Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"DEAR WHITE PEOPLE" INVITES HONEST GRAPPLING WITH HARD TRUTH

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/nov/05/right-kind-discomfort/]

When was the last time you saw a film that challenged your assumptions about identity? Or one that depicted anything like the variety and complexity of identity struggles and micro-aggressions experienced by people outside the dominant culture(s)? Or one that managed both to make you feel understood and to make you squirm?

"Dear White People," the first feature film of writer-director Justin Simien, manages all of those things and more, which is to say that it is quite an achievement. That is not to say that it is exactly fun to watch or even wholly successful -- but even as I write that, I question whether my discomfort with some aspects of the film says more about me than it does about the film. To pitch a film at this level of complexity and to manage to sustain it there is more than most films even aspire to.

Please don't stop reading or decide that this film is not for you. It is for you. No matter who you are, "Dear White People" will repay your investment of time and discomfort, will plant fruitful questions in your brain that deserve your attention, and will sharpen your awareness of things happening all around you. And, as I like to remind myself, what's true is true. The only question is whether you deal with it or it deals with you. And the truth will deal with you, even when the privileges you enjoy insulate you from perceiving it.

The truth in a predominantly white, Ivy League university like the fictional Winchester University -- like most places housing access to privilege -- is a lot more complicated than is depicted in popular culture or even popular parlance. The roving vantage points of the film involve mostly the African-American members of a mixed cast, and the variety among those characters is considerably more than we usually see in films (including in the sort of romantic comedies and romantic thrillers that seem to predominate among the few films with majority-black casts). Chief among the characters here is Sam, whose campus radio program shares the movie's title and who dispenses pitiless jibes at the hypocrisies and micro-aggressions that African-Americans experience in their daily interactions with clueless Caucasians. ("Dear White People, stop touching our hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?") Sam's perceptions are sharp and spot-on, but her own behavior frequently verges into unkindness, including to the white boyfriend who she keeps secret from her otherwise all-black social set.

Sam is running for leadership of a residence hall whose traditional status as all-black has been altered due to a change in university housing policy. This is a matter of controversy about which she disagrees with her opponent, her ex-boyfriend Troy, a clean-cut, athletic campus leader who is much easier for majority-culture sensibilities to accept than Sam is. Troy is dating Sofia, the daughter of the white university president, who in turn has edged out Troy's father, the dean of students, in most competitions in their decades-long-rivalry. Sofia's brother, Kurt, is the editor of the college humor magazine and a defiantly politically incorrect provocateur who reserves especially obnoxious taunts for Lionel, a nerdy gay black student who doesn't feel comfortable in any community and whose rangy afro evokes fascination in his white peers and irritation in his black ones. Also in the mix is Coco, a calculating economics major from the South Side of Chicago eager to distance herself from her original name, Colandrea, and its attendant ghetto associations. Coco seeks to forge a reality television career and a more assimilationist identity in direct contrast to Sam.

All of this culminates in a black-ghetto-themed party in Kurt's residence hall where white students don black-face and polyester and gold chains and teeth and other accoutrements of black culture as popularly depicted. (Simien cannily includes with the end credits news articles establishing that such parties have sprung up on actual college campuses across the country.) How the party came to be and how the black characters incite and respond to its elements is where all the disparate plot elements converge.

Everyone is angling. Sam indulges romantic attention from Reggie, a political ally who she apparently sees as a more suitable romantic partner, though her heart doesn't seem to concur. Troy smokes weed several times a day to smooth his struggle to assemble a persona powerful-yet-non-threatening enough to please his father, his white girlfriend, and enough of his peers to fuel his political ambitions. Coco chafes at the sense that, for black men, she is destined to be only a way station to a white girlfriend. Bright and observant Lionel struggles to find a vantage point from which to express himself, but his experience mostly buffets him between bullying and invisibility and exploitation.

Shifting between the half-dozen plot elements, the film's tone often feels self-conscious. But ultimately the complexity serves the film well; Simien is trying to get at themes we resist looking at, and multiple vantage points is a smart way to back us into doing that. The film is pitched at satire, and though the elements sometimes feel a bit too carefully assembled, they are more complex than stereotypes. The film captures the sense that, for African-Americans with a shot at rising, forging an identity is uniquely complicated. Am I black enough? Selling out? Selling short? How hard should I work at being non-threatening to the people with the means to help me rise? What should my agenda be if I succeed? What would success even look like? Is there any point to asking these questions at all? Will I even have any say in the answers once I get there?

As a person of mixed (European and Mexican) heritage, I related to these struggles, both from my own experience and from that of my friends from outside the dominant legal culture trying to make it in the world of law. But I also related to the anxiety evident in the white characters. Even denial (also much in evidence) appears at times to spring from a place of anxiety. I'm one of the good people, right? I get it, right?

"Dear White People" doesn't presume to answer these questions. It is wisely content to pose and play with them. In doing so, it has offered up a collection of characters who, with the exception of Kurt (undeniably a jerk) and Lionel (the most guileless), are by turns unlikable and worthy of compassion. And it has aspired to more than any film I can think of: a conversation about privilege and identity and race that sits with the questions instead of pretending that they have been or can be easily put to rest, by anyone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MISFITS AND HIDDEN GIFTS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/sep/17/misfits-and-hidden-gifts/?page=1]

I went to see the new production of "A Wrinkle In Time" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival mostly because I see all the OSF productions. I vaguely remembered that the book on which it is based meant a lot to me as a young person, but recalled nothing about why. As it turned out, my murky recollection -- aided by some smart choices by director and adaptor Tracy Young, the production's talented designers, and a cast who clearly loves the source material -- all added up to an unexpectedly profound experience for me.

