Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wicked Witch

Frances McDormand plays the title character in Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries that debuted earlier this month, and she is more than remarkable, so remarkable it's hard to explain.  Directed by Lisa Cholodenko and based on a novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive is the story of a middle-class family in Maine who make ends meets stoically but also with a passive-aggressive sense of humor and a grim sense of irony.  McDormand plays the matriarch with an uncanny lived-in charisma that is never displayed, only smoldered, delivered through her eyes, the way her mouth is shaped into staccato sentences, the way she picks up and puts down dinner plates and garden gloves and greeting cards.  A dour school-teacher with a lust for life that somehow gets translated into meanness and rudeness, Olive is someone who is never satisfied but also never figures out why.  She just continues moving forward, making what she can of what she has, either as a wicked witch, a put-upon spouse, a Madame-Bovary wannabe, or a down-to-earth champion of people most people want to ignore.  Olive surveys 25 years of Olive's life with her sweet, doting husband (played to innocent perfection by Richard Jenkins), their confused, pissed-off son, and an assortment of sad, sometimes suicidal friends and family who pass through. 

Cholodenko and screenwriter June Anderson convey all of that time and incident through a poetry steeped in banality and yet intensified by melodrama and violence.  It's a blissful mix of soap-opera and character-study, without losing the juicy texture of either.  Cholodenko has a Douglas-Sirk sense of heightened stylized scene-making, but also a melancholy Emily-Dickinson sense of cut-to-the-chase pathos.  It's a large movie really, expansive and yet completely whittled down to essences, which describes McDormand's performance too.  Both director and actor seem to share the same sense of aesthetic connection.  But it's McDormand's sensibility that somehow sends it all over into a territory of pure greatness.   She blurs together really horrible personality traits with genuineness and kindness, a mix-and-match humanity that allows Olive to glow incandescently without losing her acidic center.  She never changes, barking out rude orders, saying whatever comes to her mind, harboring deep-seated hatreds and jealousies and yet also so close to real you can see yourself in almost every move she makes.

The penultimate scene, the one McDormand grabs onto with so much quiet gusto it's breathtaking, is during the marriage of her son to a woman from an uptight California family.  The wedding is taking place at her son's house near the Maine coast.   Right after the nuptials, exhausted by all the phoniness, Olive in wonderful Olive fashion, decides to take a nap in her son and new wife's bedroom.  Through a constant slew of interruptions Olive stubbornly tries to sleep away the consternation, and at one point, the bedroom door slightly ajar, she overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her, saying how strange and bitchy she is, and even mocking the dress Olive made for herself, a floral sweet homemade-looking frock that kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in the array of California-lady fashions at the ceremony.  As soon as the daughter-in-law finishes, Olive juts up and seems to be in a fever-state of despair/anger/regret.  There happens to be a notebook with a yellow highlighter on it next to the bed.  She grabs the marker and opens the closet door.  She grabs one of her daughter-in-law's beautiful silk blouses, unfolds it, takes the marker and draws a long fluorescent line on the sleeve.  She folds the blouse and replaces it.  Then she sees on top of the dresser a pair of earrings.  She steals one, placing it into her pocket.  She returns to the bed and naps.

McDormand does something in this scene you can't really convey in words.  She's a zombie, she's a hurt animal, she's a pissed-off middleaged lady tired of being treated like shit -- she's all of that at once through her gestures, her seemingly blank facial expressions filled with a million emotions, her rigid yet somehow fluid moves through that bedroom.  She is claiming her dignity, but also somehow giving up on herself. 

It's one of those moments you won't ever forget.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mask Theory

Friday I had a phone conversation with someone at the end of my work-day so truly frustrating I got so angry after it I felt as if I weren't going to be able to think for the whole weekend.  It was one of those fumy, funky feelings you get when you are confronted with a point of view so completely outside of your own it feels as if you've been kidnapped and thrown in a basement for a while. 

The different point of view has to do with all kinds of stuff, but mainly the topic of heated discussion was about the people with developmental disabilities we were both trying to support.  I'm not going to get into anything specific because it's not worth it here, but I figure I might as well blog about the Big Issue which is:  how do you separate people from their historical origins, from their tropes?  How do you pull the "type" away from the way you talk about and connect with them? 

The person on the other end kept laying claim to people, as in "my clients," or "my people," and I just don't do that.  That "my" becomes plantation-esque somehow, indicating an ownership that feels grounded in institutions and brainwaves from the past.  I think the fury I felt truly came from that alone mainly, hearing that "my" over and over and over, and then today rehashing the whole thing I thought about Diane Arbus' photographs of people with developmental disabilities taken during a Halloween party at a state institution back in the early 1960s.  One of them is above.  Somehow that "my" is trapped in that same moment above, that cryptic, masked sense of no-self, no-determination, no-ambition, just a group of identities only given identities as a group.  

