Archive for ‘Art’

July 26, 2011

Cat Fancy… Unhinged

by karolinawaclawiak

Have you ever heard of Louis Wain? He was a Victorian artist who painted pictures of anthropomorphic cats. Cats playing ball and smoking cigarettes. Cats in Victorian garb, sporting monocles, playing trumpets and dancing wildly in posh party scenes. Comic strip cats, children’s books full of cats and cats running through postcards. You get the idea.

(Photo courtesy of http://www.wonderranchpublishing.com)

He started painting his house cat, Peter, to comfort his dying wife and continued on an artistic journey that would last a lifetime. Wain was quite successful, with double-page spreads in the Illustrated London News, books, awards. He was so well-known for his paintings of cats that he was elected as President of the National Cat Club after writing the book In Animal Land With Louis Wain. However, after World War I people no longer held the same interest in images of frolicking cats, perhaps the chaos of war couldn’t afford room for whimsy anymore.

(Photo courtesy of Fanny G Illustrations)

As popularity of Wain’s cat portraiture waned a new kind of energy started sprouting up in his work. Wain’s cats started betraying more and more anxiety, perhaps in response to the world around him. His cats suddenly had fear in their eyes, near panic, and a new kind of distrust. More than likely, they mirrored the frenetic energy taking over his own mind.

(Photo courtesy of BrixPicks)

Their anxious progression began to show the trajectory of Wain’s own mental illness as a diagnosed schizophrenic. His cats’ large, yellow eyes illustrated a consuming paranoia.

(Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo O.)

I’m continually struck by the eyes of his cats and how much tension, and ultimately terror, he housed in their small frames. Wain would later push himself further, creating such abstract work that the nearly pulsating lines only hinted at a cat underneath. (Photo Courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

Although he had a huge body of work the poor business decisions he made, such as failing to retain the rights of his own work, led him to destitution. Eventually, he was committed as his mental health deteriorated and in 1925 was found in a low-grade mental hospital by H.G. Wells. What did Wells do? Rounded up benefactors, including the Prime Minister, so that Wain could be moved to a better facility to live out his life in safety and comfort. He continued painting his cats through the end of his life. I recently found a Louis Wain quote from the IDLER(1896):

“I used to wander in the parks studying nature, and visited all the docks and museums. I consider that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.”

It makes me think of how writers and artists really have no choice but to convey their own peculiar views, no matter how strange the picture may be.

(Photo courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

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June 8, 2011

prepare to be amazed!

by Megan Abbott

Recently, I came upon a YouTube clip that felt like uncovering a childhood book at the bottom of an old box. One you don’t remember at all until you see its cracked cover and then every illustration, every odd turn-of-phrase, comes rushing back.

In this case, it was documentary segment dedicated to a miraculous structure called the Coral Castle. Located about 30 miles south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, it is one of those odd buildings—Mystery Castle in Phoenix and Winchester Mystery House in San José are others—that are the result of one “ordinary” person’s eccentric quest to create something extraordinary.

Coral Castle is the improbable—impossible?—product of one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant who cut, quarried, transported (ten miles), and raised the entire structure, which consists of more than 1,100 tons of coral rock, alone.

While, in that part of Florida, coral can be 4,000 feet thick, Leedskalnin reportedly used only hand-made tools, with no large machinery and no workers assisting him. Among much of the disbelieving press about the Castle—particularly during its early years—much nasty head-shaking was made not just over the fact that one man could build something like this, but that an “illiterate immigrant” could. According to the  Castle’s official website:

When questioned about how he moved the blocks of coral, Ed would only reply that he understood the laws of weight and leverage well. This man with only a fourth grade education even built an AC current generator, the remains of which are on display today. Because there are no records from witnesses his methods continue to baffle engineers and scientists, and Ed’s secrets of construction have often been compared toStonehengeand the great pyramids.

At a certain point during its long construction point, Leedskalnin opened his monument to the public, offering tours for 10 cents. Apparently, he even served up hot dogs for visiting children, the product of a pressure cooker he had invented.

The work of the Castle absorbed him from 1920 until his death in 1951.

The best part of the story, though (for me), is not the triumph of one dedicated (obsessive) man to overcome expectation, engineering, and our conceptions of what’s possible (though that’s pretty good too). It’s the reason why Mr. Leedskalnin built the castle to begin with. I bet you know why.

Like an “everyman” Charles Foster Kane building his Xanadu for his beloved. In this case a woman Leedskalnin referred to as his “Sweet Sixteen,” a young woman with the Dickensian name of Agnes Scuffs. At age 26, Leedskalnin was engaged to Miss Scuffs, ten years his junior, but, legend has it, she broke off the relationship on the eve of their wedding.

A fascinating (and to my mind, quintessentially American) figure, Leedskalnin was not just a sculptor, he was an inventor, a theorist on the properties of magnetism and a writer, the author of five “pamphlets.” Three are dedicated to “Magnetic Current” and one to “Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Life”  The fifth is called A Book in Every Home:  Containing Three Subjects: Ed’s Sweet Sixteen, Domestic and Political Views. In it, Leedskalnin writes about “Sweet Sixteen” as more than a single Agnes Scruffs but a symbol for the kind:

Now, I am going to tell you what I mean when I say, “Ed’s Sweet Sixteen.”  I don’t mean a sixteen year old girl; I mean a brand new one.

