Saturday, January 15, 2011

Romancing the stars

In which our Diva's DVD collection is growing again

Earlier this week I finally saw Agora, an extraordinary film that I didn't have the opportunity to catch during its brief visit to US cinema screens. I'd wanted to ever since I read about it at Women & Hollywood, both because I will happily watch Rachel Weisz do pretty much anything and because Alejandro Amenabar previously directed The Others, which is for my money the best haunted-house film ever made.

Agora, of course, is a completely different kind of movie, but no less beautiful, meticulous, or thought-provoking. It's one of those movies that make me thankful I don't have the mental wiring that makes people get huffy about storytellers taking dramatic license with history, because it's highly unlikely (though, as their astronomy consultant points out in the behind-the-scenes material on the DVD, not wholly implausible) that Hypatia of Alexandria actually hit on all the principles featured in the film. (I'm not even touching the anachronistic charge of "witchcraft," which made even me wince a bit, even while putting me in mind of my beloved Dangerous Beauty.) But oh, how magical to watch her grapple with those ideas, beginning with the soul-shattering leap of faith represented by the heliocentric model of the heavens -- coming to grips point-blank with the realization that we are not at the center of the cosmos -- and leading inexorably to letting go of the "purity" of the circle and placing Earth's orbit on an ellipse. Even more fascinating, she reaches the solution we know is correct (and know must be coming; if there's a conic section on the mantelpiece in Act 3, you know it'll be fired in Act 5! *g*) through the prism of the knowledge of her time, and therefore deduces a rather different model for "why" than that which Johannes Kepler bequeathed to us 1200 years later.

If the preceding paragraph has made your eyes glaze over, don't let it stop you from watching the movie, because it's not really about the science. It's about Hypatia's passion for the science. Which, if you look at the posters and most of what was written about it when it came out, is fairly obvious.

Then a funny thing happened, and it seems to have happened in the U.S. distribution phase. First, there's the redesigned-for-American-market DVD cover. Then the synopsis on IMDb, and the one on the DVD envelope from I got from Netflix, tells us that it's about a slave named Davus who, among other things, falls in love with his mistress. The Netflix synopsis doesn't even name her.

Now, I'm the first to agree that Davus' journey in the film is as rich and complex as Hypatia's, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out in the future for more from Max Minghella, whose performance absolutely makes it a compelling journey to follow. I'd certainly go as far as to call him a second lead. But Davus is not the center of the film. He's one of several men in Hypatia's orbit, none of whom is her lover (albeit not for lack of trying), which is even more baffling to the Hollywood mindset. She is explicitly described by several of the creative team in the documentary material as the sun at the center of the film's cosmos, and I can't imagine watching the film through and not coming away with that impression.

The other thing I find a bit depressing (albeit unsurprising) is the amount of commentary I've seen that interprets the film as anti-Christian. The comment thread on on the trailer on YouTube has voices both agreeing with and offended by the perceived condemnation. But there is no such condemnation. There is a great deal said about how bringing religion into the political mix makes it that much easier for human beings to rationalize their own abuse of power.

Have there always been so many people who don't know the difference between the two? Certainly in the fifth-century Alexandria of this film, that would appear to be the case. And that's the larger tragedy, above and beyond the death of one brilliant and committed woman.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

We mind because it matters

In which our Diva is thoroughly disgusted, but also hopeful

Earlier this week, I tweeted: Andrew Wakefield made a fortune by lying, without regard for harm to others. Last I checked, the word for that was "sociopath." That's pretty much all I have to say on the topic. It will be years before we'll be able to calculate the damage done by the falsified study linking vaccines to autism, if indeed it ever stops posing health risks and lining the pockets of a whole legion of quacks preying on desperate parents.

Also in the last few days, there's a lesser-known (and let's pray he stays that way) sociopath by the name of Kenneth Tong tweeting an endless stream of hardcore pro-ana propaganda and touting an alleged "size zero pill" that will make everything all better. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Apparently he was on Big Brother for about seventeen seconds before getting booted for threatening a housemate. This post on the blog "A Very Public Sociologist" sums up quite well which rock this individual crawled out from under, what makes him tick, and why paying any attention to him plays into his greedy little hands.

