Thursday, June 16, 2011
I've learned a lot about art, music, and literature from him. And though I don't make the following of these things the habit I'd like to, I have a strong belief in their value.
I've always thought his approach to raising a girl was particularly interesting. He never called me princess or anything like that. Never got bent out of shape about boy stuff. But it seems he consciously exposed me to Tori Amos, Bjork, Courtney Love, a myriad of women who had interesting things to say about their experiences as women. Strong women who possessed themselves in ways that aren't evident more accessible media. They certainly possessed themselves in a way a princess never could. Maybe this isn't very PC of me, but it was my dad who informed my identity as a feminist like no one else.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Thursday, February 10, 2011
I would never say that I have any real knowledge of classical music, but there are a few composers who have slid into my awareness and settled into my appreciation. Ravel, Debussy, Handel, Stravinsky, Beethoven, and, of course Mozart. His music is compelling on so many levels. His musical pairings are so versatile, and he brings out so many different things in his instruments. And in spite of the complexity, the music can make your spirit soar, reaching right into your core. Requiem reminds me of Dostevsky's reaction to a Hans Holbein painting, "A man could even lose his faith from that."
When you marry the sensations his music elicits with his life--maybe more so his death--its mind-bendingly tragic. The combination of his genius, youth, and tragedy make him one of the most mythological figures of the Western Canon.
Peter Gay's brief biography of Mozart gives him greater depth while acknowledging the legends the preceed him. Legend vaguely alludes to Mozart as someone who is haunted and is consequentially given to fits of silliness and frivolity. Gay proves that what most haunted Mozart was his father-- the most influential figure for the young prodigy. Serving also as his son's manager, critic, and booking agent, he was awestruck by Mozart's talent, but also embittered that his own talent paled in comparison. In an effort to make a musical contribution, he puts rigorous demands on Mozart, insisting he devote more time to his craft, to the point of monasticism (even though he was unfathomably prolific). When Mozart established his independence financially and familially, he carried a heavy burden of guilt the rest of his life, wanting only to please the man he felt so indebted to.
Gay attests that Mozart's fatal flaw was his inability to tighten his belt. His concept of "necessary" included a lot of billiards and frequent entertainment, lavish furniture as well as a house staff. His debtors were largely people from his Masonic Temple, but as they mounted, his self-loathing increased. He suffered the disappointment of his wife, his father, and his Masonic brothers, got in more debt to pay other debts, and was forced to take assignments he deemed unworthy of his attention.
Gay does a great driving home these core points: paternal influence, debt, and Mozart's crude sense of humor. But he makes many connections with what was happening in Mozart's life and how it connects to the material. Gay tracks Mozart's interest in the Schubert's concertos and his efforts to make his own concerto. He also tracks the history of the Opera, and Mozart's contributions. But I'm most interested in what kind of mind is revealed in the source material? How does it represent his music and his ability to make the most callous critics swoon?
One of the few insights his letters give into the workings of Mozart's mind is that he enjoyed composing in building where people practiced. While in Milan he writes to his sister, "above is a violinist, below us another one, next to us a singing teacher giving lessons, in the room across from ours there is an oboist. That is rather amusing to compose by! Gives one lots of ideas." Its hard to imagine being able to hold so many sounds in your head. But the fact that it could not only be tolerated, but used as inspiration, is really profound. Making the ethereal nature of his music all the more alluring.
Ultimately, I'm impressed that Gay can discuss Mozart comprehensively, the man, his music, and the people in his life in only 175 pages.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Did anyone check Caitlyn Flanagan's knowledge of female sexuality before asking her to write a report on Karen Owen and her now infamous Duke Fucklist? Apparently not, because just about every feminist publication rails against her. It is very clear from reading her article "The Hazards of Duke" published in The Atlantic, that though she may claim a feminist approach, she is steeped in patriarchal expectations (like all of us) and has never bothered to evaluate the biases she has toward her gender.
Karen Owen is portrayed as a sad, lonely girl who was having sex with random men because she needed affection. Subject 1 is described by Owens herself very briefly, only mentioning that she was rather inexperienced and that she was flattered that he liked her body. Flanagan insists that because it is implied that she lost her virginity to this fellow, she is wounded by his disinterest in pursuing a relationship. So what if the rest of this world puts this premium on virginity? Lots of people who don't have any interest in "saving themselves" find themselves at an age where everyone else is gaining sexual experiences, they hear good things about it, and decide to get the show on the road. Her standard was someone who was attractive and appreciated the same in her. If that’s not what one would expect of a Duke lady, who gives a shit. That doesn't mean they have some sort of condition.
