Somersault A MAGAZINE OF ART, POLITICS AND POP CULTURE
VOLUME I December 2012
♦ ISSUE 1
Volume 1, Issue 1 December 2012 www.somersaultmag.tumblr.com This work is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionÂShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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Self Parody, National Identity and the Canadian Culture Industry
What does it mean to be authentically Canadian in the time of Nickelback? Gareth Simpson
Leonard Cohen and The Bay of Pigs The story of a young Cohen in Cuba Evan Fleischer
Degrees of Separation
A personal dispatch from the internal politics of the business side of celebrity. Jiordan Castle
A Runaway Ferris Wheel Introduces You to Beirut
A longform creative nonfiction essay reflects on memories of time in Beirut. J. Dana Stuster
The Male Gaze and The Manic Pixie
A feminist defense of Manic Pixie Dream Girls and onscreen femininity Torie Rose DeGhett
Don't Forget to be Awesome: Notes on the Small But Epic Politics of Nerdfighters
How two brothers and a legion of fans are aiming to decrease world suck and increase empathy Taylor Kate Brown
Clowns for Peace: Micael Bogar and AntiWar Protesting Performance art meets activism Elle Deau
Review of Elia Suleiman's Yadon Ilaheyya/Divine Intervention Framing and editing in Elia Suleiman's 2002 film Alexia ChandonPiazza
Artwork by Gregory Muenzen, pages 5, 30, and 39 and Charlie Pieper, page 3. Cover: Paul in Paris by Gregory Muenzen.
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Man reading newspaper on the 1 train. Gregory Muenzen.
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Self Parody, National Identity and the Canadian Culture Industry Gareth Simpson
It speaks volumes about the Canadian culture industry that the announcement of Chad Kroeger and Avril Lavigne’s engagement felt so momentous. Their engagement served as a tipping point into self-parody for the nation that gave the world Anne of Green Gables, Glenn Gould, and the genesis of Saturday Night Live. Fittingly, their relationship started on Canada Day, which the Nickelback frontman called “very cool.” The engagement was the subject of widespread mockery, most of it from Canadians racing to distance themselves from the pair. Lavigne and Kroeger (and Kroeger’s band Nickelback) have come to represent a certain unacknowledged tension within Canada. Many Canadians, particularly those in metropolitan hotbeds like Vancouver and Toronto, are embarrassed by bands like Nickelback and uncomfortable with their ubiquity. Despite well-publicized protests, the band has been an undeniable force, racking up more Juno Awards than Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell combined. The reason for this, despite the rush to disassociate, is that Nickelback really is Canada today. Their music is the soundtrack of a country that is no longer what it used to be, that has had its image retooled over the last six years by a right-wing economist whose most enduring cultural legacy has been his tendency to co-opt pianos and hammer out Beatles tunes like an awkward uncle at a family reunion. In the middle of the twentieth century, as the United States was turning into a entertainment superpower, the Canadian government decided that they needed to enforce a certain degree of Canadian culture. They feared, for good reason, that if they didn’t ensure that content created by Canadians would actually reach its intended audience, their entire society would be subjugated by the cultural delights of their southern neighbor. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously compared Canada’s border with the United States to sleeping next to an elephant. “No matter Gareth Simpson is a writer and humo(u)rist from Vancouver, British Columbia. He
doesn't really like Stephen Harper or Nickelback all that much, but he thinks Justin Bieber is okay. He has a Twitter and a Tumblr, but then again so does everyone else.
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how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Through the years, the Canadian government has attempted to nationalize Canadian content, in the effort to promote it. The National Film Board was created in 1950, and a few years later, the Fowler Commission set the wheels in motion for public regulation of all broadcasting in Canada. A nominally independent agency called the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was created as a response to the Fowler Commission report. Since then, the CRTC has become responsible for maintaining a certain degree of Canadian-ness on the airwaves across the nation. For example, radio stations in Canada are required by license to feature a certain percentage of Canadian music, usually between 30-40%. There are a variety of rules and tests that the CRTC has chosen to apply in order to decide what qualifies as Canadian content. Perhaps the most distinctive is the somewhat patriotically-named MAPL system. The CRTC considers a song Canadian if it can satisfy two of the following four criteria: •Music: “The music is composed entirely by a Canadian.” •Artist: “The music is, or the lyrics are, performed principally by a Canadian.” •Performance: “The musical selection consists of a live performance that is recorded wholly in Canada, or performed wholly in Canada and broadcast live in Canada.” •Lyrics: “The lyrics are written entirely by a Canadian.” The question of what actually makes something Canadian is considerably more philosophical than a handy acronym. After all, this test makes Lenny Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman” Canadian content. While that would explain why I heard the song so much on the drive home from elementary school, this system is not a particularly good judge of national character. This contradiction is present in the Canadian film and television industry as well. For example, The Tudors is a series about an English monarch, filmed in Ireland for the American cable network Showtime. However, since the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a small hand in the show’s production, it is considered Canadian enough to be nominated for a Gemini Award. While one could correctly assert that a significant component of the Canadian identity is a respect for the multicultural mosaic, the aforementioned examples are only part of the problem. The most successful Canadian television show of the last few years is Flashpoint, a police procedural ostensibly set in Toronto (although the city is not actually named until the last episode of the second season, and Toronto is known for its transparent resemblance to Anyplace, USA.) A large contributor to the show’s success was its pickup by CBS as a summer replacement series. It was considered to be a good business move to make a show largely indistinguishable in tone and content to similar American programs, because America is where the money is. As a result, it is a show 7 ♦ Somersault
that fulfills all of the CRTC-style qualifications for Canadian content, featuring Canadian actors and directors and writers and producers, and yet does not seem the least bit Canadian to the viewer. This type of show seems to be what Canadian audiences want, as television critic Andrew Ryan wrote in The Globe & Mail about the short-lived CBC comedy Michael Tuesdays & Thursdays. The show was created by Bob Martin, one of the brightest Canadian comedy writers of his generation, and featured the relationship between a therapist (Martin) and one of his patients (played by Canadian comedian Matt Watts.) The show was offbeat and funny, and stacked with Canadian comedic talent, from Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney to Slings and Arrows’ Susan Coyne. However, few viewers were interested, and the show ended abruptly in its first season. Ryan, in a column published on the day of the series finale, lamented: “Don’t hold your breath waiting for the great Canadian sitcom. You missed it.” He lambasted viewers for preferring rebroadcasts of American shows such as New Girl and Dancing with the Stars. It is hardly a surprise that Canadian audiences have turned towards American-
Matt Watts as Michael in the cancelled Michael Tuesdays and Thursdays. CBC.
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style entertainment; they’ve done the same thing with their government. Stephen Harper, just like Flashpoint, is largely a facsimile of his American counterparts. He studied economics at the University of Calgary, which is one of the biggest Canadian exponents of Milton Friedman’s economic ideology. A deficit hawk who has shown few qualms in prioritizing economic growth over virtually anything is far from the “Gay Nader Fan for Peace” Jon Stewart lampooned after his 2008 re-election. Harper’s government followed America’s lead by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, much in the way that a small child follows a bully around in order to spit epithets in the background without fear of retribution. Harper is kept company by fellow Conservatives on the back benches of Parliament, like Rob Anders, who is famous for calling Nelson Mandela “a communist and a terrorist” and more recently suggested that new NDP leader Thomas Mulcair “hastened the death” of party luminary Jack Layton. While Harper insists that he has no interest in reopening long-settled social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he remains largely silent while Conservatives like Stephen Woodworth introduce bills to examine when life begins and speak at conferences held by anti-gay activists. With regards to Canadian cultural production, Stephen Harper has repeatedly advocated cutting funding to organizations like the CBC, arguing that the government should not fund something that is (to him, at least) identical to commercial companies owned by media conglomerates. During Canada’s most recent prime ministerial campaign, Nickelback happened to be playing a concert in Ottawa about a month before the election. As the band launched into their hit song “Photograph,” a picture of Stephen Harper appeared on the screen behind lead singer Chad Kroeger. There may not be a more telling image of Canada in 2012 than that of the anti-charismatic Harper staring dead-eyed into a camera while Avril Lavigne’s husband-to-be grimaces his way through a second-rate Creed impersonation.
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Leonard Cohen and The Bay of Pigs Evan Fleischer
On one side, 1,400 American paratroopers tried to invade Cuba in April of 1961. On another side, Cuba repelled the invasion. And on the third side -- the underappreciated side -- a 27 year old Canadian by the name of Leonard Cohen was certainly doing something, though the nailed down quality of what it actually was seems to be up in the air. In one telling, Cohen went to Cuba because he was “fighting on both sides.” In another, he went because of “a deep interest in violence. I was very interested in what it really meant for a man to to carry arms and to kill other men -- and how attracted I was exactly to that process.” And in the the third, he went, he got drunk (on rum, Cuba libre, or mojitos, quien sabe; déjame en paz y me deja escribir), spent his time with late night movie operators and hookers, was woken up by an official from the Canadian embassy, taken to said embassy, and politely and firmly informed that his mother was worried about him. Of the latter -- Cuban militants tried to bomb the airport, the press of which overplayed the danger of the reality, thereby attracting his mother’s attention -- Cohen said that he felt feisty when he’d been woken by the embassy official, like Upton Sinclair. “I was on an important mission!” Cohen’s first album is four years off at this time. Let us cheat with the Oujia Board you and I both share and re-introduce the names of AM Klein, FR Scott, Irving Layton, and Lorca, Lorca, Federico Garcia Lorca (a marble-like polaris Cohen enjoyed to roll with others in his hand like worry beads, like prayer beads, like an oddly shaped coin he keeps in his pocket because it makes him smile) to the equation -- and when he’s there, he’s in khaki shorts, lets his beard to stubble length, and returns to his old habits of staying up ‘til three in the morning. Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone. Come the Havana evening, Leonard -- in the words of one biographer -- joined “the pimps, hookers, gamblers, small-time criminals, and black marketers … roamed Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn't editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writeratlarge.
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the urban slums of Jesus del Monte to the swank waterfront suburbs of Miramar. There’s also this. Ira Nadel -- the biographer quoted above -- explains: “Wearing his khakis and carrying a hunting knife, he was suddenly surrounded by twelve soldiers with Czech submachine guns. It was late at night and they thought he was the first of an American landing team. They marched him to the local police station while he repeated the only Spanish he knew, a slogan of Castro’s: Amistad del pueblo, ‘Friendship of the People.’ This made no impression on his captors, but after an hour and a half of interrogation, Cohen convinced them he was not a spy buy a fan of the regime who wanted to be there.” Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control. He convinced them he was an innocent man. They brought out rum and bequeathed him a necklace of shells and bullets. The next morning, he was driven back to Havana. It’s there this picture was taken. It’s there he runs into American communists. It’s there he’s called a bourgeois individualist. Anti-aircraft fire fills the night. A platoon runs down the street and crouches behind the statue of an iron lion. “Hopelessly Hollywood,” Cohen later wrote.
