Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Austen powers II: The Jane who shagged me

Emmy wrote in with some incisive comments about Becoming Jane and its anxious reification of Austen's sex life:

It's this strange kind of patriarchal baptism, as if only a man could unlock her own creativity and give it back to her - as a gift? The consolation prize for a broken heart?...The celibacy thing: again, a presumption that for a woman to feel or understand desire - and to be able to translate that experience creatively - she necessarily has had sex with a man, or come close to it. Absurdity! How else does one experience desire and lust and longing but in the absence of its consummation?

One doesn't, as the entire career of Morrissey has proved.

Emmy also points out the misguidedness of the film's effort "to construct a traditional 'romance' narrative for Austen's life," since this rearrangement "completely misread[s] her intentions and her achievements as a novelist." One such achievement was her nonjudgmental--and proto-third wave feminist--recognition that a woman must be trusted to follow her intuition about what was best for her. She knew that different choices were ideal for different women, and nowhere is that credo more manifest than in the character of Charlotte Lucas (also cited by Emmy). Austen sets up her readers to be horrified by Charlotte's acceptance of Mr. Collins precisely so that she can later convince them of its logic. A loveless marriage is not right for Lizzy Bennet. It is, however, right for Charlotte, because they are different kinds of women. Austen urges us not to judge Charlotte for her choice, which actually turns out to be quite cunning in its way; Mr. Collins spends most of his time either at Rosings Park or in his own apartment, and Charlotte is free to do with herself--and her new income--as she pleases.

Sanden also chimed in on some of these issues, saying quite correctly that the biographical fallacy can be seen at work on men as well as women. He offered the example of Shakespeare in Love, which reconstructs the playwright's early life as a kind of moment-for-moment inspiration for every line and allusion used in Romeo and Juliet.

There are three reasons I don't think Shakespeare in Love's fallacious biography is in the same league as Jane's. First, Shakespeare is a farce, delivered with wink-wink nudge-nudge literary playfulness by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. "Look," they say with great delight, "there's a skull! There's a girl named Viola! There's a Puritan on a street corner yelling, 'A plague on both your houses!'" The biographical inventions are not to be taken too seriously. Nobody thinks that's how Shakespeare really wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Jane, on the other hand, takes its fallacy as plausible lost truth. Viola de Lesseps never existed, but Tom Lefroy did, so his inclusion and inflation in the film bring with them the shimmer of historical possibility. As James McAvoy (Lefroy/Darcy) puts it, "He becomes her first flirtation, really. In historical reference he was probably--we think--one of her first beaux. Even though nothing came of it. [The movie] just charts their relationship, and how it might have influenced the novels that she went on to write, and the characters therein."

Second, Shakespeare's reputation as a writer isn't exactly up for discussion. His is the quintessential authorliness, the creative masculinity that generates art through toil and invention and original thought. He is not tethered, as Austen is, to a tradition for thinking about women writers as mere regurgitators of personal experience that goes back to Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Because it buys into this tradition, Becoming Jane risks convincing a new generation of readers that Austen was just a spunky gal with untapped writing potential until she met a sexy man--and then dished about it in novel form. Biopics are great at flattening complex lives into digestible films, and don't discriminate between the sexes; it's just that women are already starting out on the bottom of the ladder.

Finally, when a film that is not a romantic farce, but a romantic drama, offers precise translations of fiction into biography, the whole thing just feels tedious and condescending. As in this scene from Jane, in which Maggie Smith does her best Lady Catherine de Bourgh impression and the text of Chapter 56 of P&P is all but painted across the frame.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Austen powers

The disappointing thing about Becoming Jane is its assumption that in order for Jane Austen to have written the novels she did, she had to have experienced their romantic dramas in real life. It’s got “biographical fallacy” written all over it. And as with many biographical fallacies, there's a twinge of misogyny involved. We don’t assume that Daniel Defoe was shipwrecked for twenty-eight years on a deserted island. Or decide that Dickens must have spent his youth as an orphaned London pickpocket. So why must Jane Austen have fallen in love with a prideful snob whom she originally despised? Why don’t we trust her with enough creativity to have come up with that on her own?

Tom Lefroy did spark Austen’s interest. It’s not as if the filmmakers made him up. Her crushed-out comments about him are preserved in her letters to her sister Cassandra. But the entire episode lasted about two weeks. It’s not impossible that Austen based Mr. Darcy on Lefroy; maybe she did. But why must we rush around making films pushing the idea that Austen simply funneled her lived experience into her novels, without any of the imaginative sweating and grunting we attribute to our male writers of genius?

The film’s taglines make its agenda plain. Her own life is her greatest inspiration. And Between sense and sensibility and pride and prejudice was a life worth writing about. Actually, her life wasn’t worth writing about, it was fairly boring—that’s why she wrote novels. The source of Jane Austen’s talent wasn’t her ability to write from English Regency middle-class life; it was her knack for standing apart from it. Her avoidance of marriage and children, her finesse at sidestepping the sexist demands of flirtations and engagements and wifehood, were what allowed her to observe and satirize them all so astutely in the first place.

