State of the Union

Exterminatrix

I spent last weekend at the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference in Houston, and I needed something to read on the plane. Something short, punchy, an in-flight entertainment that could keep my attention after an event that is equal parts spiritually uplifting and emotionally harrowing. I threw Sarah Schulman’s Rat Bohemia into my bag and grinned as I set my alarm for 1995. More fool me.

Rat Bohemia is in some ways the scathing nostalgia trip I was hoping for. It’s sometimes a satire of gay life in ’90s New York City: a world of gunfire and AIDS protest funerals. Hothead Paisan, Assotto Saint, Derek Jarman, Alison Bechdel when we were the only ones who watched out for her. Schulman has a terrific ear for that unmistakable ’90s argot, from the slang in her unsexy sex scenes to the politically-incorrect S&M. Her characters have spent the past decade and a half losing their families, their homes, their friends, their health, all their money if they had any, and most of their illusions. Their anguish makes them silly and unfair, catty and self-righteous—and often ferociously funny.

It was so refreshing to step back into that pre-moral world. We live in a moralistic age. That ’90s world of violent fantasy (and violent reality) seems like a fever dream. Schulman’s characters allow themselves to feel rage instead of just solidarity; they lust and they don’t try to justify it. Their damage glitters across their hardened carapaces; they are gleaming deviants, not “virtually normal.”

The two points of view on this willful deviance are a) people only react this way because they have been shut out of the normal bourgeois institutions of marriage and family, and b) you see more from the margins, where the air is thin but bracingly clear. Rat Bohemia gives evidence for both positions.

The novel is really four intertwined stories: The first and last, “Rat Bohemia” and “Rats, Lice and History,” are narrated by Rita Mae Weems, a half-Jewish Jackson Heights escapee who kills vermin for the City of New York. “1984” is narrated by her friend David, a Jewish writer with an HIV diagnosis and a downward-spiraling T-cell count. And “Killer in Love” is told by their knockabout hemidemisemiemployed friend, the eponymous Killer, who loves a poet and isn’t quite loved back.

Rita can be off-putting in her sophomoric need to prove her street smarts: This is how Puerto Rican girls sit, this is how Cubans go to the movies. She’s gotta be so in the know all the time. And Killer’s section has a lot of parody of unintelligible poetry—maybe more than necessary.

But almost every time I found myself thinking, “Well, this section isn’t so good,” Schulman yanked me back with an unforgettable scene. Some are comic, like the Walker Percy-esque self-help parody (“The answer lies in the Eight Leaps of Faith. Just memorize them and you will have accomplished at least one thing”). Most are searing. Schulman is not subtle about her theme: the utter abandonment of gay people by their parents. The best parents in this book show wincing discomfort with their children’s sexual orientation. The worst simply put their kids out on the streets. The two most memorable scenes in the novel, for me, were David’s childhood memory of walking away from his parents after they ordered him out of their car, and Rita’s description of being homeless and almost being taken in by her girlfriend’s mother.

At the GCN conference it sometimes feels like I’m walking on a half-frozen lake. You’re trotting along talking about Jesus or tacos or Have you read the new Marilynne Robinson? and then suddenly your foot will crunch down and you will be in ice water up to your head, and some pixie-faced girl or painfully hopeful guy is telling you about their years of terror and anguish. Exorcisms and disciplinary hearings and physical abuse, and then, with that embarrassed grin, “Well, my parents and I don’t really speak these days.” And then probably tell you about their unpronounceable pronouns, because we do live in a silly world as well as a hard one.

Anguish isn’t the universal story, thank God. There were lots of parents at GCN and while that whole “my identity is the fact that my kid is gay!” thing can get kind of wearying to actual gay people, it is far from the worst thing in the world. I don’t know why your kid coming out should be more life-defining than e.g. your kid becoming a Buddhist, or whatever kind of Christian you’re not, but I’ll gladly spend my conference time dodging women with buttons that say FREE MOM HUGS as long as we live in a world where people’s real mothers wouldn’t hug them if they paid cash money.

Schulman wants us to see not only how so many gay people got used to this abandonment, but why we shouldn’t. She wants to make it shocking to us again. This is the core of her story.

It is the only story she wants to tell. There’s a slowly-growing sub-theme in the novel: Straight, married people don’t suffer like we do, they are not alone like we were alone when we were young and we needed help. Like Jack Boughton snapping at his sister, “You can’t commiserate!”

The last several chapters are the weakest by far, largely because they try to defend this sub-theme. We even get a tacky, plastic little dialogue:

“Don’t be too dramatic,” Lourdes said, puffing out the window. “You’ll never know what [Rita’s high-school sweetheart] Claudia would have been if she didn’t have a reason to get married. Besides, straight people have problems too, you know. If my mother ever caught me in bed with a boy she would have thrown me out on my ass.”

“Yeah, but,” I said, getting really furious, really fast and absolutely hating her. “You would still have had something. You would have had an idea. You would have had an image of young love, an image of romance, of just the two of you against the world. You would have had a friend or a romantic adult who looked at you and saw Romeo and Juliet, instead of just the two of you totally alone looking at each other and seeing nothing.”

Rita’s speech is actually powerful, raw and real. She’s describing a real thing that gay people faced, and in our churches still usually do face: the absence of a future, and the self-loathing that absence brings. But Lourdes’s words are fake (“straight people have problems too, you know,” really?); she’s a strawman.

Here are some things I’ve heard, volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center:

“Is it legal in the District of Columbia for a parent to make you get an abortion? Because my mom says she’s going to take me there and make me kill my baby—can she do that?”

“Do you know of any homeless shelters that can take me tonight? I’m about eight months along.”

“That church helped me out a lot when I was escaping my husband but I just can’t go back there like this. If they see me pregnant out of wedlock they’ll be like, ‘Why can’t you get yourself together?'”

“He isn’t in the picture. He’s [incarcerated/deceased/out running the streets/not somebody I could trust/not in the U.S. yet/violent with my children/smoking pot all day].”

This, too, is close to the knives.

Our clients feel utterly alone, because of, in some sense, their heterosexuality. Straight women are abandoned and shamed for it (“I have to get the abortion before my mom finds out or she’ll put me out on the streets”) and straight men, whom we see more rarely, are isolated and despairing. Class is a big part of this but there’s a lot more to it than that. It isn’t the same as what Schulman’s characters go through, or even parallel—it’s about behavior, for example, not solely desire. But then again, imagine being sixteen and homeless, washing your hair in the high-school bathroom sink and eating your classmates’ leftover lunches, and pregnant. That might give you a reason to live or it might only make you feel much more alone.

Schulman lampshades her characters’ (or her own) lack of empathetic imagination: They get stuck in a rental car with no gas. They can’t get out of Chinatown to go visit Rita’s heterosuburban ex-girlfriend. They are trapped with only their own perspective, their outsiders’ pride, their humiliating sorrows.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

‘Hamilton’ and the Romance of Government

Christopher Jackson as George Washington and the cast of "Hamilton". Photo by Joan Marcus.
Christopher Jackson as George Washington and the cast of "Hamilton". Photo by Joan Marcus.

I’ve finally heard “Hamilton,” the Broadway hip-hop musical about the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and I can say: It’s a brilliant, empathetic example of a genre I don’t believe in.

First the brilliance. I’m going only off the soundtrack here, since I do not have the ready cash to see the thing in person. Even in that silhouette form it’s obvious that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, librettist and star, is ridiculously talented. In a little over two hours he gives you a sheaf of personalities, each with their own characteristic diction and each with their own angle. There’s Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) as a defensive, cocksure partisan, insecure and headlong, brilliant but occasionally showing the personal judgment God gave peanut butter. (But he’s reliable with the ladies!) There’s Thomas Jefferson, perfectly endowed by Daveed Diggs with chop-licking, insinuating, slightly camp villainry. There’s George Washington, the founding father in search of a foundling son; Aaron Burr, haunted and noncommittal. I can’t remember the last time I saw a romantic triangle as poignant as the unfought battle between the Schuyler sisters for Hamilton’s heart.

Better people than I can discern the countless references to musical theater and hip-hop history. (And here’s Ivan Plis on the accuracy of the show’s portrayal of insurgent warfare.) For my part I’ve just been sitting here running my fingers over the quotable lines: “Burr, you disgust me.”/”Oh, so you’ve discussed me!” “‘Should we honor our treaty, King Louis’s head?’/’Uh… do whatever you want, I’m super dead.'” “Daddy’s calling.” There are all the perfectly-placed comedy “Whaaaaaaat?”s and the rare but punchy cursing. There are the motifs, some of which are overdone–more on that in a moment–but others, like “not throwing away my shot,” which capture the musical’s themes of ambition and surrender. There are the little monosyllabic heartbreaks: “I couldn’t seem to die.”

There’s the seamless blending of hip-hop and Broadway, the upbeat choruses and back-and-forth battles. The grabby tunes (I’ve had the jazzy “Room Where It Happens” stuck in my head most of the day) and rippling internal rhymes. The stiletto jabs (“I hope you saved some money for your daughter and sons”) and clowning (“It’s hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets”). And then those lines that are perfect, one side hilarity and one side pure night: “You’re an orphan. Of course! I’m an orphan. God, I wish there was a war!”

Miranda makes the outcome of the American Revolution seem uncertain again–not a history-book inevitability. He writes chaos and an unsettled narrative: This is a musical without a happy ending, because it doesn’t quite end at all. There’s tragedy for some, there’s the American experiment surviving, and, as in real life, the characters draw different lessons from their experiences. Miranda’s empathy shines in his decisions to give such a big role to Aaron Burr (“I’m the damn fool who shot him,” as he introduces himself) and to tell the climactic duel from Burr’s perspective. “Cabinet Battle #2″ is also surprisingly evenhanded given how compressed it is: three perspectives in under three minutes. I loved the small, subtle touch that Washington sides with the other Virginians on the subject of home: Where they scheme for Virginia he longs for it. Whereas Hamilton, understandably, doesn’t get why people even care where the capital is.

I wish I could see the thing. I’ve tried to read a bit about the staging, but I know I’m missing some nuances of character and relationship: who jostles whom, who glances at whom in the thick of the action. I’m guessing the full experience is even more exuberant; I’ve heard that the stage production emphasizes the slavery/Jefferson connection even more, which seems like a cheap way of making heroes—more on this below.

There are a few small things here I don’t love, largely because they’re too beholden to contemporary styles of pop music and pop writing. “Farmer Refuted” is smug and dumb; hard to care when it’s followed by the brilliant “You’ll Be Back,” a creepy stalker ballad in which King George makes the case for rebellion better than these rebels could. Philip’s death scene starts out heartbreaking but dissolves into musical cliches: the quotidian childhood memory (“I taught you piano… You changed the melody every time”), the rote call-back (“Un, deux, trois”). A little fall of rain can hardly hurt him now!

