Saturday, December 09, 2006

On voyeurism & participation

Firstly, a quick p.s. to my last post regarding kari edwards. In my haste -- and the touch of bewilderment that I was experiencing and trying to describe -- I neglected to honour edwards's preference for lowercase rendering of her name, which I regret; likewise her disavowal of gendered personal pronouns, of which I hadn't, I confess, been quite aware, though it is a telling and characteristically pertinent unconvention and, again, one I would have wished to observe: and, indeed, could have done if I'd just waited a day for the many online tributes to edwards's memory to start appearing.

The first I saw was at Ron Silliman's blog (always worth keeping an eye on if you want to know what's afoot; we are not always shoulder to shoulder with Silliman, but at least ballpark to ballpark): his brief tribute is here; and on Wednesday he helpfully linked to Blazevox ("publisher of weird little books"), where edwards's recently completed Having Been Blue For Charity has been published as a free downloadable e-book (in .pdf format). It's a very substantial work and I've barely skimmed it but it's already rewarding even that superficial attention, with some bravura graphic passages and a lot of exciting writing, pretty much wherever you choose to dip. I look forward to spending more time with it in the days and weeks to come, and I recommend it not only on its own obvious merits but as a way of making a simple connexion with a remarkable and life-enhancing person.

Aiee, what a week. Definite lowlight was getting a call about quarter past five on Tuesday afternoon, very sweetly asking whether transport problems were perhaps the reason that I hadn't turned up to the CSSD seminar at which I was due to deliver a paper on (according to my diary) the following afternoon at 5pm. My error, and, as my old deputy headmaster used to say, mea maxima culpa. Not like me, really, a goof like that, but things have been busy and my head has been crowded and, as the folks at Central kindly keep reassuring me, these things happen... All true; but that sinking feeling on getting the call, and the wincing I've been doing ever since, every quarter-hour on the quarter-hour, have been a gruesome counterrhythm to the last few days.

The big upside was yesterday evening, when my MA group at Rose Bruford gave their one-and-only performance of the piece we've been putting together for the last four weeks. There were times, particularly last week, when I thought it wasn't quite going to come together, and there were going to be tears and fisticuffs (tears, me; fisticuffs, them). In the end, though, it worked really well, and I had a little surge of teacherly pride which I wouldn't have missed for anything. Some of the material was really strong -- the writing in particular (watch out for a young American woman called Miranda Craigwell who is really going to go places, as I'm sure will many of them) -- and they all, in the end, threw themselves into it with a good deal of commitment and an entirely apposite sort of cheerful abandon. I'll miss them: though I have a souvenir, in the shape of -- in fact, it actually is -- a keyring with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on one side and, on the other, a picture of Professor Stephen Hawking in the form of a papier mache otter. Made up to look like Marilyn Monroe. ...It's a long story.

So today was my first proper day off for quite a while, and with all the appetite and ten times the speed of Hungry Horace I headed for the cinema, putting together on-the-hoof a double-bill that turned out to be a nicely suggestive pairing as well as a cracking afternoon.

First stop was The US vs John Lennon, a VH1 documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld; not quite sure why it's been given this limited cinematic release, but it's good that it has. The focus, as the title suggests, is on Lennon's movement, through the late sixties and early seventies, into terrific prominence as a cultural and (broadly) political activist and agitator, and the response in particular of Hoover's FBI during the Nixon era: the sum of which seems to be a rousing endorsement of the old saw that just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The odd mixture of Lennon's sophistication (in understanding intuitively and intelligently his relation to the media and the platform it gave him) and the naivety of his message -- he is shown more than once describing his political activity as "selling peace to housewives as if it were a brand of soap" -- is striking; it is heartening and quite moving to see him opting, even as he denies it, to become a sloganeer first and a songwriter second (the 1969 "War Is Over - if you want it" billboard campaign conceived with Yoko still looks stunningly cogent), apparently on the basis that there's no trade-off involved, only an inescapable continuity: that his alliances with the likes of Jerry Rubin and the estimable Bobby Seale were centrally and ineluctably artistic in their nature and significance.

