Thursday, July 30, 2009
The image you see here is one of my favorite paintings by John William Waterhouse, Saint Eulalia (1885). The painting is owned by the Tate, but it currently is hanging at the Royal Academy for the exhibition J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. If you think you’ve heard about Waterhouse on this blog before, you’re correct. Back in November I wrote about Elizabeth Prettejohn, one of the curators who gave a talk about the exhibition during the NAVSA conference at Yale. Last Friday morning I had coffee with another of the curators, Peter Trippi (who also was a guest speaker at the Why Victorian Art? symposium), and then I visited the exhibition. The show at the RA is smaller than it was in its first venue in The Netherlands, which is unfortunate, but it still is excellent. The exhibition is biographical in nature and the works unfold chronologically from about 1870 to his death in 1917. Waterhouse is one of the later Pre-Raphaelites. He was older than others in the original Brotherhood (Millais, Rossetti, etc.), so Waterhouse’s take on their style comes off seeming nostalgic. Yet, he also gives it his own spin. His subjects respond more to issues of the day like women's rights and the surging interest in the occult. In addition, his brushstroke is looser and broader than the tight, linear style associated with Pre-Raphaelitism, suggesting his awareness of new influences coming from France with plein-aire painting, Naturalism, and Impressionism. The exhibition consists of 40 oil paintings with subjects ranging from classical literature to Arthurian lore, but it's complimented by drawings and illustrated books. I find Saint Eulalia to be an amazing picture. She was an early Christian who refused to worship the pagan gods and was martyred for her beliefs. According to legend, when Eulalia died, a dove miraculously sprang from her mouth and it began to snow. The dove then represents her soul and the snow becomes a metaphor for the passing of nature in winter. Compositionally, the picture hangs so that you stare at the very center. But the foreshortening at the bottom means you're in the role of a viewer, looking down at the dead girl, whose appearance is both erotic and eerie. Her hair is splayed out, suggesting blood on an otherwise pure corpse. Your eyes move over her naked breasts and follow her limbs upward, where they suddenly point to the dove whose wings unfurl and lead your gaze toward the white space in the center and the shrouded girl in white who gazes at her. It is as if only this young girl and you the viewer have witnessed the miracle. It's an incredible painting and even more impressive in person. If you're in London, I highly recommend you look for it. You can see the exhibition until mid-September, and then it moves to Montreal.
Afterwards, I visited Apsley House, the home of the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). General Arthur Wellesley (as he was known) was raised to the peerage after his military successes against Napoleon, finally defeating him at the historic Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Wellington remains to this day one of England’s great military heroes (and in case you’re wondering, yes, he designed the utilitarian boots that became a pseudo-fashion trend and were named for him). Upon buying Apsley House, located just down the block from Buckingham Palace, he expanded and redecorated it to reflect the Neoclassical Georgian taste of the time. He inherited many works of art from the fallen Napoleonic monarchies, including one of the best pictures in the collection, The Waterseller of Seville (c.1620) by Velázquez. The most famous work in the collection, however, is probably the work seen here, Canova’s monumental nude sculpture of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-6). The sculpture was commissioned by the Emperor, but when he saw it he was embarrassed by the nudity and unhappy that it did not represent his true, calm demeanor (so he believed). It was only after the Napoleonic Wars were over that the figure was bought by the British crown and given to Wellington as war booty for defeating the French. One funny bit about the statue’s history, however, is narrated by the present Duke on the audio guide to the house. Properties near the house were bombed by Germans during World War II, and Apsley House suffered some damage. The only resident in the house at the time was the housekeeper, Mrs. Dow. Fortunately, she was fine, but for her insistence that of all the cleaning up to be done, they first needed to replace the statue’s fig leaf, which had blown off during the bombing and was now revealing the statue in all its apparently indecent glory.
My friend CC came down from York for one night while I was in London. I had made arrangements for us to tour two private art collections. (I’m purposely not saying anymore about this to protect the privacy of the owners, but rest assured it was very posh and we saw beautiful works of art.) We also met up with our friend DE, and over a lovely Italian dinner at Paradiso we gabbed and gossiped about art history and other fun things.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Friday, July 17, 2009
This Torii gate points to a Shinto shrine nestled in the pine trees above the pond, dedicating the area to the god of the harvest. The characters on the gate read "Dai-myo-jin," Great Illuminating Deity, or Spirit of Light (according to the sign outside the bamboo pavilion; I can't read Japanese).
