Saturday, May 15, 2004

More news you don't hear

Please please please check out AfricaPundit a blog about current events in the continent of Africa. I don't know if any of you have noticed, but it's not like we hear a lot about Africa in the news, and a gagillion people do live there.

And in other news... we may have a guest blogger this week! More to come later!

More News You May Have Missed

When you think about 17 Year Cicadas, does the phrase "won't somebody think of the children" spring to mind? Well someone has, thank god.

For those of you thinking "how great would it be to have the Olympics here in America" this article may make you think twice about it. Two words: interest groups. It seems that a mixture between the legalization and unionization of prostitutes in Greece and the tough regulation of brothel placement has caused a bit of a conflict. Prostitutes are worried about safety and the reputation of Athens, and this is causing some headaches for the city and the prostitutes union

Meanwhile Senator Zell Miller is trying to tie Joe Leiberman for worst. democrat. ever.

Over in our science and health section, a well known nobel laureate is telling us to develop laws that ban genetic discrimination before developing the science to alter our genetics. Perhaps another screening of Gattaca is in order? Anyone else here a mild appreciator of Andrew Niccol's faux-Phillip K. Dick stylings?

Thanks to ArtsJournal we have this unfortunate story about what happens to all that art the Nazis looted.

Finally, in a blast from the past, Harpers has reprinted a hilarious exchange between the creators of "That 70's Show" and "Freaks and Geeks". Not for the faint of heart, this correspondance will give you a lot of good excuses never to work in television.

Politics, Theater, War, Abu Ghraib, it's just a thematic clearing house over here!

I wanted to return to the subject of theater and politics. This is largely due to an e-mail conversation between myself and good ole George Hunka about my last play (First You're Born) his plays, politics and art in general etc. At some point he wrote that he looked forward to seeing more about this on the blog, and I thought i'd start by adapting a few of my e-mails to him into a post. Let's see how it works:

A lot of really serious shit has been hitting the fan in the newspapers lately. The War in Iraq has turned into (what I believe Atrios called) a Chomskyite nightmare of American power. Nick Berg's beheading was a grotesque reminder of the cycle of violence we're engaged in. The war in the Central African Republican rages on, largely thanks to child soldiers. Simply put, it's easy to think "ah, welcome to hell, nice handbasket you got there!" And as artists, isn't it our duty to respond in some way?

There was a point in the midst of First You're Born where I was basically like.. what the hell am I doing? Rome is burning and I'm fiddling about with this romantic comedy, this stupid little trifle in the midst of all of this carnage!

But then I took another look at the play and said... you know what, the audience may or may not get this, but this play is about surmounting your alienation by connecting with other human beings in a real way. And that theme of seenig the humanity in everyone and finding joy in that is very relevant to today, even if it may not look it on the surface. This is why in the set design we isolated the characters in their own apartments (past productions had them share the same space) and why the dream sequence is about them busting out of their worlds by stepping through the walls of their apartments. I wanted the audience to feel these characters getting over themselves in as powerful a way as possible.

The next play I'm thinking about doing a workshop (or, if resources don’t allow, a reading, sorry 13P! I’m developing this play!) of a new play by one of the actors in the show. It's a very Pinteresque, quiet pause filled piece about morality and redemption. Or really, it's asking some big time questions like in the absence of an objective morality (i.e. a divine one), is redemption even possible? This is an important question for us to grapple with in these times.

I guess what I'm saying is that right now my interest lies in finding what is topical about the themes in plays whose literal subject matter isn't topical itself. Some find this cowardly, but you know what, I'm an artist, not an essayist. I use Parabasis to talk politics overtly so that I can ask questions in my theatrical work, not answer them. Theater that answers questions isn't trying to explore or discover or illuminate anything. It's agit prop, plain and simple. How many plays have there been about crazy Gulf War I veterans this season? How many of them have been any good?

The only really topical play I know that I really love is Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest". "Mad Forest" (which chronicles life before during and after the Romanian "Revolution" and features, amongst other things, a vampire and a talking dog) was written immediately (like two months) after the Romanian Revolution as Churchill, director Mark Wing-Davey and the cast traveled to Romania to work their Joint Stock research magic on the community there. If the "Mad Forest" of the Iraq War came along, I'd do it, and I'm glad current-events plays are out there. I just don't feel like as an artistic community we have enough of a perspective on the thing right now. It's happening to us, and we're perpetuating it, and I'm trying to do theater so I can say "hold on, slow down, what about this?" and see what happens.