The story, for the uninitiated and the forgetful, involves an awkward adolescent girl, Meg Murry, who is a social misfit and unsuccessful student. Her beloved father, a physicist who had been employed at some top-secret government project, has been missing for more than a year. She and her genius five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, receive a nighttime visit from a mysterious old woman, Mrs. Whatsit, who tells them and their mother that there are such things as "tesseracts," or wrinkles in time and space that one can travel through. The following day the two children and Meg's schoolmate, Calvin, end up "tessering" -- traveling through such wrinkles -- to combat an evil Black Thing that is threatening the universe, and hoping to find Meg's father.

It's a complex story to depict on stage. The world of the book contains lots of fanciful elements and twists of the rules of time and space that can be difficult to describe, let alone stage. These are not so much problems for a book, whose literary life depends on the imagination of the reader, but bringing the story to life on stage is full of potential for corniness and camp.

But this cannily-designed production manages to strike all the right notes. The book was written in 1962, and the set design incorporates lots of signals of 1960s America, with its relative innocence mixed with paranoia. The design has a sort of handmade feel which suits that time and also the book's demand on imagination; it also captures the sense of a book that was once beloved by now older adults who are sharing it with present-day children and grandchildren. All the child characters are played (quite effectively) by adults, but one child actor appears often on stage, reading or working on her own science experiments. Her presence on stage captures a sense of a mixture of generations who have responded profoundly to this material.

When done well, a minimalist approach to special effects can serve to bring the profundities of a story into bold relief. Somehow the actors seem more vulnerable, awakening audiences to the poignancy of the story. And so it is here; the innocence of Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin convinces, underlined by various members of the cast frequently reciting lines from the beloved book. The production moves between various levels of realism and stagecraft in a manner that parallels the time-travel of the story, inviting the audience to travel through worlds of imagination and meaning.

Best of all, because I had not recalled much beyond that this particular book had meant much to me as a child, the production set me on a search for what had appealed to me then. The obvious answer -- and the one reached for by so many critics -- is that the story makes a hero of an awkward adolescent, and sets her on a voyage of self-acceptance and discovery of her hidden gifts. That is, of course, true. I indeed felt myself awkward and ugly and a lonely misfit, like so many children, and must have connected to the hope that I too might possess hidden gifts.

But there is so much more here. This is a story of the power of outsiders. The three main children are staked at various points on the spectrum of outsiders -- the social misfit, the misunderstood genius, and the person whose capacity to blend in comes at the expense of his essential self, who then remains imprisoned in loneliness. This story profoundly illustrates the pressures most humans feel to conform to norms that squash the deep truths of their being, and how it is that outsiders make the best containers for the most challenging truths. Reflecting on my own experience of childhood and my current experience of adulthood as I watched this story gave me a balanced set of reasons to weep--at how this story must have resounded for me then and how it encourages me now. And that is reason enough to stage this inspiring bit of theater.

[A song that has captured my imagination recently plays with similar themes:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPt0LkdM8Bc.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"CALVARY" GRASPS FOR A WORLD BEYOND FAIRNESS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/aug/20/calvary-grasps-world-beyond-fairness/]

In the opening scene of "Calvary" (my favorite film so far this year), a priest, Father James Lavelle, awaits the confession of one of his parishioners. Instead he receives a death sentence. The speaker informs the priest that he was raped by a priest for five years as a child; the perpetrator is now dead, so he intends to kill Father James. "I'm going to kill you 'cause you've done nothing wrong, I'm going to kill you 'cause you're innocent." He will give the priest a week to get his affairs in order.

The rest of the film reveals how this priest spends the next seven days leading up to his date with his would-be killer. He believes he knows who has made the threat -- but we don't. So we watch him going about his priestly duties, visiting the sick and the (possibly) penitent, attempting to intervene in a domestic violence situation, visiting with his wounded daughter Fiona and the local bishop. The ending of the story is less important than how this minister lives his life.

How should a person of genuine faith respond to a death threat? The question resounds for me in both its literal and metaphorical senses. Should he report the threat to the police? Obtain a gun for protection? Leave town? How Father James responds is profoundly instructive.

He shows up. Often his job is to be present when people are struggling or suffering, and to remain attentive to what he might do. One of his first lines of the film is "I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say," and he often expresses a commitment to "try my best to help you." But that doesn't mean offering platitudes or cheap solutions out of the typical religious toolkit. Sometimes it means just sitting with a person's dilemma, and offering a way to wrestle with it honestly. For example, an angry and awkward young man tells the priest that he is considering joining the military, and Father James engages him on the shallowness of his thinking about violence. "The commandment, 'thou shalt not kill' doesn't have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page, where there's a list of instances where it is okay to kill people," he explains. "What about self-defense?" the young man asks. "Well, that's a tricky one, alright," Father James responds. Of course, the priest is the only one facing a threat.

He listens. Again, watch that opening scene. Father James listens, intently. When the congregant criticizes him for his reaction to the revelation about sexual abuse, Father James considers, then apologizes. In scene after scene, you can see him working at remaining open to what may be happening in each interaction. That doesn't mean he always responds in a way the speaker wants to hear, but generally he works to remain open and engaged.

He is courageous. He doesn't shy away from the hard questions. During the visit from Fiona, who has recently failed in an attempt to kill herself, he gently pursues her with questions that will move them past her despair and defensiveness. He hangs in there as she expresses sorrow and anger for the ways he abandoned her for the priesthood after her mother died, and as she struggles with the ultimate questions of faith. In other scenes, he attempts to intervene in a troubled marriage where a cheating wife is getting beaten, even though the wife, husband, and lover all are hostile and unrepentant.

