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PUT YOUR KAWS UP

The colorful work by New York artist KAWS can easily be described as bigger than life. His mammoth sculptures and large graphic paintings usually play off iconic cartoon characters, such as the Simpsons and Mickey Mouse (he briefly worked at Disney as a freelance animator), but always with his signature touch of large X’s over the eyes. His musical collaborations include designing Kanye West’s 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, and projects with Pharrell Williams; most recently, the Jersey-born creator reinvented MTV’s Moonman statuette. Now you can catch up on his new works at two solo shows, both opening today: Pass the Blame at Galerie Perrotin and Kaws at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, 212-752-2929)

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: Nov. 2. Continues through Dec. 21, 2013

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Blinky & Me

By his own account, animator Yoram Gross’s signal creation—a gray-tufted, cheeky koala named Blinky Bill—is the Mickey Mouse of Australia. Most of us will have to take his word for that, and in Blinky & Me, Tomasz Magierski’s lovely and lovingly made portrait of Gross’s life and career, it is a great if often sorrowful pleasure to take his word for much more. Using as a point of entry a trip the longtime Australian took with his five grandchildren back to his native Poland, in Blinky, the 85-year-old Gross narrates his experience of World War II from the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. Magierski frames a too-common story of horror, displacement, and survival with singular warmth: Now a dear old man, Gross is uncommonly gentle with his grandkids, who hang on his every syllable, and the unlikely creation of Blinky Bill is shown to be a direct result and reflection of his suffering. Animations and archival footage add context and texture; best are the simple sequences intercutting Gross and his grandchildren telling one of his stories—from the mouse he befriended while in hiding to the rescue of his sister from German incarceration. All this suggests storytelling’s binding effect across generations and too many borders.

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(Kenneth) Anger Management, at Anthology

Aside from cursing Roger Ebert’s prostate six years ago, what has Kenneth Anger been up to lately? The recent DVD editions of his classics have cemented his status as a godhead of postwar cinema—not that it was ever in doubt. His enchantment has also breached the white cube. Like the art world’s belated celebration of Jonas Mekas, Anger’s dark star has been rising in places like the Whitney, where pride of place in the 2006 Biennial went to an installation of his work, and P.S.1, where a retrospective of his canonical films is now on view—on video.

Local cinephiles largely balked at the P.S.1 show, imported from Germany’s Künstlerhaus Bremen, where the womb-like plastic curtains, video screens, and floor-level elements rejiggered the celluloid magician for the gallery space. Film snobbery is, as ever, at play in the beef, and not without reason: Witnessing Anger’s voluptuously stylized films well projected on a good print remains one of the cinema’s transformative encounters.

Setting aside the fact that he supports the P.S.1 contextualization (co-curator Klaus Biesenbach confirms that Anger was “very appreciative” of the installation), Anger is now—deal with it—essentially a video artist. For some years, “A Film by Anger” has been a misnomer, as evinced by the two-hour program of recent work, all on video, screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.

As if in response to his recent retrospectives, most of the new titles function as a memorial of one kind or another—a look back in Anger. Half the program qualifies as sentimental marginalia. The Man We Want to Hang (2002) and Brush of Baphomet (2009) offer slideshows of the paintings and drawings of Aleister Crowley. Elliott’s Suicide (2007) is a poignant, uncomplicated eulogy for the departed songwriter Elliott Smith. My Surfing Lucifer (2008) dashes hopes of a sequel to the magisterial Lucifer Rising (1970–1980), presenting a straightforward homage to a surfer buddy catching waves to “Good Vibrations.”

Sportier yet is program highlight Foreplay (2008), a portrait of soccer lads at practice. Delivering on the eroticization of its title, this flurry of taught limbs, choreographed routines, and ball play, charged with intermittent bursts of club techno, suggests a California riff on the hieratic fantasias of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail—or the setup for a gay-porn orgy.