After a fair number of warts-and-all (or warts-only) Lennon docs, here he comes over as likeable and quick-witted, and motivated by an obvious devotion to the joy of doing the right thing, of standing up to the man because there is no pleasure or sense of personal freedom in any of the alternatives. (A formulation much espoused by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, incidentally, though he's not quite as ready to stand up as one would have wished, overburdened as he is with worry and eyebrows.) The moment towards the end of the narrative where Lennon learns he has won his long battle against deportation on the same day that his son Sean is born is immensely touching and, for obvious reasons, desperately poignant. Even more encouragingly, the presentation of Yoko Ono is level and respectful and the account of her influence on Lennon qua emerging artist/activist is, for once, blessedly free of the usual racist and misogynist smirking. There is not much here that is new or surprising in itself, and it's far from a masterful piece of filmmaking, but images -- not just of the central protagonists (especially the wretched Nixon) but of U.S.-committed atrocities in Viet Nam and Cambodia -- that have become overfamiliar from repeated exposure on television come across with a new vitality and awfulness on the big screen. Though only talking head Gore Vidal makes it explicit within the body of the film itself, Lennon, and the reaction to him, is clearly being used at least partly metonymically, or metaphorically, to enable a story to be told that has obvious and galling resonances for our current predicaments on both sides of the Atlantic: among the most galling of which is that we have no Lennon to galvanize the mass popular protest that should properly be a dominant feature of our current lives. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of such figureheads being apparently requisite, it is miserable to think that the closest person we have to Lennon in 2006, in terms of reach and of a willingness to speak, is becoming a tabloid laughing-stock not because of his countercultural attitudes and broad-strokes anti-imperialist politics but because he keeps getting wasted and falling asleep at the traffic lights. Says it all, really.

Movie number two was a fairy story of a quite different order, though it seemed to me to speak articulately and with some sense of urgency to the kinds of cultural pressures that Lennon was attempting to conduct. After some months of anticipation, it was time to go and see John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus.

If you haven't been reading the film pages lately, the Brodie's Notes on Shortbus are simply this: the winsome demi-Scot Mitchell is the justly celebrated progenitor of Hedwig and writer/director of first the stage show and, eventually, the terrific movie version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; this, his second film, had for a long time the breezy working title 'The Sex Film Project', in that it was to be an ensemble comedy-drama in which sex would be used as an index for, or (oh crumbs) entry point into, its characters' emotional lives, and furthermore that the sex shown would be explicit and unsimulated.

There are all kinds of ways one could start to write about this film, but I'm going to say this first, before all the theorizing leads me off down some crazy-paved path and off into the sunset: that Shortbus is among the most beautifully conceived and executed movies I've seen in an awfully long time. I found its sweetness of tone utterly genuine and deeply touching, as I did with Hedwig; the writing is extremely funny and lively and never once misfires (nor do any of the scenes that appear to be wholly or partly improvised); its candour, not just sexual but emotional and political, is perfectly judged; it is (mostly) visually beautiful without being strenuously pretty, and edited with wit but not boisterous cleverness. And above all the performances are brave, intimate and generous -- and again one is aware, in the context, that these epithets might seem almost like double entendres, but the point is exactly that they are not; that what Mitchell and his company achieve is a wonderfully optimistic fluency in which the sexually explicit scenes patently endorse and amplify the rest of the picture, and vice versa.

I thought on occasion in the first few minutes that I was going to find the frivolity of some of the sexual content offputting. In the last five years or so we have become increasingly used to seeing movies being certificated uncut (surrounded by less and less fuming controversy in the media) that dare to present real sex; only one, really -- Larry Clark's Ken Park -- has managed to articulate convincingly within itself the argument in favour of eschewing simulation, but all, from Patrice Chereau's Intimacy to Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, have manifestly set out to take the notion seriously and treat it responsibly. Perhaps there has been the sense that only a 'European-style' approach, in which sex is a companion piece to high art and existential philosophy and suicide and suchlike -- and unsimulated intercourse is a logical extension of the intense soul-baring acting we know to expect, will seem fully and unreproachably to activate the legitimacy that the BBFC is supposedly looking out for. (In fairness, Ken Park is not that pretentious -- in fact, it couldn't be less pretentious, though its sex scenes are about far more than merely 'keeping it real'.) And I think I feel that too, a bit, perhaps because of the relative novelty of this topical permissiveness: a little bit of "don't spoil it for the rest of us", you know, don't set us off on the slope that leads to a cert-18 hardcore remake of Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