He is discerning. Nearly all the members of his community are responding to their own brokenness or doubt with anger, or treachery, or hostility. Father James is generally onto them, but doesn't overreact. A local atheist doctor who has seen too much of the dark side of humanity brazenly snorts cocaine around the priest and tries to provoke him with a story of a botched operation that left a young child blind, deaf, and paralyzed. A financier keeps turning up and cynically offering the church money to assuage guilt he doesn't even feel for his sins, and keeps emphasizing how much his possessions cost and how little they mean to him. Father James also visits a vile serial killer in prison who taunts him with the revelation that he felt like God as he took the lives of his victims. Father James sees the hostility and dishonesty of these men for what it is, and sometimes responds with appropriate revulsion. Often he will ask a person, "Why am I here?" when it is clear that he is being toyed with. But generally he manages to keep open a space to respond in genuine love if ever the person comes around to being able to accept it.

His actions communicate his belief that no one is a lost cause. Not the doctor, despite his taunts. Nor the financier, even after he pisses on a painting to prove the already obvious point that nothing means anything to him. Nor the serial killer, who Father James continues to visit even while aware enough of the man's history to know when the man is manipulating him. The unrepentant wife seems bent on communicating that she is a lost cause, and even says so at one point, but Father James corrects her. And to the male prostitute who assumes a manufactured accent and a flamboyant, nearly assaultive bravado, Father James finally asks, without irony, "Do you need help?  Are you okay?"

He has integrity. Perhaps the hardest person for Father James to tolerate is his co-pastor, a facile priest who preens and judges and utters not a single word of authentic truth in the entire film. Fiona observes wryly that the co-pastor is "the future of the priesthood," and one might fear that is the case, though history does not lack for similar examples, and not just in Catholicism. At one point Father James cries out in exasperation, "Why are you a priest?" The question wounds the co-pastor, who later remarks that he didn't realize Father James hated him that much. Father James, who has spent the past week with a murderer and a thief and a prostitute and two adulterers, responds, "I don't hate you at all. It's just that you have no integrity. That's the worst thing I could say about anybody."

Indeed. And though by this point Father James' own flaws are more evident, it is clear that he does have integrity. He is engaged in a struggle for truth, including a struggle for the truth in himself, right until the end of the film and even in his moments of fear when his life hangs in the balance.

This film deals with the question of faith in a challenging way, which also involves dealing with the question of fairness. Father James is an innocent man facing a threat of death that is wholly unjustified. The question of the unfairness of life hangs over nearly every scene of the film. Much of what troubles these characters is life's unfairness -- the doctor who has seen a patient killed by a drunk driver and a child's life ruined by an anesthesiologist's error; the sex abuse victim for whom there will be no justice; the prostitute who has spent his life as a play-thing; Fiona, who has struggled with experiences of abandonment.

The film places an answer to these questions in the mouth of a young Frenchwoman whose husband is killed by that drunk driver. Father James comes to perform the last rites, and learns that the couple loved each other very much and had a good life together. He tells her that performing the last rites is never easy but that some cases certainly seem less unfair than hers. When a person dies so young, people often lose their faith, he says.

That isn't much faith to lose, she remarks. And he allows that for most people, faith amounts merely to fear of death, which is easy to lose. The woman remarks that what happened to her is not "unfair; it is just what happened." She notes that some people don't live good lives, and never experience love. "That is unfair," she says.

Having just lost someone under circumstances even more unfair than an accident caused by a drunk driver, I struggle with the woman's statement. But perhaps that struggle has integrity. Late in the film she and Father James encounter one another again and, deep in her grief, she remarks, "At times I think I cannot go on. But I will go on." In the view of this film, and in my own view, that's faith.

Monday, August 18, 2014

FOR ANYONE TROUBLED BY MY RELATIONSHIP WITH STAN


Someone communicated to me recently that several couples whom Stan counseled are "disillusioned" to learn that Stan had a relationship with me while he was still married and was warning them of "such relationships."  If that is really true and not just a way of repackaging judgment into something that will more clearly occupy the moral high ground, I would like to suggest that such suffering has a remedy.
I am quite certain that Stan did not warn of relationships like ours.  As I have expressed, we did not have an affair.  Explaining why that is the case and why our relationship did not threaten Stan's marriage is not something I can do on the internet.  But if you are genuinely struggling with how to put those pieces together, I sympathize--though shunning me will not assist you in resolving that struggle.  You simply lack the information necessary to draw any conclusions.

Truth is often way more difficult that we think.  All of us have had experiences where we are certain that we have all the information we need to make a judgment, only to learn later that we were lacking key facts that change the picture entirely.  I have a good deal of information that most people who are judging this situation don't have and couldn't imagine.  Ignoring that fact doesn't make it any less true.
Stan was who you thought he was. As I expressed at his memorial:

"He was indeed a person of fierce integrity.  He loved God with all his heart.  He loved you with all his heart.  He was a complex man, and a courageous man who worked hard to create space for all of the truth, not just the parts that fit into the dominant paradigm.  He was out of the box himself and he responded lovingly to the parts of you that could not be easily catalogued or categorized.  So perhaps it's not surprising that some of his own relationships simply didn't fit into any familiar boxes."
For the many of you who know me and have been cared for by me, I also am the person you thought I was back when you respected me.  I did ministry alongside Stan for nearly 20 years at great personal cost and out of a deep sense of calling.  I am still that person.  The conclusion that you have reason to be disillusioned depends on a conclusion that both of us lack integrity or a moral compass.  You really don't have a basis for that conclusion without talking to me.