How do we help get rid of those masks?  How can we separate the way we think and act from that instant classification, that instant knowing what's best, that "my-ness"? 

One way I guess is by always knowing what's up, and by not saying the "my" and also knowing why you don't say "my."  Still that's just semantics, still just a version of self censorship.  The move to make might be empathetically created (as in "I wouldn't only want to be thought of as only part of a group," etc.) but also it has to be functionally practiced.  We often think of ethics as only connected to an HR training or a high school course we took and slept through, rules that don't really matter outside of saying they do, ephemeral pontificating.  But ethics, in the way I'm trying to figure them out, are only important when acted on, as in erasing that ownership sensibility by understanding its weirdness and unkindness and moving forward from that, outside of platitudes, outside of words.  Doing something about it.

It was words, of course, that pissed me off so much on Friday.  That and the fact it was Friday and nobody wants to get into a work argument or any kind of argument on Friday afternoon.  But the words highlighted something very deep:  you can't take action until you figure out what's wrong with the way you're thinking about the actions you take. 

In this stuff, ethics are so important because they can allow you to unmask yourself.  And without a mask you, and everyone else, can see exactly who you are.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Living Wages

A lot of times in trainings and meetings people use Clip-art configurations in their Power-point presentations just to gussy things up, or to prove a point without having to prove a point, almost like instant branding.  Clip-art allows anyone a catalog of pictographs and overarching almost blank logos to "explain" things without really accounting for the explanation.  Clip-art provides a shortcut that leads back to the fact something can't be codified, can't be illustrated:  everything is complicated and yet easily simplified.  In my case I go to a lot of trainings and meetings about employment for people with developmental disabilities, and somehow the Clip-art responses to that grouping of abstractions ("people," "disabilities," "employment") come off so inept as to be ironic, even absurd, not because the people in the Clip-art depictions aren't depicted in wheelchairs for diversity's sake, or whatever.  It's not the visuals.  The simplicity of the "Clip-arting" process is the main problem:  hugely complicated topics can't be easily abstracted especially while you're living through them.  There's no ap for that.
Helping/supporting people with disabilities to get actual jobs with living wages is about trying to do a lot of activities people on all sides of the table aren't used to.  It's about decreasing the importance of programs and increasing the importance of expectations both on the people we're trying to help get real jobs, and on the employers.  These expectations vary of course.  On the part of the people with disabilities, we are counting on them to have the skills and desires and competencies needed to work; on the part of the employers, we are counting on them to think beyond stereotypes and to make hiring decisions based on a person's skills and desires and competencies, not on charity or pity.  The equation sounds simple, but it is so complex as to become confusing, even depressing.  The contemporary history of vocational ambitions for people with developmental disabilities is pretty dismal:  consigned to sheltered workshop making sub-minimum wage.  In the 1980s a service set called "supported employment" caught on for many folks, but still those segregated work spaces held on, so that a small percentage of "job-ready" people were referred for employment in the real world, but a vast majority were still told they "belong" in a sheltered work environment, always being told they weren't ready yet. 
In 2012 Employment First, a national initiative, came to Ohio, signed as an executive order by Governor Kasich.  It stipulates that all the service-systems statewide here in Ohio presume people are employable.  Are "ready."
"Ready" is a loaded word and concept, and as I keep trying to figure out how to help make employment happen for people (in tandem with a bunch of other folks, including social workers, counselors, family member, and employers, etc.) I always try to understand that not everyone we're trying to help "break through" will make it, and some may not even want to.  But my presumption is that all of us want to be contributors to the world, using whatever talents we have to make it a better place.  My presumption is everyone deserves a chance.  Lots of chances actually.
Good old Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had Blanche Dubois whisper, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  With all this employment stuff, we are depending on the kindness, and open-mindedness of people with developmental disabilities, their family members, services providers, supervisors, CEOs, coworkers, and so on.  "Kindness," in this case, seems to be a process of seeing beyond what's right in front of you, and what's in the historical record, maybe even in the subconscious.  People who are not consigned to Sheltered-Workshop-Land often have images in their heads of groups of people with developmental disabilities in school on the little yellow bus, in backroom classrooms, on the playground in clusters.  They have images from TV and movies and literature that dictate these folks are helpless and in need of all kinds of "special" support.  People with developmental disabilities, and their service providers, advocates and families, often have a lot of fear about connecting with the "real world," about leaving behind the intended safety and comfort of programs designed to protect them and to perpetually "prepare" them for eventual "inclusion."  "Kindness" may be the only way for people on all sides of the equation to see, without blinders, a world in which many people often considered not "ready" are actually capable of contributing and ascending even.
So employment is maybe one of the only ways to put social change into practice, to test the boundaries of "kindness," not charity or pity, but a kindness that is predicated on the Golden Rule that essentially states: You should treat others as you would like others to treat you. 
Pretty simple.  Bet there's no Clip-art for that though.  
In summation, here's a picture:
This happened last week -- a team of temporary employees with developmental disabilities became full-time employees of ThyssenKrupp Bilstein, a company in Southwest Ohio that makes auto-parts.  They had to work really hard to prove themselves, not just because it's a hard job, but because they don't have the luxury of not being labeled.  That labeling is an obstacle everyone involved has to overcome.  The employer had to figure out how to accommodate for a few things, but also expect great things; the employees had to figure out how to word hard and push forward and even maybe surprise themselves with how strong they are; the job coaches, families, supporters, and supported employment people had to figure out how to make all of this work without interrupting efficiency and the workplace.  It goes on and on.  Complications arise, but the will to incorporate those complications (not really solve them, but contend with and work with it all) becomes a version of "kindness," and eventually a little bit of triumph,  Right beside the big ThyssenKrupp Bilstein sign stands the CEO Fabian Schmahl, who gave a great speech and then handed each new employee their uniforms.    
Without employment, this process on all sides would have never happened.  It was not a Utopian moment, as much as a simply joyous one.  Which is probably a lot better, at least from my point of view.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