There’s a deeper problem inherent in the musical, though. It’s not a problem about race exactly, although it becomes easiest to see if you approach it through race.

The racial cross-casting is one of the weirdest and greatest elements of “Hamilton.” There’s such exuberance in Miranda’s approach here, so much love of American history, such a winsome insistence that the American founding belongs to black and brown people as much as or more than it belongs to the rest of us. There are all these lines that show exactly why Hamilton’s life was made for hip-hop: “See, I never thought I’d live past twenty./Where I come from some get half as many.” You could hear that line from, to pick an especially resonant example, the Fugees.

But making Alexander Hamilton the representative from the socioeconomic margins requires certain elisions. Certain things must get hidden from the audience or deployed opportunistically. Slavery is a great cudgel to beat Jefferson with and God knows he deserved it, but if you’re looking for a reckoning with the fact of George Washington, slaveholder, you’ll get just that one hint at Yorktown: “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom” / “Not yet.” This is a musical in which the heroes end up in power, they make mostly the right choices and bequeath to future generations “a republic, if you can keep it,” and that is the victory underneath all the wrack of personal chaos, squabble, and grief.

This is the romance of government. And like all genre romance it relies on half-truths and evasions. It requires a belief that the right men in the right structures will make from power something worthy of our love—which sounds plausible until you realize nobody ever can come up with an honest example. For “Hamilton” to feel as vivacious and politically hopeful as it does, slavery has to be a to-be-sure, an aberration. You won’t see American Indians here, or actually-historically-black people other than Jefferson’s lovely cudgel Sally Hemings, because it’s hard to swoon for complicity. The show calls attention to the limits of historiography, the silences where nothing was written down or preserved–but the experiences of slaves become “the unimaginable” even more than the grief of bereaved parents.

You can argue, “You’re just saying Miranda should’ve made a totally different musical instead of the one he was actually inspired to make” and yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. America is the shadow hero of this show—there’s that explicit analogy, “I’m just like my country/Young, scrappy, and hungry”—and while falling in love with a place is poignant and humbling, nobody should ever fall in love with a government.

In its own way I think my perspective is also hopeful, for what that’s worth. If George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were inextricably embedded in the structural sins of their own time and place then they are more like us, not less, and more available to us as a model.

If the American founding was mostly a romance then we have simply and colossally betrayed our chaste beloved. “The world turned upside down” and Donald Trump landed on top. If the American founding was one in a long series of rescue operations from which we turn out to need rescue, solutions made of problems, discoveries that hide things—then our problems are the eternal problems of power.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is smarter than me, and subtler, and in the end I think he proves me wrong about the ideals of his show by hiding an anti-politics beneath his politics. Maybe the most unexpected theme in “Hamilton” is that slowly-growing insistence on the need for surrender. It starts in “Helpless,” a gorgeous song where helplessness is a child’s terror but also a lover’s rapture. It builds through Washington’s counsel (“You have no control”) and farewell. Then Alexander’s advice to his son before the duel; and then Alexander’s own choice, to throw away his shot. The fake ideal America gives way to the inescapable individual choice for self or other. The hymn to power conceals a hymn to defeat.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Discipline and Rupture at Christmastime

There are authors whose work so permeates our intellectual atmosphere that by the time we get around to reading them (instead of just gesturing at them), they’re simultaneously familiar and revelatory. This Advent I’m finally reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. They’re unexpectedly in harmony; and their harmony, it turns out, is a carol.

Discipline and Punish weaves a network of several central concepts: surveillance, habit, norm, discipline, delinquency, science. The modern concept of the self, Foucault argues, is born from these concepts. Discipline is the program by which we develop habits, by which we become predictable, and therefore the means by which it becomes possible to judge not merely our behavior but our character against a unitary human norm. The social sciences are based on the ideal of discipline. Through surveillance a body of knowledge is created about human habits, an anthropology emerges to categorize humans according to how closely they hew to a societal norm, and those who fall farthest from the norm are categorized as delinquents. Behavior has become character. We can know a man. And we know him by observing his habits. The prison (and its fraternal twin, prison reform) exists to change men’s habits through especially intense applications of discipline.

The counternarrative is a narrative of rupture. Rupture is the breaking in of some outside force that can crack the shell of habit and overthrow the laws—the penal laws as well as the “laws of nature” discerned by the social sciences. Torture, in Foucault, is a spectacle of rupture; but so is the king’s pardon. On an individual level rupture is what makes human souls unknowable. A Christian reader will immediately see in “rupture” the hidden terms of repentance, forgiveness, and above all grace.

De Caussade is maybe less consistent than Foucault, or maybe just less resonant with my own spiritual needs. But this 18th-century French priest (who worked well within the historical period of Foucault’s study) has written an extended paean to the counternarrative. De Caussade is a poet of rupture.

Instead of a behavioral norm, he gives us a man, Jesus: “Jesus Christ did not restrict himself, for he did not follow all his own precepts literally. His most holy soul was always inspired by the Holy Spirit and always responsive to its slightest breath.” Against a typology of humankind—against the social sciences—he gives us a bestiary of saints. De Caussade emphasizes the wild diversity of the saints, their weirdness, and their conformity not to a rule or principle but to Jesus alone: “The life of each saint is the life of Jesus Christ.” De Caussade calls us to the “duty of the present moment” and even “the sacrament of the present moment.” Our dossier means nothing in the face of our present choice, each moment, to cling to self-image or to abandon ourselves to God’s will.

Because of my own bad character I have been thinking a lot about habit vs. rupture, and specifically about the anguished question: What do you do when rupture itself has become a habit? Every repentance, no matter how sincere you try to make it, starts to ring hollow when you’ve said those words before. (Toller Cranston on Christopher Bowman: “What can he say, ‘I’m like a changed person’?“) Can rupture be emptied out through repetition?

Sebastian Marchmain of Brideshead Revisited might offer a figure of this habitual or repeated rupture, this endless lather-rinse-repent. He’s a comforting figure for a lot of Waugh’s readers (including me). Nobody really wants to be carried in the lion’s mouth the way Sebastian is by the end, but if that’s your best option, well—it’s better than hanging around hoping for a chance at martyrdom. Giving yourself up every time you can is better than believing that your habits are the most accurate report on your soul: that you are your background check, your progress report, your scanty and halfhearted evidence for the defense.

I’m writing this on my way home from what was supposed to be a communal penance service, one of those “Come Home for Christmas” things. But you can’t make Catholics follow simple directions (the reason we have traditions is so that nobody ever has to remember what to do!), so we all showed up at the wrong time and then got restive. The parish secretary came and stared at us in disbelief, then rolled her eyes and went to fetch us some priests. I made the same confession I’ve been making for months now, only worse. The priest gave me a very simple, gentle penance.

All the evidence is against us; the social sciences seem to work. They seem to provide an accurate account of the possibilities open to us, the ways our past will become our future. In a list of socioeconomic and psychological factors we can predict your risk of reoffending and craft a probationary program for the reform of your character.

This is not what the priest did. Instead he offered the same strange inbreaking of mercy that Christmas itself celebrates. Instead of reform he offered relief. The coming of the messiah in the most unexpected guise is our reminder of the rupture at the heart of the Christian story.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Jingle All the Way to Hell

Image courtesy Legendary Films
Image courtesy Legendary Films

With 2007’s “Trick ‘r Treat,” horror fans hailed director Michael Dougherty for reviving both the horror anthology and the Halloween flick. Now he hopes to do the same for Christmas horror with “Krampus.” I liked but didn’t love “Trick ‘r Treat” and I wish I didn’t have to say the same thing about this new movie, since its ideas are fresh–but the execution, so to speak, leaves a few things to be desired.

The story of “Krampus” is beautifully simple. A band of disliked relatives descends on a wealthy family, exposing the wealthy parents’ own flaws and failures. Their son Max (the excellent Emjay Anthony), who has kept the Christmas flame a-burning in his heart and even written a letter to Santa Claus, finally gives up on joy and peace after some torment from his awful cousins. He rips up the letter and flings the pieces out the window–and by doing this, he summons Krampus.

“The shadow of St. Nicholas,” Krampus wanders the earth punishing those who give up hope. Max’s grandmother (Krista Stadler, reminiscent of the great Mai Zetterling in “The Witches”) offers the not-quite-comforting advice that Krampus can only be conquered by the true Christmas spirit–of sacrifice. Max and his family band together, overcoming their differences to battle Krampus and his minions, but their best efforts aren’t enough, and Max must make the final, dreadful choice alone.

This is just a great premise. Krampus himself is terrific, all hoofprints and shadow horns. The twist that our individual cruelties and failures don’t matter as long as we don’t give up hope is an intriguing antidote to the checklist moralism of so many Santa tales. There are plenty of sly references, like stocking stuffers: the scary snowmen of “Calvin & Hobbes,” some household injuries from “Home Alone.” The movie’s first and last fifteen minutes (counting the credits—you should stay through the end) are nearly perfect, starting with a Black Friday rampage scored to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and ending with a “Krampus Karol of the Bells.”

And the class antagonism gives the film an unexpected sociological dimension. The families’ sins are clearly class-coded: the rich dad uses work as an excuse to flee his family, the rich mom is a high-strung and judgmental perfectionist who looks down on her poorer sister; the sister had a shotgun marriage and now has four children (this is treated like she practically had a litter—four!), her kids are undisciplined and violent, and her husband is a gun nut who says things like, “So much for global warming.” Even the families’ virtues are class-linked: The poorer sister is the only one who can be bothered to care for a less-pleasant member of the extended family. These aren’t the class cliches of “Gremlins,” where rich people are simply bad whereas everybody else is salt of the earth. The rich parents must renounce judgment and take up guns—but this is a movie that identifies with the rich, even while criticizing them. The movie takes place on their turf, from their point of view. It’s especially noticeable that the (middle-class!) poorer kids are awful whereas the rich son and daughter are just about flawless.

This creepy identification with the wealthiest happens in part because these characters aren’t fleshed out. Dougherty doesn’t seem to know how to handle so many people: the rich daughter disappears early on, the aunt just sort of drops out of the story, the two tomboys are interchangeable, etc. There’s nothing like the breathtaking “why I hate Christmas” speech from “Gremlins,” but fine, not everybody can be Joe Dante. We should at least get some nuance and depth to the children’s characters. Everybody in this film has a maximum of two dimensions. Their actions are often poignant—I choked up when the rich father (Adam Scott; all four of the parents’ actors do a lot with a little) hugs his son, and as he reassures the boy we see him close his eyes in fear as he starts to acknowledge that maybe things won’t turn out okay. But it’s hard to make an iconic film with such bare characters. (The script also relies heavily on foul language for humor. Censorship is the mother of creativity, people.)