This doesn't stop me from being on some level disappointed in myself. I am inundated with politics, and yet I'm not doing work that is a direct response to our political realities of our day. Instead, I'm doing plays that are thematically related to the issues affecting us in this day and age. Some days, I don't really know if that's enough. I don't know if I'm shirking my duty to do socially responsible art.

These are the days when I start thinking "what if I opened my own space?" What if I just had a space where I could just throw anything out there. Sam Shepard once was interviewed, and talking about La Mama he said that one of the great things was you could write a play on Monday and they'd show it on Saturday. What if there was an environment that existed so that the more politically motivated of us could serve as like a "rapid response team" and just throw things at the wall and see if they stick. Try to create interesting, vibrant theater out of today's newspaper and see what happens.

Well, I don’t have the kind of money to do that, so then I got to thinking… What would that kind of theater even look like? Who would be the people who did it? Who would write it? What would its production values be like? It would be a great experiment to try. Just say "for these two months, I'm going to do the Rapid Response Team" group, and we're gonna perform every Monday night at the Kraine Theater and we're going to perform a new play or group of short plays based on whatever is in the news that week."

And the more I think about it, the better an idea I think it is. If you could get a team of writers, actors and designers together, and just really dedicate yourself to it for a couple of months, you could all do some really fun and interesting work. Of course, I feel like I have a lot of ideas like this—things that would be really interesting and fun to do but I lack the logistical resources (or know how) to make them happen, and then the next hair-brained scheme comes along and this one vanishes. Anyone wanna help me raise money for it?

Satire Blogging

For some fun political satire blogging, check out Jesus' General if you haven't already. He (or she, I suppose) can be really hilarious.

Friday, May 14, 2004

And now for someting completely animated...

I’ve been watching quite a bit of animation recently, both web-based and otherwise. After months of lobbying from my good friend Ben in Boston, I finally broke down and watched “King of the Hill” for the first time since the fifth episode of the first season. Also, with my partner’s sister and her boyfriend in town from Malaysia we ended up watching a surprising amount of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”. Add this in to my usual diet of “The Simpsons”, “"Homestarrunner", “South Park” and all sorts of flash content (“"Rather Good”, anyone?) and animated movies and I guess you could say that I’m fairly well versed for a layman.

And one thing that I’ve noticed unites all of the animation that I like is a certain amount of creative absurdism balanced out by creative and consistent character building. Of all of the things listed above, “The Simpsons” and “Homestarrunner” succeed the best. Take, for example, this Strongbad e-mail from “Homestarrunner’s website (flash required, of course). On its surface, it’s an amusing bit of witty slapstick—Strongbad pretty much makes fun of people, hurts/breaks things and then gets accidentally beaten up. This slapstick exists in counterpoint with the usual absurdist dialogue that makes up the website’s scripts. When Strongbad is stealing swiss cake rolls from Bubs whilst invisible, Bubs (seeing only the rolls flying away) shouts “My chocolates! Come back guys! I didn’t mean those things I said!” and when the pile of rolls (i.e. Strongbad) punches Homestar, Homestar exclaims “Ow! Those things are bad for you!”

So on its surface, we have slapstick and absurdist humor. But if you are a frequent visitor to the website, there’s a third level the e-mail operates on—that of character knowledge. Strongbad will pretty much always make fun of everyone around him, and his fantasies of things that are cool often turn out to be severely lame. Furthermore, Homestar Runner will always find a creative way to be blissfully, sublimely stupid. This cartoon gets funnier the more you watch it, because it builds off of your existing knowledge of the characters and lets the characters grow and develop from comedic short to comedic short.

Animation also allows the fantastical to invade the everyday. There is no suspension of disbelief when you’re watching animation; it’s fundamentally impossible. This does not mean that you can’t empathize with the characters it’s just that the bizarre becomes possible. Take the Simpsons: Homer can shine his bald head in the “shine-o ball-o” without suffering any kind of real damage, Marge can have a tower of blue hair without it being weird and a man named Jasper can freeze himself in a deli freezer awaiting an age of robotic sex slaves. This is all possible because the flights of surreal fancy are balanced by tight plotting and well developed characters.