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The next morning he shaved and put on a seersucker suit and wrote a letter to Jack McClelland, a Canadian publisher. “Just think how well the book would sell if I’m hit in an air-raid. What great publicity! Don’t tell me you haven’t been considering it.” Cohen was temporarily detained, and -- given that -- tried to leave the country. When he did, he discovered a red line drawn through his name on a clipboard at the airport and was directed to a security room, at which point the picture of him with the militants was discovered. They put him under a guard, a fourteen year old with a rifle, a fourteen year old with whom he then tried to have an argument, which went nowhere. A scuffle broke out somewhere in the airport. The teenage guard ran off to assist. Cohen was left alone. Cohen looked around, repacked his bag, got back in line, and boarded. No one asked for his ticket. A poem to mark the occasion comes quickly, blithely and fearsomely announcing in “the only tourist in Havana turns his thoughts homewards” -Come, my brothers, let us govern Canada, let us find our serious heads, let us dump asbestos on the White House, let us make the French talk English, not only here but everywhere, let us torture the Senate individually until they confess, let us purge the New Party, let us encourage the dark races so they'll be lenient when they take over, let us make the C.B.C. talk English, let us all lean in one direction and float down to the coast of Florida, let us have tourism, let us flirt with the enemy, let us smelt pig-iron in our backyards, let us sell snow to under-developed nations, (Is it true one of our national leaders was a Roman Catholic?) let us terrorize Alaska, let us unite
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Church and State, let us not take it lying down, let us have two Governor Generals at the same time, let us have another official language, let us determine what it will be, let us give a Canada Council Fellowship to the most original suggestion, let us teach sex in the home to parents, let us threaten to join the U.S.A. and pull out at the last moment, my brothers, come, our serious heads are waiting for us somewhere like Gladstone bags abandoned after a coup d'etat, let us put them on very quickly, let us maintain a stony silence on the St Lawrence Seaway. Cuba drifted forward under the thumb of the embargo. LBJ did his best to carry forward Kennedyâ€™s legacy. Cohen pivoted outward, and was only ever truly drawn in again by the politics of the moment by the events that made 1989 such a momentous year, a year in which something -- some faint drum rattle -- came in through a hole in the air in Berlin, Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere.
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Degrees of Separation Jiordan Castle
Today is the first day I’ll steal something from the office. I lay a binder out beside my keyboard -- a handbook every new intern is given upon starting at the company, complete with rules fit for an amusement park: don’t get too close! Keep your hands where we can see them! Each new task is a bumper car competing for space on my nerve endings. It’s my job to sort the fan mail. Rihanna’s fan mail. Rihanna is our biggest artist, and she’s the only one who gets enough fan mail to merit sorting. We call them artists – there are less than ten of them, all of whom are less popular than Rihanna. But what they make us -- a small but elite music management company in the middle of Manhattan -- is money, not art. I work for free in a cubicle three days a week. I make ten dollars an hour serving cupcakes in a shop across from Bryant Park. The shop itself is a converted stairwell -- longer than it is wide -- with no bathroom, not even for employees. I have to wait in line in the park to use the public restroom there. When a crying homeless woman cuts in line, I say nothing. I only got this internship because I scoured Craigslist for something to do instead of going back to college. The description of the company made it sound clandestine – no name, just a location, and a minimal description of job duties. I felt cool for applying and cooler still for being granted an interview, though I was worried about being sold into sex slavery in midtown, what, with the little information I had about the company itself and all. I wore a button-down shirt to the interview. The receptionist wore pinky rings and had blue bangs. She talked with an accent that rang false, even over the phone. When I finally sat down with Mischa, a beautiful pear-shaped woman in her midtwenties, she stared at me blankly. She asked what kind of music I liked, where I went Jiordan Castle is a New Yorker transplanted in San Francisco. She is usually kind, decent, and always full of pizza. She gets personal at nomoreundead.tumblr.com.
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to college, and why I wanted to work for their company. When I spoke, she punctuated the end of each sentence with a vacuous nod. When I told her that I was into “all kinds of music, alternative stuff mostly,” she said, seeming rather irritated, “We work with hip-hop and R&B artists, almost exclusively.” But she looked me up-and-down, her expression blank, save the downturned mouth. She said, “You have more substance than the other girls.” She looked unhappy with that assessment. “Even if you don’t go to college.” I didn’t have any plans to return, so I hoped she wouldn’t ask. She never did. I started less than two weeks later, dressing formally at first, and then opting for my regular clothes. I was one of three white people, all of us women, in an otherwise black-dominated company. I stuck out like a sore thumb for a while – the youngest, the least knowledgeable. Even minimal administrative duties, like sending a fax or scanning receipts, were challenging for me. And if I wanted to know how to do something, how something worked or why, I had to ask. Help was never freely given. The owner of the company, Marc, looks like Taye Diggs and speaks like he’s constantly dictating a memo. In a different setting, I might like him. His assistant Ali, a recent NYU graduate, is round and pasty and nice, except when the phone rings. She panics, which makes me panic, and we’re instructed to always answer the phone by the third ring. I have no idea what happens after the third ring, and I assume she doesn’t either. “I have to ask Marc about a raise,” she says, before ordering another pair of boots during her lunch break today. She works six to seven days a week doing everything imaginable for Marc -booking his flights, taking calls from his fiancée, and working late into the night. She was a journalism major at NYU, but she wants to manage bands. After several weeks at this internship, Ali’s the first one to ask what my plans for school are. She chews quietly at her desk, a mouthful of spinach leaves and romaine lettuce moving around lazily. I wonder if she thinks I’m worth keeping without a degree. “I don’t have any,” I say, suddenly sheepish. She shakes her head, a small smile playing on her lips. “That’s too bad,” she says. “You’ll always make less money than everyone else.” Sorting fan mail is fun for the first ten minutes, and then it becomes a chore, each letter worse than the last. A man in prison addresses her as “Ri Ri Baby,” and I have to put it in the Maybe Tell the Cops folder. I labeled the folders myself. The reason I have to sort her mail is because Rihanna can’t have all of it. She only gets to see the good stuff, whatever I deem safe, as I’ve been trained to – generally just the letters that kids and teenage girls send her, begging for an autograph or a birthday wish. Very few fans simply sing her praises. Most people want something, even if it’s just her signature mailed back. A man in Italy sends us what I imagine is enough Euros to cover a picture sent back to his address. He wants it autographed. 15 ♦ Somersault
Lucy -- a white woman in her mid-twenties, with lime green t-shirts and big hoop earrings -- is in charge of autographs. She does the best Rihanna signature of anyone here. On my first day in the office, she offered to teach me. I said, “Sure, sometime.” But I felt betrayed. As a younger fan, I’d sent a couple of letters, nothing I’d ever wanted signed, and now I was relieved that I hadn’t. I didn’t want any part of this. I still don’t, though what can you do? After I finish with one pile of letters – three from little girls, five from grown men – I have to get Marc’s lunch from the Brooklyn Diner a few blocks away. There’s a cake in the fridge in our makeshift break room. The break room is really like a trendy closet, complete with three chairs that no one ever uses and a toaster that sits unused because no one here eats carbs (read: it’s not trendy.) The cabinets are filled with teabags and straws, some plastic utensils, and a few napkins. It’s an old cake, but no one ever throws it out. It was here when I started and -- as it turns out -- it will outlast me in this office. I think about that cake a lot. I checked on it this morning, like I do every morning. CoverGirl shares a floor with us, so I sit beside a huge framed picture of Queen Latifah. There’s a filing cabinet with free makeup samples in the bottom drawer and we’re all invited to take products home with us. Free mascara is one of the perks of working here. 50 Cent wrote a book recently, and one of us gets a free copy if we want it. It’s called The 50th Law. It’s covered in imitation leather and looks like an ugly bible. I end up taking a hardcover book about the Spice Girls instead. It’s an “unofficial biography,” which -- in this case -- is as good as the real thing. We work in a museum of music-adjacent artifacts. Rihanna won an award from MTV last year and now it sits in a locked box in Marc’s office. There is a letter I would like to save. I’m supposed to throw out all of the bad fan mail, the letters that needn’t be filed but can’t be sent either, but I can’t bear to see this one thrown in the trash, wasted beside a sexually explicit postcard I wish I’d handled with tongs earlier. It’s a big, thick piece of gray construction paper. On it, “You’re my hero” is written in sparkly blue ink. It’s rough to the touch and fat white ribbons of glue peek through the glitter. Blue flecks cover my fingertips, giving way to more glue on the sheet. It’s embarrassingly honest, a mess – the work of a child. Anyone else would object to the sloppy handwriting. It doesn’t belong here. I fold the letter in half and slide it into my bag on the floor. After I’m done sorting the rest of the week’s fan mail – about twenty Chris Brown letters, one of which tells her to “stay strong, baby girl,” while another says, “I’d let him beat me any day” – and putting the folders into one big drawer, I have to clear out December 2012 ♦ 16
Marc’s email contacts. He has over 700, most of whom are celebrities that have no business being in contact with him. Danny DeVito is in there, and I copy down his emailaddress before I have to delete it. I put it in a notebook where I keep things like Justin Timberlake’s phone number. I figure when I’m fired or if ever I work up the nerve to quit, I’ll get drunk and call him. If I were to stay here, I could move up. I could hope to do what Ali does, and then maybe manage bands in the future. But if I stay, if I don’t go back to college, then I could easily strand myself here too. I left college because the school I chose never delivered the financial aid they promised, because I couldn’t get a loan, and because the only class I enjoyed was a poetry workshop that met once a week. The professor still read my poems after I withdrew from school. He emailed me suggestions and corrections. He told me to keep writing and reading, even if I could no longer attend class. Since starting this internship, I haven’t written a thing. I can’t remember the last time I read a whole book. In my cubicle, elbows on my desk, I decide that I can’t move to Staten Island and I can’t stay here. I write myself a note: Start looking at colleges again. I put it in my bag. When I pack up my things for the day – a coffee cup from this morning, two notes with names and numbers for Marc’s conference tomorrow – I take note of everyone in their cubicles, Marc and Ali encased in glass to the far right. I walk to the break room to make sure I haven’t left anything in the fridge. (Hello, cake.) I close the door to the refrigerator, collect my things, and leave. A few people say goodbye to me on my way out, but mostly the work continues. For once, Ali and I aren’t the last to leave. I’m sure she will be, eyes glued to her screen until Marc calls from home or the gym and tells her that she can go. She could be there for another few hours. I leave as fast as I can, the elevator doors always taking too long to close. I reach into my bag for my phone, and my hand grazes the stiff gray paper. I take it out when I reach the sidewalk just outside of the building. The letter is almost illegible, scrawled in the hasty, hopeful handwriting of a six-year-old, so Rihanna will never get to see it.
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A Runaway Ferris Wheel Introduces You To Beirut J. Dana Stuster
Summer 2010 “Beirut, ya Beirut.” The graffiti is written in Arabic script on the wall that lines the road switchbacking up the hill above the rocky coast. Beirut, this city so much a city, its traffic unyielding, its pedestrians obstinate, where European retailers sell Captain America underwear to Arab teenagers and hijab wrapped women pause to look at Cartier window displays. A city of BMWs, Porches, lowered Japanese racers with tinted windows; a bumper sticker: “When I grow up, I want to be a Mercedes.” This city of strange syllables, of Arabic and French and English, the shoeshine boys repeating the only words they know in foreign languages, “Please, please, sandwich, I’ll leave you be, sandwich, I’ll leave you be,” the witchily beautiful strains of the azan playing tinnily from loudspeakers mounted on apartment blocks. This city of blind beggars: the creased old woman whose sightless eyes still cry remembering Sabra and Shatila, the doe-eyed girl who tugs lightly at the starched cuffs of businessmen’s shirts. Beirut, ya Beirut, where the people are like the cats they protect so zealously: battered and lean, resilient and wary. This city above the sea, scarred by time, scarred by its people, scarred by itself, waiting to be washed clean, its hollowed concrete shells filled, its pockmarked walls healed and made whole again. Beirut, ya Beirut. ("Ya” in Arabic indicating a direct address, a tribute, a dirge, an apostrophe, an elegy, an apology.) A city like this lends itself to a certain voyeurism -- not of a sexual, or an invasive, or a menacing sort. It’s just that the topography, of tall apartment blocks separated by smaller buildings, invites it. At dusk, when lights are turned on and silhouettes cast against windows, they become a part of the skyline: two seated figures in a sitting room, the flicker of a television screen, a man stepping onto a balcony, disappearing J. Dana Stuster is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs in Washington, D.C. He tweets and can be reached at @JDanaStuster.
