Archive for February, 2017
Clown, Comedy, Italian, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags Commedia dell'Arte Day on February 25, 2017 by travsd
February 25 is International Commedia dell’Arte Day! Commedia is the root of everything, and I’m thinking it’s no accident the planners hold this annual event so close to Carnival, the festival season of masks and mayhem. To learn more about it, I’ll connect you with a number of handy links. Nothing happening in New York or Washington (home of Faction of Fools, organizers) this year it appears, I’m afraid. The flagship event is being held in Sydney, although it looks like the Pazzi Lazzi Troupe is doing a free event in Boston:
AMERICANA, Crackers, CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History with tags arts, culture, diversity, folk, Trump on February 24, 2017 by travsd
I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot. The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.
The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”. The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”
Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.
So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory. I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian.
And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else.
In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.
But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.
BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags BROOKLYN, Congress, Town Hall, Union Temple, Yvette Clarke on February 23, 2017 by travsd
In recent days we’ve been seeing footage of Town Hall meetings across the country as congresspeople meet with their constituents to hear what they have to say about our first month of President 45. Most of the clips we’ve been seeing have been of angry people yelling at Republicans, over such things as cancelling Obamacare without having the promised replacement system ready to go. Last night, my congressperson, Representative Yvette Clarke, held her own meeting at the Union Temple in Brooklyn just a short walk from my house.
I gather it was a huge success. Arriving at the announced start time I was amazed to see that the line to get in stretched all the way around the block. And when I say “all the way around”, that’s just what I mean. 360 degrees. The back of the line reached almost to the front. Several hundred people (including me) were turned away. But in a democracy, that many people taking an interest is a good problem to have. My good friend Gabriele Schafer got there good and early though and here is what she reports:
Panelists included representatives of Planned Parenthood New York, the NYCLU, SUNY Downstate Medical School, and the NYS Department of Health, as well as experts on climate change and civil rights/immigration law. On the environment, presenters cited how this kind of poll is consistent with the public’s attitude. On healthcare, the audience heard that 40+% of women in NY don’t get any prenatal care; but New York has and will continue to have “Obamacare”. SUNY Downstate Medical say that they provide healthcare to ALL comers. An NYCLU lawyer and a local immigration lawyer said that under the law you do not have to show nor carry ID; and that you can remain silent. The authorities may hold you and try to intimidate you but to remain silent may be considered a legitimate form of protest.
In her own presentation, Clarke called Kellyanne Conway “Kellyanne ConArtist” to big cheers. Her mentions of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Rudy Giuliani all garnered loud boos. The biggest cheer and standing ovation she got was when she used the term “act up”…. “I’m going to act up!” Clarke she said that it is vital that the public keep doing everything they can to resist and let their feelings known to their electeds, even though they may think it does no good, especially in blue districts. Elected officials need the cover, they need the motivation, and they need to be able to point to the discontent and groundswell behind them. More on last night’s event is here.
AMERICANA, BUNKUM, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags con man, lies, snake oil, swindle, Trump on February 21, 2017 by travsd
In November, 2016 America elected a reality television star and periodically bankrupt heir to a real estate fortune to the most powerful office in the world, purportedly on the strength of his blunt honesty and business acumen. Yet during the 2016 Presidential campaign, non-partisan fact-checkers determined that Donald Trump lied 75-85% of the time (the average for a politician, including all his rivals in the 2016 primaries and general election, is about 25%). When not lying outright, the remainder of Trump’s discourse tends to live in the realm of the quasi-lie, peppering his speech with boasts, and hyperbolic, easily refutable rebuttals on the order of “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met.”
Trump’s mendacity is palpable, in fact, brazenly unhidden, and yet close to 62 million Americans chose him to be the man who will steer the United States for the next four years. They literally put their lives in his hands. This, in an age when it is unprecedentedly easy to catch a public figure in a dishonest statement; the history of everything up to about five seconds ago is available online. Trump says he respects Mexicans? The footage of him disrespecting Mexicans is a click away for anyone to see.
Many of us were and continue to be astounded by the fact that any adult American, let alone millions of them, would give credence to anything this man says. But perhaps we shouldn’t be.
America’s traditional relationship to such bunkum as Trump routinely spouts hasn’t been exactly critical. In point of fact, “admiring” tends to be the more apt descriptor. For better or worse, ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Indians for a handful of trinkets, the Art of the Swindle has been a beloved American tradition. It’s a national archetype of sorts, one that cuts across nearly every field of human endeavor. We don’t just tolerate but embrace quack doctors, fraudulent preachers, crackpot inventors, patent medicine salesmen, sham artists, tabloid reporters, used car dealers, and cheating politicians.