The longest, most ambitious of the new videos is Ich Will! (2008). The culmination of 10 years’ archival research, this ecstatic montage of Nazi youth daringly bids to recoup the élan vital of fresh-faced proto-fascists. Scored to Bruckner bombast, the carefully calibrated montage organizes horseplay, bonhomie, calisthenics, and rituals of discipline into a queer fantasy of halcyon homosocialism. The mood darkens through increasing regimentation and abstraction, climaxing in the mechanized spectacles of mass Nazi rallies. Ich Will! documents the manufacture of raw material into product, innocence subsumed by ideology.

The magic, it must be said, is decidedly subdued in late Anger, though Mouse Heaven (2005) revives something of the master’s impish touch. “I’m Your Puppet,” croons 1960’s r&b duo James & Bobby Purify over an animated array of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Advancing Anger’s enduring fascination with Hollywood as “matrix and adversary,” in the words of film scholar P. Adams Sitney, Mouse Heaven surveys the Mouse as robot, automaton, simulacrum, and secret agent of control.

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Leading Reverend Billy Into Sin

“Let’s face our contradictions right up front! We all sin and we all forgive each other,” Reverend Billy, founder of the Church of Stop Shopping, preaches to me outside the Voice building, where we are meeting because the reverend has agreed to join me for, believe it or not, an afternoon of shopping.

Since I am a member of my own personal Church of Never Stop Shopping and Billy is famous for his bombastic anti-consumerist proselytizing, I suspect he will view me with a combination of contempt and disgust, but how wrong am I. He may believe fervently that, in his words, “the shopocalypse is upon us. . . . Who will be $aved?” and he may spend every minute of his waking life organizing anti-spending crusades at places like Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret, but today Billy himself is exactly like the weakest, most craven among us—he really, really wants to buy something.

Maybe this is because it’s freezing and he’s just not bundled up enough. “I’m missing a layer,” he says. “When you buy things in thrift stores, it’s hard to control the kinds of items you’ll find.” He’s wearing a shirt and sweater covered by a very nice gray wool jacket that he admits he appropriated last summer when he found it draped over a motorcycle in the West Village. You stole it, Billy? “In our church, everyone is a sinner and we forgive each other!” he thunders cheerfully.

It’s been a big year for the reverend—he’s got a book out (Kurt Vonnegut gave him a blurb, he tells me proudly when we stop by St. Marks Books, where Billy begs the clerk, without much success, to display the book more prominently), and he’s the subject of a documentary entitled What Would Jesus Buy?, which chronicles Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a national bus tour. It’s a long way from Bill Talen, East Village performance artist and poet, to tongue-in-cheek anti-capitalist faux-clergyman. Or maybe not.

Where are we headed? Not to the Astor Place Kmart, surely, though when I admit that I have made friends with that behemoth and now venture in frequently for Martha Stewart towels and three-packs of Hanes panties, Billy says sadly, “I go there, too. They’ve got better prices—but you know it’s that old conundrum: It’s cheaper because the stuff is made in sweatshops.”

Though not everyone loves Billy—Starbucks has banned him from its stores following his frequent raucous visits, during which he has placed his hand on the cash register and tried to exorcise “the beast of the evil within it”—he’s quite the star in the East Village. “Hey, Billy, saw you last year at the Continental! I have you as a MySpace friend,” one guy says. Another fellow introduces his little daughter, who is carrying Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote. Inside Loves Saves the Day, a vintage store that has somehow resisted waves of gentrification and survived on the corner of 7th and Second, another side of Billy fully emerges.

“This place excites my memories,” he says, gleefully pawing though the racks of old clothes. I tell him I feel the same way about Saks Fifth Avenue, and he is stunned: “You’ve got something on your body from Saks?” (Gee, guess it doesn’t look it.) Ignoring the pirate hats and Howdy Doody night lights, the reverend makes a beeline for a double-breasted ’70s-era jacket. “What do you call this color, Lynn?” Ocher? Mustard? I venture, adding that the back vents are still stitched, an indication that no lounge lizard has ever worn this garment. “Wow, I’m lucky to be shopping with a fashion editor. Hallelujah, amen!” Billy booms. (He’s been studying with an opera singer so he can really crank up the volume, since the cops keep confiscating his bullhorns.) Spying a looming Mickey Mouse doll, Billy explodes. “Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist! Mickey Mouse is Satan!”

