Monday, December 23, 2013

Daffy Duck

In all the furor and bull-shit surrounding the Duck Dynasty head honcho's statements in GQ about homosexuals, etc., something gets lost in the translation as pundits, reporters, zealots, activtists and others come to the fore to debate/explain/categorize/condemn/praise:  the guy just plain does not understand gay folks.  He is mystified by them and their behavior.  The very logic, or lack thereof, of a gay guy's existence stimulates rhetoric in him:  “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

That's more like disbelief, than belief, if you ask me.  But then he's quoted as getting a little more rigid later in the article.  In trying to figure out why he is confronted with such illogical people and behavior, he posits:  "Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong.  Sin becomes fine.  Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.  'Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers'—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

From not understanding the anatomy involved to condemning people to hell, all in one fell swoop.  Talk about a slippery slope. 

The pundits and reporters, et. al. going on and on about this "controversy" all try to structure it as a logical argument about freedom of speech and religious beliefs versus political correctness and identity politics.  I don't think once I heard anyone say anything about manners.  Just good old plain grace and kindness?  I guess you don't expect it from the Duck People, but still they seem to flaunt their sweetness on their reality show, as in they all dress up in camouflage and kill things, but there they are all of a sudden saying grace at the dinner-table, or there one of them is kissing his sweet wife good night.  Etcetera.  Meaning:  they depend on people understanding them as good old boys.  It's their brand.

Phil Robertson is an ass-hole who likes to pretend he is mystified by ass-holes and their uses.  He is a finger-pointer, bully, and all around heterosexual offender.  I write short stories about the people Phil says won't be let into the Kingdom of God.  These characters I write occupy the same white-trash spaces and places good old Phil does in his reality world.  And usually in my stories there are folks like him, kindly gentlemen in camouflage and beards who act like your buddy but then can turn on you in a flash.  That's the power they like to have.  On his show Phil and the network only allow us glimpses into his best behavior.  We don't know him outside of the cartoon he allows us, and in the GQ article he is just another cartoon of course but also menacingly real, not daffy and downhome.  He's saying serious things but the cartoon configuration is allowing him to be let off the hook.

The initial fury over his remarks has dissipated.  All the Duck Dynasty merch is being reshelved after a few days of outrage and debate.  This isn't going to be a Paula Deen knock-down.  It's going to be Freedom of Religion Rides Again.

Which is very sad because the crap Phil said is just as bad, maybe even more toxic, than what came out of Paula's mouth when she thought no one was looking.  Phil said what he said to a reporter in a high-class magazine.  He wants us to know how disgusted he is; in fact I think he wants us to join in and identify with it.  That's the horror.  A little while back I saw a documentary called Valentine Road on HBO, about a foster-kid named Larry King who liked to dress up in girl clothes and go to school.  One day, dressed up like that, he asked another boy to be his Valentine, and that boy the next day brought a gun to school and shot Larry in the back of the head in broad daylight.  Many people were outraged in the community, but just as many, perhaps more, said things about how if Larry had not dressed up like a girl none of this bloodshed would have happened.     

People are people, I know, and reality shows are stupid and worthless and brainless.  And Phil Robertson is an idiot, but what's scary is the reaction he gets:  people I actually know and like are defending him and his right to be a monster. I don't get it.  I guess you have to live inside the fear-zone people like Phil instill to truly get it.  He's not Santa Claus.  He's not an evangelist.  He's a bully and a bastard, and the Kingdom of God can have him. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

anomaly, noun (pl -lies): Deviation or departure from the normal or common order, form, or rule.

Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s 2014 Exhibition Season: Anomaly Lessons
Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s 2014 exhibition season includes paeans to an idiosyncratic fiction-writing genius, a local hat-wearing folk hero, and other wonderful outcasts, including Mr. Thunder-Sky himself in a season-ending installation that incorporates his desire to build a Utopia while destroying whatever got in his way. We're using "Anomaly Lessons" as the organizing concept and title for a whole year's worth of shows that teach us all what it means to be gorgeously abnormal.
"Head Shots: Portraits by Bob Hoke and Stacey Vallerie" opens January 10, 2014 with a reception 6 to 10 pm. The show closes February 14, 2014. Hoke, from Hannibal Missouri, creates whimsically bizarre and bizarrely whimsical portraits of people with a Paul-Klee flourish; Cincinnati-based Vallerie finds inspiration and serenity in reality. Side by side, their works seem to whisper sweet nothings to one another.
"Deep in Thought: Paintings by Mark Betcher and Scott Carney" opens February 28, 2014 with a reception 6 to 10 pm. The show closes April 11, 2014. Northern Kentucky's Betcher layers his work with words, pictures, and word-picture hybrids; Carney looks for Utopia in his storybook paintings.   Both approaches feel thoughtful without belaboring the point, both visually appealing and a little off-kilter.  
"Rejoice!: A Retrospective of Avtar Gill, the Cincinnati Hat-Man" opens April 25, 2014 with a reception 6 to 10 pm. The show closes June 13, 2014. Avtar Gill (pictured above), known by many downtowners as The Hat Man, passed away early 2013, but he will always be remembered (like Raymond Thunder-Sky) as a Cincinnati folk hero for the sign-emblazoned hats he wore while walking all across the city, and for his dedication to maintaining a strong, cultural voice and presence throughout his life. This exhibit will feature photographs, video, testimonials, stories, and actual hats and signs The Hat-Man left behind.
"The Meanest of Them Sparkled: Visual Artists Respond to Flannery O'Connor's Fictional Universe" opens June 27, 2014 with a reception 6 to 10 pm. The show closes August 8, 2013.   "Meanest" commemorates the 50th anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's death. A skilled, humorous, dead-on writer of short stories and novels ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and Wiseblood chief among them), O'Connor's prose is steeped in beautifully unsettling images and set-pieces. O'Connor was a painter and cartoonist besides being a fiction-writer, and this sensibility informs a lot of what she wrote and depicted. We've asked several artists to create art inspired by O'Connor's genius, no limits on media or style. We'll also be sponsoring a reading of some of O'Connor's works to go along with the show.
"Outcasts from Hollywood (the Greatest Celebrity Art Show Event): Antonio Adams and Emily Brandehoff" opens August 22, 2014 with a reception 6 to 10 pm. The show closes October 10, 2014. Adams and Brandehoff often work side by side on Saturdays in the basement at Thunder-Sky, Inc. They will be creating separate suites of work that investigate/celebrate/satirize the poetry and absurdity of celebrity culture and its aftermath. "How Deep Is Your Love," a Thunder-Sky, Inc. fundraiser happening in the basement gallery, opens as well.
"New Clownville Amusement Park: Constructing Raymond's Perfect World by Matt Waldeck Jr. and Sr. and Marc Lambert" opens October 24, 2014 with a reception 6 to 10 pm. The show closes December 12, 2014. The Waldecks (a father and son team), along with Lambert (whose painting of Raymond is above), are taking over the gallery to create a Raymond-Thunder-Sky-inspired installation that pays homage both to his drawings and to his life. Sculpture, drawing and other media will be on display. As well, we'll be presenting a new show of some of Raymond's more obscure and eccentric drawings. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Good Chief

