Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bob Dylan 9/07/08 With Anthony Cristofani

It was only the two of us who drove from Los Angeles to a mysterious venue called the Santa Barbara Bowl, because one of our lovers was physically unfit for the journey and the other mentally unfit. We’ve decided to use our twosome-ness in the two-fold reception of the Bob Dylan show. This is the first time. Hopefully the tone will sound like a bastardized, harassed Carlisle and an abnormally coherent and organized Cristofani.

No one told us the Bowl was situated on a hill to maximize sacralization. And nowhere in the capitalist manual for justice and fairness did we read that we could have possibly gotten in free, merely by asking people. There was no preparation for a ticket gifted silently, at the mention of Vanessa’s being a fan (and not a scalper.) We should say it was Vanessa who got us in free, but in a very meaningful way, WE are Vanessa. Excuse the pronominal glibness of the next few paragraphs.

Like the musicians, operating within some perfect and consistent frame, we separated and reunited and separated in body and text throughout the show. Here are some of the things we shared on September 7th, 2008.
A Jack in the Box Coffee
Knowledge of the way pelicans look over Santa Barbara
The transition from Zarathustra to David Bowie
A cursory exploration of the Star Wars Force Unleashed Graphic Novel
The conviction that the last verse of Desolation Row, whose performance by its creator we also shared tonight, is the best.

There’s only so much you can share. What was in Anthony’s, and what was in Vanessa’s mind when “we” heard Desolation Row?

Anth: Bob Dylan walked backstage before the show started and told his band: “Tonight, it’s a bittersweet country blues show. Rewrite everything before you come on.”
Ness: Desolation row as prayer: music is the triumph of belief over time. The sound of Desolation Row didn’t match the lyrics, but it matched its own history. It told the story of itself.
Anth: Like Bruce Springsteen by now with Born to Run revisions. In 1988. Bob Dylan songs are all implicitly about constancy and duration.

In Bob’s Santa Barbara BluesTown show with His Band, Times they are a Changin’ became: let’s all sit together in the backyard together talking about the World.
I Believe in You became: you can feel us moving forward no matter what you do. The drums pounded out the consistent belief underneath.

A nugget of unifying wisdom elicited by the instrumentation: celebration of continued fight. When the Deal Goes down was a waltz, a slow, long-haul pushing-through of a song. Honest With Me was a march, tight, in motion, no loosening of the framework, not even in Bob’s gritty soup of a singing voice. We keep going, we must keep going. This was an incredible message to receive in an election year.

We realized the songs were teaching us how to hear them. Most icons trigger nostalgic responses, even if their older works are still relevant, still brilliant. We simply can’t help recalling who we were when we first experienced the music. But this time, you didn’t have to remember who you were when you first heard How Does it Feel?, because the music will create new listener out of you. It’s nearly impossible to be nostalgic when the music is unrecognizable. The meaning is new, and your hearing the song before is only an asset insofar as it helps you understand the lyrics.
This process extends outward. Bob plays in unrecognizable places-- venues like county fairs, the town outside the city. Unrecognizable formats: Bob and his band, not just Bob Dylan. Those that would come see him just to relive their youth stay away.
He also broke the show format by playing Thunder on Mountain in the middle of the show. Given its lyric, its bombastic first few chords, it sounds like big opener. It begins the show! But the show is already going! And we are reminded not to get lulled into what we’re doing, ever. Start over before you are Ready.

Question of blowing in the wind:
Is the comfort in the music (beautiful, lilting, lovely) ironic or are we to be truly comforted by some grand scheme, in which we are eternally returning to the same questions, to be settled and unsettled in same way over and over again? I don’t know how to straddle that line.

Sing even as you drive Dixie down, even as desolation row becomes America and vice versa.
Even as your rolling stone becomes a southern ballad on a plantation. Even when the song tells you you’re like Mick Jagger, you can shake it and you got soul, but you can’t speak.

But not when levees break. (Doesn’t even need to write new lyrics, with instrumentation and venue moves.)