Why does he hate the rodent with such virulence? Is it because this whole Reverend Billy business has its roots in the Disneyfication of Times Square, where Billy first set up his pulpit in the late ’90s? “A therapist once told me Mickey Mouse is really my father, and my dad does have a big grin and prominent ears,” he says. “Actually, I like my dad, but we’re very different. He’s a Dutch Calvinist from the Midwest.” Like many parents with truly wacky children, the reverend’s dad appears to have come around: “When my picture was in The New Yorker, he sent a copy to me, laminated.”

In the end, we have no luck at Love Saves the Day. We head east, past the Chase bank where the Second Avenue Deli used to be. “I blame myself for this!” he says. “We should have been all over it, protesting, but it went up so fast. We have to enact anti-chain-store legislation.”

But not everything is so bleak. In fact, suddenly Billy’s message seems to be captivating all kinds of people, a turn of events that has left him frankly astonished. “I started out talking to entrenched ironists about forgiveness and gratitude.” But then his words—campy and over-the-top as they may be—began reaching a different audience. In one burst of interviews, he recalls, a questioner from a right-wing apocalyptic magazine was followed by a writer from Hustler and then a reporter from CNN. He shrugs. “If committed evangelical Christians are buying less,” he says, “then that’s a good thing.”

Well, I’m certainly not buying less, I think to myself. Since Billy is getting colder by the minute (plus, though he doesn’t say so, I sense he is dying to buy something), we go over to 10th between First and A, where a brand-new consignment shop called Matiell opened 11 days ago.

“This is the spot!” Billy says as soon as we enter. Two seconds later, he is on his knees, not praying but rifling thoughtfully through a low rack of sweaters. When he finds a knitted polo with a Barneys label, he pops it on and loves what he sees. “Wow, jeesh, wow! This is from one of those yuppies I’m always badmouthing from the pulpit. Wow, only $20!” He fingers another pullover and I notice him sneaking a glimpse at its Boss label. “I can’t stop—I can’t stop shopping!” he wails at the top of his lungs. “I’m glad Spurlock, who produced my movie, isn’t in this store! I can confess to you, Lynn, but I don’t want it on the silver screen!”

He takes another gander at the mirror and proclaims, “Woo-hoo—it’s Billy time on the avenue! What we are seeing here is depraved sin.” Alas, the Boss garment is three times as much as the Barneys sweater. Billy wants both but buys only the cheaper one, planning to discuss the situation with his wife, who is the director of the Church of Stop Shopping. “I’m gonna talk to Savitri about this one. It’s such a beauty,” he says. “It’s so handsome.”

We’re about to leave when Billy notices a pair of thick, soft trousers. “Wow, lemme try these on!” He drops his pants—he’s not a shy guy—and says, “I think I’ve got permission to get a good warm pair of pants.”

Yeah, but do they have to be Versace? I say, eyeing the label.

“They’re a perfect fit! Oh my God, I have to buy these,” he says. “I just don’t care about my reputation. You think they’re warm? Oh, man, feel that—it’s brilliant—I gotta have them. I’m wearing them! Oh, it’s terrible! Eighty bucks! Wait, I can’t get them over my boots.” He tucks them in, then checks the mirror like the most hardened fashionista and sighs, “OK, I’m vain. It’s a different look, but it’s good.”

When the owner asks him if he’d like a shopping bag for his purchases, Billy is horrified—it probably wouldn’t do for the head of the Church of Stop Shopping to be seen in the East Village with bags of new clothes. As we head out into the chilly twilight, I ask Billy, now snug in his Versace pants, his Barneys sweater secretly sequestered in his backpack, if he is having the best time ever. I mean the whole season, what with the book and the movie and all, but he misunderstands. “Oh, yes!” he crows. “The fun of shopping!”

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Swinging Sheffield Couple Smacks Up Bitches

For the cover of Mutsumi Kanamori’s second album with her husband Maurice Fulton (a Sheffield electro-house producer by way of Baltimore), MU has contorted those puckered-up lips from her batshit debut, Afro Finger and Gel into something fiercer for her follow-up. Now she sneers in pigtails with Mickey Mouse’s disembodied hand stuck on her head, as she wields a Ginzu blade and ashtray (!?), ready to rumble. As if she’s about to enter a GLOW grudge match (that’s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, bitch) or else charge onto Springer to break chairs over some backs.

