Monday, April 21, 2014

To Be Or Not To Be

I've just come off of reading a series of Facebook updates from a friend and former instructor of mine who recently finished a dissertation (and by the time this is published, will have given his defense, a public event of awesome that I'll be attending). His dissertation is on the culture wars and social organization and how it's really, really hard to talk about people about stuff when you disagree because we've got an "Us vs. Then" mentality and it totally sucks. There's WAY more to it than this, but this is the super, super Spark-notey version so that there's at least some reference to where my brain space is at in the moment. It ties in really well to my previous discussions about class and art and privilege and, given I can't look at Tumblr today without feeling like everyone hates everyone and no one can have a rational discussion about anything, it's a necessary reference in order to kick this post off.
Here's the deal: as you might know, if the internet tells you lots of random things about British celebrities as it does for me, that Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing the title role in Hamlet next summer in the Barbican in London. This then proceeded to kick off internet reactions to this casting. While I didn't see a lot of reactions, what I did see was really interesting.

I'll start with a blogger I more recently followed, a college student studying English who is very clever, very opinionated, and very passionate about Shakespeare. While I don't agree with everything she says, I like seeing her views. Which was essentially how I had to respond when I saw her posting about the Barbican Hamlet. It was pretty insulting to Cumberbatch, essentially describing the casting as self-indulgent for him. But when another person responded to her post, describing how productions could be more interesting if they stacked their money into a different kind of production. The blogger agreed, understanding how theaters want to draw off of big names but "at an established venue like the Barbican, why perpetuate the tiny circle-jerk that is The Great School of (White Male) British acting when... they could actually do interesting or even, y'know, relevant things." Upset about theater not taking as many risks as it could, she described how she felt "forever annoyed by complacent theatre enforcing its own complacency and then congratulating itself."

Given my last blog post, I'm inclined to agree with her a bit. Yeah, theater doesn't always take all the risks it should. Yeah, there's an issue with the fact that a lot of major popular theater actors are white. Yeah, doing a traditional interpretation of Hamlet can be kind of troublesome, especially when something a little different could be a lot more powerful. But these aren't things that can be blamed on the actors and going after Cumberbatch is rather harsh and underhanded. It gets more troublesome when in a later post the blogger discusses Tom Hiddleston's role in Only Lovers Left Alive and how he drew a great deal from Hamlet for his character of Adam. The blogger proceeded to discuss how, if the Barbican "must do a boring production of Hamlet" it would be better if Hiddleston were the lead rather than Cumberbatch because "we'd get an actor literally making fun of Hamlet while he's embodying him, and that's all I want out of normative productions of Hamlet." Leaving out the pitting actors against actors (which I'm not a fan of) and the fact that it seems like Cumberbatch gets a lot of rebuke and Hiddleston gets none (I mean, I think you'd have to try pretty hard to hate Hiddleston but I still don't get why Cumberbatch gets so much), I'm still kind of inclined to agree with the blogger here. Yeah, Hamlet's kind of a jerk and playing him with some satire makes it easier to work with. But this leaves us with two things: adaptation of plays and the prejudice of casting Cumberbatch (which is tied to subpoint one - the issue of blaming Cumberbatch for all of this in the first place).

But first, interpretation Shakespeare. I'm inclined to say that there's really no wrong way to interpret Shakespeare, because I don't want to say that anyone's view on the story is incorrect or that his very complex, multi-layered, sometimes unfinished plays cannot be read in a mass, endless variety of ways. However, I will say that there are some bad ways to interpret Shakespeare. Making Merchant of Venice extraordinarily anti-Semitic. Bad. Making Othello abundantly racist. Bad. Enjoying and reveling in the misogyny that occurs in Taming of the Shrew. Bad. That's not to say these themes don't exist in them - they most certainly do - but to stage a show that makes the players and the theater company as a whole look racist, intolerant, and generally not very good people is not good for theater-goers, business, and the culture of the world at large. In traditional stagings, this is usually dealt with in a manner that leaves the play intact, but tweaks something - adding an extra line at the end of Shrew to turn the whole tale into a representation of how misogyny is bad for everyone, or using racism as a motivation for Iago's horrid scheming in Othello. For some, this isn't enough. Sometimes, it's seen as better theater to do something far more adventurous. Why not make Othello take place in modern day Chicago and deal with racial politics there? Why not rework Twelfth Night so it's a story about gender identity and overcoming gender normativity? This is probably not all that unfamiliar - finding different, unique ways to stage Shakespeare to explore different themes.
This, however, relies on something very important - how we read and interpret Shakespeare. I believe that how we stage Shakespeare says more about the people producing the play than Shakespeare himself and it's interesting to see what people come up with, especially given the cultural context (c'mon, Coriolanus is too timely for it to have just been chosen because of reasons. It's not even that popular (which is damn shame. We should fix that)). When we chose to do stagings, regardless if they are more traditional or more contemporary versions, we regard certain interpretations over others. Perhaps we have more sympathy for Richard III because we believe that peoples hatred of him led him to be such a foul person. Maybe we think that Henry V has little too much tyrant in him to be a complete hero and we bring those instances out. Maybe we think Romeo and Juliet would be better story if the protagonists were gnomes (yes, Gnomeo and Juliet is a real film. I haven't actually seen it, but I heard it was cute? But I can harbor a guess that it has a far happier ending than the source work).

