Best New Stuff – June 2018

Well golly, that was one helluva Pride wasn’t it? When we started the month everything seemed like a wide-open horizon. Now…well, it’s been a long month.

Writing about culture, in times like these can seem trivial. Unlike others, I don’t have any grand statements to opine about empathy machines or revealing who we really are; right now culture feels like a thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like the thing to do. I find more and more that I am explaining to people what actual representation looks like. It’s not always the stories in front of the camera, sometimes it’s the people behind the camera too — and the people who green light these things, and the people who shape political landscapes our art is born onto. That’s representation that we need to fight for, and that needs fighting for at the moment.

That being said, here are some things that just gave me life this month:

Nanette

Wow. There’s so much to say about Hannah Gadsby’s daring, groundbreaking, and gutting comedy special, but to put it succinctly: While the rest of the world was talking around talking about how to appropriately deal, as a society, with men who have hurt others, Nanette tackles it head on, forcing the issue in your face and elegantly circling the horses around you. By the end of the hourlong special, I was rapt, and the feeling has consumed me for days. Run don’t walk to your nearest Netflix outlet to hear on why Hannah Gadsby is the comic special to watch.

rs_1024x576-180626072057-1024-nanette-netflix.ch.062618

The Good Fight

It’s become tired to say that something is (or will be) an important artifact of the Trump era. But leave it to the Kings (the writers behind this and The Good Wife) to find a way to make it wired, and—most importantly—fun. For all its pointed politics that can sometimes misstep or mis-swing, perhaps no scene has summed up like under this administration quite as much as a (liberal) judge getting a push alert to his smart watch, and uttering “Oh! This world!” and then continuing about the scene without a second thought. The Good Fight doesn’t always win its battles (its continuing blindspot for race relations, despite focusing on a Black law firm, is proof of that), but it did manage to be a fun 23 episodes, that didn’t pull back from the pulled-from-the-headlines nature the first show embraced—even as the headlines get more and more ludicrous.

For a Good Time, Call…

It’s hard to pull off a platonic love story between two female friends without it seeming too queer baiting, and For a Good Time, Call… definitely indulges those tendencies too. But by the end of this fun film, it’s clear that—on whatever level these women choose—they are soulmates, through and through. And their fights, to-dos, and deep affection finally reflect that of women friendships I know.

Plus, my god, they are funny.

APESH*T – Everything is Love

The release to end all releases. Once again Beyonce has stopped the world with a few Instagram posts, a video, and a full-fledged, long-awaited album with her husband. Everything is Love is neither of the artists strongest work, and coming off an album as strong and powerful as Lemonade it certainly falls short, just by nature of being more experimental and less nuanced. But the album has deceptive depth, and—honestly—all the songs are bops, in their own way. It would probably be better received if it had followed the self-titled album, but Everything is Love will likely hold more of a place in the zeitgeist than its initial response may reflect.

Also, I mean, this video, my god:

Ocean’s 8

It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, and it won’t fix anything. But good lord did I need a movie full of competent women wearing kick-ass outfits pulling off a heist. I now own a velvet blazer, so Cate Blanchett’s propaganda worked.

1528406019661-3e6935b8e43ce5e189a9309d47097a4bHonorable mention: 

Incredibles 2

Fahrenheit 451

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

The Color Purple (the musical)

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Best new stuff – April 2018

What up what up, we’re back at the end of another month! Let’s get some of the more important visuals from this past month out of the way:

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BEYONCE AT COACHELLA

It was so momentous that during my mid-month check in, wherein I take notes about what I watched in the first fortnight of the month so that the end-of-month Zosha has more memory, Beychella was the only thing I managed to write down.

Anyway, suffice it to say this was a month, and now we’re on to May. But before we do that, let’s review some other stuff:

Solaris

There’s a lot I sort of wish I could change about Solaris, but I’m so immensely grateful for it. I love finally getting around to bigger names like this and seeing all the ways it shaped and informed a genre, like slotting in a puzzle piece — a middle one, not even a perimeter. Solaris is so raw for such a structured film, a perfect balance of wearing its ideas on its sleeve while also being a deep well to mine for philosophy.