The Good Wife is a TV show on CBS I always heard about but never watched because it seemed too taken with itself in ads and in what little bit and pieces I heard and read about it.  It came off smug and self-satisfied, a complete one-note concept (a lady whose politician husband cheats on her so she goes all independent on him and gets a job at a great big law firm) that didn't even seem worth a Lifetime movie.  But it turns out I was wrong.  Totally wrong.  I started watching the fifth season of The Good Wife on a whim, out of boredom really, and every episode I've seen On Demand is so polished and revved-up and smart I couldn't stop from bingeing big-time.  The show has a Shakespearean pulse to it vibrating beneath the lawyer-mahogany veneers of office furniture and desperate, processional middle-aged faces.  At this juncture of the show, Juliana Margulies' Alicia Florrick, the good wife, has decided to jump ship from the big firm that allowed her to go all independent on her no-good politician husband's ass.  She is in cahoots with the "four years" at the firm, all hyper-ambition attorneys with a penchant for lattes and stealing clients.  The atmosphere of the whole she-bang is what is thrilling.  The music has a Philip-Glass pretentiousness that never lets up and every scene never swerves from its purpose until it lands right into your brain with a perfect little finish.  The writing is exquisite, and even though I truly fucking hate the word "exquisite," that's the only descriptor.  The acting, as well, is exquisite.  Margulies is cryptic, beautiful, conniving, bitchy, and nurturing all at the same time; a sphinx-like graveness emanates from her like a halo, but she's no angel and no sphinx.  She truly exists in a real world with real problems, but her ambition and desire for making her work great gives her a power and presence you just want to succumb to.  The same can be said for Christine Banaski's Diane, a co-founder of the firm Alicia leaves, whose spot-on professional-lady drag is both poignant and ferociously there.  Baranski gives Diane a strangely touching vulnerability.  You can see her second-guessing all the crap she has to do to stay in the game while also experiencing the overwrought joy of having something powerful and sketchy to do as well.  All of that empathy and snideness gets synergized in Baranski's gaze, a glass-doll permanence that melts when no one is looking.  Or when someone is looking and she wants to trick them into thinking she thinks no one is looking.  The third lady in The Good Wife's Holy Trinity of Ambitiousness, possibly the Holy Ghost, is Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Panjabi, the law-firm's in-house private investigator, who silky/steely countenance and reserve somehow give her the grandeur of a Christopher Nolan superhero.  She carries with her at all time a little private notebook she uses as a sort of force-field and a symbol of her dedication to remembering everything people do to hide what they do.  The Good Wife is about truly about work, and how work can both give you a reason to live, as well as a reason to want to kill yourself, and in that odd mix of desire for greatness and the desperation of knowing you're not really that great the characters and plots in the show work themselves into a frenzy that is so glossed and preened you can almost miss how dangerous it all is.  That's a good thing.  The drama is a radioactive afterthought. 
Treme is a TV show on HBO I also always heard about but never watched because it also seemed too taken with itself in ads and in what little bit and pieces I heard and read about it.  Created and produced by David Simon, the guy who did The Wire (one of those other TV shows I have hear a lot about but never watched because...), Treme seemed a little to precious and earnest.  But since we had a magnificent stay in New Orleans last month, and since I stumbled across HBO on Demand and saw the word "Treme," I went ahead and partook.  Unlike The Good Wife, Treme's pace is slow and dedicated to its own slowness.  The Good Wife has a zippy, nervous elegance; Treme has a Dickensian stubbornness that somehow works itself out in the way the actors create tension and momentum among themselves.  Clarke Peters as Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux is one of the main reasons Treme is magical.  He plays Big Chief with a sort of offhand yet tremendously magnetic gravity.  The whole thing is about is about New Orleans recovering after Katrina.  It starts three months after the devastation, and Season One, which I just finished, shows us folks like Big Chief returning to mud-covered front-porches, mold-covered walls, and a city without a basic infrastructure to live in.  And yet Big Chief gets right back to it:  creating the costumes that he and his tribe will be wearing in Mardi Gras.  Mardi Gras "Indians," it turns out, are a true cultural configuration, groups of African Americans creating Native-American-esque costumes and then parading around in contests and sometimes combats concerning who is the "prettiest."  These costumes are supernaturally gorgeous, all Technicolor ostrich feathers, hand-sewn bead-work, etc.  Watching Big Chief and his friends and family creating those costumes in a half-destroyed tavern is like stumbling across a fever-dream fairy-tale that's never been told before, and yet unlike a fairy-tale there's a political urgency and rage being played out.  The music, as well, plays a huge role in the show, and one of the other main reasons to catch Treme is Wendell Pierce as  Antoine Batiste, a trombonist constantly on the search for gigs whose face and eyes carry so much inwardly acquired super-power from all the shit he has had to go through it's almost comical and yet not funny at all.  Pierce is brilliantly at home in the role.  He feels so right I almost burst into tears when I watch him play or just even speak.  The same goes for Khandi Alexander as Ladonna, Antoine's ex, who is now married to a dentist in Baton Rouge but who keeps her family's bar open in Treme because she has to in order to remain sane.  Alexander gives Ladonna a grace and fierceness almost akin to the queens in Paris Is Burning, a meanness and dedication that keeps herself and others alive.  There are so many other reasons to watch Treme that I really can't go into them without having to write a novel.  John Goodman's enraged, hurt, dumbfounded professor, Melissa Leo's brilliant, befuddled, joyful civil rights lawyer (and Goodman's professor's wife), Steve Zahn as an impassioned hipster, Kim Dickens as a chef trying to maintain whatever semblance of order is left to be had...  Everyone in the show is brilliant and yet what you get out of it is a spirit of a city trying to feel its way out of doom.
The Good Wife and Treme both celebrate without sentimentality or irony what it means to work.  "Working" in both contexts is a way people survive in all sort of ways, not just economic.  These two hour-long dramas locate reasons for existence in what we do everyday, trying to make a living without losing the reason we want to be alive.  Both The Good Wife and The Big Chief have piercing, enigmatic stares, as if they are scanning for traitors while also looking for their next redemption.      

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hive Minds

Valentine Road is a documentary about the death of Larry King, a fifteen-year-old boy who liked to dress up in make-up and high heel shoes and go to school.  He was shot in the back of the head by Brandon McInerny, a fourteen-year-old peer, because of that, and also because Larry told him he wanted Brandon to be his Valentine.  This happened in 2008 in Oxnard, California.  I didn't remember this incident at all, but in Marta Cunningham's film she shows us the media taking on the issue (Ellen DeGeneres gives a wonderful plea on her show, among others), but that isn't really the point for Cunningham.  She's interested in showing us how these events are a lot more complicated than speeches on talk-shows can allow, more complicated than most people can even accept inside their own minds.