Just nearby the Japanese garden is the Celebrity Path. This is a trail with stepping-stones inscribed with the names of famous Brooklynites past and present. There are stones for poets like Walt Whitman, artists like Lee Krasner, actors like Marisa Tomei, and then of course there is one of the most important Brooklynites...
The lotus blossoms were also in bloom. In Eastern religions, the lotus plant is associated with the Buddha's teachings. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are often shown in art sitting on a lily pad and holding flowering lotus buds. The lotus shows how the teaching of the Buddha grows out from the murky mud of the materialistic world, but rests above this on the water's surface, then blossoms and points to the great spiritual heavens of Nirvana.
Do you know how hard it is to get a dragonfly to sit still and pose for a picture? I'm very happy this one came out.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Brüno stars Sacha Baron Cohen from Borat fame. Both Brüno and Borat are characters in his comedic repertoire. Cohen has been demonstrative in promoting this new film around Europe and North America, staging public events wearing many of his often-revealing and frequently-disturbing outfits (the pink bull costume with swinging appendage is among the more memorable). For the record, let me point out that I have not seen Borat nor have I ever seen the television portrayals of his characters, so this was my first true experience with Cohen. To his credit as writer and actor, the film is hilarious. It is outrageous, shocking, over-the-top, and downright hysterical. Everyone in the theater was laughing through the entire film. It has some great one-liners, like when Brüno asks the defense instructor in his Austrian accent, “How do you defend yourself against a man with a dildo?”, and when the big-breasted dominatrix exclaims, “Suck my spike!” The clincher with Cohen’s work is that parts of it are unscripted. People think his character is real and so they participate in his interviews. Some cannot take it and walk away, but others just don’t seem to know what’s real or not, making them look idiotic. The one scene where Brüno interviews Paula Abdul is an excellent example. She’s sitting on…how shall we call it?...“mobile Mexican furniture,” and you can see that she’s uncertain if this interview is real or staged, although she doesn’t seem too disturbed to be sitting on a Mexican’s back. There was another scene in the film where he interviews LaToya Jackson, but this was edited out after Michael Jackson’s death. (I’m sure it will return on the DVD version.) The point of scenes like these is to showcase Brüno’s outrageousness, but it’s also to poke fun at celebrity culture.
Indeed, that is the crux of the film. By appropriating an excessively flamboyant character and showcasing all (and I do mean all) of his sexual antics as shock-extremism, Brüno tries to make you feel uncomfortable. It works, more than you ever wanted to know, and it continues to get worse as the movie progresses. His desire to make peace between Israel and Palestine, for instance, will have you staring at the screen with your jaw hanging open. (Who knew that hummus and Hamas weren’t the same thing!?) The fact that Cohen actually got out of the Middle East alive is shocking. Cohen pokes fun at celebrity charities, the adoption of African babies, blonds, rednecks, sexuality, and the religious right. Some of the best scenes are when he has a conversation with a preacher who is going to help Brüno become straight, or when he goes hunting with a group of rednecks. When you hear the preacher speak—and presumably this isn’t staged—you cannot believe that people like this actually exist in America.
Cohen uses Brüno to draw attention to things that make mainstream society uncomfortable (specifically flamboyant homosexuality and gay sex), and then he shows us how ridiculous that discomfort is when seen against the kaleidoscope of other things going on in America and the world. What’s most disturbing, however, is that the more hilarious you find all of it, the more disturbing you realize it also is. Hatred against homosexuals in this country has not diminished by any means. This film challenges heteronormativity by instilling discomfort in the most straight of straight people. From that perspective then, it’s a good thing. Or is it?
