High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Death to the Mere

Hmm . . . this week has been a relentless cultural bombardment. I'm afraid it's not quite over yet, either, because last night pal M, spouse M, and I were LED with BRUSQUENESS to Court Theatre's production of Lettice and Lovage.

Having just now read the The Chicago Tribune's review of this production, I can only imagine that they either had a truly awful opening night, or the reviewer is so enamored of Peter Shaffer (the playwright of this as well as Equus and Amadeus), that he feels compelled to foist any flaws on to the production. In my view the problem is the opposite: Court provides a practically perfect production, but the play has its flaws.

Briefly (well, we'll see, that doesn't constitute a contract or anything), the play focuses on two women "of a certain age" in London near the end of the 20th century who, in strange ways, rise up against their lives of quiet desperation. In Act I, scene i, we meet Lettice Douffet, a tour guide to the unwashed masses (well, handsful, but they're certainly unwashed) at the most boring house in England. Frustrated with the rudeness and palpable disinterest of her groups, Lettice draws on her theatrical legacy and her passion for Tudor-era cuisine to "endore" the past.

Although Lettice's strategy is largely successful (and she has the illicit gratuities and fan mail to prove it), a handful of complaints to her employer ends with her being called on the staid, boring carpet of Lotte Schoen, the human resources director of the Preservation Trust. It is in scene ii that we learn of Lettice's off-the-wall childhood. After she and her mother are abandoned by her father, they find that post-WWII England has little patience or place for women of vaulting, if slightly dotty, ambition. They sail for France and found "Les Barbares," an all-female theater company dedicated to performing her mother's translations of Shakespeare's histories. ("Un cheval! Un cheval! Mon royaume pour un cheval!")

Using her own history with the histories, Lettice rails against the pointless preservation of history in which nothing ever happened. All the whiles, she is building the case for her own defense in good Shakespearean style, which culminates in her declaring herself to be a martyr for language, history, and spunk.

Lotte, a sensible, be-bobbed, button-down nightmare of an HR person seems as if she could cheerfully and ruthlessly throttle Lettice at the beginning of the scene. But by the end of it she is not exactly charmed by Lettice, but is moved to some compassion for her nonetheless.

That sliver of sympathy brings Lotte to Lettice's basement flat in Act II, which takes place some six weeks later. In this Act, we learn about Lotte, who has been moved to seek out another job for Lettice and even to provide her with a letter of reference that is completely factual and yet not at all veracious. Although this gesture seems to be pitying at first, we gradually learn (with the help of some of Lettice's Tudor-era homebrew) that Lotte is somewhat envious of Lettice and the success she enjoys, however intermittently, in carving a place for herself, on her own terms, in modern life.

Like Lettice, Lotte had to navigate life with one parent stuck in the past. In her case, her father was a survivor of Dresden who, as she puts it, died with Europe (the physical, architectural landscape, not the people) during the war. Bearing the burden of his mourning, and joining in with laments of her own as uglier and uglier buildings replaced the past beauty, Lotte studied to be an architect. At school she fell in love with a young, radical chemist, and they planned to protest modernity and ugliness by blowing up the Shell building. At the last minute, though, her sraight-laced nature gets the better of her inner anarchist, and her relationship and her career are the only things that go up in a puff of smoke.

In Act III, we've moved six months into the future, and we find Lettice in her basement flat with solicitor who is trying, in vain, to get her to realize the seriousness of a situation to be named later. We eventually learn that she is accused of trying to murder Lotte with an axe. Although Lettice is initially firm in her belief that Lotte will exonerate her, Mr. Bardolphe (the public aid solicitor assigned to her case) eventually convinces her that Lotte is, in fact, the main witness for the prosecution. Lettice in beautiful, Western-history-flouting, nonlinear fashion, recounts the course of their friendship over the last six months, which has centered around recreating the final days and executions of historical figures with spunk: Mary, Queen of Scots; Charles I of England;

Eventually, Lotte and her ridiculously bandaged head arrive, and she is furious and mortified at how much Lettice has already revealed. She admits that in her concussed state, she confirmed the police's suspicion that Lettice had hit her in the head with an axe, inadvertantly precipitating her arrest. As Lotte and Lettice tangle and argue, the solicitor eventually coaxes the the real story out of them, which involves last-minute role reversal in their recreations, a chopping block smuggled from forest to London by bus, and a cat attack.

Although the two women seem to repair their relationship in large part as they are caught up in the drama of their own story, things come crashing down around their ears again when it becomes clear that telling the story in court is the only way that Lettice will be able to evade jail time. For Lotte, however, this is a death sentence, as her antics will be revealed to all and sundry. She unleashes a torrent of abuse at Lettice, accusing her of romanticizing a past that was even more brutal than the present she so hates, and of wanting company among the ranks of the unemployed and ridiculous. For the first time, Lettice's facade crumbles and she breaks down admitting that the modern world terrifies her and she has no idea how to deal with any of it. Lotte ultimately returns, repentant, and the two hatch a plan that will unite their strengths: They will give tours excoriating the ugliest buildings in London and thus ferret out like minds, rather than hiding away. Lettice improvises a tour talk, culminating in a typically madcap story, and the play ends with a toast to the audience.

Well, so much for briefly. But hey, as the Trib guy points out, the play runs three hours, so turnabout is fair play. Most of what was dead weight to me is concentrated in the second act, but I admit that somewhat subjective. I don't have the knowledge or interest in architecture that I do in theater, so Lotte's story just doesn't move me as much. However, I think there is also some objective problem with the play in this act and, perhaps, with Court's approach.

The play was written in 1987 and seems to be intended to be a portable play that can be set in "present day." There are a few touches in the production that are nods to that portability (e.g., one of the rude tourists has a modern cell phone). But some of the content in Act II is dated, most notably Lotte's off-hand remarks about how easy her bomb plot was to carry out "before terrorism," and some whingeing by both women about Lettice's Arab upstairs neighbor. I'm certainly not arguing that we need a long, serious, Toby Keith homage to the horror of terrorism post-September 11th, but the dissonance could have been fixed by some trimming (my preference) or more aggressive work by the dramaturg. On a related note, in some ways the "crisis" such as it is, well, a bit British, isn't it? I mean, after all, Lettice is facing some pretty dire straits. Lotte's fear of being a laughingstock in her office really pales in comparison for an American (particularly Americans in 2006 who have had five years of looking really stupid all the time).

Given that I really enjoyed the rest of the production, though, I'm much more comfortable laying the blame for the flaws on the playwright. The set and staging (design by Jack Magaw) were a big success in my opinion. Court's space can, of course, be set up in any of a number of ways, and this production goes for a standard proscenium approach, more or less, although it does make good use of the fact that the actual stage is hexagonal.