The golden age of the Simpsons (roughly seasons 3-7) also uses this mix between the surreal and the everyday beautifully. Most jokes worked on several different levels- they played off your knowledge of the characters, were witty, often came from somewhere beyond left field and also usually set up the next joke or plot point beautifully. The dramatic fall off in quality in the Simpsons largely comes (I believe) from an abandonment of all character development for the cheap gag, the surreal moment, or the mean spirited gross out joke. Without loveable characters to root for, the jokes fall flat. It becomes like the worst of “The Family Guy” (itself a frequently funny but artistically bankrupt Xerox copy of the Simpsons).

The only animation that can really survive the dip into pure surrealism seems to be short from animation. There are plenty of shorts (including on Homestar’s site) that make no coherent sense, yet are so clever and inventive that you can’t help but be moved in some way. The Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” family of short shows (“Aqua Teen”, “Space Ghost”, “Harvey Birdman” etc.) all rely on this. They are so short (twelve mintues, by God!) that by the time you ask yourself “no really, what the hell is going on here?” they’re over, and you’ve already laughed your ass off. The only thing that the Adult Swim shows have to watch out for is their increasing need to feature lots of annoying voice characterizations and shouting instead of witty craziness (“Shake” on Aqua Teen, I’m lookin’ at you).

The point I’m trying to make is that longer-form animation has a real balancing act to commit itself to. It has to be just outlandish enough to justify its existence as an animated piece, while remaining character based enough to make you care to watch it. Some animation is too concerned with character development. I’ve watched quite a bit of “King of the Hill” now and, while occasionally amusing, the show is basically a boring family sit com a la “Home Improvement” or “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Simply put, there’s no reason for the show to be animated, and the limited range of visual acting that animated characters can produce often undermines the show’s occasional moments of wit. It could really use a dream sequence with a space coyote voiced by Johnny Cash or two, it would liven the show up, and take its tame unimaginative visual style to another level.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Sorry, George

So I forgot to mention in my news roundup feature that the idea is actually a parody/outright theft of George Hunka's excellent roudup of the daily news. I decided to do a kind of "off the beaten path" with it, and I won't be doing it every day, but here's to giving credit where credit is due. Hunka and's "today' papers" are definitely my ancestors on this one.

Busy busy day. More blogging later, I hope.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

And, in other news...

I just thought this would fun, what with the fact that media can’t really focus on more than one or two issues at once. Here’s some stuff to check out:

Over at the Guaridan, we find out that the world is turning it’s back on US consumer products, as the symbols of American might suffer from the images of American power misused. Over in Houston, they seem to now think it’s okay for same sex couples to attend prom together. In Poland, a sexually aroused horse bit a man to death, in Virginia you can apparently now see Nascar Ballet, and if you haven’t heard the “This American Life” about price fixing at ADM it’s like the most brilliant thing ever. Set aside an hour, click here and search the site for "the fix is in". It's a story so amazing that it couldn't be made up.

I promise I'll have some cultural stuff coming down the pipes soon.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Unconnected Thoughts on Abu Ghraib and American Culture

So I pretty much haven’t written anything about Abu Ghraib. To tell you the truth, I’m having a lot of trouble controlling the steady flow of bile that wants to come out of my mouth into coherent thoughts on the page. So instead of going for coherence, I present the following to you as a jumble of musings on Abu Ghraib.

First off, if you haven’t read Senator Inhofe’s comments during today’s testimony, you really should. To get good commentary, check out Atrios here or Talking Points Memo here. I don’t know if anyone has the link to a video recording, but if you do please send it to me at

The reason why is this… look at the recording of Inhofe’s statement (in which he said that he’s outraged by the outrage about Abu Ghraib and these prisoners got a slightly inappropriate version of what they got comin’ to ‘em) and now look at the woman sitting behind the Senator. She can’t contain her befuddlement at what the Senator is saying no matter how hard she tries. You can see a “what the fuck?” cross her face over and over again. That’s about the best commentary on this idiotic monster of an elected representative as I can think of.

Next unconnected thought: you know, even if no prisoner abuse had ever taken place, even if we were the knights in shining armor our President keeps saying we are, holding Iraqi citizens at one of the main centers of Hussein’s Gulag was a monstrous error. I mean, it's trivial by comparison, and maybe it's just the liberal arts major in me, but symbols matter. As does language. You get an anti-intellectual administration, you reap what you sow. We’re running the country from Hussein’s palaces, and imprisoning people in his old torture chambers and running around telling the world that the rape rooms are now closed. This is a disastrous mistake.