Later, he writes:

 …I want a girl the way Mother Nature puts her out.  This means before anybody has had any chance to be around her and before she begins to misrepresent herself.  I want to pick out the girl while she if guided by the instinct alone

And he expand to larger social views:

Everything we do should be for some good purpose but as everybody knows there is nothing good that can come to a girl from a fresh boy. When a girl is sixteen or seventeen years old, she is as good as she ever will be, but when a boy is sixteen years old, he is then fresher than in all his stages of development. He is then not big enough to work but he is too big to be kept in a nursery and then to allow such a fresh thing to soil a girl—it could not work on my girl. Now I will tell you about soiling. Anything that is done, if it is done with the right party it is all right, but when it is done with the wrong party, it is soiling, and concerning those fresh boys with the girls, it is wrong every time.

Indeed, Mr. Leedskalnin. Indeed.

(I do not remember any of these details of the story from when I first became fascinated by the castle—which I’ve yet to see!—at age eight or so. I’m sure, however, that, at that age, I would have taken due note.)

Mr. Leedskalnin never married. While he extended invitations to Agnes Scuffs over the years, she never did see the monument he built for her.

Postscript: I am sure there are folks out there who know much more than I do about Coral Castle (Dennis, help me!), or who have visited it. If so, tell me more!

May 24, 2011

More about Columbo-as-trickster

by Sara Gran
Columbo's warrant card and badge in the episod...

Image via Wikipedia

Megan left a comment on my last post that blew my mind a little bit; Columbo as trickster. Especially because I’ve listened a few times now lately–and will probably listen a few times again–to this interview between writer/amateur anthropologist Erik Davis and astrologer/writer/activist Caroyln Casey. In the interview they talk a lot about how the trickster relates to power–how the trickster doesn’t try to generate her own power to force her way through a situation, instead she playfully offers herself as a conduit to power to be used for the good of all (or something like that–listen to the interview!). Carolyn offers as one example, the idea of “fighting” global warming. Fighting, she points out, is what got us into this mess. Instead, why not use the language of the compassionate trickster? She mentions a friend who was trying to convince an Evangelical group why clean energy was important: do you want to run your cars on this black gunk that comes from very close to Hell? Or do you want your life powered by the pure wind and sun from above? To me, that sounds much more likely to work than trying to bully your way through. After all, everyone who has an opinion has tried bullying other people into agreeing with them–how well has that worked for you? Another way we often try to bring people to what we understand as “truth” relies on rational argument. But of course, such arguments only work if we agree on our premises, which we often don’t. Using metaphor, language, and other unexpected ways into people’s psyches might be a far more effective way to open closed doors. I was just reminded of this by something I saw on Twitter–someone who’s twitter-name was something like @teabaggersuck lamented that as the Tea Party wanes in influence he was losing his identity. A healthier scheme might be to not define your identity as “against” something but instead as “pro” what you DO like: maybe @ilovetruth would be a more sustainable, effective, and trickster-like online identity. Who would argue with @ilovetruth? Who would be in better position to speak with a member of a political party they didn’t agree with; @yourpartyblows or @ilovetruth?

As I think I mentioned before, the figure of the trickster is very related to that of the court jester in mythology (who may or may not have ever existed, but is now a part our cultural landscape nonetheless): the jester, they say, was able to speak the truth under the auspices of “humor” in a way that would have gotten others killed. His powerlessness was exactly the source of his power. Another element of the trickster is that he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he tends to give us what we need. Which of course, is exactly what Columbo delivers to his murderers.

I would argue that in a TV show (or book or movie), each character is an aspect of a whole self. Maybe while each of us has a “murderer” (ie, a part of ourselves so enslaved to appearances and material comforts and societal approval that it will literally or metaphorically kill another piece of ourselves to maintain that appearance), each us also has a trickster-y “detective” who has the ability to make us aware of our murderous ways, to ferret out the truth of who we really are, to kick the murderer to the side and leave us with a clean state for displaying a better, more moral, more interesting self.

Megan pointed out another tricksterish aspect of Columbo–Peter Falk’s role as mediator between the world of art-house cinema (Cassavetes) and the world of “trashy” (I say that with love!) television. Not many people would be able to contain all of these qualities in one vessel. But you bet your ass Peter Falk can! And this adds, I think, to his role on TV as not just a detective, but the detective we seem to remember above so many others.

Anyway, I’m babbling a bit, but I thought it was a such neat idea! Megan, is this at all what you had in mind or did I (as I so often do!) destroy your lovely idea?!

May 9, 2011

latches

by Megan Abbott

photo: Jon Crispin

Hat tip to Karolina Waclawiak, assistant editor at The Believer and one of our beloved guest posters for this fascinating online exhibit devoted to images by photographer Lisa Rinzler of suitcases (and their contents) left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region.

I lived for a year near Seneca Lake, where the hospital operated for more than a century (1869-1995), and it is lovely, haunting place that always reminded me, vaguely of Twin Peaks.

When the facility closed, workers uncovered 427 trunks, suitcases, satchels and crates in the attic of one of the buildings. It appeared many of them remained unopened since the patients (or family members) originally packed them for their hospital stay.

The stories of each suitcase, each patient, is a tale of mental health history but also those kind of universal tales of people whose circumstances limit their options, whose yearnings exceed those acceptable by their era, whose families abandon them or whom life treats with alarming cruelty.

But you almost don’t need the narratives provide (though they are unbearably poignant–many in need of help who never received any therapeutic treatment, and many who didn’t seem to need to be there at all, such as one young man, Roderigo, institutionalized from the age of 29 after a bout of depression. A note in his case file, written more than 50 years into his 64-year stay, says “years of institutionalization appears to be a mistake… as this man appears in perfect mental condition”).

