Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin(g) in Comparison

Holy shit.

The stupid part of me is glad I had it on record that I thought fearfully of this prospect several days ago, but I'd've been so much happier to be wrong.

I know bubkas about Ms. Palin except what's written in the above-linked article, so I'll have to learn some more. Chances are she's not even that bad. I will probably be killed by many friends for saying this, but I'm not even positive that abortion views are a make-or-break for me. I do support the existence of abortion rights, but on a level I believe to be somewhat more pragmatic than visceral—that is to say, there is something that has always, in spite of everything, felt hollow to me about the "my body, my choice" rhetoric and concept, but I don't believe that we are a society that can function well without women having the right to safe abortions. However, I don't think we're functioning all that well now, either. Nor does Ralph Reed's public endorsement of any individual make me feel hopeful about him *or* her.

I imagine, honestly, that if I do more research on Gov. Palin I will grow to like her. As I liked Mr. McCain eight years ago. Which clearly is exactly what the McCain campaign intended. Nothing against Mr. Biden, of course, but many on the fence, many who were turned off by the vociferousness of the Democratic primary and/or can't forgive Obama's triumph in that primary despite his former opponent's Tuesday night entreaty, will brake for a congenial female politician.

I know that many who share my general political views will be inclined to dismiss Sarah Palin's womanhood because she's conservative and anti-abortion—to say, as many say of Phyllis Schafly or some other such figure, that she's not a real woman, that she's anti-woman. That, in spite of my intense anger and fear, I want to preemptively disown. Sarah Palin is a woman; she is a real woman, although she does not support abortion rights, and probably a good woman, although she supports a huge natural gas pipeline in the North Slope and will quickly prove tremendously destructive to (Mother) Earth. Though I know it's in large part cheap political pandering that pushed Mr. McCain to this point, I have to appreciate the historicity of this election, and Sarah Palin's position as the Republican vice-presidential candidate contributes to that. The fact that a woman whose views are diametrically opposed to those of many who call themselves feminists is, perversely, a triumph of the feminist movement. Just as Barack Obama disagrees vociferously with, say, Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell. There have been enough inroads made in race and gender relations, inroads I am perfectly willing to attribute entirely to the left, that women and people of color can now campaign as individuals with individual views, not only as representatives of their race. It is a triumph, however perverse, to have Ralph Reed wholeheartedly support the ascension of a female politician. You've got to appreciate it. You've got to have the perspective to appreciate it. In part because that distance may come to be the only way to stay sane, but you do.

Last night, watching Barack Obama speak at the DNC, I got it, for the first time. For the first time, I really, viscerally wanted Obama to be president, not because I wanted him to beat McCain or because I wanted the Republicans out of office or because I appreciated how deeply he inspired people and I wanted that inspiration to have genuine power in the country or because I wanted Sasha and Malia Obama in the White House because they would be the coolest First Daughters EVER. I wanted, and still want, all those things, but I want Barack Obama to be president because I felt like it was possible that he could make this nation, for the first time in my adult life, a place whose present I was genuinely proud to be linked to. (I was still annoyed that his stance against the Iraq War in 2003 was touted, given that he was in the Illinois State Senate at the time and so his views didn't MATTER, but that's a small quibble.) Sarah Palin might turn out to be a wonderful individual and I might be very glad she is the governor of Alaska (although her desire for certain natural-gas pipelines as well as her anti-abortion views at least partially suggest otherwise), but I cannot delude myself into believing a McCain administration, whosoe'er his running mate may be, could create, change or foster a national atmosphere I want. Come 2009, the odds are good that I will have an even harder time being an American than I already do.

This post is somewhat incoherent because I am busy paling in terror at the prospect of a McCain administration, a prospect realer than it has been for months.

Our enemies are SMART. Anyone who is powerful enough to become our enemy rather than just an annoyance or eyesore is always SMART. Why do we forget this so easily?