“Krampus” is a fun romp. We can always use more of these stories where the jingling comes from chains, not sleigh bells. Christmas is often a hard time and there’s camaraderie in this movie, as well as an insistence that mere good deeds won’t replace personal sacrifice. I enjoyed this movie but it is sort of like the slightly burnt, slightly hardened gingerbread men you munch on happily because they remind you of other, better Christmas treats.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Moral Combat

Photo credit: Simon Hayter
Photo credit: Simon Hayter

Winners and Losers,” created by Marcus Youssef and James Long and playing at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through November 22, is a tense and springy 100 minutes of aggression hidden under friendship–and vice versa. Youssef and Long act out their own longstanding, competitive friendship, getting rawer and more accusatory as the night wears on. I’m going to use “Marcus” for the guy I saw onstage, “Youssef” for the off-stage creator, but the two men’s comments on the emotional difficulties of doing this piece suggest that the stage personae are intentionally blurred with real life. Their often-hilarious attacks touch on race, class, besetting sins, fears, and paternal legacies; they wrestle and play Ping-Pong and bounce off the audience’s suggestions, mixing improv and rehearsed material in a kind of intersectionality decathlon.

They start out with a game in which they judge various people, places, and things to be “winners” or “losers.” Ticks, Occupy Wall Street, penguins, marijuana: thumbs up or thumbs down? Whoever comes up with a judgment first states it and makes his case, and then the other guy has to argue against him. That meant that on the night I saw the show Marcus had to scramble to argue, in response to an audience suggestion, that the University of Missouri was somehow a “winner.” He spluttered and floundered for a moment before throwing out a perfectly-timed, “They’ve got a hell of a football team! Winner.”

This opening segment establishes the friends’ characters and social positions. Marcus is a cautious type with an endearing, disarming smile. Jamie is a tense, ticking kind of guy, leaning forward intently, one foot sometimes tapping a little too loudly on the floor. Both of them are aware of the fault lines in their friendship, but for most of the evening they quickly swerve away from any subject that gets too heated. (Youssef and Long have impeccable timing.)

Marcus is the rich one, an Egyptian-Canadian who stands to inherit his distant father’s fortune. In the Mobius strip logic of anti-oppression politics, Marcus’s race gives him an advantage. Jamie is white, and from a much harsher background. I wondered if he was going to do that thing where white people who pride ourselves on being “street-smart” eventually sway into actual racism, and not only did he do that, he did it in a shaggy-dog story about that particular racial dynamic. This show doesn’t stray from acceptable theater-community progressivism, but it’s also very hard on its characters. Jamie’s attack on the concept of the 99 percent vs the 1 percent—it’s “very convenient solidarity” because it classes together actual poor people with wealthy but not that wealthy people, so the latter can run a movement ostensibly on behalf of the former—is one of the sharpest political critiques I’ve heard in a DC theater lately. And delivered in a compressed, triumphant tone that’s about Jamie as a person, thrilled to have found a wedge to use against Marcus.

The show is aware not only of the weaknesses in its leads’ shared worldview, but the human absurdities. Those absurdities often have to do with the post-Christian flavor of the Left. Religion itself is almost entirely absent here, showing up only in the rosaries Jamie kept finding in the dirty sheets at the industrial laundry where he used to work. (The show is full of startling little moments like that.) What remains of Christianity is a suspicion of power, a belief that the losers are morally purer, a belief that the humble will be exalted and the exalted humbled—if not in the eschaton, at least in this one night of improv comedy.

Sincerity, generosity, even humility itself all become competitive sports. Acknowledging that you don’t live up to your own standards can be a way to control the conversation, which Marcus uses a few times: If I admit this, will that make you stop talking about it? Morality is always a trump card (we live in a bizarrely moralistic age) and so if you want to win, you have to find a way for your position to be the more morally-pure one.

This came out most clearly in the segment on masturbation. Jamie (of course) proclaims himself the master of this art. He is the winner when judged on frequency but he also has the moral advantage that he will only use porn where the woman looks just like his wife. Marcus gets over his embarrassment enough to suggest that he should win, since his practices are more creative and he does not use any technological or pornographic enhancement. His self-abuse is artisanal and organic.

Honestly I feel bad for stepping on the joke here, but this is such a beautiful parody of our constant need to fill the moral vacuum. Where cultural or religious norms are no longer respected, other (often contradictory) moral norms will emerge, because we need some way to compare our moral prowess.

I’m making this sound like a self-serious event, when it’s really a cutting, suspenseful romp. By the end the tone has darkened significantly, as each friend says a lot of things he can’t unsay. The pace did slacken a bit, on my night, once the friends started battling openly rather than trying to conceal their real resentments. It wandered a bit in that final stretch. But overall—we’ve got to have a take-home judgment, right?—“Winners and Losers is a painfully funny show, the kind of comedy that provokes self-reflection as well as cathartic laughter. Don’t lose out—get your tickets now!

Snow White, Blood Red

Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures
Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

Twenty minutes into “Crimson Peak” I was thinking, “Okay, I’ll just turn my brain off and look at the pretty dresses, this’ll be fun if I let it.” That was right before it turned from a kind of dumb, semi-political ghost tale into a terrifically compelling horror-romance swoonfest. Once the movie makes its swerve into full Gothic it is phenomenal, the kind of thing you’ll rewatch if you like your comfort food red and dripping.

Director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “The Devil’s Backbone“) wears his influences on his giant mutton-chop sleeve. “The Changeling”, “La Chute de la Maison d’Usher”, “The Shining”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard,” “Rebecca”, “Flowers in the Attic” (!)–if you like this stuff, get your fangs right on into this movie.

Our story starts in Buffalo, NY in the late 19th century, as self-righteous aspiring authoress Edith (Mia Wasikowska; she’s fine, very dewy) lectures inventor and broke baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) about American enterprise. “In America we bank on effort, not privilege,” a white man says, and del Toro seems politically aware so this has got to be ironic, right? At this point I expected the “meritocratic white Americans vs English who fatten on the labor of the proletariat” stuff to be either vindicated or (better) subverted, but instead it just gets forgotten, which is probably for the best. Anyway Thomas and Edith fall in love, because of course they do, and Hiddleston is fantastic as the swept-away lover whose bruised emotional exterior hides a glint of steel.

And then the newlyweds move in to the glorious Sharpe family estate, where autumn leaves drift down through the broken roof and crimson clay oozes up through the floorboards. The estate is ruled by Thomas’s grim sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and haunted by the memories of the siblings’ horrific upbringing. The snow begins to fall, and Edith is trapped in a foreign land, with her husband and his walled-up secrets….

This is a lush film, besotted and feverish. Even the end credits are a paean to the beauty of moths—and there’s a nice little plot twist there, so don’t leave when the lights come up. The costumes are dreamy, the mansion is a masterpiece—one of the great horror locations—and the romance between Edith and Thomas is scorching. There’s what I would consider a fair amount of gore, but it’s closer to the giallo nightmare style than the Saw-style delectation of suffering. You may have heard that the CGI ghosts leave a lot to be desired and yes, they do look a bit video-game, but they’re also very creepy [edited to add: Startlingly, these were mostly not CGI at all! But still very video-game.]. There are some cheap jump scares. The fighting at the end takes a bit too long. But overall it’s hard to find fault with this film, especially once it leaves the States.

Are there themes? Sure, maybe. There’s some “Who is really trapped?”, are people trapped by circumstances or by their own responses to those circumstances? There are hints that the wages of sin is death. You won’t remember these things, though. You’ll remember Edith and Tom’s first kiss, somehow both hesitant and hungry; the excavator biting deep into the blood-red earth; a swarm of ants, eating a butterfly’s eye; Tom carrying Edith over the threshold of their marital home, and Edith, in the ironwork elevator, rattling down into the lowest depth of the mansion, where the walls are streaked with red.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

A Mother Under Wraps

RADiUS-TWC
RADiUS-TWC

An Austrian television personality comes home to her remote, eerie house to recuperate from extensive plastic surgery. Swathed in bandages, she confronts her twin sons—and they don’t recognize her. She can’t persuade the boys that she’s their real mother, and her inability to remember basic information about her own life doesn’t help. She seems to scapegoat one of the boys as the troublemaker; she sometimes refuses to talk to him or even set a place for him at the table. The boys decide that this false mother is trying to tear them apart. They begin to resist her. She begins to get angry.

This is the basic setup for “Goodnight Mommy,” a chilling little thing that starts with a lullaby and ends with a conflagration. It would probably be fairly easy to guess the movie’s secret if it ever gave you a chance to breathe, but the suspense and dread ratchet up so relentlessly that there’s no time to think. This is a very effective psychological horror film, with supernatural hints.

The images are haunting: The huge photos that decorate the house, showing models with contorted limbs and faces turned away from the camera. The mother, whip-thin, standing before her mirror looking at her blank bandaged face. A cat sprawled on a heap of skulls; giant cockroaches crawling into a mouth, or out of a wound. The boys ramble through the different landscapes surrounding the house: the woods, the burning field, the cave, the lakes. All filled with dangers.

There are some heartbreaking images. The boys play a tape recording of their mother singing them to sleep, promising she’ll come home to them—but she’s already home, the woman who says she’s their mother. One of the boys crossing himself with holy water at the church, while the other one hurries up the aisle.

But for me the most striking element of the film was the way it made clear how little we know about what goes on inside a house. The boys don’t seem to have any friends, but the house does get several visitors. None of them understand what’s going on. There’s a sequence in which the boys run away, seeking refuge in a church. The priest doesn’t react the way I hoped-against-hope that he would; but it turns out that the audience is in the same position as these interlopers. We enter the family’s story in the middle and try to piece together its fragments. We don’t know it from the inside, and so we don’t know what to believe.

The mother’s bandaged face hides her features. The specific kind of surgery she had hides its meaning: Is she a fame-besotted celebrity seeking physical perfection? A trauma victim? Was the plastic surgery even real, or just an excuse to hide her true identity? And the house hides the truth of the family’s tragedy as well. The shutters can ring down, the doors can lock, and the house can look like a haven, a place of peace.

John Darnielle, the man behind the indie band the Mountain Goats, writes a lot of songs about houses that hide misery. The house is the family: the alcoholic couple whose “cellar door/is an open throat“; the abusive home in which Darnielle grew up, where “indications that there’s something wrong with our new house/trip down the wire twice daily. And the house is surrounded by “friends who don’t have a clue“, as there seems to be no way to “tell the neighbors what’s been going on“.