Act I, which is set within "Fustian House," takes place downstage of the proscenium on one half of that hexagon. The upstage area is half concealed by a semitransparent curtain. Behind it, the furniture and set pieces that will be used in Acts II & III for Lettice's flat are jumbled together in piles. A few pieces are suspended from the ceiling on wires, and two swathes of light blue silk are tangled haphazardly over the whole kit and kaboodle. I like the basic concept, which evokes the wings and backstage area of the theatre (and, to some extent, the actors' wagon from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.) However, suspending stuff from the ceiling also says "bogus seance," which I'm not sure was intentional.

The interior of the house is represented by a velvet rope set up at the downstage center edge so that the staircase (the only feature of the house that came close to hosting an event of any interest whatsoever) is actually the audience. Just downstage of the curtain are two suits of armor on low platforms. Three ugly overlapping Persian rugs complete the set.

In scene ii, the transformation into Lotte's office is achieved with the help of a few cheapy, ultramodern pieces straight out of CB2: A glass and aluminum desk (complete with an intimidating phone-intercom system that sits semiupright) and two matching chairs in cool glassy blue and gunmetal grey. The half-stage curtain is drawn back to allow the use of a wood-framed doorway set upstage left, and the up-center, and up-right portions of the stage are casually masked with a few posters set on stands behind the desk.

For Lettice's flat, the doorway is rolled further downstage and toward center, as is a matching archway that frames her desk nook at center right. Bridging these two from right to left is a wider wooden proscenium and upstage of that there is a bay window and window seat, giving the flat a hexagonal outline. Through the windows, we can see the iron fence that separates the windows of the basement flat from the pavement above.

The furnishing of Lettice's flat is pretty minimal, but still appropriately dramatic. Above the desk is fanatastic vintage poster advertising Alice Evans Douffet in Richard III. The desk itself has a handful of dusty old books, a clutter of goblets, mugs, and so on that clearly have been lifted from a collection of props. On the shelf under the desk, a prop sull is just barely visible. Further upstage, the living room furniture consists of her mother's "Falstaff chair" (badly scarred wood with a fraying velvet seat and back) and the "endored chair" (tacky throne-like gilt with heinous black and gold upholstery). These chairs, together with a wooden trunk, form a conversation group at right center. At left and slightly downstage are two mismatched wooden chairs around a cafe table with a wrought-iron base and some kind of floral design on the marble-look top. The only other piece if furniture is a large hexagonal ottoman with an upholstered top and wooden feet.

I also have to give the big, almost unreserved, thumbs up to Jacqueline Frinkins's costume design. I imagine that Lettice is a character who can be both a dream and a nightmare to costume. In Act I, she communicates both the grinding away of time and the evolution of Lettice's theatrics through some very clever costuming (albeit costuming that is challenging for the actress to negotiate). Her basic outfit consists of silky pants in cream with a tinge of peach and a matching unstructured jacket. Underneath the jacket she wore a kurta in a bronzey orange with embroidery around the neckline.

In her first disastrous tour, she wears a long wooly scarf wound around her neck, which seemed very out of step with the flowing silk of the rest of the outfit. During the second tour, she wears a tassled burnout velvet poncho-style scarf that still has a touch of the strangled, motion-limiting quality of the scarf, but also previews things to come. It's during this second tour that she first begins to embellish. From there, she dons a gorgeous green velvet jacket with a burnout design on the back, and the crown glory of act I, a flowing peach silk jacket with a gorgeous beaded pattern on the back. It's with this costume piece that Lettice really comes into her own. It has none of the bundled up qualities of the early pieces and the color match with her base outfit is beautiful (in contrast to the green, which is beautiful on its own, but odd in the extreme with the rest of her outfit).

In scene ii her ensemble has gone all brought-to-you-by-three-blind-hedgehogs-in-a-bag again. She arrives at Lotte's office wearing a ridiculous blue velvet page's hat and an outlandish wooly cloak with a giant cowl top. Wooly = bad juju for Lettice. I have to admit that I covet that cloak like you wouldn't believe. I mean it's not as badass as Neville the Impaler's jacket in The Secret Garden, but I wouldn't kick it out of bed. Sadly, though, the reveal of Lettice's Mary-Queen-of-Scots'-Final-Comedy-Routine-Martyr-Red get up is one of the few costuming failures. The gold polka dots say castoff gypsy, not French-Catholic martyr.

Lettice's Act II get up rubbed me the wrong way at first, but again, I have to take my silly velvet hat off to Frinkins. Lettice is morosely, pathetically "at home" in Act II, and she wears an ankle-length kimono-style robe in hot pink with both a colored floral design and a subtled brocade. Underneath she has a turquoise sailor top with beading around the tie, and flowing chiffon pants in a darker pink. Also, bitching, beaded little genie flats. The mismatched pink between the pants and robe was driving me a little bit crazy until I thought back to the "pretty, but wrong color" jacket in Act I. The not-quite-right colors give Lettice just the right chin up, down at heel feel that reminds the audience that Lettice lives on the edge of an economic abyss (which, of course is quite important in Act III when she tells Mr. Bardolphe that she qualifies for "free help" because she doesn't have 50 pounds' worth of disposable income, and she chose him of all the possible names because of the Falstaff connection).

As the lights came up partway in Act III (really nice evocation of late afternoon in a basement flat, which made me forgive Diane Fairchild for a few lighting false steps earlier), Lettice is in a comparatively simple tea-length, berry-pink tank dress with the wooly green cardigan of doom over top. Seriously, I've never seen woolyness used so effectively as a foreshadowing technique. But throughout the act, as Lettice warms to her own story and the happy memories of her friendship with Lottie, she snags a floral scarf from their improvised chopping block and ties it around her waste, lending the cardigan a little bit of funk. And, of course, Frinkins is able to go completely balls out with her executioner's disguise at the end of the act. (Tragically, there are no production photos of this, but I'm afraid I completely fucking lost it at first sight of her giant curly red beard, and never quite recovered from it.)

Although Lettice is the character you write home about in terms of costuming, the rest of the design is solid, too. The same actors play the different groups of tourists, and Frinkins manages well giving them a same-shit-different-day feeling with static base outfits plus a variety of hats, scarves, and bags to make it clear that these are different individuals even if the groups have an oppressive sameness. If I had to pick out a problem here, though, I'd say that going for a slightly vintage look for the female tourists confuses the time period a bit. Lotte's suits are classic and just a little too prim to really be elegant. And although they constitute a uniform that could be worn by any business woman, her clunky three-button shoes give off a outdated old lady vibe, rather than funky-chic (which, incidentally, is how they will look on me when I steal them). Lotte's hair is another matter. I respect the uncompromising Madeleine-Kahn-as-Mrs.-White bob, but the wig didn't fit quite right, possibly because she seems to have been wearing a second, grey wig (horrible) under the first, which forms the basis of a pretty elaborate joke, but then you're stuck with it.

