Monday, September 28, 2009

Tony Kushner - Angels in America

I started reading the play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" a couple of weeks ago after hearing Professor Bonilla mention it in class. I remembered a couple of years ago, that HBO aired an adaptation of his epic play "Angels in America", as a miniseries starring Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep. Before I watch it, I decided, I would read the play.

Looking at the recent list of modern American authors to read, for the "Book Review of an Outside Author" option, I saw that Tony Kushner was on it. I decided that if this whole blog thing doesn't work out for some reason, or if I had too many missing entries like last semester, I would do the book review of "Angels in America" for the Possibilities section of the class requirement. Even if I get all of the points, I figure that I'll do both, just for insurance purposes.

The play is broken up into two parts, and I just read the first half entitled "Millennium Approaches". For lack of better words, and because my vocabulary is made up of cliches from film critics, it is stunning! A tour-de-force! Breath-taking! ...It is very good. I don't want to start my review too early, because I'll save that for the final product, but I just want to record my initial reactions.

It touches on history, politics, religion, racism, gay struggles, the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan administration, social paranoia, and everything America. A lot of the issues that we have dealt with in class, and some of the ripples and after effects of the time period. Kushner play continues the reflection, angst, and social commentary that appears in the works of James Baldwin and other contemporary American writers. The social paranoia Baldwin describes of American society--"American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity... tradition does not exist in America."--is represented here in a character's conclusion of the current country's state of being: “Maybe we are free. To do whatever. Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Reagan’s children. You’re scared. So am I. Everybody is in the land of the free. God help us all”. The social paranoia, for lack of a fixed society, has led to where it is naturally heading: fear in a chaotic world, where it is only the illusion of order that keeps it turning. In a time (of Reagan's reign) where it's every-man-for-himself, the gay community so afflicted by the AIDS epidemic have nobody to reach out to. Kushner is describing an America that is selfish and heartless, and a society that is able to tolerate it. It fits in with the tradition of contemporary American writers trying to find out what is really happening here.

The character of Louis, who is gay and Jewish, comments on the reality of America, and tries to reveal a truth of society that is masked by one of the myths of America. "I think is that AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.” This idea can be likened to Ellison's Invisible Man, and just about any other racist or prejudiced belief that is suppressed: That beneath the layer of tolerance is a hatred for other human beings. Tolerance is a nice curtain we hide behind, the way a racist person claims to be colorblind as a way to ignore his feelings in hopes that they will go away. One can only lie in denial for so long... until the proverbial shit hits the fan.

The play is filled with dramatic moments that when read, pack a powerful punch on paper, but the true humanizing moments only become realized when performed. The main character's words "Why poor poor me? Oh I don't feel good right now. I really don't" suddenly become actual pain when read aloud and acted. This device fits into Eliot's requirement to make old feelings seem new by presenting them in different ways. It belongs in the canon of American Literature because it follows the tradition of non-tradition, of making [the old] new.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Aren't you just good country people?"

"Good Country People", by Flannery O'Connor, is a story of a woman so cursed by unfortunate circumstances and so blinded by her education, that when she unwittingly lets her guard down long enough to fall in love with who she perceives to be a simple-minded bible salesmen, she finds him literally pulling her leg (very distasteful, I know) and is left to be (half) a victim of her own ignorance.

In the story, Joy--who changes her name to the more self-deprecating Hulga--is a 32-year-old atheist and amputee living with her mother, Ms. Hopewell, because she cannot otherwise look after herself. Joy is described early in the story to have "the look of someone who has acheived blindness by an act of will and means to keep it" (2531), a clear echo of Ellison from Invisible Man; Joy and her mother, because of their belief of the American Myth of "Good Country People" are exactly the sleepwalkers Ellison had in mind. Mrs. Hopewell hangs onto her neighbors, the Freemans, like she is hanging onto an old family heirloom or some relic of America's (long dead) past.

Mrs. Hopewell is aptly named, because she is a constant apologist for others and is never one to judge: "Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still yet another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too" (2530). Her blatant acceptance and tolerance of all diversity is a hallmark of the American foundation of equality, but her position to declare that "everybody is different" and mean it in an honestly good natured way reveals her of her position that she has never been a victim of oppression, and that she cannot fathom what it feels like to be persecuted for being different, and that she is better than people. The belief in a simple-minded and good country people is a belief that there exists a hierarchy of people who are smarter and more aware, and people who are dumb but good-natured.

The fact that she can say "people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not" (2532), shows that Mrs. Hopewell is aware that things are not what they seem, but with a healthy dose of denial, all things can be pretty and forgotten. She hopes for the best. She knows better. But either way, she clings to the hope that everybody is deep down good inside.

Way at the other end of the spectrum is Joy, who believes that "we are not our own light!" Joy knows that knowledge does not come from within, but does nothing to remedy her own situation. If science wishes to know nothing of nothing, then the purpose of science is supposed to be a clear fight against ignorance. Joy is well versed in philosophy and theory of things, but has no experience in the action of it. She is so blinded by the fact that she is educated, that she allows herself to subscribe to the fact that those who are "uneducated" are simple-minded and "good", just like her mother believes.