Dirty Computer

Janelle’s new album is here! And guys, it’s good. At parts it feels not quite as good as the sum of its parts, but between the call to arms that double as bops, and the stunning visuals of her accompanying “emotion picture” there’s no reason to not be listening to Janelle right now. Seriously what are you doing? (Unless it’s Beychella; then you get a pass for whatever.)

Punch Drunk Love

After having heard people talk about this (as Adam Sandler’s best performance ever) for years, I finally took the plunge for a forthcoming essay I edited at BW/DR. And wow. Wow! So enchanted with Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur so preoccupied with the alchemic magic that happens within relationships, and how beautiful—and challenging—it can be to find someone whose weird matches your weird. This film shared so much DNA with Phantom Thread, I can’t wait to watch them together.

Jane the Virgin

Well the latest (and, apparently, penultimate!) season has wrapped and dAMN WHAT A TWIST. But leading up to the twist the show managed to do something truly remarkable: Ground itself utterly and completely. Every move felt right, every pain cut deep, and every smile was like that first day of 60 degree sunny weather in Seattle after winter. So in awe of how much this show does while making it all look easy.

“How Riverdale Turned Archie Into a Facist”

This essay is exactly the kind of thing I want to do with all of my time. Focused, yet flexible enough to envelop broader criticisms and insights about the show, this piece grabs you with its title and earns its keep by tracing a path so eloquently I ended up thinking I hadn’t given the show enough credit for what it did. 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻

Call Me By Your Name

As part of my reading books that movies I loved recently were based on, I reached for this one. So much more urgent than the movie, yet still just as sticky with heat. Spent a week after reading this thinking that I had already been through a week of summer weather, but realized it was just André Aciman’s feverish prose that painted such a vivid picture it was like I was right there in Italy with Oliver and Elio. Perhaps not quite as sophisticated as its cinematic counterpart, a bit less interested (and thus, neglectful) of the age difference at its core. But invigorating nonetheless.

“A Love Profane”

Two years of Lemonade, looking back at Deaux St. Felix’s stunner of a review from back then.

 

Honorable mentions: 

Death of Stalin

A Quiet Place

Bob’s Burgers

Superstore

 

And now to leave you with a distinct Youtube mood of the month: 

Are Modern Artists More Like Modern Politicians?

No, this won’t be another post telling you why you should turn to your favorite celebrities for advice on politicking.

When we think of the modern artist we think of them in multitude: They are sharp, savvy, and successful in all areas of fame, from social media to performance. They bring an energy that only they can bring, and they make it all look so good. Increasingly there also seems to be an outcry when the layers are peeled back and—lo and behold—they weren’t behind every single element of their production.

It’s that auteur theory, popularized in France during the 1940s, that a director or creator was responsible for every little piece of their art, that grinds people’s gears. It’s given us some fascinating artists, and even more fascinating works of art; Cronenberg, Wilson, Truffaut, to name a few. But I think the auteur theory would be more successful if it functioned more like modern politicians—who, in turn, are functioning more like modern artists anyway.

Principally that we expect artists to represent themselves with a team, not as the sole engine of these works alone. The idea that Obama would have personally drafted any of the hundreds of executive orders his administration has released is laughable. So why do we hold modern artists to be failures unless they are the (largely) sole creator listed on their works? When’s the last time someone made sure we credited Michaelangelo’s 13 assistants on the Sistine Chapel?

Of our modern politicians we expect talent, but that talent extends to who they choose to surround themselves with. President Obama has a fleet of staff members all working towards his vision (which, is not even solely his vision). Hillary Clinton has proved (despite whatever other controversies have dogged her along the way) to be an effective leader because she chooses to listen to input. Similarly, animators at Laika create stunning stop-motion animation because they work as a team, and Beyonce rocked the world with Lemonade, and her subsequent Formation World Tour because she sought out the best people to help her create her vision. Prince wrote The Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” but that song would’ve sounded much different in his hands versus their own. Toy Story passed through more than a few hands, including Joss Whedon, but is much different than the original treatment from John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter.

Obviously some of these carry a different weight than others—a studio implicitly represents a team effort, where a writing credit on a script or a lyric does not—but the truth is no artist can be the best they can be without a team. Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t think he could. Why should Beyonce? As Fusion writes:

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Photo Credit: Daniela Vesco

Having more voices and more brains on an album gives it the opportunity to reach greater depth, achieve better sound, and draw from more varied experience than one person alone could ever bring to the table. Not only do the collaborators who helped create Lemonade lend the album more nuance, but this process allows Beyoncé to promote lesser-known artists through her work.

