Wicked

Dear Carla Fran,

I saw Wicked tonight at a theater with my Mom. A dragon with neon eyes glowered down from the upper part of the stage where I watched the surtitles with my dad when he took me to operas as a kid. (Have I told you that we went to operas a lot? One of the kids’ dads would prep a group of us music-nerds for each opera by arranging themed evenings where we’d talk about the plot over a period-piece dinner, after which we’d watch the movie version from start to finish. When we it was time for Die Fledermaus, we had fake beer and duck. The host offered me the duck’s heart, explaining that at the time it was considered an honor. His older daughter was a model, and thought we were losers.)

The model-daughter made me feel pretty lame about enjoying those dinners as much as I did, and I remember trying to tone down the enthusiasm whenever I remembered she was there. Not unrelatedly, there’s still a version of me that regrets loving musicals as much as I do. Sometimes I even manage to convince myself that I don’t, that I find criticisms of the genre true, and that it is uniformly mawkish, overwrought, unnatural, bourgeois, obvious, sentimental.

You can convince yourself you’re over something, but you can’t always convince the people you love. My mom, for instance. Thanks for the ticket, mom! To my dismay, Mr. Millicent has discovered that whenever I’m moved by a bit of story, my legs and arms break out in goosebumps. (I know this at some level, it’s part of why I gravitate toward jeans and long sleeves.) These days, when we sit down to watch Scrubs reruns, there’s the totally predictable moment when the music goes soft and Something Moving happens. I watch with a steely eye, but lately Mr. Millicent has taken to hitching up my pajama legs. Without fail, the uncool goosebumps bear silent witness against me and my claims to a more discerning taste.

When it comes to musicals, I know I’ve never been able to fool you, and one of the beautiful things about our space here is how has been not even having to try. Your love of the thing and your writing about the thing has given me permission—hell, monkey bars, a trampoline, a language—to have one musical-loving face instead of two, one of which scorns them for the maudlin qualities you’ve given us a way to prize. It’s thanks to you that I have a way of thinking, of putting words to a reaction I’d consigned to hair follicles. I’ve had fewer faces since I’ve known you, and there’s no way to measure that relief.

Anyway, about Wicked.

I spent tonight awash in goosebumps.  Like I’ve said, it’s hard to trust them, because they’re just stupidly easy to manipulate. I know they’re wrong sometimes in the way sentimentalism is wrong when it goes unchecked. If I think over and through them I can see the flaws. I can note that the speaking-animals-going-mute subplot is underdeveloped in Wicked. That it’s an awfully easy way to make Elphaba good and the Wizard ungood because there are no counterarguments. Elphaba’s clearly right, everyone else is clearly wrong, and as moral stances go, this one manages to evoke a spectrum of arguments that apply to vegetarianism and the Civil Rights Movement without ever really committing. Fiero’s change from party-boy to activist feels thin. I had to look away during the love scene between Elphaba and Fiero out of embarrassment both for its excess and for the weird logistics that go into singing incredibly loud and not particularly good lyrics directly into someone’s face. Talk about sentimentalism going unchecked—I couldn’t take it. Every time I tried I started suffocating from discomfort.

All that’s true, and if someone asked me what I thought I could say those things and I wouldn’t be lying. Not exactly. But the other, meatier truth is that I got goosebumps from the crazy deep-green set of Emerald City, from the astonishing Victorian steampunk costumes that made almost every chorus scene an improvement on Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue covers. From the jarring shade of Elphaba’s skin, from the intense physical comedy of Glinda’s makeover—her first kind act. And from the incredible singing that musicals always have, but maybe I’ve just been away long enough that it blew my socks off to hear it live.

Speaking of singing, I still like opera, and pretty much the way I did as a kid: it makes silly utterances majestic and makes sexuality consumable as art (cf. Carmen). It gives amazing music a veneer of story that will make it go down easier if you can’t be there for the music alone. But I rarely get (or got) goosebumps at the opera because opera librettos are almost magically vapid, the stories tend to be both melodramatic and staid, and the singing, while technically brilliant, doesn’t quite square with my sense of how music and human emotion intersect. (That said, I love The Marriage of Figaro to death, even if it leaves me bumpless, because of its unflagging sense of humor.)