The truth is just more complex than such judgments about our integrity allow.
Stan also really loved me.  That is not because I am a manipulative, selfish, conniving woman who tricked him into betraying his marriage vows.  I am not such a person.  And Stan was no fool.  That story doesn't square with what you knew of him.

I don't expect that you would be able to put the whole picture together yourself.  But if you are honestly struggling with how to put the picture together, concluding that Stan failed you or that I failed you without talking to me is not a principled shortcut.  And doing that may well lead you to suffer disillusionment unnecessarily.  I encourage you not to let your faith depend on such flimsy evidence.
Although I am suffering, I am committed to helping people to keep and build on the comfort and the teaching that Stan offered to them.  That means that if you approach me with sincere questions rather than judgment and condemnation, I will sit with you and do my best to help you make sense of your experience.  That's not an offer to defend myself to you.  It's an offer to help you understand the truth.  I will do that for Stan, and for you.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

THE RHYTHM OF THE DISENFRANCHISED

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/aug/06/right-kind-reverence/]

A biopic about James Brown surely presents challenges. It is hard to imagine capturing Brown's extraordinary gifts as one of the founding fathers of funk music without devolving into mimicry. Fortunately, for the most part, "Get On Up," the long-awaited biopic about the Godfather of Soul, avoids those pitfalls and inspires the right kind of reverence and enthusiasm for a musical genius whose influence can't be overstated.

First and foremost, this film gets the musical performances right. None other than Mick Jagger produced the musical tracks for the film by re-mixing Brown's original multi-track recordings; and the remarkable Chadwick Boseman, seen as Jackie Robinson in "42," positively channels Brown's musical vibe.

The film stages key performances in Brown's musical evolution, including a dazzling 1962 Apollo Theater concert; a 1964 performance on the T.A.M.I. show in which Brown famously upstaged The Rolling Stones; a historic concert at Boston Garden shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination; and a 1971 concert at the Olympic theater in Paris. The presentations are thrilling to watch, capturing the innovation and care that went into each elaborate show, with a huge and talented band, energetic choreography, and of course Brown himself, whose physicality and vocals grabbed audiences by the lapels. Boseman's performance (building on Brown's own vocals), and the elaborate restaging of those iconic show-stopping concerts, makes you feel you are there.

The sheer energy marshaled for each performance is astounding and, seen from this distance, Brown's profound influence on popular music becomes undeniable, no explanation necessary. He was so original -- and so black -- that you sense he claimed an audience, in a time when audiences were not used to hearing acts remotely like him, by the sheer force of his will and ego. His influence is everywhere -- on Jagger, Michael Jackson, Prince, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake. Jagger has spoken admiringly not only of Brown's complex moves but also "his whole persona" and "the way he worked the audience, the way he works so hard himself, the way he put all his energy into it."

The music does the best talking here. The film captures how much care went into each performance; how controlling Brown was of every aspect of the arrangements; how hard he was on his side men; the sheer ego it took to create his high-energy shows. In one pivotal scene, he insists on a rhythmic change that one of his side men protests "doesn't work musically," and Brown makes the inarguable case that "if it sound good and it feel good, then it's musical." It doesn't matter whether this scene ever actually happened, because it convincingly captures what Brown was about, and how he brought up everyone's game and created one new thing after another.

The film doesn't skimp on what a hard man Brown was to live with. It opens with and frequently returns to an incident in the '80s when, high on PCP, he brandished a gun at a group of strangers and led police on a high-speed chase that landed him in prison. A scene in which he punches his second wife establishes that such violence was not an isolated incident, though I understand the criticism that the film gives that well-documented aspect of Brown's history short shrift. But incidents of Brown's bad behavior are sprinkled through the film and they needn't be explained and aren't excused. That isn't the point of the film, nor should it be.

The seeds of Brown's musical genius, his ego, his frequent violence, and his antisocial behavior are evident in his childhood of extreme poverty, domestic abuse, and abandonment by his parents. He lived his early years hungry and abused in a shack in South Carolina, then spent much of his childhood in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, and was in prison by the age of 16 for theft of a suit. The film wisely doesn't lay on those connections too thickly; it shuffles the time sequence, returns to certain pivotal scenes (like the PCP-fueled arrest from the '80s) a handful of times, and then lets them go. The effect is to toss up those disparate elements of Brown's life and to suggest the connections between them but not push the point too hard.

The same is true for his musical influences. The film depicts signs of a rhythmic drive early in childhood, and also a scene when he walks into a revival meeting as a child and is drawn into the music that absorbs all the participants. The vibe is perfect -- a preacher with an elaborate hairstyle and everyone in white suits and dresses, worshipping with their whole bodies. The scene has a mythical quality that captures the sense of such a meeting but also the sense of how it might be remembered by a child.
Occasionally the shuffling between time periods can be disconcerting, as can instances when Brown speaks directly to the camera. I'm not sure those risks always pay off. But, in the end, most of it does. The elements of Brown's history, his hardships, and his foibles -- they are all here, and all must be functioning somehow to drive the man. For the most part, the film wisely backs off from wrapping it up too neatly.
And a certain truth emerges. As Brown himself puts it, "Nobody helped James Brown" as a young person. Nobody taught him the rules, though his experience taught him the rules weren't in his favor. His tremendous drive pulled him out of his dire circumstances, and taught him to listen to the drumbeat that he could hear, undistracted by attachment to anyone else's idea of how music should sound or how things should go. His was the rhythm, and the genius, of the disenfranchised. This film makes you feel it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

THE SWEET ACHE OF "BOYHOOD"

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/30/real-life-drama/]

The concept behind Richard Linklater's new film, "Boyhood," seems so obvious when you hear it that you wonder why it has never been done before. Filmed over 12 actual years, the film follows the fictional story of a boy's childhood -- ages 6 to 18 -- with the same actors playing the boy, his older sister, and his divorced parents. Far from a gimmick, the result, in director Linklater's capable hands, is a revelation. Never has a film so poignantly captured the sweet ache of family life, of parenting, and of the passing of childhood.