The items themselves carry so much of the story. The intricately embroidered baby booties, penny arcade photos, the delicate lady’s tea-cup, a pair of ice skates. You can tell the story; somehow you know it.

A book followed the exhibition. And here’s a NY Times article about the exhibit, and some great pictures of it.

April 28, 2011

viruses, prions and how we decide

by Sara Gran
ROK Protest Against US Beef Agreement (US beef...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking a lot about viruses lately. I think Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “media virus,” or at least he was the first to publish a book with that name. This was a pretty big idea in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s–before Rushkoff’s book viruses were already a bit of a counterculture meme due to William Burrough’s fascination with them (which I won’t pretend to understand). The idea Rushkoff presents in the book is, if I remember right, somewhat different than the way it was often repeated–a media virus isn’t just a thing that replicates itself. It’s a kind of Trojan Horse that repeats itself without you knowing, under the cover of something else. For example, every few years Calvin Klein comes out with an ad campaign so shocking, risque, and child-porn-y that the ads generate protest and are pulled from TV and magazines. This isn’t an accident. The people who do advertising for Calvin Klein know exactly where that line is, and they cross it on purpose. Your media immune system wouldn’t let in just any old Calvin Klien ad, becuase you’re too hip for that, right? But your immune system will, maybe, let in a story about censorship or child pornography. So it lets in the news about the Calvin Klein ad. But you’re infected all the same–now in the back of your head is forever the idea that Calvin Klien is so groundbreaking and daring their ads get banned from TV. Last year’s media flu shot included the technology to fight “advertising,” but you didn’t get the shot innoculating you from “news items.” Does that make sense? Calvin Klein is using this idea for not-so-productive ends (advertising blue jeans and underwear), but all of us in media and the arts can use this idea for our own ends, too.

Grant Morrison, comic book artist and all-around magician, took this idea a step further: in an interview I read with him he said he wanted his work to be not like a virus, but like a prion. A prion is the thing that causes Mad Cow Disease. A prion is similar to a virus, but deadlier–it can do its damage for years before you even know you have it, and by the time you find out, your brain is permanently altered. There’s no going back. It’s a virus times a thousand.

As many of you know I’m a conspiracy buff.  Generally when we talk about conspiracies we talk about bad conspiracies–people working behind the scenes, in the shadows, to kill presidents and control the world economy and plant stupid ideas about Calvin Klein in our head. But there are good conspiracies, too–people working to plant viruses and prions in our culture that will help us expand our consciousness and expand our conception of what’s possible. I like thinking that we can take technology and tools designed to narrow our perspective and sell us crap and instead use those tools to expand ourselves. I like the idea that even out of the dumbest corporate stuff–a Calvin Klein ad campaign–we can find something to help us change the world.

A few years ago I felt like I was floundering a little and I decided to make a mission statement for my work, which came down to defining my virus. I write my novels because I love to, and I write other stuff for money (and I love writing that stuff, too), but I felt like I needed some clarity about what my mission was. Why was I writing all this shit? To give the world a peak into my filthy little nutjob subconscious? To make money? That’s not a very satisfying plan for life! I think we need something a bit meatier than that to be happy! When I was young and depressed I had a lot of ideas about how literature can offer solace and friendship, and I still have those ideas, but that’s not something you can happen on purpose–you just bare your soul and hope that someone out there, someday, feels less lonely for having seen it. That’s not really a goal you can work towards. And important as that is, I needed something more immediate than that to make sense of my life and my work.

So I made a mission statement like business people do. I’m not gonna tell you what that mission is, because that would take all the fun out of it. But it’s not about business or money. It’s about how (and when) we think and how we understand the world around us. So now, even when I’m working on something for hire–that is, not my original stuff but stuff I’m getting paid to do–I know what my mission is and I sneak my little virus/prion in there when I can. To be clear, I’m not talking about an overt or “subtle” (quotes ’cause it’s never really subtle, is it?) political or social message in my work. I think that almost never works. Instead I’m talking more about spreading a certain point of view about the possibility of things and the nature of the world and its boundaries. Knowing my mission (to spread my virus) has made working more enjoyable and made it easier to make decisions about which projects to take on and what direction to go on in the projects I’m already working on. For example, when I’m offered the chance to work on big mass media projects where I’ll have some creative freedom, that’s almost an automatic “yes” for me, because spreading my virus to the widest possible audience is on mission. And while making money is not the core of my mission, my mission is better served if I’m solvent. I always have a million things I want to write about, and I’ve always been a little frustrated about having to narrow these impulses down–there just isn’t time for me to pursue every creative project I’d like to. Now that’s much easier; of all my ideas (assuming I’m attracted to all of them equally) I pick the ideas that are on mission to work with. If I’m overwhelmed in a book and don’t know where I’m going, my first question is how the story is best served. But if there’s more than one answer to that question, as there often is, I can narrow it down further by asking which direction best serves my mission.