At first “Goodnight Mommy” seems like a movie about the terrifying possibility that your own parents might turn on you. Your mother might abandon you and leave you in the hands of a stranger. As the movie’s plot twists and the audience—who came in too late, like the priest, like the Red Cross door-to-door volunteers, like the deliveryman–struggles to figure it out, the source of the movie’s terror shifts. Now it’s about the times when we have been the interlopers, when we have come into somebody else’s tragedy in the middle and failed to figure it out before it was too late. All the violence and heartache we could have prevented, if we had recognized what we were looking at.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

A Washed-Out Dr. House—With Hooves

Netflix
Netflix

We’ve suffered a rash of cynical, sarcastic, hyper-competent white manchildren on our TV screens: “House” was one of the purest versions of this creepy fantasy, where self- and other-loathing make you cool and insightful. Recently there has been a bit of a backlash. Leading men (Walter White, Don Draper) now display the gross and pathetic nature of entitled narcissism, no matter how well the narcissist does his job. We’ve even reached the second stage of backlash, where former Houses try to learn to be human beings; my favorite of these is Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes on “Elementary,” all gritted-teeth emotional honesty and terrible decisions, although I guess you could count Draper here as well.

These reactions were probably inevitable. What was definitely more evitable was that one of the most enjoyable recovering manchildren on television would be a depressed celebrity horse.

BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is a manfoal of the lowest order. He’s a sort of reverse centaur, with a human body and a horse’s head, in a cartoon world where many of the people are similarly half-owls or half-cats. BoJack was the star of a ’90s sitcom in the vein of “Full House,” but he hasn’t worked in decades. He’s all washed up, drowning his sorrows in enough vodka to kill a horse. Then into his life wanders Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who’s been assigned to ghostwrite his memoir. So begins a show filled with introspection, articulate despair, romance, adventure, and roller-skating owl women.

My second-favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” (created and mostly written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg) is the sheer wiggy variety of its jokes. The show has great sight gags, often playing off the “animals are people too” conceit. There are dumb puns and reference jokes: “Andrew Garfield loves lasagna? Andrew Garfield hates Mondays?” But there’s also absurdity, as when BoJack’s agent falls in love with “Vincent Adultman,” who is literally three small children stacked on top of each other under a trenchcoat. There are hilarious little throwaways (an amused Richard Nixon growls, “Owooo!–or whatever a laugh sounds like”) and sharp, funny/sad exchanges where BoJack and his friends try to sort through the wreckage of their lives.

I loved this exchange between BoJack and his closest friend and personal chew toy, Todd (Aaron Paul), about Christmas traditions:

Todd, syrupy: Things don’t become traditions because they’re good, BoJack. They become good because they’re traditions.

BoJack, half-drunk: You know you can’t just make yourself sound smart by saying things backwards?

So right there you’ve got an actual true statement about how tradition shapes our identity, phrased in perfect Chestertonian couplets—and immediately followed by an equally-true deflation of that Chestertonian (or #slatepitch) style.

But my favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” is how badly BoJack wants to think of himself as—and even, if he’s desperate enough, wants to be—a good person. Just tell me I’m good is the constant undertow of his motivation. He doesn’t want to be cool or happy. He wants to be a good person, in spite of all the genuinely awful things he’s done. He’s ashamed of himself, sure. But he tries to disguise his failures as successes, as cocktail-party anecdotes and, if necessary, as lessons learned.

He has this exchange with Diane, which runs exactly parallel to the character vs. actions bit from “Mistress America” (BoJack knows the zeitgeist!):

BoJack: But do you think I’m a good person, deep down?

Diane: …I don’t know if I believe in ‘deep down.’

“BoJack” is a pretty scathing portrayal of the insufficiency of self-awareness. BoJack knows what his problems are and states them frequently and with often-hilarious bluntness, and it doesn’t help. As a different family entertainment once taught us, knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.

There’s a surprisingly low amount of pure shock humor—for example, we’re carefully not encouraged to consider just how humans and horse-people mate, or horsemen and owlwomen, etc. The glaring exception is one episode centering on autoerotic asphyxiation, so just know going in that that happens. I can see why the show went there, though. Seeking release from the self in degrading solitary activity, which transforms something that should connect you to other people into just another empty mansion, something shaped like pleasure but creating greater need instead of satisfaction: that’s basically the show’s archvillain. (Unless BoJack is the villain, which is also a strong possibility.)

That episode is also the only one in which Christianity comes up. A dude who used to be into autoerotic etc. is now heavily into Jesus. Jesus is his replacement drug, another thing that promises escape from the self but never actually brings you into contact with other people; you stay trapped inside your religion, wherever you go there you are, gasping, waiting to lose consciousness.

Which is sort of heartbreaking since it means the only thing anybody can tell BoJack, in his despair, is, Try harder! Just do the right thing, day after day, jog up that hill again, and eventually you’ll die.

The end of the second season finds BoJack trying really hard this time. He is, like American culture generally, bent on self-improvement. He is not a moral relativist. He really means it.

One of the reasons I love this show is that I don’t think they’ll let him get away with it.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Home Is Where the Drama Is

Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in Noah Bambach's MISTRESS AMERICA. Twentieth Century Fox.
Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in Noah Bambach's MISTRESS AMERICA. Twentieth Century Fox.

One of the weirder trends in today’s art is the rise of a certain kind of comedy: cynical and even scathing on the surface, but in the end, staunchly moral. These comedies push forgiveness, humility, and love as self-gift; the great enemies are personal ambition, unwillingness to embrace adult responsibility, and concern for one’s own self-image. (The lesser enemy is positive self-talk, which all these comedies go out of their way to satirize.) It’s a sort of comedic burned marshmallow, with an acrid outside and sweet gooey inside.

This week I’ve watched an indie Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig flick about women’s friendship and ambition, and a coarse cartoon about an alcoholic has-been Hollywood horse-person, and both of these otherwise utterly different comedies fit into the acrid/gooey genre. Which I’m not knocking–I mean, I wrote one of these things, apparently I’m on trend. You’ll get more on “BoJack Horseman” soon in another piece, but for now, let me tell you about “Mistress America.”

Lola Kirke plays Tracy, a college freshman in that crucial pre-Thanksgiving moment when you have no idea what your adult identity will be. In the cafeteria she picks up a cupcake: Am I a cupcake person? She puts it down. Picks up a cruller.

Tracy calls her mom to lament that she hasn’t made any friends, and her mom urges her to call Brooke, Tracy’s soon-to-be stepsister. Tracy’s mom will marry Brooke’s dad over Thanksgiving (this holiday slowly grows in significance throughout the movie, in a way I found pretty touching) but Tracy and Brooke have never met. In desperation, Tracy makes the call–and Greta Gerwig careens into her life.

Gerwig’s Brooke starts out insufferable, enraptured by her own melodrama. She’s a jack of no trades and master of fewer; she claims she will soon be a restaurateur. She says things like, “That’s cool about the frozen-yogurt machine. Everyone I love dies,” and, “I’m good at that, curating my own employment,” and, “My beau, Stavros….” She makes unfunny jokes (there are a lot of lines in this movie that are joke-shaped more than they’re actual jokes) and hands out terrible life advice, and Tracy is in love.

There are echoes of some of Baumbach’s earlier movies. Like “Kicking and Screaming,” this movie is about the undergraduate hunger for guidance, for a role model, a persona–and the way undergraduates’ lack of wisdom means they can’t even choose the right guides. And “Mistress America” shares with “Frances Ha” not only the glorious Gerwig but the focus on women’s friendship. Friendship is life-defining, the stage on which the great dramas of adoration, betrayal, and (maybe) amends are played out.

There are a lot of great lines and moments here. The speech about want (“You can’t really know what it’s like to want things until you’re at least 30″); the white-knuckled fury of the line, “I’m committed to being a happier person.” Occasionally the film’s moral seriousness comes too far out into the open: “I would [do a sordid deed] too,” Brooke says, “but it wouldn’t be my character, it would just be something I did,” to which Tracy of course responds, “When do those become the same thing?” But I loved Kirke and Gerwig’s megadramatic line readings. Everything they do is underlined.

“Mistress America” lacks “Frances Ha”‘s luminous consistency, its exhilaration. But its themes are more complex and its characters rawer. “Mistress America”‘s first 15 hminutes or so are a tough watch, until you realize that the movie knows just how self-obsessed and Potemkin both these women are, and you settle in to watch the skies for the incoming comeuppance.

And then you start to love these awful women, too. They have one of those relationships I’ll never tire of watching, where both people are thinking, The best thing about me is you. Brooke aggressively hooking her arm into Tracy’s arm; Brooke telling Tracy, “You make me feel really smart”; Tracy gazing at Brooke in open adoration. Tracy pilfering a souvenir from Brooke’s apartment.

Tracy steals a lot of knickknacks. The movie’s two odd recurring themes are home and theft. Home is evoked by the Thanksgiving setting, of course, and in Brooke’s pitch for her restaurant: She says, with ferocious intensity, “I keep the hearth.” (And then, with her autodidact’s uncertainty: “…Is that a word?”) The movie is haunted by these women’s longing for a place where they feel at home. Coming home to find the locks changed is the great unspoken fear–the promise of home and family dangled and then snatched away.

And although we get to revisit a lot of old sins here–the second half of the film is just a welter of comeuppances–many of the old hurts revolve around theft and assertions of a moral right of ownership. Brooke’s still furious about an ex-friend who stole her idea for t-shirts with edgy flower logos. Tracy “steals” Brooke’s life for the short story she’s working on, in which Brooke appears as a charismatic failure. There’s a lot of litigation here, trying to sort out who owned what and who owes what to whom.

Until suddenly there isn’t. Toward the end Tracy says, about Brooke’s purloined pets, “The cats went from stolen to given because you changed your mind.” Brooke immediately snaps back, “Don’t put that in a story,” but it is not false. If you are trapped in the wreckage of your self-image, one way out is to waive your rights. Maybe it doesn’t matter what you’re owed.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Jacob Lawrence’s Existential Sociology

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 40: “The migrants arrived in great numbers.” MoMA
Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 40: “The migrants arrived in great numbers.” MoMA

Jacob Lawrence was a pioneer. His “Migration” series, painted when he was 23, was the first work by a black American artist to be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art; his career stretched from the Harlem Renaissance into 2001, the year after his death, when his mosaic “New York in Transit” was installed in the Times Square subway.

Lawrence’s style is blocky, almost cartoonish, with clear lines and contrasting colors, often in jewel tones. He took black history as his subject matter, creating series dedicated to Toussaint L’Ouverture and American abolitionists, as well as the “Migration” series, which depicted the 20th century’s great movement of six million black Southerners to the North. MoMA has done us a great service by reuniting “Migration,” which has spent decades divided between that museum and Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection.

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works” (on view through September 7, so plan to go soon) works hard—maybe even too hard—to put Lawrence in his cultural and historical context. The show opens with a timeline showing everything from boll weevil infestations to the formation of the Works Progress Administration. The main room reunites Lawrence’s monumental “Migration,” and is surrounded by rooms of related work by Harlem Renaissance artists and their contemporaries: paintings by Romare Bearden, poetry from Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, video of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The wall captions even emphasize that Lawrence researched his paintings in the library as well as talking to elders in the community.