Friday Poetry: Susan Musgrave

Susan Musgrave
I Am Not a Conspiracy
Everything Is Not Paranoid
The Drug Enforcement Administration Is Not Everywhere

Paul comes from Toronto on Sunday
to photograph me here in my
new image. We drive to a cornfield
where I stand looking uncomfortable.
The corn-god has an Irish accent—
I can hear him whispering, "Whiskey!"

And the cows. They, too, are in the
corn, entranced like figures in effigy.
Last summer in Mexico I saw purses at the
market made from unborn calfskin—
I've been wondering where they came from
ever since, the soft skins I ran my hands
down over, that made me feel like shuddering.

I was wrong. The corn-god is whispering
"Cocaine!" He is not Irish, after all,
but D.E.A. wanting to do business. He
demands to know the names of all my friends,
wants me to tell him who's dealing.

I confess I'm growing restless as the
camera goes on clicking, standing naked in the
high-heel shoes I bought last summer in Mexico.
"We want names," say the cows, who suddenly
look malevolent. They are tearing the ears
off the innocent corn. They call it an

Paul calls to them, "Come here, cows!"
though I don't even want them in the picture.
What Paul sees is something different from
me; my skin feels like shuddering when those
cows run their eyes down over me.

"But didn't you smuggle this poem into Canada?"
asks the cow with the mirrored sunglasses.
"As far as we can tell, this is not a
Canadian poem. Didn't you write it
in Mexico?"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Random Moment of DNC Irritation

As I was watching the coverage of the DNC on MSNBC, a gentleman said that the Obamas have to walk a fine line about resentment—that is, about being resented—because "it's not so much about race as is is about ordinary Americans saying—how did they get there when I didn't? How did they get an education at Harvard and Princeton when I can't afford college for my own kids?" And so on and so forth, with other similar questions.

Of COURSE that's about race and racism, ASSHOLE. You didn't hear anyone asking that about the Bushes or the Kerrys or the Clintons, did you? No, these "ordinary Americans" just assumed that those people/families were entitled to what they had. These "ordinary Americans," including you, dude who's speaking (I forget who it was; he was not particularly famous), refuse to make that assumption about a black family. What do you think that's about other than racism, exactly?

Just sayin'.

Randomly musing on the Hillary holdouts, it suddenly crossed my mind exactly how royally fucked we as Obama supporters are should McCain choose a female running mate. Do we think there's any chance he's going to do that?

And by the by, I want Sasha Obama to be president. She's already got the public speaking thing *down*.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Clean and Articulate

I like Joe Biden.

I like all the things David Brooks said about him in this article, the day before the pick was announced. David Brooks never ceases to intrigue me; the Times articles that have made me most politically furious have all been by him, but on the other hand, unlike either Kristol or Kristof, you cannot count upon his conforming to an established political orthodoxy. You have to appreciate that.

The one hesitation I have about Biden in relationship to Obama is that I have to wonder where the "clean and articulate" bit went. I would have appreciated it if Obama, in announcing the choice, had said that one reason he picked Biden was because he was clean and articulate, or something along those lines. That would have restored the balance, and established that the choice was personable as well as political. I assume it is anyway—how often does one get to pick one's co-workers at that level, really?—but it's hard to say, and discussing the prospect of Biden with an old friend last night made me realize that neither of us has really let go of that comment, and many others may not have done so either.

He's got the foreign relations street cred (as opposed to the foreign relations LURV; doesn't anybody who's hesitating about Obama's lack of foreign policy experience realize how absolutely adored the man is abroad?) He's got a different religion (I'll be simultaneously amused and terrified if McCain picks his own renegade Joe, Mr. Lieberman), different class background, different racial background (I am very, very sorry that that's important to Obama's electability, but I sadly think it is), and, in spite of the constant foot-in-mouth disease of which "clean and articulate" is evidence, he also seems to me to be trenchant and funny. Being a deep-set Giuliani-hater meself, I was very into Biden's comment that the only sentences Giuliani ever spoke were "a noun, a verb, and 9/11." (I also liked Jon Stewart's response, speaking as the Giuliani campaign: "Joe Biden sucks 9/11." [EDIT: I discovered that this was actually SNL's Weekend Update, not The Daily Show. I regret the error. -Ed.])