And speaking of intellectual curiosity and symbolic meaning, has anyone noticed all the attention Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment have been getting? Did anyone notice furthermore that the experiment (which I studied in probably three classes through high school and college) is decades old? What did we think we going to happen when we removed all real oversight or control from these folks running the prison?

Next unconnected thought: I just heard on the news the other night some Senator claiming that Rumsfeld’s resignation would be a victory for the terrorists. Look, Al Qaeda and all of them are going to do what they’re going to do to spin whatever we do into the best possible light for their organization. We can’t govern by trying to anticipate what they’re going to be encouraged by and discouraged by. If we do that, than quite literally the terrorists have won because they have intimidated us into changing our nation’s actions to avoid certain consequences. I really wish someone (maybe, say, Kerry, showing some backbone) would just come out and say this. Just say: politicians invoke terrorists in order to scare you into agreeing with them. The truth is we’re fighting against these organizations, but at the same time we’re going to continue to do what’s right, and what’s right may be something that the terrorists think is good for them, but they’re deluding themselves because we’re still on the hunt, we’re going to disrupt these networks, and do what we can to prevent future attacks against civilians, Americans in particular. Doesn’t anyone else think the voters would respect someone who did that?

Next unconnected thought: look, Pentagon, just release the photos and video. We’ve all been told what’s in them. Keeping them from the public eye and dribbling them out is only making the worse. Don’t use the excuse that you’re worried about American safety. What, you don’t think people are pissed just hearing that there’s rape on those tapes? You think they need to see it to support beheading American civilians? I actually think withholding it is more dangerous, not less. Releasing the tapes won’t put Americans in harm’s way. Sending them to Iraq without enough support did that just fine.

I wonder what the people advocating for “enemy combatant” status and Gitmo etc. think about the government’s “trust us” argument now.

As to Rumsfeld resigining… well… shouldn’t he (and his neocon cronies) resign for botching the occupation so thoroughly? I mean, isn’t the torture scandal just a convenient way for supporters of this war (The Economist, T. Friedman, F. Zakaria etc.) to kick his ass out of the back door instead of owning up to the fact that the theoretical war and occupation were never going to go as well as the wars in their heads? Don’t get me wrong, I think Runsfeld should resign, and I think that he and his team took definite steps that encouraged and allowed Abu Ghraib (relieving JAG from its oversight duties, making comments about gloves coming off, setting up the war in total contempt of international standard, practices and laws etc.) but there’s a real plethora of reasons for him to go, and I hope we can focus collectively on all of those over the coming days. That being said, as someone has pointed out somewhere out here in the metaverse, Bush has pretty much tied his political fortunes to Rumsfeld, so it’s pretty clear that Rummy ain’t resigning or being fired any time soon. And unpopularity isn’t going to change it either. Dick Cheney is immensely unpopular, even among registered GOP voters, and yet the Bush team keeps him on as the VP candidate.

Something about Abu Ghraib has really shaken David Brooks. You should read his column today. It isn’t his usual “oh, the Bush administration is kind of fucked up but their hearts are pure and the neocon agenda is just”. He really seems to be undergoing some kind of metamorphosis. It’s interesting. I’m not saying I agree with everything he says, but it’s interesting.

Now for something from a cultural angle: I’ve said it before here in Parabasis and I’ll say it again. The events at Abu Ghraib legally fall under the definition of torture. Calling it “abuse” softens the blow and keeps us from really reckoning with what went on at Abu Ghraib. I find it an interesting coincidence that as a society we’ve been obsessed with questions around the American sensibility and its lack of a tolerance for disruption. The gay marriage debate and the FCC obscenity smack down are both fundamentally about Americans not wanting to deal with that which offends, challenges or disrupts their worldviews. Gay marriage is anathema to conservatives for many reasons, but the most interesting to me is of course the hidden cultural angle. If gays choose to get married it really takes the wind out of the whole scary forbidden subculture lifestyle choice argument. American’s views on homosexuality will be challenged as more gay couples embrace a public life through civic marriage. If there’s one thing the status quo hates, it’s being challenged.