The story is deceptively simple. It follows the lives of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his frequently annoying older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei), and their parents through moves, marriages, and divorces, and the dramas, big and small, of everyday life. And it is, quite literally, the story of Mason's coming-of-age.

Coming-of-age stories are nothing new. Generally they focus on a pivotal event or a life-changing summer. But if you think about it, most people's lives don't contain that type of dramatic arc. The changes come incrementally -- little shifts occur in attitude and perspective, or trust is built or lost in an accumulation of small incidents. Kids take risks all the time -- it's a wonder any of us survive childhood -- but most people survive just fine. So, though there are moments in this film where the audience is primed for a major dramatic turn (particularly a scene where a middle-school-aged Mason is drinking with his friends and there are weapons around), those moments mostly play out in the same understated way that most people's lives do. You don't miss that movie-dramatic arc either -- this story makes you care, and wonder, like you would in real life.

It strikes me that Linklater's method may have yielded a sort of spiritual process for capturing the soul of growing up. He started with the outlines of a story and with two carefully chosen kids, and when filming began there wasn't a complete script. Instead, Linklater checked in with Coltrane and the rest of the cast each year, assessed where Coltrane was emotionally and experientially, and then wrote the screenplay for that segment, informed by the truth of the cast's own lives. The physical and emotional development of the characters connected with the physical and emotional development of the cast, and the filming involved no exterior judgment of the product -- as Linklater puts it, for years it was all process, no product.

The result plays more like real life than any non-documentary feature I can remember. The drama of the lives of the family members is made up of small moments: Samantha deliberately annoying her brother with a Britney Spears song; Mason eavesdropping on mom arguing with her boyfriend; the two kids competing for the attention of their wayward dad after a long absence; Mason perusing a lingerie catalog with his pals; the accumulation of signs that the kids' new stepdad has a drinking problem; a fishing trip between Mason and his dad in which you hear Mason's voice changing; and a laconic adolescent Mason being lectured by a series of adults.

Never have movie children looked and sounded more like actual kids. Unlike the usual well-scrubbed and articulate movie children, these kids sometimes look as though their clothes don't fit quite right, or they have bad haircuts or acne. They are cute kids, but the kind of cute kids you might actually meet. And they are sometimes maddening -- sulky and uncommunicative, or self-absorbed. Their conversations with their peers sound like these kids overestimate what they know, and you cringe with recognition as you watch them overshoot which experiences they are ready for.

The parents, too, look familiar. They are by turns beleaguered, or lazy, or harried; they miss the strain their choices put on the children. Mom (Patricia Arquette) presents a combination of attentive and blind that is rarely depicted so accurately; she loves and listens to her kids, but seems to have a knack for picking men who will and do jeopardize their well-being. And dad (Ethan Hawke) seems at times to be playing at parenthood, yet you see how his intentions toward his kids nudge him to grow up himself.

The flexibility and trust involved in Linklater's process yields an authenticity that couldn't be arrived at any other way. It reminded me of the quality of conversation that becomes possible when you make a habit of showing up over and over again; you may not ever have the silver bullet revelation that explains the arc of a relationship, but you will share plenty of small moments that will yield glimmers of the soul of the other. Linklater and his cast have constructed a container for something ineffable: and rich.

The tenderness here will make you weep for your own childhood, or that of your children. It will nudge you to reflect on your own efforts to explain something difficult to a child, or to answer questions for which you don't have answers, or don't trust the answers. It will remind you of just how darling an awkward adolescent can be.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

HOW IT FEELS TO BE A PROBLEM

I've been thinking a lot recently about a quote from W.E.B. DuBois's famous book on the experience of being a black man in America, "The Souls of Black Folk":

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it.  All, nevertheless, flutter around it.  They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town, or I fought at Mechanicsville, or Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?  At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require.  To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem?  I answer seldom a word."

DuBois captures so elegantly the experience of being "other," of being a trigger for the discomfort of others. 

I have many experiences in my life of being the "other," of feeling myself the outsider.  But never more than in the nearly four months that have passed since I lost my life partner, Stan Thornburg.

As I have written ( http://opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com/2014/05/complicated-grief.html ), Stan and I loved each other deeply for 30 years, and for the last 19 years we privately related to each other as life partners.  Stan remained in his marriage for complicated reasons (though he was long separated and nearly divorced from his wife when he died), but we functioned as partners.  Most people who knew us knew we shared some kind of special connection, but the true extent of it was closeted while Stan was alive.

The morning after Stan died, I realized that I had no more will to keep our relationship in the closet.  I had never wanted that to begin with, and I was facing not only the loss of him but the loss of our hopes to finally live together in a marriage.  The chasm of my grief was deep, and I could not bear the thought of facing it alone and in secret.  The closet is no place for joy, and it is definitely no place for a grief this big.

It came to me as an insight that it was up to me to model for people how to think about our relationship.  Stan had done some work to lay the groundwork too (though not as much as I wish he had):  he had left specific instructions that I should have the place of prominence at his memorial, and he had spoken to varying degrees to family members and others close to him about my importance to him.  He had been living with me for a year-and-a-half during which I supported him and cared for him under extremely difficult circumstances. 