Joy's gross error is her underestimation of the bible-salesman. She allows herself to believe in "the idea of him" (2538), which she had originally intuited, but her longing for someone to connect with--not on an intellectual level but on a loving or sexual level--allowed her to manifest just the right combination of naivety, willful ignorance, and arrogance: "You poor baby. It's just as well you don't understand. We're all damned. But some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see. It's a kind of salvation" (2540). Little does she realize that in her attempts to seduce him, he has orchestrated his own perverted conquest of the blind-and-handicapped-Hulga. He steals her artificial leg.

Is it her own fault for being so blind? Are we somewhat responsible for sitting in the chair, even though we are well aware of the consequences, that a knife will come out and stab us?

On the superficial level, all we have of people are our perceptions. We have our hopes, sometimes for the better in people, and sometimes for the worst in them. It is never okay to deem a separate or different group of people more inferior or simple than us. It is never accurate to assume, or to estimate people one way or another. People are never what they appear. The Hopewells of the world must take responsibility for their assumptions. Like James Baldwin said in "The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American", we must examine ourselves and "be willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what really is happening here. Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people". We are guilty, as guilty as the Hopewells. The myth is that we are all equal, and that being different has no effect on our equality. And so far, the likeliest way we can learn the truth is the hard way, unfortunately, like Joy. Did she even learn anything, or will she retreat farther into her self-hatred? I think that's the saddest part of the story.

Baldwin, "Going to Meet the Man", "Discovery"

*I will go into these further later, but I wanted to update my blog with some fresh ideas, so that I don't forget them later.

What is social paranoia all about? Why does it exist in America? How is GTMTM (both a symptom) an examination of American life? What are some of the "unspoken laws" governing that American life?

My first reaction upon reading Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man" was: This guy must have such a sense of self-hatred (or of the hatred of others) to be able to embody a monstrous character like the Sheriff in this story. Then I remembered that I have to depersonalize such strong emotions and figure out exactly what Baldwin was able to do to create such a strong reaction out of me... I'm going to be honest and guess that it was not very hard.

I also want to point out something I watched in my Intercultural Communications class today, that talked about people's ability to be racist and where learned attitudes originate, and I felt that it had a lot to do with Baldwin's story. One purpose that prejudice serves is the "Ego-Defensive Function", which is a way to discriminate against others as a defense mechanism--the same way a suppressed homosexual would become homophobic as a way to defend himself---as an inversion of love with hate. Ring any bells??

Perhaps Baldwin reversed this inversion in his ability to embody or to characterize the racist Sheriff. I am careful not to say that Baldwin was ACTUALLY racist and ashamed of himself and his blackness, because that really doesn't matter, and how would I even know?. I think it has something to do with it, however, and it shows that he was able to walk a careful line...

This is the video we watched in my Intercultural class, showing how easily prejudice is learned--because it IS learned! Observe nice little innocent children turn "nasty" with arbitrary hate for one another. This also fits in nicely to the origins of Young Sheriff, I think, to show how easily he was able to adopt his racist persona. The lesson here is: Be careful who your teacher is!! I'll post the first part of the video is here.

I'll finish up my ideas later, so until then, my post is...


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cheever, "The Swimmer", Behind Closed Doors

I imagined that John Cheever's "The Swimmer" took place in the same neighborhood that is portrayed in the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes, from the novel written by Richard Yates. I saw this movie last year during the height of Oscar Awards season, and I was surprised that it got overlooked. It was a very subtle and bleak look at the hidden lives of Americans during it's "1950s-early-1960s Golden Age". What's behind the facade? Alcoholism, Abuse, Adultery--by both husband and wife--, Depression, you name it! What I found so tragic about the story is that the lives of these people held so much promise, so much potential--or rather, throughout the film, the characters believed that they had promise and potential. They thought they were chosen for something great, that they had some higher destiny above others. And by the end, all of it is gone.

I think this belief of a destiny is a prime factor of the American Dream. It goes back as far as American revolutionaries creating their country to be a "city on a hill", to set an example for the world to follow. Throughout American history, people have believed themselves to be purposed with a destiny, like the settlers who followed Manifest Destiny, and even the fame-grubbers of today like Spencer and Heidi, and Tyra Banks... they all believe that they have a destiny that needs to be fulfilled and some kind of message to be spread about. The Swimmer is no exception to this American ideal for a purpose: Upon embarking on his journey to swim across the county, he has "the feeling that he was a pilgrim. an explorer, a man with a destiny" (2251).