In terms of performances, I would say that I loved Patricia Hodges as Lettice and liked Linda Reiter as Lotte a great deal. Hodges is tall and willowy and had a wonderful, sweeping, over-the-top grace that she brought to Lettice. it's funny that the Trib guy mentions her performance as comparing unfavorably with Maggie Smith's in the same role, because there is a moment when she is telling her story to Lotte that I had a Prime of Miss Jean Brodie flashback and I thought that, although I love Maggie Smith, Lettice could get old face if she were too prim and too British (particularly alongside Lotte). In Act III, when Mr. Bardolph finally manages to hammer home the fact that she is to be put on real trial in real life, she allows Lettice to break character just slightly, and it's heartbreaking---unfortunately, probably a little more heartbreaking than the ultimate breakdown nearer the end of the act. But I loved nearly everything about her performance, her diction, body language, timing, the whole package.

Lotte is a character that's just harder to love, of course, but even still I think Reiter doesn't quite hit the high notes that are available to her in Act II. She's also a bit too shrill and aggressive in Act III where more hopelessness and despair might've gotten the job done better. Still, the two of them played off one another extremely well, and she gets some opportunities to demonstrate her own physicality in her (thankfully understated) drunk scene.

John Judd (Mr. Bardolph) deserves honorable metion as well, especially given that his character has to go through some accelerated evolution in Act III. He begins as the frustrated (but ultimately kind) public servant who somehow finds himself playing the drums (PAM! TIDITTY PAM!) at the execution of Charles I. As he leaves, you can tell he's fallen half in love with Lettice in the course of an afternoon, in much the way Lotte does in Acts I & II.

The only dubious casting choice I can think of was Linda Gillium as Miss Framer, Lotte's dizzy secretary. I can see the temptation to cast her as she has a great look: Very young and fresh-faced, but in a vintage sort of way. You can see her playing a gal pal of Rosalind Russell in some movie from the 40s. Unfortunately, although by no means a bad actress, she's simply not of the same caliber as Reiter or Hodges. She was a little too Julie Haggerty when a little Alyce-Beasley-in-later-seasons-of-Moonlighting might've worked better.

When I take a step back and consider performances and text together, though, I feel like I have to give everyone a big round of applause, particularly the two leads, for holding up so well. Shaffer is not exactly Stoppard, but the dialogue flies fast and furious and it requires a delicate touch to let the jokes tell themselves. Overall, the whole cast does that admirably, even when the script takes a temporary wrong turn.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

12 Bars of Heartache, pt. 1: Blues and the Bayou

I am not a morning person. Really, seriously, truly, madly, deeply, NOT A MORNING PERSON. And yet, my ass was in the car and on the road to fucking Skokie at 8 AM yesterday. Here's the deal: A north suburban community college is doing a four-part serieson the Blues. Each session is meant to be part lecture, part performance. To pull this off, they've wisely enlisted four people from The Old Town School of Folk Music. This week's offering was hosted by Chris Walz playing a little national steel geetar and some piano.

I admit, when we were walking with the coordinator toward the correct room, I laughed a hearty laugh at her being flummoxed by Chris's request for a piano. "I thought he just played guitar!" she says. HA! For the record, a simple search on Chris's name in the adult classes reveals that he is currently teaching Guitar 1, 2, 3, & Beyond Guitar 3; Bluegrass Banjo 1; Bluegrass Classics; Bluegrass Ensemble 2 and Bluegrass "Rhythm Guitar; Delta Blues Fingerstyle 2 & 3; and Flatpicking 2 & 3. At the second half (where players of all instruments at all levels get together in the auditorium to play together for half an hour or so after classes each night), he tends to oscillate between his steel guitar and the piano, but it doesn't surprise me that he plays banjo. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he played pretty much anything. We hateses him.

Lecturewise, Chris kept things relatively informal, but still managed to cover a lot of ground and content. He started with what I like to think of as a classic me moment: He had decided to use "Amazing Grace" to illustrate a point about the relationship between blues instrumentation and vocals. So he starts out by mentioning that Amazing Grace was written by a white man who had run a slaving ship, and subsequently found religion (which somewhat belatedly led him to abandon the slave trade). And has he launched into this story, I could see him begin to panic for some reason. His face went blank and he said, "I can't believe this. This is terrible for someone who works at Old Town . . . but I cannot remember his name!" (I was tempted to whip out this very laptop and save the day, but I was afraid someone might hit me with his walker. [But for those of you who have to know, it's John Newton.]) Of course, this fun factoid has nothing to do with anything, but by god, when you've gone to the trouble of strapping your onion on your belt, you're by gum gonna go to Shelbyville to get a new heel for your shoe.

Having returned from Shelbyville, I communicate his actual point, which is one that seems obvious in retrospect. He sang a bit of "Amazing Grace" in white man's overbite style (which still had a lot more funk to it than any version I remember hearing in a Catholic Church). He then contrasted this with how a blues singer might attack it, incorporating a lot more dips, slides, and vocal flourishes. He connected this with the instruments that freed slaves were most likely to pick up, which became the primary instrumentation of the blues: the fiddle (which is fretless and therefore can mandate some groping for the note); the guitar which is built for slides, bends, and other slow boats from one note to another; the bass and banjo, ditto; and then the piano, which, although not bendy has bend-adjacent capability in the form of grace notes, etc. Not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship (for certainly, as he pointed out, the voice comes first), but as Blues has evolved, vocal approaches and instrumentation are sort of an ourouborus.

From there, in recognition of the overwhelming Whiteness of his audience (have I mentioned that this was at the Skokie campus of a very ritzy community college?), he talked a little about---well, not the origins of the Blues, which are lost in the mists of time---but the first time that the Blues start to show up on historical radar. In particular, he talked about the post-Civil War experience of Blacks who'd been given their freedom and nothing left to lose. Again, with a nod to our Whiteness, he talked about the origins of the Blues being rooted in the experience of slavery, reconstruction, segregation, and so on, but noted that having the Blues is a universal phenomenon, quoting a Bluesman (sorry I've forgotten who and the quote is vague enough that it defies googling) saying that the Whitest man in the world, with the finest car and the finest house can still come home and find his woman gone, along with all his stuff. (This, of course, reminded me of a song on Webb Wilder's "It Came from Nashville" re-release that ends with the Last of the Full-Grown Men saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this was my house. I thought that was my dog.") It's not the most profound reflection on artistic ownership, coopting, etc., but again, this was just about the beginnings, and I have hope that we'll get there.