All of the Above

Five years.  When I think about it, it's kind of dumbfounding and inevitable at the same time.  Bill and I have been doing Thunder-Sky, Inc. for five years.  We've had a lot of help from a lot of great people, but we've kind of been the ones who push and prod this whatever-it-is (gallery/studio/fan-club/clubhouse/limbo) forward, very slowly forward, the way Raymond kind of moved:  intent, focused, but also nonchalant, maybe insouciant, not caring and yet caring, building and demolishing simultaneously because he knew how the world works. 
Above is a photo from October 30, 2009.  That was the debut gig at Thunder-Sky, Inc., when we opened a show called "Raymond Nation."  Looks like a stalwart ghost dangling in a walk-in freezer.  I love that chill Raymond imparts.  He never really let you know exactly how he was feeling or what he was thinking; he was cryptic in the best possible way.  I respect that so much looking back, how he just followed through on his own strictly self-determined purpose, how he built a life out of demolition and fury and happiness, how it all became what he wanted it to become till the very day he died. 
And that's why I keep beating this dead horse.  Because Raymond's purpose was to make something out of nothing and to do it without a lot of bull-shit or a lot of attention.  He had a purpose beyond all that and yet he wasn't above any of it.  He relished obscurity as much as relishing those tiny moments of appreciation he was allotted at the end of his life (a few shows of his work at Base Gallery, Visionaries + Voices, and other places we were able to find to exhibit his drawings).  But he also understood the joke of his existence so much so that the joke became his kingdom.  He played it all up -- clownishness, construction-worker-ness, his strangeness and alienness given superhero qualities by his own hand.  And in those drawings he left behind you feel him laughing, sneering a little, letting us know he does not give really a shit, except for the big things like prisons crumbling and being replaced by card-tricks and clownishness, a whole industry of trickery and sarcasm.
He was punk.  He was innocence.  He was experience.  He was a freak who made that freakishness a route to grandeur and hilarity and self-knowledge.
Most of all he was what he was, without apologies.  He was scary in the way clowns can be scary.  He was lovely in the way clowns can be lovely.  He was hard-working, he was mysterious, he was very simple. 
And so this is why we keep doing Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  because I truly can't find any other role-model, any other reason, to organize/coordinate artistic endeavors outside of that stream of light.  Maybe it's obsession or stupidity or stubbornness (probably all of the above), but somehow Raymond's life was too elementally metaphoric and wildly outlandish and secretively productive to forget, to be placed in a pile of other file-folders marked "outsider art" or "people with disabilities" or "folk hero" or "mysterious stranger."  He deserves his own little hall of fame, and so here it is, at least for a little while.  At least another year. 
This is a year to year thing.  It has to be.  We don't want it to become bigger than it needs to be.  So Thunder-Sky, Inc. has an under the radar quality, a homespun do-it-yourself-ness that tries to run away from being labeled or even being appreciated.  It is a little place that does not want to be anything except exactly what it is in the very moment you see it.  And for most of the year it's doors are closed anyway.  Open only on weekends, and on the Fridays we have opening receptions (6 times a years), or when someone wants to do a poetry reading, or any other special occasion that seems worth it. 
Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a non-profit ghost in the machine.  We do what we have to do to make things move, but not a lot of anything else.  Like Raymond and his drawings:  elemental, precise, completed, on to the next thing.
We're celebrating the five year anniversary next Friday, October 24, 2014, with a show called "The New Clownville Amusement," with Raymond-inspired works by Robert McFate, Curtis Davis, artists who use the Visionaries + Voices studio, artists from Able Projects, Antonio Adams, the Waldecks and friends, and many wonderful others.  This show came together like all of the other ones we do, things piling up and then somehow organized into a semblance of order through just doing it.  The five year anniversary means Raymond has been gone for ten years.  Ten years.  Good Lord.  He won't disappear.  Even if Thunder-Sky, Inc. disappears Raymond won't.  He is building and destroying things in all kinds of ways right now that we can't even fathom, which is the way it always was anyway.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prison Life