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as he turns the light off behind him. “During the war years,” the professor begins. She hesitates and glances through the classroom window. Outside it is sunny and clear, the air hot and humid between the palm trees and sandstone brick -- she can feel the warmth pressing against her, despite the luxurious, frigid air conditioning in the room. “I was in England during the war years, but the professor teaching this class in those days said something that someone construed as being offensive to a particular system of belief and the next day he did not come to class.” Even now, twenty years later, she is careful not to offend. She can never know who might be listening. “He had been kidnapped. He was a Marxist, as it was, a socialist and an atheist, and did not care one way or the other for what people believed. After a couple weeks, he was released.” She looks around the room, at the expressions of the students, expressions of measured concern. She can see it in their faces, how they are never quite sure how they should feel about the war. They’ve known it only through stories like these, and the repercussions. They all remember when their prime minister was assassinated, where they were, the things they were doing that they stopped to watch the reports, images from helicopters hovering above a crater the width of an impassable road. The war is different, though. They were children when it ended, if they were even born yet. “Halas,” she says, “but that was during the war years.” Between classes, Isaac and Elias sit on a bench on their campus, a notebook sitting across the place where their knees meet. Seven, writes one. Seven, the other agrees. Eight. Seven, the other responds. Four, Isaac writes. Elias laughs before writing, Six. With the eraser end of his pencil, Elias gestures to another passing girl. Her eyeglasses are tucked into the tight folds of her hijab; she wears a long denim skirt despite the heat and the loose folds of her shirt almost conceal the rise of her chest. Isaac considers. Five. Without the hijab? Elias asks in the margin. Seven. Without a shirt? Isaac smiles, Ten. 19 ♦ Somersault
The door blends seamlessly into the wall of green wood paneling, save for a narrow inset window the size of a postcard, or a photograph, or the sliding slot of a prohibition speakeasy. Within, the room is rather small. The floors are carpeted in geometric designs and the walls are covered in red velvet, their color turned sanguine under the bordello lights. There is a small but well-stocked bar in the corner, the bartender and waiters in tacky, too-tight t-shirts plastered with ads. The street outside is narrow -- cars pass along it slowly, and half-an-hour is a common wait to go just a few blocks. It is the heart of Jemmayze, the bar district. The pronunciation sounds like “gymnasium” -- it evokes exertion and acrobatics, and maybe through other doors there is that, too, but not here. Here, groups sit on ottomans around low tables, talking through the thrum of remixed American alt-rock spun by the DJ by the door. Under a picture of a kneeling pin-up brunette, a cherry perched above her parted lips, a group of Arab men are laughing, beers in hand. The girls that sit with them are smiling politely -- they didn’t appreciate the joke, but if they are offended, they hide it well. They are Maronites, most likely. This is probably a Christian establishment, in a loose definition of the word -- but then again, maybe not. It’s never as simple as that. A group of young professionals, their ethnicities and countries of mixed origin, have the corner table. The men have taken off their jackets and rolled the sleeves of their striped dress shirts; the women lean in, their elbows cool along the edges of the lacquered table. “You’re only in the city for the summer?” a Lebanese woman says to one of the others. “Here’s what you need to see before you leave.” She rattles off a list of bars and nightclubs. The girls at the round table near the door are celebrating, evident in the high hem of their party dresses, the sparkle of their purses, the colors of their makeup, the cant of their laughter. One walks to the bar and a few moments later, a bottle of sparkling rosé arrives, chilled in an ice bucket. The waitress corks the bottle and pours, and the girls drink quickly through their laughter. When two more girls arrive and are greeted with swift kisses, cheek to cheek to cheek; the bottle is already empty. They order another. The woman is sitting in the second waiting room, the antechamber to the doctor’s office. Her hot pink bag is folded on her lap, all the more vibrant against the black of her spandex pants and shirt. Her clothes contour to every curve of her body; her shirt is cut low, revealing a shelf of cleavage. Her lipstick, the same shade as her purse, is drawn over her tightly pursed lips. When she stands to walk to the receptionist, she stands taller than she seems on account of a pair of platform heels. She wears dark aviator sunglasses over her eyes against the sanitary gleam of the halogen lighting. There are so many things in her eyes to hide. A bent, old woman sits to one side, to her other, a mother bouncing an infant child on her knee. They both December 2012 ♦ 20
ignore her. In the first waiting room, a man is saying to the receptionist, “Do you speak English? I’m a contractor with a company working here and I was told there was a walkin clinic here. I have a very simple, very common STD and I would like to see a doctor about it. Is this a walk-in clinic? It’s a very simple STD.” A blank wall is too much of an invitation to resist. On the bare plaster of the laundry room: “Give me my clothes back!” Another has replied, “When you give me mine back!” Another reads, “Stop using my detergent! (I’m poor).” Another is more ambiguous -- perhaps nationalistic, perhaps melancholic. “Sudan.” On the streets, the graffiti are more diverse, from flippant to cryptic to political. “Shams rockd this joint” on a wall overlooking a vacant lot. References to “Charlie” abound -- “Charlie was here,” “Charlie in the bldg.” Most common, though, are gestures southward. A portrait of Benjamin Netanyahu with the words, “My wall kills Palestinians,” and “H&M supports the blockade. Boycott H&M.” The most common is the most direct, “Free Palestine;” another, though tucked in an alley, unseen and unassuming, the most honest, “Fuck Jews.” “I don’t know Hebrew,” says the professor. “I have no interest in learning Hebrew.” He is a nice man, even in these moments he seems approachable. Despite the gravity of the subject, he teaches with a smile, his glasses bobbing on the rises of jolly cheeks. “Hebrew,” he continues, “is an invented language. You know this? No? It is an invented language. When the Zionists came to Palestine and began to establish what would be the state of Israel, Hebrew was a dead language. It had words and an alphabet, but no grammar. And so they borrowed the grammar from Arabic.” The way he says Palestine, carefully enunciating each syllable, the English thin enough that the nuance of the Arabic voweling slips through, Filistiin. It’s reverential and majestic and nostalgic. “So no, I have no interest in learning Hebrew. It would be easy enough to do, it’s another Semitic language like Arabic, but I have no interest in it.” “You should,” interjects one of his students. “Why is that?” “Know your enemy.” “You’re from America?” Hasan asks as he places the sandwich on the grill. He takes off his sanitary plastic gloves and rubs the line of elastic where the hairnet has worn a groove across his forehead. “I like America. You know, it is not as we see it on 21 ♦ Somersault
the TV. I have a friend, he is studying in America. He says the blacks there are not so bad, but I see on the TV forty men, black men, fighting against one white man. But I know it is not this way, but I see it. The blacks – no, they are not so bad. America is not so bad as we think. I know this. “We have blacks here in Lebanon also, but I do not like them so much. It is not because of their color, the ones I know, it’s personal, you know? It’s personal.” His fingers slip again into another plastic glove and he flips the sandwich from the grill onto the butcher paper in which he wraps it. “Here you go,” he says. “Dejaaj kabob sandwich. You like the dejaaj? I like the chicken, too. I am vegetarian, yes? I only eat the vegetables, but I like the dejaaj, too.” Here, everything is variable. It’s late and Ahmad is drunk when he says, “We should go to the ferris wheel.” Ahmad is sitting on the patio with a pair of friends; he hasn’t even had that much, a tall beer and a scotch and coke before walking the three blocks to the neighborhood’s favorite expat bar. It’s nautical themed -- loops of sailing rope, a large, spoked steering wheel, a pair of flintlock pistols over the bar -- but people seem to overlook the décor at the Captain’s Cabin. The draw of Captain’s is the prices -- cheap bottles of Almaza beer, and the bartender doesn’t try to gouge the people who only speak English. Ahmad is in that stage of drunk where he talks quickly, eagerly, and everything sounds like a good idea. He’s hasn’t had that much to drink, and he’s not an expat, either, but all his friends are. He’s just a kid, a Lebanese kid who started school a year early and then skipped a grade and is now a sophomore in college at eighteen. He takes another sip of his beer. “No, seriously, we should go. We should go to the ferris wheel right now.” Supposedly there is a legal age for the consumption of alcohol, but like most laws in Lebanon, it goes unenforced. “Down by the waterfront, there’s this sort of rundown carnival with a couple of rides and a whole lot of rust,” he explains. “For what it is, it’s nice. It’s not great but it used to be a lot worse.” The carnival used to be decrepit, now it’s only in disrepair. Ahmad says that when he was a kid, by which he means younger than he is now, there was a day that the ferris wheel got away. Something happened and it just came unhinged. “I watched it roll down my street,” he says. He takes a moment to breathe between sentences, and while he does he looks over at the girls at the other table on the patio. Or maybe he looks through the door at the bar -- he’s already been warned by the bartender to keep his voice down while he’s on the patio. “Please,” the bartender had said, “for the people in the apartments upstairs. I don’t want them calling the police.” The police might require a bribe. Ahmad turns back to the conversation. December 2012 ♦ 22
“But they’ve fixed it up and it’s fine now. We should go!” It’s late, and Ahmad has to be up early the next morning. He has to drive south for a funeral. The plan is put off for another night. Here is a place subject to inconstancy. So many things are fickle -- the weather, the tide, the economy so tumultuous that the currency must be pegged at fifteenhundred lira to the dollar, the peace interrupted by paroxysms of violence every other summer. No one flinches when the lights go off, as they do once or twice each summer day. They know the power will return, something they take on faith. They believe -- they must believe -- that things that are gone will, in time, return. The new apartment blocks, built since the end of the war, cluster along the shore. From the balconies, wealthy businessmen peer over their newspapers to watch the students walking along Bliss Street, the fishermen and their sons clustering on the stony shore to cast for small mackerel and sole, the girls in bikinis sunning like mermaids or sirens under the awnings of the university’s private beach. Fifteen stories below the penthouse windows, soldiers carrying M-4 and AK-47 rifles stand at the gates, and in the evening, the wealthy draw down the metal shutters over their windows. The shutters are precautions, vestiges of a war that, perhaps, is not finished. There was a formal end, the signing of a power sharing agreement at Ta’if, but this was followed by another two years of violence, punctuated by the bomb that leveled the oldest building on the American University campus. After the bomb in 1991, there were fifteen years spent with the hand of Syria on the shoulder of the government; Lebanon was afforded being a single state again, but not a sovereign one. This only ended with the assassination of the Lebanese president, with the suspected collusion of Damascus. He is remembered as a martyr to the cause of Lebanese independence, his name memorialized throughout Beirut -- Rafic Hariri International Airport, Rafic Hariri Mosque, Rafic Hariri School of Nursing, the main thoroughfare of the city renamed Rafic Hariri Boulevard. Still, there persists the feeling, the foreboding dread that the armistice will not hold forever. In the evening, the metal shutters are still closed for the night. “We hear so much about these ‘national interests’ that the United States is so eager to pursue, but no one can ever tell me what these interests are.” Omar is finishing his third cigarette since sitting down at the table. He smoked two more on the fifteen-minute drive to the bar. The waitress has already brought him a fresh ashtray. “Can you tell me just what these ‘national interests’ are?” He smudges out the cigarette, leaving the butt leaning against the rim of the ashtray. 23 ♦ Somersault
“What interest to the United States is Israel? I don’t understand this. Is it because they have the nukes? I’ve heard the U.S. supports Israel because, if they don’t, the Jews on Wall Street will cause the stock market to crash. Are these the interests in Israel?” He listens, but his expression suggests skepticism, or maybe even outright doubt. He comes from a family of stubborn people. As he listens, he is tapping the pack of cigarettes against his open palm, drawing out a fresh Marlboro with his teeth, lighter already in hand. Everyone here smokes. They are set in their ways. Or maybe they are just a nation expecting to die young. “I have to go back to the Jabal for the weekend,” Serina says. To say so indicates her religion. The Jabal is Mount Lebanon, an enclave in the north which has served as a haven to the Maronites for hundreds of years. The national mythology of the country suggests that all of Lebanon is a sanctuary, that it has been the recourse of generations of people, Christian and Muslim, driven there by the successive conquests that passed through the Levant. This is, for the most part, true. The Maronites, the Imami Shia, the Ismaili Druze Sunni, each were at one time considered heretics and driven to find refuge in what would one day be Lebanon. Before becoming the home of Abrahamic misfits and blasphemers, it was home to the Phoenicians, who were conquered by the Persian empire of Xerxes, who continued through Thermopylae to Plataea. Alexander the Great pushed back the Persians two centuries later and, after his death, Lebanon and Syria were given to one of his generals. This administrative union of Lebanon and Syria would continue until 1920. There were the Romans, then their eastern splinter, the Byzantines, who first chased the Maronites to Jabal Lubnan. In the Seventh Century, only two years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, the Arab Conquest seized the Levant, which passed from caliphate to caliphate, from the Umayyads of Damascus, to the Abbasids of Baghdad, to the Fatimids of Cairo -- here the Muslim rule interrupted by the return of the Romans, their Frankish western heirs on the Holy Crusade establishing the brief Kingdom of Jerusalem, while the margins were held by Persian Seljuks. The whole of the region was retaken by the Ayyubids and their founder Salah al-Din, to be overtaken by their own Turkoman slave-warriors, who founded the Mamluk Sultanate, succeeded in turn by their Circassian slave-warriors, who retained the Mamluk name. Then from the Mamluks, the land passed to the Ottomans, who in their waning days allowed the French to intercede in the region of the Jabal as the protectors of the Gauls’ nearCatholic Maronite brethren. Only after World War I was modern Lebanon, or Greater Lebanon, considered distinct from Syria, a distinction many Syrians still resent and have tried to rectify. Lebanon is a region, not a people. For four-thousand years, a succession of empires have influenced the land and shifted its population, but at no point in its December 2012 ♦ 24