And throughout the malcontentious Out of Breach, there are numerous lumbars to thwack. Possible opponents: “Tigerbastard,” that bitch-ass label guy who sabotaged Afro Finger; that old bitch interviewer in Neverland who won’t “Stop Bothering Michael Jackson”; those bitches that steal tampons backstage; that chicken-legged bitch, “Paris Hilton”; any and all haters. Step in the ring, motherfucker, Mutsumi taunts, threatening to erase family trees, pull hair, and beat you “like a little bitch.” Meanwhile, Fulton (wearing his Dr. Scratch mask in the corner), kicks opponents’ record bags, clocks cowbells, and extends deathmatches past the six-minute mark with conga taps and 303 ear-gouging.

It’s not all hate, though. Mu loves dudes named Luke. And her friend Tomoko! The inner photos show her other wrestling personas: broom-straddling witch, gymnastic sorority girl, and (my favorite) bookish schoolmarm at a homemade subwoofer convention, judging jams. Just don’t say she sounds like Yoko Ono; it’s not like she broke up her husband’s famous band, Eddie and the Eggs.


MU play Rothko July 21 and P.S.1 July 23.

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Cashmere Obscenity

Thought the arrival of those Marc Jacobs bags on Bleecker represented the absolute zenith of West Village bourgeois decadence? Those satchels, with their cunning metal clasps and $900 price tags, are in fact as bohemian as burlap sacks compared to the neighhborhood’s latest newcomers: Parisian sweaters by Lucien Pellat-Finet (lucienpellat-finet.com), who has just set up shop in the former MAC cosmetics store at the corner of Christopher and Gay streets.
These pullovers have arrived from France with price tags that would stagger Seabiscuit. And sure, they’re nice in a forced-hip kind of way: They’re decorated with little skulls, or they’re tie-dyed, or they feature Mickey Mouse ears. And yes, the patterns are not just printed on but knitted in (this, in cashmere country, is known as “intarsia”). But really—sitting down?—an alarmingly thin maroon cashmere pullover adorned with a camouflage peace symbol for $2,534??? (You could wear it to the anti-RNC demo—its sentiment is certainly appropriate—but the irony is, to afford it you’d have to be one of the rare beneficiaries of those Republican tax cuts.)

Still, you know us, we hate to leave empty-handed. So maybe a simple cotton sweatshirt? A black hoodie, printed with a green marijuana leaf (does this really appeal to anyone but an 11-year-old boy?)?

Whoops, it’s marked $960.

We can’t help asking the guy behind the counter how this can be. He sighs. “Well, you see, it has an Egyptian cotton lining,” he explains. “The finest material. And you know—the pattern and all . . .” His little voice drifts off.

As it turns out, it is not impossible to look arrogant and ashamed at the same time.

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Mouse Trap

There’s something arresting about shots of celebs caught with their pants down, whether crude drawings of Clark Gable or Little Or- phan Annie bumping uglies in Tijuana Bibles, or lo-res screen-grabs of Paris Hilton’s courtesan chops. But the law takes a dim view of appropriating the rich and famous for purely prurient purposes. So what happens when a genuine artist puts such outrages to work satirizing the machinations of the powerful? Enter Dan O’Neill, the protagonist of Bob Levin’s The Pirates and the Mouse, “a man unhobbled by factual restraints when a touch of moon-dust will enliven life’s dance.” In 1963, O’Neill, a 21-year-old college dropout, created the Odd Bodkins comic strip for the San Francisco Chronicle. O’Neill filled his panels with such bon mots as “To see or Nazi. That is the question,” and caricatures of Superman smokin’ weed and Christ crucified on a telephone pole. These counterculture provocations eventually got him canned, but not before he learned the lesson (presented in Levin’s typically wry prose) “that what America truly needed was the destruction of Walt Disney.”

