Saturday, September 23, 2017

Be Good

Sometimes you just have to marvel at things.  "Things" is a stupid word, but it works here because it is so wide-open and meaningless/meaningful and dull that it encapsulates the whole stinking universe while also shrinking the whole shebang into just 6 reliable letters.

I guess you could call ET a thing.  He was a puppet turned into an intense reality on the big screen in 1982, when I was 17, and living in a small Midwestern town, feeling lost and disjointed, floating from school to a part-time job to home to wherever else I needed to go.  No direction outside of what I kept seeing in my head, dreams about not knowing, dreams about leaving, dreams about the terrors of leaving, dreams about being a star.  I knew I was what I was:  lower-class/working-class and gay and weird and excited to be alive but also scared of letting people know any or all of that.  I also did not feel like I could connect to an identity that accommodated those crossed signals.  In short I felt like ET, a puppet and a real thing, lost in a world he was only supposed to be visiting.

That movie.  That thing.

Flash-forward to 35 years later.  I'm 52, living in a bigger Midwestern town with Bill, working a job I like, trying to write stories and a novel, running a little non-profit gallery, and so on.  ET comes out in a 35th Anniversary edition on the big-screen thanks to TMC.  We go.  I watch, and it all, as they say, comes flooding back:  that feeling of being lost/sad/excited. I realize that Spielberg created a existential security-blanket, not a movie, a sense-memory, not a blockbuster.  It is a puppet-show from a dream you have when you're small and sweet and innocent, and when I was 17 it made me lose it.  I was bawling my eyes out at the textures Spielberg found, that foggy dark night gleaming inside itself with window-light and moon-light and a kind of suburban night-light sorrow you can't really describe, a yearning cut through with love and hurt and above all a sort of kindness.  Pure kindness really, as if some beneficent imagination was fitted with a golden spigot and out flows those colors, those sentiments, those images, those moments.

ET has a plot, of course, about a spaceman coming to earth and getting lost and then finding solace and safety by following a trail of Reece's Pieces through the forest; it's also a coming-of-age gig too, with Elliott figuring out how to let go while also maintaining hope and wonder.  It's about a divorced mom trying to maintain sanity in the shadow of her husband who has just abandoned her and her three kids.  It's about a team of kids riding bikes around the neighborhood in order to save the universe.  It's about a little girl named Gertie who is told, at the end of the movie, to just "Be good" by the creepy/sweet stuffed-toy that fell from the sky and into her bedroom closet.

It's everything.

Watching it at 52 I reconnected to not necessarily my youth because I don't think I want to reconnect, but to a spirit of escape and return to that pure bliss most movies can't manufacture or even hint at. ET is a cornucopia of compassion, weirdness, hope.

And then the credits roll, and I remember me and my mom and my little sister getting up from our velvet-lined seats in the old State Movie Theatre in downtown Anderson, Indiana (a plush, old-school cinema that had seen better days, with fake-Greek sculptures lining the walls and a black-painted stucco ceiling speckled with electric-light stars, and that musty cool smell of better days staying on your clothes even after you leave), the three of us walking out into late-day summer sunlight, my face red and my eyes still pouring, and next door is a little Chinese restaurant we always went to, just like 5 or 6 booths, red-and-black decor, a Chinese family owned it, and the mother took the orders, the kids bussed the tables, the dad made the food, and me and my mom and my little sister sit down and I'm still crying, can't stop because of what I just saw, that stupid movie giving me a sort of traumatic sense of joy, and finally I stop and I laugh and I think by that time mom and sister are laughing at me too, and I order egg-drop soup, I always did there, and here it comes, somehow the same color as some of the light in ET, lush yellow, with flickers of white, you make this soup by boiling chicken broth and then dropping an egg in and stirring it real fast and it kind of explodes and cooks and turns into this creaminess, and I remember sipping that and recovering from crying so hard, and right then it was one of the best feelings in the world.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Holy Fool

"The Holy Fool or yurodivy (юродивый) is the Russian version of foolishness for Christ, a peculiar form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism. The yurodivy is a Holy Fool, one who acts intentionally foolish in the eyes of men."(More about Foolishness for Christ.)

Thunder-Sky, Inc. is sponsoring an art-show in tribute to Chris Farley on the 20th anniversary of his passing, opening October 14, 2017, reception 6 to 10 pm.  

So why him right?  

