Monday, 28 September 2015

Hard to be A God: the movie...

Hard to be a God was intended to be a swash-buckling adventure when the brothers Strugatsky first considered writing the novel. Unfortunately, they lived in Soviet Russia and one of the sporadic aesthetic interventions by the state (basically, there was some official ranting about fiction being a medium for communist ideas). Luckily, Arkady and Boris knew how to play the system. Hard to be a God manages to be compassionate and exciting, even as it explores ideas of Marxist historical dialectic.

Besides, it is both futuristic and historical: observers from a future communist Utopia have discovered an earth-like world and have been sent to watch its development from feudalism, through capitalism, to communism. Being good anthropologists, the observers immerse themselves in the society: being from an advanced society themselves, they get to kick ass.

Anyway, there's a film, and what's not to love? It's Russian, in black and white, it explores Marxism, it has plenty of grubby medieval action and Errol Flynn style shenanigans. And it is coming to the GFT.

Hard to Be a God is a Russian science fiction film directed by Aleksey German. Based on the novel "Hard to Be a God" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

I might agree with you, but you are wrong...

Here's an article about Pope Francis. In it, he gives a vague answer about whether Kim Davis was right to refuse to give same sex couples a marriage certificate. 

The headline states that Pope Francis agrees with her behaviour. The actual quotation from the Pope doesn't.

Terry Moran, ABC News:Holy Father, thank you, thank you very much and thank you to the Vatican staff as well. Holy Father, you visited the Little Sisters of the Poor and we were told that you wanted to show your support for them and their case in the courts. And, Holy Father, do you also support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. Do you support those kinds of claims of religious liberty?

Pope Francis:
I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection. But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’ 

It (conscientious objection) is a human right. It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, when I read the Chanson de Roland when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font and they had to choose between the baptismal font or the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights.

One conservative commentator takes this to mean that Pope Francis is implying support for Kim Davis, but admits it is likely that he is not familiar with the details of her behaviour. 

However, I'd like to focus on his reference to the Chanson. In it, he is recalling the most aggressive approach to evangelism - convert or die - and is condemning it. Rather than comment on the failures of a secular system, he evokes Catholicism's darker chapters. 

The Pink News piece does give plenty of context which reveals a homophobic world-view within the Catholic Church, and expresses a disappointment that the early, progress statement of Francis have not yielded tangible change. It's not unfair to think he would defend Kim Davis: both commentators share this assumption. 

However, he seems to be encouraging a dialectic approach to the issue, and presenting a justification for civil disobedience. And by pointing to the antics of medieval Christianity, he links it directly to the importance of challenging the church itself. 

He's such a Jesuit. 

SQIFF: Something Positive

I'm sitting out front of the CCA in the 'parklet' with Sam Kenyon. I am only talking to him because I respect his opinion and really like him: I had previously intended to boycott him because he didn't come in to see Pasolini's Theorem. Sam is being reasonable, and pointing out that the word 'queer' is all about the fluidity of meaning, while I am moaning that it is being appropriated by the mainstream. I think we are both right, although I am being conservative and wanting to hang onto an idea of queer that belongs to Jarman, Bikini Kill and the 1990s.

What makes us old once made us young.

Sam also programmed the selection of more experimental films - films that I regard as being more queer because their formal aspects (which some people might call bad editing, rejecting the gloss of contemporary cinema) offer the kind of retinal shudder that I dig. They are not easy to watch, allude rather than display, and juxtapose images in a way that reflects intersectionality. 

There has been a lovely atmosphere in the CCA during SQIFF. I shy away from conversations about political matters in public (except for with Sam, who gets the full-frontal Vile jabber), but the building has been full of people who care about art as a medium for discussion. Diane Torr did her banana dance on the Friday night, and where there are bananas, there is fun.

The range of films has been great - not least because Pasolini got a slot, and I got to see some difficult 'feminist pornography' (which I did not enjoy, either in the feminist or pornographic sense). Like Arika's exploration of the Ballroom scene, SQIFF gave me plenty of food for thought, ready to be half-baked by me into opinion. 