He wrote this song in the period when he looked and talked like Cate Blanchett. The price, benefit, puzzle of being an icon: you can feasibly say “So-and-so does Bob Dylan better than Bob Dylan.” Las Vegas reminds us of all the movies we’ve seen about Vegas. MSNBC Lockup has privileged access—Anth forgets “real” prison, remembers MSNBC Lockup. Vanessa looks out of a plane window in Thailand and thinks it looks like an Indiana Jones movie. The representation predates the referent in our world. Bob engages this by throwing out preservation as a virtue. What is needed, what works, what gets through, what this band in this town with this weather next to this ocean in this time of history in this country with this audience is truest to the fundamental mission—THAT is the show. When literature about truth and honesty fails, we put down the book and confess.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Picking a Fight With Diablo Cody

My problem with Diablo Cody is not Juno. I loved Juno. The dialogue was “unrealistic” in exactly the kind of exaggerated, funny, sharp way that I know is actually real, after years of being a smart teen and then working with them. I could write an essay about why I think Juno was an important movie, but it’s already been done. A lot. I know Cody wrote an angry blog about all the "haters" who dissed the movie too, but still, she got an Oscar. I’d like to congratulate Cody on the success, and have the context for what I say next be my basic admiration for what she’s demonstratably able to do. Plus, my problem is not about her, at all.

My problem with Diablo Cody is what she did with Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, her “memoir” about stripping in Minneapolis. Why, do you ask, is “memoir” in quotes? Surely this book is about her experience! Well, yes. And No. In fact, my problem is that this book is mostly NOT about her experience. Cody writes like a journalist at a snarky weekly rag: all quip, no analysis. When she veers into the territory of conclusion-drawing, she quickly zooms backwards into description again. And in fact she was praised for this—one reviewer called the book “refreshingly devoid of moral conclusions.” I disagree. The book was irritatingly chock-full of moral conclusions—but they were implicit, assumed, and unexamined by the author. More than exposing some new truths about the industry, the society that has demonized it, or even herself, Cody uses Candy Girl to self-congratulate, not once truly questioning the taboos and stereotypes she carries with her from beginning to end. She’s proud of stripping because it’s hard, and it’s wrong, and she wanted to rebel. She’s proud of quitting because it was the grown-up thing to do. Yawn. Despite the title, I'm not actually trying to fight with Diablo Cody in this review, I'm trying to get at a cultural tendency towards NOT questioning the origin of our opinions, through her demonstration of that tendency in Candy Girl.

Cody never owns her prejudice about the sex industry—she simply assumes that everyone understands why she’s an “unlikely” stripper. Everyone probably does, because of how widespread the stereotypes are, but I'd like to question why. She’s unlikely because she’s educated? Funny? It’s not clear, exactly, since so, so many of the women who work in clubs are as educated as she is (if not more so, in the case of many Brazilian and Russian women who come to the U.S. with higher degrees that suddenly mean nothing in our xenophobic society). Oh wait! I know! She’s unlikely because she was never a victim of sexual assault. (She goes so far as to claim that “most” strippers have some kind of sexual victimization in their pasts. I offer that this might be true in places where the prejudice against the sex industry is highest—namely, Midwest and South? It’s certainly not true in California. She’s proposing that the industry attracts damaged goods, which is the same argument that’s always been made to support a theory of its inherent destructiveness. I think it’s very likely that the industry, where it is most vilified, does attract women who have psycho-sexual problems. In places where it is not so taboo, however, the exact same work attracts plenty of women who aren’t fighting the demons of rape or incest. Causality might be working the other direction, you see.) She does dispel the myth that all strippers are also drug addicts, but doesn’t ever discuss why we’d assume women need to be intoxicated to do such a thing. And, she doesn’t tell us if she was one of those girls who needs a few drinks to get out on the floor, coyly mentioning a few times when she got drunk at work as if it was a rare occurrence.