In 1971, O’Neill gathered a cadre of underground cartoonists to launch Mickey Mouse Meets the Air Pirates Funnies, featuring most of Disney’s stable in flagrante delicto (when they weren’t busy smuggling dope). The Pirates had grown up loving Disney’s artistry, but came to despise his corporation’s watered-down folklore. Ted Rich- ards, one of these renegade Mouseketeers, resented Disney’s “corporate seizure of the American narrative” and believed the Pirates were “helping the people regain access to their own stories.” Reflecting back on the period, O’Neill says, “It was everybody’s duty to smash the state. And we smashed a lot of it; but, you know, they smashed us back.” Indeed, despite fair-use copyright provisions protecting satire, the Pirates shortly found themselves hauled into court by humorless Disney lawyers. (Uncle Walt himself was a master at poaching story lines and music from the public domain. But six years ago, in a classic case of socialized subsidies for private fortunes, his corporation lobbied for, and won, an extension of copyright protection to “life of the author plus seventy years,” thereby keeping some future visionary’s paws off Disney’s characters for decades to come.)

Levin, a lawyer by trade, cogently explains the tensions between treating copyrights “no differently than any other piece of property” and recognizing that “all knowledge derives from prior knowledge [and] society can benefit . . . from a widespread dissemination of facts, ideas, and theories.” Despite a few editorial gaffes—a misdated story, a chapter-head typo—his lucid narrative overcomes the Pirates’ drug-fogged memories and years of tangled, Bleak House-like litigation. After a decade of injunctions and huge fines (uncollectible from the chronically broke O’Neill), the Pirates finally promised to cease and desist—that is, until the Air Pirates Special Pirate Edition, by the “Mouse Liberation Front,” featuring an ulcer-ridden Mickey working the phones and sweating the grosses of Aladdin. Dating from the mid ’90s, it is beautifully drawn and hilarious: Mickey fumes over the cost of keeping Walt cryogenically preserved—”Wouldn’t I like to pull the plug on that old popsicle!”—then nails the ethos of the Reagan/Bush years: “I am Mickey Mouse and I am the American Dream!! It’s simple . . . I got mine . . . Fuck you!”

Anyone who’s been cattle-herded through the Magic Kingdom has seen this side of Disney’s world, epitomized by currently embattled CEO Michael Eisner’s statement, “We have no obligation to make history . . . to make art. . . . To make money is our only objective.” Seems it’s the Pirates who truly loved Mickey, and the bosses who still just want to screw him.

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Brain Damaged

Note to bands: If you want a good review, it’s probably not a smart idea to drop your mic stand on a writer’s head. A.R.E. Weapons, already on my shit list for simply having manager Paul Sevigny as a band member, were just three seconds into their set at the Park two Thursdays ago when hairy lead singer Brain McPeck dropped his heavy, metal wand on my skull. Thud. Nobody moved. Nobody did anything. I shoved the hipsters in attendance aside (really, swatted at the little, annoying fleas) so I could find a seat. And then an ice pack. And then I moaned. I filed an incident report with the nice manager while across from us a table caught fire. Whatta night.

A friend said, “Sue the pants off of Paul Sevigny.” I replied, “I’d rather Paul keep his pants on.”

It’s amazing how well trained I am to spot celebrities I don’t give a flying F about. Even in pain I glimpsed Albert Hammond Jr. from the Strokes at the bar, and Chloë, sister of the aforementioned Paul, looking like a trashy ballerina (that’s supposed to be a compliment) and watching her bro suck from the side of the stage. Somebody solve this club-kid riddle: Why is Chloë cool and Paul so not?

Anyways, can I tell you how much I loathe A.R.E. Weapons and I haven’t even heard a single song? Besides, their cool-est member, Thomas, a/k/a the Mammal (formerly of the Wicked Crew), bailed on them months ago.

Nightclubbing is hazardous to your health, and not for the obvious reasons. Another friend took a spill at Pianos two Saturdays ago for the 21st Century Bodyrockers party and left with a lovely bloody lip. And if her experience there was anything like mine, it was just the icing on the cake.

Upstairs, things were jumping. Erol Alkan of Trash played “Ring My Bell” and people did the unthinkable. They danced! The too-cool-for-school trendies dropped their stoic facades and shook their booties. Being an old lady, I sat down and watched everyone else get sweaty. But one guy wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and spiked wristbands remained unmoved: He took a brief disco nap, perhaps to signal his boredom.

