Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Genna Kusch's art of the imagination

"I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow..."
Multi-part woodcut, 2009
Over the last few years, I've had the pleasure and the privilege of talking about art and literature--among a host of other things--with Genna Kusch, a Canadian artist currently living and working in Scotland. The first person ever to discuss with me about the politics of curating and displaying art in a museum, and always willing to spend a few hours over drinks talking about CBC radio podcasts, Kusch's work has been inspiring me for years to rethink my attitudes towards children's literature in general, and animal stories in particular. Her art takes up the themes of wildernesses, found both in the mind and the heart as well as right outside our doorsteps. Working primarily in print, Kusch situates her pieces firmly within the tradition of  illustration that recalls the beautiful books we remember from childhood.

Kusch's art draws on the stories and rhymes that make up the children's literature canon in the Western world. Referencing sources as diverse as the nursery rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin?", the popular French Canadian children's song "Alouette", and the always beloved Peter Pan, her recent work explores the fantasies and dangers of the child's engagement with nature.

In her artist statement, Kusch cites my always-favourite essayist on, and writer of, fantasy literature, Ursula K. LeGuin. In her lengthy piece on animals in children's literature (reproduced in Cheek by Jowl) LeGuin explores our tendency to give books about animals to children:
In postindustrial civilization, where animals are held to be irrelevant to adult concerns, animal story is mostly perceived as being for children...
It appears that we give animal stories to children and encourage them to be interested in animals because we see children as inferior, mentally 'primitive', not yet fully human: so pets and zoos and animal stories are 'natural' steps on the child's way up to adult, exclusive humanity--rungs on the ladder from mindless, helpless babyhood to the full glory of intellectual maturity and mastery. Ontology recapitulating phylogeny in terms of the Great Chain of Being.
But what the is it the kid is after?...What is it that the child perceives that her whole culture denies?
It is this question that Kusch's work takes up. In her twin pieces "Last Night's Child" and "Tonight's Child", she draws out the fantastical fears that compel us both to flee from and linger with stories like Red Riding Hood:

Last Night's Child and Tonight's Child
Lithographs, 2009

In these images the wilderness colonizes the body of the child, but it is unclear what makes this notion horrifying: the prospect that she has become a monster, or the possibility that she has been one all along? This engagement with the dark side of childhood is also evident in her wall-sized multi-part woodcut, At the Playground:

At the Playground
Multi-part woodcut, 2009
Here, the faces of the wolves are replaced by the faces of children, wearing the taunting, mocking expressions that so often form the content of the wilderness of youth. Kusch's artistic response to the question posed by LeGuin--what is it that the child perceives that her whole culture denies?--is that stories about animals are also stories about people; that children can be like wolves stalking the forest, or like girls who shift between child and beast.

The relationship of the idea of wilderness to childhood was brought to the forefront recently in Michael Chabon's essay "The Wilderness of Childhood". Childhood, he argues, "is a branch of cartography":
Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.
LeGuin also makes use of the mapmaking metaphor in her rebuke of critics who discount the value of fantasy:
The monstrous homogenization of our world has now almost destroyed the map, any map, by making every place on it exactly like every other place, and leaving no blanks. No unknown lands...In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense...that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.
Kusch's work is a part of this cartography of the fantastic, the filling in of the imaginary characters of the very real terrors of children's lives. Not all of her work brandishes this element of horror, but it lurks in the background of even her earlier paintings: insects crawl on translucent hands, bones and masks shroud faces in mystery. Ultimately, though, these woodcuts and etchings offer a semblance of reassurance. Not the shallow comfort of nostalgia or the poorly concealed anxiety of helicopter parenting, but the fortitude that comes from a confrontation with the fact that no matter how we try to quash them, we all have our wildernesses, and we all must face them with the courage of a child at play.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Black Swan and the terror of femininity

Last night, after a long conversation with a friend of mine, I finally realized why I came out of Black Swan feeling frustrated, rather than pleased. On the surface, Aronofsky's latest is a film I should enjoy -- it melds the real with the hyperreal, features excellent performances and beautiful art design, and is a film about the horrors of being female, represented by that most feminine of creatures, the ballerina.