Historical context always has its value, and the works by other artists are often striking in themselves (Bearden contributes a powerful and tender “Visitation,” and the photography section of the show is genuinely excellent, turning reportage into portraiture) and show the artists’ influence on one another: you can see Lawrence in Bearden’s 1941 painting “After Church,” with its clean lines and rich colors. And Lawrence’s non-“Migration” works show how early he developed his unmistakable color sense, his talent for composition, and the clarity of his moral vision. The timeline gives dates for events Lawrence depicts in “Migration” and, I suppose, lends his work the museum’s authority and mantle of objectivity, for those who might need that reassurance.

It’s easy to read artists—and maybe especially black artists—as mere reporters. Or, worse, sociologists. And Jacob Lawrence’s work does indeed have many reportorial or sociological characteristics: He’s racially conscious (and self-conscious about his role as a voice of his race), he’s influenced by folk art, he’s panoramic in his attempt to depict many layers of society. He has what The Wire would call “the Dickensian element.” These are all artistic choices he made that add to the power of “Migration.” To see it all in one room, all 60 stark yet brightly-colored panels, is to feel the sweep of history.

But what stood out most when I saw the whole series was Lawrence’s modern, existentialist sensibility: his sensitivity to modern loneliness. The great artistic tension in his work is the alternation between crowds and isolation. There is room for individuality in some of “Migration”‘s crowds. In panel 6, showing a railway car crammed with migrants, a mother nurses her infant and a man prays by a woman’s bunk. “Migration” is modern in its depiction of technology, the trains, and the machines—panel 7 uses rushing colored lines, flaming and flowing, as abstract images of urban life and industrial work—but it returns insistently to the inner human experience.

One of the more unusual themes in “Migration” is the presence of modern loneliness and alienation in rural scenes as well as urban ones. We’re used to bleak and inhuman depictions of skyscrapers and subway lines. But Lawrence gives us, in panel 8, Biblically-stark and leafless branches rising up from a flooded field—nature’s metonymy for the loneliness of bereft human beings. In panel 9 the delicate flowers of the cotton are attacked by giant boll weevils, against a jagged stylized background. The Southern trees are always spindly and contorted.

Panel 10, with its blunt caption “They were very poor,” shows two people alone in a room. One pot hangs on a nail. Their faces are grim and silent, and it seems like they must have been silent for a very long time.

Lawrence can be overly cartoonish, especially when he makes himself draw faces, but many of the panels here are devastating in their simplicity. Panel 15 shows lynching, not by depicting the graphic violence but by showing a figure hunched in misery under the black noose. The fear and horror radiate off the painting. The next panel is even more expressive. It’s still about lynch law, and there is still no actual depiction of a lynching. There’s just a room, with all its angles skewed and opposed to show the overturning of the intelligible and bearable world. There’s a woman seated at a table. The crazed angles show the psychological effect of lynch law, the way human cruelty can distort the way we perceive the physical world. If reporting dissects the causes of human misery, art can show how it feels; “Migration” offers both.

And “Migration” shows what longing feels like. Sometimes it’s tender longing: Panel 33 has those strange angles again—Lawrence had a phenomenal sense not only for color but for shape. A woman’s hair spreads out across her pillow as she reads a letter from a migrant relative. Golden stripes of light pour into the room. Other times there’s a harder portrayal of what it looks like to be far from those you love. Panel 46, set in a labor camp, shows no people at all; and yet the yolk-gold moon shining through the tiny far-off window could not be a more human and haunting image. The beauty of the turquoise night and golden moon makes the hard conditions of the camp stand out all the more.

Lawrence wrote “Migration”‘s captions himself. They often sound like they come from an outdated textbook: “The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South,” etc etc. But even these captions get striking and unexpected illustrations. The “female worker” here is stirring, highly-stylized laundry, a scene like a quilt panel, all sharp, clear, black-stitched lines and high-contrast colors.

“One-Way Ticket” is two shows: a very good show about black American artists in the ’30s, and the truly stunning one-room show devoted solely to “Migration.” Lawrence, in that series, was able to strike a balance between the sociological work of the captions and the existential yearning of the paintings.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

“Amends,” My Reality-TV Rehab Satire, Is Now Available

amends eve tushnet

Hello all. This is just a note to say that my novel is available from Amazon (paperback and Kindle). Here’s the quick description:

A month in rehab would be stressful enough without a television audience. When the ramshackle cast checks in for “Amends,” a new reality series about alcoholism and recovery, they don’t know if they’ve been cast as villains or potential redemption arcs. Over the course of the show they learn what God sees when he shuts his eyes, how to appreciate the comforts of hallucination, and what it looks like when a wolf fights a troll. A conservative journalist woos a homeless Ethiopian visionary. A teen hockey star licks a human heart. And a collections agent pays some of his own oldest and saddest debts. From backhanded compliments to accidental forgiveness, “Amends” proves that there’s a place you can go when you’ve given up on reality: reality TV.

TAC readers might especially enjoy the journalist. Here’s the first paragraph of the book, in which we meet him:

J. Malachi MacCool was born in Berkeley, California, in the last decade of the Cold War, to parents who deserved better. He had a dilapidated body and a face like the last days of the Raj: jowly, discredited, eager for the final defeat. He was thirty-two, he lived in a cockroach-infested studio apartment in Washington, DC, and fans of his writing—for magazines like Intimations, Hound and Gentry, The Anglican Militant and Tempus—considered him one of the great unwanted geniuses of a degenerate age. His favorite term of praise was “civilizational,” and he lived by the creed, “Alcoholism is what raises man above the utilitarians.” The J stood for Jaymi.

read the rest

Painting Modernism Before the Bolsheviks

Tightrope Walk

The first room of the Neue Galerie’s “Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907 – 1917” (on view through August 24), takes us back to a vanished world. This is a world of silk stockings and fiacres, cavalry officers, and the Woman Question: the modern world. It’s a cosmopolitan world, alive to the distortions of human perception, and an international world in which Russian artists looked West and Western artists looked to Africa for inspiration. It will not last much longer.

In this show the artists wear their influences heavily. The attempts to deploy cubism or Cezanne, Gauguin or fauvism often feel overly rigid, as if the artists were trying on different styles but hadn’t quite found the right mix yet. However, there’s a certain exhilaration in this willingness to switch styles. The rooms are mostly divided thematically (the one exception is a room devoted solely to abstract art), which means that both the style and the mood of neighboring pieces can vary widely. This turns out to be a relief if you are not particularly in love with cubism, or dyspepsia.

The first room’s cityscapes are filled with jewel tones: wine red, midnight blue, amethyst. Boris Grigoriev offers a cafe scene, 1913’s “Cafe Chantant,” with the familiar jaded heavy-lidded man and scheming feline woman; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Tightrope Walk” shows sallow-skinned, lunging and toe-pointing circus performers. Life’s a bit decadent and still a bit fun.

The room of still-lifes and landscapes ranges from Ilya Mashkov’s 1910 “Still-Life with Fruit,” with its sci-fi sunset background, to Natalia Goncharova’s 1913 “Dynamo Machine,” a crisp modern thing with perky yellow explosions. (Goncharova is one of the standouts of this exhibit. She worked in a wide range of styles but her paintings are always pleasurable to look at, whether she’s giving you blocks of giant crowding sunflowers or lovely Russian peasant women among lovely Russian peasant trees.) Goncharova’s dynamo isn’t menacing or crushing humanity; it’s an optimistic vision of the machine. August Macke’s “Strollers at the Lake II” looks like somebody spilled a Tissot: a civilized scene, but representative art is breaking up into blocky blurs.

In this room we begin to see the country living and folkways which would captivate Russian artists of the 1910s. The gallery’s captions point out that some of the rural scenes (and, presumably, some of the foreign ones) are the result of the laws restricting Jewish settlement. But there was also a self-conscious movement to honor and adapt Russian folk art and traditions. As artistic inspiration, at least, this turn to narod (which has had its own unsavory political uses) proved much more fruitful and human than the Nazi fetish for the Volk.

Pyotr Konchalovsky’s 1910 “House of the Lover of Bullfights” is a glorious thing: melting colors, iridescent lilac and turquoise sky, the white house with notes of yellow and mauve. The show notes that the “strident, almost violent palette” of many of these artists “was deemed shocking to many at the time,” but nature herself is frequently garish. Vassily Kandinsky’s (the show’s other standout for me) “Murnau: Street with Women” is golden, sunlit, under the glowing red and orange roofs of the houses—but then the women and child are spooky hollow-eyed starers. It’s not the color in this picture that is unnatural and shocking but the contrast between our beauty-drenched world and the inadequate human response to it.

The room of portraits ranges from horrifying to tender. Many of these people have big, canny eyes; many are oddly green. There’s Aristarkh Lentulov’s 1915 “Self-Portrait with Women Bathers,” where the artist looks like a degenerate doll being kicked about by Sacher-Masoch dream figures. A child-man and a fleshy, triumphant voluptee, in a glittering grove. This is not as awful as Mikhail Larionov’s “Self-Portrait,” in which he looks like a streaky, fanged skull, or Kirchner’s “Seated Female Nude,” like a starved seductive monkey—a come-hither smirk, a big red nipple, Get me out of here! 

It’s a relief to turn to Kandinsky’s “Portrait of Nina Kandinsky,” in which the artist’s wife is shown in shimmering colors, rain-washed and dissolving, only the strong contours of her face and neck remaining fully solid. Or Aleksandr Kuprin’s “Nude in a Hat with Green Ribbon,” which is right next to the horror-flick Kirchner and which shows a pretty lady in a cute pose. The conflicting angles of her body are balanced by her soft curves; the green of her ribbon is picked up in her breasts and belly, but the color never becomes corpsey or disturbing.

Of course, it’s possible to be too pretty. Vladimir Bekhteev’s 1910 “Bathing” shows idealized, slim lithe naiads in muted greens and lilacs, all curvy and shy. Like Artemis without the threat.

The final room shows completely abstract art: Kandinsky’s concise, dynamic shapes with their deep blacks and soft lilting colors; Malevich’s Suprematist sketches, which to me are too theoretical, just shapes, like he was doodling while bored on the phone.

“Russian Modernism” completely fulfills its mandate: It proves that these 10 years were fertile, full of experiments (not always successful, but what is?) and cross-pollinations. On one long wall there are photographs and capsule biographies of the artists. The Germans mostly saw their art condemned by the Nazis. Many of the Russians ended up in France. Goncharova went on to design for the Ballets Russes. Kandinsky died in France in 1944.

The Neue Galerie show captures a moment, the last moment before the transformation of modernity into the “short 20th century.”

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the forthcoming novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Movie Like This?

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in "Trainwreck" / photo via Universal Pictures
Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in "Trainwreck" / photo via Universal Pictures

“There will never be an American AbFab.”