Someone then asked where the term "Blues" came from, which short circuited my brain somewhat as I realized that I had no idea why poor Blue is so maligned and associated with melancholy (in other words, Hippo Dignity, to the white courtesy phone [which could be any color, really]). Chris claimed to have read something (which, of course, sets off my etymology UL alarms) about it coming from 18th century England, when someone experiencing misfortune was said to have a blue devil causing the problems.

To talk about the codification of the Blues, he turned to W. C. Handy and to the piano. He played a bit of the St. Louis Blues through first. He then explained Handy's concept of the shared structure of Blues songs and how he worked that up into the form we now know as 12-bar blues. He then played the same section over again, this time dissecting it for us as he went along. Given that I've been playing guitar for a few years now, it's not like this was new to me, but it did click more firmly and a new way, which is always a good feeling. (I think part of that is hearing it through piano, which is my first "musical language." In much the same way that the German word for something always pops into my head when I can't remember the Spanish, my road to guitar knowledge is an ugly one because of all the piano switchbacks on it. I'm going to put some ointment on that metaphor and step away. I advise you to do the same.)

Still at the piano, he moved on to Jelly Roll Morton to shift things from general Blues origins to the role that Lousiana played in the evolution of the genre. To kick things off, he told the story of Jelly Roll's time working in "sporting houses" playing piano, during which he met a Madame named Mamie Desjeunes. By the time Jelly Roll and Mamie crossed paths, she was down to (ha, I almost said a handful) just a few fingers on each hand. But she'd still sit in the parlor of her brother, playing a very slow-paced kind of Blues. Jelly Roll wrote "Mamie's Blues," a really haunting, hollow-sounding tune, in the style of her playing. (I'd heard Chris play this back in October at the Katrina benefit and really loved it, so I was glad to hear it again.)

After this, he talked about the history of New Orleans and its role in the development of the Blues. The first important factor was that it drew such diverse people together: American Blacks who could own land and get education there; all kinds of people who arrived there via the Caribbean, etc. Amid a lot of diversity of background and musical styles, though, there was an essential dichotomy among the musicans who were suddenly thrown together. First you had a group of Black people whose music was extremely free form, driven by the voice (which is inherently innovative) and home-made instruments (e.g., Othar Turner's famous cane fifes) that defied any kind of standardization of tuning. Second, there were the Creoles who had stronger ties to European music and placed strong emphasis on education and formal musical training. When the Jim Crow laws divested the Creoles of land, property, and economic opportunities, the informal and the formal met and changed one another for good.

At this point, he shifted over to his guitar (have I mentioned how hot that guitar is? Go on have another look. I'll wait.). As you might imagine, one cannot face such a fine piece of muscial machinery naked as the day one was born. Accordingly, Chris geared up, which involves slipping a glass slide on the left pinky and donning a full set of fingerpicks on the right hand. I'm also pretty sure there's some pixie dust or voodoo shit involved. He started off with a bit of Jelly Roll's "Buddy Bolden's Blues," and then talked a bit about Bessie Smith while almost absently demonstrating some things on his guitar. This hearkened back to discussions about how most Blues instruments just beg you to bend and slide the notes, which is a gateway drug to the infamous "Blue notes" (flatted thirds and sevenths where Baal never intended them to be).

This, of course, is just an elaborate set-up for a joke. It goes like this: You give people just a little taste of steel guitar. You use the slide to make it cry, and you let that shiver along the spine a while. Then you start in with the finger picking, thumping hard on the bass strings while you alternate some nerve-wracking pinches with really nasty, drawn out bends. THEN back to the slide again, only this time, you let it wail. And invitably someone, looking vaguely stunne, says: "How do you make it whine like that?" And Chris doesn't quite smile and says: "It's just 'cause I treat it so bad." M has yet to stop laughing over that.

But seriously, folks. He then fed my inner nerd a hearty meal by talking about the structure and origins of the steel guitar, including lots of shit I did not know. It basically goes back to the preamplification days when Blues was gaining enough popularity that musicians might be playing to large, noisy crowds. Not only does the metal body amplify the sound, but its also filled with a metal cone that acts like a speaker to make howl even louder. Neat! He spent most of the rest of the time (and he talked for half an hour longer than the scheduled session time) on the guitar, doing songs about the three major Blues of New Orleans: Rain, Drought, and Mr. Bol Weevil. On each of these, he apologized for "cheating," because he had some lyric sheets to which he occasionally referred. The audience was appropriately stunned by his m@d 5k1llz, I'm glad to say.

As M and I did the postmortem on the drive home, we agreed that the first part of the series was awesome. There were a lot of questions we would have liked to ask, but the nature of the gathering gave things an odd pace that we didn't want to disrupt further. Likewise, we tried to remain cognizant of the fact that these questions and many others will hopefully be answered on the next episode of: Soap!

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Chairman and his Madame Are Most Synchronicitous

So in addition to being a giant fangirl of Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao in Nixon in China, I was completely fascinated by the concept of this very strange opera that she had written. As luck would have it, the Siskel Film Center happens to be running a documentary this week that deals with this very phenomenon. Mr. Sparkle is Most Respectful to Matilda's Fleeting Passions

I went solo on this one, which seems to have been a good mood. Here's a totally unapproved IM excerpt from Telecommuniculturey HQ this afternoon:

Me: I'm probably going to go down to the siskel center to see: YANG BAN XI:
THE EIGHT MODEL WORKS tonight. I assume you have no interest in seeing that.

M: I don't know what that is, but no.

Me: HA

M: no, I don't know anything about it, but you're of course welcome to go see it

Me: [quoting from the Siskel Center's Blurb] This fascinating documentary focuses on one of the strangest chapters in the history of popular entertainment. In the 1970s, during the brutal political orthodoxy of the Cultural Revolution, the only performances permitted on stage or screen in China were a small group of propaganda operas known as the model works.

It's basically a documentary about the kind of opera that is presented in the middle of Nixon in China.

M: < M went idle >

Although I think my instincts were good on attending alone on a night when M had class at Old Town, this is the kind of documentary that I'm likely to be really obnoxious about urging everyone to see. In other words: All you local bitches are lucky that this is only running this week.

First of all, and strangely in keeping with the way the Yang Ban Xi plays out in Nixon in China (and, as I now know, with the Yang Ban Xi themselves), it's not precisely a documentary. It combines some fictional elements and a few sequences that border on fantasy, although most of it is straight interviews and historical footage.

But let me try to start at the beginning and work my way through in something approaching a sensible manner. During China's "Cultural Revolution" under Mao (1966 until his death in 1976), most art forms were outlawed. Mao placed his wife, Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao so that I don't keep mistyping that), in charge of cultural affairs. She directly shaped the production of pro-Communist works that became the only sanctioned form of art on stage, film, television, and radio. Eventually, 8 of these became known as the model works, embodying Communist values, deifying Mao and the Revolution, and gaining huge popularity in China.