Brits and models mixed it up downstairs, which was a riot of fashionistas forcing their way to the bar, the stage, the bar, the stage, the bar . . . exhausting. Next to us, professional clothes hangers Heidi Klum and Karolina Kurova held court sipping drinks. Amid the sea of Brits (all smoking illegally), you could spot Lisa Marie Presley‘s manager Scooter and Sheryl Crow. That is if you weren’t trapped in the swell of people crushed up against the doors, trying vainly to get in to see 2 Many DJs. Every now and then, a huge man with dreads would inexplicably throw open the doors, shout at the crowd to move back, and then shut the doors. Two minutes later, he’d do it all over again. If I had been a paying customer, I’d have been right pissed. Hell, I wasn’t a paying customer, and I was still pissed.

Later, a tall security guy shooed the smokers to the next storefront—and when I started talking with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, he shouted at us once again to move.

I asked Nick, “How is this fun?”

“I dunno,” he replied. “But 60 people are staring at a door and nodding their heads.”

We talked about more pleasant topics. Like being mobbed in England. “Total Beatlemania,” he said. The trip was replete with 15-year-old fans wanting a piece of the Yeahs; a riot of kids waiting outside their tour bus for autographs; Nick signing and signing and signing and signing. The cover of NME, which was supposed to be of all three band members (“We even did two photo shoots,” he says), was instead a picture from last year’s Bowery Ballroom show. “An up-the-skirt perv shot” of Karen O, says Nick, who admitted to being a little embarrassed by all the fanfare, if only because their record wasn’t out yet.

“It was weird.” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I left Nick to his own devices and headed to Max Fish for a quickie. Spotted Sean Lennon (wanted to talk to him about ganging up on Paul Sevigny; decided not to ruin his evening), and then it was off to the last lawbreaking, sleazy bar left in New York City. I will not divulge where it is or what it is called, except to say that it’s a real hole.

Danced like a fool, till 4—or was it 5?—a.m. (who’s counting?), when Felix Da Housecat (in town to work with Puffy, of course) ran in shouting, “I’m looking for some tequila!” Then “Don’t write about this!”

You people suck.

We did shots, and soon the rest of the kids—Rory Phillips of Trash, James Murphy of DFA, Tommy Saleh of Tribeca Grand—showed up. (Note to self: When chiding other publications for name-spelling, one should make sure to spell her own boldface names correctly—or else keep her big, fat mouth shut. Sorry, Rory.)

I nudged a friend: “Break the law—chain smoke!” He did. The previous week he’d been there he asked for a cigarette from a guy in the bathroom, and was offered coke (no, not the soft drink). He demurred, but the next guy in line helped himself. With the door wide open. There is hope for this city after all.

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Brownies and Yalies

Never mind the sprawling, flamboyant fiction of yesteryear—hyperactive spectacles like White Teeth and Infinite Jest that ransacked late-20th-century popular culture, burning through plotlines, information, and imagination with merry abandon. Good writing never goes out of fashion, as high school English teachers love to remind us, but certain types of fiction do fall in and out of vogue. How else to explain why nobody reads John Dos Passos anymore, or why the term “magic realism” has become little more than a slur?

ZZ Packer, anointed by The New Yorker in their 2000 Debut Fiction issue, seems perfectly suited to the current moment of American uncertainty and awkwardness. The short stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere feel refreshingly subtle and unresolved. They don’t call attention to themselves; in fact, they shun linguistic bravado, irony, and stylistic swagger. Sometimes her fondness for pathos weighs the stories down, makes them feel a little too much like virtuous parables. But in the book’s more organic pieces, Packer’s characters feel inseparable from the messy sociopolitical landscape, feet firmly planted in our world.

Packer specializes in goody-goodies—most of her heroines are young, wholesome African American women caught at a formative moment, ducking bitterness as it settles in around them. Packer forces them up against the rough surface of the world and watches them lose their way: The quiet honor-roll student unraveled by alienation and sadness at Yale, where she’s deemed a dangerous rebel; the teenaged debate-team whiz who ends up on his own at the Million Man March, ditched by his misguided slacker dad; the well-meaning woman who wants to teach high school in inner-city Baltimore but can’t connect with her troubled charges.