What forced me wrap my coat around my bumpy legs tonight in an effort to calm them down was that Wicked was a story about friendship. I had no idea. I’d listened to the soundtrack several times because my sister loves it. She and I can holler our hearts out to Disney songs and musicals for hours when we’re at home; it’s one of our favorite games and it’s so habitual that I sometimes forget to treasure it. Still, when she told me how great it was a part of me suspected that her goosebumps, like mine, were too easily roused. I just didn’t expect much out of Wicked. I’d been so sure Glinda would be torn down in order to raise Elphaba up in a dumb contrarian way that I didn’t think it was worth seeing. (Whyyy do I think I’m automatically smarter than the story? Or that my taste has any reason to be better than my sister’s, or anyone else’s, when I have ample evidence to the contrary? Unconscious Hubris, meet humility.)

I guess I just didn’t expect the friendship to survive the musical. I didn’t expect to see an incredibly smart portrayal of female friendship to the near-exclusion of other more traditional musical relationships. I didn’t expect it to honor both witches’ motivations and choices, or to saddle them both with losses. Most of all, I didn’t expect the story to refuse to make either friend learn a lesson.

But it did, and their leave-taking from each other is a really raw ode to friendship, and goddamn if it didn’t make me think about how lucky I’ve been, and how you’ve changed me for good.

Cold-legged,

Millicent

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Upcoming PBS Series on Women, War & Peace

It looks good. SWINTON! will be one of the narrators, and I’m relieved to see more than one quick news-story or 15 minute segment on how things suck. Instead it is a multi-episode series that looks like it asks some big questions. Definitely part of the posse, not the problem. Set your DVRs or what have you for October.

I can’t embed the PBS promo, but here’s one for Pray the Devil Back to Hell.  It’s an inspiring start to the conversation that hopefully takes over our Tuesdays in October. It will also make you feel like everything is possible, and that if you are on your couch watching a documentary, you are not doing enough.

 

 

 

 

More Vivian

Dear Millicent,

There’s more Vivian Maier to look at, this time a smart collection of self-portraits, and it’s all wonderful. What’s better than a woman’s angular shadow looming on a lawn of grass? I’m a sucker for it. I want a movie, with Emma Thompson starring.

Yours,

CF

[Via Kottke]

Revisionist Graffiti

Dear CF,

I caught a graffiti artist on video the other day. She was working on the only woman on the whole building–a buxom blue-skinned lady with no face and a theoretical bikini. I’d seen the blue gal many times and scowled a little at her faceless boobage.

Here’s the artist at work. She let me film her after she put on huge sunglasses:

I came back later to see what she did:

Fondly,

M

The Unexpected Feminist

Amanda Marcotte asked yesterday who are the feminists you’d most like to have a beer with, which got  me thinking. My kneejerk reaction was to go historical (I chose George Sands…mostly based on Impromptu–a movie I can’t recommend, yet wholeheartedly love. If you want to see all the clips of that movie where she wears pants, accompanied by the Scissor Sisters, do click here). And after reading Latoya Peterson’s amazing piece about race, celebrity, and the feminist blogosphere, I started thinking feminism outside of the blog. Usually, I’m lamenting that there aren’t enough mainstream people toting their feminism, and that my big feminist fantasy is a culture of stories (our TV, movies, radio, novels, all of it) where women have equal space (and to Latoya’s piece, what an insane luxury I have in knowing that if the impossible happened and women did receive equity in our entertainment culture, the majority of them would look like me (white)…). But there are some mainstream feminists that I would love to have a beer with, people who perhaps have not mentioned their feminism in mainstream media, but where, in outlets they control more directly (like Twitter) have outed themselves as people that make me feel better about the world.

So, here’s a starter list of folks usually just being rad, and then making me swoon even more with their feminist swagger:

  1. Robyn: That rare thing, a 30-year-old pop star who doesn’t make you hate the music industry and it’s insistence on putting all starlets in leather chaps at some point. Her music is dance-around-the-living-room ready, her lyrics are all about a kind of personal awesome, traveling alone, fully enjoying sex, boundaries, enjoying confidence, and being a badass. She demands that the next Pope be black, and also a woman. And if you weren’t listening, you would think she was just telling you to dance. She is also the official Hairpin sweetheart.  I kind of think of her as feminist Viactiv, with good politics instead of calcium, and dance pop fizz instead of chocolate. I don’t have to feel guilty, preachy, serious, or compromised about loving her, or her hair.
  2. Neko Case: I want to have a beer with Neko Case all the time. She once said in an interview that in a studio where she records the sound engineer gave her the esteem of being the only artist besides Nelly Furtado that didn’t use AutoTune. And her voice will make your heart stop for a second. And she writes about foxes and wolves and street gangs, which will all also make your heart stop for a second. And she talks about how dudes never hit on her while on tour, and she would have appreciated some equal opportunity toursex. And she lives in Tucson, my hometown.  And she stands with Planned Parenthood. And you can win her muscle car. And if we can’t all have a beer with her, then we should all just dye our hair red and emulate her as much as possible, because she very well might be the raddest.
  3. John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats. Balls out wonderful. I would have said this before reading his tweets, but now I am over the moon. Like Case, I was already in the fan club, but the absurd elation at finding out that he was not only a Twitter pleasure but also a loud feminist was like, well, it was like seeing Pemberley. And he live-tweeted watching Fiddler on the Roof, where he kept crying. If we have a beer together, I hope it would be while watching another tearjerk…maybe Cinema Paradiso?
  4. Christy Turlington Burns. This one surprised me. I never thought I would think about Christy Turlington, let alone want to drink with her. While not as cool as my top 3 beer friends above (she’s a supermodel, for goddsakes), she’s an unexpected, and powerful, advocate for global maternal healthcare. She made a documentary called No Woman No Cry, which I fully expected to be something akin to Aldous Snow’s “African Child” video, but it wasn’t. It was a powerful look at unexpected situations of maternal tragedy, and admirably complex in its scope, ranging from the the lack of obstetric resources in Tanzania to abortion care in Guatemala. Also, it shows how the selfish can stem the political, as the documentary starts with Turlington’s own incredibly privileged and traumatic birth, which led her to wonder what the circumstances were for women who weren’t supermodels. She’s not a dilettante in her cause. While I bet she doesn’t drink beer, I’m a fan.
  5. The fifth spot here is still pending. I’m not sure who will out themselves next…As much as Twitter shows us the grandiose slip-of-the-tongues of our celebrities when they do melt down, it also can also add some healthy flesh to their veneer. We get to sometimes see the things that their publicist has removed or deemed irrelevant…and maybe this is how more feminism, maybe even more humanity will be normalized…or maybe it is how I can simply keep adding luminaries to my personal internet choir where everybody agrees with me all the time.  I want to get happily surprised by all of them. And to keep thinking of beer.

Yours,

CF

Odd Saint: Shannon Plumb

Dear CF,

I’m nominating the weird and hilarious Shannon Plumb, also known as a present-day female Buster Keaton. Or, as I like to think of her, the love-child of Janis Joplin, Amy Sedaris and Charlie Chaplin. She’s probably best known for her series “The Park,” which was shown on four huge screens in Central Park, none of which come close to the (literally) plaintive brilliance of “Rattles and Cherries,” which you can and should watch below at 23:19. (Most of her films are less than five minutes long.)

She focuses (as she puts it) on “the imperfections of people,” and I’d say most of her characters fit into your concept of the “nu woman.”

The video below is from a talk she gave at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I’m embedding it because it includes a collection of several silent Super 8 films she makes—by herself, for the most part. Scary, what this woman can do with a tripod.

I’m indexing them below, with special mentions for Shalmont Field (at 19:20) and THURSDAY, St. Patrick’s Day (at 31:12) which does a terrifyingly hilarious number on the performance of being boy and girl. “Discus” and “Hurdles” show women doing hurdles or throwing the discus in sexy strapless dresses or terrible wigs, with all the inelegance you might imagine that might produce. “Stewardess” is Howard Hughes’ worst nightmare.

Partial Index:

15:10 Stewardess

16:55 Nasal Cleanse

19:20 Shalmont Field

23:10  Rattles and Cherries

27:33 Discus

31:12 THURSDAY: St. Patrick’s Day

35:35 maximus

37:40 Madison and East 24th

41:25 “It’s fine,” she whispered.

Football Saturday, means time for Barbie Diorama Appreciation

Dear Millicent,

This is the most amazing gallery of ‘Barbies I have ever seen. All are available for perusery and purchase at artist LaVonne Sallee’s shop at Etsy and at OOAK Barbies. Some highlights:

Tarzan and Barbie, going Pieta

Spanking by Sea Monster!

Centauring it up

Real title is "Two Barbies Learning the Fox Trot." The glory of this disturbs and elates me.

Wedding!

Lots more, and worth a look.