I went for a tour of a prison this week, as part of a chamber of commerce leadership training class thing I'm doing.  It's a weird industrial kind of faded sadness the place evokes.  Everything in the architecture and décor is spare and metallic and rote, but there's a feral smell wafting through the air, a smell of sleep and old socks and sore throats and rainy afternoons in trailers.  It's the smell of an Arby's uniform after work, a stink that goes undetected mostly because it's never allowed outside of its vicinity, its distinct zone.  You are trapped with that odor if you have any connection to it though.  It's yours.  And the prison pods I toured with other professional types had that stink but it was captured so you could breath it in without having to live through it, so it almost becomes a sort of souvenir, a sense memory, a joke. 
But I've lived with that smell many times in my life.  I'm from lower-income stock, have lived in Section 8 apartments, have worked a number of really crappy jobs.  I know what that smell is, and it really made me feel connected to something you don't really want to be connected to, but you have to get used to because its who you are, not so much a destiny as an element, a chemical vapor.
When we toured the pods, you could see a few prisoners waiting out our visit in their cells.  We even were told we could look into a cell or two, and what we saw was what you'd think we'd see.  A silver metallic sink and toilet, bunk beds, linoleum, cinder-block blankness.  It was not horrifying in anyway, just routine and drab and on the edge of total disappearance, that exact moment before everything gets taken away. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Piece of Cake

Gone Girl is a zeitgeist-fueled masterpiece of exurban, media-drenched, cynical, creepy, hilarious, 21st Century, true-crime-porn, all of that fermenting and fomenting inside a McMansion straight out of a Sominex commercial, with a backyard shed filled with man-cave accoutrements as if Santa Claus has had a bipolar episode.  It is maximally vicious and empty-headedly blissful at the same time.  You watch with a sense of dread and also a strange giddy anticipation.  David Fincher has directed it as a grotesque yet hyper-elegant gloss on film-noir, as well as a shiny-switchblade parody of Lifetime TV movies.  It moves effortlessly toward a bunch of conspicuously unbelievable yet completely realized revelations that shed light on nothing but what movies can be when they are ridiculously well-constructed.

Ben Affleck's Nick is in a shitty marriage to Rosamund Pike's Amy, and the movie begins with her supposed abduction.  I think the conceit the movie is based on (from a bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn who also did the screenplay) is that you don't know who is telling the truth.  But that conceit within a minute or two of the movie is completely vanquished:  the conceit in fact is deliriously deceitful.  It's obvious from the get-go Nick is victim and Amy is victimizer, and that Gone Girl is a charged-up reboot of the old-school femme-fatale plots of  potboiler books and movies like James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and/or Double Indemnity.  While Nick is not really innocent (he has an affair with his young creative-writing student for Pete's sake), he is framed in the movie as a goofy but sweet, five-o'clock-shadowed loser, playing board-games with his twin sister while downing late-morning bourbon in a bar his wife purchased for him.  In the first five minutes of Gone Girl his put-upon stature is cemented:  he arrives home to make sure his pet cat is okay only to find evidence of a break-in and the disappearance of his beautiful blonde wife, an effete, over-schooled knock-out who had to move back to Missouri with him because Nick's mom was dying.