Sam is always a great deal more thoughtful than I am, but I like to think we share a sensibility. Both the tough art films and the big blockbuster are valuable to us, and the possibility of conversation combats the misery of catching rotten art. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

More Feminist Porrn

Trigger Warnings: Discussion of pornography, NSFW, Video of an Asshole

1. Having come down rather hard on SQIFF's Feminist Porn selection (suggesting that it was mis-titled and condemning the pretension of Marit Ostberg's contributions), I'd like to dwell on a work that didn't fill me with anger and frustration, but missed the mark both as pornography and feminist film-making. 

Shave Me, Mirror Me is not pornography. Director, and star, Lasse Rusk, has made a personal 'transsexual erotic movie about wanting to kill your inner man and be reborn into mother earth'. It's got a bit of hot cock wanking action, but mostly consists of Lasse's transformation (to looking a bit like early Prince, which is kinda sexy, though). 

2. Pornography has a very clear intention: to get the audience off. Erotica (bearing in mind that old joke - erotica is what I like, porn is what you like) aims at something more complex, but is really just a more pleasant tag for sexy material. Erotica is possibly a better term to use in this context, since it lacks the stigma of pornography (the root in Greek implies that it describes the actions of prostitutes).

And Lasse is an undeniably erotic presence through the film. But as the reference to mother earth suggests in the description, there's a bunch of New Age bullshit structuring the adventure. Lasse adds in some unpleasant comments on masculinity (it's all violence and machismo, apparently) that connects back to less nuanced Radical Feminism (a feminism that has little time for trans identity). 

Most of Shave Me follows Lasse's journey, which is fine, if a little self-indulgent. There's plenty of chat about friendship, past or possible sexual encounters, but little context. By being so apolitical, Lasse might be making another point (not all trans film has to be about the politics). But it is also a film about a small group of people, with little displayed consciousness about the wider meanings of gender.

3. Even if the film is about sex, that does not make it porn. But the charge that it isn't feminist is more tricky. The lack of explicit political awareness isn't necessarily a problem, although it is frustrating. Where it gets confused is in the final sequence, which pitches live action child-birth against Lasse dancing about in nature.

While I reject most essentialism about gender, giving birth is one of those things that remain, at the moment, the domain of cis-gendered women. I mean literally giving birth, not having children.

Juxtaposing that with an under-developed ritual to cleanse Lasse of masculinity was not a powerful move. It undermined the point. In my opinion, of course. 

4. So the failure as a feminist film consists of presenting childbirth as a marker of identity. Discuss, if you like. 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Feminist Porn

Trigger Warnings: Discussion of pornography, NSFW, violent sexual fantasies

1. One day, I am going to learn.

Part of SQIFF, this selection of short films seemed the perfect opportunity to address the conflict between my libido and my desired social identity. On the one hand, I am aware of the systemic oppression of women through patriarchal ideas of beauty and eroticism: on the other, I have a filthy mind that I hope to contain within the wider context of social responsibility.

2. Right...

After that introduction, forgive me if I ramble.

Certain atheists  accuse feminism of poisoning things: in this case, it feels as if porn is doing the poisoning. Intrigued as I was to experience women-friendly erotica, four of the films managed to be self-defeating and obnoxious, while the other two (On Your Back and Neurosex Pornoia Episode 2) were playful and experimental, respectively.

3. I didn't really want to write a qualitative assessment of the selection. It feels important that the conversation about feminism porn happens in a safe environment, where matters like ratings are ignored for a broader consideration of the possibilities of feminist pornography.

But the quality of this work is important. Its aesthetic failures prevent the discussion. Some of the pieces (Authority) present enough sex to count as porn, others (Shave Me, Mirror Me) make do with a cheeky wank and ponderous meditations on gender. The interview with director Marit Ostberg, however, is a testament to a painfully self-indulgent, self-regarding vision of both feminism and art.

4. Feminist interventions into pornography (and sex work) have become difficult. The debate over lap-dancing generated by the under-considered legislation knocking about the Scottish Parliament encouraged my insistence that any use of the word feminism needs an adjective to clarify its position. 

While I recognise the right of people living in an area to define its tone (the legislation seems to be aiming at this), a more active feminist response might be to ensure that the women who work in the clubs are not being exploited, financially or emotionally. The same applies to pornography: feminist erotica would be made by performers who are getting paid and treated right. Maybe unionised, even?

5. In Marit, the interview with Ostberg, there are repeated references to the politics of her films. She never really explains what the politics are - she recognises that she didn't consider them in the making, and only the circumstances of one film's release forced her to discuss it. There is a vague idea that her working methods (the performers are not doing it for money, they are friends) is an anti-capitalist provocation.