history has its people been unified as a single community. Lebanon received independence for the first time since the Phoenicians in 1947, and from the beginning its government was a delicate arrangement with numbers jiggered by outdated census data. Parliamentary seats were, and still are, apportioned by religion -- a rare system of government, called by political scientists “confessional democracy.” This collapsed in horrific fashion, with a bloody civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1991, typified by atrocities by all of its factions. Since the war’s end, there has been an uneasy truce, but the state is weak, remnants of the partisans remain strong, and the question of sustainability continues to weigh heavy on people’s thoughts. Lebanon has been a sanctuary for the unwanted of empires, a place for outcasts and exiles, but left to itself, many fear that Lebanon cannot be a sanctuary for Lebanon much longer. John is from New York -- he knows a dozen Arabic words that he can occasionally string into a sentence. When he gets back to Staten Island, he’ll try to explain to his friends the cab ride he took to Byblos: how he looks for a nice cab, but it is midafternoon and he is roasting, so when a twenty-year old Mercedes that rattles as it drives pulls up and the driver barks at him in Arabic, “Where?” he looks at the note he prepared and tries, “Uriid an athhab ila Jbeil.” “Where?” the cabbie barks again. “Jbeil.” In English, “Byblos? Jbeil?” The car behind starts to honk. The cabbie pulls him into the passenger seat and drives off. On a side street, he pulls over and stops a student. “Ask this tourist where he wants to go,” he tells the student in Arabic. “Where are you trying to go?” she asks. “I’m trying to go to Jbeil. You know, Byblos.” “Jbeil,” she says. “Jbeil?” “Yeah.” “Jbeil!” he says and hops back in the driver seat. He drives to the highway and floors the pedal, swerving around eighteen-wheelers. The car sounds like it is about to fall apart; John imagines the doors and engine components just peeling away from the chassis like a cartoon. He quickly realizes that the air conditioning is broken, as is the radio. He watches billboards slide past, larger-than-life images of beautiful women in short skirts, bottles of scotch whisky; most of the taglines are in English. The cabbie is Druze, obvious in the knit skullcap he wears and the broad moustache, yellowed like parchment, that curls over his lip. A sura from the Quran hangs from the rearview mirror. In the absence of conversation, the cabbie occasionally sings. John wishes he understood what the man is saying. After a half hour, the cabbie pulls over and asks someone at the side of the road 25 ♦ Somersault
to point him to Jbeil. He does this two more times, each time repeating his confused refrain, “Jbeil? Jbeil? Jbeil. Jbeil!” Finally, after an hour and a half, he arrives at the old Phoenician port, the next city up the coast from the Lebanese capital. It is only as he drives away that it occurs to John that the cabbie might never have driven to Byblos before now. One of the aspects of a confessional democracy is that parties are split along sectarian lines. If only one sectarian group forms a candidate’s electorate, then it is the only sectarian group to which the candidate is beholden. It is their constituency. Parties are divisive: Maronites for the Maronites, Druze for the Druze, Shi’a for the Shi’a. The confessional system in Lebanon is pervasive, whether because of the instability of the state or the recent history of political upheaval. Even the student body governments at the local universities are split along the national partisan lines. Students run according to religious allegiance, and garner the support of the sectarian national parties. “A modern society has six aspects of government: the three formal branches of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, and additionally the media, the political parties, and the interest groups,” the professor explains to the class. “In Lebanon, we don’t have the same involvement. The people may be more aware of international events and politics, but we do not have interest groups in the way that other countries have them and our political parties are underdeveloped and backwards.” “But our parties are everywhere,” a student says. “In our elections here at the university.” “It’s absurd!” the professor exclaims. “You are here at university to learn! To make the best of the time you have here.” The university’s motto written in English and Arabic astride the main gate reads, That they may have life and have it more abundantly. “You think if a member of one party is elected it should matter over another? That if a Maronite is elected, then Maronites will be favored? It shouldn’t be the case, but it’s the system you’ve made!” He drains his plastic demitasse cup of thick, bitter coffee and throws it angrily in the trash. “You should be working to have the best experience you can here, not being caught up in this.” He waves his hand absently, encompassing the classroom, the city, the country. “There is enough of this already.” Lebanon goes to war in the summer, or at least that’s been the case for the past decade. In June 2006, Hezbollah took Israeli soldiers captive, claiming they had strayed across the border, prompting a month of Israeli gunship strikes and Hezbollah rocket attacks: Cold War era, Soviet Katusha rockets lobbed across the southern border. Two years later, in May 2008, the Lebanese government tried to close December 2012 ♦ 26
Hezbollah’s landline communication network. Hezbollah responded by closing the road from Beirut to the airport and skirmishing in the streets. It stopped short of becoming the war that has been predicted, the war that has never ended in the past twenty years, only been postponed. The incidents are daunting harbingers, like the strange habits of birds that seem to augur catastrophic earthquakes. Now it is 2010, two years later and summer again. There are stirrings in the south. There is talk of an imminent war in Israel and Iran, and Israel will not go to war with Iran without neutralizing its hand in South Lebanon. They have all the casus belli they need -- there have been mutual accusations of espionage between Hezbollah and Israel in recent weeks, and the United Nations peacekeeping force along the border is being cowed into withdrawing to a more limited role. There are rumors of recent arms deliveries by way of Syria. Syria, too, is threatened, mostly by Iran’s gift of an early warning system to detect Israeli aircraft -- aircraft en route to destroy the Iranian nuclear reactor at Natanz. Other rumors abound: Israel has moved planes to Azerbaijan to bypass Syrian airspace, Israel has moved planes to Saudi Arabia and been given a green light by King Abdullah to use a corridor of Saudi airspace along its northern rim, an Israeli warship has accompanied an American armada to the Persian Gulf. European leaders have been quoted saying it’s almost certain that Israel will strike; for his part, the Saudi monarch has denied that he said, “Neither Israel or Iran deserve to be nations,” though it has been attributed to him. The summer grows hotter, but no one in Beirut seems to notice. The Lebanese are, by and large, a politically aware culture, but they seem unconcerned. It is an attitude of que sera, sera, a strange and eerie calm, but when fireworks are lit by children in the evenings, people hear the concussions and look south, expectantly. This is Jennifer’s theory: “It was the war and the hardship that made them like this. After being at war for so long, knowing only the uncertainty, when it ended, this is what they had to become. It’s reactionary, a pendulum swung to the other extreme. It’s a coping mechanism.” She waves off a beggar child and a man hawking the coils of prayer beads wrapped around his arm. She sits on the patio of a Western coffee shop on Hamra Street. Mercedes and BMWs pass in the street, interspersed with decomposing taxis of indiscernible make. Nearly everyone who walks past the café wears designer jeans, tattered at the right places, in the right ways. “Lebanon as you know it and I know it will not last,” the professor says to her class. “I hope I am wrong, but we are too divided. As one historian said, we are a house of many mansions.” Another professor: “The system, as it stands now – it is broken. It is biding its time, but if things continue, and I don’t see how they will not, it will collapse.” It is easy to imagine Jennifer sometime in the future, when the pendulum has swung back again. She will sit among friends in Manhattan, sipping a cosmopolitan and telling them, “You know, I used to spend my summers there, in 27 ♦ Somersault
Beirut. They all knew it was coming -- it was palpable, almost. But they weren’t holding their breath. They were doing everything, buying anything, while they had a chance. And it was like breathing to them.” This sprawling, hyperventilating city. When the war comes, it might look like this: Black smoke billows above the silo towers at the port. The security guards downtown look west warily, shading their eyes, talking hurriedly into their radios, the soldiers standing next to them regarding them cautiously. People step back from the Roman ruins, step out from the churches, step out from the latticed entryways of the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque -- the Hariri Mosque -- and stand in the shade of its turquoise dome. They glance at each other while watching the smoke plume in the distance above the statue at Martyrs’ Square. Sirens scream past. Somewhere, in the south of the city, the Shi’a are marching, a Hezbollah rally to mourn a beloved cleric. The people gathering on the sidewalk imagine they can almost hear them chanting. If this is it, they wonder, will I take a side, and will it be different from that of the person next to me, staring at the same column of smoke with the same fears, the same doubts? Someone, a tourist, asks a guard with a radio what is happening -- he responds, but the person does not understand, even if he spoke the same language there would be no way to understand. How could anyone, unless they had watched this before, had lived through the war years, all those years ago? The smoke billows higher. The whole city will burn, someday. But it is not today. Today there is a fire on a freight ship docked in the port, and that is all. Nothing more, nothing less, and the city does not stop, it will not stop. It wills itself not to stop. At Pizza Hut, there are only two sizes of pizza -- medium and large. They are made with beef pepperoni, ham being haram in Islam. Two blocks west on Bliss Street, past a Burger King, a McDonald’s, a Domino’s Pizza, a Krispy Kreme, and a Dunkin’ Donuts, at Hardee’s, there is a similar conspicuous absence of meats that are not halal. There is no bacon on the burgers, no burgers with onion rings and barbecue sauce. The red packet that comes with the chicken sandwich is Americana brand, labeled “Tomato Ketchup” in English and approximated in Arabic. Arabic, though, does not have the letter “p,” nor the “ch” sound. Transliterated back into English, the Arabic spelling would sound more like “kaatshub.” The taste of beef pepperoni, the word “ketchup” translated and returned as something changed and alien – this is the country in sum, a place at once familiar and foreign. It is late when Ahmad suggests the ferris wheel again. December 2012 ♦ 28
“We need to go, before you leave,” he presses his friend. It is a Friday night and the shoreline is alive with people. Mothers and fathers walk alongside children on small bicycles that teeter on training wheels. Young couples stand at the guardrail overlooking the sea bluffs, hand in hand. Ahmad laughs as he winds through the men with carts of sweet bread and bowls of narghile tobacco. Ahead, around the bend of the corniche, the carnival glows in a riot of colored bulbs. It is so bright, so gaudy, it should fit so well in this superficial city, but it doesn’t. It seems strange and out of place. There is a shooting gallery with an AK-47 that shoots BBs at crooked angles. A tourist poses with the gun raised in one arm like Rambo. There is a whirligig also, its cars situated along the skirts of a plaster statue of a woman, her arms outstretched like a dervish. The children’s eyes glint in the light of the moon and bare bulbs, each one clutching the rail of their car, waiting for the bolts to give way and send them careening across the fairground. Tonight, a boy will dream of a brace giving way and sending him flying across an ocean to a faraway country. The ferris wheel is taller than it looked from a distance. The carnival hand loads Ahmad and his two friends into the wire cage before pressing a button on the control panel. The wheel lurches forward before stopping to allow a couple to board in the next compartment. They look disappointed when they see Ahmad and his friends only one compartment over. Ahmad shrugs an apology their way. The wheel jerks and swings again. Across the street is a bluff with a small military watchtower and beyond is the city, the apartment blocks, tower hotels, and rooftop nightclubs. The skyline glistens in a hundred shades of reflected neon. It is only as the ferris wheel compartment is lofted into the cool sea breeze of the evening does Ahmad see just how rusted the joints of the wheel are; as it gets quieter, he can hear the mechanism groan on its own hinges. He points to it and laughs with his friends in giddy excitement. After, Ahmad reaches in his pocket and says to his friends, “I have more tickets.” They ride the ferris wheel again. “You are from America?” asks the cab driver. “I love America. I have cousin in America. America do good things for Lebanon.” He grins broadly as he searches for the right words. “You come to Lebanon. You learn some Arabic. That very good.” He fingers the silver cross he wears on a chain around his neck. “God bless you. God bless America,” he says, then, “God bless Lebanon. And no one else.”