From that initial scene of surprise to a rush to judgment to Nick having to find a defense attorney, the movie's elegant race between back-story (Nick and Amy's first kiss in a "sugar storm" outside a bakery at night, Nick and Amy getting married, Nick and Amy's first fight over money, and so on) and the churn of present-day abduction-story to-dos (Nick and Amy's uptight parents holding a press conference and vigil, suspicious police detectives pursuing the truth and so on) culminate halfway through the movie to a point-of-view switch.  We find out -- guess what? -- Amy has not been abducted or killed or anything like that.  She's just plain pissed and by pissed I mean she's created and executed a whole abduction narrative so detailed and fierce it's obvious this bitch is crazy.  She makes up diary entries to incriminate Nick, draws her own blood to splatter in the kitchen, befriends an idiotic pregnant lady next door so she can steal her pee for a fake pregnancy test.  And on and on and on.  Amy obviously is a femme-fatale Fincher and Pike have assembled as a collage of Madonna in all the videos Fincher made with her, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, and a plethora of other blonde-haired, steel-eyed super-sexy ladies who do really terrible things and look fantastic doing it.  Pike's performance is gorgeous and stony and joyous to watch.  She's a robot Medusa, and her voice-over sections as she lets us in on  all her secrets are venom and music combined.

Fincher is the superstar here though.  This is one of those movies you watch knowing how meanspirited and pissy it is and yet the style overcomes the substance, and you are in the presence of true movieness.  And by "movieness," I mean this is a movie that is not about real life in any way shape or form:  this is a work of art referencing (i.e. stealing from) other movies (including Fincher's own back catalog classics like Zodiac, Panic Room and Seven) and spectacularly using those references in pursuit of pure, stupid, cinematic ecstasy.  Fincher, like Hitchcock, understands that movies are not pieces of real life.  They are pieces of cake, and this movie is a morally rotten yet deliciously decorated wedding-cake.  You enjoy every slice not as a reflection of reality, but as an orgasmic joke on it.  Movies like this make going to the movies an experience beyond verisimilitude or an exercise in getting blown away by computer-generated images of oceans toppling over skyscrapers.  Style is Fincher's goddess here; he worships it with every shot, and you follow him wanting to be awestruck by his audacity and dedication to doing what he needs to do.  By the end of Gone Girl, you understand nothing about male-female relationships or 21st Century America or any of that.  You're just grateful Fincher made a movie that makes you feel somehow enchanted, even overcome by, what movies can be and do, no matter what they are about.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Comedy Is Not Pretty

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig do something in The Skeleton Twins, their new movie, that a lot of other comedic actors can't do:  they take what they do best and merge it with a sensibility that helps them transcend their shtick.  Call it the The Robin Williams Syndrome, I guess, but when many great comedians try to make dramatic turns they often bring along their old stand-up/sketchy baggage with them, and the dramas they are in "make room" for this, or try to erase it all together.  Think of Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, or Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven, or Robin Williams in most anything, and you get the idea:  their "funny" personas take over the atmosphere and what results is a movie about them trying to alter who they are, without maintaining a sense of what the actual movie is trying to get at.
Hader and Wiig maintain their off-kilter freakish comedic selves in The Skeleton Twins, but they use their Saturday Night Live skills to hone in on how actual off-kilter, freakish human beings interact, damage and sometimes save one another.  It's a movie that starts with two suicide attempts, and ends with one, and yet there is a light touch to Craig Johnson's direction and writing so that the drama, even though it's pretty melodramatic, becomes integral to the comedic undertones, to Hader's and Wiig's skills at being weirdos trying to figure out how not to drown in their own weirdness.  They play a brother and sister who haven't spoken to each other in over ten years, and are reunited after Hader's character winds up in the hospital after slicing his wrists.  Through the course of the movie, they become entangled yet again in each other's lives and revert back to their old selves.  Somewhere in there are other fantastic performances by Luke Wilson, as Wiig's goofy sweet husband, Joanna Gleason as their pseudo-loving, New Age mother, and Ty Burrell as Hader's weak-kneed ex-lover (who seduced him in high school while he was his English teacher).  
The Skeleton Twins moves forward effortlessly, and its pleasures come from both moments and the momentum it takes to make those moments feel actual and earned.  But the main scene I recall, the one that truly gets at how Hader and Wiig escape themselves and become actual people, is halfway in, when Wiig, a dental hygienist, cleans her brother's teeth.  She gives him some laughing gas to get over initial fears, and the scene unfurls from that, with Wiig cleaning Hader's teeth and then both of them getting in on the gas, until finally they wind up in the records room of the dental office, sliding down to the floor and remembering who they used to be and how easy was to be that.  There's some ad libbing, some face-making, some shtick, and yet it all feels completely necessary, even organic.  You feel like you're eavesdropping instead of watching a movie, and that intimacy makes the whole film snap to suddenly.  Wiig and Hader become true brother and sister right before your eyes, and the ache of their love and torture becomes not just stylized "hurt," but something you can connect with, even compare to real life.
That's not comedy or tragedy or drama -- it's art.