Amy, a documentary film about the British singer Amy Winehouse

By Joanne Laurier
12 August 2015

Directed by Asif Kapadia

British-born director Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, about the pop singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), is a straightforward and compelling account of the performer’s life starting at the age of fourteen. Through video footage from a variety of devices and the voiceover comments of friends, family members and music industry figures (Kapadia conducted 100 interviews), the documentary paints a picture of an immensely talented and tortured musical prodigy.

During her eight-year recording career, beginning when she was still a teenager, Winehouse garnered numerous awards, including six Grammys. Her second album, Back to Black, released in October 2006, made her an international singing star. By the time of her death, she had sold more than six million albums in the UK and US alone. Kapadia’s film features a number of her biggest hits, “Rehab” (2006), “You Know I’m No Good” (2007), “Back to Black” (2007), “Love is a Losing Game” (2007), and her soulful duet with Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul” (2011).

Amy

From an early age, as the documentary reveals, Winehouse aspired above all to be a jazz singer. Among her most important influences were Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bennett and others. But she also channeled many of the pop artists and trends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Motown, R&B, reggae, Carole King, James Taylor and “girl groups” like the Shirelles and the Ronettes. In her music and extraordinary voice one encounters a multitude of influences, each one distinct and yet blended together to create a personal and unique sound. A record industry figure notes that she was a “very old soul in a very young body.”

After Winehouse’s death, Bennett commented: “It was such a sad thing because … she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way,’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer.…A true jazz singer.”

The movie opens with footage of a close friend’s 14th birthday party in 1998, at which Winehouse offers an alluring, mischievous version of “Happy Birthday” à la Marilyn Monroe, and ends with the aftermath of her tragic death from alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27.

A friend observes at one point that she was “a North London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude.” Her father Mitchell owned a cab and her mother Janis was a pharmacist. Her paternal grandmother Cynthia was a singer and at one time dated Ronnie Scott, the tenor saxophonist and owner of the best-known jazz club in London.

Kapadia’s Amy follows Winehouse from her teenage years to the beginnings of her professional music career in 2002 and beyond. We see a host of appearances and performances, both private and public, some of them intensely intimate and very affecting to the viewer. In some of these scenes, the young singer is disarmingly genuine, childlike and really adorable.

Three of Winehouse’s friends, including two from childhood, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and her first manager (when he was 19 and Winehouse was 16), Nick Shymansky, provide the most in-depth and believable portrait. Her father, her ex-husband Blake Fielder and her promoter-manager Raye Cosbert also feature prominently in the film, in a less favorable light.

At a certain point, of course, Amy gets down to business, which every viewer knows is coming—the singer’s [meteoric] Rise and [tragic] Fall, as it were. Much of the documentary details her successes and the severe complications or contradictions accompanying those successes.

Amy

Winehouse insists—and one feels, sincerely—on several occasions that celebrity and what comes with it is not her goal. As she told CNN in a 2007 interview, “I don’t write songs because I want my voice to be heard or I want to be famous or any of that stuff. I write songs about things I have problems with and I have to get past them and I have to make something good out of something bad.” Early on in the film, in fact, she asserts, “I’d probably go mad [if I were famous].” Later on: “If I really thought I was famous, I’d f—g go top [kill] myself.”

Tragically, Winehouse, already a bulimic since her adolescence and a heavy drinker early on in life, falls into heavy drug use. Kapadia’s documentary focuses perhaps too much on this aspect, as though this by itself could explain her fate.

The film effectively captures some of the ghastliness of the modern celebrity racket. Countless scenes record paparazzi camped outside her door and snapping photos of her every move, including the most crazed and desperate. Her ex-manager Shymansky told an interviewer, “the paparazzi were allowed to get brutally close…it’s this infatuation with getting up people’s skirts, or seeing someone vomit, or punching a paparazzi.”

As Winehouse goes to pieces in public, the media engages in what Shymansky calls, in the film, “a feeding frenzy.” Kapadia himself told the media, “This is a girl who had a mental illness, yet every comedian, every TV host, they all did it [bullied or laughed at her] with such ease, without even thinking. We all got carried away with it.”