And then we have the FCC (I know this reads like I’m going out on a serious limb, but I’m trying to explore an idea I’m having as I’m writing it, just bare with me). The entire FCC debate centers really around the government protecting the American public from the knowledge of taboo subjects. Some people want the government’s protection, some people don’t. Either way, there is this idea that information can fundamentally corrupt you. By showing you nipples, saying the f-word, talking about sex or drug use or whatever these little bits of information will disrupt your worldview, and by offending your sensibilities somehow damage you.

And now, tangentially related, we have Abu Ghraib and what appears to be a concerted effort on the part of the news media to treat the American public with kid gloves. We need to know what our citizens are doing to people in other countries. We need to have our outrage provoked. We need to be shown what we as a society are capable of. We need, in other words, to have our sensibilities (those very things the right wing is trying to protect) challenged again and again and again. It is our right and obligation as citizens in a democracy to be well informed, and using euphemisms like “abuse” is a good way for the media to protect us from having our worldview rocked by the horrible events at Abu Ghraib.

The definition of a quagmire is, if I remember correctly, when everything you do makes the situation worse but at the same time, pulling out would be a disaster. I don’t know if Iraq will remain a quagmire forever, but it certainly fits the definition right now. I can only hope that things get better and fast. Honestly, at this point, even if that meant that public opinion would swing back to the Bushes and their disasterous plans for the world, I just hope that there is a shot at redemption for the American people and a glimmer of hope for the Iraqis, who really deserve a better version of freedom than this.

Busy busy busy

I have family in town from Malaysia this week, and it is kind of impairing my ability to keep up with the blog, so I apologize for that.

There is lots to talk about in the world of arts and politics. There is seemingly no good news coming out for the Bush administration right now, or rather I should say the bad news these days seems totally unspinnable, although I’m sure they’ll find a way to spin it. Atrios is keeping a good watch over the dribbling details of our massive human rights violations over in Iraq. Meanwhile in the arts, there are the now-thanks-to-Daniel-Okrent controversial Tony Awards of which George Hunka has written eloquently and passionately and rather representatively of my own opinions.

Also on the New York Times, in a cross roads of arts and politics, Luc Sante, writer of "Low Life" perhaps my favorite book about New York City, has a great piece on the Abu Ghraib scandal in the op/ed section.

Monday, May 10, 2004


And now for something fun…

Over on my old school chumEve Tushnet’s blog, she’s starting a discussion of the greatest titles of various forms of entertainment. Some on her rather exhaustive list include Everything That Rises Must Converge and Gone With The Wind.

I thought I would add a few, sorted by category, to the list (and while making the list, I realized that right now I’m in a “long titles” phase, anyway):

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Avengers of the New World
The Artificial Nigger
Beyond Good and Evil

I Am At My Best When I Am Singing Very Quietly
Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty
Much Ado About Nothing (just think about it again, just think about it, it’s fucking brilliant)

If You’re Feeling Sinister
The Tyranny of Distance
14:59 (this one only works in context, said context being the TERRIBLE but very popular band Sugar Ray’s third chart topping album which they presciently predicted would be pretty much the end of their fifteen minutes of fame. Brilliant!)

I challenge you, culture bloggers and culture readers! Get out there and make some lists!

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Words matter

Hey, New York Times, guess what? What happened at Abu Ghraib prison was torture not abuse. Rumsfeld tried to defend a legalistic difference for like a day, but even he gave up on it eventually. Rape, degradation, beatings, sexual humiliation and cold water treatments (to mention a few) are examples of torture. Their systematic, planned and documented nature only makes them worse.

What Rumsfeld was trying to do when he split the nonexistent hair between torture and abuse was take away the reason for our outrage. The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for helping him in his mission. Neither does using the term “abuse” present a more nuanced or objective picture of what happened at Abu Ghraib. It is simply denial of the fact. By all established law, what happened at Abu Ghraib was systematic, dehumanizing torture, and no other term will suffice.

Language is important. What you call something alters its meaning and value. This is one of the many reasons why intellectuals are culturally important figures and why the Right’s fervent outspoken anti-intellectualism is one of the most dangerous things about them.

Daniel Okrent, theater crusader

Anyone who cares about theater should read the NY Times’ Public Editor’s column this morning. It’s about, curiously enough, the Tony Awards. Or, to be more specific, it’s about how the Tony Awards are a giant sham destroying American Theater and how the New York Times should stop participating in said sham by covering them.

Wow. Pretty potent stuff. I could offer commentary (I agree with you, Daniel! And let me also say...) but just read the article. It's great.