Think about Beyoncé (or any pop star, really, from Kanye West to Taylor Swift) not as a musician working alone in a dark studio with only her own thoughts for company, but as a conductor in front of an orchestra, a curator filling a museum, a director blocking a scene. Pop music is a kind of auteurism.

Where some see a yielding of control, or a lack of creativity, I see a larger scope of that same auteurism. Artists like Beck, Bob Dylan, and Prince have upheld that loner artist archetype despite being the exception not the rule, but I’m not even sure how much credence to even give arguments that they are implicitly better artists because they were a human swiss army knife. The theory holds that a piece of work represents an artists’ personal creative vision, and I think a resulting album’s ingenuity and creative force. To me Lemonade‘s is undeniable.

So the next time someone argues that an artist should be the sole mind behind any one work, remind them that we don’t hold our politicians to any such notions. Remind them that it takes a village to make stunning art—and sometimes it takes a credit to avoid IP litigation.

The reviews for the VMAs are in and they are…

bad. Overall, critics and audiences weren’t pleased with the show MTV put on—that is, unless you break it up into chunks.

Turn to your Twitter feed this morning and you’ll likely find a number of people still in awe of how Beyonce or Rihanna rocked the stage, how Britney Spears is back in the spotlight, how Drake is back on the sideline. Any moment with any pop star resulted in dozens (in the case of the former two, maybe even hundreds) of tweets and discussion items, not to mention articles buzzing about who wore and said what.

So the reviews of the show is bad. So what? MTV’s goal with the VMAs has, historically, been about creating big moments in a chaos chamber. The performances and kerfuffles they create in the meantime is the sundae, not the cherry on top.

“[We] put those chaotic elements in the room together and then we kind of let go. We don’t produce things really tightly the way other awards shows might,”Van Toffler, a former Viacom executive who worked on the VMAs for 28 years,told Billboard last year. “We love when people talk about the event.”

In the age of social media, having those two or three moments that get people talking—and, more importantly, sharing—seem to matter much more. The question is: Will other award shows follow?

I’m hardpressed to believe that organizations like the Academy or the Grammys will let performers bounce off and go balls to the wall the way they do at the VMAs, but the idea that a few choice moments are what viewers are after isn’t so far off from how many people I know watch bigger award shows. The Oscar’s has the openings, and maybe some choice winners in a category or two; the Grammy’s and Tony’s often feature some of the best musical performances audiences will see all year; the Emmy’s has a better (and more funny) version of the Oscar’s opening bit. While networks try to figure out what formula, host, and red carpet hook will reel in viewers each year, overall viewership of awards is dropping. Like in late night programming, people are more in for the clips than they are the ride.

The VMAs is perhaps the only show that understands this. And though many viewers don’t care about the actual award (not even MTV devotes itself to music videos anymore) they can care about the personalities involved. And any awards show that offers up its stage for a Beyonce medley? Well, that’s just that isn’t it?

beyonce_welcome

 

All the ladies, who independent

In the wake of a couple, disastrous pieces written by male journalists about female movie stars—one on whether Renee Zellweger was the same person if she’s changed her face and voice, the other that starts with a lecherous lede on Margot Robbie—there’s been a lot of examination of what profiles of celebrities mean, how we talk about famous women, and why we need to do better. But I’ve also heard a lot of runarounds.

“The piece was bad, but I’m uncomfortable with straight-up banning men from writing about women.”

“What’s the big deal? They make their living with their face, it’s fair game.”

“We write about male actors’ bodies and faces all the time anyway.”

Here’s the thing: We don’t; not nearly in the same way, to the same degree, or placed within the same societal context. And while no one is suggesting that a ban on men writing profiles about women is something that could actually happen, it is worth interrogating what people mean when they suggest it.

They mean that they’re tired of profiles being written about women in a way that no women would ever write it. Not because all writers are special snowflakes whose words are delivered by their individual Pokemon of creativity, but because there are things men just won’t pick up about writing for, and about, women. I can ask any woman in my life and they can tell you the difference between a female character written (or shaped) by a woman, and one shaped by a man. Sometimes it’s the little details—The demented takedown of the “Cool Girl” trope in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—other times it’s the whole shebang that gives it away (most comic book “empowered” ladies).