We've done tribute gigs to Prince and David Bowie and Joseph Cornell and Flannery O'Connor, and even William Blake, but Chris Farley? What is the point here?  He was a lost cause from the get-go, wasn't he? Just a big old mess all the way around, contributing his sloppy stylistics to an era of SNL many people would like to forget -- that early-to-mid-nineties wasteland of frat-boy-antics over-spill caused mainly by Adam Sandler and David Spade and Rob Schneider and Norm McDonald and Chris himself.  Some of those skits were so dead on arrival it made people stop watching the show for years.  Remember this? 

New York Magazine 1995 SNL "Comedy Is Not Funny" piece.

This article is a hatchet job, but still it got at the main idea:  in 1995 SNL was a laughing-stock, and nobody was laughing.  

Yet Chris Farley seemed somehow innocently and intoxicatingly outside of the fray and frazzle of it all.  He was the idiot savant, emphasis on the idiot,  an outsider figure in that overheated Adam-Sandler/David-Spade realm of smarmy meanness and formulaic antics.  He was making his own version of art by begging SNL writers to write skits for him in which he could humiliate himself to the point people could just not look away.  You felt sorry for him, you fell in love with him, you hated him and scorned him, it just did not matter.  He was in charge of his own foolishness, his own destiny somehow.  All through those sketches -- Chris doing that shirtless Chippendale's shuffle, Chris in drag eating fries and telling the other two Gap bitches to lay off, Chris sweetly asking truly numbskull questions of Jeff Daniels and Paul McCartney and Martin Scorsese on his own sad little talk-show, Chris on Update sweaty and super-serious letting us know he doesn't use deodorant with finger-quotes, and so on -- Chris was the center of attention, and he seemed to absorb the stares and laughs and humiliation and scorn like a morbidly obese, slapstick vampire, gaining super-strength from what did not kill him. Gaining monster-status and immorality too.

Of course his life was tragic, and stories of his self-abuse are notorious, the over-eating, the drugging, the alcohol bingeing, the whores, the self-hatred blossoming into a kaleidoscope of shame and hurt and eventual unintentional/intentional suicide.  But beneath all that John-Belushi-wannabe decadence and all the psychic wounds was Stupid Angel Chris.  That face.  That lovely sweaty huge face, eyes crossed.  So lovable you could only grab glimpses of it like the sun.

Consider Matt Foley, the door-to-door salesman who lived in a van down by the river, probably Chris's most famous iteration, created by Bob Odenkirk for him.  Suit does not fit.  Those black-rimmed glasses, the slicked back hair, that office-horse voice, that desperation to be a part of a family, any family, the simultaneous desperation to make the other cast members laugh.  In that initial skit, it was almost beyond belief some of that Matt-Foley prancing, the way Chris gave the scum of the earth so much energy and so much (for lack of a better word) dignity.  Holiness, if you will.  Yurodivy to the max. A foolishness for Christ (Chris, if you didn't know, was a great big Catholic and often returned to his faith for refuge from himself and his demons), a foolishness as well for mankind. Sounds lofty and dumb, but you know what?  "Lofty" and "dumb" easily merge in Farley-Land.  

Matt Foley, Holy Fool. 

I quoted the Wikipedia definition of that literary and religious trope above because it seemed somehow to get at Chris completely.  Above all else, Chris's art and performances were orgiastically "intentional."  He intended to find that moment of pure, ripe humiliation, an epiphany of shame, perspiration, despair, hopelessness, grotesqueness, all of that comprising a sort of horn-dog reverse-asceticism, a discipline of humor and also tragedy, the exact locus where they intersect and enhance/diminish each other.  He looked us right in the face within the form of all that is "not right": foolishness, fattiness, creepiness, et al.  And from that spiritual/aesthetic location he was able to create monumental amounts of bliss and absurdity and yup connection.  If you were worth anything, you laughed with him, not at him, but if you did laugh at him, well hell, the joke was completely on you.

That's why Chris Farley.  

So please if you'd like to contribute art to his and our cause, please do.  Send me an email if you're interested:  Work is due by October 7, 2017 at Thunder-Sky, Inc. (4573 Hamilton Avenue, Cincinnati, OH).  We'll be open 1 to 4 pm that day to accept.

Thunder-Sky, Inc. shares that same Farley ethos, I guess, if you get right down to it, that sense of Holy Foolishness.  Most of our shows bask in that glow:  we aren't after starchy echoes of culture or trends, not after what art is supposed to "mean."  We're after some kind of renegade and hilarious strangeness.  That strangeness is Raymond Thunder-Sky's legacy in fact.  