The director, Yan Ting Yuen, was born in Hong Kong shortly after the Revolution began. In the film, she engages with three generations---the aging artists of the Yang Ban Xi, her own peers (in their late 30s and 40s) who are an integral part of a present-day revival of the operas out of nostalgia, and obliquely with the young up-and-coming generation of artists, some of whom are the performers in these revivals, others who stand in for a new Chinese art, one that is syncretic and utterly eclectic.

She opens the film on a darkened sound stage. Its vertically slatted backdrop is painted with an idyllic Chinese nature scene. Downstage from it are stacks of crates with military paraphenalia propped against it. In the far, downstage right corner, barely visible in the dark and so close to the camera, is the silhouette of a woman---Madame Mao herself. She identifies herself in sharp, defensive terms, declaring herself to have been the wife of Mao and his obedient dog. Her tone softens as she reflects on her creation of the Yang Ban Xi.

This leads into some of the graniest, old-looking footage with extremely dodgy focus as we follow a woman into a ballet practice room. I worried that I might be in for 90 minutes of Warhol-quality footage, but this was some of a small amount of interview footage that seemed curiously compromised. The woman we are following turns out to be Xue Qing Hua, the China's prima ballerina in 1970 and the star of Red Women's Detachment, probably the most famous of the Yang Ban Xi. For two performances, she is joining a group of dancers (on whom she has 40 years) who are mounting a stage production of the opera.

As Yan Ting Yuen and her follow Xue Qing Hua from the practice room to downtown Shanghai to dinner with her husband to formal interviews on the sound stage and ultimately to the performance, she reflects on the experience. As a 57-year-old, she is pensive, hesitating, and pleasant. She talks about how the filmmakers had to slide slices of apples into her cheeks and shoot her from low angles to make her look like the plump, robust peasant. She seems somewhat bemused by her own naivete and how cowed she was by her sudden fame, but she makes no apologies for her participation. Thoughtfully and firmly, she insists that then as now, she was utterly devoted to ballet and performance. In the present, her only concern about participating in the revival is whether or not she still has the chops to pull off the performances, as it's been 14 years since she gave up dance (not that you would know this [bitch]).

At the same time, there isn't an ounce of self-pity when she recounts her rapid reversal of fortunes after Mao's death when she met with aggression and unfair treatment in her job and suspicion from her would-be husband's family. In one interview, she and her husband sit across from the camera, a table full of half-eaten dishes between them, and laugh over the story of their dismal wedding. With her hands she lays out the clothless table and wheezing stove as her husband pulls a face to represent the old man who asks them if they wish to be married and stamps their paper. Funny and sweet as the story is when told in this fashion, its colorlessness stands in stark contrast the garish footage of her (and practically everyone else) resplendent in red.

In some of the more formal interviews Yan Ting Yuen seems to be leading her a bit (I'm assuming that the interviewer's voice that I hear is hers), trying to get some commentary on the political aspects. Without being at all defensive or evasive, though, Xue Qing Hua admits that politics drove everything about the films, and when asked how they were most important to her, with a very genuine smile, she says that they made her husband admire her, so she got a good husband.

Among the other artists interviewed are Tong Xiang Ling, the star of Taking Tiger Mountain Strategy and his wife (sadly, I've forgotten her name and IMDB has exactly jack on this movie [Ah ha! I've found the press kit for the documentary {and I have to say, it's a little bizarre and is coloring my view of the film even as i write this}, but I've at least found the name of "Mrs. Tong"---Zhang Nanyun). Strangely, their fortunes merged and criss-crossed in the midst of the revolution. She was a real beauty and huge film star in the 1950s (the Madame voiceover somewhat pettily claims that the actress was too beautiful to be on stage). Tong Xiang Ling's family, as a whole, was marked subversive and forced into manual labor. He himself was forbidden to perform and his sentence was carried out within the theatre. One day, a car pulled up along side them as they walked down the street and Madame invited them to get in. He sang a few folk songs at her command and soon he was permitted to peform again and became a huge film star not long after. His wife never worked again.

Probably the most aimless set of interviews included in the Yang Ban Xi generation is the scriptwriter, Jin Yong Qin. He was promoted abruptly and given the challenge of cutting the interminable stage production of Taking Tiger Mountain Strategy and cutting it down to film length, all under the watchful eye of Madame Mao. For the most part, he seems more interested in discussing his most recent script for television, which is not-so-loosely based on his own rather sad life. Yan Ting Yuen is much less probing and directive with him, and he only offers limited insight into the period. He does make an interesting comment that good art and beautiful art can actually be made under restrictive circumstances like the Cultural Revolution, and conversely, all the freedom and financial support in the world don't guarantee that one will make something that is either good or lasting.

To round out the generation of artists, Yan Tin Yuen interviews Huang Xiao Tong, a Yang Ban Xi-era conductor who spoke out against the political restrictions on art (this part is nicely juxtaposed with Jin Yong Qin's comments in a similar vein), and consequently spent quite a lot of time locked up in a stable. I think using the see-sawing fates of Tong Xiang Ling and Zhang Nanyun (and, for that matter, also providing the contrasting path of Xue Qing Hua's career) was a successful tactic, but her strategy with Huang Xiao Tong is even better. He is introduced in the context of a visit from his nephew, Zhao Wei, a 30-something guitarist in love with hard rock. Rather than intruding on the visit, Yan Tin Yuen allows Zhao to enthuse about his uncle and even manages to coax a few of the old tunes out of him. In turn, he and Huang Xiao Tung compare and contrast their music, with Zhao Wei declaring that they're both avant garde, but current popular music is more natural because it can be made freely.

We also get to see Zhao Wei at home with his girlfriend/wife (not named, either in the movie or the press release). They live in a spacious, modern-looking apartment/condo filled with books, instruments and other cultural knick-knacks. He sheepishly admits that he wears his hair long now, because short hair was mandatory when he was in the military. He then talks about hearing hard rock for the first time in Japan and all the tension leaving his body. I can honestly say that I've never heard such an articulate, impassioned description of the merits of hard rock (that's almost 100% facetiousness free). But his girlfriend then speaks up in defense of more traditional folk music, claiming that those who make Western music have forgotten it and no longer understand it. The camera follows them into a bedroom where she sits down at the dulcimer and begins to tune it.

Like the interviews with Jin Yong Qin, the interviews with the other comparative youngster, Xu Yi Hui, are a bit directionless (which is really too strong, but I figure someone [possibly me] will set me on fire if I say something like "less directionful"). He is an artist himself and a fan of the genre. As we're exposed to more of his work (which include a truly hideous crate of incredibly tacky ceramic "little red books," but also photographs of piles of actual Little Red Books en fuego), it seems clear that his almost abrasively bland (yes, abrasively bland. Feel free to stoke up those fires.) manner is the result of him being a kind of Chinese Warhol. He seems dead serious (yet almost expressionless) when he admits that his favorite part of the Yang Ban Xi is the fact that the women wear so little, and he recalls becoming aware of sex and sexual attraction as a result of his reaction to the movies.