Regardless, reading Shakespeare's plays causes us to have opinions about his work because he doesn't come out and make it completely apparent what is characters are like. They are complicated and contradictory - rather like non-fictional people. And when it comes to a play like Hamlet - which is very focused on the character and his thoughts - we have to make a lot of decision on how we see him.
Hamlet, I would reckon, is Shakespeare's most popular and most performed play. I deeply believed this in high school, after reading it on my own and finding how much I related to the angsty, glum prince of Denmark. I was however furious when my AP English Literature teacher refused to teach  Hamlet because she hated the play. I was livid - how could anyone hate Hamlet? I have henceforth decided that this was a misstatement on her part. Perhaps it wasn't that she hated the play, but that she hated the character of Hamlet.

Hamlet is not exactly likeable. While he has some family issues of epic proportions, his methods for dealing with them aren't extraordinarily great. Depending on how you read his lines, he's an absolute jerk to Ophelia. I've described him as the original emo kid and I'm not taking that statement back - as a high school student surrounded by the cultural expression of emo, Hamlet definitely fit that bill.
There is, however, a lot of importance in how you read Hamlet's strange lines. He could be shunning Ophelia at some instances, or trying to protect her, or both at different times. He could be imaging his father's ghost or really seeing a spirit from another realm. He could be faking his insanity, or completely losing his mind in a world that has already gone mad. Most of the time, it's really your call as the reader/stager/audience member.

So, when it comes to saying that it won't be interesting or relevant if something different isn't done with it, I'm not sure I completely agree. While it's true that doing a conventional staging may - and I stress may, because it doesn't have to - leave out opportunities to discuss contemporary issues, I don't think that necessarily makes it not relevant or interesting. I find that Hamlet is one of the most relevant plays because it deals so much with youth, with change, with fear, and with family turmoil. These are things young people constantly struggle with. But again, this is just my reading. However, if the argument is that stagings, regardless of their style, need more representation of different people acting-wise, then I hear you loud and clear. This is a serious issue with those that think "traditional" Shakespeare is a reflection on the appearance of the actors rather than the appearance of the script. However, I hate to see the actors being blamed or pitted against one another for this when it is a casting and production issue.

Which finally bring us to the casting of Mr. Cumberbatch overall. Regardless of my fanish tenancies, as a would-be theater producer, I can't argue that Cumberbatch is an immensely talented actor and will likely perform the role very well. However, as a different blogger said on Tumblr, he won't be the Perfect Hamlet, because there is no such thing (I didn't realize this was an issue. Again - millions of interpretations. I like this concept and am going full speed ahead with it). The blogger than continued to say,
There’s no predicting what performance decisions he’ll make, but I imagine that his will be the smoldering, cerebral, angry Hamlet. The Hamlet who’s been raised all his life in preparation for kingship, and then finds that as he nears the end of his post-graduate education (so to speak), in his thirties and impatient for the crown (no matter how he loves his father), that the throne’s been snatched out from under him...This isn’t my personal headcanon Hamlet; I prefer adolescent half-formed Hamlet, teenage Hamlet back from college.This was Ben Whishaw’s Hamlet, and he said the smartest thing I’ve heard anyone say about the role: “I think out of all the parts I’ve played, that one feels the most transparent. When you go and see it, you’re seeing something of the actor…it’s not a mask you can hide behind.” The actor doesn’t become Hamlet, Hamlet becomes the actor. So I’m not going to see Benedict become Hamlet, I’m going to see Hamlet be Benedict. Which will be a very interesting—and beautiful—thing to see.
I've bored you all with a lot of text. This requires a gif.

Yes, indeed this. Even if you think that Benedict Cumberbatch is not a very good person and you wish Barbican had cast someone else, I believe that he deserves a fighting chance. I've heard that this is a role that he's wanted for a very long time - and hell, it's the Shakespeare roll that many, many actors dream of playing. There's also a personal level to theater and blaming an actor for how they choose to perform role can be unreasonably harsh. Given that we know nothing of how Cumberbatch will be performing the part, as mentioned above, and as rehearsals haven't even come close to starting, it all seems very strange to me. Why is there so much anger at Cumberbatch for this? Yes, perhaps it's a bit unfair that a big name actor got the part instead of an up and coming actor. Yes, maybe the suspicions of how casting work in the complex theater world is a bit disconcerting. Yes, maybe you don't like the direction that this staging is taking. That's fine and all are possible concerns. But why react with so much hate towards an individual who doesn't make the final call for what goes on stage, who didn't choose to play the part but was selected, who deserves a moment or two or more of admiration for his dreams being realized. I don't deny that Cumberbatch has said problematic things or that this perceived "White Male British Acting" group is an issue. But I do think it's unfair to lambaste him for a role he's yet to even perform. Pointing him out as a enemy (rather than treating the structures around us as troubling) refuses the chance to work issues through with him, point out what works and what doesn't work in productions of Hamlet, and how the theater world is flawed, things that could happen when working with him. Whose to say Cumberbatch won't take risks in his performance? Whose to say it won't be a really riveting staging? Who knows?