29 ♦ Somersault
In the N train. Gregory Muenzen
December 2012 â™Ś 30
The Male Gaze and the Manic Pixie Torie Rose DeGhett
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), a popular pejorative for a recurring feminine archetype in contemporary art (particularly film), can be somewhat loosely defined as a female character who exists in her role exclusively for the development of the male lead, and who exhibits some of those qualities of femininity that elicit an almost reflexive love-to-hate response from many critics, think Zooey Deschanel's Summer in 500 Days of Summer or Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in Almost Famous. When Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club coined the now-ubiquitous term, he used it to snark Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown, describing the MPDG phenomenon as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." In many ways, criticism of the MPDG phenomenon has played fast and free with that definition: casting similarly-framed aspersions on any of those female characters considered "bubbly, shallow" creations that appeal to the sensitive. These are the female characters that wear thrift shop dresses and ribbons in their hair, who have live-in-the-moment life philosophies, who act as sexually-liberated muses and are culturally bound to that vague yet damning term: quirky. You all know her, and many of us have shunned her as false and irritating, yet she is far more complex and far less cookie cutter than many critics and viewers give her credit for. The MPDG as an element of cinematic criticism has gained surprising traction across the blogosphere in a short time, clearly tapping into a powerful undercurrent of shared sentiment. The critical concept does not exist entirely without good reason: the general means of portraying women on screen in typical film and television is impoverished and superficial. We should be critically discussing the social and aesthetic failings of characterizations of cinematic women. This essay, however, aims Torie Rose DeGhett freelances for a variety of publications, frequently writing about politics and music, and is a contributing arts writer at Aslan Media.
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to do that in defense of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character and, by extension, any other derided feminine character tropes with whom she keeps company. This is, yes, a defense of the Zooey Deschanels and the Ophelias and the Penny Lanes. Because they deserve it. To clarify, this is not a defense of the writers who carelessly create objects instead of women and plot points instead of teenage girls when writing their scripts. This is a defense of the idea of on-screen femininity, and a rejection of the notion that any character who does not manifest on the page or screen as a fully-formed "reality"based character is an empty stereotype with no authentic purpose. All the literary and cinematic female characters who have for eons been rejected as shallow, hysterical, flighty, mad and manic pixie dreamers in flower crowns deserve their voice and their representation, because rejecting a character as a means of rejecting a traditionalized representation of femininity, or as means of making worthless and inferior hosts of supporting roles for women, is poor criticism. Fair warning: this essay contains some unavoidable movie spoilers. In "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism," Elaine Showalter mounted a defense of the character Ophelia, a character whose critical history actually bears a great deal of similarity to the discussion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls. (As do some other classic literary characters, if you consider them). Showalter opens her essay with a criticism of noted psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, taking him to task for failing to discuss Ophelia as anything but "the object Ophelia," cynically presenting her as only functional in subordinate relationship to the character Hamlet. In her subsequent discussion of the long history of approaching Ophelia from both within and without the feminist critical community, Showalter concludes that we have a responsibility when speaking of the character to do just that, to speak for her and about her as a complex character worth examining. Ophelia's story is then not simply the story of Ophelia as a feminist symbol, or Ophelia as reduced "to a metaphor of male experience," but the story of her interpretation throughout the ages. The stories of Manic Pixie Dream Girls are not necessarily the stories of female characters that need saving or demonizing, or female characters who exist solely for the male protagonists and writers and viewers. Their story is the story of how we interpret them and why we do. The question of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the question of the male gaze. In this she is not separate from any of the host of female characters, and the icons and tropes on which they are based, in most traditional Hollywood cinema and in contemporary television. Zooey Deschanel, as she has been designated (with a great deal of implied how dare she) by the more judgmental corners of the Internet as some sort of national representative for beribboned, wide-eyed, girly frivolity (cootie shots available at your local Walgreens), is one of the most notable faces attached to these roles, both in cinematic depictions as Summer in that paragon of indie music antiDecember 2012 â™Ś 32
Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
romance, 500 Days of Summer, and on television as quirky, flaky, trying-to-find-herselfamidst-a-flock-of-manboys Jess Day on FOX's New Girl. In fact, the audiences and the critics have extended her identification with that character type so far that Deschanel herself has become something of a celebrity embodiment of the Manic Pixie, with everything from her trademark doe eyes to her girlish fashion sense and her development of the girl-centric entertainment site HelloGiggles, becoming the object of a strange form of combined idolization and derision. Summer in 500 Days of Summer took the reins away from Claire (Dunst) in Elizabethtown as the primary example of the MPDG trope in the minds of critics and audiences, in part through 500 Days' up-to-date imagination of indie-hipster aesthetic taste and its associations with the actors involved. It became a hate-watched hallmark of love-gone-wrong triteness. The problem with the narrative of the character of Summer as the aggravatingly empty hipster embodiment of what Jezebel so graciously referred to as a "cinematic scourge," is that it plays into the very power of the male gaze as transforming and socially imprisoning. The male gaze is a concept brilliantly elaborated on by Laura Mulvey, most particularly her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which combines feminism and psychoanalysis in assessments of the male gaze in three Hitchcock films. In it she writes that "power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman...." The guilt of the 33 â™Ś Somersault
woman in psychoanalytic interpretations is a symbolic representation of castration, making her under the male gaze, both the object of desire and of accusation - a perfect encapsulation of Tom Hansen's feelings for Summer over the course of the movie. These criticisms of 500 Days, and other movies with the Manic Pixie character, ignore the multi-layered combination of gazes that is the scopophilic, voyeuristic male gaze in cinema. The male gaze is not always, and here's where it gets tricky, done by a man. It is not simply the vision, the projection, the viewing by men of women, but the way in which men see women, and the way in which that dominant view becomes internalized by women themselves when they turn their scrutiny on other women, in real life or on screen. This particular lens is the one used by audience for the film, and the subgroup made up of the critics themselves, and the formative interaction between the two. It also includes the gazes of the director, and of the screenwriter. And finally, the male gaze includes the artificial, yet entirely powerful perspective of the male characters inside the narrative, a gaze that could not exist without any of the others, but which wields incredible power over them. In 500 Days of Summer, the ignored, uncritiqued male gaze is that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sad-sack sentimental character, the unlucky-in-love, cynical and betrayed protagonist in the saga of that bitch Summer. Everything we see of Summer, we see through the gaze of Tom Hansen, who moves from adoration to hatred in his quest to own Summer. And that is what his quest is: not to be with her, not to love her, but to have her. 500 Days of Summer should not be mistaken for being uncritical of Tom, who provides us with a fractured, unreliable narrative of the relationship he has with Summer. Tom is introduced to us by the voice-over narration as rather irreversibly distorted in his imaginations of romance as a result of over-exposure to sad British pop music. His becomes the only lens through which the audience is encouraged to interpret Summer's actions, the actions of a complicated individual whose skittish reaction to the idea of commitment and marriage are explained to us quite early on in the film. We actually do hear Summer speak for herself in the film: repeatedly, in fact. Because Tom Hansen does not listen, neither do most of the audience and most of the critics. She is repeatedly up front with him about her beliefs about love and relationships, ones that Hansen mostly ignores in his quest to make her his own. These same original beliefs of hers are, however, ones on which he bases his harsh judgments of her eventual marriage to another man. If you re-watch 500 Days of Summer, conscious of the unreliability of Tom's character and perspective and questioning of his interpretations of events, you realize that Summer, while flawed, was never in herself really a Manic Pixie, nor did Tom own the rights to a relationship with her. She was only such a thing in Tom's imagination and thus in ours. To herself, Summer was always just flawed old Summer, with divorced parents and a complicated relationship with the idea of romance and commitment. Re-watching this movie with all of this in mind also offers a look at the decidedly December 2012 â™Ś 34
creepy characterization of Tom Hansen himself, a trait he shares with a number of other male characters in these movies, like Paul Dano's Calvin in Ruby Sparks or Zach Braff in Garden State. When you think about this guy, he's an entirely recognizable and unappealing representation of a certain brand of 21st-century masculinity. I'm sure, in fact, that there's an entire essay somewhere in this alone. The end result of Tom Hansen's heartbreak is the result of crumbled fantasy, a fantasy shared by him and by many in the audience. Tom Hansen is the ultimate depiction of that guy (you probably know someone like this) who feels that, by dint of being in love with a woman, by offering her up his adoring, objectifying gaze, that he is owed something in return. Summer does not owe Tom Hansen anything, nor does she owe anything to her critics. And in the story, she actually knows this, which is what makes 500 Days of Summer a useful tool for examining the relationships the male gaze has with the conflict between the real and the abstract sense of heterosexual femininity. The scourge of cinema isn't the silenced, reduced female character, nor even the sense of scopophilia that drives the popularity and the aesthetic and commercial need for cinema, but rather the male gaze. Perhaps male gaze is more properly described as the patriarchal gaze, but all the same, it is that which deceives the audience, the creators and the characters into creating and allowing the rigidity of the constraints around the female narrative voice. Gayatri Spivak asked "Can the subaltern speak?" Can they have an authentic literature of their own that can still be read and understood by a Western or global audience? In order to be understood, authenticity is sacrificed. In order to be seen onscreen, to be seen within the masculinized scrutiny of society, the female character loses her authenticity in the view of the audience, and is blamed for it. Why do we so readily call Summer a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Or for that matter, Deschanel herself? I'm sure few critics and bloggers actually know her personally, but still we have effortlessly draped over her the mantle of this particular trope, one I'm sure no one actually exactly fits, even her. Yes, yes, we've all seen the ribbons in her hair, but neither that nor her big eyes, nor for that matter her quirky sense of femininity, as lampooned by Abby Elliott on Saturday Night Live, are indicative of all of her internal self and personality, which would be impossible for us to know. Discussions of Manic Pixie Dream Girls often describe them in terms that treat such characters as reifications of a fetishized abstract concept: that of the perfect woman, or a version of her. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, both as a critical and a creative concept, is just another manifestation of the angel turned monster of feminine representation in a masculine culture (see: HĂŠlĂ¨ne Cixous's "Laugh of the Medusa"). The MPDG occupies a place contradictory yet all too familiar: she is the imagined ideal of some man's perfect heterosexual (and virtually always white) woman, but remains culturally despised for occupying that place of desire under the male gaze. This combination of lust and repulsion sounds strange, but is utterly in keeping with the ways in which women, 35 â™Ś Somersault