Over and over again Flanagan projects these expectations on Owens. She calls her naïve for sending a personal email to three people and being surprised that it later went viral. Doesn't everyone send personal emails? She calls her sad because she could only share that information with three people. Can you name more than three people that you explicitly discuss your sex life with? She laments that, "the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her." She says this because Owens put up with banal conversations and activities. Dealing with dullards is a part of life, and if you believe in Darwin a little bit, you agree that putting up with bullshit is required to have sex. That doesn't make her any less of a woman, its not like she is dealing with men who are beating her or humiliating her, she's just picking at her nails when she's bored to tears watching someone play video games. When they don't meet her expectations for proper treatment, she stops having sex with them. She doesn't absorb their behavior as something malignant in herself, by fixing her hair, losing weight, or going to the tanning salon so that they might like her more. Flanagan shames her sexual appetites. She paints these wide strokes, thinking that a woman who likes rough sex clearly has a deep seated desire to be abused and a woman who takes pride in their exhibitionistic practices doesn't have real pride in herself.
The most irritating part, is that nearly every word about Owen wreaks of pure meanness. She makes Owens sound unpopular, spineless, and slutty. For all her efforts to shed feminist light on the topic; she lacks one of the most famous feminine qualities: gentleness. Flanagan is a violent offender of shaming women about their sexuality. There is very little discussion of women's reactions to the story. The most notable one is some prude on Fox News who repeated the adage, "men do not respect women who do this." There is a lot of talk about what the daddies might think, about what Tucker Max would think, about what the athletes she sleeps with might think, but no one who understands the college sexual culture as it pertains to women is quoted. Her conclusion is that, "there is a very old story about women, desire, expectation, dashed hope, and (to use the old, apt, word) ruin." Indeed, this is a very old story, not the new story framed by feminine power. She implicitly shames her openness about sex by refusing to acknowledge that lots of women have sex with people they don't have deep emotional connections with and they are respected, contributing members of society.
My own conclusion on The Fuck List is this: it’s sad. It’s not profoundly sad. Her wounds from the experiences themselves (not withstanding the very public outlash) will not leave any significant scars. She'll get back on her feet and be better for it. It’s sad that women who desire to be in control of their own sexual lives have absolutely no one to learn this from. Shame abounds. There is fear from men that the arena that they have claimed dominance in will be shared with the other gender. There is fear from women that men won't respect them. They'll be called sluts, hos, cunts, whores, their illigetimate children will be called bastards, and when they get the courage to stand up to the asshole who called her those things, she'll be a bitch. This fear is so profound that there can be no accountability for your own sexual behavior because the potential shame is so great. So the college culture has built itself on liquor, so that the women will be comfortable doing what they are ashamed of. Of course, college women know that’s not as delightful as it sounds. [By the way, I think colleges have failed to promote change in this culture, but that’s another post]. It’s scary to be so out of control, to not know where you have woken up, to lose those precious earrings from South Africa (as Karen did), to do the things that were wanted, but not named. Its scary when something serious happens and no one knows what the terms of it were. It leaves a lot of women experiencing rape without the actual event of rape because they had very little control of their behavior or environment during sex.
So, in light of all this shame, this loss of self-control, this frightening discovery of something powerful, I think she had to do something that would make her experiences quantifiable. To attach numbers, statistics, graphs, and bullets because even if it took her forty-two slides, it was easier to manage. At the end of the day the only thing she had to fall back on was a hyper-masculine rationalization of her experiences, rather than feminine guidance to help her navigate the chaos. There aren't sufficient resources to help college women experience their sexuality as their own. For heaven's sake, the only person she saw who verbalized their experiences with real ownership was Tucker Max.
Ultimately, The Hazards of Duke is a much better case study on the masculine approach to sex, rather than the feminine because Flanagan doesn't even know there is an alternative. She doesn't know that a woman who has sex without being in the throws of love can be equally symptomatic of a happy woman than as a sad one.
Monday, January 17, 2011
My Attempt to Review Kanye's New Album Without Using the Words "Dark", "Beautiful", "Twisted", or "Fantasy"
I have something of a Kanye obsession right now. Before this, he was distant in my periphery. The only awareness I had of him was some sort of faux pas at the VMAs. Apparently this guy has a Muhammad Ali complex-- that swell-headedness that some how transcends the individuals self-perception and becomes a kind of truth. He has been steeped in hip-hop long enough to break free from the typical subject matter and take us deep in to this dirty, complex, mysterious, and lovely world. Dare I call it, a Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy?
He successfully incorporates the layered production value typical in hip hop with all of its samplings, synthesizers, featured artists, and drum machines while framing it with the spectrum of modern music. No visual speaks more strongly of this marriage than Yeezy's SNL performance of "Runaway" in which he played a drum machine with the same flair that Yo-Yo Ma strikes the pizzicato on the cello. The use of this non-traditional instrument in such a traditional way is compelling enough, but the fact that the performance was punctuated with Kanye's own troupe of Russian ballerinas is a whole new level for crossover hip-hop.
