in the same way that they shape the lives of queer people. Theory and politics as they are actually lived.

It's exactly the opposite of how I felt watching Sense8, a very different piece of work (which I mostly enjoyed) that also used queer theory as a narrative element, but in a way that felt didactic and academic in a sort of cringey way.


Who Are They?

If it's in the Times style section, you know it's not news anymore. I put up a fight, but I'm resigned now to the singular "they," and I make a real effort to use it though I still find it very awkward. It's the same feeling to a lesser degree that I had when I was studying Spanish recently. For someone who prides himself on his skill using English with subtlety and precision, struggling to say something as simple as, "I like blue chairs," is humbling.

But my resistance is not solely about my ego. Besides the practical confusion it invites (wait, how many people are you talking about?) -- to my ears the singular "they" is, like "roommate" and "friend" the lexicon of the closet.

I don't hear it used this way any more (which is not to say that it isn't -- we get so used to the idea that everything is different and better now we forget that for lots of people in, say, Mississippi, it's not exactly safe yet to be out), but the people I remember using the non-specific singular "they" were older homosexuals who wanted to refer to their life partners but weren't sure if they were safe coming out to the person they were talking to. As in:

"You should bring your roommate to the party."

"I'd love to but I think they're busy that night."

Just one of the aches and pains of aging: words -- awesome, hobo, they -- gather new meaning, and no one cares anymore about the old one.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Revolution?

I sometimes say that I don't dislike dogs, it's just some of their owners I can't stand. Or children and their parents. Or Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

I thought I was just mad because they're forcing me to say nice things about Hillary Clinton, but I think maybe I just zeroed in on what is irritating me about his defenders.

The debate between Hillary and Bernie's fans has seemed, in the last few weeks, to boil down to whether it's best to elect someone we're less than crazy about but who has a chance of getting some work done as opposed to someone who we agree with about everything. Hillary's supporters tell us that Bernie stands little chance of implementing any of his plans, that his candidacy is pie-in-the-sky with such a conservative Congress. Bernie's fans tell us Hillary represents crony politics at its worst and we need to sweep the crooks out.

It's an interesting debate, interesting especially because there is some real, practical contrast between candidates. But here's the thing that sticks in my craw. Bernie has framed his campaign as a "political revolution." His fans say, "Do you want business as usual, or do you want a revolution?" Vote for revolution! But leaving for work 10 minutes early so you can vote doesn't make a revolution. Revolutions don't happen in presidential elections. Revolutions take a lot more time, a lot more sweat, a lot more personal commitment, sacrifice, loss. Revolutions happen on the street, and people devote their lives to revolution-making. I won't speak for myself -- my days of street activism, limited as they were, are over now. I'm not willing to camp out in Zuccotti Park for weeks, but there are people who are and thank god for them. If you want a revolution, start going to school board and community board meetings. Join a union, escort women into abortion clinics to keep them safe from the assholes out front. Picket, protest, chain yourself to somebody's desk. The reason the revolution is not going to happen is because there are far too few people doing these things. Not because people voted for Hillary instead of Bernie.

Bernie Sanders is a career politician. He's an admirable, passionate public servant and has a lot of very smart things to say. But he's not a revolutionary, and neither are most of his supporters.

I'm not a big fan of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders more closely aligns with my politics, but I'm sure liking her supporters more than his lately.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ramblings on David Bowie.

The news of David Bowie's death made me think immediately of Laura Furlich, another theater kid at Miami of Ohio, who I met within days of arriving as a freshman in 1979 and pretended, as she flipped through her orange crate of Pretenders and Blondie and Elvis Costello and Patti Smith albums, pretended to know them all. The only one I remember listening to that day was Bowie's Lodger, and my memory is that I was struck dumb and didn't move a muscle. I'd never heard anything like it and didn't want it to end.

I don't think I made the connection right away, but, though I didn't know his music, Bowie already existed in my erotic imagination. Somewhere I'd seen a promo still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (probably in After Dark magazine, every new issue of which I devoured in the DePauw University library, and which was the pipeline through which anything and everything queer reached me in high school).



I was 16. That image was terrifying, dangerous, seared into my brain. Even before Googling it just now, I could have told you exactly what it looked like, after almost 40 years.