Later on, Yan Tin Yuen intimates that he has had trouble with the authorities as a result of his work (despite the fact that, overall, his work seems ambivalent toward Mao and the Cultural Revolution). He doesn't comment and she goes further and asks about trouble his friends have had, even though their work is theoretically less political. He laughs in his peculiar affectless way and says they made the mistake of sculpting nudes that the government found ugly. More disturbing, to me at least, in thinking aloud about the Yang Ban Xi, Xu Yi Hui says that he believes that the operas were successful, because they hid reality and denied its horror. His voice gaining strength, he says he believes that this is the purpose of life: to make reality tolerable by masking it.

The final piece of the puzzle is the nascent generation of artists, most of whom are incorporated in a unique way. I also seem to be more or less unique in my total enjoyment of this technique, given my survey of the limited reviews I've found. At one point, Yan Tin Yuen is in a cab and the chatty cabby offers commentary on his memories of the Yang Ban Xi, even offering to sing a bit.

As he launches into a number from, of course, Red Women's Detachment, the two young guys who are suddenly in his back seat tell him they're getting out here. They exit the cab and launch into an 80s inspired dance number. As they mooch along, busting a move in their huggy bear hats, hoodies, and Nikes, they're joined by street sweepers, dumpling house employees (HEY! Get back to work! PEOPLE NEED DUMPLINGS!), and ultimately a passel of girls who start out voguing in a beauty shop. The dance number goes on for probably 5 minutes or so before segueing back into more interviews. (In the credits, we learn that these dancers are all from the Beijing College of Modern Arts [again, I think---there is no listing in the press kit and my memory is faulty]).

The other side of that generational coin is unfortunately somewhat minimal. The 17- and 18-year-old dancers preparing for the staged revival of Red Women's Detachment offer minimal commentary in the background as the crew follows Xue Qing Hua through her rehearsals. They are giggly and somewhat in awe of her beauty, and yet the director quite crankily admonishes them for their emotionless, detached performances. It is clear that whatever sense of fear, triumph, blissful ignorance, or rage that the performers of the 60s and 70s might have felt, to these young people, the Cultural Revolution is ancient history.

We also get to see the nostalgic generation's take on art as Zhao Wei's band gives a performance at the sound studio. As they rock out (and they do rock out, complete with fenders and a lust worthy Gibson Les Paul), the slats of the backdrop flip from the idyllic nature scene to a psychadelic abstract design in pinks, oranges, and golds, fresh out of the (Western) '60s. But the last word belongs to the young hipsters who have another extended dance number on a bridge over a river. At first, this is set against quite traditional-looking architecture, but it ends with the dancers saluting the modern Shanghai skyline in true Yang Ban Xi style as an animated sun sets, casting a red glow over everything.

I'm surprised by the largely negative reaction to this movie. I'm even more surprised because most of the negative reviews seem out-and-out angry that the lines attributed to Madame Mao are ficitonalized (in fact, the credits indicate that they are adapted from Russ Terrill's Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon). The voice overs are a bit weird, but they're actually quite few and far between. To my mind, they are a counterpoint to the historic footage (included by Yan Tin Yuen) of Madame Mao, primarily after Mao's death and during the "Gang of Four" trial. In part, the rage about this seems to be related to irritation that the film does not take (or is perceived not to take) a firm political stance, and in particular that it does not unequivocally villify Madame Mao. Given, however, the rage rained down on Madame Mao's head in many of these reviews, I find it strange that somehow her actual words would be viewed as more truthful.

To give the negative nellies their due, I agree that this isn't as cohesive as it could be. I've already pointed out the two principal cast that were kind of the odd men out, and I reiterate that I'd have liked to hear more from the young dancers mounting the revival. There's also the uneven quality of the interview footage, which rears its ugly head again later in the film. Finally, I'd add that some of the interview scenes drift. For example, we first meet Xue Qing Hua's husband at his corporate headquarters and take a walking tour of downtown Shanghai with him. He points out that every corporation has marked its territory with a skyscraper, but nothing is really made of this other than some vague references to the modern Chinese economy. I kind of get that it's capitalism in the most unlikely of places (and see below regarding cliches), but the footage doesn't really go anywhere.

But having said that the truly vehement, content-related negativity surprises me (given that I really found this fascinating and entertaining), I need to give some thought to the press kit, particularly the director's statement. I admit that my snark-o-meter is notched up by Yan Tin Yuen's statement that she wished to make a "cheerful" movie. There is too much historical footage, and too much modern-day fallout for that. I have a ready-made solution, though, because I also found this interview, which I (again with the shameless postmodernism) choose to take as more reflective of her intention and achievement here. In it, she talks about simply wanting to examine how art and artists fared during this period. How careers ended and took off. How failure followed hot on the heels of unimaginable success. How that is so typical and yet entirely unique to the era.

Going back to her statement, though, I find that despite the unfortunate use of the word cheerful (it burns me like elven rope, for lo! I am goth!girl), I'm nodding my head along with a lot of things she has to say. Most notably, I'm on board with her frustration with China: The Land of Cliches. I'm also humbled to admit that I caught myself thinking in terms of those cliches from time to time. Notably, I think I heard my mother's condescending voice in my head when I thought: "Hey! Zhao and his girlfriend's place looks almost exactly like one of those trendy eurostyle condos that the ZK and I looked at! CHINESE PEOPLE lIVE IN CRAMPED SQUALOR! Like, duh! Everybody knows that!" (Weirdly, though, I half wondered if there was supposed to be a familial relationship between Jin Yong Qin and Xu Yi Hui [similar to the uncle-nephew relationship], because they had the same cramped, squaloriffic kitchen.)

Even more cringe-worthily, I found myself impressed by the confidence and freedom with which the women of the film spoke. (I chuckled in the interview when the righteous radio!chyck also fell victim to the "Chinese women are all, like, TOTALLY OPPRESSED, OMFGWTFBBQ!" as well.) I know those cliches are ridiculous, but they have taken up residence in my reptile brain, so I've got to say that this film succeeds in making them conscious, rather than unconscious.