So I was very clear from the beginning of my grief journey that I had lost my life partner.  I have persisted in speaking from that experience. 

And I have been met mostly with silence so absolute that it can only be described as shunning.

Not from Stan's daughter or from my own circle of friends.  Though my family of origin does not function as a haven for me, I do have many people out there who care for me and who express their concern with love.  I am grateful for that.  But very few of those who have reached out to me are part of the community that Stan and I served together and for whose sake we sacrificed our desire to be together as a couple.  Actually, the closer people are to Stan and the church community, the less likely it is that I have heard from them AT ALL in the nearly four months since Stan died.  Even people that I would typically hear from, who previously often commented on things I post on Facebook or communicated with me in other casual ways, have stopped communicating with me even in those ways.

I am left to speculate about the reasons, since I am so cut-off.  But my strong instinct is that I am a problem for that community.  And I am the kind of problem that people would prefer to ignore.

There is no box in which to put my relationship with Stan.  He was a pastor whom they respected, and he was in a marriage.  I expect that it is difficult for some to understand how it can be okay that Stan and I were partners.  I imagine many of these people deeply wish I would shut up about my relationship with him.  (In fact, a couple of people have anonymously written to me telling me so.)  It is simpler to just ignore me--in fact, often that happened in terms of my role in Stan's ministry while Stan was alive.  I actually have a lot of experience with being overlooked on that score.

The lurking question that DuBois identifies--How does it feel to be a problem?-- isn't actually being asked in my case.  No one evinces curiosity about how it feels to me to be a problem.  Their silence tells me they just wish I would go away.

Nevertheless, I undertake to describe what is like to be a problem.  As I have all along, I describe my experience because I need to, but also because it feels important to do so. 

It is like being erased.  I have just lost the person I talked to every day, the person who knew me so well that every conversation was a continuation of a longer and ongoing conversation.  We shared a long history of working together on each other's projects.  We talked through Stan's sermons and articles, and my speeches and articles.  I edited his work.  He helped me strategize about my work with minority lawyers and law students.  I understood more deeply than anyone the things he was proud of, the writing projects he still wanted to do, the hopes he still carried.  And hardly anyone wants to know.  Hardly anyone even acknowledges that I have lost anything at all.

I worked alongside Stan as a minister for 19 years.  We knew and worked with many of the same families.  We spent evenings at their homes, or played cards with them at church retreats.  I played music with them and took their kids on trips to Ashland.  And now these same people, the ones who have the best basis for appreciating what we meant to each other and the depth of loss that I must be carrying, don't communicate with me at all.  If they see me in person or my name on a Facebook dialogue, they may not acknowledge me, or they may say an awkward hello but not acknowledge that I am grieving.

I know that my very existence is a problem.  It would be easier for the community if I had never spoken up about the depth of my relationship with Stan.  Perhaps many feel ready to judge that there was something wrong with what occurred between us.  Perhaps some think I am lying.  I don't know because they are not asking me.  And I don't know how they can judge without hearing my story--or really, without walking in my shoes.

I don't have any regrets, nor any shame.  I do walk in my shoes, and I know that the deep connection that Stan and I shared saved both our lives.  I knew then and I know now that the community that we served (and for whose sake we sacrificed) benefitted a great deal from the love that grew between us.  As time went on, nearly every sermon or speech that either of us gave and every moment either of us spent listening and caring and being deeply present with others reflected work we did together. 

So, I am suffering more than the terrible loss of the one I loved most.  I am suffering the pain of being erased. 

I realize there are lots of possible reasons for silence.  Perhaps you feel awkward.  Perhaps you are angry with me, or with Stan.  Perhaps you feel guilty for not saying something sooner.

My guess, though, is that if you decide now or at any future moment to express sincere concern for me, you will be met with the gratitude and relief that most grieving people express when someone acknowledges and expresses sorrow about the fact that the lonely journey they are making must indeed be a painful one.  As I understand better than I ever did before, grief is a lonely journey for everyone.  Just not this profoundly lonely.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ARTISTIC STRUGGLE IS WORTH IT IN "FAMILY ALBUM"

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/23/family-album/]

If you like your musicals upbeat and buoyant, with a linear plot trajectory, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's world premiere production of "Family Album" may be a stretch. It's messy, feels a little rough in spots, and grapples with some big themes in a very nonlinear way. But if you can set aside your typical expectations and simply go on the ride where this production takes you, it is a ride worth taking.

OSF commissioned this work from Stew and Heidi Rodewald, whose prior musical, "Passing Strange," garnered critical acclaim. They are rock musicians with an ear for popular culture and outsider voices, and theater could use a lot more attention to voices that don't enjoy dominant culture privilege.

One thing I have learned to love about people who feel themselves to be outsiders (having regular occasions to walk in those shoes myself), they often don't feel constrained to follow the unwritten rules for whatever setting or genre they have landed in. Perhaps those rules don't fit the stories they want to tell -- or perhaps they don't know they are violating any rules. I make a practice of listening to the stories of people who feel themselves to be outsiders and sometimes it can be disorienting and challenging. What are they trying to say? Is there a point here somewhere? Often there is a period of confusion or even irritation before I realize -- surprisingly often -- that this person has something to teach me, and the circuitous journey may well have been as important as the destination.