fictional or no, are treated and considered in Western culture. One of the embedded rejections held within the backlash to characters lumped into the Manic Pixie category is a rejection of the female audience to which these movies, these Cameron Crowe romances and these hipster love playlist flicks, are directed. How many Manic Pixies have existed outside of what might be unkindly or carelessly termed, the "chick flick" genre? If a narrative has been crafted for a female audience, it is automatically inferior in its literary and aesthetic qualities. It is not the same to criticize the small scope of film types that are marketed to women as women's narratives, as it is to reject female or feminine stories as second-class in nature. Critics do not do women a service by treating such creative product as unworthy of attention. This gets worse the closer one gets to pop culture narrative marketed to teenage girls, who have become the cultural red flag for shallowness and poor taste, and unnecessarily and cruelly so. To so broadly categorize this type of female character is itself an erasure, a reduction, of all the possibility that character holds, to all that we should defend about these women who are silenced under the gaze of the critics, the audience, the creators, their fellow characters. What we should reject with broad stroke is not these women, but the traditionality, the male-centrism of contemporary, mainstream Western film that stifles creative female characters or treats them as secondary. Generalizations like these allow us to dismiss the place of supporting role female characters and the actresses who take those roles, and to ignore the places where they have potential, where they have interest value, creativity and strength and where they differ from one another. Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's is certainly a quirky ne'er-do-well girl who's had a cinematically sanitized onscreen life and whose presence in the storyline of Paul changes his writerly life for the better. She's also a fairly independent-minded person whose storyline is an interesting narrative of class-meets-gender, with an interesting examination of the phony, unsatisfactory version of exploited success she has crafted for herself. And she is certainly not the secondary or supporting role character in the film. Her inclusion in the MPDG critical lens, however, treats her character as one of a group seen as small, mindless, and relatively interchangeable. This is not to say there aren't plenty of things wrong with this film (most notably the horribly racist depiction of the Asian neighbor by Mickey Rooney), but that the character made so famous by Audrey Hepburn is deserving of individualized consideration, not as part of a host of poorly-thought-of female characters. Another careless aspect of the creation of the MPDG critical construct is the use of the term manic, a word choice that immediately casts judgment upon mental health. One of the places where patriarchal constructs have served to do contemporary women the greatest harm is through the inclusion of sexism and misogyny and heteronormativity in the medical field. By titling these characters manic, critics venture into pop psychology, diagnosing certain expressions of femininity as mentally undone, December 2012 â™Ś 36
as if being the recipient of the objectifying, abstractifying male gaze is the fault of their own internal psyche. The history of this in science and in literary and popular culture is compendious, one which would not be adequately addressed by a full-volume set of encyclopedias. The madness of women, either the genuine madness at the hands of the system that silences (for this see Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Ophelia herself), or as falsely designated by the male gaze is present in the accusatory nature of the audience's perception of female characters. It is present in the judgment handed down on Penny Lane for her destructive relationship with Russell Hammond and her membership in the groupie set the Band-Aids and on Summer for daring to love someone not our protagonist. In the recently-released film Ruby Sparks, the eponymous character (who is not the film's protagonist, but is certainly the most sympathetic), is quite literally a piece of fiction, a real live girl conjured out of the lonely, sensitive imaginings of a not-so-likeable modern-day Pygmalion, who has the power to control her personality with his typewriter. The film, while read by some as a backlash to the presence of Manic Pixie Dream Girls in a cinematic lexicon that spans from Bringing Up Baby to Garden State, is more accurately a backlash to the backlash, a presentation of the ambiguities of creating fictional women by making a character that is fictional on top of fictional. Critics are eager to see Ruby Sparks as a film that's on their side: a cinematic antiMPDG manifesto, what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did, but more overt. That's unlikely. The film's writer, and its lead actress, Zoe Kazan has served up what is by far the most vocal rejection of the critical lens through which general consensus and the blogosphere have deemed the MPDG to be seen. In an interview, when asked about her deconstruction of the trope she shot back: "It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it... But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person." One of the elements of the MPDG critique that Ruby Sparks brings up with the interplay of fiction and reality inside a piece of fiction is the criticism frequently launched at the MPDG: she's not real, she does not exist in reality. Perhaps no women walk among us who live their lives exactly like Holly Golightly or Natalie Portman's Sam from Garden State, but it is also a stretch to conclude that no women exist with flighty imaginations, ribbons in their hair and full-throated embrace of indie weirdness as at least a temporary philosophy of life. As bell hooks reminds us in From Reel to Real, film is not actually reality, and we should not ask it to be. (Nor do we really want it to be.) Film has a complicated relationship with social reality, it is influenced by it and profoundly influences, but it isn't a mirror of it. 37 ♦ Somersault
The ultimate struggle of this character is to exist on her own, something the audience is often unwilling to let her do, even though she is repeatedly criticized for being subordinated to other characters. Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the sci-fi magical realism film whose Kate Winslet lead is often considered the anti-MPDG, said it best: "I'm not a concept. Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive, but I'm just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours." A number of people use that statement as an argument against the Manic Pixie and all she has been used to stand for, but in fact, if anything it sounds to me like an argument on her behalf. An argument for a little bit of critical respect. We should acknowledge the place the audience and the critics have, not just the writers, in attempting to assign these characters their own rigid places in our minds.
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Italian sketchbook: Bruce drawing a statue in Rome. Gregory Muenzen
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Don't Forget to Be Awesome: The Small But Epic Politics of Nerdfighters TaylorKate Brown
On August 16, 2009 John Green sat down on his porch and looked directly into a camera. Above his face was the title: The healthcare overhaul explained via pig. It was not a partisan screed about overweight healthcare pigs or welfare moms. John had recently gone to the Indianapolis state fair, saw the largest pig the state of Indiana had to offer that year and come to the conclusion that it was an excellent metaphor for the US healthcare system. "Walkin’ Tall -- the World's Largest Boar who can't walk – reminded me a little bit of America's health care system," Green said. "Depending on your perspective, he's either impressively huge or distressingly huge.” Green wasn't just shouting into the YouTube void. (He wasn't shouting at all, because in John Green's world that's not necessary when you're using your brain.) As a YA novelist, John Green slings metaphors for a living, but for the past few years he's ended up with a part-time gig as a videoblogger and as the unofficial co-mayor of a growing Internet community. He is one half of the five-year YouTube experiment turned full-fledged online community: VlogBrothers, started with his younger brother Hank, as a way to connect from across the country. “Hello, John. By now you have received my message that we will no longer be communicating through any textual means.” "Good morning, Hank. It's January 2nd, 2007. I just spent 2 hours and 13 minutes downloading your 2 minute and 1 second video, which can mean only one thing: that I'm at mom and dad's house – the last residence in the United States of America with dial-up internet." So began the first back and forth of John and Hank Green's yearlong experiment to reconnect with each other without "textual communication," which meant no emails and no texts. Instead they would be able to call each other by phone, and more importantly, were required to send each other a video blog every weekday. Hank would start on Monday, then John would respond on Tuesday, back to Hank on Wednesday and so on. There would be punishments for Taylor Kate Brown is an online writer with the BBC, but the internet has always been her home. She tweets at @taylorkatebrown.
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breaking the textual communication barrier, chosen by the non-offending brother, and challenges - partially to give them something to talk about, partially because they were brothers, and that's what brothers do, even when they are full-grown men. "In the end, text is a very empty form of communication," Hank told NPR at the end of the year, describing the brothers' relationship before the vlog. "When you go from actual physical presence to spoken word and then another step we moved to text, it becomes a much more shallow way of communicating." John, the elder brother, was 29 and recently married to Sarah. They lived in New York City and he was in the process of writing his third book for young adults. Hank, then 26, lived in the college town of Missoula, Montana, and was also recently married to a woman named Katherine. He ran the environmental-techie blog EcoGeek, and in his spare time, messed around on this guitar. At the beginning both brothers spoke slowly and haltingly, speaking face on into the camera. Sometimes they'd cut in footage they'd filmed during their day. Hank's first video shows footage of a New Year's eve party. They did it for a whole year, carried video cameras around with them, making friends and complete strangers give the introduction to some videos. As the year passed, the brothers spoke and cut faster. More importantly, they started speaking directly to the viewers outside the brotherhood. And then they gave them a name: Nerdfighters
John (left) and Hank (right) throw up the Nerdfighters sign. Video screenshot by author.