These are the struggles though, of being a fan of things and and being a fan of people yet still trying to recognize and work to fix the problems of culture. And so it shall continue on...

But I've arrived at another question for myself: why is it that I grapple with such issues here, anonymously pulling from other blogs, instead of actually interacting with them and working through the issues together, however mediated it might be. Am I merely throwing out issues without really addressing anything constructive about them? But this ties back to the dissertation of the century I mentioned at the beginning of this very long post, and that's the fuel for Friday. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Beware of Artists, Part 2

Several weeks back, I went to an information session after signing up to be an usher for the Hennepin Theater Trust theaters in Minneapolis. I have yet to actually participate in any of their events or do any ushering because I have motivational issues and am not as enthused about the whole thing as I thought I'd be. While ushering would be really great experience, something about the whole organization puts me off and I'm still upset that the Guthrie wasn't looking for ushers. Anyway, during the info session about ushering, we were told about the different programs the Trust is involved in, including The Scene, which focuses on people between the ages of 20 and 30 to encourage them that theater is cool and hip and that they should come to shows. The Guthrie has a program in a similar vein known as 30 Below, which offers rush tickets anytime during the day of the performance to those in the age range of 18 through 30. However, the Trust's program, framed in terms of getting young adults interested in theater as apposed to offering more affordable theater options was interesting to me. Apparently not everyone's idea of a thrilling Friday night is to go to the theater.
But why not? I wondered. Theater has always filled me with excitement from a young age and I always found it engaging. I don't know what led me to it, but it has. However, there are reasons why theater is not always so popular. As a customer at Target whom I was speaking with said, it's hard for some to sit through a show without being able to pause it or get up and grab a drink or food. But there's more to this. In talking about feeling uncomfortable about being in fancy restaurants, I began to think about whether people feel uncomfortable in theaters. Aside from the steep ticket prices at some theaters and the formalities of shows (getting dressed up - though theater attire has relaxed greatly in most places, sitting quietly through the whole show and knowing certain etiquette, which are not usually deterrents but important to note none the less), I began thinking about the structure of theaters and how they are designed. Recalling John Berger's Ways of Seeing in which Berger discusses how art museums carry with them a certain representation and idea of art (which thanks to Robin I was able to remember that this was the text I read this in), I realized how important this is in theater. People who feel uncomfortable in places that emphasis another class's priorities or makes them feel excluded is problematic. So the question is: what can be done to make theater more accessible for everyone?

One way is to think about theater design. I find that thrusts are far more welcoming and engaging than proscenium style theaters, and theater in the round allows for the entire space to be seen, allowing for a revealing of how certain things are done onstage (such as scene changes, special effects, etc). However, that doesn't entirely get us out of the loop of what a traditional theater produces - we're probably still indoors, sitting in the dark, acting as spectators. That isn't to shun theater at all - pretty much every theater show I've ever seen has been like this and I enjoy it, because that's what I'm used to. But what if we thought about theater in yet another way?
Another approach is to go the route of Augusto Boal. He wrote a book entitled Theatre of the Oppressed and talked about ways in which theater needs to be revolutionized and changed so that the audience is no longer a spectator but subjects, "into actors, transformers of the dramatic action" (Boal 122). On one level, this is a bit intimidating to me because it would utterly change how we as audience members interact with theater. Also, as a person who once wanted no part of the action, it's just a little scary. But now, considering I at times have to consciously not think about what it would be like if I could get up on stage and declare that Iago is lying, manipulative jerk, I really love this approach. Boal focuses his work on communities in Sao Paolo, Brazil in order to show them how to use theater as a means to discuss problems in their community, portray their everyday lives, and incorporate and reclaim an art form that had been taken from them while giving them a chance to use their voices in a place where people would listen. "The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it," Boal declares (122).

One final approach, one that I think incorporates the previous two ideas together is site-specific theater. While traditional theater may "'distance spectators from spectacle and literally "keeps them in their place', in the dark, sitting in rows, discouraging eye-contact and interaction'" (Mike Pearson, quoted in Escolme), rethinking the spaces in which theater is performed can change this interaction. By "consciously rehearsing with a space as well as with text," more thought is put into the location of the staging, be it a parking lot, a warehouse, or a sunny park, and focus is put on how to incorporate that space into the show. By asking "'what does it mean if I say it here?'" there is a preference for the staging that is seen by the audience rather than what is just portrayed in the script (Escolme). What does seeing Coriolanus inside an old warehouse do to the show versus watching it performed in a lush, velvet-seated theater?

This does not go as far is Boal is urging, especially as Boal warns against the way empathy is used in most plays because it can cause audience members to empathize with those who would do them harm and cause them to be swayed into believing an ideological standpoint that they may not have if they had not been emotionally manipulated to believe it. I, however, still like empathy and think it can be useful, as long as one is aware of what exactly characters are asking empathy for. Focusing on something like site-specific theater would allow for Boal's techniques to be incorporated into more traditional theater and, while we should certainly push for more theater like Boal's, at least it would expand what traditional theater can do. In my dream world, a theater would involve opportunities for the more lush, dressed-up nights, casual shows, immersive shows, and lots of Boal's theater by the people (because, c'mon, we all want to be actors. So why not actually have the chance to do it and portray characters you love and now, either from other texts or the texts of your own lives?)