Set alongside a showing of her Authority, however, this is not good enough. Having said that the politics were secondary to the act of making the films (although the sexuality she portrays is consciously queer and she makes a point about making the films because she wanted to represent it, which makes it a political action...), she connects her work to anti-pornography feminists of the 1970s (apparently, it is the same struggle), and answers potential critiques of her material (isn't it rather close to mainstream pornography) with a useless 'it's a paradox' or 'it's interesting'.

It probably is interesting, although saying that it is fails to unravel why it might be.

6. Authority, one of the two Ostberg shorts shown in the programme fails to make much of a political point. Apart from the terrible lighting, which renders her performers pale and insipid, and the weak editing, the actual sex on show is violent. 

Okay, so it plays a game, in the relationship between a criminal and a police-officer - there is a vague ironic reversal of power. The low production values might offer the veneer of alternative cinema, but the sex itself is generic and abusive.

That is not to say it is non-consensual, or documents an act of abuse (Ostberg is clear about her performers' desire to act out the fantasies). But it does represent a fantasy of sexual violence. This kind of material is open to exactly the same critique as mainstream violent pornography: that it depraves the audience.

That critique might be invalid, but that the difference between Authority and New Wave Hookers ends up being pretty minimal. And I'm sure Crusty Porn can present low quality film making just as effectively. 

7. Ostberg's redeeming feature is her wit: her other short, Ladybeard, is funny. And there is a joke at the end of Authority which is worth a titter. That's not enough to justify a copper getting pumped off a night-stick, though. People walked out, and I am assuming that they were offended by the content. 

That is people who came to see feminist porn... not by mistake. 

8. The big problem here is that I am a guy trying to decide whether the porn is feminist. It's not obvious that I have the right to decide. I can say I was disgusted by Authority and my memory of it makes me want to avoid pornography. So, maybe she is working in the tradition of Dworkin

But if feminist porn means porn aimed at women, then I need to shut up (or be taken as a single, subjective voice). But another word came up in the interview with Ostberg, one that is not surprising in the context of SQIFF.

It is a queer festival and the adjective that this programme needed was queer. There is no reason that feminist porn can't be hetero-normative. But this selection was consciously queer, and the 'feminist' tag was dishonest. 

I'm realising that my qualitative assessment is becoming increasingly negative.

9. I have a great deal of doubt about publishing this - not just in case my mum reads it, but because I value events like SQIFF, and my experience of the festival is positive. I also value the opening up of the conversation around pornography (it is not going to disappear and take away all of the problems around it (guilt, exploitation, commodification of desire, the imposition of fantasies onto women and men, trans-gendered men and women, ethinic groups et cetera...)). 

Feminist porn and queer porn seem like a good idea. This discussion is important. Even my halting opinions have a value. 

Coming Soon: Thoughts on Trans Porn and the Use of the word Queer (and why SQIFF have got it right, in my opinion). 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Brutal Dramaturgy: Izzy Tennyson @ Edfringe

Being 14 is an awful age you know… You’re not a very nice person at 14. No one knows this better than new girl Poppy who's just started at an all-girls state school in a provincial English town. There are rules with no logic, sadistic jokes that aren’t actually funny and the most sinister games played out of boredom. And, you better not be fat or clever or you’re f*cked. Brute is an exciting piece of new writing based on the true events of a rather twisted, horrible schoolgirl.

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?

Izzy TennysonLike all my work, Brute is heavily autobiographical, and it relates to a particularly difficult time in my life and a particularly difficult time with my relationship with my mother too. 

My mum died of cancer 18 months ago, and I guess this was a sort of catharsis, This play is basically about when I came close to a breakdown at school. I kind of had to shut what was happening out of my mind to keep going and like my poem ‘Person’ this is kind of a response to how dealing with this,

This time in school was really traumatic and twisted I really wanted to explain it. I also didn’t think that they was any accurate portrayals of what it is like to be a  14 or 15 year old girl out there. It is a really fucked up age, especially for women. I really don’t think there are enough accurate depictions of how it is out there, from a feminine perspective. 

As I say it was an awful age, and I think I became an awful person. I really felt I needed to explain that to people. Weird shit happened to me, and I think it happens to everyone…

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?

Where else is there to bring it?