What Mitchell's doing, though, is taking us to a necessary next step, in that the sex in Ken Park or 9 Songs is not, after all -- quite -- real. Real sex is as much about false starts and cramp and bumping heads and losing your balance and scaring the cat and suddenly getting the giggles as it is about those indicators of arousal and fulfilment that we have not previously been permitted to see at the legit cinema. And yet -- and this is absolutely central, I think, to Mitchell's thesis (though I'm sure he'd shudder at the word thesis) -- and it's also a key part of what I've felt about putting physical nakedness on stage or working with it in theatre processes, to the extent that I have -- what he's showing is not, or not only, the vulnerability or the frailty or fallibility of the naked body, but also, and more significantly, its continuity, its perseverance, its radical and indivisible presence beneath all our performances.

This beautifully underwrites Mitchell's larger theme -- which, again, feels exactly and excitingly congruent with my own current preoccupations in theatrical performance (though these remain frustratingly underdeveloped except on paper) -- regarding the creation of meaning through the presentation and exposure of the body that is explicitly and exemplarily communal and social and material before and beyond its individuality and its rearticulation as a kind of a priori privacy statement. Shortbus is not just a New York movie (though it is certainly, and very beautifully, that); it's also a post-9/11 movie, and not in the way that every New York movie in the last four years has been by default. It feels like it ought to be an oversimplistic gloss, but I honestly don't think it is, to say that Mitchell is showing us real bodies, touching for real, inside and out, as a kind of promotion of the communal adaptability of bodies and of affective tangibility in the face of, and in protest against, the prevailing political narratives of disembodied threat and abstraction and the half-concealed nomadic evasiveness of the operations of capital and of its military and industrial representatives. Justin Bond (of Kiki & Herb -- who I don't get, I have to say, though he's great here) has a provocative line that gets as close as anything to a statement of this objective, when, as the host of the sex club which gives the film its title, he tells Sofia (the excellent Sook-Yin Lee) that young people are drawn to New York because "9/11 is the only real thing that ever happened to them." I've written a bit about this territory before, in an Edinburgh Review essay on contemporary American poetry -- and I would have spoken about it some more in the paper I'd have given at Central if the seminar had been on Wednesday: so I won't get into it now: but I do think the incontrovertible realness of 9/11 (and its grotesque mirroring pay-off, the afterimage of the absent World Trade Center towers -- very briefly invoked in one of Shortbus's attractive animated link sequences) has triggered a reappraisal of the idea of virtual community -- not to destroy it altogether but to problematize and, somewhat, to defuse it -- and a substantiated intuition of the political supremacy of place over (hypothetical) space, and of body over image. For all that Shortbus uses some of its sex scenes for some pretty joyous political critique -- the much-discussed scene where one character sings 'The Star-Spangled Banner' directly into the anus of his partner is about as definitive a remark on the 2001 Patriot Act as it deserves -- Mitchell also knows that the comfortably contained dissent of middle-class liberal satire doesn't begin to get the job done. For Lennon and Ono's "Give peace a chance", read Shortbus's own soap-selling slogan (and strapline), mouthed by the club's maitre d': "Voyeurism is participation." The initial character of this maxim is a genial cheekiness in line with the utopian erotic collectivism being acted out on screen before us; but just allow it to settle down to its core proposition: to witness is to be implicated. The resonances of this, not just for a New York audience but for any audience anywhere on the neoconservative axis, are unmistakeable.

It's entirely because of this generous and -- yes indeed -- carnal embrace of an incorporative political programme that is set to ramify way beyond the ambit of this small group of busy bees and their recipes for leisure time, that it's possible to enjoy Shortbus for the impeccably beautiful and graceful film it is. It seems to me to be a late descendant of the line of new queer cinema that flourished in the early 90s; one character namechecks My Own Private Idaho (which would surely be endorsed by Jonathan Caouette, who has a don't-blink cameo), and there seems to be a clear debt to two films of immeasurable importance, Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up (the asterisks of course were his -- a sure sign of how much things have changed in the past decade) and Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner's Go Fish. (A scene in Shortbus where a group of women attempt to describe their best ever orgasm feels like an out-and-out hommage to the cute linking commentary scenes of Go Fish.) Shortbus is as good and as timely as either of those films, and as courageous and as exciting as anything that's been made in the last five years; it has moments of the rarest tenderness, and moments of broad and uproarious comedy that surely are calculated, in their laugh-out-loud quality, to remind you that you're watching with other people sitting all around you. How's this for polymorphous perversity?: I cried three ways: with laughing (at an extended near-slapstick sequence built around the operation of a vibrating egg); with sadness, at a couple of scenes played quietly and unhistrionically but also unabashedly for the wringing out of tears; and, quite a few times, in stark overwhelmed admiration for the kindness, the unimpeachable goodness, of the whole project.