Of course, if I really wanted to work on an idea that didn’t align with my mission, I wouldn’t hesitate–the point of this exercise is to serve my writing process, not hinder it. As I’ve said before, my New Year’s resolution this year was to put my intuition first in all decisions, and I’ve been sticking to it. And I treat my writing as an art as much as a craft, so my inspiration is also up there in my decision making. So my decision-making hierarchy would be something like survival-> inspiration -> intuition ->  virus-spreading. If all of those things are in line, sweet. If not, I know survival comes first (if I’m living under a bridge that’s not very good for my mission!), then inspiration (in other words, what I feel like doing), than gut instinct/intuition (the two are closely related, so presenting “inspiration” and “intuition” as two categories here isn’t quite correct, but it’s the closest I can come), then the chance to spread my virus. Of course, other factors also come into play–possible collaborators, time and space constraints, obviously money–and the math on every project is slightly different. Knowing my mission–to spread my virus–helps make all these decisions easier. If it seems like I should make these decisions based on profitability rather than esoteric instincts, well, that’s actually not possible–it’s pretty hard to predict which projects will bring you out ahead financially in the long term.  So while that’s certainly a factor, it falls more under “intuition” than anything else.

Writers, artists, anyone else out there have a mission statement? Or a virus/prion they use? If not, how do you decide what to do when you hit a fork in the road, creatively and financially?

April 24, 2011

SUCKERPUNCH!

by Sara Gran
Comic-Con 2010 - Sucker Punch panel

Image by popculturegeek.com via Flickr

OK, I promise this is my last post on media for/about teenaged girls for, I don’t know, at least twenty-four hours. But, SUCKERPUNCH! SUCKERPUNCH! SUCKERPUNCH!

I thought this movie was tons of fun, and I had no idea how much people were hating this movie until my friend Tom Piccirilli mentioned it on twitter. Since then I’ve been skimming the reviews, which are abysmal. Fine, don’t like it. But what strikes me here is the strange and assured claim that this movie is sexist, misogynist, anti-girl, and has set us women back thirty thousand years. “Snyder is just a big boy with lots of toys. These, unfortunately, include his actresses.” I can’t imagine referring to my fellow grown women as “toys,” but we are, as always, assured that it’s the filmmaker, not the critics, who has a problem with women. “There certainly are no characters…It’s as if Snyder saw Inception while drunk or high and immediately sat down to write Sucker Punch…The actresses were apparently chosen more for their physical attributes than for their thespian talents or box office appeal. First, I admit I’m astonished that someone thought Inception had characters. Second, I’ll say it again–it’s the filmmaker we’re supposed to think is misogynist here? Seriously? I mean, true, very little dialogue here, but I was thinking that was because it’s an action movie, not because the girls weren’t good actors. The filmmaker, Zak Snyder, hired these women and paid them presumably millions of bucks to be in this film. It’s the critic, not the director, who has dismissed them in one clean stroke.

I think the critics are completely wrong here. Yes, there are girls in cute outfits, sexy girls, hot girls. It’s saddening to realize for how many critics, professional and amateur, the girls are now somehow reduced or degraded due to their attractiveness. Sure, we’d all like to see more movies where fat middle-aged people take home the prize (or at least we pretend we do, because when people make those movies very few of us actually go see them), but this isn’t that movie, and it isn’t supposed to be that movie. More to the point, I don’t think the fact that the girls are sexually attractive means that the girls are bad, or “unfeminst” (whatever that means, and truthfully I don’t really care), or “unrealistic,” or in any other way unworthy heroines. Babydoll, our heroine, is a classic Joseph-Campbell-ian hero, a point every reviewer, even those few who liked the film, seem to have missed. She is, as all great action heroes are, on The Path.

Being an object of men’s sexual desire is an almost universal experience for young women. It’s sweet when it’s the boy next door. When it’s your teacher or the boy-next-door’s dad, it’s not so sweet. It can be frightening and it can be a very shaming experience. I don’t mean to overly simplify what can be a complicated relationship. But often inappropriate attraction from men (in part because, for mysterious reasons, no one warns you about all the creepiness to come once you hit, say, twelve) can leave a girl feeling ashamed or as if she herself is the one who has crossed a boundary or done something wrong. It’s an experience that often leaves girls feeling like they’ve been kicked out of the club–the club of “nice” girls, the club of “ordinary” teens who don’t have to deal with full-grown men and their often frightening (to a young girl) sexual desires, the club of kids who are still kids. I guess the critics would like us to think this phenomena sprung full-grown, like Athena, from Zack Snyder’s mind. Do they think men don’t hit on girls? That that’s a directorial flourish? I think it’s powerful for girls to see, up on the screen, girls who have had this experience and aren’t ruined, passive victims but active and strong agents of their own destiny.

We all know that, generally, when we see such girls in films–girls who have been sullied with the stain of male desire, as if we all haven’t been so stained–they’re victims. Even in the most compassionate film, they exist to be rehabilitated into good girls again. Megan touched on this in her conversation with Gillian Flynn in the LA times. The only hope for these girls is to somehow de-sexualize themselves, as if such a thing were possible, or desirable, for any human.

But as all of us not-so-nice-girls know, rehabilitation doesn’t always work. That’s why Suckerpunch is great. The girls in this movie are both sexualized beings and action heroes–true, in real life I hope for a wider range of motion for all of us, but this isn’t that movie. The movie takes place in a series of collapsing/alternating realities, and in one, the girls are prostitutes, forced against their will to work in a kind of brothel/netherland/nightclub, unable to escape. A new girl comes in and leads them to try to save themselves, as she does in the other realities these girls inhabit. The girls fight for their own freedom and for each other. The girls sacrifice themselves to save each other.  As anyone who’s read my work knows, I do love a hooker with a heart of gold. But to see a girl who is explicitly portrayed as being a prostitute (ie, a girl who is “dirty,” “spoiled,” etc, as so many girls feel) take one for the team–not for the man in her life, not for the big brave detective (and don’t get me wrong, I love that story, too)–but for the other girls; well, I think that’s meaningful. I think it says something kinda cool and I’m not sure I’ve seen it before. Likewise the girls in this movie, though not perfect, are brave and loyal and stand up for each other. Every review I’ve seen, ironically, writes about the girls in terms of how attractive they are to teenaged boys (and the director). And yet in their accusations of sexism, they all seem to have completely glossed over the actual females they claim to be sticking up for. Because the girls in the movie, unlike the critics, don’t really seem to care about boys or sex or outfits at all. They seem to care about fighting for their mental and physical freedom, which develops into a fight for their lives. That seems to be where the girls are. It’s the critics who seem nearly obsessed with the fact that these girls are “hot,” and therefore somehow–what? Not feminist enough? Degraded? Impossible to take seriously? I don’t feel that way about attractive human females, and I bet you don’t, either.