Take Harley Quinn: A long, tortured history has lead her to become what many view as one of the most flawed and engaging comic book women ever. She’s strong, she’s grown into and away from an abusive relationship, she’s sexual, she’s fun. But in the hands of male comic book writers and directors she’s merely strong, fun, and—perhaps most prominently—sexy.

“Margot Robbie does have fun with the character. When the film gives her room to breathe she nails Harley’s acrobatic and madcap personality. But the movie refuses to reckon with the clearly abusive nature of her relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto), who spends the film trying to save her,” writes Angelica Jade in Nylon. “[Director David] Ayer can’t help gazing at her body and having characters remark on how hot she is…Instead, Suicide Squad is more content to ogle her and have her shoot off one liners that act as paltry representations of agency and humanity. ‘I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want,’ Harley says to a guard early on in the film before licking the bar as a come-on. It’s a frat boy’s idea of empowerment.”

It’s that difference that men—even well-intentioned ones—can’t often pick up on. It’s the difference between a fictional comic book character being forced to wear skimpy clothes while crime-fighting and Beyonce choosing her next leotard for a performance. Both exist within the male gaze, but only one is able to exist (at least somewhat) independent from it. uh-your-final-warning-you-know-i-give-you-life-you

Beyond the Grammys

I casually checked in with the Grammy’s Sunday, and for some reason could only find a livestream of the audience, not of the stage. But my choice just happened to coincide with Kanye West once again bursting onto the stage to defend Beyonce, in another “slight.”

The part I didn't see
The part I didn’t see

At the time, I saw the faces of horror change to definite laughter, and decided it must’ve been a joke. Since then the media has had another field day, building up the “diss” between Beck and Kanye. Luckily both Beck and Kanye have refused to play ball–now if only their fans could as well.

Reading any article on the subject, you’ll find opinions littered like fall leaves, which is to say almost unavoidable and eventually whatever beauty they had turns to rot. Beck fans maintain the artistry of the singer-songwriter: we know he writes all his own songs, he played 5 million instruments and poured his soul into the record. Beyonce fans lament that she wrote and produced all her own tracks, changed the world with her digital drop, and filmed an entire feature film to go with it.

What I did see
What I did see

It was probably easy for the media to paint his post-Grammy interviews where he stuck to his guns as Kanye being classic Kanye, causin’ a fuss and making not apologies. But what’s interesting is that he’s probably providing one of the most level-headed voices to this conversation. He’s made it clear that his was not a diss on Beck, but the Grammy’s themselves.

For myself, I can see how Beyonce lost due to voting problems (Beck’s was the only rock album, whereas Beyonce had R&B competition that could’ve Nader’d the vote), but there’s not much more I can offer to the conversation beyond that, because the Grammy’s won’t let me. They have a shadowy voting process that then moves onto the recording academy vote, and there’s really little insight into how they function, what their criteria is, or where our differences lie. They are as open as you can come about a sort of formal rigging system.

They may be called out, frequently, for being their own brand of racist, sexist, etc., but what more can we do? We’ve got nothing else we can do, because we have absolutely no idea what they are about.

tumblr_njimhsrubz1qchwcho4_250So let’s all stop reducing Kanye to an angry black man, Beck to a folksy scene-stealer, and Beyonce to a jilted artist, and start focusing our thoughts and most importantly concerns towards the shadow organization that needs it. Because while people mock Yeezus for speaking out against institutions and systems it’s getting boiled down to a celebrity feud, which is more of the same bullshit.

Run the World: Why I’m part of the Beyhive

This post is a response to my brilliant friend Eleanor’s post “No Angel: Why I’m not part of the Beyhive.” 

 

Beyonce is everywhere. It’s been almost two decades since she busted onto the scene with Destiny’s Child and she’s still as relevant as ever. Perhaps more so as a solo artist, seeing as how last December she dropped a surprise album that all but broke the Internet. She’s surpassed simple pop star status; she is a lifestyle.