Or is it? After the first half of the film, I was relatively convinced that I was watching a horror movie about the terrors of femininity; by the final third I realized that was not the film I was watching at all. All of the archetypes were there--the lecherous mentor, the beautiful rival, the overbearing Freudian mother, the aging diva. Many of the motifs of a threatening womanhood were there too. A syrupy pink bedroom, the smothering presence of mirrors. Injured feet and toes, references to and representations of self-harm. All in service of that most perfect of feminine icons: the ballerina.

The early parts of the film seem to support this interpretation. Nina (Natalie Porman) is a young woman--how old exactly, we have no idea--who longs for the part of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. We have no clear idea about why she wants this role; she seems to have no artistic impulses to speak of, and beyond the pressure of her mother and the fact that every young ballerina in the world wants to be the Swan Queen, Nina's desire for the part has no clear motivation. This is not a failure on Portman's part. The character has clearly been designed to be empty of the idiosyncratic motivations that would make her a real person. She is, instead, The Ballerina, the ultimate symbold of controlled, naive, feminine perfection.

Aronofsky's film has been criticized in some circles for being sexist. The story of a naive girl who just needs to find her sexuality so she doesn't become a frigid failure like her mother is not a particularly empowering one, to be sure. In its defense, however, Black Swan is clearly a story filled with archetypes. That we are not to take these characters seriously as real, fragile human beings is clear from the start. Black Swan is not fundamentally about Nina, as a character. It is about The Ballerina, as a symbol. The question, then, is what does the ballerina represent? If Black Swan is a parable, what is the moral?

Despite being a film that makes use of so many of the tools of feminine terror, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Nina's confrontations--with her sexuality, in the form of her choreographer and her rival, and with her womanhood, embodied in her mother and Winona Ryder's prima ballerina well past her prime--are the archetypal confrontations of womanhood. That Black Swan is a primarily a horror movie does not detract from this. The body horror central to the film's artistic direction points towards female embodiment. There are lingering camera shots on damaged or deformed toes and feet; the physical sacrifice Nina makes to become the perfect ballerina parallels the difficulties inherent in wearing high heels to become the perfect woman. Mirrors are everywhere in the film, and always oppressive. They reveal error and digust, rather than beauty.

Most salient, in my eyes, was the repeated reference to self-injury. It is established early on that Nina has strange cuts on her shoulders, from whence her black wings will eventually emerge. But the conceit of the film is that these cuts could have been caused by Nina's propensity to scratch herself. Her mother mentions this multiple times, and is even portrayed  as having developed strategies to deal with it. Much of the early body horror in the film is obsessively focused on nails and cuticles, areas of the female body particularly subject to self-harm. As the tension around Nina builds--she is sexually harassed by her mentor, repressed by her mother, and jealous of her more openly sexualized rival--the scratches worsen. Here is a woman confronted by the terrors of womanhood, terrors written on her body in places and styles traditionally associated with feminine horror.

At a certain point in the movie, Nina, having recently overcome her sexual reticence, is seated alone on a subway, across from an old man. As he watches her, he licks his lips lasciviously and begins to masturbate while they travel. Nina barely movies. What purpose does this sequence have, if not to represent the ultimate fear that comes with femininity: that you will be trapped in an inescapable space with someone who sees you only as a body to use and desire?

So where does this leave us, as we walk out of the theater? In the end, Black Swan is a frustrating experiment in genre and in theme; it squanders its opportunity to be a genuinely terrifying film about the anxieties of femininity, choosing instead to be a rather mediocre horror movie that, by the end, has descended into camp. Aronofsky's technical achievements are remarkable, the performances beautiful, and the art direction extremely strong in developing the theme laid out. The problem with Black Swan is that it chose the wrong theme, and, in doing so, missed its chance the achieve something truly, deeply, and magnificently horrifying.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grupo Corpo

I have a post in the works about feminism in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, but in the interim, I wanted to share this beautiful video of Brazil's Grupo Corpo dance troupe:

Although I didn't have the opportunity to see them, the acclaimed group performed yesterday at Power Center for the Performing Arts in at the University of Michigan. Drawing on Brazilian music for inspiration, the dance company performs pieces that blend the exquisite control of ballet with the dynamism and verve of modern dance. Both elegantly lyrical and richly erotic, the piece embedded in this post displays an attention to the details of human sexuality rarely visible in more widely popular forms of dance. Grupo Corpo is not to be missed.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Egon Schiele

Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night. -- Rainer Maria Rilke

Swing Time

Just got back from seeing Black Swan. Thoughts on the film will come in a later post, but I will say that throughout the movie I lamented the fact that, in order to cover up the fact that Natalie Portman is not, in fact, a ballerina, the camera needed to be movie consistently. I long for the days when the dynamism was in the dance, and not in the cinematography.

On that note, I ended up plunking myself in front of the computer to watch two hours of dance videos on YouTube. A veteran fan of So You Think You Can Dance, I spent a while re-watching some of my favourites, but eventually made the transition to the great dance sequences of musicals past. Although completely different in tone the choreography of Black Swan, you can never go wrong with a little Fred and Ginger on a Thursday night:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Other things MLK said

This video, from the always excellent Jay Smooth, has been floating around the blogsphere in the lead up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I suspect it will make many more appearances tomorrow:

King comes up a lot in internet discussions of privilege and injustice on all sides; it is as common to see someone defending white privilege with "[people should not be] judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" as it is to see someone using the same quote to fight racial injustice. One of the most common assertions is that MLK wanted a world where the populace was racially colorblind -- Stephen Colbert's "I don't see race" schtick makes evident the way that particular worldview was adopted. With that in mind, I'd like to share my own favourite MLK passage, from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
For those of us who continue to live with the privileges that come along with being white, it is important to remember King not only for his vision of harmony, but also his call for justice; it is our responsibility ensure that, as allies, we are not exemplars of lukewarm acceptance, but rather supporters of voices that otherwise might not be heard.

For more, see Remembering MLK: The Things We've Forgotten Would Guide Us on Colorlines.

Atonement and the art of sound design

I'm approximately four years late on this one -- Atonement was honored in 2007 with an Oscar for Best Original score -- but, having watched the movie again recently, I feel compelled to revisit the film with particular attention to sound design. I'm not usually one to spend a lot of time on the technical details of filmmaking; commentary on cinematography is about the limit of my critical capacities. But Atonement was a film that I came out of wanting to grab people by the shoulders and earnestly discuss the soundtrack and sound editing in the hallway of the theatre (I'm under the impression that many people felt the same way about this year's well-recieved The Social Network). So, at risk of revealing the limits of my knowledge of cinema, here goes nothing.

Atonement, director Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel of the same name, is, on the surface, a WWII British love story. Briony, an adolescent upper-middle-class girl in the interwar period makes a terrible error in judgement when she accuses her older sister Cecilia's lover (and the household gardener), Robbie, of rape. The consequences of her actions play out over the course of the film, with devastating results for all involved.

But while Atonement works -- quite well, I might add -- as an interwar, class-inflected tragedy, the film's true power is as a metafiction about the power (and impotence) of narrative. The film, like the novel, unfolds in four parts: a tense and lengthy prologue that culminates in the original lie being told; a melancholic intermission that follows Robbie's years at war in France; a third act that details Briony's work in a Red Cross hospital; and an unexpected epilogue that centers on an elderly Briony, now a successful author, discussing her most recent work. It was this epilogue that many viewers found frustrating, as Briony's novel is the story of her sister and Robbie, rewritten to give them the happy ending that they never had (but that the filmgoer had already experienced as the true outcome of their affair). The metafictional aspect of McEwan's novel, as well as Wright's film, is contained within bounds of the title and the epilogue -- Atonement, both the novel and the film, is fundamentally Briony's story, the writing of which is her atonement for her terrible mistake. By remaking the end, Briony attempts to give her Cecilia and Robbie the happiness her actions denied them in life; it is up to the reader, or the viewer, to decide whether or not the power of narrative extends so far into the realm of morality.

So what does all of this have to do with sound design? The first sounds we hear in Atonement are winding and slow taps of a typewriter. Tick tick tick, and the title card appears on a black screen.