It seems to me that what we’re really afraid of here is letting Jane off the hook as celibate, which she almost certainly was. Celibacy doesn’t sit well with our modern 24-hour porn hotline sensibilities (or, admittedly, our feminist sex-positive ones). The idea of an Austen who never got down to it is just...disappointing, and vaguely un-adult. We want the woman who set up the electric sexual currents between Lizzie and Darcy and Emma and Mr. Knightley to have known first-hand what she was dipping her nib in her inkwell about. That she didn’t doesn’t detract from her artistry. It only confirms it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ambient Jean Genet Music Machine

"NNNAAAMMM" can really creep a girl out. It's what Trent was gunning for in "Closer," only he was in thrall to an industrial-techno god at the time rather than a Teutonic noise one, so some of the menace was glossed in translation. Einsty seem to corner the market on paranoid soundscaping simply by virtue of being so German.

Yesterday I came across an endearingly nonsensical song concept: Eartha Kitt's "Somebody Bad Stole De Wedding Bell." It hinges on the highly disruptive theft of a bell from a church steeple but I won't divulge more except to report it demands repeatedly, "Who stole de ding-dong?? Who stole de bell???" in a baffling just-add-rasta microwaveable "Islands" accent. Eartha may have been Catwoman but she was not from Kingstown.

I also heard what is surely one of the more unintentionally homoerotic offerings from a genre already rippling with unintentional homoeroticism: Richard Thompson's "I'll Never Give It Up." That one I'm going to let speak for itself, as it is a glory to behold.

I can't eat, I can't sleep
Knowing that you're on
Your midnight creep
I can't jump, I can't jive
Knowing that you want me
Dead or alive
Come on, do your worst, boy
That's the way, that's the way
Hit me where it hurts, boy,
That's the way, that's the way
Puff until you burst, boy
That's the way, that's the way
But I'll never give it up
I'll never give it up

I don't run, I don't care
Some day we're going to
Meet somewhere
You and me will rock and roll
When you crawl out of
Your sick little hole
So give me what you got
Put your money in the pot
Let's see what you are and
What you're not

How is this not a sample lyric from a lost English-language musical adaptation of Querelle? Really? Then again, I was just re-reading the chapter of Between Men where Eve K. Sedgwick insists that Our Mutual Friend was all about sphincters. So who knows.

Monday, July 16, 2007

White Blouse Disco

Playing catch-up due to lack of internet access.

The new Rasputina record is really good, if baffling to review since I'd already played my concept album card for Mirah. Maybe we're having an esoteric concept album renaissance. Dame Darcy did the video for "1816, The Year Without a Summer" and her style makes barnfuls of sense when you've got all that dulcimer and Mary Shelley-referencing going on.

Stevens Square Zinefest was super and had reams of zines, mostly per-, anarchist and graphical. I finally met Lacey, my successor in The Sanden Totten Experience, and since she happens to be the zine librarian for the Belfry's Bat Annex collection I got to check out Tight Pants #7. Jenna Freedman was there and led a discussion about zines, their relationship to vanity pubs and uncertain future in our increasingly digibonkers netiverse. The best part was when she asked whether there is any riot grrrl energy in Minneapolis anymore. Laura Larson of Baby Guts and Kitten Forever was sitting literally four feet in front of her, cross-legged, bag with a Bikini Kill patch by her side. She smiled and said quietly, "Yeah. Yeah, there is." The Kitten Forever Sissy Party cassette was on sale for a measley $3.00 American so I adopted a pink one and took it home. It is nice to purchase a recording when all the members of its band are in the room with you, and you are not even at a show. This is an essential cassette tape, for serious-serious. Kitten Forever are the Go-Go's in 1982. No! They are the Runaways in 1975. NO, NO. ACTUALLY they are the Mo-dettes in 1979. They are that shiny with promise and feminism and guitar snark.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The heart is a lonely punter


You are living in a good time and place when you can ride a bus downtown after work and see PATTI SMITH spelled out on yr local theater marquee. And not be hallucinating. The State has her sandwiched between KINGS OF COMEDY and DREAM THEATER. A week and a half later the Orpheum is doing Macy's Glamorama 2007 across the street. If the Hennepin theater district web site has one person writing all of its events promo copy, then the selfsame person wrote "touchstone for the feminist movement" and "sensational style showdown." This is why we learn about personal-political multiplicity, kittens.

45:33 is really great until you remember it was commissioned by Nike, and that the record art has a swoosh on it. Maybe music shouldn't be less enjoyable when midwived by a multi-billion dollar sportswear supply corporation. But somehow it is.

Mark Simpson has noticed the weird "Mozza outed himiself" reference in Out magazine and offers a rebuttal, as well as that revealing complete still from "Flesh."

Repeated listening to the Nina Hagen version of "Ziggy Stardust" ruins the original. Meaning that the original never sounds quite as good afterwards. Which maybe isn't so bad after all?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The music didn't die, it got eclipsed

Because my life exploded lately, I had been planning on writing about the Linder show, the record Douglas gave me, the test scripts I wrote for Performance Today, and my interview with Melora Creager. But then yesterday my life exploded even more, because while Pants was waiting for her bus after work, a stranger asked her for money, and when she refused, he punched her in the face. She was ambulanced to the emergency room and got four stitches. She was very brave. But then, that is the Pants way. We are at home today trying to make sense of all of this, especially the randomness of the assault. Why her? Why yesterday? I keep thinking about Ionesco and Beckett and Camus. Absurdism is somehow a lot less easy to like when it invades your life.