This was the first thought in my mind as I left the theater after seeing “Trainwreck,” the new Judd Apatow/Amy Schumer moralizing romcom. The movie seems to think that it’s the story of a bad girl who triumphs over adversity and gets her man. It’s actually the story of a basically nice girl with major daddy issues, who learns and teaches a few heartwarming lessons on her journey toward somewhat delayed adult responsibility. This movie pulls all its punches.

Amy (played by Schumer) works for a men’s-interest magazine called S’nuff. Her fierce boss (Tilda Swinton in human drag) snags an idea for a sports-doctor profile from Amy’s coworker (“Fresh Off the Boat”‘s Randall Park, a delight as always) and orders sports-hating Amy to write the piece. The sports doc is played by Bill Hader and we’re off on what purports to be the tale of a good boy who falls for a bad girl.

The thing is… Amy’s just not that bad. There’s a great opening scene in which her father explains that he’s leaving their family because he wants to continue tomcatting around. The bond between Amy and her father is the movie’s greatest strength: I’m always down for a tale of horrible people who genuinely love each other. Amy grows up to be just like Dad, an appetitive personality who grabs compulsively at food, booze, and especially men. Only she’s not having any fun at it—some of the movie’s best gags involve bad sex, including the greatest bad-kissing scene I’ve ever watched.

The key to the movie’s problem comes when Amy plays that “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” game from The Idiot with some randoms at a party. Amy’s shocking revelation is basically that she had an awkward mishap with a condom. She has protected sex! Alert the League of Decency! It’s not even the worst thing done by someone in the group, and yet everyone acts like she’s Mary of Egypt. Amy’s huge crimes, when her nice-guy suitor takes her to a fancy party, are wearing a tight dress and taking an emergency phone call from her boss. She does have a drunken hookup with a sixteen-year-old… whose age she didn’t know, and with whom she never gets past first base. She transforms her life: throwing out all her booze, and going out of her way to prove to her boyfriend that she can make an effort and work hard for his love. There’s a point during the couple’s big argument when Nice Doctor says, “That got dark fast!” and, you know, it barely even got dim.

“Trainwreck” is very clear about right and wrong, and it wants to make sure that its characters never do anything too wrong. From this film future historians will learn what Americans once believed: that it’s morally wrong to acknowledge any emotional distinctions between stepchildren and children of your marriage; that gay people are people just like you and me (not that any of them appear in this movie); that promiscuity, drinking, and drug use are bad; that the first time someone says “I love you” should be an incredibly important moment, in a carefully curated atmosphere; that it’s normal for couples to argue and you’ve gotta learn how to fight well; and that kids are good for you and you should like spending time with them. I believe some of this and yet I still felt lectured.

I know foul-mouthed sexual conservatism is Judd Apatow’s thing at this point, but as a foul-mouthed sexual conservative, let me say: It’s possible to make movies set in a moral universe, where narcissistic self-destruction harms everyone, without being moralistic. I’d argue that “Withnail & I” is that story. It’s even possible to make moralistic movies about “personal redemption” without lecturing the audience. “Thanks for Sharing,” that Mark Ruffalo sex-addict romcom, earns its lessons on the power of friendship—and, crucially, it lets its characters do rotten things. It’s unfair to compare most movies to “Withnail,” but “Sharing” is more in “Trainwreck”‘s league, and (like Apatow’s terrific “Bridesmaids“) it’s much more consistently funny than “Trainwreck.”

Genuinely sleazy stories can expand an audience’s sympathies. If you let your characters get low, get sordid, while still loving them, you can prompt the audience to share that empathetic love for sordid people. You can suggest to the sordid people in your audience that they’re worth caring about—and to the clean people, that they might be more sordid than they realized. But if you want any of these effects you have got to let the characters be bad.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the forthcoming novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

Love Is a Losing Game

It’s impossible to describe Amy Winehouse’s voice. Crackly, crimson, fractured and sultry: That’s just the scratchy surface. “Amy,” the new documentary from director Asif Kapadia, delves into the jazz chanteuse’s troubled life and early death, but never forgets to show us Winehouse’s talent and craft—and her gentleness.

“Amy” plays like a defense brief. There are villains: Winehouse’s father Mitchell, her husband Blake, and the paparazzi. The movie takes Winehouse’s own narrative at face value, and it’s a starkly old-fashioned one: When my father left our family I lost my compass. I need someone to stop me from hurting myself. I need my daddy. Winehouse’s first big hit had her upbraiding her man with, “You should be stronger than me!”, and that search for a man to be her strength continues throughout the version of her life we see here. If this movie were a slogan it would be, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs water.”

Winehouse more or less begs to be told what to do. The lyrics about how she doesn’t have to go to rehab (no, no, no) if her Daddy thinks she’s fine turn out to be literal truth, with Winehouse skipping out on treatment because her father thought she didn’t need it. Late in the movie we find out that when she was a young teen she told her mother about her cool new diet, where she ate whatever she wanted and just vomited it up again. Her mom shrugged this off, after which she told her father the same thing. It’s hard to escape the idea that she went to him because her mother hadn’t given her the discipline she was seeking. At one point her mother recalls Amy telling her, “You should be tougher [with me], mum.” And a bodyguard gives the diagnosis, “She needed someone to say no. She needed support.”

This (possible) longing for discipline coexisted with a charming bluntness and cheekiness. One person describes Winehouse as “gobby”—mouthy—and so she is, in the best way. Early on we see her abjectly and hilariously appalled by a dumb interview: She messes with her lip ring, she bugs out her eyes, she drawls and stares. Amy Winehouse is having none of your nonsense—unless you’re a man, in which case it’s an open bar.

We see a lot of Winehouse the worker, and Winehouse the worshiper of jazz. We see her influences, like Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. Her voice is extraordinary, but watching this movie I was struck by her talent as a lyricist. The words to “Stronger than Me” and “You Know I’m No Good” are unexpected and hard-hitting. There’s a beautiful, extended late passage where she duets with Tony Bennett. Her humility shines through here. She’s so hard on herself, and so awestruck by the chance to sing with her hero.

Her pianist offers the verdict, “She had one of the most emotional relationships to music. Like she needed music. Like it was a person.” Music is her therapist: She says, “Lots of people suffer depression. Not everyone can pick up a guitar for an hour and feel better.”

This is a story with an ending everybody knows. Amy Winehouse, with her deer-face and her doe-eyes and her colt-legs, Bambi’ing around on unsteady high heels; Amy Winehouse, smiley and stunned in the flash of a thousand cameras, each one with four more behind it like the teeth of a shark; Amy Winehouse on camera drinking, smoking crack, showing up with her arm in a cast, with her slashed-up boyfriend. One friend sums it up: “They weren’t happy souls when they were high.”

Kapadia makes a lot of smart choices. The way he cuts between “Back in Black” with full instrumentation and just Winehouse’s voice is a gut-punch, as are the many moments when the paparazzi’s cameras become blinding. There’s a moment when the voice-over is describing Blake smuggling Amy heroin in rehab, and the screen shows her flashing a sudden, secret smile.

Antonio Pinto did the original music. Some of this is saccharine or melodramatic, but the final theme is lovely. And Kapadia knows to let us end with just Winehouse singing, so heartbreaking that you’ll sit through the credits with your eyes closed, just letting her voice break over you.

Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) sums her up as “edgy and sincere.” The edginess got her the magazine covers. This movie does a lot to honor the sincerity.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

Feeling Down on “Inside Out”

Pixar
Pixar

Pixar’s “Inside Out” is a charming, vividly-imagined film with terrific comic timing. Its insights are sharp and its message accurate. So why was I the only person in the theater who didn’t sniffle?

“Inside Out” takes us into the brain of Riley, a buoyantly happy 11-year-old girl about to face her first major life challenge: a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. We see the world inside her head, including a control room operated by her emotions. Joy (Amy Poehler) is in charge, a strenuously cheerful “Go, team!” type whose outline fizzes with energy. There’s also Fear, who “keeps Riley safe”; Disgust, who apparently helps her to figure out what’s cool as well as keeping her from eating broccoli; Anger; and mopey blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The challenge for Riley is coping with a new house, new school, new classmates, trying out for a new hockey team. The challenge for Joy turns out to be not only protecting Riley but figuring out what on earth Sadness is there for. What good is she?

The movie lays it out for you plainly, and it is true: Sadness allows you to empathize. Sadness brings people together by giving other people the chance to comfort and care for you, and giving you the sorrow that allows you to understand others’ hurts. At times this movie even echoes Allie Brosh’s “My fish is dead” comic about depression, which depicts the way being cheered up can make you feel much worse, and the way that emotional numbness is much worse than sadness or anger.

“Inside Out” is acute (and very, very blunt) in its portrayal of happiness as something parents expect from their kids: American kids almost have a duty to be happy. This movie gives voice to the fear and unhappiness these expectations can bring kids. It has some terrific lines (introducing Anger: “He cares very deeply about things being fair”). It’s replete with poignant images, like the golden happy memory globes turning blue as Sadness touches them.

The thing is, this is a movie that exists to teach kids how to feel their feelings. I couldn’t help being reminded of the picture books my parents would give me to help me with my own “defects of character”: Leo the Lion Takes a Bath, and all that. (“You got soap in my eyes! I HATE it when you get soap in my eyes!!”—actual dialogue, I think.) The use of characters named Sadness and Joy just took this movie too far into the realm of moral lesson, for me. There’s a workbook feeling to this movie, a whiff of the school counselor’s office.

That slightly utilitarian feel was intensified for me by the specific imagery “Inside Out” uses to depict the mind. Joy and her colleagues are in the control room, pressing buttons and reading manuals—even joy is work. Every culture has its own vocabulary for representing experience. I wonder how different “Inside Out” would feel if Riley’s mind were a palace, or an obstreperous parliament; or a cathedral. Instead the imagery we get is control panels, construction crews, security guards, and shift work.

There are various other weird glitches. Our rare glimpses into other people’s minds are much flatter than what we see in Riley’s—univocal—and they’re not merely gendered but gender-stereotyped. Both the unanimity of the emotions and the stereotyping are done for comedic effect, which is mostly successful, but it throws off the message and the metaphors. Many of Riley’s happiest memories cluster around honesty; I do not believe that has ever been true of any 11-year-old human or other mammal.

In general I found it hard to believe that a child had reached that age with so few awful memories, persistent shames, or sins. We visit her subconscious and the great lurking fears there are broccoli and the vacuum cleaner. She’s eleven. I led a charmed life as a child, and I had accumulated more Dostoyevskyan angst by age six than this kid seems to harbor at twice that. (The unrelentingly sunny, goofy, princess-pink aura of her fantasy realms seems especially unrealistic. John Darnielle maybe has a closer eye on what happens inside the World of Pure Imagination.) I don’t know, maybe I’m just jealous; maybe some kids really are that cloudless?