The other really cool thing in this movie is the whole set-up, from beginning to end, is a bit of a trick–who you think is the star, isn’t. Again, one of the girls has/will sacrified herself for one of the others. A lot of reviews I read trashed this story line for its “fake profundity.” I rarely read criticism but in the little I do, this clever li’l analysis to be rearing its head a lot. An early review of  my own book, in fact, called my detective “self-important” (thanks, Kirkus!). It’s somewhat shocking how you can pretty much guarantee at this point that any attempt in pop culture to go even an inch deeper than, say, a typical episode of Matlock will result in a steady stream of insults. I actually think this narrative twist was, if not profound per se, thought-provoking, and certainly a little narrative jag I haven’t seen before.

Suckerpunch? Yes, SUCKERPUNCH!

April 21, 2011

Steffie can’t do much of anything: teen prostitutes, great clothes, and boredom

by Sara Gran
The Facts of Life (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

In an earlier post I wrote about how, despite growing up in one of the book capitols of the universe, going to a fancy private school, and living with parents who may be the only people I know who own more books than me, few books, shows, or movies made quite such an impact on me as trashy stories of kids who moved to New York City and fell into trouble. And that trouble was usually prostitution, drugs, or both. But it was prostitution that was the biggest threat–you could go to rehab for drugs, but you could never wash off the stain of having sold yourself. Iris in Taxi DriverChristiane F. Angel. A dozen after-school-specials. Tootie’s encounter with a teen prostitute on The Facts of LIfe (thanks, google!). Dawn, Portrait of a Teenaged Runaway. Go Ask AliceMary Ellen Mark‘s haunting Streetwise. Thousands of made-for-tv movies, hundreds of paperbacks, a million low-budget exploitive/educational flicks. From 1976-84 (somewhat arbitrarily), teen hookers seemed to be taking over the world. Or at least New York City.

What was the late seventies/early eighties obsession with hookers, especially young ones, all about? Let me be clear here that I am in no way talking about the lives of real prostitutes (of course, most street prostitutes have short life spans and come from a history of physical and sexual abuse and poverty and few options, while a small minority of working girls choose prostitution willingly as their chosen career). I am instead talking about the mythologized prostitutes, especially children, who came to us through popular culture (and also not-so-popular culture). It wasn’t just trashy runaways in Times Square–look at Louis Malle‘s Pretty Baby, for example.

To paraphrase something Megan said the other day, what were the eighties trying to tell us with these stories? I just re-read Steffie Can’t Come Out To Play, one YA teen-hooker tale that has kept with me all these years. I read this book entirely too young, maybe ten or eleven. A Publisher’s Weekly blurb inside the cover gives you a hint about the teen-hooker obseesion of the era:

“Let’s hope it won’t be banned where so many cautionary tales are, right where they could do the most good–in small towns where girls of Steffie’s age [14!], hardly more than children, leave home in droves for reasons like hers and fall into the same sordid trap.”

Really? 14-year-olds were leaving respectable small-town homes in droves to become Times Square hookers? I don’t think the statistics exactly bear that out.  I think there was a big dose of denial in this child-hooker hysteria–a denial of the reality that there were children who were indeed prostituting themselves, not because they felt like leaving their happy home on a whim, but because life had dealt them a very raw and unfair hand. There are now a lot of homeless children and teenagers in the Bay Area, where I live. Almost everyone I know denounces these kids as “fake,” whatever that means. It causes us pain when we see people in need and don’t help, so we make up elaborate stories to counteract that pain–those young homeless prostitutes have all kinds of options, they’re just spoiled brats!

But then, why the media obsession? Let’s look at  Steffie: Steffie is from Clairton, PA, apparantly the worst place in the world. “Clairton, Pennsylvania is a black-and-gray town. Even though most of the steel mills are closed now, you still can’t get rid of the black and gray.” Stephanie takes care of her parents, her pregnant sister, and her little brother, cooking, cleaning, and constantly wiping soot off the walls, with no end in sight. Who’d want to stay? I wouldn’t. She dreams, absurdly, of being a model, so she gets on a bus and goes to New York City. In NYC, she is almost immediately picked up by a pimp named Favor. Favor is insanely wealthy–three Cadillacs with custom-made hood ornaments, fur coats, giant apartment, gold jewelry, cash falling out of his pockets. Steffie and Favor have a whirlwind courtship (“I just kept shaking my head, imagining how lucky I was, running into this beautiful man so quickly, as soon as I got here!”) after which, you guessed it, there’s a price: “‘It’s not a free ride for you, baby,’ he said, shaking his head slowly. ‘You want a whole lot of nice things … you have to earn them. Everybody does…'”

We will set aside  how oddly reminiscent this line is of Debbie Allen’s famous bon mots from Fame, the TV show (“Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying–IN SWEAT.” And of course Cocoa in Fame, the movie, had her own teen-porn storyline.) So, Steffie becomes a prostitute. Which basically means a few yucky minutes a day and the best outfits EVER. Sex in this story, as in many teen hooker stories, is glossed over to the point of not existing. By the end of the book you get the impression that being a teen hooker is more about having the best clothes than about actually having sex. There’s usually a few sordid moments that highlight the young lady’s extreme desirability (the girl in question is almost always a top earner, not just any old hooker) and maybe one or two scenes of erotic and interesting kink, but rarely any actual sex (the “dirtiest” scene in Steffie involves the highly attractive and eroticized Favor watching her get dressed).