Awareness is key - being aware of how theater affects us and how important audiences are. Theaters like the Globe, which historically have and continue to interact with audiences (because shows are performed in broad daylight and groundlings are literally pressed up to the edge of the stage) have a reputation for interacting with the audience a lot because it is impossible to ignore them - and to ignore them would be to miss wonderful opportunities. However, in theaters like the Guthrie - not to say whether this has or hasn't occurred at the Guthrie, I'm just using it as an example of theater inside a building that was specifically designed to be a theater - it becomes possible for the theater lights to hide the audience a bit and for the crowd to disappear a bit, making the show less part of the present surroundings and more of a nonexistent fictional space. This can sometimes work out great - because, of course, you can't completely ignore the audience and maybe if you have a rough crowd, this is the only thing to be done - but it also misses opportunities to take advantage of what making the audience less of a spectator and more of an actor in the plot themselves could do.

Minneapolis and London have certain advantage in site-specific theater (or maybe that's just because the examples in the essay I read were from Minneapolis and London). Both cities - and other cities, but of course these are the ones I'm familiar with - have a history of putting theaters into various spaces, taking what's available for them and making the most of it. The Warehouse District of Minneapolis is called so because it is full of old warehouses, but this also happens to be a chunk of our theater district. Though, if you ever come to Minneapolis or St. Paul, we don't really have a theater district because our theaters are spread all over the place, in whatever venue our plethora of companies and groups could take. I like to say that every time I turn around, I find a new theater in the Twin Cities.
London felt much the same way. While there is the West End and it's the best known part of the theater area, there are loads of other theaters around town. Almeida Theater, where I saw American Psycho: The Musical performed, was in a completely different part of town (which I definitely could not locate well on a map; fail) but made for a perfect venue. Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, while it's surroundings are pretty luxurious, used to be - as its name implies - a banana warehouse (oh the fun facts I learned watching the National Theater broadcast of Coriolanus) and looks it quite a bit. This really added a unique twist to the staging as the wall incorporated in the show appeared to be the wall of the building itself. Anyway, the tendency to take over old buildings and put in theaters is lovely and I've realized that, if money were no obstacle, that's what I'd be doing: buying an old building, refurbishing it, and creating the theater of my dreams (which is vaguely similar to another dream of mine - buying an old house or storefront and turning it into a combination coffee shop/bookstore).

The possibilities with theater, location, and audience are endless. For instance, I watched a great program some time ago on PBS called My Shakespeare where Baz Lurhman, director of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, worked with a theater director in London to stage Romeo and Juliet with people from Harlesden, to show that Shakespeare can be performed by anyone, even people from a rough part of a city, and to help the people of Harlesden connect with the themes and story of Romeo and Juliet in their own lives. There's also this wonderful article about a production of King Lear by Syrians in a refugee camp. And I'm growing more and more interested in the work of Punchdrunk's immersive theater experiences, especially as they did Sleep No More, which I've heard is a retelling of the old Scottish Play.
It's interesting that the moment I start talking about different forms of theater, I go right back to Shakespeare. This is of course my bias - Shakespeare is my favorite playwright and I know more about his theatrical productions than others. But his plays also lend themselves to be manipulated and played with more. This, as Boal notes, can be very dangerous, but it can also be very positive and powerful. Reading this article written by the amazing and lovely Simon Russell Beale reaffirms what I already believed - Shakespeare's scripts are full of endless possibilities for new productions and different stagings, different interpretation and endless questioning. So, if we're going to rethink the world of theater, why not use Shakespeare as a jumping-off point? Combine that with rethinking other classic theater, new theater works and spontaneous works, and I think we've got a really interesting repertoire to play with. But of course, it's important to remember that theater isn't just performed on a stage. It's performed everywhere, in our daily lives. If working retail has taught me anything, it's that we perform a whole lot more than we think (and there's a possibility working retail has taught me I'm both a better and worse actor than I thought, depending on the acting that needs done). TL;DR: Theater is everywhere and it's for everyone. And it's time to find ways that it can be accessible and enjoyable to everyone. Embrace it, live it, be it.

And, to continue on this trend, next I'm going to discuss the emotional maelstrom that ensued on the interwebs when it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play Hamlet. And this maelstrom doesn't involve fandom problems - this time, it's Shakespeare problems. So stay tuned for more theater ramblings ;)

Citations from:

Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal.  New York: Theater Communications Group, 1985.
"Shakespeare, Rehearsal and the Site-Specific" by Bridget Escolme. Shakespeare Bulletin: Winter 2012. Vol. 30, Iss 4.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beware of Artists, Part 1

My current inspiration seems to be coming from discussions had while eating food. This weekend, I had brunch with my friend Tyler and while discussing the idea of artists and social classes, he said something really interesting. It seemed that artists (and here you can take artists to mean anyone who is passionate and interested in some craft, be it music, chemistry, or cricket) tend to want to do it all and try new things while others find comfort in just doing or being one thing and staying in a certain sphere. There's nothing wrong with staying where one is comfortable, of course, but this focuses more along the lines of getting out of an area, like a neighborhood or social circle, one always sticks to and going elsewhere. And that idea reminded me of this Cold War propaganda poster I've seen before:

This is meant to be insulting, but I think this is really one of the most complementary things to be said. Artists as I know them don't stick to one group of people or one part of town - they're all over the place, doing diverse things. But ideas of art and classism are prominent issues and ones that continue to bother and unsettle me.