And for the most part, I like the sound of his legislative background. I'm not going to claim I love everything, but as someone commenting on Bilal's journal pointed out a while back, the only candidate you're going to love and agree with 100% is yourself, and sadly, you are not running for president. (I'm pretty confident that neither McCain, nor Obama, nor Ralph Nader reads my blog.) Few in the Democratic Party are radical enough for me, but there are many things I like. I like that Mr. Biden was one of the major driving forces behind the Violence Against Women Act. I like that he's helpful with loans and financial aid for college education.

I don't like the way he voted about the war, but I don't like how much of anyone did that. Barbara Boxer was most certainly not on the short-list of veep nominees. So I am going to have to suck it up.

So, I appreciate that Barack Obama has chosen a clean, articulate guy with some wild-cardish tendencies in public speaking. Even though one of those thoroughly obnoxious gaffes was once directed at Mr. Obama himself, I like that Obama is not going a fail-safe route, because it makes the campaign more human. Here's waiting to see who McCain's got in the wings, and hoping Obama's risk pays off.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday Poetry: W.D. Snodgrass

W.D. Snodgrass
Leaving the Motel

Outside, the last kids holler
Near the pool: they'll stay the night.
Pick up the towels; fold your collar
Out of sight.

Check: is the second bed
Unrumpled, as agreed?
Landlords have to think ahead
In case of need,

Too. Keep things straight: don't take
The matches, the wrong keyrings—
We've nowhere we could keep a keepsake—
Ashtrays, combs, things

That sooner or later others
Would accidentally find.
Check: take nothing of one another's
And leave behind

Your license number only,
Which they won't care to trace;
We've paid. Still, should such things get lonely,
Leave in their vase

An aspirin to preserve
Our lilacs, the wayside flowers
We've gathered and must leave to serve
A few more hours;

That's all. We can't tell when
We'll come back, can't press claims,
We would no doubt have other rooms then,
Or other names.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Psycho Killers—Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Since March, I have had an ebbing and flowing, but constantly existing, obsession with the musical Sweeney Todd. Staying with my mother, a proud owner of Showtime on Demand, I have developed a fixation with Showtime's compelling series Dexter. (Spoilers obviously abound.)

For a peace-lovin' woman, these are kind of curious.

I'm not totally clear on how either one came about.

For Sweeney Todd, it certainly wasn't just seeing the Tim Burton film, though it was perhaps a catalyst. The first time I saw it, when I was relatively unfamiliar with the musical, I enjoyed myself, thought Helena Bonham Carter lent the piece some needed gravitas that it would otherwise lack, and was a little disappointed with Mr. Depp's one-note performance. The second time around (when I saw it with the ever-more-disappointing Edward Scissorhands in a double feature at the Brew'n'View) I felt all the same things a little more strongly, and somehow was hooked enough to compare the three different cast albums (original cast, 2005 revival cast, movie) on iTunes and choose to purchase the revival cast. From that point, I listened to it frequently and started thinking seriously about how it could best be produced, came to believe that everything centered on "A Little Priest" and purchased all the versions of that particular song on iTunes, and discussed my new theories with most of my musical-theatre-knowledgable friends.

WTF, mate?

The best analysis I've come up with, after intense consideration, is that Sweeney Todd, when done well, is about the decision not to move forward/move on. Since I am in the (slightly but not terribly) conflicted process of doing both those things (hopefully the former, definitely the latter), it makes sense that it would have weird echoes for me.