But listen to Steffie describe a shopping trip with Favor, a reward for her first trick (which she’s entirely forgotten, hazy as it was to begin with): “It was lovely and fun!…He bought me French jeans. They were skintight and looked wonderful. And he bought me a short skirt that looked like it was made of leopard skin and felt like it, too. And shorts the same material. And another skirt and another pair of jeans in a different color and a pair of high silver boots that came all the way up to my knees practically. They were the most fabulous things I’d ever seen. And they had high heels, too.”

Dipping back in, I’m struck that these books and media made being a teen hooker seem like basically the best life in the world. Lots of cash, attractive pimps, glamorous lifestyle, and all those clothes.  Hot pants and high heels, halter tops, miniskirts, spandex.  Can I still apply for this job? And is it possible what we thought was a sexual fixation was really a clothing fixation? Later, Steffie meets a hooker even younger than her in a jail cell and they compare boots. Even Christiane F., who was an actual child prostitute, devotes pages of her autobiography to her tight jeans, slit skirts, garter belts, and, of course, boots.

Another focal point of teen-prostitution stories seems to be the interactions among the girls themselves. Christiane F. devotes page after hypnotic page to gossiping about her cohorts. Angel, if I remember right, is on a mission to avenge the death of a friend. And Steffie’s downfall, ultimately, is not the grown men she has sex with, it’s the other hookers, who don’t like her. The teen hooker is in many of these scenarios in danger of being cut, scratched, pinched, or otherwise unkindly invaded by older prostitutes. I think there is something very telling in there about our relationships with our mothers, aunts, sisters and teachers–especially the way they can sometimes force entry into our very own bodies.

But back to Steffie. Steffie pisses off the other hookers for being younger and prettier (none of us have ever experienced THAT, right ladies?), a cop takes an interest in her and beats up her pimp Favor, and she’s thrown out of the stable with, tellingly, only the suitcase of awful clothes she brought with her from Pennsylvania: “Nothing else. None of my new jewelry, none of my new coats or jackets, nothing. The only new things I had were what I was wearing: jeans, a blouse, sandals. Even my pairs of boots weren’t there, Just my old clothes … my old Clairton clothes. My blue dress for Anita’s wedding … my old pumps…” (All these ellipses, by the way, are in the book.)  A cop points her toward a Convenant-House type place (minus the pedophiles, we hope) and the kind if frightful people there help her get home.

“There wasn’t any other place in the world for me to go. I really didn’t have any choice. But oh, I wanted to put it off. Just picturing actually being there … in my own house … made my stomach turn over.” Well, the thought of Steffie back in Clairton wiping soot off the walls kind of makes my stomach turn over too. Being a hooker didn’t work out for her, but don’t we have some better options? Couldn’t she, I don’t know, go to college? Learn a new skill? Go on an adventure?

And I think that might, ultimately, be the point. Life in the seventies and eighties was often grim.  Us girls didn’t have all the options we have  now. (And I’m not saying things were so great or even any better for boys–you had and have your own set of problems, but that’s for you to write about.) I can’t think of a single female writer we read in school other than Jane Austin and maybe a little Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ve written before about my obsession with Three’s Company, where the pretty women bordered on deaf-mute (and we’re not even going to talk about the horrifying specter of Mrs. Roper). Being pretty and smart was not on the program and niether of those options, frankly, was too appealing to being with. You could be the smart girl and spend you life buried in books and never have sex or you could be the pretty girl and be the deaf-mute object of desire, but at least you got to leave the house. The teen hookers in books and film were well-dressed and glamorous and tough and worldly and experienced and (Steffie aside) smart. They were no dummy like Chrissy or Farrah, and they weren’t boring like Janet or Sabrina. They wore bright colors. They had fun. They had sex. They knew things.

In the end, I think these mythologized child prostitutes were a spot our culture found to release the pressure of seventies grimness and limited choices and find something new–a new way of looking at girls, a new way of being in the world, and most of all, maybe, a new way of dressing–that is, a new way of describing ourselves, as women and girls, and showing ourselves to the world. I think our teen hooker obsession–mine personally and ours culturally–isn’t really about sex. I think it’s about clothes and how women treat each other and what we do with our lives  and how we make choices and the perilous times and good outfits that await us when we deviate from the plan and “run away from home.” We are often faced with a choice in life: safe, or interesting. I think our mythology of teen hookers is a mythology of choosing “interesting,” and I think the mythology tells us that we may not come out so clean and pure, but we can still come out of it wearing our favorite boots. And that’s pretty good, I think.