The production notes for Amy suggest: “The combination of her raw honesty and supreme talent resulted in some of the most original and adored songs of the modern era.

“Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless and invasive media attention which coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle saw her life tragically begin to unravel.”

The inquest into Winehouse’s death, according to the Daily Mail, found that she “drank herself to death … Three empty vodka bottles were found near her body in her bedroom. A pathologist who examined her said she had 416mg [milligrams] of alcohol per decilitre [3.38 fluid ounces] of blood—five times the legal drink-drive limit of 80mg. The inquest heard that 350mg was usually considered a fatal amount.”

Kapadia’s documentary is both valuable and intriguing. Because the director lets Winehouse speak (and sing) for herself, the viewer receives a relatively clear-eyed and balanced picture of both her artistry and her qualities as a human being. Amy rightfully points a finger at a predatory industry. Kapadia told NME (New Musical Express, the British music journalism magazine and website), “I was angry, and I wanted the audience to be angry. … This started off as a film about Amy, but it became a film about how our generation lives.” NME continues, “Kapadia hopes his film will force the music industry to re-examine its handling of young, troubled talents.”

In the interview, unfortunately, the director places too much of the blame on the public itself, as though people were in control of the information they received and were responsible for the operations of the entertainment industry.Amy, at more then two hours, is perhaps overly long because the filmmaker seems intent on driving home to the viewer his or her supposed “complicity.”

In opposition to this, the 2011 WSWS obituary of Winehouse argued that the ultimate responsibility for her death lay with “the intense … pressures generated by the publicity-mad, profit-hungry music business, which chews up its human material almost as consistently as it spits out new ‘product.’”

Comic Russell Brand, in a comment on the death of Winehouse, a close friend, characterized the celebrity culture as “a vampiric, cannibalizing system that wants its heroes and heroines dead so it can devour their corpses in public for entertainment.”

Stepping back, Amy Winehouse was definitely a cultural phenomenon. As opposed to many acts and performers, who ride on the crest of massive marketing campaigns, like bars of soap or automobiles, she came by her fame honestly, almost in spite of her efforts. She truly struck a chord with audiences and listeners.

This was not an accident. Her songs, in part because they brought to bear (and made new) so much popular musical history, registered with audiences as more substantial, truthful and urgent than the majority of current fare. Winehouse’s popularity reflected a dissatisfaction with the lazy, self-absorbed pablum that dominates the charts.

In terms of the combination of factors that led to Winehouse’s death, of course there were the individual circumstances of her background and life. The entertainment industry juggernaut inflicts itself on everyone, but only the most vulnerable collapse under what is to them an unbearable burden.

As always in such cases, the media self-servingly treated the singer’s death as a purely personal episode. The Daily Mirror, for example, fatuously suggested that Winehouse was “a talent dogged by self destruction.”

Surely, something more than this, or what Amy offers as an explanation (drugs, difficult family history, a bad marriage, a cold-blooded industry), for that matter, is called for. Why would someone at the height of her global fame and popularity bring about the end of her life so abruptly and “needlessly”? What made her so wretched and conflicted?

To begin to get at an answer, one must look at the more general circumstances of her life, including the character of the period in which she lived…and died.

She came of age and later gained public attention between the years 2001 and 2011, in other words, a decade dominated by “the war on terror” and the politicians’ “big lie” and hostility to democratic rights (the Blair government in particular prided itself on flouting the public will), as well as by global economic turbulence and sharp social polarization. The generation she belonged to increasingly looked to the future with skepticism and even alarm. A serious darkness descended into more than one soul.

One study of American college-age students in the first decade of the 21st century, and this could certainly be applied to British young people as well, sums them up as a “generation on a tightrope,” facing an “abyss that threatens to dissolve and swallow them,” “seeking security but [living] in an age of profound and unceasing change.”