The tension of the song is heightened by the eerie, Tori-Amos-y piano and the truly contemplative, yet hilarious, lyrics [ I sent this bitch a picture of my dick. / I don't know what it is with females, / but I'm not to good at that shit.]. In spite of his reputation, Kanye consistently drops lines with a wry smile and the universally felt melancholia of one's episodic predictability and subsequent demise ["See I can have me a good girl / and still be addicted to the hood rats."].
Not to say that the whole album is terribly enlightened lyrically. "Power" references Kanye's own sphere of influence ["No one man should have all that power"] which is, surprisingly (to Kanye) mostly limited to music and celebrity. However, this song does tend to bring out the fascist in me with the strong African influence percussion and the guitar riffs reminiscent of The Edge. Its hard not to make a ritualized obeisance and hail King Yeezy.
I do believe that Kanye's influence in music will have a more lasting impact than anyone realizes because he might be the first artist to master the variety of media in the digital era. Its not so hard to forgive conceit that is accompanied by genius (e.g. Stanley Kubrick, Phil Spector) and the consequent madness of one who constantly pursues perfection. The effort he put into the music is self-evident, but the strength of his live performances, the film accompaniment Runaway, the media stunts, and his Twitter make him a force to be reckoned with.
There's no doubt about it, the man is a maverick, sacrificing his pride to reveal the warped hauntings that fuel his art.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
I'm always a sucker for the general aesthetic of a movie. I have a soft spot for costume pieces and a lovely setting. So, I consistently love movies about dance, particularly ballet. From Center Stage to Save the Last Dance, I refuse to remove them from my list of "thumbs up" movies. But Black Swan, sadly, has failed me. Aronofsky consistently fails me by aiming for the most visceral reaction from his audience without supplying a backbone. It never enough structure for all of this sex and violence. Now, I'm no prude I like a bloody gangster movie or a rockin' sex scene just as much as the next person. Probably more than the next person. But if a movie is going to vacillate between the two so much that I get a blister, I'm gonna have to ask that it be worth it. And its not.
For starters the drive behind the entire movie is this new and improved version of Swan Lake that will give this company a reputation for groundbreaking work and make the prima ballerina a star. But there is absolutely no evidence in the dialogue or the choreography that this is anything particularly special. I don't know much about ballet at all, but I know what a great ballerina is capable of, and Natalie Portman isn't a great ballerina. The only person who seems to have any confidence in the greatness of the piece is the narcissistic Mephistilean character, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), and the schizophrenic Nina (Natalie Portman). But we never understand how it is going to change the face of ballet forever like we are led to believe.
Then we are led to believe that the pressure of the performance's debut has compelled Nina to commit a terrible crime against another dancer who has tried to befriend her. For those of you who haven't seen it, I won't ruin it. But I never picked up on any reason--delusional or defendable--for her to have the kind of jealousy required to commit such an act. After following him around that twist for sevenish minutes, he insists that instead, a different violent act was committed. Though the reality is a bit more believable, it just doesn't make any sense when juxtaposed with the initial act.
Aronofsky has a fetish with the tortured. His subject matter has included a washed-up wrestler, a crazed mathematician, a drug addict, and now a ballerina. One would thing that he had found his niche in ballet--an art that requires eating disorders, self mutilation, and fatigue. Aronofsky pushes past the existing burden of ballet and pummels its already abused ass beyond recognition. But the amazing thing about ballet is that the prerequisite suffering is transformed into a thing of beauty. Aronofsky leaves us raw, with nothing spiritual, beautiful, or even moral to show for it.
No review of Black Swan is complete without some reference to its predecessor, The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Robert Pressburger. It is my favorite film of all time and seeing the trailer for Black Swan made me very excited for that very reason. Any ballet movie has to borrow from the Red Shoes, but a ballet thriller with a Mephistilean element has to make every homage permissable. Shorting his own epic ballet scene by exactly a minute, allowed for The Red Shoes to hold on to its record for the longest ballet scene in a movie. But there was one place The Red Shoes made it where Black Swan failed. The lead of The Red Shoes was played by an absolutely phenomenal ballerina--not an actress. Luckily for them, Moira Shearer turned out to be a stunning actress, and perhaps that is because she didn't have to work hard at all to be a ballerina. I don't have many thoughts at all regarding Natalie Portman. Shes beautiful, she has enough of a sado-masochistic streak to work with Aronofsky. I get the feeling she has passed up a lot of high paying roles that are nothing more than RomCom drivel, which is a little admirable. But I didn't think it was a stand out performance on any level outside of her weight loss. [Sidnote: The most profound body transformation in a film was Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull and that did not receive nearly the same attention because 1) bodies are not as culturally important for men as they are for women and 2) because the audience has little awareness that they are watching Robert DeNiro because he is a truly great actor.]
Aronofsky and Portman clearly had high hopes for Black Swan. He takes big risks with the feverish point-of-view and has many scenes with very real staying power. He reveals unsettling things about the minds of his characters and the culture of ballet in general. But ultimately I think his grasp exceeded his reach.