April 6, 2011

Wolves & wolfmen; Red Riding Hood, girls, and uncomfortable critics

by Sara Gran
Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated in a 1927 ...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s this town I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s somewhere on the border of England and Germany, right about where France meets Ireland. This town is deep in the woods–almost more of a settlement–where people live in stone houses with kitchen herb  gardens and chickens and goats roam in the town square. In this town it is always between, say 1400 and 1700. Wise old women brew herbal concoctions at the full moon (before they were all burned as witches, of course) and brave young boys and girls explore the woods. Farmers plant in accordance with moon and while there might be a Christian whitewash, this town is definitely pagan. If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed–it’s just the May Queen. In the spring there are maypoles and at yuletide there’s hot stew and divination for the new year with bones and sticks.

Of course, this place doesn’t exist, and it never really did. From what I gather, Ye Olde Europe was never really that cute, and the Druids weren’t necessarily so smart. And while Europe was, surely, pagan, those people burned as witches weren’t necessarily wise women or cunning folk or magicians–they were just the town oddballs, scapegoats, and wackjobs. But despite its lack of actual existence, this little Medieval town looms large in our psyche and our popular culture. Led Zepplin sang about it, Wicker Man took place there, and modern-day witches created a religion (Wicca) after it. This place–and I think most of all, its close proximity to the woods–fills some kind of a hole for us, a fantasy past-future where people lived in harmony with the phases of the moon and understood plants and spoke the language of birds and had yet to be corrupted by citified ways. And for those of us of European ancestry, it’s a way to indulge in these fantasies without any issues of appropriation or cultural theft spoiling the fun, as some of us might indulge in “othering” fantasies about, say, Native Americans. To be clear, though, although it’s an easy thing to make fun of, I think these fantasies are healthy.  I think it’s good for us to imagine a way of life different from this one, and I think it’s useful to envision how others might have done it before. We shape our reality around our daydreams, and this is a particularly charming one. I wouldn’t at all mind if it were real.

Which is why I think the critics, as they so often do, completely missed the point of Red Riding Hood, which I saw a few weeks ago and thought was a swell good-bad film. It certainly wasn’t high art, but I enjoy a bad movie that enjoys its badness and lack of pretention. But the critical reaction had a nasty edge to it that seems reserved for movies that hit a nerve (as the wonderful Ray Banks cracked to me on Twitter the other day, “Hope Peeping Tom doesn’t ruin your career like it did Michael Powell’s.”). For example, lot of critics commented on Red Riding Hood’s “unrealistic” sets. “Unrealistic” of what? Not a realistic representation of your fantasy Europe? There’s no “real” to adhere to here. It’s a fantasy of a myth, and the movie should be forgiven for having some fun with that. Likewise, the comparisons to Twilight (same director) completely missed the mark–sure, a young woman with two love interests does suggest a Twilight reference, but are people really that simplistic (I’m referring both to the characters and the critics here)? The real Twilight comparison, if you can come to terms with the fact that all young women are not interchangeable, is Catherine Hardwicke‘s lovely sense of trees, fog, and water, and her understanding of the agency, intelligence, and curiosity of young women, even in a silly, entertaining, fantasy.

Yes, like Wicker Man, it is a movie that enjoys its camp and fantasy. More interesting to me was the psychosexual relationship between Riding Hood and the wolf, who is in this movie a wolfman–a big distinction, especially for Riding Hood! The wolf doesn’t just want to eat Red, he wants to take her away and live with her–and when this comes out, Red is, as us girls often are, put to shame for the sin of being more attractive than we ought to be. In a haunting scene in this admitted fluff-fest, an iron mask is put on Red’s face, her riding cape–now her “harlot’s robe” –over her shoulders. When the true identity of the wolf is revealed it makes a sad, sick kind of sense, one you wish you didn’t recognize but ladies, you will. And when you see who Red ends up with–again, it makes sense in a way you sort of wish it didn’t. “Bad” movies and books (yes, I will again refer to V.C. Andrews!) often seem to be able to sneak this stuff in under the radar in a way that hits home more than “high art” can. And this seems to make critics squirm in their seats and bring out the scalpel.

People smarter than me have commented lately on the strong young women in recent films. When I was a girl, girls and women in movies and on TV often weren’t exactly people. They were deaf, mute, and blind; they were purely passive, receptors of desire with no agency, no hopes, and no backtalk–perhaps one reason so many of us ladies were drawn to the movies of the thirties and forties. Whenever I think of this topic I think of Three’s Company, a TV show I could write a book about (and will someday!)–it was constantly on in reruns when I was a child and I’m sure I’ve seen every episode a few times. Chrissie on Three’s Company (the highly intelligent Suzanne Sommers, who now writes somewhat technical books on alternative cancer treatments) was a pure incarnation of this type of female–people would make comments about her abundant breasts directly in front of her, to her face, and she seemed neither to hear nor understand them (is there some fancy academic/critical  name for this phenomena of female deaf-muteness?). it was as if her attractiveness was a physical or mental disability. I’m glad girls in movies and tv shows have sentience now, at least as much as anyone in mass media does. Now, maybe the critics could start trying to tell them apart…

April 2, 2011

More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze

by Sara Gran

I’m not really interested in exploring gender differences too much–I haven’t found gender to be a useful indicator of anything important about a person, like their honesty, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sense of humor, or the desire to stop the car at yard sales and fruit stands. So I’m going to use as many qualifiers as I’m legally allowed to in the following sentince: I have observed that some men, in many cases, have very different psychological relationships with their parents than some women. Most women I know talk about their parents, especially their mothers, pretty much all the time. We talk and talk and talk about our parents and all the ways they screwed us up and everything they did wrong and everything they did right and how much we love them anyway. Or in some cases, don’t.  And then we get over it and do what we want to do. The men I know almost never talk about their parents, especially their fathers. And when they do, it’s usually in a fairly neutural tone. I can’t think of a time when a straight male friend ever said: “My mother’s scarcity issues have really affected my  ability to manifest,” or “my father praised me for my intelligence but their was always an edge to it,” or “my grandfather beat my mother and so she overcompensated by smothering me.”  There are of course exceptions, but most of my male friends, when they talk about their parents at all, say things like, “My father was a banker,” or “my mother did the best she could,” or “it wasn’t my father’s fault.” I’ve never heard a woman say that.

