Thursday, January 26, 2017

"Disgraced": A Most Depressing Play -- perhaps what the script writer intended

Wed Jan 25 I saw the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's production of "Disgraced," by Milwaukee native Ayad Akhtar. It is the most depressing play I have ever seen, a drama with absolutely no heroes whatsoever. That may indeed have been the playwright's intent, and if so, he did a great job. The actors also did an impressive job of bringing these characters to life. To fulfill believably roles that are so empty while living lives of luxury and status must take some serious work and determination.

Five characters , all bundles of disgusting stereotypes, start as friends and family and end utterly estranged from each other, for all kinds of stupid reasons, after an hour and twenty minutes of insipid dialogue. It is a salutary warning not to be like these characters.

One character is an American-born mergers and acquisitions lawyer whose parents came to the USA from Pakistan. He is by his own description an apostate Muslim, who dismisses Islam in language reminiscent of a good number of faux conservative Anglo-Americans. His wife is an American of European descent who is infatuated with Islamic art, and gushes about it in a shallow manner that would equally disgust a devout Muslim or an Islamophobe. Their dinner companions are a Jewish man who struts his criticisms of Israel, who organizes art exhibits and works with the lawyer's wife frequently, plus his African American wife who happens to be an attorney at the same mergers and acquisitions firm. What could possibly go right?

Oh, and there is the lawyer's nephew who changed his name from Hussein to Abraham to fit in, in America, but ends up wearing a Kufi and hating what America and the west have done to "our people," who mostly relates to "Aunt Ellen" as supportive family more than his apostate uncle.

To complete the devastation, the two artistes apparently had an affair in London, which is discovered toward the end of the dinner party, outraging both spouses. The whole scene breaks up in an orgy of self-hatred and mutual loathing.

It may well be true that there are people who live in worlds where the vapid nothings spouted by these characters are the stuff of daily life, conversation, and sense of self. In fact, its almost certainly true. I have little respect for a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, no matter what their race, religion, national origin, etc. I believe most mergers and acquisitions should be banned. I have little patience for long-winded oration about The Meaning of Art. Abstract art is a pretty colorful pattern, or its ugly. Realistic art depicts something, and what it depicts is what it is about. The cultural context from which a given art emerged is interesting, but doesn't change whether I would want it hanging on my wall or not.

I have a basic sense that the sacred texts of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, can all be used to justify horrific mass violence and persecution, or not, depending on the opportunistic motives of the interpreter. God, unfortunately, is not foremost in the minds of those who try to impose some version of The Faith on others.

Depending on how a viewer takes this play, the emotionally and ethically bloated characters presented could either be a clarion call to take some side or other, or, could be a warning that for all our sakes, we really must not be like these people... not that I or most people I know could ever think of buying $600 shirts. Its the possibility that what these characters say to each other could be taken seriously that bothers me.

But I entertain the hope that the playwright's intended message was, stop and think people, don't react to vapid slogans, don't view each other as common stereotypes, don't try to fit yourself into a neat little social category. Live your life, and relax a little with everyone else around you. That would be the best way to bounce back from the depressing experience of watching these characters taking themselves seriously.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Django Unchanged: So conventional its controversial

While waiting for my car to get an oil change, I walked over to the nearby Big Lots and found a DVD of Django Unchanged in the discount rack. I hadn't seen the movie since it was making the rounds of the theaters, and I did hanker to take another look. Having enjoyed seeing it again, I did a few google searches, and found, first of all, that there have been other Django movies before, except, this is the first one where Django was a gunslinger of African descent. Some of the others were a lot bloodier.

After reading a little, I realized that Django Unchained is no more, and no less than a well-done spaghetti western, just one more of the genre. The plot is quite as improbable as all the other spaghetti westerns, but do any of us take those seriously? Django Unchained happens to be a spaghetti western where some of the action happens in The South, and it happens a little before the Civil War, instead of a decade or two afterward. There was truly western settlement going on before 1860, and a good deal of commerce and migration from the southern states to the western territories, and back again.