What's a Nerdfighter? The simple answer, according to the Greens: "people who are made of awesome and decrease world suck." It's also the name for the viewers and fans of VlogBrothers, who have been making videos for each other and their fans for more than five years. If you want to be a Nerdfighter, you probably already are, the brothers say. 41 â™Ś Somersault
It's hard to pin down the membership of a group where anyone can decide to join up at any time, but there are some clues. When John or Hank record a crowd saying "Good morning," it looks (and sounds) female. The same goes for the crowds featured in the book tour of The Fault is in Our Stars, John's most recent book. Other groups, though, like the Nerdfighters Kiva group, are more male. The YouTube statistics for brotherhood videos in 2012 show that the top three demographic groups are females 13-17, females 18-24 and males 13-17. YouTube trends towards these demographic groups in the first place, but John has also written several very successful young adult novels. There's no question that the VlogBrothers subscribers have grown with John's readership. As the brothers have become part of an online vlogger niche, they've also gathered an audience from connections to other YouTube personalities and projects they've spearheaded. The brothers understood early on that they had an audience. "There was some discussion about us as role models and binge drinking," Hank said in an April 2007 video, referring to a challenge laid-down by John to drink an entire bottle of Strawberry Hill wine and spit out the phrase: "Political situation in Nepal." At first he sarcastically poked at the idea that a fan might see that as an actual invitation to excessive drinking, "I'd really like to try that sometimes because Hank looked like he was having a blast.” But in the rest of the video he worries about what he should share with their evergrowing audience. Yes, he's communicating with his brother, but he’s also communicating with all of their younger viewers. John picked up the theme in the next video. "I don't know about you, but I actually kind of do consider myself a role model, at least in some ways. I mean, I'm cognizant of the fact that there are young people watching this show, including, like, three year olds," John says. "It's inevitable that your behavior is shaped by the people around you, whether that means the people physically around you, like your parents, and your siblings, and your friends and coworkers. Or whether that means the people that are only virtually around you, like, say, Lindsay Lohan, or, Christiano Ronaldo." John also pushed back against a "simplistic notion of role modeling." It would become a common theme for him: that most everything in real life defies simplicity and reduction. As far as role models go, a young audience could have far worse to look up to. Both brothers are successful in professions that involve an unusual level of hustle and creativity. They are interested in and care about people beyond their immediate family and want to make a difference in the world, even if they feel like they fail live up to their principles sometimes. Nerdfighters grew, in part, because of the consistent empathy and inquisitiveness of the brothers in a way that owns up to imperfection. Once in an early video Hank worried that attending the Detroit Auto Show as a blogger didn’t match up with his own values as an environmentalist. John had his own introspective crises. “Hank, to be perfectly honest, I found December 2012 ♦ 42
myself more worried about a gas explosion in Bozeman, Montana, 200 miles away from your house, then I was about the fragile situation in Bangladesh,” John said in 2009, referencing a political situation to which the brothers had worked to call attention. “Which makes me hate myself. What I'm arguing, Hank, is that intimacy leads to empathy. Clearly I've got some work to do to get it into my caveman brain that people I don't physically know can still be really real.” But, they start again tomorrow, and they have each other to hold accountable. The first sign the Green brothers were going to use their videos to do more than simply rant without screaming and make jokes about pants was an early punishment John made for Hank: to buy and eat 100 of the sugar-whipped confections known as peeps. The twist was that how ever many peeps he didn't finish in a six minute window, Hank would donate that many dollars to a new bank account John had set up: Brotherhood 2.0 Fund For Decreasing Suck Levels Worldwide. What would they do with that fund? "For instance, maybe we'll send Milica [a Nerdfighter] to a concert, and then after that, maybe we'll help cure malaria," John said. Hank's $85 donation (he did not eat very many peeps), combined with a few other contributions made up the beginning of the Brotherhood 2.0 Fund. That initial amount of money increased exponentially when the brothers organized a project behind the scenes with Nerdfighters. On December 17, 2007, Nerdfighters uploaded videos to YouTube advocating for their favorite charity, then immediately spent time commenting on and liking each other's videos. Called the Project for Awesome, the effort moved those calls for charity into the top commented list on YouTube, where they received a viewership far wider than just the Nerdfighters, which was at the time a fairly small community. It was the perfect Nerdfighting move: gaming YouTube's algorithm for good. Project for Awesome has continued each year, and while the Greens are joined by other YouTube personalities in pushing the project, it still retains that VlogBrothers/Nerdfighters feel. Defining world suck is an even harder proposition that defining a Nerdfighter, but consider what the Vlogbrothers and the Nerdfighters have put their efforts toward in the last few years. Through the power of email, Nerdfighters got a book by Maureen Johnson (a friend of the vlog and fellow young adult author) unbanned from a local school library. Two years later, Nerdfighters made a similar move to protect one of John Green's own books. In 2008, the Nerdfighters, helped raised money to build schools and water filtration plants in Bangladesh. Along with the Harry Potter Alliance, they donated four helicopters full of medicine and water to Haiti post-earthquake. The last helicopter out was called the SS DFTBA: Don't Forget to Be Awesome, the Nerdfighters' official motto. After Esther, a 16-year-old Nerdfighter with thyroid cancer who shared videos and 43 ♦ Somersault
helped run projects through the Effyeahnerdfighters Tumblr, died in 2010, her parents set up a fund to help with costs associated for families of young people with cancer. The brothers sell a wristband, with the message “This Star Won't Go Out,” and the proceeds from it go to that fund. Nerdfighters are also the fastest growing new user base on Kiva, a site which connects needy borrowers with willing lenders, and have made $1.5 million in loans. There is no shortage of online communities coming together to donate to charity or raise awareness. What distinguishes the Nerdfighters is their collaboration around smaller projects to decrease suck. On the Your Pants forum (an old Nerdfighters joke) and recently on the Ning group, Nerdfighters are floating new, smaller projects: Dylan wants to create a charity album with musician Nerdfighters as he finishes a music degree, Jarod asks for advice about how to quit smoking, Melissa asks for votes for a technology grant for which her school has been nominated. Nerdfighters helped find some stolen objects from a house burglary in Philadelphia. Nerdfighters projects don't necessarily have to change the world. Maybe they just help a local community, or offer some kind words to a family member during a tough time, or even just create a project that is fun and brings joy. But there is an implicit theme here: improving lives in small ways all the time adds up to a larger charge. But does it? Nerdfighter Olof Pettersson is happy about how big the community is on Kiva, but is concerned about the effects of developing economies on the environment. What if fighting world suck accidentally increases it instead? Pettersson wrote some of his big thoughts about the environment on the Nerdfighters forum, knowing he has to have more people on board for the difference he's looking for. "The Project I'm going to start ... is to try and tackle big environmental crisis's [sic]. The Project will NOT be about feeding the hungry, it will NOT be about sending children to school although this will hopefully be achieved in the long run anyway [sic]. What our aim will be, is to fix big problems in and around areas where no one else will do it." Pettersson’s aim is very different than many classic Nerdfighter projects and it gets at a very old tension – how much can one small set of motivated people do? Should a Nerdfighter focus solely on their own actions by being the change they want to see in the world? Or should they agitate for policy changes, but in doing so risk being co-opted by a political process more interested in power and self-interest? Many activists do both, but Nerdfighters – like the brothers – are not generally activists. They are people who hold generally shared values of how things should be, but they wake up in the morning rightly preoccupied with their families and their jobs or school and are already confused enough about what choices are truly ethical. There are very few broad policy-based political movements not tied to elections December 2012 ♦ 44
anymore. Interest groups have gotten incredibly good at motivating those are their own choir through targeted campaigns and social media. While Nerdfighters aren’t a political movement, neither brother has shied away from discussing policy or politics. These discussions are as in keeping with the VlogBrothers ethos as John answering questions with peanut better smeared all over his face or Hank writing existential songs about anglerfish. Hank got into the shower fully clothed to discuss net neutrality, and then used his free time in New Orleans to discuss why SOPA would be a bad law. As Hank is a huge proponent of making fun important, he prank calls people with positive facts (“Hi, this is Hank Green of the VlogBrothers, and I just wanted to let you know that cancer rates are decreasing significantly year over year.” ) John likes to get into complicated political and economic topics – the US debt, why we don't have the dollar coin, the financial crisis, oil pricing – taken on in under four minutes. He’s discussd why Islam is not a monolith and why people in poverty need empathy, not pity.
Hank explains net neutrality. Video screenshot by author.
Beneath the topics they discuss there's a deeper message: that policy and politics can be part of an intellectual life without overwhelming it, and that talking politics doesn't have to mean shouting. This makes a huge difference if you consider the VlogBrothers’ likely audiences. For 16 or 17 year olds, there are going to be a lot of fresh ways to be disappointed in the world coming up for you in the next five to ten years, but if the VlogBrothers made it through intact, and still give a damn, why can't you? 45 ♦ Somersault
The Green brothers are still at it, although they've cut down to two videos a week, one per brother. It makes sense, as they independently take care of their own and collaborative projects. When YouTube came calling, in 2011, the brothers joined forces to create a fun-for-you educational series called "Crash Course" and "Sci-Show." Hank teaches science topics like ecology and John teaches world history and literature. Hank is now one of several acts backed by his own DFTBA Records, a record label that signs talent found on YouTube, and sells items related to all things VlogBrothers. The educational channels, backstopped by an initial investment from Google, even fit in with the larger worldview of the VlogBrothers: using your brain and caring about how the world got to this point is important, but having fun while doing it is essential. Crash Course has almost 390,000 subscribers, and SciShow has over 350,000. Both are among the more popular of YouTube's original content channels. As the VlogBrothers continue to grow their audience. It appears that the more the VlogBrothers talk about things they care about and about decreasing world suck, the more successful they become. It's a political message, and a hopeful one, that's getting a huge reception.
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Clowns for Peace: Micael Bogar and AntiWar Protest Elle Deau
Washington, D.C. shut down some of its streets that day. Instead of cabs and busses, sign-carrying protestors clad in anti-war pins covered the pavement. It was the fall of 2008 and public anger with the Iraq war had hit a tipping point. Micael Bogar stayed up the night before painting a banner. She wanted to get it just right. That morning, she smeared white make-up on her face and affixed a red wig to her head, using nearly 50 bobby pins to get it to stay, and dressed herself in the outfit she had carefully chosen – a sequin vest, red and white leggings, black flats (better to walk in), and a plastic red nose. “I was shaking with nerves,” she says now. Before joining the masses on the National Mall, Micael (which, she will tell you, rhymes with “like hell”) had second thoughts. She worried that maybe she had lost her mind. Ultimately, she was undeterred, because when the outfit was complete, when she was dressed and set to go, it all felt right, not necessarily comfortable, but right. “It felt like how one might feel in a prom dress,” she explains. “The dress may feel a little tight or something, but it feels good, so it’s worth it.” The day was cool, but unexpectedly turned warm. Micael turned a corner, as she reached the mall, and immediately people took notice of her. “I was frozen with fear but people started to come over and ask to take my picture,” she recalls. She unfurled her banner, which said Make Art not War with an image of a clown. “I started to feel very brave and proud.” She spent the day taking hundreds of photographs with strangers. Micael noticed that as she navigated the protest dressed as a clown, the energy shifted. “People were laughing and taking pictures and talking to each other,” she says.
Elle Deau is a thesis project away from an MFA in film and digital media. She works full time creating digital content and managing online communities for an awardwinning, jobcreation focused, public affairs organization. Elle aspires to be a documentary filmmaker one day. Elle Deau, if you’re interested, is a pseudonym.
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“There was a sense of revelry and play that rarely exists in this setting.” She took it all in, the joy, the fun, the creativity and conversation, but her brother Jason never escaped her thoughts. She couldn’t help but think of how he would have liked what she was doing, how he would have been impressed and proud of “I can still remember the laughter of playing with him and knowing full well that it would end in him hitting me too hard or throwing me off the couch,” Micael, now 31, and a young Tracey Ullman look-alike, remembers. “But I always wanted to play with him.” Just two years apart in age, the siblings (as well as an older sister, Carise) grew close after their parents divorced, while they were still in elementary school.The fighting didn’t stop, but the relationship changed. Micael explains this as the unspoken closeness siblings share when they deal with pain. “(Our parents) broke our hearts in a way,” she explains. As young adults, Micael and Jason embarked on seemingly parallel (though entirely different) international journeys. Micael joined the Peace Corps and headed to Azerbaijan to teach English and theater, while Jason left on his first tour to Iraq as a mem ber of the U.S. army. While they were abroad they emailed constantly. Micael was in awe of the poetic nature of her little brother’s emails: the way he described the cities he visited, and his awareness of the rights of women in the Middle East. There were typos and the text was written with the raw energy that she came to identify with Jason, but in his shared thoughts she witnessed him maturing. She regrets deleting that email account – losing those words that allowed her to see her little brother in a different light. “We formed an unspoken connection and after a few years of our travels we agreed no one in our family would ever understand the perspectives that we had, having seen the world in such similar, yet different ways,” Micael says. “We understood each other in a real, honest way.” Micael valued those rare moments, when she and Jason were both at home in Seattle. Gone were the days of piling pillows and catapulting off the couch. Now when they saw each other it was a reunion with an old friend, the kind where words aren’t necessary. The Bogars’ separate journeys continued. Micael, who was, at the time, pursuing a Master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, received a Fulbright Fellowship in the Republic of Georgia. She studied nonprofit, civil society level conflict resolution. Concurrently, she worked with Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed – organizing a conference of artists from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Georgia. Jason headed on a tour of Afghanistan. As part of the conference, Micael worked with a cirque theater troupe, to put on a performance the final night of the gathering. December 2012 ♦ 48
She was with the troupe, rehearsing in their home-space, a run-down, old Soviet building, complete with dust-covered artifacts of the Cold War era, when she received a message from the embassy to call her mother. “She asked me if I was sitting down,” Micael recalls. “I just told her to tell me.” Jason had been killed in Afghanistan . Micael’s screams broke the stillness of the old industrial building. Performers ran out of the rehearsal spaces to see what had happened and found her shaking on the ground. “I screamed so loud but I barely felt a thing,” she says. “I felt as if I was in a nightmare. Like I had woken from a dream.”A friend escorted Micael back to her apartment.“I wanted to crawl out of my body. The pain was visceral. I was on the floor for a while. It felt like the bones had been stripped out of my body. I've never felt pain like that before and haven't felt pain like that since.” Micael returned to the U.S. for Jason’s memorial and reassessed her life. She made a decision in the aftermath of Jason’s death – one that has shaped the four years since – she decided to start clowning.