By 1981, when I got to New York, I went along with the ridiculously pretentious critique of Bowie that he was not original but just an appropriator, sort of how people talk about Madonna. As if art could exist without appropriation. (I went along with a lot of ridiculously pretentious critiques then. Maybe I still do, but fewer now.)

I never liked Let's Dance. I always associate it with the jukebox at Boy Bar and a lonely, arid, cynical time in my life. And I hate that Bing Crosby thing, but only because I so loathe that song the name of which I won't type for fear of it adhering to my brain for a month and a half.

But Lodger is still the record that in 1979 tore a hole in my little world of music that until then was populated mostly by Broadway musicals, Judy Garland records, AM pop, and my brother's heavy metal.






Tuesday, December 1, 2015

There's no crying in AIDS activism.

In 1989, a group of New York art world professionals called Visual AIDS began A Day Without Art. The idea was that, every year on December 1st, museums, galleries, theaters, and other cultural institutions would close for the day, because such a large number of the people dying were important artists in their prime, to demonstrate that loss.

That first year at least, it seemed like every museum was closed, every theater was dark, and it was a powerful dramatization of what the world might be like if we did not stop AIDS from killing off a generation of artists. That original, simple idea didn't last long. Instead of closing, those institutions in the following years began programming work about AIDS, addressing AIDS, raising money for AIDS. December 1st was already designated World AIDS Day, which, my memory tells me, was focused more on everyone but homosexual artists. It was, and less so but still is now, easier to raise money for children and straight people than for queers who, maybe, deserve what they get, and World AIDS Day has become a much bigger deal than A Day Without Art.

I suspect, cynically, that another big motivator of the change in focus is that a day without art is a day without the revenue generated by art. Closing a museum for a day is very expensive activism. But it also became unpopular to talk about loss. It was emotionally draining. It made people sad, when what was needed was anger and strength. A powerful demonstration of the death toll didn't so much motivate people as make them feel helpless in the face of monumental loss. Grieving was frowned upon.

I think it was 1993 that Y'all was asked to perform in a benefit for ACT UP and, as we were singing "Oh Lord Please Come Help Me Today" -- a sort of hymn that was not without defiance but leaned more toward grieving -- the organizers turned off the lights and sound on the stage. We left the stage, humiliated and shocked that that sentiment would be so unwelcome. I guess the idea was that if you started crying you'd never stop, and there was so much work to be done.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

What Moment?

This is an interesting piece in the LA Times on a topic I've been pondering a lot lately.

I don't see this as any kind of "moment in American playwriting." Fearless writers didn't just appear suddenly in the last couple of years. They're always around. What happened is that it became trendy to produce this kind of work in the New York non-profit theaters that champion the work of young writers. By "this kind of work," I mean plays that are essentially about politics, or even about a certain political stance, and just use narrative as something to hang the politics on. These plays exist less to tell a story about people's lives and relationships than to make a point -- about racism, about homophobia, misogyny, religion, capitalism, colonialism, etc.

Maybe it's less a difference of type than of degree, I don't know. A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have plenty to say about class and gender. But you don't leave those plays feeling like you've been to an undergraduate lecture. Whatever messages are there are subtle and, for that reason, I would argue, more powerful, more lasting. If something is handed to us we value it less than if we had to make an effort to find it.

I don't know what's "fearless" about this "new" kind of play. It's incredibly popular in the circle in which it gets attention, wins awards and grants, gets produced. Is it fearless for me to post a clip of Rachel Maddow going off on Republicans on my Facebook page, when all my friends agree with me? It seems to me lately that it's much riskier to not be making explicitly liberal political work, because nobody's interested.

I like some of these plays, dislike some of them, but what I'm waiting for is the next moment, the one where we can get back to telling stories about people, without the need to hammer a political point, without all the dog whistles reassuring us that our politics are correct. Lord knows I love the politics, and I'll talk to you till the sun comes up about the political implications of a play. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, colonialism, religion, and the rest are some of my very favorite topics. But I'm weary of being lectured to in the theater.

Polemic often has to rely on over-simplification in order to be persuasive. But human beings in the world -- which is what I think plays should be about -- are endlessly complex.