Not that similar characters haven’t always been present in every nation, particularly in recent years as the globe becomes increasingly Americanized, but perhaps nowhere so pervasively, so cheerfully, as the United States. The question is why? Why here? Why us?
I’ve made a study of such characters, even going so far as to name my theatre company, formed in 1995, “Mountebanks”. A mountebank is a con artist. The term dates to Medieval times when hucksters would “mount the bench” at fairs and open air markets to sell their miracle cures using nothing but the magic of their oratory. He is the ancestor of the television commercial. I believe a combination of factors came together to make America the ideal habitat for this tradition:
PROTESTANTISM: America privileges the subjective over the objective, the individual “testimony” rather than the “official authority”. This has its roots in the invention of the printing press, which lead to widespread literacy, which lead to Protestantism, which lead to a culture of ever-dividing sects. In relatively unpopulated (or depopulated) early America, this process was metastasized. In early America, if you felt differently from your local religious authorities, all you had to do was move away and start a new town or colony or camp or cult where you could worship as you chose. The ultimate culmination of this is the evangelical tradition of “testifyin’”– personal revelations, faith healing, and latter-day miracles. Ironically, in the end, within the subculture there is social pressure to believe the individual who testifies. No testimony can be false. This tradition extends beyond religion. Our scientific heroes are the independent descendants of the heretical Galileo, not the pettifogging bureaucrats of The Academy. We love individuals, eccentrics and mavericks.
DEMOCRACY: A related phenomenon is America’s leveling democratic tendency, again starting with Protestantism. It began with breaking with the Pope, then Kings, then “politicians and fat cats”, and lately, it’s been ALL government or expertise of any sort: scientists, journalists, and the like are all under suspicion. At the same time (on the positive side) we have this social mobility…it is well known that anyone from any walk of life can apply himself and become a scientist, clergyman, lawyer or what have you. Of course, in the past, such people, if not educated, were at least self-educated (such as scientific inventors or lawyers, like, say, Abraham Lincoln). In the Information Age, the leap has been that even THAT is not required. “My opinion is as good as anyone else’s”. The ironic result has been an erosion in the belief in authority. The practical trouble with that is, in our complex society we frequently require the services of people with skill and knowledge we don’t have, people who can do things like draw up a contract or diagnose an illness. Ironically a skeptical disbelief in legitimate authority makes us vulnerable to those who claim to possess the knowledge we need, but actually don’t.
THE FRONTIER: This has become less a factor since the mid 20 th century, but it played a crucial role during our culture’s formative years. Geographical isolation, with no long-distance communication was a fact of life for most Americans. This was a condition most of Europe had not known for several centuries, and it resulted in an echo of a phenomenon that had appeared in Europe in ancient and Medieval times: the generation of native “tall tales” and folk tales. The land was Terra Incognita. In fact, often enough true reports would appear far-fetched. There was nothing like the rattlesnake or the grizzly bear or the giant redwood in the Old Country. People would return from their travels and return with incredible sounding stories. If one’s story were not incredible, it was a simple matter to make it so with scant fear of fact checking.
CAPITALISM AND COMMODIFICATION: This factor, too, was an outgrowth of Protestantism, by way of the Calvinist Work Ethic, resulting in the gradual erosion of Christian social prejudice against the profit motive. Social permission to make a buck, and the competitive environment in which that happened resulted in a great leap forward in the art of salesmanship. Grandiose claims on behalf of products were made through a variety of media. The Industrial Revolution increased the scale and pace of this process even further. There was now much unprecedented temptation and incentive to lie, or at least “puff” and exaggerate. The boast on behalf of your product may be thought of as “acquisition by other means”: dreamstuff as literal money in the bank. Further, the constant competition for consumer dollars resulted in incentive to pursue, niche, novelty in order to stand out from competitors. People who got in on the ground floor of innovative new products made fortunes. But it has always been impossible to tell in advance what the Next Big Thing would be. The important thing is the CLAIM. “I’m telling you– put your money in ostrich farms. You can’t lose!”
INVENTION: Another factor is an idea identified by author Neil Harris in his book Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum which he calls “the Operational Aesthetic”. Because of the technological and informational boom in America (made possible by all sorts of factors), there came an ironic tendency to trust jargon-spouting self-made experts. Literal “miracles” seemed to be happening every day: inventions like the hot-air balloon, electricity, etc etc etc. This left room for all manner of crackpots and quacks to exploit the credence of people who’d come to cease being shocked at ANY new discovery that might come along, whether it was psychic healing, or miracle tonics, or a race of people with two heads, or what have you. You wouldn’t even need to be “ignorant” per se to have such a weak spot. Rich people were taken in by charlatans all the time. ALSO: ironically (also from Harris) our cult of truth makes us vulnerable to lies. Americans are junkies for “facts”, not just from journalism, but also (in the 19th century) lectures; self improvement; entertainment that purports to be derive from fact (folk ballads, films, plays, performance art, and the like). Ironically the mania for truth makes it possible to more easily disguise falsehoods by cloaking them in the trusted language of fact. The ultimate fruit of that is Fake News.