But these men seem far more haunted by their parents, especially their fathers, than my female friends. Many of my male friends seem to be stuck in a kind of living dialogue with their parents, even long after those parents are gone. It sometimes seems as if their choices in life are determined by a reaction to a specter of these parents, a kind of poltergeist created from the very repression of criticism I’m talking about that knocks around and tells them what to do. And I think this possible-maybe-trend (again, there’s no intent to make a sweeping generalization here) is reflected in Peeping Tom. Mark is haunted by his father’s presence–almost literally, as he lives in his father’s house, has his fathers’ books on the shelves, and watches his father on film. But his father is never quite there. In the filmstrips Mark has of him he’s out of focus (Michael Powell himself played the father, creepily enough) and his voice is given a bit of an echo-y, ghostly, quality.  Helen, Mark’s love interest, lives with her mother (or at least in the room across the hall–I was a little unclear on the specifics) in close quarters: her mother is with her nearly all the time and the two are obviously close. But Helen’s mother doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on her. Mark’s father is long gone, but his influence is, obviously, far more strongly felt. And of course, for either gender, dead parents seem to haunt us more than the living. Maybe it’s harder to talk back to the dead.

Interestingly, Helen’s mother is blind. I don’t think a women would have written it that way. There is a strange way a mother has of looking at a daughter sometimes that can cut to the bone. Many woman friends, in our endless conversations about our parents, have described this to me as a kind of judging stare. It’s when a woman is doing something normal and she looks up and her mother is looking at her with that look and suddenly what she’s doing doesn’t seem normal anymore; it seems like what she’s doing is clumsy and wrong and suddenly she is not real and not solid and empty inside. I’ve only ever seen this mentioned in one book, a strange little Jungian book called Descent to The Goddess, which I still haven’t finished. This is a thing between adult women and their mothers, not children. I’m not a mother and I don’t quite get what this look is all about. I’m not sure it’s as bad as it seems. Maybe it’s more of a projection of daughters than a gaze of mothers. But I don’t think a woman writer or filmmaker would have imagined a blind mother; I think she would have made Helen’s mother sighted, and watching, watching, always watching as Helen and Mark’s courtship progressed. And always, always judging, and never finding Helen just quite exactly right.

By the way, I only watched a few seconds of this TED conference video, but it seems to be a real-life Raising Cain/Peeping Tom. Hasn’t this guy ever watched a DePalma movie?!? (“It wasn’t a box!”)

April 1, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

by Sara Gran
Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan

Image via Wikipedia

Megan and a few other smart folks suggested that to understand DePalma, you’d want to watch Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. So I did. Wow. As most of you know (I’ve realized most of my readers have a much better film education than I do), this is a movie about a filmmaker, warped by a psychologist father with a sharp gaze, who does some very nasty things in his free time. The DePalma influence is pretty obvious: filming, fathers, girls, murder, pornography, psychology, tension, random murderous phallic symbols (in all senses of the term, I think).

Here’s what you don’t know. I’ve been working on a few Unnanounced Media Projects, as I’ve mentioned before. This is pretty common when you’re a writer with some years and sales and/or attention and/or luck under your belt–people hire you to write stuff that hasn’t been officially announced, so you can’t tell anyone about it. (irrelevant but odd: most of these projects never see the light of day, and since the copyright is usually held by whoever hired you, these projects often dissappear into a black hole of never-happened and never-read). These projects could be comic books, films, advertising projects, ghostwriting–you can imagine the rest.

So I’ve been working on one Unannounced Media Project for about six months now, and the work has picked up speed the past few months–just about the time I’ve been immersing myself in Brian DePalma. But I hadn’t seen Peeping Tom until about a week ago. And in my project, I wrote: three characters who had the same professions and perversions of characters in Peeping Tom, three strange and specific items that are seen in Peeping Tom (I’m sure it will be OK if I say one is a jeweled brooch in the shape of an insect, to give an idea of the level of specificity I’m talking about), and a character who shares a not-everyday name with a character in Peeping Tom, and a number of harder-to-name similarities in tone, style, POV, and pace. One scene in particular could have been entirely lifted from Peeping Tom. Except, of course, I’d never seen it.

For a few years I’ve been interested in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who I can’t read at all, because I find him impossible to understand, so I just read about), and in particular one book by a Lacanian psychologist named Annie Rogers called The Unsayable–I’ve mentioned it often. This all reminded me of a story from the book: there was a family where the mother had a terrible secret, one she’d never told anyone, from her childhood. Years later she had a teenaged daughter, and the whole family was in therapy with Annie Rogers, and the mother finally confessed her secret. And the daughter burst out that she’d been having dreams about the incident all of her life.

I think it’s kind of incredible how we’re never saying what we think we’re saying, and we’re never hearing what we think we’re hearing. No matter how conscious you are, we seem to be incapable of really understanding the conversation we’re having with each other and with the world around us. And that’s probably for the best. Until you wake one day and realize you’ve been entirely wrong about exactly every second of your life, which happens pretty often and is always a little odd.