Micael is on the left.
Micael fell in love with clowning as an art form in 2006 during an internship with Teatro Zinzanni, a cabaret style variety show, in Seattle. After losing her brother, she began to see clowning as more than just a way to entertain; now she saw the potential 49 ♦ Somersault
of clowning as a tool for social change. Jason’s death propelled her to think about social protest in a new way. She wanted to shake things up – to counter anger, and disillusionment in the anti-war movement. She had spent time during graduate school and in her travels analyzing the way protests transpired and she knew she could bring something unique. For one, she had a knack for using colors and witty signs to draw attention. But more importantly, she had ideas, ones rooted in constructivism. She believed we create our own reality through the thoughts and actions we choose, and she knew she could apply those philosophies to protests. Micael hated the echo chamber the most anti-protests created. She believed outside parties, like military personnel or spectators, were being neglected and thus their voices were omitted from the conversation. She thought that challenging those old, often repeated ideas with celebration, play, colors, laughter, art, and expression could help create an environment where discussion might shift to alternatives to war. “Demonstrating for peace stopped being a hobby and became a life passion,” she says. “Losing Jason to the war made me take the act of working to create a more peaceful world more seriously, which in turn, led me to clown.” And so, on that unseasonably warm day in 2008, when she pinned on her red wig and smeared her face with white make-up, she also draped Jason’s dog tags around her neck. In the following months and years, Micael emailed friends asking them to join her in clown attire at local demonstrations. She attended events and performances in D.C. and accrued contact information of like-minded artists. Over time she built up a small group of people who joined her at rallies. Some of these people were friends, looking for a new experience, while others belonged to more formal performance troupes in D.C. One of her fondest clowning memories is the day she and her group crashed Occupy D.C. The clowns set up a booth called “OccuWHY” where they asked Occupiers to think critically about their experiences. The booth included poster board and markers and the clowns requested Occupiers answer questions like “When do you know you’re done?” and “What does this movement mean to you?” Micael believed the experiment at Occupy was a huge success. At the time she wrote on her blog: What excited us is the way so many talented people could come together to explore and play in a way that not only brought laughter and community, but also showed the potential for creativity and even circus to transform protest. Protest is so often thought of as an angry action, however what sort of changes would creativity and laughter bring to this element? It is not only a question worth December 2012 ♦ 50
asking, it is an action worth exploring. Micael continues exploring. Currently, she’s in California, barely two months into a nine-month program exploring clowning and physical theater. “We study the way we use our bodies to create theatre that has meaning,” she explains about the program. “We study the way nature influences theater, we study and explore the way we use our bodies in space. We work to gain an awareness of the way we use our bodies in our everyday lives so that we may discard our habits in order to take on other characters.” Despite being not even a third of the way through the program, she feels her point of view “as an artist in relation to the natural world and the socially constructed world” already beginning to shift. “I am literally in clown school…I am delving into the abyss of what it means to create theater that is connected to truth and honesty.” Part of that education is physical, and part is more emotional, an effort to bring more maturity and connection to the performance. She wears less make-up, focuses on being in the moment, and finding the most joyful and playful approaches when she clowns. “I focus on pain and vulnerability,” she says. “When I initially stepped out into public as a clown I hadn't the slightest clue that the actual world of clown had the power to heal me. It has allowed me to come more into my own as a human being.” The healing may not have seemed possible in the dusty post-Soviet warehouse in Georgia, but since then, Micael has used clowning to learn to laugh through pain and failure. While she’s not sure if she’ll ever return to clowning at protests, she remains excited about future possibilities. She recently applied for a grant to bring Clowns without Borders to Peru. More imminently, she and some of the other participants in her program will begin clowning at a senior center, where she hopes they’ll get the elderly on their feet, and sharing stories. Her parents and sister support her choices – leaving D.C. behind, enrolling in clown school – all of it. And though he isn’t here to say it, she’s confident Jason supports it too.
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A Review of Elia Suleiman's Yadon Ilaheyya (Divine Intervention) Alexia ChandonPiazza
In 2002, I went to the cinema. I don’t remember the movie that I saw that day, but I remember vividly an image from a trailer -- a high angle shot of a person, flying through mid air, arms extended in a Christian pose, a halo of bullets around its keffiyehwrapped head. This image struck me and stayed in my mind for a long time, even though I couldn’t exactly understand its meaning. Last night I remembered this image, and the movie which it was taken from Yadon Ilaheyya (Divine Intervention), by Elia Suleiman, and I decided to watch it. This was -- with a ten year delay -- a revelation. Following the uneventful life of E.S. — played by Elia Suleiman himself — I laughed and cried, and most of the time laughed till I cried. The whole movie is infused with an absurd almost surrealist sense of humour, dark, poetic, and dry wit at its best — Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton almost immediately come to mind.
From Elia Suleiman's Yadon Ilaheyya (2002). Alexia ChandonPiazza lives in France but likes to think in English. At night she's an actress and a singer. During the day she spends way too much time writing about the colours of the river and photographing the clouds. She has a website (http://cargocollective.com/alexiachandonpiazza)
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Lately I’ve been thinking about framing and editing, in photography, and cinema. I’ve been experimenting, with photos, creating diptychs, as an exercise for storytelling. I’ve had the occasion, two years ago, to act in front of a camera, for school projects mainly, but also to be boom operator, continuity girl, and less often, cameraman. The latter was especially interesting to me. It really was about rhythm, and as a performer I realised that being a cameraman was exactly like dancing with other people, or having a jam session. Being able to catch those tiny moments of emotion without making them obscene or grotesque, of zooming in and out of a situation, of being aware at any given moment of what was happening — even the most minuscule and ineffable movements — was what felt the most like acting on stage. And then, once the dancing is finished, using these instants of truth captured on film, choosing them through the hours of rushes ; and patiently, telling a story, cutting, pasting images, fleeting moments, bits and bobs of light and colours. The mere act of juxtaposing two images next to one another is already a form of storytelling. It can be fictional or journalistic, but two images put together tell both their own stories, and a new, invisible one, born from their composition. That’s what editing in cinema is about. Telling, within the big story, small ones, with every new shot. They can contradict the bigger one, or feed it. In Divine Intervention, the art of cutting and pasting is genially mastered. Without being too overtly political — there is no manifesto, no speech, no program — it is in itself a political act, and the messages the film carries out lie in the editing, the composition, the frames, and the whole atmosphere. A key part of this atmosphere is its routineesque quality. The film plays on the repetition of sequences : a man stands at a bus stop. Another man tells him that there’s no bus. An old man sits at his kitchen table and reads his mail. Two lovers meet in a car at a check-point and touch each other’s hand. A French tourist asks directions of an Israeli policeman. Two old men sitting on chairs watching the daily life in their street. The sequences of events are not exactly the same each time, but there’s a recurring pattern showing, a reiteration bordering with neurosis. Another occurrence of repetition is the following one : a boy plays with a soccer ball in the street, the ball falls onto a roof, a man punctures the ball with a big kitchen knife and returns it. E.S.’ father gets out of his home, gets into the man’s house and we can hear for just a few seconds sounds of punching and cries of pain. E.S.’ father goes out of the man’s house, lights himself a cigarette and leaves. A similar sequence appears around the 26th minutes, with ellipsis this time. The boy plays with the soccer ball, E.S.’ father comes out of his home and walks towards his neighbour’s house. We’re expecting to hear the sound of a fight between the two men, but an other scene starts : three men beating something we cannot see with bats, several people watching. The scene is silent, except for the sounds of the bats hitting. An other man arrives with a gun, discharges three bullets onto the unseen victim. A man armed with two batons lifts up the body of a dead snake, a boy arrives with a petrol can and the 53 ♦ Somersault
snake is burned. End of the scene. This second scene does not give us the violence we expected — sounds of a moderately violent fight between two aging men — instead we are witnessing the beating of someone we cannot see. A group of people can see it, and does nothing to stop it. We are watching this group of people watching someone being beaten by three men — there’s no cry of pain, so the person is probably dead already or unconscious but the attackers keep on hitting hard — and we do not understand. Why aren’t these people moving ? Why don’t they try to stop this ? When the victim is then revealed and we realise that it simply was a snake, we experience relief, as well as a vague sense of danger. Throughout the movie, this latent feeling of anger mixed with stagnancy feels like the deadly venom of a snake, making its way through one’s body, slowly and surely paralyzing it. Indeed, everything is slow, dormant. Life seems to be frozen, just like the emotions of the characters who show the same unruffled face to any humiliation, absurdity, or even joy they encounter. They seem to be anaesthetized by the constant tensions and the impossibility to change anything to their situation. E.S. is in his car, stopped at a red light. The car on the line next to him bears an Israeli flag. E.S. puts arabic music on and his sunglasses on and stares at the Israeli. The Israeli stares back. The traffic light turns to green They don’t move. The cars behind them hoot and honk. They stare. Next scene – a close-up of two hands clutched in an arm wrestling. The camera pivots and we see E.S. helping his father to get up from his bed. Their faces are unperturbed, but the tenderness and decency of their relationship can be seen in their downcast gaze. In this – with the eyelids almost closed – the weight of all that isn’t said is almost visible (or so I think), another kind of silent dialogue. When I saw that trailer ten years ago what impressed me was this image of the Palestinian ninja, arms extended as if crucified, and the bullets as a crown of thorns. Since it was part of a trailer I couldn’t understand it fully without the entire scene, and I was probably too young to get the symbolism of this image, but I felt like it was something important, something I should know about. However, when finally watching Divine Intervention, what struck me the most was not the female Palestinian ninja. The plight of the Palestinian people is definitely exposed in this scene, with loaded symbols and dark wit, but what definitely blew my mind were the three last minutes. It sets out an insider view of a life in Palestine, and how painfully absurd and how utterly insufferable it must be, not rationally, but in a intimate, sensitive way. A man in a car explains to E.S. how he and his brother beat and broke the ribs of a man who wouldn’t move his car to let them pass. E.S. listens, silently. The next shot is of a pressure cooker. E.S. and an older woman -- which we assume is the mother – are sat on a couch, facing the appliance. After a while, she tells E.S. to stop it. We are waiting for E.S. to get up and release the pressure – but that doesn’t happen. The next shot shows the pressure cooker, still heating, for twenty very long seconds, and then the film ends. December 2012 ♦ 54
The metaphor may not be subtle, but the way it is filmed is extremely efficient. Those twenty seconds showing a pressure cooker over heating whatever food is inside – and, specifically, the white noise it produces -- echo the silence of E.S. when the man in the car tells him about the beating, the silence when he witnesses the maltreatment and humiliations the Israeli soldiers inflict to random Palestinian drivers, the silence when he shells an egg for his ill father, the silence when he strokes the hand of his lover, the silence of a life where no movement is possible, and the suffocation from which there’s no exit, no way to release the pressure, and only by embracing the absurdity – taking advantage of the distraction caused by an Arafat-decorated balloon flying over a check-point between Ramallah and Jerusalem, driving through without being stopped by a blasted checkpoint – do we – just once – catch our breath.
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December 2012 â™Ś 55
Published on Dec 12, 2012
This is Somersault: web-based magazine of nonfiction work on the mixture of art/politics and pop culture. This is our inaugural issue!