In a place like New York City, we easily can sit in a movie theater in Chelsea with an audience made up largely of gay men and watch this movie. We can greet one another with hugs and kisses in friendship and hold hands as couples. We can guffaw and scream out in laughter too, because we’re protected in our gay-friendly neighborhood and open-minded urban environment. But would we laugh so hard if we lived in the Bible-belt South? Would the movie have sold out, or even played at all? Would we have entered the theater unscathed, or would we have had to cross a picket line of fundamentalist Christians boycotting the theater, declaring we were sinners and going to hell? There are advantages living in a progressive environment where we can laugh aloud at what is, essentially, a mirror. Brüno is a reflection of the gay population. Admittedly, this is a reflection seen in a warped, fun house-like mirror, but he is still a form of us. And the world in which he sets the film is the world in which we live, a world filled with ignorance, intolerance, fear, and anger. One can only hope that the message this movie sends out will be received in a positive way. Brüno is satire. It is meant to poke fun at issues so as to minimize their intensity. But will audiences outside of largely urban environments understand that? Or will Brüno be forever more nothing but a freak to be laughed at?
Freak or gay Wünderkind, it’s worth remembering that Brüno is simply a character, a costume worn by a straight comedian. Is that partly why we find this so funny, because we know the man behind the mask is straight? Does it make him and his message safer for middle America? Since the mid-1990s, there has been an ever-increasing encroachment of things formerly seen as aspects of gay culture into the mainstream: tribal tattooing, gym physiques, fashion apparel, and so on. The metrosexual look had its origins in women wanting their men to look as fashionable as their gay male friends. Sexy straight models from Mark Wahlberg to David Beckham have been hired to sell underwear ads targeted in large part to gay men with their supposedly expendable income. Television has been doing this for some time now as well, with straight Eric McCormack playing gay Will on Will & Grace. Hollywood is churning out male-male relationship comedies too, like the recent Paul Rudd movie I Love You, Man with its theme of man-dating. Why are major Hollywood studios willing to support gay-themed movies when they are produced and star straight men, when true “gay” movies like Were the World Mine (see my review) and Lilies barely register on the radar. Even those that are sponsored by major studios, like Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia, had to star straight actors in order to succeed in America. The world of pornography also has seen straight appropriations of gay sexuality. No longer is simply being gay enough for porn websites. Now so-called straight guys can group masturbate and have sex with each other because they’re being paid for it, implying that if they choose to do it and cash is involved then they’re not gay. Don’t disregard this reference to pornography, because even that once-taboo subject is now subjected to appropriation by the straight community. The other “gay” film premiering this weekend, Humpday, has two straight male friends dare themselves to enter an amateur gay porn contest, with the previews showing them acting squeamish by having to do something as shocking as kiss one another. All of these examples demonstrate the appropriation of queer culture by the straight community, but for a specific purpose: control. The more that heterosexual male culture appropriates queer culture, the more straight men control gay men. The more they can laugh at homosexuality, the more they can subjugate it. And once they govern it, they never have to accept it or even tolerate it. They can quash it.
Some may think I’m exaggerating, but how would we react if Brüno were real, or if Cohen was gay? I suspect things would be somewhat different. Mind you, everyone would still laugh. How could you not? Brüno is so flamboyant he makes Liberace and RuPaul look like Harley Davidson-riding rock stars. He is an exaggeration, not just of humanity but of homosexuality. Reinforcing his hyperbole as a gay person is his absence from a gay community. I would have liked to have seen Brüno interacting with gay people in the movie. Placing him in, say, a parade during Gay Pride, or having him interact with people at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, would have added to the hilarity. Or would it? Would that mean he would be making fun of gays and lesbians too? Or is he already doing that simply be being Brüno? How would we react if Brüno was in our midst? Do gay men (let alone lesbians) really want someone like Brüno around them? Or are they ultimately as horrified by the reality of a Brüno as the redneck hunters on the camping trip are with him? The mixed reception in the GLBTQ community has shown that he is controversial. And remember we’re talking about a fictional character! Indeed, Brüno the flamboyant queen can only be a caricature. He cannot be real, because in truth no one (except for his sidekick Lutz, who obviously needs therapy) can truly tolerate him, not for real. In that sense, then, Brüno stands alone. By isolating him from other gays and lesbians, he becomes a pseudo-gay Übermensch, someone beyond the boundaries of all things queer. But for the average American Joe Plumber, seen frequently, and ridiculed frequently, in this film, Brüno is just another fucking faggot. He becomes a stand-in for all gay people. That frightens me.