She is no longer merely human, she has been deified. The pop cult has made her their goddess.  -Eleanor Cummins

As I understand it, Eleanor’s problem with this is that she hasn’t done much to earn this. She’s not the first person to build up a business empire, nor does she have a monopoly on fabulous vocals. In fact, considering her ubiquity, Beyonce leads a quiet life, complete with quiet philanthropy.

So if Beyonce really does command a Beygency, why isn’t she using that power for great good?

Neither Eleanor nor I deny she is talented. Girlfriend knows how to own a stage. But unlike Eleanor, I don’t think it’s just because she’s missing an Uncle Ben to sit her down and give her the talk about great power and great responsibility. She’s simply human.

 
Human or Dancer? 

Beyonce has never claimed deity status. She expresses some (I’d argue, well-earned) bravado, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. And though I’d say it’s been a common theme in her work, her latest album contains more glimpses into the inner-workings of Queen Bey than ever.

Her god-status is often expressed by fans often to fully encapsulate how much respect they hold for her. Whether you write it off as hyperbole or not, it speaks volumes of Beyonce’s ability to not only capture but inspire her clientele.

As Eleanor says, much of Beyonce’s power is in her ability to communicate an audience that they are “strong, bold, ready to take on a world that isn’t necessarily ready for them,” which for me indicates that Beyonce’s sway is beyond a dollar amount. Personally speaking, I don’t have a count for the number of times I’ve turned on a Bey anthem to pump myself up. She inspires and commands a higher bar of respect for not just women, but women of color.

 
Coloring outside the lines

Simply existing as a woman of color who commands an empire that could probably defeat a Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae, she is performing an act of social justice. Representation matters, even if the effects of it aren’t immediately apparent. As a pop star, woman of color, and powerful cultural icon she’s not immediately afforded a cone of privacy, and so she owns her image like a boss. She is sexual, sensual, and a sensation, but she is also a mother, a wife, and a person.

 

Yup, these are from the same album.
Yup, these are from the same album.

She is certainly not above criticism. Though I (clearly) am a fan, her self-titled album contains some problematic elements (her husband’s verse that contains reference to domestic abuse, for example). But as a grown woman she addresses these criticisms in her own way: legitimate concerns about her misusing Challenger recordings get a courteous press release, bullshit objections to her being proud of her relationship and her body get called out in musical form. What I respect about Beyonce is not that she is above critique, but that she has a system for evaluating what is worth her responding to, and in what ways, incorporated into her image.

 

Reading the label

As a liberal, 20-something woman in Seattle I’m elated when I see that Beyonce has welcomed the label of ‘feminist’ with open arms. I’m excited when I think about the number of people–young women especially–whose eye balls were seared with Beyonce posing powerfully in front of a huge “Feminist” proclamation at the VMAs this year. This, to me, represents a kind of outreach beyond any dollar amount she could donate.

2014 MTV Video Music Awards - Fixed Show
But I also don’t think Beyonce has an obligation to any sort of proclamation of her beliefs or social justice standpoints. To me, her existence is already a huge statement. When she steps out and really draws attention, there’s an added weight to that because she’s not just throwing her powerful label behind every hashtag. For every #YesAllWomen there’s a #Kony2012.

As an activist myself I can tell you that compromises must be made. There are days when I don’t have the energy to educate someone on why what they’re saying is problematic; conversations I don’t feel like moderating, or places I don’t feel safe calling out the -isms. There are times when I am an activist, but I am not in a place to be active. And the truth of the matter is it’s not my, or Beyonce’s, or Laverne Cox’s, or anybody’s job to be the moderator of social justice.

I love me some celebrities that get down with leveraging their power, but I understand that while on the one hand Jennifer Lawrence is standing up for women and their digital privacy, she is also making offensive claims about how at least the pics show she’s “all lady.” I’m appreciative when those I admire also make a public stand for values I believe in, but I can never expect it of them–and I certainly can’t expect them to own that label with perfection. With the abundance of online social justice communities no one owes somebody a role as educator.

It’s up to Beyonce to use her elevated status for what she wants. She clearly doesn’t play around with her life or her image, and chooses to play most things close to the vest. For me, I’m happy to have a strong woman who–when she decides to–is willing to stand and belt that she was here. Because at the end of the day, she makes me feel like I could run the world.