This is not to say that there IS no such thing as a purpose. I'm saying, What is the price of trying to fulfill your destiny? Does ones success come at the failure or oppression or subjugation of others? The Swimmer's purpose is to childishly swim across town on some subconscious Naturalist compulsion as if he is trying to swim the length of the river Denial! The cost: That all other people in his world, besides himself, are taken for granted and put on the back burner. In his eyes, they are all deemed unimportant. His mistress who refuses to give him any more money tells the Swimmer (and America): "Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?" (2256). Stop being so self-absorbed. Open your eyes, there are other people here too.

It reminds me of another of Kate Winslet's roles, in which she starred as another unhappy, adulterous, and restless housewife, Tom Perrotta's Little Children. It shows that, just behind a small curtain of seemingly perfect and wealthy domesticity, is a whole range of foundational problems. Nowadays, such happenings are commonplace, only because they are broadcasted and aired on television and in movies.

But things were just as bad back then! Probably worse because it was hidden, and thought to be non-existent, and so people had no one to relate to and there was no outlet for frustration. This is one of the main ideas of John Cheever's "The Swimmer". There's some pretty ugly stuff that goes on behind closed doors, and America's willful ignorance of it all is manifested in the title character, who is "so disciplined in the repression of unpleasant facts that he [has] damaged his sense of the truth" (2253). Americans have striven to believe in an ideal America, full of equality and hope without racism and prejudice, but this Belief in the Ideal is allowing us to believe that things are already here, instead of still progressing. We are being blinded by our "repression of unpleasant facts", that it is hurting those caught in our blind spots, and to our "own sense of truth".

**But, like I probably said somewhere earlier, Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man is promising us that one day, we sleepwalkers will be roused from deep slumber and ignorance! Perhaps when it's too late, like O'Connor paints in "Good Country People". Either way, good writers have an obligation to break the myth of America, and to dig in there and find out what it's really like, according to James Baldwin!

Enigma: Cindy Sherman, Eliot & Cheever

Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman, 1977
Untitled #96, Cindy Sherman, 1981

Flipping through the Norton, I was really excited to see Cindy Sherman's photographs included. It says:
"This series consists of 'self-portraits' in which the artist explores representations of women by dressing in a variety of costumes and adopting a variety of poses. Sherman's role as both photographer and subject reverses the traditional power of the male gaze, and here she examines and subverts the objectified images of women displayed in magazine centerfolds. Rather than signaling availability, this cropped, colorful-saturated photograph is enigmatic. Sherman's girlish clothing, evoking the 1950s, conceals more than it reveals, and she holds in her hand a largely unreadable scrap torn from a newspaper. Her gaze, vacant and interior, is also unreadable" (C5)
I find this photograph, as well as Sherman's other self-portraits, exciting because it's so mysterious. Yes the pictures are of her, but they aren't her. She's obviously playing a role, like all models that appear in magazines as "centerfolds" are playing a role. This role is a representation of a woman, not an actual woman, and not Cindy Sherman. In magazines, women are portrayed with a higher sense of sexuality and appeal--and this is Sherman's commentary that the photograph should not be indicative of real life.

Cindy Sherman is subverting the idea of the centerfold, by reversing the approachability and accessibleness of the model. Who is this woman? What's going on?! What is she thinking? What's her motivation? It's the new Mona Lisa. There are so many unanswered questions in these photographs. It's the epitome of "Depersonalized", in the terms of Eliot: "Not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion... not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (1011). The model is not expressing a common emotion, she is expressing a feeling that is usually not photographed, and the result is mystifying. Sherman has found a new way to look at an old emotion.

Sherman de-personalizes the subject (herself) because the emotions and context of the photograph is a mystery. Like it is stated in the Norton, the subject in the photograph is 'enigmatic' and is 'concealing' something, and that is never revealed to the audience. Something has happened in the photograph that we are not meant to know. In "Untitled Film Stills", there actually is no film, but a story definitely exists. Also, the artist is able to detach herself from the actual "art", allowing it (the art) to speak for itself.

The part in the passage describing Sherman's photograph "evoking the 1950s" and "conceals more than it reveals", reminds me of Cheever's "The Swimmer". At the start of the story, we are clueless about the title character's story. As the story progresses, we are clued in little by little, but the main character who has succeeded to depersonalize himself from his sense of reality--he was "so disciplined in the regression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth" (2253)--is still in the dark by the end. Despite his blindness, he is still aware of something that we are not privy to, and this relates to Sherman's photography.

Sherman's photograph's story is a reversal of this idea: we are still kept in the dark, the title character is unaware of our glimpse into her life, yet still retains her secrets, and the photographer is aware of it all. Something is being concealed on purpose, but perhaps to see something in a certain or new way, old traditional perspectives must be forgotten. We must look at old emotions and stories from new ways, ways that would normally have gone unnoticed before. The good poet is not "unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious" (Eliot 1011), he [or she] is aware of something we are not.

Friday, September 4, 2009

From Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

After the first lecture, we were asked to examine why T.S. Eliot made the distinction between "feelings" and "emotions", and how a great poet is able to "depersonalize" his or her self from the actual poem, creating a Poem that doesn't not reveal the actual Poet.