The rhythm of the typewriter recurs throughout the entire first act of the film, sometimes buried underneath emphatic and swirling strings and piano, but always the only percussion apparent in the soundtrack. Moreover, the sounds of the typewriter move between the non-diegetic and diegetic modes, flowing easily from the soundtrack to the sound of the typewriter in Briony's bedroom. Every scene where Briony's perspective overwhelms the narrative, the typewriter arrives, either in the soundtrack or in the film itself. It disappears for the length of the second intermission, but re-emerges when the film centers itself once again on Briony, who works on her novel in the middle of the night.

The shift between diegetic and non-diegetic sound is also evident in the most celebrated scene of the film, the lengthy tracking shot of the army at Dunkirk. Here the soundtrack opens up to make space for the singing of a choir of the wounded as the camera pans across them; as it moves on, their voices fade again into the background.

By the time the epilogue rolls around, the viewer is caught up in Cecilia and Robbie's romance. Do they meet again? How and when? Do they live happily ever after? We are convinced that they must; the lovers must have had more than a few stolen moments in a library all those years ago. And the film rewards this interpretation, at first, allowing us a fleeting glimpse of Cecilia caught up in Robbie's arms on the beach. But the elderly Briony puts all of this to the flames with her revelation that this was the ending she invented for her sister; the real Cecilia died in a subway tunnel during the Blitz, and Robbie died of a fever in France. The frustration for the viewer is palpable, but this isn't a case of the rug being pulled out from under us. While McEwan's novel works clearly as metafiction -- a novel about The Novel -- Wright's film requires an alternative mode to tie together the epilogue with the first three acts of the film. While a portion of this is accomplished through expert editing in the last minutes of the film, the vast majority of it is an achievement of sound design. The film is bookended with the sounds of Briony's story; the early and endless clacking of the typewriter, and the late and endless weaving of her narrative of atonement. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Exhibit A: Deadwood (2004) and Calamity Jane (1953)

…I think it is more to the point to understand the legends about frontier historical personalities reveal almost nothing about the ‘period’ in which they were composed and a great deal about the ‘moral ideas’ of those who worked in manufacturing the legends (Tuska 215).

In a number of Westerns in the Fifties it became fashionable for women to undergo something of a transformation…At the beginning they ride roughshod over men, owning and operating successful ranches or saloons; only for them, by the fade, to have to be saved by a man, or at least come under the spell of a man and have to admit that they are somehow still the weaker sex (Tuska 229)

Ambiguous Utopias: the Science Fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin

As a long time fan of Ursula K. LeGuin, I am almost embarrassed to admit that it's taken me this long to read The Dispossessed, one of her most lauded novels (both in science fiction circles and outside of them).

Winner of the 1974 Nebula Award, as well as the 1975 Hugo and Locus awards, The Dispossessed is at once a sci-fi exploration of alien social worlds, and a philosophical exploration of our own. The novel is set on two neighbouring planets: Anarres and Urras. The inhabitants of these planets were once one people, but in order to prevent an anarcho-syndicalist worker's rebellion, the states of Urras grant the revolutionaries the right to settle on the barren, harsh moon of Anarres, with a promise of non-interference; all of this occurs approximately 200 years before the events of the novel. Anarres maintains an anarchist system of social organization, while Urras is more familiar--state governments, from capitalist-patriarchal to authoritarian-socialist vie with one another for global dominance.

We enter the dual worlds alongside the protagonist, Shevek, a Anarresti physicist who is making the first ever trip by a citizen of Anarres back to Urras. The novel's structure mirrors Shevek's disorientation; every even numbered chapter takes place on Anarres, detailing Shevek's past, while each odd numbered chapter follows his experiences on Urras. This device manages to maintain suspense in two timelines at once--why does Shevek leave Anarres? And does he ever come back?

As in many of her genre books, LeGuin's taught writing and well-rounded characters keep the novel moving, but it is the setting that takes centre stage. The subtitle of the The Dispossessed is "an ambiguous utopia", and this is a telling signifier. The world of Anarres--which could easily be a vicious caricature of anarchist ideas or an uncritical and unrealistic utopia--is, in LeGuin's capable hands, a fully developed social world. Its populace is not unrecognizable; there is vice and avarice, as well as love and altruism. Its materiality is harsh and unforgiving; Anarres is consistently described as a bleak desert landscape, bereft of plants and animals, as well as of magnificent architecture and labour-saving technology. But the characters are warm and believable, and their personalities clearly structured by their membership in a world where ownership is unknown and the worst thing you can be is an "egoist" or a "propertarian".