Amy Winehouse, as far as this reviewer is aware (or the film would indicate), never addressed a single broader social issue, including the Blair government’s involvement in the Iraq War, which provoked one of the largest protest demonstrations in British history in February 2003. Nonetheless, the drama, anxiety and sensitivity of her music speaks to something about both the turbulent character of the decade and the dilemma of a generation whose dreams and idealism came up against the brutal realities of the existing social set-up.

The manner in which Winehouse approached the latter “dilemma” was refracted through the objectively shaped confusion and difficulties of that same generation, which finds itself hostile toward dominant institutions and yet not entirely clear why. In that light, Winehouse’s famous refrain in “Rehab,” “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no,’” which from one point of view might simply seem self-indulgent, comes across as a firm (if misguided in this case) rejection of intrusive orders from above.

In part due to an unfavorable and unsympathetic social atmosphere, a conscious or unconscious alienation from official public life, Winehouse turned inward and reduced these significant feelings into purely personal passions and self-directed anger, and ultimately, with her lowered psychic immune system, found herself a victim of that rage and disorientation.

Kapadia’s Amy does not go anywhere near some of these critical issues, but it is a worthwhile introduction to the work of a remarkably gifted artist.

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/12/amyw-a12.html

The Fake Courage of Caitlyn Jenner

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Well, penises come and penises go, but bad taste is timeless, I guess.  While she revels in her expensive new state-of-the-art breasts, the Marie Antoinette of transgenders has done us all a favor by revealing just how shallow, venal and corrupt her kind of “courage” really is, and how gullible the media figures who celebrate her.

First came the long, breathless wait to see what Bruce Jenner would look like when he was miraculously transformed into a woman named Caitlyn.  When the moment finally arrived, the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis produced a breathtaking vision–which looked exactly like Bruce Jenner, with fake breasts, in a dress.

This was, as Tom Brady might say, slightly deflating.  But for TV and social media it was a virtual second coming.  Athletes who dared to criticize ESPN for honoring the rich and privileged Jenner over more deserving candidates were hounded and mocked as transphobic haters.

And then Jenner finally opened her surgically-enhanced lips, and what came oozing out was the politics of identity in its purest form.

First, he told Diane Sawyer, his new BFF, that he didn’t like Obamaexcept for one single thing–and guess what that might be!–“He was the first to say ‘transgender,’ I give him credit for that, but I’m not a big fan, I’m more on the conservative side. ”

This seemed to completely astonish Sawyer–but it’s hard to see why, after countless Republican politicians have been outed as cross-dressers; Jenner is building on a long and rich tradition there, and it’s fun to imagine her trading fashion and make-up tips with J. Edgar Hoover.

But Jenner knocking Obama was pretty thin stuff, and very few people–outside of his immediate family, and MSNBC–care to defend Obama anymore, so there was a tiny hubbub about it, and it fizzled quickly.

Then came the bizarre coronation on ESPN, with the stage-managed standing ovations.  No “haters” allowed!  The king is dead, long live the queen!  Of course, Queen Cait could barely deliver her scripted words of inspiration–she didn’t seem to have  read them beforehand–but social media was deeply moved.

And, in the ultimate proof that she’s on the right side of history, Caitlin got her own reality show.  But no sooner had her show begun than she wobbled off-script for a moment, and our newborn Cinderella proved to be more of an old-fashioned Wicked Witch.  When one of her girlfriends talked about the importance of caring for homeless people, Jenner said, with an adorable toss of her bangs: “Don’t they make more by not working–wih social progams–than they do with an entry level job?”

The other transgender women on the show–who have lived actual lives–were horrified.  When they tried to explain it to her, Jenner finally revealed her true self, the one that even Diane Sawyer failed to uncover:  “Oh, you dont want people to get  totally dependent on it.  Thats when they get in trouble–‘why should I work?  I got a few bucks! I got my room paid for!”