Consider Ray and Chris in that same epiphany of absurdity and oddness, humiliation realigned into triumph. 



Monday, August 7, 2017

The Master

I've known Antonio Adams for a long time, since 2000, when he was just out of high school. Back then he was a shy, skinny excavator of his own imagination, building robots, cats, humans, and other things out of whatever was around (wood, cereal boxes, construction-paper, sticks, glue). He had a huge kingdom of them in his bedroom back then, and Bill and I were able to help him show some of them in galleries around town. He also could draw and paint, and do so with great and effortless panache and sophistication. He maintained and still maintains a strict but breezy and voluminous output of art. He works constantly, but he never sweats it, always creating toward a kind of peaceful equanimity and aesthetic. A gut-level but brainy sense of absurdity and humor balances everything he does in his works, in his life and in his mind.

In short he's a working-class genius.

I don't toss around the word "genius" too much, so hang with me. Usually that kind of hyperbole creeps me out. But I really mean it with Antonio. He is a "genius," not in any "savant" or sentimentalized kind of way, but in a grass-roots, fantastically everyday manner. He's found a way to live that suits him and allows him to rise above a lot of crap that gets thrown at him, including a devastating house-fire in 2008 and the violent death of his brother in 2014. During those crises (and many others) he simply takes it all in, feels all the emotions he needs to feel very deeply, and then systematically turns his reactions into art. That's his practice and his salvation.

So now, in 2017, when not bussing tables at Frisch's, he's usually out and about on the city bus, showing up at art openings around town, hanging out at Thunder-Sky, Inc. (his headquarters) and making whatever he deems necessary in the basement there. He has figured it out in a way that's not heroic or showy -- just work-a-day, his brilliance often camouflaged in routine and straightforwardness. He does what he does without fuss. What he produces makes me smile and often feel awestruck because it all seems to come from a delicate and yet extremely powerful place. And it comes naturally from a reservoir of love, compassion, and intelligence.

Last night we installed a show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that is dedicated to that place.  "The Master of Loyalty Is in the Gallery Tonight:  Art about Antonio Adams" is a show being curated by Lindsey Whittle, and exhibits works about Antonio by artists who know and love him like I do. It was a pleasure to see these folks' responses to Antonio's ability to pull people together, to feel that kind of love for him. In the photo above, he's standing in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by all that love, and it totally reminds me of those first few moments when I came to know him back in 2000: Antonio in his bedroom, surrounded by that army of cat sculptures, as though he was simultaneously in the real world and inside his own head. Now he is in an art gallery being celebrated.

It's been a beautiful journey with him, from those first art shows in the early 2000s to starting and helping to sustain Visionaries + Voices throughout the rest of that decade, to opening Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009, to now.

Without him, there would have been none of this I don't think.

Please join us on August 12, 2017, 6 to 10 pm, at Thunder-Sky, for the opening reception of the show.


Friday, June 23, 2017

A Fable

Remember "The Grasshopper and the Ants"?  It's an Aesop Fable that haunted my childhood at least. Its simple and demonstrative narrative crystallizes a point of view that many people still find enchanting; the theme reinforces a self-aggrandizing mindset that allows you to shut the door on people. It's the timeless go-to water-cooler moment confirming trickle-down chic.

Here it is directly from Mr. Aesop himself (copied from the Library of Congress website):

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.  "What!" cried the Ants in surprise, "haven't you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?"  "I didn't have time to store up any food," whined the Grasshopper; "I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone."  The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.  "Making music, were you?" they cried. "Very well; now dance!" And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.  There's a time for work and a time for play.

That damn grasshopper and his music.  What  an idiot.  Look at him:  dancing.  Lord have mercy. Now those ants -- they know what they are doing.  

There you have it, every social ill configured for the masses in much the same way the debate is happening around the American Healthcare Act now being secretly drafted and insouciantly marketed by the Congress and the Senate and the President.  The powers-that-be have cast the whole narrative as a referendum on who deserves help, and who doesn't, and in the structure of the legislation their answer on who actually deserves what is pretty clear:  cutting taxes for the wealthy (the ants), getting rid of Medicaid by limiting its use and efficacy, therefore shutting the door on the grasshoppers of the world.  It's not let them eat cake anymore; it's let them dance.  Go on with your bad selves.