This is my fifth summer in Edinburgh.  Five years ago I was flyering for free accommodation….now I've got my own one-woman show….what else can I say?

I work mainly in London now especially with the Roundhouse, where I’m a Resident Artist for my spoken word work, and the Soho where I’ve been on there Young Writer’s programme, but Edinburgh is still Edinburgh.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?

Wow big question! Well just so there’s no disappointment all you get to see is me! It’s a one-woman show so you’re stuck looking at me for an hour!

This play is about a roller-coaster of emotions. In fact getting this play on stage has been another real ‘roller-coaster’ of emotions. Believe it really has!

If I take the audience on the same journey the play has worked. And that isn’t just the dramatic stuff….there’s a lot to laugh about in this play, because in life there is. We’ve all been to school and lots and lots of people have come up to me after and say how they relate to it, but all seem to relate to a different bit. 

Girls that throw tampons dipped in Ribena, male teachers that join in a girls football game and try and score all the goals, you’ve got to love real life, you can’t make this stuff up can you?

In terms of thinking, I really like to layer my work. Some people tell me to slow down when I speak, but this play is how I speak, and I actually think it works. Because you have to sort out the story from this jumble of words and I actually think that’s a good thing, because it makes you think before, during and after the show. I hope it sticks in your head and you have to keep thinking and re-thinking it. 

Poppy isn’t a reliable witness. Actually 95% of this play true events, but Poppy keeps you guessing what bits are. And that’s important to how this play works I think….

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?

I started writing Brute itself when I was selected to join the Soho Young Writers course, and Jules Haworth, the dramaturg at the Soho has been a huge help in developing the script. When I wrote the first draft of Brute, it was almost more a short story than a play. I talked to Jules a lot about the script, and went to the theatre that night and thought –no! 

I’m writing a play not a book and completely rewrote and restructured it. It was only on the third draft I thought ‘wow’ now I’ve really got a play! Jules has given me great input.

My director Ellie Browning came with lots and lots of great ideas on how to stage it. She came up with the idea of using voice-overs, as we’d been thinking of using live actors to do the short pieces of dialogues. She organised some great voice talent and commissioned a great sound-scape. We’ve come up with some great lighting effects and staging, which I still haven’t seen work all together.

But in the end you have to take control over your own work. Jules gave me some great suggestions on how I could streamline it further dramatically but this is autobiographical and sometimes life is a bit messy. Same with the staging. A performer trying to give a naturalistic performance can make it very, very hard for a director trying to get all the elements of light sound, movement to work together, but it is only me up there on stage and it has to work for me.

One thing I’ve learnt from talking to other artists at the Roundhouse is that it takes a long time, much more than the 10 weeks or so we’ve had to stage this, to get the performance right. I’m still developing this performance and might for a long time yet. That’s where dramaturgy is important, refining and refining each bit. 

I’ve been very, very lucky indeed to have so much help in developing this piece, from the Roundhouse, especially Penny Woolcock, from winning the Ideastap Award and the huge help and enthusiasm I got from everyone competing for the Award and afterwards. So many people have helped out, with mentoring me, directing me, staging, voice talent, producing a sound-scape, lighting and producing it really feels that I can’ call it a one-woman show, but at the end of the day I wrote it, it’s about my life and I perform it. 

It takes a lot of work to refine and make that work, and I’m still working on it, and may be for a time yet.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work -  have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?

If there is any one single play that has influenced a lot of my writing it is seeing the production of Jack Thorne’s Stacey at the 2012 Fringe. A lot of what I write is influenced by that play. I’m often associated a lot with comedy, but there always has to be a dark side for me. Stacey really sucks you in. You start off in the theatre with this likeable guy, and slowly you get sucked into his story and you realise he’s talking about how he raped his best friend Stacey. The sheer physicality of Nick McQuillan’s performance was terrifying. The unflinching honest, too, was what I want to put in my work.

I was studying theatre of trauma at the time on my degree course, and this really made the whole subject come alive. I absolutely love Sarah Kane’s work. One day I hope to get a stage direction into one of my plays as good as ‘Man eats baby’. Lol! 