THE CONSTITUTION: A certain amount of wiggle room for embellishment is baked right into our law. The First Amendment gives such wide scope, such “permission” in our speech. Not that there weren’t charlatans and false advertisers back in Europe, but never so MANY of them. America has a whole CULTURE of them. One reason why there may be or may not have been fewer of them in Europe may be the chilling effect of their laws. You can’t just get away with “saying things” there. There are ways in which the First Amendment is analogous to the Second Amendment, in how Americans stretch and test and abuse it. To egregiously oversimplify, the former invites us to be a nation of liars just as the latter invites us to be a nation of murderers. Just as America is the first universally armed people, we are the first universally self-expressive people (whether its testifying in church, writing letters to the editor and politicians, or composing handbills and posters for your business).
And so we come to the 21 st century, which seems to have increased these formerly manageable tendencies to a potentially fatal degree. It’s one thing to lose a single paycheck to a shell game operator at the county fair once a year. It’s quite another to hand over the earth to a guy who promises the moon, has no intention or means of delivering it, and really only wants to plunder the earth anyway. That this crime against humanity is happening with cooperation of countless men and women who really ought to know better is no less appalling. Our only hope lies on the old Latin legal aphorism Caveat Emptor: “Let the Buyer Beware.” Believe nothing Trump or his minions tell you. Try to get the real facts to as many people as you can in an effort to remove him from office. And start shopping for a replacement.
African American Interest, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags actor, Charles Lane, director, movie, Please Date Me Now, Sidewalk Stories, True Identity on February 21, 2017 by travsd
No one is happier than this commentator to see actor/director Charles Lane re-emerging from wherever he’s been for the past 20 years. Lane’s day in the sun was 1989-1993, when he had an extremely promising, very interesting run. His debut silent feature Sidewalk Stories put him on the map as the “Black Chaplin“, and today it’s not only an incredible record of a very different NYC (the one I moved to, in fact, so it makes me nostalgic) but to a time when film-makers were putting that much heart and humanity into their work. There is zero commercialism in his film, just integrity and craft, and at the time, that was still enough to make people take notice. I wrote about the film here when its was restored and shown at Tribeca Film Festival back in 2014. I found the film transformational.
The success of Sidewalk Stories landed Lane a gig directing a film for Touchstone in 1991; British comedian Lenny Henry’s American debut entitled True Identity. I saw it when it came out, and it seemed to make a lot of sense for both Lane and Henry conceptually. It’s very high concept; not unlike Tootsie. A black actor puts on white make-up so he can escape from the mob. It has echoes of Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man, and presages the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks. Both Lane and Henry did fine work, but the script itself was pretty lacklustre (Touchstone is Disney after all, so this potentially explosive concept was at best timidly explored). And Henry didn’t click as a star in the states. Lane himself also appeared in the film, and was quite funny. In 1993, he was the comic relief in Mario Van Peebles’s interesting all-black western Posse. That year he also directed an episode of American Masters called Hallelujiah, with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Keith David, Ruth Brown, Isaac Hayes and others.
On the face of it, he seemed to be a guy who was going places, but after this he vanished,emerging only recently with the renewed interest in Sidewalk Stories. I’ve come across no commentary as to why. People do get discouraged in this business, even people as talented and promising as Lane. And I can imagine the sort of projects that typically get offered to African American artists being insulting in any number of ways. And that could add to the discouragement. All I know is I am glad to have him back. We need art right now, especially art with Lane’s sensibility. He’s just launched this Kickstarter for a new web series called Please Date Me Now. I don’t have a pot to piss in at the moment; all I can do is endorse his talent and the idea that he deserves your backing. Learn all about the project here.
CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Presidents Day, Protests with tags Central Park West, Not My President, protest, rally, Trump Tower on February 20, 2017 by travsd
There’s only one way to spend Presidents Day in the age of Drumpf — that’s by rejecting the present office holder utterly and vociferously, and refusing to include him in any honors extended to his august precedessors. Accordingly, tens of thousands of protesters gathered on Central Park West and Columbus Circle to make their point outside Trump Tower. Your correspondent was among them.
I wore the swell shirt you see above, created by my old friend Matt Cohen. Now I know for certain that I am one of the 65,844,954 who voted for HRC. I am less certain that I one of the actual ones represented in the difference between her total number of popular votes and Trump’s puny, pathetic lesser total. Still, this handsome article was the appropriate shirt for today’s outing, and if you want one of your own you can get it here.