The central relationship of the piece is between Mrs. Lovett, a widowed, struggling pie shop owner past her prime who has long pined for her former tenant, a barber arrested and transported for life (sent to Australia back when Australia was a Brit penal colony) fifteen years before, and Sweeney Todd, that very neighbor under a different name, who was so transported so that the presiding judge could rape his wife without obstacles. When Mrs. Lovett tells Todd this story, including that his wife subsequently poisoned herself and his then-baby daughter became the ward of the same judge, Todd vows revenge, reconstructing his old barber practice to ensnare and murder the judge. Mrs. Lovett, madly in love with him, does all she can to support him. Things don't go as planned, and when the judge escapes from beneath Todd's razor, he snaps and swears revenge on the entire world because "we all deserve to die." Mrs. Lovett then has her own epiphany, realizing that the bodies of Todd's victims should not be disposed of or buried, but rather made into meat pies, allowing her to circumvent the price of meat that has been putting her out of business.

So both a passionate partnership and doom are born. To celebrate, they sing the Act I finale "A Little Priest," in which they imagine cooking and eating men of various professions. (All Todd's victims are men, as only men come in for a shave. Dexter, of course, has no such limitations.)

I have been arguing for the last several months, and continue to argue, that "A Little Priest" is one of the best musical theatre love songs of the last three decades. And it's on the song being played as a love song rather than an artificially comic number, though it is hysterically funny, that the validity/watchability of the piece turns. They're falling in love with each other. Todd is seeing Mrs. Lovett for the first time, finding someone who enters into his darkness willingly; Mrs. Lovett has found a way to connect to Todd, feeling his real attention on her rather than razors and revenge for the first time, and is also enjoying the support for her own sickness, which she has rarely had the chance to reveal.

When I directed Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood in college, a key discovery I made in the middle of the process was that the two "Voices," narrator figures, had to have a passion for each other, creating the other characters and scenarios in the play as part of the fruit of their love. So it is with "A Little Priest." Yes, in this case you have to be disgusted by these people in order to handle the end of the piece, but you have to honestly love their love. You have to be rooting for them, and the way to root for them is (I think I say this about a lot of pieces) to make their relationship, to a certain degree, the protagonist. More than either individual, it is the relationship that is destroyed by the ending—both Todd and Mrs. Lovett are pretty much destroyed from the get-go. The relationship, however, is doomed by Todd's decision to commit to the past, to attach himself permanently to it, and destroy himself and others in the process; taken that way it is that, and not just murderousness, that they have passed on to Toby and destroyed him with. He has not just been confronted with serial murder, he has also had his image of the beloved Mrs. Lovett brutally destroyed, an image on which he depended.

As it's often performed, Sweeney Todd runs into the serious problem of murder as a metaphor. In my personal assessment of artistic ethics, murder is not allowed to be a metaphor alone (the same applies to rape), and I think things that try to make it so tend to wind up at best, lazy; at worst, incredibly offensive. Tim Burton's Goth aesthetic always has an element of romanticizing death/murderousness (and fearing sex), and the musical, particularly in the many incarnations of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," falls into the trap of justifying the killings by means of saying that we are all hypocrites, that false righteousness can somehow be deflated by means of killing people. And I guesssss if you wanna get technical that's true, but sort of annoying. Neither money nor sanctimoniousness will save you from death, it's true, but this isn't a particularly useful way to prove it. But I would say that having a real relationship at the center, rather than just some weird funny-looking people singing a funny song about killing other people, grounds it. If there is something real at the center of the piece, it precludes murder being a metaphor, and lends some gravitas, rather than just straight horror-movie goriness, to the ending.

To take the love seriously and the relationship as a protagonist, I would add as a side note, also makes Mrs. Lovett Sondheim's strongest, most complex female character. (At least in my experience; there's a few Sondheims, including Follies and Sunday in the Park with George, with which I am not familiar.) A shame about Sondheim, but it does.

As to Dexter, I think what intrigues me about it is its ability to approach what makes relationships compelling besides emotions.

This sounds bizarre, I know. Dexter, at age three, witnessed his mother being brutally chainsaw-massacred by drug runners (you don't find that out until late in the first season), following which he was adopted by a police officer. This officer, Harry Morgan, soon recognized that the boy was, or had become, irretrievably sociopathic. He loved the kid, but he would be a killer and there was nothing Harry could do to stop that. So instead Harry decided to control it: he taught Dexter how to survive and not be caught—go into forensics so you have inside information, work on your sleeper hold and your eye so you'll never be caught, and, most importantly, only kill people whom you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt are murderers themselves. Many of them slip through the system; without a need for warrants you'll be able to tell who they are. In essence, Harry made Dexter a sociopathic vigilante.