LeGuin has often been critiqued on for this detail-oriented focus on world building. For science fiction novels, her works display a surprising lack of space battles, hi-tech weaponry, and even significant action sequences of any kind. Despite this, they remain compelling. My interest in LeGuin's work is less about the characters or the plot, and more about her complex--sometimes dauntingly so--explorations of social worlds that, despite being set on alien planets, so closely mirror our own.

The daughter of a prominent anthropologist (Alfred L Kroeber, founder of the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley), LeGuin has noted in multiple places that her fiction has been deeply influenced by anthropological and social thought, as well as her encounters with her father's subjects of study. The Dispossessed is not the only novel of LeGuin's that deserves to be labelled an ambiguous utopia. Her most well-regarded work, The Left Hand of Darkness, describes a planet on which where is no gender. The Telling is set on a world where nature has been subsumed by technology, and The Word for World is Forest is a novella about the clash between a logging colony and the indigenous inhabitants of the planet they share (sci-fi critic Gary Westfahl, in his excellent review of James Cameron's Avatar said that the film most closely resembled LeGuin's novella, out of all its possible predecessors). Perhaps the most beautiful, and disturbing, is LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"; which is absolutely worth the twenty minutes it takes to read it online.

What all of these works have in common, and what makes LeGuin's writing so endlessly compelling to me, is that they all share a common commitment to exploring anthropological and sociological ideas. In her essay "A War Without End", LeGuin writes:
In the sense that it offers a glimpse of some imagined alternative to 'the way we live now', much of my fiction can be called utopian, but I continue to resist the word. Many of my invented societies strike me as an improvement in one way or another on our own, but I find Utopia far too grand and too rigid a name for them. Utopia, and Dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warning nor blueprints for what we ought to do...To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader's mind, from the lazy timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.
 By displacing these alternative societies to alien planets, LeGuin allows the reader to accept these ideas as she presents them; a story similar to the one told in The Dispossessed could not be set in the present day, nor the recent past, and maintain its effect. Always nuanced and rarely didactic, The Dispossessed presents the anarchism of Anarres as a real political possibility--with all the flaws and vagaries that come with human social life--in a way that a novel set on Earth never could. Divested from the baggage of the Cold War, and yet subtly pointing towards the politics of that era, The Dispossessed explicitly recognizes the ambiguity of the characters utopias. In a passage toward the end of the novel, Shevek discusses his time on Urras with an ambassador from a future Earth:
"There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is 'superior' to the other, or trying to prove it...There is no freedom. It is a box--Urras is box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last. Desar was right; it is Urras; Hell is Urras."
For all his passion he spoke simply, with a kind of humility, and again the Ambassador from Terra watched him with a guarded yet sympathetic wonder, as if she had no idea how to take that simplicity.
 "We are both aliens here, Shevek," she said at last. "I am from much farther away in space and time. Yet I begin to think that I am much less alien to Urras than you are... Let me tell you how this world seems to me. To me, and to all my fellow Terrans who have seen the planet, Urras is the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhavited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise."
The structure of the novel facilitates this ambiguity, with the final chapters detailing Shevek's escape from capitalist Urras, as well as his decision to leave anarcho-syndicalist Anarres in the first place. All the while, it is clear that while the material relations of the world make the man, it is his human relationships that make the world home.