But the most important thing that viewing Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Forms gave me was, and I am being 100% serious here, new awestricken respect for the brillance of Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle. I had no appreciation for how much the dance sequences in those movies (and if you haven't seen them, I will really, REALLY have to bitchslap you) draw on the Yang Ban Xis. And that strikes me as incredibly ballsy. Screw doing a send up of Top Gun (and I am soooo not knocking the Hot Shots Duo [I LOVED YOU IN WALLSTREET!]), it strikes me that Stephen Chow is doing something much more akin to a satire on Platoon or Born on the Fouth of July. But hey, maybe that's just me falling victim to another Western cliche.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Yin, Yang, and Resistance

Having seen (and thoroughly enjoyed, like the low-brow, white trash I am) District B-13 on Friday, Monday was dedicated to the strangely paced, somber underbelly of French Resistance. And it is absolutely, postively 100% Vin-Diesel Free, but happens to co-star Paul Guilfoyle.

Army of Shadows premiered in 1969 to French audiences that wanted precisely fuck all to do with what was perceived as pro-DeGaulle. (Fear not, French friends, in four short years, you'll have an action-packed DeGaulle assassination thriler to eat up at the theater.) Apparently the rest of the world wasn't particularly interested in it either, because this restored print is the first to be released theatrically in the US.

We saw the trailer for this during The Proposition, and then M noted that it had 100% at Rotten Tomatoes. (Currently it has 92%, and I have to say that the guy from reeltalk is cracking me up: "Not a bad effort -- but filled with credibility gaps.") The trailer and reviews conspired to make us exert ourselves to see it.

And the first thing to do is hand it to the trailer mongers. In fact, I'd really like to see that trailer again, because I don't know how they found 2.5 minutes' worth of action in a completely actionless movie. Lack of action is not to worry (although seriously, you may want to see District B-13 first, 'cause then you're kind of DONE with action in France [lack of Vin notwithstanding] for a while). It's not like Jean-Pierre Melville was trying to make The Professional and accidentally made Red Zone Cuba (and thank Baal for that on both scores). In fact, Ebert tells me that Melville had no interest in making an action movie of any kind (you'll note that I am being unprecedentedly kind and magnanimous to Mr. Ebert in deference to his current ill health---I am not even going to mention that he is cribbing directly from Hitchcock/Truffaut with his rather pedantic little comment about action making tension external).

Still, the viewer should be forewarned. District B-13 is a lean, mean 83 minutes, which is right on the nose for how much sillyness one can stand. Army of Shadows, in all its actionless glory, is nearly double that length. (Well, ok, it's "nearly double" if you're bad at math, running 136 minutes.) And the Music Box Theatre has many fine qualities, but their vintagely uncomfortable seats ain't one of them. Because Melville thrusts realism from him as forcefully as he thrusts action, one also has no idea when the movie might end, which is a disconcerting feeling. (It's always possible this is just me. I went to the bathroom within 10 minutes of the end of Howard's End not because it was that desperate, but because I really had no idea it was that near to being over.)

Among what I'm realizing is a growing list of things eschewed by Melville here is any real kind of plot. If we exclude the Animal House credits (strange that, in two days, I've had two occasions to refer to a movie I've never seen), the whole of the movie takes place over about four months, from October 1942 to February 1943. Although the dates are given on screen, they are nearly irrelevant. The whole of the movie is disjointed day-in-the-life scenes of handful of people, and those experiences, their actions, and the decisions they make are, in good existentialist fashion, almost completely divorced from any "big picture" of the war.

Certainly, it's important that the setting is primarily Vichy France---important enough that Melville fought to be able to film the nearly surreal opening sequence (a parade of German soldiers, led by a marching band, goose-stepping past the Arc de Triomphe) in defiance of a law prohibiting German uniforms on the boulevard (again, courtesy Mr. Ebert's review). Similarly, when one of the main characters is in London, Melville has him duck into a cramped, makeshift nightclub as the air raid sirens wail and the bombs shake the building. But other than these brief scenes of temporal and cultural location, the war per se doesn't figure in the movie at all. For the audience as for the characters, the war might well be eternal, which lends greatly to the dismal, desperate atmosphere.

Also contributing to the existential goodness is the fact that in each day-in-the-life scenarior, Melville almost always places us firmly within the experience and point of view of a single character. There's an overwhelming abundance of tight close-up shots and internal monologue so that long shots revealing a detail of the background or another person in the larger frame would often make me jumpy. When your characters are paranoid and isolated, afraid to use their true names or to reveal the slightest information about themselves, that headspace is a claustrophobic space chock full of existential dread. (Weirdly, throughout the movie, I kept thinking of Lost. My household invented the "unwarranted skepticism jar" to fund the Stargate project. More recently, we've instituted a "pointless concealment of information" jar for the Islanders [it's really bad---M has suggested that regular staff meetings could improve things. M is not, in general, pro-staff meeting. Maybe it'll turn out that everyone is in a resistance group in WW III.)

Just as I have to hand it to the action-spelunker for the trailer, I also have to hand it to Melville (and, of course, the novelist and screenwriter) that he manages to create believable, emotionally meaningful relationships among his characters despite the rigors of existentialism. I also have to give them the rat-bastard award for then brutally ripping apart every single one of those graceful, delicate connections without ever making the "kill," as it were, seem gratuitous or the forging of the connection seem like heavy-handed foreshadowing. Apparently, my opinion is not entirely universal, though, as the Reader's Dave Kehr (of course) found this to be "strangely divided between art-house enigmas and melodramatic payoffs for the matinee crowd." If I tried to describe some of the "plot devices" involved in this, I suppose they would sound melodramatic and heavy handed---the photo of a beloved daughter representing the single weakness of an otherwise preternaturally cool woman; the philosopher-leader of the resistance showing up in the middle of the night, just when a character is contemplating his connection to both the man and his ideas; the brothers who never knew they were fighting for the same cause, etc.---but all I can say is that the ruthlessly understated actors and relentlessly flat, closed-off visual style keep things far too stark and cold for melodrama in my opinion.

Ebert is rather strident in his support of Melville, who he feels was greatly underappreciated in his time, going so far as to credit him with being the REAL innovator and spearhead of the French New Wave cinema (rather than those dirty crooks Godard, Truffaut, etc.). That's fair enough, I suppose, but certainly Melville seems to have had a give-and-take relationship with his fellow auteurs. For example, the barbershop scene is visually and atmospherically quite evocative of Godard's obsession with staircases in Alphaville, which predates this by 4 years. The blackly comic moments (which are sparsely distributed in this) are not entirely un-Bunuel-like, and not just in terms of material (Peter Kessel wrote the novel on which this is based as well as the novel on which Bunuel's Belle du Jour was based, which caused some wacky misunderstandings going into the movie).