And Dexter took it and lived by it, even though he could not, technically, love Harry. If you're a sociopath, how could your connection to someone else possibly matter? That's what the show is exploring. I just watched all of it recently—rather quickly yes, but because of that it hasn't yet had the absorption time of Sweeney Todd. I'd say, though, that it's emphasizing that serial murder is not a desire for anarchy, it's a compulsion to kill, all the time. Harry Morgan saw what he considered a way to find order in that compulsion, and Dexter respected it. The show constantly brings us up short at the ethically squirmy moments where we discover that we kind of do too.

To a certain degree, both Dexter and Sweeney Todd get away with what they do because they manage to convince you that you, the Average Viewer, are not and could not possibly be among this man's potential victims. Sweeney Todd does it to a certain degree by being a musical, by using the genre's formality to distance itself from its viewers. Sweeney Todd doesn't threaten you. Dexter, of course, simply assumes that you are not a murderer (which naturally makes me wonder if murderers watch it and makes me slightly, perversely disappointed to realize that I will never know if a real serial killer considers it a psychologically accurate portrayal). Pitting Dexter against another serial killer, we have to go with Dexter because the other serial killer threatens another couple of characters to whom we feel intimately connected, whom we feel we could actually be. That makes me squeamish about both shows, in spite of my love for both. (I have a problem of being more squeamish about concepts than blood. Though I was considering the fact that even psychologically realistic serial-killer shows and films that don't have to "theatricalize" the murders tend to leave out a lot of gruesome aspects that I'm sure are present.) The fact is that when your protagonist is a murderer, you have to agree to justify murder, or at least try to.

So what's the sociocultural appeal of serial killers anyway? My mother argues that it's about the fact that we feel we could never do it ourselves—we could imagine committing murder under some circumstances, but we who are not sociopaths have a hard time imagining multiple, systematic murders, and good artists feel compelled to explore things they don't understand. I buy that for the above two pieces, pretty much (I'm sure Sondheim also enjoyed the contradiction of writing a musical, so maligned as an unnecessarily happy-go-lucky genre, about serial murder). The appeal of imagining, and being drawn into, stories far beyond the realm of possibility of my own experience is kind of what art is all about. I'd say good art is also about recognizing yourself in places that make you uncomfortable—that what *makes* Sweeney Todd good art is that you have to take Mrs. Lovett's passion for Todd seriously, not just be able to dismiss it as sickness, which is a huge responsibility on the part of the actor playing her (a challenge, I would add, to which one Helena Bonham Carter rose admirably); that what hooks you in Dexter is that with a lot of good acting you end up taking at least one of the characters who loves Dexter seriously (in my case that character is Debra Morgan, Harry's biological daughter and Dexter's sister, but you can pick someone else if you want), seriously enough that you can't just dismiss them as being stupid or naïve for not knowing/"getting it" about Dexter. The appeal of these psycho killers, for me, is what interactions with them, not them as ideas in isolation, can say/pull/demand about human relationships. Which, for better or for worse, is what I believe good art has to be about.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Poetry: Sylvia Plath

Without regular internet access in Vermont and Cape Cod for the last week and a half, hence the missed Friday Poetry. Certainly this poem fans the worst flames of the suicide-worshipping Sylvia Plath myth, but I also think it's incredibly well-done and have always admired it. Plus I'm working on a post about artist worship of serial killers. So, without further ado.

Sylvia Plath
Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
0 my enemy.
Do I terrify?—

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Friday Poetry: Bertolt Brecht

Hard to believe I've never posted the man before, but this poem came into my life yesterday and was one of the socked-in-the-stomach moments.

Bertolt Brecht

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.