It starts with who I am as a person. I am privileged, I am middle class, I am what some people would consider a "bougie." I like nice things (though I often can't afford them). I drink wine, I like sushi, I do yoga and go for runs, I listen to indie music and sometimes talk about obscure things like everyone should know them. I shop at thrift stores and major chains. I care a lot about organic food and shopping local and trying fancy drinks. I am skeptical of capitalism and yet also benefited greatly by it. I am neither entirely a hipster nor a bougie yuppie and yet if you were to catch a glimpse of me in some of these actions, you might try to peg me into one of these categories. And it's true that I fit into them in some ways (especially as sometimes the line between what people consider hipsters and bougies in the US is very fine indeed). But categorizing human beings is actually really difficult. Only focusing on these aspects disregards the part of me that really likes finding a low-key bar to go to and get drinks, or the part of me that would like to stay home and order a cheap, greasy pizza then go out on the town. It overlooks that I didn't always live in a cosmopolitan place like Minneapolis or even the middle class suburb of Minneapolis, but once lived in Indiana. I lived in a mobile home on a lake in the countryside and in a 1970s brick house in a small(ish) town and when I go back there to visit family (which I haven't done for ages, sadly) I can't help but feel a sort of cultural divide. It isn't that I'm uncomfortable in the environment of Indiana, exactly, but more that Indiana (at least as I know it know) is somewhat uncomfortable with the environment I come from.

When we talk about classism, we sometimes talk about how bourgeois people flout their designer clothes and accessories and experiences, not understanding that other people do not have the ability to go out and buy these things or have these experiences. But there's another part to classism that affects me more and it involves a certain uncomfortably with what the wealthy have. I've experienced it myself and have written about it before on this blog. However, there's an aspect I haven't really touched on and it involves thinking about me as the wealthy individual.
Let's admit it: fancy restaurants can be intimidating. Places that brush up the crumbs for you and have excessive amounts of silverware on the table and have more French on the menu than what I learned in my entire high school career can be frightening because they are different. However, I like to think of myself as the sort of person who can stroll into such a restaurant and order with no problem (assuming I'm not buying. If I'm buying, I'm the sort of person who strolls in, realizes there's no prices on the menu, and leaves before I've ordered anything more than water). I didn't used to be, but I've experienced enough fine dining with people that I've gotten over my worries about doing something wrong. But the restaurants that bother me are far higher in lux than in what bothers others. Sushi places I frequent, a restaurant my friends worked at in high school - these places seem nice and good for special events, but I didn't find them intimidating. But I've seen people I know grow uncomfortable in them and I feel bit of sadness, wondering what could be done to help them enjoy it the way I do. Some of it may be a matter of taste, but in this case it's a matter of comfort.

There's a point where staying with what you're comfortable makes sense. If you've been treated badly in a certain place because you don't fit the expectations of it, you likely don't want to go back, and begin to assume that other places like it treat you the same. There's a certain strain of anti-"fancy," because it's seen as elitist because it's treated too many people that way. When restaurants won't allow people into them because they look a certain way, it's understandable why there's a bias against it.

I am privileged and have experienced this rarely. Because of this, I'd like to see more people challenge the idea of refusing to go to fancy restaurants because they think they don't fit in there. To me, refusing to go to a place like this is letting classism win, is letting this negative strain continue. I'm the sort that will frequent run-down bars and posh restaurants, kitchy diners and buzzed-about bistros, acclaimed cafes and grungy coffee shops (for those of you from Minneapolis, I'm talking about Hard Times on campus which I think embraces the grunge), often mixing these up in the same day. I generally don't have to worry about being uncomfortable somewhere. Realizing this has made me realize just how privileged I am, whether it be my race or because I've had the opportunity to have a wide variety of experiences, or - as it most often is - both. I only wish that all people could feel this way and be able to feel comfortable everywhere. And I wonder what it would take to get us to a place where this was possible.
What does worry me about the refusal to go to "fancy places" is that, in a somewhat related way, there are other things of "bougie" culture that are cast aside as uncomfortable or unwanted, such as using "big words," or being intellectual or what is perceived as sophisticated. This is troubling as a college grad whose learned that one of the worst things you can ever do is make someone feel uncomfortable about knowledge. There isn't anything wrong with using big words or appearing sophisticated or intellectual. What is wrong is the people who use these things to appear better than someone else and use them to take advantage of people, to make them feel unintelligent. I continually remind myself to be patient with people who don't know something that seems obvious to me because it likely isn't obvious at all and I like to remind people that it's perfectly okay not to know something. Because I once didn't know the things I know now and I likely don't know half the things the other individual knows.