Yours,

CF

Better: Robyn and Snoop

Dear Millicent,

I really like Robyn.  Her songs make me want to go that far-away place: the club.  They make me want to put on chartreuse eyeshadow that only makes sense in rooms with laser lights.  She’s also a bit of a reformed pop-star, starting her career as a teenager ( from profiles, I’m guessing she was a bit like the Swedish Mandy Moore), and is now a 31-year-old singer who has learned from the fluff and sharpened it to an interesting point.  For a much more informed profile than I can provide here, I highly recommend Sasha Frere-Jones piece on her in the New Yorker, ‘Dancehall Dream.”

Last week, the second in her Body Talk Series was released (Body Talk Pt. 2), and it continues the conversation from Pt. 1, doing a nice slice and dice of independent woman with the right to some confection and badassery.   She’s not MIA, and she’s not Gaga, and none of this works against her.

I was surprised at the appearance of Snoop Dogg late in the album, on the track “U Should Know Better,” especially because of its contrast with his hit duet with Katy Perry on “California Gurls.”  Both Perry and Robyn trade in the idea of the consumable female (e.g. Katy Perry’s whip cream bra, cotton candy undies), but where Perry embraces the confection to the point of drivel, Robyn is usually harshing the fantasy in an intoxicating way (in her song “Fembot,” she means it when she says “Fembots have feelings, too”).

NPR did a piece awhile ago about the demise of the duet, and featured “California Gurls” as an example where the woman is has less control of the song than the man. Maura Johnston notes “it’s clearly Snoop who’s driving the song — the video ends with Katy reduced to being one of four women surrounding him, and the primping she’s singing of is clearly done for the benefit of men.”  [Also, this piece gets a double star from me because Jay Smooth is the other half of the conversation here, and there is a reference to Farah Fawcett’s opus The Burning Bed].

Not so with Robyn.   In “U Should Know Better,” it is Robyn who swaggers, and Snoop seems happy for the conversation, surprised by her particular brand of chat.  He starts off by bragging about a girl who wants him. She topic hops to a political message to the Vatican. Every time he tries his old game, she pays no heed and blasts onto a larger conversation.

Snoop:

I missed my plane to Spain so I’m stuck in Colonna
I’m sippin Saronno with this chick named Ramona
She wants me to take a flick on her phone-ah
Then take her to my hotel room and then bone her

Robyn:

You know when in Rome I sat down with the Romans
Said \”We need a black pope and she better be a woman\”
There’ll be no more celibacy
Even the Vatican knows not to fuck with me

They both agree “U should know better than to fuck with me.” Robyn takes on the French (cutting off heads, in lingerie, no less), the Vatican , the Russians, and The Industry.  It’s great. And she DOMINATES. When Snoop warns off the FBI, she trumps him by saying she was at Watergate and takes on the CIA. He complains about the LAPD, she ups the ante, shouting “even the prince of darkness knows not to fuck with me.”

And then Snoop adds, “If you knew better, you would do better.”  Having done this smarter duet, I wonder if he is talking to his Candyland self?

Yours,

CF

Aims

MFK Fisher on family, from her meditation on gluttony, memory and the divinity of champagne, Once a Tramp, Always…:

I was perhaps twenty-three when I first ate almost enough caviar—-not to mention any caviar at all that I can now remember. It was one of the best, brightest days of my whole life with my parents, and lunching in the quiet back room at the Cafe’ de la Paix was only a part of the luminous whole. My mother ate fresh foie gras, sternly forbidden to her liver, but she loved the cathedral at Strasbourg enough to risk almost any kind of retribution, and this truffled slab was so plainly the best of her lifetime that we all agreed it could do her nothing but good, which it did. My father and I ate caviar, probably Sevruga, with green-black smallish beads and a superb challenge of flavor for the iced grassy vodka we used to cleanse our happy palates. We ate three portions apiece, tacitly knowing it could never happen again that anything would be quite so mysteriously perfect in both time and space. The headwaiter sensed all this, which is, of course, why he was world-known, and the portions got larger, and at our third blissful command he simply put the tin in its ice bowl on our table. It was a regal gesture, like being tapped on the shoulder with a sword. We bowed, served ourselves exactly as he would have done, grain for grain, and had no need for any more. It was reward enough to sit in the almost empty room, chaste rococo in the slanting June sunlight, with the generous tub of pure delight between us, Mother purring there, the vodka sleeping slyly through our veins, and real wood strawberries to come, to make us feel like children again and not near-gods. That was a fine introduction to what I hope is a reasonably long life of such occasional bliss.

I want to say this proves Tolstoy wrong, but also hope that all families get a happiness like this.

Saturday’s Soul