Let’s de-construct that little beauty for a moment.  As soon as Jenner starts her feeble attempt to role-play a poor person,  she junks normal grammar–becuz poor folks iz stupid, lol!–“I got a few bucks.”  Then she faults these dumb slobs–you know, these combat veterans and mentally ill and sexually-abused women, men and children–not just for their damn laziness, but for their total lack of imagination, too–for them, a room and a few bucks (for crack, no doubt) is enough. They aren’t even ambitious enough to crave a two-room apartment, much less an L.A. mansion paid for with sex-tape money!

And girlfriend, don’t even get me started on their clothes!  Pee-yew!

Here, Jenner finds herself in bed with Earl Butz, the Republican member of Gerald Ford’s cabinet, who disgraced himself with a similar quote.  Though it seems too good to be true, this is actually how it happened.  In 1976, Butz found himself on an airplane with Pat Boone–in some ways the Kardashian of his day, because he, like Kim, became famous by exploiting black sexuality.  Boone, himself a high-level right-wing ideologue, asked Butz why there weren’t more black Republicans, and Butz replied (I quote accurately, if reluctantly): “Pat, the only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.”

Poor Earl Butz is as dead as vaudeville now, but if he were alive, he’d happily join Lindsey Graham in welcoming Caitlyn Jenner to the Republican party and praising her “courage.”  And that’s the core of the problem: across the ultra-narrow spectrum of American media/politics, it’s become way too easy to be “courageous” on LGBT issues.  It doesn’t cost anything. Every day and every night, MSNBC “bravely” champions gay rights, and they recently hired the first openly gay news-anchor.  Excellent!  Now when can we expect to get the first poor news-anchor?  The first Native American news-anchor?  The first ex-convict?  We all know the answer: as soon as there exists a wealthy and powerful group of the homeless, or of American Indians, or of ex-cons, who contribute millions of dollars to the Democrats and Republicans, like the gay rights groups do…and not a day before.

It’s the same old game, and you pay to play.

So in the end Jenner’s “courage” boils down to this: I will fiercely defend the right of obscenely wealthy cultural parasites to have surgeons in Beverly Hills build new breasts for us, and to then have those store-bought breasts draped in the silks of Parisian coutouriers.

Well, it’s a program, I guess, and you see some of Caitlyn’s right-on sisters shopping in Beverly Hills every day.

But if I want to see true courage in action, I’ll step outside and watch a homeless woman try to catch an hour’s sleep in an alley off Santa Monica Boulevard.

John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.. He can be reached at: johneskow@yahoo.com

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/08/05/the-fake-courage-of-caitlyn-jenner/

Twenty-one was “the perfect wolf”

He was a legend — he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival

Twenty-one was like history’s highest-status human leaders: Not a ruthless strongman but a peaceful warrior

Twenty-one was "the perfect wolf": He was a legend -- he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival
(Credit: andamanec via Shutterstock)

“Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” Without looking at me, Rick McIntyre quizzes me like a Zen master during one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. He’s trying to lead me into a realization about the roots of mercy by talking about superheroes as we’re looking through telescopes in subfreezing weather while watching wolves eating an elk a mile away on a frozen, snowy slope. Rick, a ranger here in Yellowstone National Park, conducts the whole conversation without taking his eyes from his scope. Rick follows free-living wolves every day. I’ve never seen real wolves before, so my eyes are glued to my scope too.

“If ever there was a perfect wolf, it was Twenty-One,” says Rick, using the wolf’s research-collar number as his name. “He was like a fictional character.

“Twice, I saw Twenty-One take on six attacking wolves from a rival pack — and rout them all,” Rick recalls. “I’d think, ‘A wolf can’t do what I am watching this wolf do.’ Watching him felt like seeing Bruce Lee fighting.”

Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. Wolves often target the rival pack’s alphas, seemingly understanding that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.

Twenty-One distinguished himself in two ways: He never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival. But why? A wolf letting vanquished enemies go free seems inexplicable. Rick’s question about Batman and the Joker is his koan-like way of trying to lead me to a big-picture explanation as to why. But I’m not getting it.