The thing is that there really are aspects of so-called bougie culture that I like. I like my nice wine and my cosmopolitan restaurants and fine clothes. But do I also like them because they are often out my reach and things that I yearn for, either because I actually want them or because society tells me that I should want them? And so, are they often objects of desire and markers for success for me? Perhaps. But I think I also just like wine and food and clothes if they fit a certain aesthetic, completely devoid of cost. However, the bougie things I do have I can't help but enjoy. Yet I think I also enjoy them because I'm not stuck there. I don't stick to one sort of social categorization over another. Incorporated in my life the way it is with a hodge-podge of other things, the snobbery usually inherent in the bourgeois is less apparent. Does this mean there's actually a way of making the bourgeois less "bougie" or classist? Or is this merely me being immersed of privilege and not really aware of its full extent? Or is this what happens when people on the internet criticize everything and leave the blogger wondering what there is left to enjoy?

This is kind of a messy, word-vomit approach to talking about classism, but it gets me where I need to go for Friday's post on classism and theater. So, if you're up for more ramblings, stick around for Friday's post as I try to reconcile ideas about theater for the oppressed, "traditional theater," and my yearnings for a theater that a wide, diverse audience can enjoy (while also convincing the world Shakespeare is really, really awesome). So even though I feel like 70% of this post is just random though bubbles, that's all for now.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Uncontrollable Fangirling: Tilda Swinton

I had an interview for an internship on Wednesday of this week and worked quite a lot of hours at work, and since then, my cognitive functions have been a bit mushy. In respect for my brain's exhaustion and because I'm super excited about the fact that the film Only Lovers Left Alive is finally released in the United States (even though it's not yet showing in Minneapolis but I has to be eventually, I mean, we're a hipster-indie mecca, right?), I have decided to focus today's post on the awesomeness that is Tilda Swinton.

If you are not familiar with Tilda Swinton her film repertoire, allow me to do some brief filling-in.

1) She is Scottish. Given my predisposition to be enamored of all people and things Scottish, this gives her a certain edge of extra awesomeness.

2) According to IMDb, she has a November birthday - and not just any day in November, but the 5th of November, or Guy Fawkes Day, which is pretty great. I also have a November birthday and take a certain bias about this.

3) She made a music video with David Bowie for Bowie's most recent album. If you haven't seen it, you most definitely should.

I should also mention that I adore David Bowie and this video rocks my world.
4) She has made films with Wes Anderson, namely Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which are marvelous. Especially whatever magician of a make-up artist worked on Swinton for Grand Budapest Hotel.

5) My favorite role of hers, thus far, has been the angel Gabriel in Constantine. It doesn't matter that I'm not really a fan of Keanu Reeves, it doesn't matter that this film is a bit absurd. What matters is that Swinton single-handedly makes this film epic and bad-ass with her character. It's brilliant.

Aside from all this epicness, Swinton has played the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia films, starred beside George Clooney in Burn After Reading and Michael Clayton (one of the first films I saw her in and it is MARVELOUS), and was in We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I haven't seen but have read the novel and it is heartbreaking and disturbing and brilliant, and I really must see the film). She's also a fabulous interviewee - I remember reading an interview she did several years ago, probably shortly after I'd seen Michael Clayton, and being totally awestruck by her rhetoric and breadth of experiences and knowledge. Basically, she's intelligent, badass, and someone I'd really want to get drinks with.

And now she's a vampire with Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive, and I'm so happy about it I'm angry. From the trailer, it looks like everything I always wanted from a vampire story and makes up so much ground for the Twilight days. Everything about this movie sounds brilliant (and you can read more about it here from Salon and about the film and the director here in this piece from The Guardian) and I'm thrilled that it dies together this vampire narrative along with the stories of Detroit and Tangiers, incorporates music, literature, and philosophy, and, you know, also stars Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, and John Hurt.

In short, I'm uncontrollably excited about this film and cannot wait to see Swinton in another brilliant work. Here's hoping it comes to Minneapolis soon...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Check Out My Selfie

I was having dinner after an afternoon at the mall with my friends Ashley and Bridget, our topic having turned to celebrity culture (as it is wont to do in my life). Somehow we'd gotten from wondering how exactly celebrities have private dating lives and social media problems (like pondering how many celebrities receive marriage proposals daily through social media outlets) to the more general idea of Facebook stalking. Was there a link, we wondered, in the way that we treat celebrities and how we rely on the internet to know things about them and find out things about them as people (since we don't know them personally) and the way that we view social media of people we do know?
This feels a bit like a chicken and egg question to me; it's impossible to really know which came first. Likely our cultural obsession with celebrity culture, paparazzi focus, and tabloid nature influenced how we view social networks that our friends use. With media that makes us feel like stars in our own lives, it's easy to see how using the same methods of keeping tabs on celebrities and finding out information about them could be applied to people we just met or know, seeing them as interesting, idolized figure we want to know more about. But humans also have a knack for gossip and inquiry. We've gossiped about people we know in our cities and villages for many a year. Performing the same act on social media is a new step in this process and further blurs the line between public and private information. I admit to Facebook stalking, mainly to find out more about people my friends are dating. There's a need to find information about someone you or others are or may be intimately connected with and, for whatever reason, it cannot be gained from the person them self. This makes sense in the case of celebrities - we are distanced from them in some way and don't personally know them. But in the case of our friends, coworkers, and significant others, we could find this information from them ourselves. But instead we scan the internet, through Instagram photos, Facebook profiles, and tweets. Part of this is is do to the material nature of the internet - it gives us something tangible to see. We can see a person expressing their interest in a certain kind of music or tweeting about a certain topic or sharing photos from a certain trip. There's nothing unusual or negative about this; this is the purpose of social media and what makes it brilliant and unique. What becomes dangerous is when we rely on internet portrayals and perceptions more than our own opinions and personal interactions. That's not to say we can't meet people and learn about them through the internet - we certainly can and I'm evidence of that - but when rely solely on other people's opinion or only by what someone makes evident on their Facebook profile, we aren't really forming our own relationship with an individual, not speaking to them, either in person, on Skype, or in chat messages, and we aren't seeing that person as something more than a profile page.
I find the idea of Facebook stalking strange. It makes sense in some ways, in seeing if this person is really someone you want to spend time with and go out on a date with. But it can easily go too far and become obsessive and, when it becomes the only way of getting to know the person instead of talking to them and using dating as a chance to get to know them, it's problematic. It runs the risk of making someone as a stranger by only using one outlet to get to know them. There's a line in the song "When We're Fire" by Lo Fang that says, "I'm a person, not a concept," and I think of this while writing about this problem.