It's disheartening to say the least, but also somehow incredibly predictable, and as small-minded and solipsistic as just about any governmental move and mood has been in the history of this country. And the media respond in kind:  they cast artificial light on the "two sides" of the issue, and there it is again, that fable.  The grasshopper dancing (or marching or resisting or protesting) and the ants going about their business, closing down hallways with the help of police:

In the above picture is Stephanie Woodward of Rochester, New York; Stephanie, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, was outside Ant-in-Chief Mitch McConnell's office yesterday when police were called to haul her and other protesters away.  Fables aren't really that instructive a lot of the time; they just recycle old and worn-out truisms that are only true in a vacuum. They are often also a way to pat yourself on the back, concretizing the good and the bad into sweet figurines that fit into a little curio cabinet in a fuggy parlor in people's minds.  Here's the thing: Stephanie and many other folks involved in the actual repercussions of the policy McConnell and his army of ants are creating and trying to implement actually are not "grasshoppers" and can't be assigned an actual role in the American Healthcare Act's ongoing fable.  People who have disabilities need Medicaid not just for medical insurance, but to live their lives; it pays for all kinds of support that allow people with disabilities to contribute to their communities, to participate as citizens, to be in the world.  I know this because I help as best I can many people with disabilities of all sorts access those services, and I've seen the greatness that comes from that support.  And it can't be accessed in any other way, at least right now.  Charitable organizations and churches don't have the capacity; neighbors, friends and family try as best they can, but they get overwhelmed, and some people don't have that many neighbors, friends and family willing to help.  

It's complicated.  It ain't no fable.

I've seen people with disabilities use the community-based services provided by Medicaid go to college, get full-time jobs, get married.  I've witnessed people who were once isolated and ostracized given opportunities to blossom.  I really don't like to call anything a "miracle," especially 52-year-old government programs, but the funding that program provided and provides really did/does contribute to an actual and beneficial change in people's lives, and not just the people who are labeled, but everyone in their paths.  That support made the world a little better; it allowed people with disabilities to be seen and heard and to be able to take part in all kinds of activities/events/moments that were once unavailable, even unthinkable.  And this is help they could not conjure by themselves, no matter how hard they worked, no matter how much sun-warmed grain they stored.  

We all know "entitlement" is a dirty word now, but I feel like we might want to take that word back and re-imagine it as a concept totally worth fighting for.  Not because we're all a bunch of grasshoppers playing fiddles, but because we understand that people like Stephanie and a whole lot of other folks actually are entitled to have access to a world we all share.  And Medicaid is the connection, whether you like it or not.  If we want to have a conversation about how to make it better without decimating it, let's do it.  Otherwise what is the point?  

Yesterday I did something I don't like to do.  At all.  On Facebook I commented on a thread started by a local news station about whether "we should repeal or reform Obamacare."  What a delight.  I simply copied and pasted a short article from The New York Times about how Medicaid not only affects poor people, but how many middle-class families depend on it for their older family-members who are in nursing homes, an astonishing number actually.  

Many people liked my little comment, but one of those pesky ants chimed in:   My parents and my failure to plan for the future should not be put upon the shoulders of others.

I responded:   "Plan" and "afford" just aren't synonymous terms in the real world, at least in my experience. You may have had no failures in your life, and you may not need anyone's shoulders. Good for you. But many people do need help and I guess whether you like it or not we have to figure it out as a country. "Failure" and "disposable" aren't synonymous as well.

At the core of the morality in that Aesop fable is a sense of what is disposable and what isn't; there's a strong whiff of utilitarianism coming off it, as in if you can't fend for yourself, why are you even alive? Why are you here on Earth?  That's also a central underlying message in the American Healthcare Act as it is now:  legislatively it chooses who should have access to health and life, and who shouldn't.  It closes the door succinctly on so many lives it puts those ants to shame.           

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mystery Machine

The crowd on opening night of "Otherwise." 

Mr. Ben Clark in front of his work.

Keith Benjamin's tabletop genius, with Richard Emery Nickolson's and Ben Clark's
drawings on the wall behind and adjacent.

Keith Benjamin, Richard Emery Nickolson,and Ben Clark's brother.

Basement fundraiser for human rights happening at the same time.  Thanks to Holly Prochaska.

Keith Benjamin's work, with Ben Clark's on the wall.