“Brownies,” the collection’s first story, opens unassumingly: “By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” The sentimental voice-over quality of the sentence’s first half is shattered by the cartoony violence of the second. Brownies, summer camp, ass-kicking—all perfectly calibrated for maximum amusement. It transpires that Troop 909 is white, and their aura of white-girl perfection instantly pisses off the black Brownies who share the camping facilities: “They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled-up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse . . . ” Even worse, the black troop becomes convinced that one of these peachy princesses uttered the word “nigger,” and they hatch a plan to jump them in the bathroom.

The tale takes too long to play out, but it eventually drops a clever twist: Rather than privileged white bitches, the members of Troop 909 turn out to be mentally retarded. Through her narrator, a shy, thoughtful girl nicknamed “Snot,” Packer brings alive the world of the black Brownies—the social pressures, the snatches of poetry that drift through their heads, the self-mythologizing secrets, and the insider catchphrases. As Snot reports, the favorite insult that summer was “Caucasian,” as in “If you ate too fast you ate like a Caucasian, if you ate too slow you ate like a Caucasian.” Packer makes race her first order of business here, maybe because she suspects it’s always going to be the first category on that invisible checklist people carry in their heads. As Spurgeon, the debate-team champ in “The Ant of the Self,” declares, “I don’t think for a minute that my teachers liked me because of my logical mind; they liked me because I was quiet and small, and not rowdy like they expected black guys to be.”

The collection’s strongest narratives hinge on characters like Spurgeon, misfits in every aspect of their lives. Tia in “Speaking in Tongues” is the only “saved” girl at her school, and in her ruffled blouses and long skirts she stands out amid all the sexy, belly-baring nymphets; yet she doesn’t fit in at church either, because she hasn’t learned to speak in tongues. The title story introduces us to Dina on her first day of Yale orientation. When she hesitates to play a game of “Trust” with her geeky fellow freshman, her patronizing white counselor offers, “Sister . . . you don’t have to play this game. As a person of color, you shouldn’t have to fit into any white, patriarchal system.” Back in Baltimore, Dina had been a polite honor student who got teased for being a nerd, but in this new context, she notes, “Suddenly I was hard-bitten and recalcitrant, the kind of kid who took pleasure in sticking pins into cats.” Misery rises off Dina like steam, repelling all potential friends, until one day Heidi—a fat, white Canadian girl—knocks on her door, sobbing.

Their friendship is intense, playful, sensual, and confused in the way only adolescent best-friendships can be, and Packer depicts it with great tenderness. In one of the few sexual scenes in an otherwise very chaste book, Dina hoses down Heidi’s naked body in the empty cafeteria, where they both work as dishwashers. Heidi “stood there, stiff, arms at her sides, eyes closed, as though awaiting mummification. . . . I sprayed her and sprayed her, and she turned over and over like a large beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun.”

The reader hopes Dina will “find” herself, but her appearance in a second story only gets her more lost. In “Geese,” she flies to Japan hoping to make a lot of money, though “it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog.” Bunking in a room with four other destitute foreigners, she ends up doing squalid things she never thought she’d do, transformed by context just as she had been years before at Yale. One day, staring at birds in the park, Dina thinks about the kamikaze planes she’d once read about.

“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is a work of emotional origami—the most complex creation in this promising, downtempo collection of stories. And in Dina, she has conjured a vivid heroine who teeters on the edge of a tenuous future, lowering her expectations notch by notch.

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The Birds Are on Fire

“The sky can still fall on our heads,” Artaud wrote in 1938, “and it is the function of theatre to teach us that above all else.” The sky fell on our heads here in New York on September 11. Now it’s falling elsewhere, and will likely continue to do so.

I’m not one of those who believe that if we change our way of life, “the terrorists will have won.” When the sky falls on you, change is inevitable. It is even necessary and desirable. A new kind of imagination was awakened on September 11, an experience of reality that no Hollywood Armageddon had prepared us for. Nor, for that matter, had any theater prepared us for it—neither Artaud’s unrealized Theater of Cruelty, nor any other.