To step back for a moment, I want to make sure I don't sound as if I am demonizing the use of social networks to learn more about people - that's what they're for - and you can certainly have relationships with people online. I've made awesome friends online and I know several people who have successful romantic relationships initiated online. But these sort of interactions differ from Facebook stalking and there is also a certain kind of complexity that can be reached when interactions are kept to scanning a profile or reading tweets but never actually interacting with the individual (whether virtually or in person) and this is most easily expressed in that complicated relationship with celebs that I so frequently turn back to. Learning about celebs online but directly interacting with them creates a strange state of being, of knowing a great deal about them and yet not much at all. We feel intimately connected with them without ever having had a conversation - whether in person or virtual - with them. It a strange place to be in, a place when reflected upon produces such thoughts such as, "Well shit, I know your middle name, your favorite music, and your entire IMDb profile, but I actually know nothing about you as a person." It's often wondered why people want responses to fanmail, tweets, or other such interactions from celebrities, and sometimes the answer is given that they want to be recognized and noticed as being number one fans. But I think it's more than this. I think it's more along the lines of providing evidence of communication, of being able to talk to a celebrity on their Twitter as one might a friend, of having support for that strange sense of knowing them and having it validated.
Writing this makes me wonder how you readers will respond to this, as I've the one talking at you and yet I know little about most of you. I make assumptions about you as you must make about me. While I put a great deal of my thoughts on this, I don't put all of my life out here and you are left to fill in the blanks. And yet, this isn't really a weird relationship - well, it's not for me. I don't find it weird that you read over my blog and may never speak with me. I don't expect it. Blogging - and really even Twitter - is somehow in a different sphere than Facebook where it's acknowledged that most people reading our content aren't people we personally know, whereas Facebook is built more around the premise of keeping in touch with people you know (at least that's what I've gathered from using it). And yet they aren't really all that different, especially with the ability to post from one site to another and the similarities in their content. Regardless, I don't find it at all strange that people I've never met and never spoken with read my blog, and yet if that much time was spent pouring over my Facebook profile, I'd feel a little uncomfortable. And yet there is way more content and deep, personal thoughts on this blog than on my Facebook. So what they heck is going on here anyway?

The short story is that humans are very weird, complex social creatures. The long story is that we do lots of good and bad things in our communication and, perhaps, it's to avoid the staggering existential question of whether we can really know another person at all. Or whether we can truly know ourselves. And whether our boundaries of public and private really hold up with the internet at all.

But hey! Let's dodge that existential crisis with a reminder that social media can actually be a really, really great, powerful thing, as long as we keep in mind how we're using it. Are we going to continue to Facebook stalk to some degree? Yes. Are we going to continue to feel personal bonds with people we hardly know? Totally. Are we going to continue to be nosy, inquisitive creatures and all humany-wumany? You betcha. We're humans and it's beautiful and strange and complicated. We just have to be aware of what we're posting and not be creepy about what other people are posting. But first, lemme take a selfie:

Yes, this song will get stuck in your head. And yes, you will hate me for it. But this is a great representation of how internet culture can be simultaneously awesome and awful. You're welcomes :)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Good To Be Bad

I was going to write a serious post today, then took another look at the many inches of snow Minneapolis received last night and this morning and then thought, "Nah." So you have an April snowfall to thank for this post.

Jaguar has been one of my favorite automobiles for quite a while, despite the fact I don't drive. They are beautiful and classy and I appreciate their aesthetic. However, I also love their advertising campaigns, which is rare for any product of any sort. They began their success with me by using Benedict Cumberbatch as a spokesperson.

And this year for the Superbowl, they marketed their US line with Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong, and Tom Hiddleston, creating the idea that badass British super-villains drive Jags.