A mirror piece by Keith Benjamin greets everyone.  Below are other shots and angles of the show:

We just opened a show called "Otherwise" last night, and it was a blast.  Down in the basement was a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and Southern Poverty Law Center.  The joint was packed.  What I want to concentrate on though is the "Otherwise" show, which presented works by Keith Benjamin, Ben Clark, and Richard Emery Nicksolson.  It was so much fun installing and organizing their works together that it felt as through all 3 gentlemen had worked on being in an exhibit together without actually know it, like they'd combined their visions into a perfect puzzle we could solve.  

We stumbled across Ben Clark's work at InsideOut Studio in Hamilton, Ohio, last year; it's a storefront space downtown that houses both a gallery and a studio for artists with developmental disabilities.  As soon as we saw Ben's work we knew we'd need to figure out a show.  I'd seen Keith's work in shows at PAC Gallery and the Carnegie, and Bill had reached out to Richard, who was his drawing professor back in the 80s at John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.  

Richard's stark, perfect renderings of smokestacks, cranes and sky-wires have such an intense precision they read like imaginary movie stills, cinematic moments frozen into pen-and-ink telepathy. Keith's gorgeously and deceptively simple sculptures pull together tossed-aside materials like torn t-shirts and commercial packaging and rearrange and repurpose those things into objects that feel almost on the edge of utility but somehow find a poetic escape from it. Ben's paintings combine both Richard's intense connection to atmosphere and scenery with Keith's nervy, heightened appropriation of everyday objects; he creates totems from road signs, myth from strip malls and maps.  

Inside "Otherwise," you go from a minimalist, frenetic drawing of the Scooby-Doo gang's "Mystery Machine" to an almost sinister smokestack vibrating against a stark white sky, to a fresh, smooth wooden table covered in what appear to be delicate nostalgic maquettes of dream buildings constructed from stuff you find in your basement on a rainy day.  

All of the art in the show has a classy handmade/homemade aesthetic to it; all three artists have accomplished their missions by paying close attention to what's already there and transforming it all into a beautiful kind of strangeness.     

Sunday, March 19, 2017


The Backstreet Cultural Museum is nestled inside a house in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans.  Bill and I finally were able to make a visit last month when we there, and it's one of those experiences that's hard to convey, outside of just showing pictures and describing the feeling.  Here goes. 

The door wasn't locked, the open sign was out, so we just walked into the place.  The front-rooms are the actual museum (with a claustrophobic hallway lined with black-framed newspaper articles leading into a little kitchenette).  Two front-rooms are stocked with enough Mardi Gras Indian costumes as to make your head spin in a gleeful, dreamy manner.   On the right is a folding chair next to a little fan with a sign that says "10.00 per person." 

On that morning we went no one was around.  A sense of vacancy, all these costumes and history left unattended, gave the whole visit a ghostly sweetness.  (We met up with Sylvester Francis, the owner and proprietor, on our way out; he had gone to the store.  So we were able to pay him in person for the visit, as well as get a selfie with him, see above.)  I felt cushioned inside all the feather and beads there, those outfits giving off more than vibes, a sort of radiation you can't Geiger-count, or even understand.  All that work, all that thinking and sewing and doing.  

Up close the Mardi Gras Indian costumes read both show-bizzy and heart-breakingly homemade, astutely constructed and yet firmly dedicated to "prettiness."  In fact, "pretty" is what the makers of these works are going for -- it's the highest form of compliment in Mardi Gras Indian culture.  (If you don't know the history of all this, check it out here: Mardi Gras Indians.)  Basically, Mardi Gras Indian culture is an African-American self-made New Orleans tradition in which "tribes" of artists and performers construct voluptuous costumes from feathers, beads, and whatever else is needed; subject matter for each outfit is based on regional histories and other ideas.  Once the costumes are complete (it takes months), the makers and others parade around on certain days, seeking out optimum moments of grandeur and exposure.  The whole thing started in the 1880s, but also has some historical connections to slavery and Congo Square in the 1700s New Orleans, a site where African-Americans folks were "allowed" to party and play music for a certain period of time, flaunting their culture and humanities even while they were enslaved.  

So all that gorgeousness, like a lot of beauty, is anchored in horror and survival, and yet when you witness the costumes up close you only are in awe of the work, by the sheer funky fluorescent profundity of each effort, each stitch.  I could go on.  The Backstreet Cultural Museum allows  "art" to get real, without getting self-righteous.  