Cody is obsessed with the issue of why she would be attracted to stripping since she doesn’t fit her own stereotype of who a stripper is. This circular moment is unhelpful to readers who share her stereotypes. Nobody learns anything about how those stereotypes are functioning in the industry, or in the greater society. Also, her ideas about what is damaging to everyone about stripping are fundamentally insulting to those of us who dropped those stories of who enters the industry, why, and what it does to them, long ago. It’s not that she’s wrong about the potential self-esteem-crushing effects of being part of the “girl buffet,” but she doesn’t seem to think it’s possible that one could both strip AND be smart, well-adjusted, and busy with other projects, because she couldn’t do it herself. She calls herself a “nerd” often throughout the book—but she’s not an analytical writer here, she’s just a hipster who likes Star Trek. A real nerd would have taken the experience much, much more seriously, in the middle of all the titillating and disgusting detail. If she'd claimed the book was just an expose, a la Video Vixens, fine. But she makes it seem as though she's thought a lot about it all, and with a critical eye.

Lily Burana, who wrote Strip City and is another self-proclaimed nerd-dancer, also struggled to come up with some conclusions about what stripping MEANS to America, even though she worked all over the US and did a great deal of research into the history of the strip-tease. She tried, and, tried hard. It’s not an easy subject, nor is it “shallow,” as Cody claims. While she touches on the issues of female competitiveness and friendship at the club, Cody never discusses one of the most interesting psychological issues of stripping: dissociation vs. sexualization in the act of exhibition. She never once cops to being attracted to a customer—which means she’s lying to us. At least once in that year, there was someone she really enjoyed giving a lap dance to, and whether she felt exultant or guilty afterward would have been a great complexity to her story. She never calls what she does dissociating, although her writing belies it. She’s got a hawk’s eye on the club (the anthropologist/journalist), but forgets to talk about her own true psychological (much less philosophical, intellectual) experience until the very end of the book, when she’s suddenly burned out. How did she get that way? We can’t know, since she represented herself as a tough-as-nails cynic with a perfect boyfriend for the 200 previous pages. She doesn’t let us in to her relationship with her body, save for a few mentions of how her costume changes and a particularly funny and accurate passage about the importance of tanning. She never quite details how her feminist self deals with her stripper self.

Cody was so enthralled by her ability to capture the simultaneous sparkle and grit of her environments that she failed to notice what’s really interesting about dancing for money:
strip clubs are where our national anxieties get deposited. Because of the cultural taboo on women’s exhibitionism, clubs are places where every value we’ve got about sex, gender, money, and “success” collide. Cody wanted to enter this roiling secret world without becoming OF it. She didn’t seem to learn anything, and so the book doesn’t teach readers anything. This made me angry, especially because she’s clearly able to write. She had an opportunity to do something truly revolutionary, and she told a fluffy story about one good girl’s trip to the dark side. This means that nobody has to think about what makes her “good” and what makes stripping “dark.” She might claim that she never set out to do that work, that she's just a storyteller, etc. I think it's cowardly to claim you're an intelligent, thinking woman who's interested in the sex industry and then NOT force yourself to take a stand on what is good and bad about it.

Thankfully, Juno did a much better job of posing a few real questions about our cultural values, although it neatly skirted the real bugaboo of abortion. Since Candy Girl predates Juno, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another effort that actually challenges—and I think that Cody may be one of those writers who tells more truth in fiction than she can in autobiography. I hope that as she moves forward with her work she shows us the guts and the brains she so vehemently claims she has.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Confluence of Importance

November 4th! History is made. We cried with elation when the 8-year shame of being American got lifted.

I'm sad, angered, and surprised about California voting against civil rights with Prop 8. I want to ride the wave of hope that Obama has brought to us, and yet, there is an unmistakeable sense of fear that prevailed in many states on the issue of gay marriage and I'm tired of teaching people about civil rights. I'm finally proud of us for turning the tide in the national election, and I know that I will never be satisfied, truly, with a national culture that is so deeply saturated with capitalist values.

What cheers me tonight is the fundamental shift that has happened in a country that has been fearful and reeling since 9/11, that finally seems strong enough to question systemic issues.

Hope. Hope Hope. It's a meaningful day for me personally, too: One-year anniversary of this blog, five months of commitment with Louis, I bought a file cabinet, I drank a glass of very expensive port with Anthony, Linz, and Aaron in the Riverside apartment.

We're drinking and yelling and watching Bruce Springsteen videos. My life is good.