This is a brilliant marketing decision in my opinion because: A) Jaguar is pronounced differently in British English than in American English and honestly sounds better - it's the difference between the American "JAG-whar" and the British "JAG-ooh-are" (I don't study phonetics; I did my best), B) Using actors I adore to sell things is always a good move, C) Jaguars already have a sort of edge and appeal to them that make them perfect for this sort of depiction, and D) The message is if you drive this car, you can be a super-villain. Maybe with some help from Mr. Hiddleston.
Jaguar, I may not be exactly your target demographic (ie: I happen to not have a driver's license) but aside from that, I'm probably pretty close to what you're going for: people who like cleverness, cunning, and appreciate some good scheming and looking like a classy mo-fo while doing it. People who appreciate detail, who like stories with intrigue and probably watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards or both, people who love if the theme at the Academy Awards bounced of this year's idea of heroes and went with villains. People who appreciate the highs and lows of life, who probably won't be using their vehicles for nefarious things (but you'd better watch out if they ever did), and who appreciate the recognizing and expounding upon the trope of British actors playing villains.

It's just uncanny that a lot of these people also happen to belong to fandoms. And do I detect a little bit of Loki in that "Art of Villainy" ad? (Realm... I understood that reference).

So well done, Jaguar, you've outdone yourself in your marketing. However, as a sort-of consumer of yours (I'm an excellent passenger; every villain needs a sidekick, right?) I have a suggestion for a new commercial:
Night. Shot panning over London. Cut to Helen Mirren standing mysterious secluded street.
Mirren: It's often said that Brits make the best villains. It takes a certain panache and vitality to pull of such elaborate schemes and, with wit as sharp as our cheekbones, it's no wonder we own the demographic. But we can't let the boys have all the fun.

Several Jaguar cars pull up. Emma Watson, Judi Dench, and Freema Agyeman join her. Ad continues with this quartet doing totally badass things and sparring off with Kingsley's villain trio.
Regardless of what you do with your ads, Jaguar, it's likely I'm going to enjoy them. Bravo.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Further Reflections on John Plumtre (and Jane Austen)

In last Friday's post, I failed to mention an area of importance in Jane Austen's novels. While her books may often end in happiness and lovers being brought together, it's important to remember the instances in which this very nearly doesn't occur, doesn't occur at all, or isn't what is anticipated. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy convinces Mr. Bingley not to pursue Lizzie Bennett's sister Jane. Also, we have Charlotte Lucas' marriage to Mr. Collin's and her perspective on love and marriage versus Lizzie's, and of course the infamous Mr. Wickham who appears the perfect lover but is anything but. We've also got the devious Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, and of course Emma Woodhouse's good-intentioned but misled attempts at matchmaking in Emma.
Austen does a marvelous job of showing the vividness and realness of romance along with the turmoils and troubles and realistic obstacles and ends that occur. I merely want to make sure that this important point doesn't get lost in my squabbles with dealing with romantic stories and plot lines. I don't think I've ever really discussed my love for Austen on here and it's a shame; she's one of my favorite writers and one that has deeply influenced me in terms of my writing and perspectives in the world. I used to stare at my mom's copy of Sense and Sensibility on our TV stand in one of our Indiana houses, one with a cover for the film version with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, and I used to dream about the day when I'd finally be old enough to read and understand it. I ended up reading Pride and Prejudice first but grew to love all of Austen's books and any film adaptation I could manage to see of her work. I cried my eyes out while watching Becoming Jane at a friend's sleepover in high school and realized, in another beautiful story of romance without the expected happy ending similar to Miss Austen Regrets, that I found an interesting link between Ms. Austen and myself as a writer. Some of her worries felt similar to my own and some of her perspectives and prejudices reflected mine. I adored that she wrote characters that were so interesting, so rounded, and captured their flaws with vividness and grace. Her ability to explain a society I knew little about and had never lived in through ways that were forthright and humorous marveled my mind and caused me to realize how much I felt my own society not being that different from hers. Austen is a witty, clever, and doesn't shy away from difficult topics. Perhaps in one of my favorite scenes in Miss Austen Regrets, Jane is concerned that no one will like her newest book Emma because the main character is a bit dislikeable. I like that this perspective is taken, showing the worries writers have and the variety of character perspectives Austen wrote from and that her leading ladies, while being marvelous characters, are not perfect but rather perfectly human. They make mistakes, as anyone would, and the way in which she captures this in her novels is splendid.
To tie this back to the lovely Mr. Plumtre, what Austen writes about is often portrayed in fictionalizations of her life - she is surrounded by her own stories that eventually find their way on paper. While Mr. Darcy might be spread through popular culture as the perfect man, in Austen's story, he may be great for Lizzie, but he is human and he has flaws. We mustn't forget the original prejudice Lizzie had against him, as there was some truth in the matter and he did very nearly ruin the relationship between Jane and Bingley. But Lizzie herself is flawed and it is through the acceptance of each others flaws and virtues that Darcy and Lizzie come together. What's so wonderful about films like Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets is that they show these sort of characters outside of Austen novels. Mr. Plumtre and Fanny are very much like Bingley and Fanny had Darcy's convincing (perhaps Jane Austen in the film) gone too far. Fanny is like Charlotte, marrying so that she can have a comfortable home and find some happiness. And Jane is very much like her Emma, full of assumptions about love that may not entirely be correct.

In short, I felt I wasn't doing Austen quite enough justice in my previous post, focusing too much on my romantic ramblings and influences from my own assumptions. So here's me giving it another go and getting the chance to squee over the wondrous and eternal Jane Austen.