That last is why I hesitate to mention him at all, but I've come to the conclusion that it's important for a variety of reasons. I still refuse to link directly to anything of his, and have in fact set him to "blocked" on both Twitter and Facebook. Not that he would notice or care, but my hope is that a wave of users doing so will be noticed by the services in question, which are unfortunately unlikely to ban him regardless of at least one e-petition calling for it. (Not linking to that either, not because I don't agree with the sentiment, but because they don't work. Spend your energy elsewhere.) Unfortunately, I have no doubt that they regard him as nothing more than "controversial," and will continue to allow him a forum for what is nothing more nor less than hate speech. (If you don't understand why that phrase applies, spend an hour or two at Kate Harding's "Shapely Prose" archive. I used to add "and try not to say anything too ignorant while you're there," but then I stopped because it was fun to watch her take such comments apart. Unfortunately, she appears to have gotten burnt out on that -- and I don't blame her a bit -- but the archive remains a valuable resource.)

When references to him first popped up in my Twitter timeline a few days ago, my first thought was that it was some misfired attempt at "ironic" hipster misogyny, following the current trend in (so-called) humor of spouting things so outrageously, offensively bigoted that surely no one could take them seriously, so we must know the speaker is joking! That's apparently how you're supposed to tell that it's funny, and if you don't laugh, well, you must be the humor-deficient one. (Hint: No.)

I've since come to the conclusion that, while he might end up claiming retroactively to be up to something like that (see also: "It was a social experiment!"), there's nothing remotely so clever going on. Just some guy who may or may not understand, but certainly doesn't care, that he's doing very real harm just to get attention. And make no mistake, there is harm. Every single thing he's saying amplifies the tape already playing in the background for any woman who lives in our society, and which tyrannizes the lives of those living with eating disorders.

It may be a mixed blessing (due to the aforementioned giving him attention), but it's still cheering to see the virtually unanimous disgust in response. From high-profile figures like Rihanna and Simon Cowell, from less famous but still influential people like Being Human star Sinead Keenan and Doctor Who composer Murray Gold, and from pithy private citizens like this and this and many more. Like British educator Philip Edmundson, who's gone beyond the single-tweet statement to begin building a counter-campaign of sorts, including a link to this eloquent and heartbreaking blog post about just what it is Tong's comments are enabling.

Twitter is full of call-to-arms hashtags (enumerated and retweeted by the Kardashian sisters): #stunningnotstarving, #nosizezero, #curvesaresexy, #curvesarebeautiful. While I support the sincerity of those using all of them, I'm personally only using #stunningnotstarving, as I find the others problematic for a couple of reasons: #nosizezero denies the existence of the minority (however few) who are very small but healthy, and the last two are more positive but still imply a bit of exclusion. A woman of any size and shape can be stunning and not starving, so that's one I can take to heart.

What's sad and infuriating is that it took absolutely no effort for Kenneth Tong to seize his pathetic little bastion of power, because the structures are already in place. Every word he's tweeting is part of the basic formula women get from every direction every day they live in our culture:

What you weigh is how you look.
How you look is whether you're wanted.
Whether you're wanted is what you're worth.

So we can ignore Tong and his blatant "if you're not thin you fail at life" (by a definition of success at life that seems to consist entirely of whether you sleep with celebrities) all we want, but the message will still be there, and in more insidious forms. I'm not immune. Neither are women of my acquaintance who, even while expressing their disgust with Tong's comments, had the courage to admit he affected their food choices that day.