These are all important issues whether one sees them in this film or not. As my friend JM said to me after the movie, it’s just a comedy. He seriously doubts Cohen had anything even remotely like these issues in mind. Fair enough, I can concede to that. After all, the movie will make you laugh your ass off, so you should definitely see it. But I challenge you as the viewer also to see that there is more to this movie than just a comedy, and its timing is appropriate in some ways. Gay marriage is debated heatedly across this country, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still crucifying well-educated men and women who joined the military out of pride for the United States. We can laugh all we want at the issues satirized in this film, in particular those regarding homosexuality, but it’s the reception of what we see that really is at stake here. Laugh all you want, but never forget what is behind the laughter.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
The story is a gay fantasia with a plot tagline that reads: "If you had a love-potion, who would you make fall madly in love with you?" Timothy, a gay student at an all-boys high school, is teased as the queer misfit, but when he decides to try out for the school play of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, he learns how a little magic can be both good and bad. The acting is solid. Tanner Cohen (Timothy) and his love interest Nathaniel David Becker (Jonathon) are the main boys around him the story revolves. It helps that they're both absolutely adorable and have amazing "sets of pipes" (to quote Jonathon). Singing Jessica Fogle's original music in an angelic tenor/falsetto range, you cannot help but stop, listen, and find yourself drawn into their world. I downloaded the soundtrack afterwards and for the past few weeks still keep finding myself humming lines, such as the brief but beautiful "Oh Timothy" and "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?"
All of this takes into consideration then the writing by director Tom Gustafson and co-author Cory James Krueckeberg. They've brought together a good script, but then again, they are borrowing on Shakespeare, so it's difficult to go wrong with one of the greatest authors of the English language. Indeed, what's fascinating to me from an academic perspective is their use of Shakespeare throughout the play, particularly in the songs. They don't adapt specific monologues, but combine the words of various characters. (And if you're questioning how I know this, I actually did run out after seeing the movie to buy a copy of Shakespeare's play and reread it.) As a result of this textual shuffle, no single character in the film comes across as one individual figure from Shakespeare's play. They all take on various roles, male, female, and faerie, and this fluctuating gender/sexual transference works perfectly with a story about magic, fantasy, and social acceptance for all forms of love. For instance, in the main song "Were the World Mine," the following lines of Shakespeare phrases are just some of the words that appear in the song as it's sung by Timothy and Jonathon:
(Act 1, Scene 1)
Helena: My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye, / My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody. / Were the world mine.
(Act III, Scene 1)
Bottom: I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could ... and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid. ...
Titania: What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? ... I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.
(Act III, Scene 2)
Puck: Up and down, up and down, / I will lead them up and down.
I've included two video clips from YouTube. The first is the song "Were the World Mine." The dance segment toward the end is a bit hokey so it's okay to laugh at it, but the rest of it is quite engaging. The second video clip is the trailer for the movie. Both definitely set the tone for the film, so enjoy. As for me, I have a flower to conjure up to make a certain someone fall in love with me...
Friday, July 3, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
That said, I’m not very political, as readers of bklynbiblio know by now. I’ve never marched in a gay rights rally and I doubt I ever will. It’s just not my thing. I prefer education, not politics, as a way to make a difference. And while it would be great to see anti-gay discrimination and homophobia disappear immediately, sometimes I feel like my apolitical, education-based perspective allows me to have more patience about these issues. Things take time. Gay marriage and the dismissal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” won’t happen over night, or possibly even in 2009. They are simply too controversial for some people. But they will happen, in due time. You cannot change people’s minds by snapping your fingers, especially when religion is the foundation of their beliefs. And rather than be angered by these attitudes, I believe we should reflect on them and work to bring people around through education. Let’s face it, if it were so easy to change people’s minds, every gay man and lesbian would have been made straight by their parents ages ago. Instead, for hopefully many of us, our parents now accept and understand us, but it took them time as well. Don’t misunderstand me. I abhor intolerance. I’m also very disturbed by the ever-increasing number of gay hate crimes that have been happening all over the place. There was at least one gay bashing in Chelsea after the parade, and reports come in all the time on various gay news agencies and blogs about more beatings (note that rarely do these ever appear on mainstream news sites). But I believe we have to work through education to make people realize that we all deserve equal rights and true acceptance beyond tolerance. It will happen, with time.