But the friend with whom I saw this movie was floored by it. For him, the movie brilliantly depicted what it feels like to put up a facade, to know that people expect a certain level of competent happiness from you even when it feels like Sadness or Anger has hijacked your control panel.

“Inside Out” moves from happy memories to an emphasis on bittersweet ones. It strongly hints that all memories eventually become bittersweet. There’s even a moment toward the end where Joy, not Sadness, turns a memory blue: That’s a haunting, beautifully simple way of conveying a complex psychological truth.

I think this movie will be good for children and many adults will be deeply moved by it. The fact that it didn’t quite get there for me shouldn’t stop you from loading this into your memory tubes.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.


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The Truth Without Reconciliation Committee

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

For the extraordinary 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing“, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer encouraged participants in the Indonesian death-squad killings of 1965 to reenact their murders of suspected or fabricated Communists. The killers, who have reaped material and political success from their violence, were for the most part happy to oblige. Their reenactments became increasingly baroque and Hollywoodized; they expressed the self-image which made them feel powerful and free, and allowed them to evade remorse. This was not a film about the victims but about the victimizers: the phantasmagoria of their rationalizations.

Now Oppenheimer has released “The Look of Silence”, a companion piece that follows Adi, a 40-something father of two whose brother was killed in ’65, as he confronts his brother’s killers. The movie’s title refers most obviously to the fixed stare with which Adi watches footage of the killers chortlingly reenacting and expounding on the proper methods for throat-slitting and dismemberment.

“The Look of Silence” was made before “The Act of Killing” had been released, so nobody Adi interviews starts out with any suspicions. But Adi explains that he is the brother of someone they killed. He will not let his interviewees get away with easy answers: “I don’t mean to offend you—but I think you’re avoiding your moral responsibility,” he tells one man, striking his chest at the final words as if reciting the Confiteor.

“Act” is probably the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen. “Look” is excellent in its own right, with several powerful scenes of horror, remembrance, or ambiguous quasi-reconciliation, but it’s not as blunt-force essential as the earlier film. The new film has the ultra-crisp and color-soaked visual style of the earlier one, its quick and dramatic cuts, and its attention to the weird little details of life: Two men stroll along a riverbank, interrupting their reminiscences about their days in the death squad to smell some river plants. Adi’s centenarian father is introduced when Adi asks him to sing, and he warbles obligingly, “You’re so sexy! I can’t stand it!” The conversations are sharply-observed; Oppenheimer keeps in a lot of material that less confident directors might have cut, like Adi’s mother saying that she’s never celebrated her birthday because “I don’t believe in that. People get addicted to it.”

“Look”‘s metaphors are visually striking but somewhat obvious: Adi is an eyeglasses salesman, so there’s a lot of, “Can you see better now? Can you see further?” There are symbolic jumping beans, the hard closed shells that jerk and hop convulsively because something alive is hidden inside. Adi’s father doesn’t know his own age—or pretends not to, pretends he is still a carefree 17-year-old. The documents that might have proven his age have been lost long ago.

“Act” took its killers on journeys deep into the most walled-off sections of their psyches. We saw one perpetrator struggle to acknowledge the humanity of his victims, while another tried to get him to get therapy to cure the first symptoms of conscience.

In “Look”, by contrast, people mostly just threaten Adi and tell him to stop talking politics. There are hints that some of these men find their status and self-image fragile, but many others seem utterly self-satisfied. “We should be rewarded with a trip to America,” one says, adding that it wouldn’t need to be an airline trip: He’d be satisfied with just a cruise. There’s a nasty twist toward the end, when Adi finds out that “your neighbors are your persecutors” actually understates his closeness to the perpetrators, but mostly this is simply a portrayal of an exceptionally brave person trying to, fairly literally, speak truth to power. (Before the film showed, an introductory speaker noted that Adi and his family had left their home village in order to escape retaliation.) The movie’s emotional force comes mainly from Adi’s tense, watchful face as he confronts the men who fattened themselves on his family’s pain.

There is one horrifying detail that gets explored in depth, and we watch the daughter of one of the perpetrators learn about it. She, too, holds very still, almost rearing back, holding herself as far away from Adi and the camera as she can. Her father reveals this detail without any hint of shame and even without realizing, it seems, that it would shock her.

Perhaps that’s the most hopeful element of this harrowing film. As with “Act”, the credits for this movie are filled with “Anonymous,” since Indonesians who worked on the movies were afraid to link their names to it. Part of the films’ vertiginous effect is that they allow people who are in power, and have been in power for a very long time, to tell their side of the story—and only in the telling do the perpetrators sometimes start to realize that their side doesn’t look so good. They have been so used to everyone around them living in the world that they created; their story has become normal to them, they inhabit it, but they have never told it all the way to the end. And only when they are comfortable enough to reveal everything do they begin to see the look on other people’s faces.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

Indie Music’s Christ-Haunted Women

I listen to a lot of what you could call “Christ-haunted” music. Your Mountain Goats, your Weakerthans. Not music made by believers necessarily (although sometimes, unexpectedly, yes), but music made by people who can’t quite escape the stories of Scripture and the language of Christian faith. Cain, resurrection, David, sorrow for sin; a desperate rosary or a hospital vespers. You could add to this list stuff I don’t personally quite grok, but which is clearly in the same ramshackle choir loft: Sufjan Stevens, the Hold Steady. You could add Youngest Son, whom I’ve reviewed for TAC.

But I realized recently that I couldn’t think of any women who work that weedy hallowed ground. Women who pray with their voices cracking, who kneel when they’re angry and offer praise when they’re in pain—whose personal relationship with Jesus is fraught. Where were they?

I eventually came up with Sinead O’Connor. I’m glad O’Connor’s voice is out there, though she is not really my thing. There’s also Evanescence, maybe, bless Amy Lee’s teenage heart. They’re vague and bombastic enough to score superhero films and they turn that evangelical “Jesus is my boyfriend” thing into “Jesus is my ex who I have constant Facebook drama with,” and I’ll be honest, I love it. But I felt like I… uh, I felt like this guy.

I asked around, and got a terrific list of suggestions; I’m sharing my favorites with you here. A lot of these were suggested by Youngest Son’s Steve Slagg; others came from various denizens of the twittering world. You know that the comments box is ready for your additions.

Iris DeMent: Yowly country music in the grand tradition. For the purposes of this article let’s start with “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.”

Jennifer Knapp: I admit until now I only knew her as “that Christian singer who came out.” I loved “Remedy” and generally dig her rawer songs, although she can get a bit sugary and a bit anthemic for my taste. (Did I really just say that after linking to U2? Consistency is for atheists….)

Sam Phillips: Slagg says, “Lots of faith-influenced cultural criticism, as well as insider critiques of the church, in her 80s and 90s acid-pop albums, especially Martinis & Bikinis. Then in the 2000s she started writing weird, poetic folk-pop songs with an odd sort of spiritual mysticism that reminds me of the more recent Bill Callahan albums. There’s a real personal element there too, since she was working through a divorce and getting basically kicked out of Christian music in the 80s, etc.”

Both styles spoke to me; here’s a track from 1991 and a terrifically haunting one from her more recent style.

Judee Sill: A hazy, haunting ’70s singer, heartfelt and askew.

Slagg called her “practically a [Mountain Goats] character, an addict/mystic/misfit/doubter/end-times fanatic. …She really was a true believer, though her spiritual appetites went into the occult and new age as well as Christianity, and there is definitely a pilgrim/searching quality to her work as well. The conflict in her songs comes less from doubt and more from trying to survive in a world inhospitable to the type of devotion that her beliefs and passions required of her.”

He suggested “The Donor” and “The Kiss“; I’d add “Jesus Was a Crossmaker.”

Nina Simone: Another Slagg pick and a great catch. He says he thought of her “more because of her choices of rep and the darkness and interior conflict she brought out in certain songs (Sinnerman, Nobody’s Fault But Mine) than for her original material. And her mashup between George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and David Nelson’s ‘Today is a Killer’ somehow encompasses the whole range between jubilant worship and misotheism.”

Torres: Fierce and angsty; a voice that can shimmer or shriek, with lyrics to match either mode. Check her out especially if you come from that Southern evangelical world. Here’s a blunt object.

If I had to come up with some grand theory about these women and their work, I guess I could say that they tend to express criticism of the Church a lot more frequently and openly than similarly Christ-haunted guys. Sam Phillips’s line, “I need God / Not the political church,” is the kind of thing I mean. My instinct is to say that the men tend to sing about churches for outcasts—the Church of Misfit Toys—whereas the women sing about searching for that church and finding something different, and worse.

The need for rescue is there but the rescuing hands too often bruise as they clutch. These singers have found no sanctuary on earth.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

Pro Wrestling (With Angels)

"Beat the Champ" by the Mountain Goats
"Beat the Champ" by the Mountain Goats

CDs of “Beat the Champ,” the new album from indie folk/rock band the Mountain Goats, come with a small white sticker proclaiming: THIS RIGHT HERE IS AN ALBUM ABOUT PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING. I guess they had to get the ironic disclaimer out of the way: Yes, this is a weird thing to do, roll with it please. If you do roll with it you will find an utterly unironic tribute to the wrestling heroes of singer/songwriter John Darnielle’s childhood—and one of his band’s best albums.

The songs explore many of Darnielle’s recurring themes: memory, what it’s like to feel nostalgia for a childhood and adolescence that were marked by abuse and fear, the escape into an inner world of imagination, and the way not only gentler emotions but thwarted rage find a haven in that imaginary world. Pro wrestling is a storytelling sport (like figure skating, the sport onto which I passionately project my own issues) and so it’s made for people who need a primary-colors story that’s better than the one they’re living.

The album opens hard on the piano chords of “Southwest Territory” (place is once again a character in the Mountain Goats’ songs), and the songs find a rhythm that alternates between nostalgia and ferocity. There are a lot of fathers and sons in these songs. Darnielle’s liner notes are up-front about what he’s doing here:

It’s always a challenge for me to state simply what things were like between my stepfather and me, because there were few sweet spots that didn’t end up getting polluted or corrupted by the dynamic of abuse, but in wrestling we had a point of contact: in many ways, he was a child who’d never grown up, and he liked to play the part of an antagonistic older brother at the fights. …

The situation in my house was deteriorating badly and permanently during the span of my hyper-fandom, which lasted from when I was nine until I was maybe thirteen. My life was chaotic and frightening. I did not cheer the heels. I feared and hated them. I wanted to see them punished. When, in the heat of battle, the good guys would abandon the rulebook in order to fight fire with fire, something in me responded primally.

“Beat the Champ” is a fairly blunt-force album. It has anthems like “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” and Darnielle shows off his terrific capacity for making threats in “Werewolf Gimmick,” which reaches a kind of ecstasy of rage. There’s the never-surrender guy in “Choked Out,” who feels himself “at one, for once, with the universe” as he loses consciousness; and there’s Bull Ramos, “that old wrestler with the bullwhip,” sitting blind and invalid on his porch in Houston, happy in the memory of friendship. There’s humor here, but it’s gallows humor: the blurting comedic horns as Darnielle sings, “I personally will stab you in the eye! With a foreign object!”

