I’m introducing a new feature called NERD ALERT!, highlighting gender-related books, films, and performers that lean more toward the artsy end of the cultural spectrum but will not cause drowsiness or the urge to throw books, DVDs, or performance artists against a wall. (This is what I do when I attempt to read Ezra Pound—nap and then commit violence against paperbacks.) I’ll list five items each week that you should investigate if only to look smarter than everyone else you know. I would say “look cooler,” but who am I kidding?
If you visited NYC during the winter of 2010, you probably heard about the MOMA exhibition featuring a woman sitting in a chair, who was approached by an endless stream of art enthusaiats and tourists—and James Franco. You either pretended you thought it was life altering or considered it one more example of New Yorkers’ willingness to wait in long lines for pretty much anything. I’m ashamed to admit that I was in the second camp. After watching HBO’s recent documentary about this monumental retrospective, I have become a convert. Even if you think performance art is about as interesting as interpretive dance, please watch this documentary. Not only do the directors capture the breadth of Abramovic’s fascinating and multifaceted career but they also offer a glimpse at the woman behind the long red robe. In one of the more moving sequences, Abramovic’s former partner (in work and in life) enters the performance. He is just one more person sitting in a chair across from her, but her face changes dramatically. Without a single word, the films reveals the possibilities and limitations of love. Abramovic emerges as both a normal woman and an ethereal artist—often within the same scene. In one moment, we find her joking that she should have asked for the phone number of a cute Asian man who came to the exhibit, and in the next instant, she is discoursing on the nature of time and the infinite potential of human contact. I kind of hope she got that guy’s number.
Robinson—a self-described Calvinist—is a rarity in twenty-first century American letters. She is a serious literary writer as well as a serious religious thinker. If you haven’t read Housekeeping or Gilead, you are missing out on two unique meditations on faith and identity. Although this collection of essays has been marketed as a memoir, only the title essay concerns her childhood. The remainder explore her religious understanding of American history and politics. Reading her discourse on science and God, I was reminded of the stunning yet confounding “creation of the universe” sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Robinson tells readers that those opposed to science should “subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it.” Using her exhaustive knowledge of the Bible, early American sermons, and American literature, she reclaims the term “liberal” as the mark of generoisity. This may sound clichéd, but she connects it to the current financial crisis, remarking that “Jesus does not say, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.’” Whether or not you share her beliefs, you will still find Robinson’s voice a profound, sophisticated antidote to what currently passes for religious thought in the age of Fox News.
If you read my “About the Site” page, (and if you haven’t, seriously? it’s about two lines long), you will find a reference to the “Bechdel Test.” This test is a way of determining whether a film has a female presence, and it is was popularized by Alison Bechdel—the lesbian cartoonist, whose earlier graphic novel Fun Home and her decades-long strip Dykes to Watch Out For should be required reading for anyone with a brain and a soul. While Fun Home features a fairly standard narrative structure, her newest memoir about her mother could only be diagrammed with a spider web. This is not going to be a book for everyone. If you don’t like meta-fiction in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall to discuss the construction of the very book you are holding, this is probably not the book for you. If you like stories with an easily identifisble beginning, middle, and end, this is probably not the book for you. Most importantly, if you are not interested in psychoanalysis—or have never been in therapy—this is definitely not the book for you. However, if you enjoy intelligent, meandering discussions of phycoanalytic theory and mother-daughter dynamics, you should be reading Bechdel’s book right now. The images are created with a single color: red. The symbolic associations with menstrual blood and birth are obvious, but the color choice is more interesting because it embodies the artistic struggle between Bechdel and her mother—a creative woman who would have been an artist if she had been born thirty years later. When Bechdel sends her mother an early essay, her mother covers it in red ink, offering insightful criticism but also underscoring her own need to be a creator. Of course, she is a creator—of the very author we are reading—but this biological creation limits her artistic potential. Bechdel doesn’t blame her mother as a lesser writer would even as she wrestles with her mother’s limitations as a parent. She understands her mother and thereby begins to understand herself, subsequenely producing an ode to self-absorbed, neurotic women everywhere. I already discussed it with my therapist.
Foreign. Independent. Feminist. These are not buzz words that will usher multitudes into the multiplex—unless you live in Park Slope. These two provocative, if not perfect, films should have used a different marketing strategy: boobs. You might have thought Game of Thrones had cornered the market on female nudity, but you would me wrong, my friend. It is well kept secret that feminist films often feature intensely erotic—sometimes pornographic—sex scenes. This is not why I’m encouraging you to stream these recent films on Netflix, but please remember the eroticism as I argue why you should spend hours watching feminist meditations on the sex industry. Unlike their male counterparts—I’m looking at you, Lukas Moodysson—neither filmmaker portrays the sex workers as helpless victims. The young women are either students or immigrants who simply need money because the current economy offers few opportunities beyond minimum-wage work. What also sets these films apart from the standard sad-prostitute-weepie film is the focus on the johns. While Sleeping Beauty is a hyper-stylized, quiet fable (directed by a protogee of my hero Jane Campion) and Elles is a more personal portrayal of a middle-aged woman experiencing a sexual awakening through her interaction with vulnerable young women, both films highlight the johns to discuss aging, mortality, and even artistic ethics. One may argue that both directors objectify the young women in the same way as the sex industry, and this may be correct. But I would argue that the directors know this; they are highlighting the fact that we all play a part in the commodification of bodies. This doesn’t make us monsters, only falliable humans. I realize this paragraph makes both films sound really depressing, so just remember that there is a lot of raunchy sex.
I realize no one has heard of this artist, and few people will have a chance to see her work in person, but I recommend that everyone at least google her. It will only take about five minutes; you can do it. When I visited MOMA in February to see the Cindy Sherman exhibit, I found myself even more impressed by the work of this lesser known Croatian artist. Although her work varies widely from collage to video to sculpture, the defining theme is the feminist reinterpretation of popular images. When I entered her retrospective, I first encountered a series of black and white sunglasses advertisements. Printed on the bottom of each photo was a quote from a woman living in a battered women’s shelter. I know what you are thinking. This is why I don’t like feminist art. It destroys perfectly good sunglasses ads and beats me over the head with a political message. But these photos don’t have a simple one-sentence message. The sunglasses are an obvious allusion to women hiding black eyes and other signs of abuse, but they also suggest anonymity because the women’s eyes are obscured (and the models all look alike). Nevertheless, the individual quotes reveal women dealing with abuse in markedly different ways depending on their geographic location and ethnic identity. The models all display a slightly disembodied expression, suggesting fragility, which obviously underscores the actual vulnerability of the abused women, but this is also undercut by the words of women who have escaped their abusers—often at great risk to themselves and their families. This is not simply about attacking advertising; it’s about the complex psyche of abused women as well as the relationship between popular images and our conceptions of femininity and strength. If I haven’t frightened you off, google her recreation of a classic (and truly hideous) sculpture in Luxembourg, and read about the political storm she caused. I love feisty Croatians.