Bill was on a panel last week at the Cincinnati Art Museum concerning "artists and social justice," and while it seemed like a valiant effort on the parts of everyone who participated, I kept feeling antsy listening to the talk.  Bill was antsy too up there on the stage, trying his best:  how does art really contribute to cultural and social salvation?  I mean, for real?  How do artists matter in a world going to, well, kind of going to hell?  Bill mentioned "humor," and his personal history, his connection to people with developmental disabilities, how we are all equal, how that has to matter. That seemed pretty sane.  But a lot of the other panelists went a little loftier, tried to draw some conclusions, some abstractions, and I think that's why I'm writing this right now, why I wanted to revisit Mr. Francis's joint.  

The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a funhouse of sacredness, a tribute to surviving, but also a celebration of the intricate and somehow heady process of "prettiness."  Each bead and feather is a way to understand "social justice" in that little house on Henriette Delille Street.  The Mardi Gras Indian pretentiousness devours pretentiousness.  It's a working-class code of departure, of dedicating time and effort toward style, glitz, and escape, and yet also a return to personhood, to identity, like drag, only the end result here is spectacle beyond spectacle, turning the streets into theater, but a kind of theater that transcends theatricality.  It's homespun, visceral gaudiness.  It's screaming and laughing and carrying on, faced with unfairness and bull-shit politics and history and poverty and so on and so forth.  But it's not by any means fussy or self-involved or pedantic or even literal.  Those costumes reverberate with a strange magic you can't qualify.  That strangeness allows all of us to feel how odd it is to love without knowing what's being loved.  To be alive and full of love and energy and spite and power and creativity:  to be heroic just walking down the goddamned street.  

That's about all I have to say.  

Except, thank you very much Sylvester, and God bless you.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Get the Hell Out

Get Out is a movie built from other parts of movies, a pastiche/celebration of horror and other genre tropes.  Yet it doesn't feel at all derivative or superficial.  The writer-director Jordon Peele (of Key and Peele fame) has the goods.  He's a stylist with something very important to say, and that blending of subject matter with technical prowess is exhilarating to witness; in fact it's the overarching reason why movies themselves are so important, so influential.  Peele cannibalizes Rosemary's Baby, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs (just to name a few) with abandon and glee, skillfully slicing and dicing moments and dialog into a meta meditation on horror movies and race and otherness and whiteness and privilege, until by the end of Get Out you are hooked and sunk into a world totally manifested by Peele's intelligence, wit, and anger.

But he doesn't just riff on horror movies.  That would be too easy.  Interspersed within the glittery, gory, Grand-Guignol fetishes are bits and pieces of Woody Allen movies and even a sort of Merchant-Ivory attachment to comedies of manner.  He's out to skewer, but also to humanize what it means to be shut out of the ruling class in a way that's not so much about hate as it is adoration, a belittlement based on fear and envy.

The story is pretty simple, like all great horror movies.  Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya, even better than he was in Black Mirror) has a white girlfriend (Alison Williams, just plain perfect), Rose Armitage.  Chris and Rose are going to visit Rose's family for the first time, and guess what?  She hasn't told them he's black.  Once they arrive (after a run-in with a deer and a policeman), the gaze of the movie sets its sights on the opulence and appurtenances of Rose's mother and father (both doctors) and her douche-bag of a brother.  Here we have the reversal of tropes: freakishness in the guise of white-people in posh circumstances, with Chris the horror-movie innocent negotiating the strangeness and ickiness.  The "ickiness" is most on display when other Armitage family and friends visit for a dinner party wherein they put on the happy-happy smiles of white people welcoming a black person into their midst.  The arrogance of the scenes here topple into the grotesque; each of the rich white folks at the party finds ways to compliment Chris on his athletic prowess, his muscular beauty, his genetic strengths.  It's not about pushing him away; it's about somehow owning his identity without wanting to know him.

That's the crux of the horror here, that dinner party by the lake.  It has the fever and fright of everyday embarrassment and condescension merged with the promise that the paranoiac atmosphere will soon boil over into sordid hypnotic realities:  abduction, enslavement, basement brain surgery.

Get Out's plot is funky enough to be both genre frenetic and yet perfectly, coolly satirical.  Peele never loses sight of genre-movie pleasures, while also  using them to help us feel and understand what it means to be shut out of the world, completely ostracized, while also being smiled at and cajoled and patted on the back.  Rose's dad, after all, would have voted for Obama's third term if he could have.