The images before us that day do place it in the tradition of Artaud. The New York Times quoted a child who saw burning bodies jumping from the buildings. “Look, teacher!” she screamed. “The birds are on fire!” Her vision, poetic and terrifying, was matched soon after, for all of us, by that smoldering mountain of debris downtown. In it we see, writ large, the late Reza Abdoh’s meditations on ruined cities, or, writ small, the debris at the foot of Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, the accumulated products of the storm of progress.

In describing the events, the genre on everyone’s lips has been tragedy, even though it seems to be playing, at many news organizations, as melodrama: a stark conflict between good and evil, complete with bearded villain and plainspoken hero. But if tragedy it is, which of the various interpretations of catharsis—purgation, purification, clarification—are to be had, and where? The major news media seem to favor purgation, whipping us into a fury of emotional response. More moderate media go “Looking for Answers” (as a recent PBS program was called), thereby offering catharsis as clarification. Finally, our best public fabulators—the writers of The West Wing, for example—strive for purification, allowing us to eat our emotional cake and have our thoughtfulness too.

The scale and ubiquity of media response to the events seem to leave little space for the arts, especially for a tiny minority discourse like theater. But theater, like Hamlet’s “old mole,” has the virtue of burrowing underground, being hic et ubique, here and everywhere, never knowing where its message will flare forth and illuminate a subject. Moreover, surely these “extraordinary times” invite us to give up timidity and dream wildly about changes that might illuminate those rubble heaps downtown and in Kabul.

I dream of a theater that is genuinely committed to remembering both rubble heaps, and many, many more. Someone remarked recently that “terrorism is the downside of globalization.” I dream of a theater that asks what (on earth!) the upside of globalization is. Which means that I dream of a theater based on the principle of reciprocity, of making sure that we understand as much about those parts of the world as they are expected to understand—even accept—about us. A South Asian friend of mine was once asked by a hostile colleague: “How come there are so many of you Indians in American academia nowadays?” My friend replied: “When you tell me what Mickey Mouse is doing in my village in Sri Lanka, I’ll tell you what I’m doing here.”

The theater could do much more than it has to interrupt the mushrooming logic of globalization. It might dedicate its remarkably flexible space—whether actual or virtual, indoor or outdoor, formal or otherwise—to putting us in touch with the big questions of living in a big world. Not just questions of what Mickey Mouse is doing in a Sri Lankan village, but where and how we’ve all crossed paths before and will again—the true story of globalization, which is more complex, ironic, heartbreaking, maddening, and hopeful than any call to war ever recognizes.

The theater I dream of would invite our playwrights to look beyond the American horizon. It would encourage them to bring their insights and compassion (or, in recent Pulitzer terms, their wit and proofs and lessons) to the intersections between this culture and others, whether forced, or fortuitous, or fearsome. It would be a theater that creates American versions of the kind of complex geopolitical theater—I’m thinking of plays like Churchill’s Mad Forest and Edgar’s Pentecost—that explores multiculturalism as a force in the world rather than merely a colorful strategy for narcissistic identity politics. This would then also be, automatically, an ecological theater, contesting our leaders’ denials of the link between our lives and the deaths of species and ecosystems. Such a vision might even transform the tiresome ironies of avant-garde theater—the theater of images and effects—into bracing dialectics, connecting aesthetics and pragmatics, sights and sites. Playwrights like Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mac Wellman, and Naomi Iizuka, among many others, have amply shown in their past work the imaginative breadth required to move in this direction.

The theater I dream of would create a space outside the melodrama of good and evil. It would be a Theater of Cruelty where the painfully complicated realities of life—”cruel to myself,” as Artaud put it—can be inhabited. It would be a searching theater rather than a cathartic one, a wounding theater rather than a healing one, a theater willing to question all those towering twin monoliths—East and West, artist and critic, terrorism and war, us and them—that dwarf our humanity.

I think I glimpsed an image of this theater in Union Square the other day, when a belly dancer, unfurling a costume of glorious golden wings, danced to an Arabic version of “Imagine.” Watching her, I heard a hopeful note alter that terrible cry—”the birds are on fire”—that had filled my ears since September 11.