I thought of such conversations while experiencing "Family Album." It takes a while to wind-up. The cast members are all stretching beyond their comfort zones, either because they are musicians with little theater experience or actors with some uneasiness about performing in this rock-musical setting. No one is exactly in his or her wheelhouse. The story isn't overly complex -- a band led by aging rockers is about to play a major gig as the opening act to a popular young group in Madison Square Garden and stops in to crash at the posh Brooklyn home of two former bandmates who have found more conventional financial success, which rekindles old loves and old rivalries and big questions about the trade-offs of different kinds of success. But though the music is crisp and the cast is talented, the plot meanders and I occasionally wondered what edges we were walking and why.

But the payoffs did come. I found myself sinking into deeper questions about what a struggle it is to do anything really authentic. The characters' loyalties shift and all values are open to question: What kind of success can one really aim for as an artist? A large audience? An internet following? An idea that is truly original? A good brand? What is the point of having a family or a long-term relationship? Intimacy? The chance to replicate yourself? To shape another human being? Where is the room for artistic expression inside a family? Is that important? What is a family? What is an audience? Is an audience good for art? Or is your art better if it is underappreciated and misunderstood?

As the characters wrestle with these and other questions, a kind of energy builds around them. The songs begin to go deeper. By the time these lines are sung, I was all the way in: "She taught me a thing/about the balls you bring/and how it's probably worth it every time/ to hit the fucking stage/and free your poem from its cage/and you don't give a damn if it rhymes./ I'm sayin' if you're gonna take it/ to a place where we can make it/ we've gotta leave illusions behind. / And it might get us in trouble, or burst somebody's bubble / but it's probably worth it every time.'

Those lines are earned. What has played out on the stage is the struggle itself. The journey of this play is the struggle for authentic expression, in art and in relationships. It is hard work, and it is messy. It often doesn't feel successful. Except that the struggle itself is, in some sense, the point of the struggle.

It feels oddly right to embody that struggle in the context of a rock musical that doesn't quite fit into our usual ideas of theatrical genre, with a multiracial cast of people trying, in many cases, to work in a form that is a bit of a stretch. With each performance, I suspect it feels like kinks are being worked out, but it’s hard to say if they are even kinks or just part of the wondrous act of creation that is the very dilemma at issue.

Daniel T. Parker's performance as the Brooklyn couple's precocious kid especially blew me away, and the music, particularly the piercing lyrics by Stew, are funny and often surprisingly deep. I am waiting for a cast album, particularly so I can have another laugh at the kid's song about a Ken doll who likes men and resents always being stuck with Barbie ("I'd prefer G.I. Joe/ but any able-bodied man-doll would surely do/ just someone to love / cuz I am not set up to screw."

There is a lot to admire here and -- as with all conversations at the margins and playing with the whole idea of margins -- the struggle is, indeed, worth it.

“Family Album” plays through Aug. 31 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. For a full schedule, visit osfashland.org.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

CONNECTING, IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY

[This review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/09/connecting/.]

There's nothing more important than family. I would never make the mistakes my mother made. People don't change. Much of what gets expressed about family and community in life and popular culture is full of absolutist thinking like that reflected in such statements. But the reality of community is much messier, less linear.

So is the world of family and community reflected in "Water By the Spoonful," a play by Puerto Rican-American playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes that played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this past spring and resumes in September.
In the world of this play, communities (including families) are made up only of broken people. Young Elliot, recently returned from the Iraq war with a leg injury, is underemployed and caring for his aunt Ginny, who raised him when his biological mother (Ginny's sister Odessa) couldn't. Ginny is everything Odessa is not -- a true matriarch connected to place and community. Elliot seethes with nursed anger toward Odessa, a recovering crack addict living "one notch above squalor."

But the woman we meet isn't the one frozen in Elliot's memory. Odessa, who works as a part-time janitor, founded and administers a chat room for recovering addicts, and in that cyber world, she is a mama. Using the handle "Haikumom," she keeps the conversations safe, prods the participants to take care of themselves, and creates space for people at all stages of recovery.

Mother and son, however disconnected in life, are connected in ways neither recognizes. Elliot is wrestling with a secret addiction to painkillers, and is tormented by a brief missed connection during his time in Iraq that had tragic consequences. Odessa is five years clean, but her own pain over a tragic missed connection in Elliot's childhood jeopardizes her recovery, especially when Elliot refuses her grace that he needs himself.

Playwright Hudes, herself a musician, often finds musical inspiration for capturing the complicated rhythms of human interaction in her plays. Here she takes jazz as her inspiration--specifically the work of John Coltrane. His works, "A Love Supreme" and "Ascendance" feature a complex wall of sound that achieves a kind of transcendent dissonance. It's a fitting metaphor for attempts at connection among people who are in pain; who are worlds apart in age, geography, or experience; who are broken.

Elliot's cousin, Yaz, is a music professor who teaches about Coltrane. Disappointed in her life and relationships, she struggles with Elliot to care for an ailing Ginny and to make sense of her connection to the family, in the face of success that leaves her isolated in both the academic world and her home community.
The worlds and relationships in the play exist in a mixture of isolation and connection. Haikumom and her diverse chatroom family -- a young Japanese adoptee seeking to find her birth parents; a middle-aged IRS agent who has left behind any hope of reconnection with the family he failed, and an executive who minimizes his addiction -- reach, in fits and starts, to connect deeply. All have burned through relationships and long for a sense of belonging.

This production cleverly places the participants in these chatroom conversations on small islands on the stage, where they interact with energy but in isolation from each other. The visual captures a dynamic that arguably exists in all attempts at connection. The blood family of Elliot, Yaz, Odessa, and Ginny is an interesting contrast. How much does blood matter? Physical space? Is it easier to connect in the anonymity of a chatroom? Does that matter?

