Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An open query

So I'm at a bit of a loss right now as to what novel I should teach in my English 1 class next semester. We usually read a novel and then watch a film that's in conversation with it. I try to stay away from adaptations, just because the relationship is too one-to-one to generate as dynamic a conversation as I'd like. In the past, we've read Dracula and watched "Buffy Vs. Dracula," and read Jane Eyre and watched Rebecca. I was thinking it would be fun to read Jane Austen this time around, but I'll be goddamned if I'm going to watch Bridget Jones' Stupid Diary ever, ever again, and I'm a little scared at the prospect of teaching Emma, which I remember as being a little inaccessible for undergraduates. So my question is this: does anyone know other good loose adaptations of Pride and Prejudice? I'm excited about Mansfield Park (my favorite Austen novel), but again, I'm worried that undergrads might be bored. Any thoughts?

Put another (more interactive, less obviously pitched at other teachers) way, what pairing of Jane Austen novel and film would you most like to have thought about as an incoming freshman and why?

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Janeite

Monday, August 4, 2008

Feminists, Musicals, Sex-Crazed Vampires: Performance among/and Art Fans

1) The Guerilla Girls

“Are the Guerilla Girls really necessary? Take a little test. On one side of a piece of paper, list all of the female artists you've heard of. On the other side of the paper, list the male artists.”
-essortment guide to the Guerilla Girls

It might be easy to forget how few women artists are represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York--after all, so many of the paintings (especially the naked ones) are of women. The Guerilla Girls are out to change that, one piece of guerilla art at a time.

The Guerilla Girls formed in 1985 as a reaction to an exhibition at MoMA called “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.” Out of 169 featured artists, only three were women. Adding insult to injury, the curator publicly stated that any artist whose work was missing from the show should “seriously rethink his [sic] career.” A group of local artists protested the opening, but only managed to piss off patrons and industry bigwigs alike. (Darn those shrill, shrill feminists!) So, in a decision that ultimately matched form to function, they decided to stage their protest as a piece of performance art, hiding their identities and letting the information speak for itself. The Guerrilla Girls make public appearances and conduct interviews, but only while wearing gorilla masks, and only using names of dead female artists. In this way, they can advocate for the value of these sometimes forgotten artists, protect their own careers, and keep the focus on the depressing statistics that form the core of their message (for example, only 3% of the artists in the modern section of the Met are women).

Although they began by focusing their energy on the New York art world, emphasizing inequity in museums and the art world as a whole, they've since shifted their energy to Hollywood, where the situation for female directors and producers is even worse. They posted billboard in LA advertising the gender inequity of Oscars and the absence of any feminist historical perspective in Hollywood films. Their most engaging work, however (if you ask me), is their political posters. Check out this amazing sendup of the “Terror Alert System,” and this shield against the groping paw of the Governator.

I realize this is a departure from my usual focus on fans in this blog, but I think the Guerrilla Girls show the most awesome end point of the resistant power of fan art--using the form of something you love (postmodern art, in this case) as a framework for pointing out the things in it that make you crazy.

2) Andrew Lloyd Webber

Secret love/ secret shame of theater geeks everywhere, Webber is simultaneously an example of what's wrong with theater and what's right. His work brought musicals into the modern era, incorporating lots of different styles, garnering a huge following, and even getting knighted (!)--but his shows are for the most part grindingly repetitive and, well, bad (and this from the girl who can recite the entire libretto of Evita from memory). So the question is, what desire does Webber tap into? What's at the source of his appeal?

I don't have a simple answer to that question, but I do think part of the reason for Webber's popularity has to do with spectacle and seriousness. The musical that really changed things for him was Jesus Christ Superstar (1972), where he moved from the campy pastiche of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1970) to the overblown soaring solos that became his signature (I'm thinking specifically of “I Don't Know How to Love Him). Ultimately, then, I think Webber's popularity is about his ability to do camp (or something that should be camp) seriously--he gets at the seriousness of opera (particularly in Phantom of the Opera (1986), his most famous show) but also the accessibility of big-budget megamusicals like My Fair Lady (1956) or Oklahoma! (1943). This makes him ideal fodder for ten-year-old girls who want to be the next American Idol or at least wear a cat suit on stage (I don't blame you, for the record, if you can't bear clicking on all of these links).

Although Webber was not directly involved with Les Miserables (1985) or Miss Saigon (1989), the success of Evita (1978) and Phantom of the Opera laid the groundwork for those, and these later musicals bear much of the same appeal--big budgets, elaborate sets, insistent refrains, soaringly Serious Solos. The influence of these shows on pop culture can be seen in the way musical parodies get structured, and in how we understand the iconic nature of women in power.

3) The Rocky Horror Picture Show

A rite of passage for freaks and theater geeks everywhere, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a 1970s B-movie transformed into a piece of participatory theater. Midnight movies always have cult value--who but a fanatic will leave their house for a movie in the middle of the night? Over time, though, Rocky Horror has become the Midnight Movie that defines Midnight Movies, with showings in West Des Moines, IA and Hobart, IN. In this way, it serves as a kind of entré into freak culture for people in areas that might not have the most thriving cultural scene. This was certainly the case for me, heading into the Twin Cities from my sleepy suburb of Minnetonka, MN. My parents were out of town and I had a fever of 102, so I don't remember much beyond a heady combination of rebellion and flu medicine, but afterward, I felt like a Real Freak (which was exciting).

The basic formula for Rocky Horror is like Mystery Science Theatre 3000--people yell back at the screen in response to stupid character decisions or bad acting, or as a way of participating in the action of the film. The content of the film itself might be part of what marks Rocky Horror as particularly freak-friendly. Tim Curry (whom you might remember as Wadsworth from Clue or the super-scary clown from It) plays Dr. Frank-n-Furter, a “Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transyvania”--the owner of the Gothic mansion where middle-American bourgies Brad and Janet find themselves after getting lost in the woods. Like horror protagonists everywhere, Brad and Janet get more than they bargained for with their stop, and they both get tricked into sleeping with Frank-n-Furter (and into eating Meat Loaf--the actor, not the dinner!).

Fans understandably see Frank-n-Furter's castle as a kind of anything-goes playground, and the atmosphere at a midnight show feels a lot like the party Brad and Janet first walk in on. People bring props to throw at the screen at the appropriate time, and virgins (first-time viewers) have to undergo initiation while hard-core fans act out the show on a stage in front of the screen. It's similar to a Star Trek convention in that there's a funny balance at a Rocky Horror show between a pressure to be the most hard-core in your knowledge/fandom and a profound sense of inclusion for all fringey types. It's strange, now, how the show has become such an institution. There's a weirdly official “preservation society” for maintaining shows in These Modern Times. And it's hard to take something's fringe appeal seriously when it's praised on The Drew Carey Show.

On another note, this is the last post that I'm doing for the class I've been teaching. From here on out, things will be a little less structured and listy, but also hopefully a little more frequent, and more focused on serials and all things dissertatey. Any ideas? Requests?