Which brings me to the good news: Long before this creature crawled out from under his rock, the opposition was in place. And it's gaining momentum. In the BodyHeart Campaign, which also came to my attention via Twitter, thanks to Dollhouse star Miracle Laurie. In the Viola Project, bringing out the power of young women through the power of Shakespeare's words. In the increasing public awareness of the extent to which fashion images are retouched and manipulated, which is just beginning to build into a backlash. In the documentary Superskinny Me, in which two British journalists discover firsthand the destructive consequences of the "race to size double zero" even under close medical supervision. And now in the stream of tweets calling Kenneth Tong out on his douchebaggerie, and the fact that they vastly outnumber the heartbreaking ones -- every single one accompanied by an avatar depicting a perfectly attractive young woman -- asking him where to get his magical miracle pill. (My money's on some of those being sockpuppet accounts designed to feed into the publicity machine, which is that much more disgusting, but might also mean that many fewer victims falling for his flimflam.) Edit: Thanks to long-time friend Mandy, who brought my attention to this amazing community of Harry Potter fans, who focus on a different real-life "horcrux" (the word for a type of curse in the HP universe) each month, and who happen to be discussing body image this month. Serendipity!

This issue is nothing new. It's not the first time I've blogged about it, and it won't be the last. It'll be back the next time the camel's back breaks, and I trust you'll bear with me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a nice healthy dinner to cook. All that misogynist claptrap is making me hungry.

Song for Today: I know I've named Saving Jane's "One Girl Revolution" before, but I can't think of anything more appropriate or inspiring. Raise your hand!

P.S.: If I ever say to you, individually, that you're beautiful, you're gorgeous, you're anything wonderful I happen to feel like calling you? I'm not blowing smoke. I'm not just trying to make you feel better, or making empty noises to puff up your self-esteem. I'm saying it because I believe it is true, pure and simple. Contradict me if you absolutely must, but know that your energy would be better spent trying to teach a pig to sing. :-)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Collecting hats

In which our Diva is never quite sure where she picked them all up

On a shelf in my spare room closet, there are four hatboxes full of vintage hats, mostly from the 50s and 60s. A few belonged to my grandmother. Several more (and two of the hatboxes) came from a friends' parents' garage sale a few years ago. And there are a couple I honestly don't remember how I came by.

I seem to accumulate metaphorical hats in much the same way.

I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't love to have a higher proportion of gigs where I'm simply an actor.  Where I can give all my energy to showing up and playing my character, confident that all the other details are someone else's job and that someone else is doing it. But that's just not the career I get (at least so far), and mostly I'm okay with that.  Though occasionally I think I should have kept my big mouth shut before it uttered "I could..." *wry g*

Of course, if I haven't learned to do that by now, I don't think I'm going to. Way back in 1994, when arts organizations having websites was just a novelty, I put together the first one for Rosebriar Shakespeare Company, my second home for most of the ten years I lived in Columbus. A couple years later, I did the same for BalletMet Columbus, where my then-day-job was in an unrelated department of the admin office. Appropriately for a nationally-respected company, they've long since moved on to a far more sophisticated and professional site than I know how to design.

Which didn't stop me from opening my big mouth when Elgin Opera's need for an updated and integrated web presence became more obvious every time I tried to plug an event to my plugged-in social circle. Mind you, I can't complain about that one since (a) we got an infrastructure grant this year to pay me for it, and (b) at the end of a frustrating few months, I now know how to make Joomla do a number of things I didn't previously know how to make it do. Yay, knowledge!

For Scarlet X, I actually could have gotten away with just being an actor. And I could pretend that's what I'm doing, pretend it's a better-endowed project where a very small team isn't trying to do the work of a much bigger one. But you know what? They are, and they deserve credit for it. I'm not the only one stepping up to the hyphenate plate to make this thing happen. This weekend, that meant a bit of copywriting for the website (coming soon!) and promo materials, and discovering that capsule character descriptions (60 to 70ish words) are harder than they look. Still, I was here, I'm decent at slinging words around, and this way we're closer to having a website I can send you to. Everybody wins!

And then, every once in a while, a project happens because I'm a dyed-in-the-wool DIYer who can't keep her volunteering hand from shooting into the air. That would be Resonance, where my rather eccentric and eclectic mix of skills, interests, and thought processes happened to converge in just the right way at the right time to land me on a bus going some very cool places indeed. (About which I still can't really tell you anything, but there are a bunch of people doing a bunch of stuff that will start bearing fruit soon. Promise!)

There are stories to tell, stories I believe in. And when they need more from me than just acting, they feel that much more mine, that much more like home. I'll take that trade.