I love the childlike, rippling woodwinds in “Southwest Territory,” and the way Darnielle’s voice is strained to breaking as he portrays a wrestler switching from good guy to heel, and the gorgeous, limpid piano ending of that song. The thriller violins of “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” and the battering drums of “Werewolf Gimmick.” The most intense and punishing songs are always followed by relief.

This is a beautifully-constructed album—you can feel its architecture, its timing—and all of that construction is in the service of some of Darnielle’s most resonant writing. Most of these songs are written from a place where the longing for justice has started to become infected, just started to transform into rage. I’m tempted to say that it was “always already” infected, that human justice will always werewolf when the wolfsbane blooms. But this album, like Darnielle’s novels, captures both sides of justice perfectly: our need for it (honoring this need for justice is a prerequisite of forgiveness, if forgiveness is something you’re concerned with) and the cruelty we commit in service of that need.

“Beat the Champ” ends, as it probably had to, with a story of defeat. After all the triumphs in the ring the lasting triumph is survival: reaching a place where you don’t need to play the hero anymore.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

Tom Stoppard Plays With God

Olivia Vinall (Hilary). Photo by Johan Persson
Olivia Vinall (Hilary). Photo by Johan Persson

“The Hard Problem” is Tom Stoppard’s first work for the stage since 2006’s fantastic “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and like “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it asks whether there’s such a thing as a soul, or whether a human being is just “a pinball machine which thinks it’s in love.”

But where the earlier play offered a clash between Marxist materialism and the pagan ecstasy of rock music, “The Hard Problem” is a more blunt and programmatic conflict between evolutionary biology and a sort of heavily diluted Christianity, set in a brain-science research institute.

I saw National Theatre‘s broadcast production from London to international movie theaters, which closes May 27. “The Hard Problem” is short—only 100 minutes—and it feels undercooked compared to Stoppard’s other work. The problems and stakes are often stated too explicitly, and only one of the characters is fully fleshed-out.

That character is Hilary (Olivia Vinall), a young psychology researcher whom we meet as she’s using the Prisoner’s Dilemma to flirt with her tutor, Spike (a suitably greasy Damien Molony). Hilary argues that the abstractions of the Dilemma leave out everything that real-life arrestees would know about one another. “I’m gonna give Bob a chance to go straight!” she declares: she’ll hang tough, regardless of whether her fellow prisoner sings. And when her tutor asks why, she says, with just the right mix of irony and sincerity, “Because I’m good!

Spike replies, “Don’t say the word ‘good’ as if it meant something in evolutionary science.”

Hilary is good, we learn. (This is one of the very few artworks in which I can actually believe it when other characters praise the virtues of the hero.) She’s also something more than that: Spike comes out of a postcoital shower to find her kneeling by the bed they’ve shared, praying.

The rest of the play explores what Hilary thinks she’s doing when she prays, and whether it can fit into a scientific worldview. The conflict is over-simplified, in part because Hilary herself doesn’t seem sure whether she’s arguing for “God” as a Platonic Form—an “overall moral intelligence” that grounds human morality and allows us to distinguish “good” from “beneficial for species survival”—or whether she’s arguing for “God” as an active and loving Person.

But maybe that’s the point. “The Hard Problem” may be one of those works in which the surface question isn’t the real question. The surface question is: Does the inability of the sciences to explain consciousness and morality leave God “the last man standing”? Hilary makes the case most briefly when she says, “I agree with you, Spike. Morality isn’t scientific. So there must be something else, which isn’t science.”

But Hilary’s own life suggests that people don’t long for God the Explanation. When Hilary prays, what she says is: forgive me; protect those I love; thank you. Even as she argues that “When you get to [explaining] consciousness God pushes itself to the front of the crowd like a doctor at the site of an accident” her choice of metaphor suggests that she’s not really thinking about the philosophy of mind, but something more personal.

She’s the only character who does pray, the only one who considers prayer something more than nursery rhymes. Stoppard gets a lot of easy mileage out of the English discomfort with religious faith: “So you, as it were, pray to God, then?”

Hilary is a moving character, simultaneously brash and humble, whose arc within the play is poignant and satisfying. Vinall is a joy to watch, whether she’s challenging the materialist men who surround Hilary, or struggling to explain the source of her sorrow. Parth Thakerar, as an overconfident materialist who suffers a serious setback at work, is a scene-stealer, fierce and funny. His ecstatic little “but!” as he announces a market crash pops like a champagne cork: Everything’s good news for somebody. The National Theatre production is appropriately spare: strings of lights, beautiful and evocative of neural pathways, serve as backdrops.

There are other threads here: the unpredictability of the market as a mirror for the unanswerable questions of philosophy; children’s innocence versus their responsibility; the mentor/protégée relationship as a mirror for parent/child relationships.

It’s an eroticized mirror, though: All the mentoring relationships in this play are sexualized on at least one side. Sexuality is the only language these characters seem to have with which to work out their neediness, intellectual excitement, guilt, admiration—everything that could link them to other adults.

On a theoretical level this might sound like a good idea: Just as Spike reduces human motivation and morality to physical survival, so these characters (and/or the culture that shaped them) reduce all their longings and emotions to sexual attraction. But as an actual thing that happens in a real play that you watch, it’s slightly baffling and boring. One man openly says that he only understood another character’s motivations once he was informed that she was acting out of a lesbian crush, as if all other human motives have become utterly unintelligible to us. I know Stoppard knows how to write sublimation, so I’m assuming this was deliberate cultural critique.

This is not Stoppard’s best work, nor even his best work on these topics, but it’s well worth your time. There are good lines and sharp insights—and there’s Hilary, with her gentleness born of guilt and grief. Still, there’s too much “debate on stage” and too little character development—too little of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”‘s weirdnesses, ecstasies, and sudden sorrows.

For a play about the unpredictability of human action, “The Hard Problem” feels too planned.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

Friendship with a Future Tense

Most of the art and literature of friendship is elegiac. From Montaigne to Marsden Hartley, from St. Aelred to Andrew Sullivan, from elegant tribute to anguished lament, our art of friendship is haunted by the death of friends.

There are many reasons for this. Friendships are typically less public than marriages or parental relationships; for most of our lives they play in gentle counterpoint against these more public relationships, only emerging in moments of anguish. Friendships don’t produce children, so art can serve as a memorial—something to last when the friend is gone, something to prove that the friendship had weight in the world.

And friendships, especially in the modern and postmodern eras, are free of promises to stick by one another. We only know a friendship is lifelong in retrospect. Often we only see the depth of a friendship, its endurance and the way it shaped a life, when death has parted the friends.

Part of what makes my friend Wesley Hill’s slender new book so intriguing is that it is an attempt to give an account of friendship that is grounded in history, theology, and literature—yet forward-looking. Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Gay Christian is an essayistic collection of provocations, not a tome intended to be “the last word” on friendship or its relationship to Christian community. It’s a book about hope and hope’s uncertainty, about trust and taking chances; it’s not a look back at a friendship well-lived. It’s an unfinished story.

The book is divided into two sections. Both sections seamlessly weave Hill’s personal experience, passages from literature and descriptions of artwork, historical and sociological interpretations, and theological reflection. The first section is weighted more heavily toward the theoretical: Hill asks how friendship lost its public character, and why men, especially, find the intimacy and vulnerability of deep friendship much harder to attain after middle school. But even in this section he shows how the longing for friendship has shaped his own life, and how difficult it has been to acknowledge and understand that longing.

Hill asks whether and how friendship should shape Christian lives. He engages with the Christian arguments against friendship—shouldn’t Christians love everybody, not just the people we especially like?—and suggests that for Christians the terms “friend,” “brother/sister,” and “disciple” should intertwine. I think there’s a lot more to say here: What about friendships with non-Christians? Will mixing friendship (a relationship we basically choose, and one which is based on at least initial affection and attraction, pleasure in the other person’s presence) and discipleship (a relationship with those whom we often would not choose, who are different and to whom we are tied through our common love of Jesus rather than directly to one another) make it easy to turn away from the hardest parts of discipleship, to retreat into a circle of friends? I specifically wonder how the vision of a church “molecule” made up of the atomic bonds between friends would become a cross-class church. Wouldn’t class segregation be easier in a church based so heavily on chosen bonds, whether friendship or other forms of kinship?

The great thing about Hill’s book, though, is that it prompts these questions (and many others) and doesn’t attempt to resolve them. It has already prompted one terrific reflection on how friendship might fit into a class-crossing church.

The second half of the book draws us deeper into Hill’s own story, which we’ve glimpsed in the earlier sections. He describes one friendship that basically shattered under the weight of his own expectations and unacknowledged needs. He stumbles around for a while in the rubble of that friendship, meeting other people and trying again—with that heartbreaking caution which is the result of pain and failure—to open his heart to others and intertwine his life with theirs.

And the book closes with an extended description of his friendship with a married couple. This friendship has affected their decisions around work and housing; the friendship has been blessed by a minister, and after the blessing the friends received Communion together, in a renewal of one of the most beautiful friendship practices of premodern Christendom.

But, in the words of Schmendrick the Magician, “There are no happy endings–because nothing ends.” Throughout this touching scene Hill has been reminding us that the future of this friendship is uncertain: “I know we’ll see further complications in our friendship down the road. … And I know that, modern life being what it is and with none of us being quite ready to take a vow of stability, we’ll likely find ourselves saying a more permanent good-bye at some point in the future, perhaps even as soon as next year.” He focuses on gratitude for the time they have had together, and tries to hold love lightly.

The old saying goes, “Man plans; God laughs.” Or in the AA formulation, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” In a way, the second half of Hill’s book is a meditation on the difference between plans and promises.

Plans are fantasies which take place in an alternate universe where we control the most important aspects of our lives. Promises, by contrast, often explicitly highlight the uncertainty of the future: I will be your friend come what may. The wedding vows are a litany of all the hardship that may lie in wait for the couple: for richer or for poorer (layoffs, financial crashes which turn your smart decisions suddenly foolish, the tears leaking from her eyes as she stares at that second line on the pregnancy test), in sickness and in health (disability, depression, the emotional and financial struggles which illness brings), for better or for worse (this isn’t who I thought I married; I don’t know if I can do this). And then the final blow, once you’ve somehow learned to live with all the rest: ’til death do you part.

God may laugh at our plans, but I don’t think He laughs at our promises. Where other books on friendship gain their depth and poignancy from their attention to a friendship which has ended, which perhaps we weren’t grateful enough for when we had it, Hill’s book gains its richness from his attention to and gratitude for a friendship which is only beginning. That’s appropriate for a book which is about the future of friendship itself.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.


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