Another passage in the novel captures LeGuin's commitment to both the intimacy of day-to-day social relationships, and the broader impact that these relationships have on the shape of collective social life:
"If you can see a thing whole," he said, "it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But close up, a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death."
"It is sad", LeGuin writes in 'A War Without End', "that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic of religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth...We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we cannot imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable." Despite the alien settings of her novels, LeGuin's work renders imaginable worlds where social life is organized differently, and, in doing so, allows us the opportunity to re-imagine our own.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Quick Hits

Scientific history-writing, Bailyn writes, is always skeptical and problematic; it questions itself constantly and keeps its distance from the past it is trying to recover. By contrast, memory’s "relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual".
  • This month's Advocate has a cover story on Hillary Clinton and LGBT rights, which is worth the read.
  • Bob Herbert, whose NYT column I've been enjoying more and more over the last few months, on the violence of American culture: "If we were serious, if we really wanted to cut down on the killings, we’d have to do two things. We’d have to radically restrict the availability of guns while at the same time beginning the very hard work of trying to change a culture that glorifies and embraces violence as entertainment, and views violence as an appropriate and effective response to the things that bother us." One of my favourite authors, Lonesome Dove's Larry McMurtry, on the same subject.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Female Body and Alien Territory

Whenever I want to explain to someone what I think feminist literature looks like, the first person who comes to mind is Margaret Atwood. I first encountered Atwood when I was in grade ten; I read Alias Grace, and hated it (I've since rethought that particular opinion).

Most women I know had their first encounter with Atwood through The Handmaid's Tale; most men through Oryx & Crake. My first real engagement with Atwood was through one of her early works: The Edible Woman. When I was struggling with anxieties about eating The Edible Woman helped me think through my relationship with food not only as a personal idiosyncrasy, but also as a symptom of wider social issues.

Two of my favourite Atwood books are Good Bones and The Tent. Part short story collections, part prose poetry, both books contain some of Atwood's most insightful -- and cutting -- writing on the subject of gender. Two pieces in Good Bones stand out in particular; I always read them in tandem. I've excerpted both of them here:

The Female Body has many uses. It's been used as a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.
It sells cars, beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor; it sells diet plans and diamonds, and desire in tiny crystal bottles. Is this the face that launched a thousand products? You bet it is, but don't get any funny big ideas, honey, that smile is a dime a dozen.
It does not merely sell, it is sold. Money flows into this country or that country, flies in, practically crawls in, suitful after suitful, lured by all those hairless pre-teen legs. Listen, you want to reduce the national debt, don't you? Aren't you patriotic? That's the spirit. That's my girl. -- from "The Female Body"

On the other hand, it could be argued that men don't have any bodies at all. Look at the magazines! Magazines for women have women's bodies on the covers, magazines for men have women's bodies on the covers. When men appear on the covers of magazines, it's magazines about money, or about world news. Invasions, rocket launches, political coups, interests rates, elections, medical breakthroughs. Reality. Not entertainment. Such magazines show only the heads, the unsmiling heads, the talking heads, the decision-making heads, and maybe a little glimpse, a coy flash of suit. How do we know there's a body, under all that discreet pinstriped tailoring? We don't, and maybe there isn't.
What does this lead us to suppose? That women are bodies with heads attached, and men are heads with bodies attached? Or not, depending.
You can have a body, though, if you're a rock star, an athlete, or a gay model. As I said, entertainment. Having a body is not altogether serious. -- from "Alien Territory"

I've always thought these pieces would be excellent for an introductory sociology class on gender, particularly one that dealt with representations of gender in popular culture. I'm thinking about integrating them into my own teaching, if the opportunity arises.

Erin McSavaney's INLAND exhibit

While tooling around on the internet yesterday, as I am wont to do, I came across these lovely paintings by Canadian artist Erin McSavaney. Part of her INLAND exhibit at Vancouver's Equinox Gallery, the paintings move away from McSavaney's previous engagement with the lost urban spaces of back alleys and loading bays, and toward and exploration of the relationship between nature and rural architecture:

Crows Nest Highway - Nursery, acrylic on canvas, 2010

Trans Canada Highway - Laidlaw, acrylrc on canvas, 2010

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Toronto the Good (or at least the Pretty)

My least favourite part of the end of winter break -- besides the fact that work looms eternal -- is leaving Toronto for the Midwest. Ann Arbor has grown on me over the past few years, but being in Toronto still gives me a thrill that can't be matched, even in big American cities. BlogTO has been doing a wonderful series on Toronto throughout the decades, and these photos of the city in the 1940s have me longing to get back as soon as possible:

Subway construction on Yonge Street:

BlogTO has more by the decade: Toronto of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.