Django Unchained also happens to assign a lead gunslinger role to a character, and therefore an actor, of known and visible African descent. Adding to all the fantasies and fables that make up the American Western, and of course the spaghetti western, what such a character might have been like, and done, is simply a bit of good clean fun. A bit bloody, but aren't they all? So this time some "white" bad guys get killed by a "black" good guy. About time.

Django Unchained is NOT a movie of great social and political importance. It doesn't pretend to be. It is not forgotten and suppressed history brought at last to the silver screen. That is its significance. We've come far enough down the road that we can now have black characters routinely included in such movies without having to have great social and political importance.

One can certainly quibble with some historical anachronisms. There weren't night riders out in masks or other regalia in 1858 or 1859. It wasn't necessary to have secret organizations inflicting that kind of covert terror. Slavery was legal. Most of the African-descended population was enslaved, and the "free colored" population was moderately prosperous, socially conservative, dependent upon "white" patronage. If the local gentry had wanted to go after Dr. Schulz and Django, they would have done so openly, or not at all. But the scene was good entertainment.

Further, Candie Land would NOT have been around for seventy years. More like twenty, maybe thirty at the most. Mississippi was still a wild frontier in 1835. Half the land in the state was only purchased from the Choctaw nation in 1830. In 1817, Mississippi had a constitution similar to South Carolina, requiring state representatives to own 150 acres of land, and state senators 300 acres. But that was thrown out in 1832 when small family farmers in the eastern part of the state revolted against the elites along the Mississippi River and Gulf coast, what was called the "whole hogs" rebellion.

The 1832 constitution prohibited importation of any new slaves into Mississippi for sale. But by 1840 the politics of the state changed again, as cotton became the dominant crop and large plantations again dominated. So people like Calvin Candie, with pretensions to French culture, but no French, were an upstart nouveau riche elite, having a history of perhaps 18-25 years in their garish imitation of gracious plantation living. If old Ben (whose skull Candie displayed) shaved Calvin Candie's father and grandfather with a straight razor, he did that back in Virginia or South Carolina. Seventy years before 1858 was 1788, and the federal constitution was only a year old. There were still only 13 states.

This is one reason that secession was such an infantile notion, when the Civil War finally broke out. Most of the people who identified so mightily in their independent rights as citizens of the sovereign state of Mississippi had been born somewhere else. Jefferson Davis, for instance, like Abraham Lincoln, had been born in Kentucky. Neither the state nor its residents had any significant history as a distinct people. It was a creation of the United States of America.

Finally, I've never found a significant reference to any universal rule against a person of African descent riding a horse. There were dark skinned overseers who rode horses, among others. Out west, the rather small number of free black settlers rode whatever they pleased.

That said, it was really fun to see the Brittle Brothers get their comeuppance. The careful acting and camera work of the enslaved Jody's expressions as she twisted around to see the overseer about to bullwhip her get a bullet through the heart fired by a tall black man in a bright blue suit was priceless. And the blood splashing across the cotton bolls in the field as the last dead Brittle fell off his horse... exquisite. It was the same kind of thrill as watching Hopalong Cassidy step inside a mining cabin and drill bullets through ten cattle rustlers before they could draw... only with a new twist.

One spelling error recurs in several of the commentaries already available on the internet about this movie: It seems that nobody knows how to spell Brunhilda. Everyone writes it Broomhilda, which is the name of a mid-20th century American cartoon character, a funny incompetent little witch on the comics pages. The legend Schultz related to Django, the good German name that some lady named von Schaft gave to her young slave, was Brunhilda, heroine of one of the finest Teutonic epics. Keep that straight people.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Obergefell may go the way of Bowers, but these things take time

A 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court is enforceable law, so for the foreseeable future, every state in the United States will be issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, including two men, and two women. The sky is not going to fall, millions of marriages of a man to a woman each year will not be impeded or tainted. If God is really angry, he is speaking with a still, small voice, not through a fire or a storm or an earthquake.

But Justice Kennedy's high-blown speculative verbal legerdemain is just as weak and begging for criticism, appearing as The Opinion of the Court, as it would be in the event Kennedy had been writing a dissent. The damage to constitutional jurisprudence has been significant. The First Amendment still protects our right to publicly detail what is wrong with the decision. Kennedy himself observed "The law doesn't belong to a bunch of judges and lawyers, it belongs to you."