Yet again, and far more so than was the case on seeing Destricted (as I described a few months ago), I'm left wondering what live theatre can do with all this. I was reminded, on the way home, of seeing the (then) Oxford Stage Company's production of Sarah Kane's Cleansed at the Arcola this time last year. Cleansed is an unbelievably difficult play to stage as fully and faithfully as it demands, and I would have to say, regretfully, that Sean Holmes's production never even got close for me, which made for a desperately frustrating evening, as I think it's also Kane's best and most important work, and therefore one of the most significant plays to be written in the last fifteen years. But -- on the night I saw it, at least -- something notable happened: in the scene where Grace and her (dead) brother Graham make love, Garry Collins as Graham, on removing his clothes, had a hard-on, and it was still in evidence at the end of the scene. Afterwards, talking in a cafe with friends who'd also seen the performance, I made some flip-sounding remark about Collins's dick having been the best actor in the play, and I think everyone cringed a bit at my being so crass. But it was true, in a more profound and heartening way than I managed to articulate at the time. In the midst of all this performing, all this simulation, all this misconceived playing-at-extremity, there was this momentary realness, uncontrolled possibly, but showing everything else up as a kind of bourgeois party game, suffocating in the tiny airlock gaps between non-tessellating "theatrical" conventions.

There's a lot more to say about this -- not that particular boner, memorable though it was, but about the complex interrelations, both actual and potential, between nakedness and nudity and eroticism and sex (four quite distinct propositions), in the context of the larger theatrical encounter. But I feel more and more like it's not merely self-defeating but actually obnoxious to keep ending up, like an old drunk howling at the moon, posting this sort of speculative commentary to the blog, or making private notes, or writing emails to friends, like this, at three in the morning... I came back from Wales feeling -- and how daunting this is coming to seem again, after barely a month -- that the only way to take these ideas forward is to be brave enough to tackle them in the company of actors and other artists, in whose bodies and minds there is some possibility of discovery. I'm currently mapping out a live art (ish) piece called The Goodman Portraits, which would in part be a way of focusing these questions onto one set of enquiries; and it looks as though I may already have slots in the spring for presenting early sketches towards it... So perhaps that will help provide the impetus to really commit to some searching work.

Thing is, so much that I've seen and experienced in the last few weeks -- from Tim Jeeves at Chisenhale, to Hail the New Puritan at the Tate, to tea & conversation with Rajni and vodka & conversation with Sebastien and rush-hour train travel & conversation with Charlie, to the continuing bravura misadventures over at Dennis Cooper's blog and the constantly evolving all points bulletin at Tom Raworth's (which I had foolishly taken my eye off) and the gentle meandering openness of Katharine's, to re-reading (yes, yet again) Tom Spanbauer's In The City Of Shy Hunters, to Sara Crangle's new essay on my poetry (which makes me sound far better than I am), to Shortbus today -- has all conspired to create a model of the courage and companionship that I crave (and so often and so fortunately discover) in other artists and find it sometimes hard to recognize in myself. I wrote a programme note a couple of nights ago for the Sydney production of Kiss of Life, which is the next big thing in the pipeline, and found myself using a voice that was both me and not-me: it was as if I'd donned some sort of superhero costume that allowed me to say what I was actually thinking. What was weird was how it prompted me to reflect on the extent to which I habitually don't say what I'm thinking: and yet the authentic voice of those thoughts, it seems, might not be as tremulous and crepuscular as I suppose I imagine.

If you've read this far, you will be finding it hard to believe that I ever think anything that I don't immediately say, here, using as many words as possible. ...Or perhaps not immediately.

In other news: I thought I would post here in a week or so a sort of top 20 albums of the year: but in order to begin that process, I'm compiling a long-list. I'm at 92 at the moment and would obviously dearly love to get up to a hundred. If you have any suggestions of stuff I might not have heard and that ought to be taken into consideration in this rapturous Advent reckoning, drop me a line...

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