Within this maelstrom of manners and terrors, our avatar is beautifully performed by Kaluuya.  He's the center-point here, and as we follow him through his paces we start to understand the totality of all the little humiliations he has to go through.  The smiles that kind of make you feel sick.  The ongoing onslaught of conversation that has nothing to do with who you are and yet everything about who they think you are, or at least they think you should be.  Kaluuya's brilliant, intelligent eyes shine out of all that bullshit, as he tries to remain rational, as he tries to remain alive.

I never really liked Key and Peele's sketch-show on Comedy Central too much.  It always seemed to be trying way too hard to make points that have already been made, and the more they went at it, the more tiresome it got.  But Get Out is the complete opposite of that kind of exhaustion; it has a freshness to it, a sense of righteousness devoid of self-righteousness, exercising a brand of humor that's both ghastly and completely optimistic, unique.  After you see this movie, you feel smarter somehow, edified.  Most movies don't have the guts or brains to edify anyone.  Get Out has guts and brains galore.  It skewers (literally at times) a brand of poshness and stupidity heretofore often left out of horror-movie villainy:  pleasant, professional white people in palatial lake-houses, stirring their cups of tea, smiling like they have everything and know everything, and are just waiting to let you have it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Blizzard Stew

We're doing a show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that commemorates the blizzard that swept through this region in 1978.  Opening January 7, 2017, it's titled "Thunder-Snow," and about 30 artists from across the area have contributed works of all kinds (poems, paintings, sculptures, drawings, you name it), delving into their memories and dreams about what it felt like confronted with all that colossal snow-fall and fury.  Evidenced by the blue-and-white-tinged nostalgia and comfort depicted in many of the works, the '78 blizzard, nicknamed "The Great White Hurricane," somehow yielded its own form of community:  neighbors who barely spoke to one another in the sunlight helped dig each other out and families got reintroduced to one another, surviving together as opposed to "living together."  The whole world seemed altered, at least for the time it took for the snow to fall, the wind to turn the snow into castle-sized drifts, and eventually for the air to warm and melt it all away.  The stories behind most of the works are next to each piece on the wall in "Thunder-Snow."  Those narratives really are what the whole exhibit is about.  The stories we tell ourselves before, during and after crises, those images and smells and tastes we commit to memory and then somehow lose, flood back when given an opportunity, a reason to reinvent and retrieve them.    

Blizzards isolate, turn people inward, and yet due to their catastrophic nature they cause people to reach out for help.  That contradiction is what gives, I think, the Blizzard of 1978 its force of inspiration:  there was no running away from it, only trying to figure out how to live through it.  One of the pieces in the show is more of a "happening," in that Sharon Butler is asking folks to write down what they ate during the storm and then she will be making versions of those recipes for a closing-event dinner.  Food, of course, is central to a blizzard story.  What's the first instinct when people hear on the news that snow's coming?  Rush to the grocery store, stock up for "the white death."  In the '78 storm, though, many people didn't have the chance to make a run for food, so they had to figure out how to make what they had on-hand into something that would get them through. That's what happened with my family.  I always remember my dad making this really salty but somehow totally delicious stew the third or fourth day we were cooped up.  I was 13 at the time. I think all we had left was some bacon, old shriveled potatoes, pinto beans, garlic salt, maybe an onion. So he made this soup for us.  He didn't really cook when there wasn't a blizzard; my mom was the cook. But he got bored and hungry and just decided to do it.  We were all like that, cabin-fevered and hungry.  He fried the bacon, cooked the potatoes, soaked and cooked the beans.  It was just this taste of salty warm water, the potatoes going creamy, that bacon/garlic residual lining the inside of your mouth.  And out the window all that white.  We weren't a real close-knit clan, and I don't have a lot of sentimental-happy memories stocked up, but that one comes at me with a warm and elemental authenticity.  Remembering that stew he made helps me understand that you often have to focus on something peripheral and real to get at the bigger truth, whatever that "bigger truth" might be.      

E. E. Cummings once wrote in one of his poems that the "snow doesn't give a soft, white damn whom it touches," and I think that's what makes a blizzard of the magnitude of the '78 one such an epic moment.  That snow is a reminder of how much nature really could not care less about your problems, or even your existence.  That essential epiphany of how small you are allows you to reconnect with what makes you human.