Fundamentally, the entire line of cases from Goodridge to Obergefell suffers a consistent deformity. Once this string is pulled, the entire fabric comes undone. The courts have failed to answer the basic question, what is this "marriage" thingy that gays claim to have been denied?

No man, and no woman, has been denied access to marry a person of the opposite sex. If that IS what marriage IS -- the union of a man and a woman -- then the claim that same-sex couples have a "right" to a marriage license becomes an oxymoron. Attempts have been made to "construe" marriage as something other than what is on the statute books, particularly in the Goodridge decision: "We construe civil marriage to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others." Really? Why? What for? This, standing alone, robs marriage of any substance or meaning at all. But only by doing so have the courts been able to construe that a distinct set of persons have been "denied" the "benefits" of "marriage."

A significant difference between advocating the civil rights of racially distinct demographics -- whether a racial minority, as in the U.S., or a racial majority, as in the old Republic of South Africa -- is that "black" human beings were categorized AS black to deny them rights enjoyed by all other citizens, but "gay" human beings have had to assemble themselves AS a distinct demographic in order to make a colorable claim that they have been discriminated against. Racial laws contemplated that race meant something, and deliberately singled people out by race. Marriage laws, on the other hand, do not exclude those human beings defined as "gay" from marriage. Rather, people who presented themselves AS gay made the claim that they have been denied access to marriage, because what the law recognizes as marriage is something they personally find to be icky and unrewarding.

Discrimination on the basis of sex is, in general, invidious, because we now know that women make perfectly competent attorneys, doctors, engineers, senators, or whatever else. However, there is no aspect of human life in which discrimination on the basis of sex is so relevant as... sex. There is nothing so different about men and women as their sexuality, and therefore, there is nothing so rational as discrimination on the basis of sex when it comes to marriage. This doesn't mean that either sex is entitled to be top dog -- just that it makes perfect sense that a man who marries would marry a woman, and a woman who marries would marry a man. Two men might be business partners, or fishing buddies, or two women, or one of each -- it wouldn't really matter. But marriage has always been about the specific ways that men and women are distinct and different.

The species homo sapiens sapiens, like every species more complex than a sponge, is heteronormative. Indeed, sexual hormones and attraction only exists because two sexes with distinct and different roles in reproduction is a great evolutionary strategy, providing more flexibility in trying out different gene combinations, and facilitating more rapid adaptations to changing conditions. Whether homosexuality is an abomination before the Lord is of no concern to the civil law. What is a valid concern for the civil law is that homosexuality is, for the species, an irrelevant statistical outlier, that the law need not take notice of.

Human society may well have moved beyond evolution, so well do we control our own environment and suppress the many pathogens and natural conditions that would ruthlessly sort out the better survival characteristics from the the weaker ones. We value each individual as an individual. For those who happen to have a biochemistry focused on individuals of their own sex, this is the only life they have to live, and there is no reason to make it difficult for them. But there is no reason to call a "marriage" that which patently is not a marriage. The relevant categories, when it comes to marriage, are men, and women, not heterosexuals and homosexuals.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that state laws imposing criminal penalties for private consensual homosexual contact were perfectly constitutional, they court strayed from its own line of precedents and made a grievous error. Those who believed the court was wrong did not collapse and say "The court has ruled, this is the law, we shall never say otherwise again." Rather, they went to work, studying applicable precedents, monitoring other decisions that might point the way to a reconsideration, looking at factual situations that might provide the basis for another case. Eventually, such a case was accepted by the court, and Lawrence v. Texas made the finding that no, such state laws violated the constitutional right to privacy.

Those dissatisfied with Obergefell would be perfectly correct to take the same approach. Change will not come quickly. Seventeen years passed between Bowers and Lawrence. Sixty years elapsed between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. There are many variables, but this is a time for careful examination, not for supine depression or angry impotent expostulation. History is not linear, it meanders, swirls, eddies, and unfolds. Forward, but perhaps not in a straight line, is the way to go.