Watching this documentary I felt mystified a number of times by the overarching meanness and judgment in people's faces as they spoke about Larry and how he somehow caused his own death by his "eccentric behaviors," and I was also taken aback by the sweetness and sorrow in the facial expressions of the murderer and his immediate family.  It's a dizzying feeling, this movie, because while her heart of course is with Larry and what was done to him, Cunningham does not shy away from looking into the heart of darkness that helped to create the situation.  That darkness is located in many places within the context of the film, including school hall-ways, white-trash front-yards, middle-class dining rooms, foster-care facilities, and eventually a courtroom.  The darkness, in fact, is the point here.  It is a darkness so dark that it creates a sort of confusion that's masked as compassion in many people's hearts. 

Larry's desire for Brandon is constituted as a malfunction of a grievous sort by many of the teachers who used to teach Larry (one of the bitchiest ones in the documentary cites the fact that Larry was on an IEP and "behavior program" as evidence for his need for "correction" and "conversion"), and many others, including an evil older teacher stirring her iced-tea with a knife in her plush crucifix-decorated split-level, state that if Larry had been told how to act, and punished for acting out in high-heels, the situation, the murder, would not have taken place.  It's scary to think that these women (all of Larry's teachers happened to be women) and others lack the imagination and the moral apparatus to understand how Larry's love for a boy, and his happiness in both dressing like a girl and expressing that love, should not damn him to being shot in the head.  It's pretty easy math, even when it's overtly sentimentalized.  But something about Larry brings out the beast in people, and not just Brandon, but a whole society.

This society includes the jurors in Brandon's trial, which eventually ended up with a hung jury.  In Valentine Road we are privy to the after-trial thoughts of three ladies who were part of that hung jury.  These woman are heavily made-up, talking about how astonished they are at the low price of Cabernet at Trader Joe's as they swill it at a suburban dining table laid out with pastries and cheese and crackers.  An off-kilter chumminess has enveloped these three in a sort of tribal bitchiness as they talk about how Brandon really had no choice because of Larry's sexual harassment, how no adult stepped in to ensure that Larry would stop breaking the rules...  Their collective sympathies for Brandon, the killer, are breathtakingly nonchalant, as if they are discussing someone playing hooky.  It is both creepy and awe-inspiring, their lack of any kindness toward Larry.  They only see him as a thorn in Brandon's side, an obstacle to his future now.

Larry was a foster-kid.  Larry had no connection to the world outside of a few friends at school, and the one teacher in the film who felt compassion for him and who was actually with him in the computer lab when he was killed.  (She was summarily fired from her job because she gave Larry her daughter's prom dress to wear.)  Larry was an anomaly beyond abnormal to the majority of the people who were charged with educating him  His mere presence, however, fucked with their need to correct, control, convert.

Mary Gaitskill is one of my favorite writers, and in September she wrote a nasty takedown review of Gone Girl, a popular novel that's gotten a lot of attention.  In the review, Gaitskill talks about some of the same issues Cunningham gets at in Valentine Road.

"So why is Gone Girl scary rather than kooky? Primarily the characters’ apparently everyday behavior—their motivations and how they view one another. Amy and Nick [Gone Girl's main characters) do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of extreme artifice, and it’s exactly that extreme artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening.  What I mean by “artifice” is social language, styles, and manners, a public way of being that is by necessity coded, fixed, and hard, and which has become even more so through the emergence of the virtual world. In physical life, the hardness and (frequent) deceptiveness of such language is offset by the deep, doggishly honest presence of the body; in the virtual world, such animal presence is either absent or faked. Gone Girl doesn’t compare to other books so much as it evokes flipping through TV shows (including the news) and glimpsing face after chirping face, all with only slight variations on the same manner of speech and “smart,” high-speed delivery common to Facebook, texting, and tweeting; that is to say, the book evokes (impressively, one might argue) a hyperartificial, hive-minded way of relating, combined with what has become a cultural ideal of relentless feminine charm tied to power and control."

The teachers and jurors in Valentine Road who use Larry as a cautionary tale to any other freaks out there thinking they have a right to dress weird and tell people they love them are hive-minded and hard-faced, diligent in obeying some need to keep things static and coded and fixed and artificial.  That's what makes them "scary rather than kooky," and gives Valentine Road a moral imperative and its deep beauty.  In the middle of the movie, while they are chattering about "behaviors" and "sexual harassment," Cunningham cuts quietly to a picture from Larry's autopsy. 

She shows us the two bullet-holes in the back of his head.