I also absolutely love the verbatim theatre of Alecky Blythe, who mentored my director Ellie Browning with the ‘Love Project’. Could mention lots and lots of other stuff too…

The other really big influence is the one-woman monologue’s that I saw at the Soho last year. ‘Fleabag’, ‘Spine’ and ‘Bitch Boxer’. ‘Fleabag’ has sat on my mantelpiece all through this, and I met Charlie (Bitch Boxer’s Charlotte Josephine) in June and she has been an absolute rock in getting me through this process.

Finally I can’t leave out the support I have received from the cabaret, live art, spoken word and comedy scene I have received in the last year. 

The cabaret artist Scottee has been so, so important in getting me to perform. Without him I would never have got up and performed at all. He got me on stage in front of an audience, he got me performing spoken word at the Roundhouse, his Fraff night, Bestival and the rest. Like me he is dyslexic and I’ve learnt from him to get up on stage and tell a story and not be afraid to put your vulnerabilities out there.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?

This has been a new experience for me in terms of doing a one-woman show, but I am a writer so I always start with the script.

I’m I guess a writer first, and a performer second. So it’s all about, getting my writing out there to a wider audience. I write all the time, writing down conversations that I’ve heard and remembered. It all then gets written, re-written, reshaped and reused. 

One scene I actually wrote way back on my scriptwriting course at uni (the tutor hated it as it happens but it was the same one I won the Ideastap’ award with, so there!).

This has been my first big project of this size. I’ve performed on stage a lot in the last 18 months, but there’s a big difference between standing on stage for 10 minutes doing stand-up or spoken word, and doing a whole full on one-hour show. I couldn’t have done this without the help of lots and lots of people, in fact I don’t know where to start in terms of talking about everyone who has helped and collaborated on this, Penny Woolcock, Scottee, Jules, Ellie, not to mention courses I took at the Lyric Hammersmith and the Almeida. The list goes on and on….

4. What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work? 

It couldn’t have actually got up on stage and performed this if I hadn’t got up in front of an audience 18 months ago at the Soho Comedy Lab. I came out of uni deciding I wanted to be a writer not an actress. I love writing and it is so much easier to write and hand it over to actors to perform. I didn’t plan on doing stand-up, or spoken word, or even performing. 

But the really supportive crowd of people I met at the Soho Comedy Lab persuaded me that what I think is funny is funny, and I can be weird and people still love it. Even a bigger shock was writing two poems for the Roundhouse Poetry Slam, getting on stage and winning third prize. I was so nervous, and to hear so many people say they loved my

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?

All I can say is come and see the play and ask me after 25 performances!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Fringe Memories 2015: Daggers and Jesus and That

Of course you have missed me... I've been ill. It's always good to have a complete physical breakdown after the Fringe. Apart from being a nice change from the mental breakdown during, I get to lie in bed and wonder where it all went wrong. 

Here's what I was thinking about while I was bleeding from parts of my body I'd rather didn't weep all over the bedsheets.

Daggers MacKenzie
It's not often that I go to the magic of the musicals, but when there is the promise of a knife-welding cowgirl, I'm in. Daggers is a solo show, and there really are scenes of juggling really sharp objects and singing in tune. Frankly, that's enough right there to impress me, but Daggers seems to be the kind of work that the Fringe ought to exist to encourage: an individual artist showing off her range of skills, getting an audience and feedback on where to go next.

Melissa Kaplan writes songs that recall the classic musicals (like Oklahoma and that), with a rocking edge and a contemporary sensibility. She has a voice that can do sweet and angry by turns, and a sly sense of humour. 

If I were Lyn Gardner evaluation*: one to watch.

Christ on a Bike
Chris JS Wilson might be best known as the dancer-choreographer for The Kitsch Kats, but he also devised a routine that took advantage of his flowing locks and beard and similarity to a Renaissance painting of Jesus. Christ on a Bike expanded the character, mashing up Biblical allusions, social media speak and ironic humour: at just under an hour, it represents Wilson as more than just a pretty face and a hot body.

His choreography, as always, is tight and funky, while his chatty interludes reveal a charismatic entertainer who, somehow, manages to stay on the right side of blasphemy. It's a sterling example of how longer form cabaret routines - Wilson is a frequent show-stopper at variety nights - can encourage performers to expand their characters and dig out new skills and collaborations.

If I were Lyn Gardner evaluation*: There are few things more pleasurable than a cracking version of Jesus and a good scab.

*Please note: I am not Lyn Gardner. It is just that she uses more useful phrases for posters and that.