I'm not sure whether I'm recommending the movie or not. Rather, I'm not sure I'm recommending scouring the countryside to see it in the theater. The print is gorgeously restored from his tragically pink with age state (or so M tells me). I'm not sure if the choking atmosphere will come across on DVD. But on the other hand, it's such a challenging film that it might go best with the comfort of one's own home.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Books 3, Matilda 0

My book-choosing foo has been weak lately, and the capitalist in me is tempted to connect this to my austerity program.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my disappointment with Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito. It's always a bigger let down when a favorite author, well, lets you down. The one up side to that was it made Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans look like less of a let down. Nonetheless, a girl starts to get paranoid when two safe bets in a row fail to deliver.

So after finishing Villa Incognito, I grabbed a book that's been on my shelf for a long time---Will Self's Great Apes. I admit that back when I bought it I fell victim mostly to the cover, but the concept also sounded like it could be interesting. It can be interesting, of course, but the sad truth is that Self's novel is less interesting than anything in the Planet of the Apes oeuvre. (And I'm not dissin' the oeuvre, I assure you.)

The first problem was that Self seems to fancy himself a Camus or a Kafka, when he's really a Leonard Cohen in authorial terms. (Please, save the impassioned defenses of Cohen as a musician---I like Cohen as a musician [if not as a singer {OUCH}], but before you go defending him as a cultural god, I refer you to Beautiful Losers [specifically, please seek out the "erotic" scene in which two of the main characters have "telephone sex," which involves a woman stuffing her own nipples in her ears], quite possibly the worst novel written in English, inclusive of Clancy, Follett, that DaVinci asshole, and whoever wrote the Bridges of Madison County.)

The first 60 or so pages are a sort of drug-fevered dream of the main character, Simon Dykes. During this, he's human and part of a cynical, debauched group of artists and hangers-on. Like Cohen, Self seems intent on grossing the reader out. He devotes about a paragraph per page to this guy's intestinal problems, which have left him with a shit-stained gusset on his pants (I don't think "gusset" is on my friend J's list of disgusting words, but it ought to be in my opinion). He thinks an awful lot about that shit-stained gusset, which I guess is supposed to be deep and connected to his upcoming show, which consists of canvases (he's an artist) that ruminate on the corporeality of humanity or something like that. It's mostly just tedious.

Simon and his girlfriend get horny on bad cocaine and head back to her place. There they have the hawt sex, during which he is obsessed with her childlike body. He sets her to "writhe around, because I am a sex god and being in my presence is enough to drive you wild with desire" mode and has a long, jumbled think about his children (whose asses he keeps conflating with that of his lover [creep. y.]) and his failed marriage. When he can be bothered to turn his attention back to the festivities at hand, he naturally gives her the orgasm of her life and they fall asleep. He has a complicated nightmare filled with tortuous prose (and I know from tortuous prose, as you know), and wakes up a chimpanzee who thinks he's a human.

From here on out, the book (which goes on for more than 300 pages more) has all the subtlety, nuance, and draw of a 2-year-old playing "You know what? CHICKEN BUTT!" Self is enamored of the linguistic substitutions that he's come up with (chimpunity, signlence, some-threes, bonoboism, etc., etc., et bloody cetera), which grow tiresome quite early on. But while those little tricks are just not as clever as he thinks they are, they're nothing to the puerile social substitutions and reversals that I imagine he imagines will be shocking to his audience.

Self introduces Zack Busner, the psychiatrist on the case, in a flurry of sex and violence. He slaps the younger males in his household around, then talks to them in sickeningly sweet baby talk to reassure them. The females, he gives a good, quick mounting, of course (nothing is sexier to a female chimpanzee that having things overwith almost immediately). And everyone is grooming one another constantly, because everyone has SEMEN IN THEIR FUR.

See? Chimpanzees SLAP THEIR CHILDREN AROUND and HAVE SEX WITH THEIR DAUGHTERS! Isn't that SHOCKING? Even if it had been shocking initially, Self is so fucking repetitive in both language and concept that it becomes a kind of apathetic, prose-based Ludovico technique. And that applies to everything, from the adjectives and phrases he uses to describe Busner (maverick, former tv personality, "as he liked to style himself") to the way individuals interact with one another when they first meet (equals present to one another and engage in mutual, literal ass-kissing, etc.) to what is possibly his favorite device, which is fathers fucking daughters.

Another tedious device is the fact that he loves to remake well-known figures as chimpanzees. So Jane Goodall works with the wild humans of the Gombe stream, etc.; Dian Fossey is a cranky, crazy old zoologist studying gorillas (and probably fucking them!). However, no one really bothers to check any of his factual information, so his assertions of phylogenetic relationships are wrong; his invocation of Great Rift Valley population theory had been out of date for a decade by the time the book was published; he talks about the linguistic work of "Sue Savage-Rimbaud" (Rumbaugh, actually); and other dumb easily checked shit. In the Amazon reviews, someone points out that Busner himself is very much a ripoff of Oliver Sacks in some ways, and there are others who I'm probably supposed to recognize but don't.

In the last 60 pages or so of the book, when Self has abandoned each and every plot point raised up until then (the fact that Busner's participation in an unethical drug trial may have caused the psychotic break in the first place; the fact that Simon had a lover who was supposed to be very important [and her own problems related to the fact that her father didn't fuck her enough]; his art and its relationship to anything; a plot against the psychiatrist by three other characters; and a host of other things), he takes a completely bizarre turn and has his own psychotic break from the reality of his own book. He's decided that all his own ideas for plot are uninteresting (I concur) and suddenly everyone is off to Africa with a documentary crew to find a former zoo human whom Simon's family had "adopted."

At some point, the idea that this human is his third child is introduced---and when I say introduced, I mean that it's stated as fact a couple hundred pages after we've been given a pretty detailed account of Simon's delusion about his former life. Busner, for no particular reason (and bear in mind that he has every reason to believe that Simon has actually been physically brain damaged by the drug) decides that finding this human and forcing Simon to face the lack of relationship to him will be what unravels his delusion.

So even though Jane Goodall and her work at Gombe have been invoked many, many times by this point, suddenly, he introduces a made-up character (a fat, horrible, German, dykeish, mumu-wearing chimp) who is like Goodall's evil doppelganger working at Gombe, and that's who they go to see. Actually, many aspects of the description sound suspiciously like one journalist-wannabe's hate piece on Birute Galdikas (who, by the way, works in Borneo, not Sumatra, asshole). While they're trundling through Africa, worrying about being attacked by humans, Self rolls the Animal House credits, telling us what happened to all the other characters in the middle of what is supposed to be the climax of the novel.

In retrospect, I don't know why I didn't just put this down after the first 10 pages (although I only do that on extremely rare occasions). Everything about this book is pathetic. It's a sorry excuse for satire, the language is hackneyed and repetitive to the point of making me wonder if Self is actually obsessive-compulsive, there is nothing like structure to it. I have the sense that anyone who might have been editing this did the wise thing and DID give up after 10 pages. I can't blame them for filling the angry minute with 60 seconds' worth of distance run.

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