The play wrestles fruitfully with such questions. The characters -- addicts in all phases of recovery, the educated, the poor, the grieving, the unforgiven -- fail each other in small ways, reel from the pain of past failures, shut each other out, judge too harshly. But also, sometimes, they come through for one another. It's not didactic; there is no moral to the story. Rather, the play is a call to connection, and a depiction of just how messy and beautiful that can be.

You can catch "Water by the Spoonful" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland from September to November. Among the other terrific options at OSF this summer and fall are "The Cocoanuts" (a boisterous Marx Brothers' musical that feels hilariously contemporary); "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (delightfully staged with an all-female cast--what bliss to watch women sample the rich array of roles typically denied them!), and "Richard III" (featuring a wonderfully ruthless king with a biting wit).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF "IDA"

This review also appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jun/24/emotional-journey/

The Holocaust continues to be a popular film subject, but with ever more widely uneven results. To be sure, there are many worthy stories left to be told of courage and unrectified wrongs, and of the long-term effects of systemic evil on the human spirit. But many such films get derailed by complicated plots, or they plow old ground, thereby missing the universal questions lurking in stories of the Shoah.

"Ida," the first Polish-language film of British director Pawel Pawlikowski (a native Pole who has lived his adult life in the UK), avoids those pitfalls in part by keeping its focus particular. Its subject is an 18-year-old orphan, Anna, who has a lived a sheltered life in a rural convent and is preparing to take her vows to become a nun. It is 1962, and life in Soviet Poland is evidently austere, but especially so for solemn Anna. Her days are marked by work and quiet rituals, which she performs with devotion.

Anna is not happy when her Mother Superior tells her that she has one living relative, an aunt, whom she must visit before she takes her vows. The film demonstrates the confines of Anna's world, and her wish to remain inside them. Only duty could lure her outside the convent; she little imagines the duty to which she may be called once she ventures outside.

She travels to the city to meet her aunt, who is as different from Anna as it is possible to imagine. A former state prosecutor in the political show trials of the early 1950s, Anna’s only living relative came to be known as "Red Wanda," and presumably sent many people termed enemies of the Communist state to their deaths. Wanda is now a judge and a Communist party insider. She also is plainly as cynical as Anna is devout. After a brief encounter in which she bluntly tells Anna that she is a Jew, that her real name is Ida, and that her parents (including Wanda's sister) were presumably killed during the war, she sends Anna on her way, as though there is nothing more to be said.

At first ready to leave, Anna does so -- but soon turns back. She may lack the experience of her aunt, but she exhibits a kind of intuition that could well be assisted by years of spiritual practice. Wanda is ready for her. Anna strongly resembles the sister she lost 18 years before, and seems to have awakened something in her.
Neither woman displays any sentimentality, but Anna is curious. Wanda tells her of her mother's idealism and her artistic temperament. Anna wants to see where her parents are buried; Wanda advises her that it is unlikely there will be a grave to visit, but offers to take Anna to the home about which it seems she had not thought to be curious. They travel by car to the small community where Anna's parents lived, to find out what happened to them.

Soon, in encounters with local men who have succeeded in erasing members of her family, Wanda is demonstrating the ruthless interrogatory skills that she presumably honed as a state prosecutor. She needs them because, two decades after the war, no one is talking. It seems that all traces of Ida and her parents have disappeared--except Wanda knows different. Though she also has not been back in two decades, something about Anna's appearance on her doorstep has sparked in Wanda a determination as fierce as the energy she must have devoted to other pursuits.
 
Most of the film is devoted to the journey of the women to find what happened to Ida's parents. Wanda, rarely without a drink and a cigarette, is all hard edges, hardly a suitable protector. She is as devoted to materialism as her niece is to piety, invoking judicial immunity when she is arrested for drunk driving and attracting male attention more by habit than genuine interest.

The young woman clearly and frequently finds Wanda's behavior repellant, and resists her aunt's encouragement to seek out a little action since otherwise her chastity vows won't mean anything. Anna seems unaware of her effect on a young saxophonist, Lis, who Wanda picks up hitchhiking. But there are signs of a barely perceptible awakening in the understated novitiate, especially when she hears Lis playing John Coltrane.

There is, of course, a Holocaust story here, and it is a tragic one. The two women react to what they find with a shared determination to honor the memory of their lost family members. But in this spare film, the journey has its impact on each, deeply felt if not explained.

Pawlikowski shoots in black-and-white -- or, more accurately, luminous shades of gray. He uses long, still shots so carefully composed that they feel frameable, and often places his human subjects at the bottom of the screen, as if locating them within a larger expanse. We hear music only when the characters do, and it subtly conveys something of the spirituality of the setting; Polish pop music creates a hasty clamor to accompany the journey in Wanda's car, American jazz exerts its subtly subversive pull, and Wanda has a collection of classical LPs that provide glimmers of an inner life. Without seeming fussy, the film displays the subtlety and care of a Vermeer.

We sense huge shifts happening in both women, though this is more from the quality of the filmmaker's attention than from any overt psychologizing. If you let it, the film will leave you in a place of reflection -- about how a young person can unknowingly carry her family's history in her very bones; about what might drive a person to grab at power, even destructive power, in response to profound powerlessness. In a way, each woman has already been living in response to the deep losses she carries in her body.
The effect of the film's journey on Ida is unresolved. She attempts a return to take her vows, and finds that she cannot easily step back into her former life. It seemed to me that she had not so much lost her faith as found that it required her to struggle with different questions. Although perhaps without knowing it, Anna's mother superior has set her on a truer spiritual path.

[You can catch this lovely film at Livingroom Theaters in Portland, and it will be available on demand and on DVD in September.]