Rick is saying that history’s highest-status human leaders are not ruthless strongmen like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They are Gandhi, King and Mandela. Peaceful warriors earn higher status. Muhammad Ali — who has been called the most famous man in the world — was a practitioner of ritualized combat who spoke of peace and refused to go to war. His refusal cost him millions of dollars and his heavyweight title, yet with his refusal to kill, his status rose to unprecedented height.

For humans and many other animals, status is a huge deal. For it, we risk much treasure and blood. Wolves do not understand why status and dominance are so important to them, and for the most part, we don’t either. In wolf and human alike, our brains produce hormones that compel us to strive for status and assert dominance. Dominance feels like an end in itself. We don’t need to understand why.

Here’s why: Status is a daily proxy for competition. Whenever mates or food are in short supply, the high-status individual has preferred access. What’s at stake is survival, and ultimately, reproduction — the chance to breed, to count. Our genes don’t need to let us understand why; they just need us to want it. One could hardly expect that wolves would understand, any better than we do, what drives us all. But I still don’t get what this has to do with Batman.

“So, Rick,” I ask, my eye still in the scope watching several ruddy-faced wolves bedding down in snow to sleep off a big meal they’ve just finished, “why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

“In admiring the hero who restrains himself” — Rick has clearly thought about this — “we are impressed with the hero’s power.” Rick elaborates that in what’s been called the greatest movie of all time, Humphrey Bogart has won the love he has sought. But he arranges things so that the other man does not lose his wife and is not hurt. We admire him for strength combined with restraint.”

But could wolves have such an ethic? If a human releases a vanquished opponent, the loser’s status suffers anyway and the victor seems more impressive. You’ve already won and you show tremendous added confidence. If you show mercy, you gain even more status. But could a wolf be merciful? A wolf might be a super-animal, but he ain’t no superhero.

In wolf Twenty-One’s life there was a particular male, a sort of roving Casanova, a continual annoyance. He was strikingly good-looking, had a big personality, always doing something interesting. “The best single word is ‘charisma,’” says Rick. “Female wolves were happy to mate with him. People absolutely loved him. Women would take one look at him — they didn’t want you to say anything bad about him. His irresponsibility and infidelity; it didn’t matter.”

One day, Twenty-One discovered Casanova among his daughters. Twenty-One caught him and was biting him. Various pack members piled in, beating him up. “Casanova was big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter.” Now he was totally overwhelmed and the pack was finally killing him.

“Suddenly Twenty-One steps back. Everything stops. The others are looking at Twenty-One as if saying, ‘Why has Dad stopped?’” Casanova jumps up and — runs away.

Casanova kept causing problems for Twenty-One. So, why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker so he simply doesn’t have to keep dealing with him? It doesn’t make sense — until years later.

After Twenty-One’s death from age, Casanova became the model of a responsible alpha male. Though he’d been averse to fighting, Casanova died in a fight with a rival pack. But everyone in his own pack escaped — including grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Twenty-One.

Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than can people. But evolution can. Anything that’s helped descendants survive will remain in the genetic heirloom, a driver in the behavioral toolkit.

So, say you’re a wolf; should you let a beaten rival go free? I think the answer in both wolves and in our own tribal human minds is: Yes — if you can afford to. Sometimes, your rival today becomes, tomorrow, a vehicle for your legacy. Perhaps that is the basis for magnanimity in wolves, and at the deep heart of mercy in men.

Excerpted from “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt and Company LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina.  All rights reserved. 

Carl Safina’s work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard and George Raab medals. Safina is founding president of the not-for-profit Safina Center at Stony Brook University. He hosted the 10-part PBS series “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina.” “Beyond Words” is his seventh book. He lives on Long Island, New York.

The US Supreme Court and marriage equality

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27 June 2015

By a vote of 5 to 4, the US Supreme Court on Friday upheld the right of same-sex couples throughout the United States to legally marry. The decision, long overdue, invalidates laws in a minority of US states that prohibit recognition of same-sex marriage and arbitrarily discriminate against homosexuals.

Under the legal regime as it had existed until yesterday, 36 of the 50 states had recognized same-sex marriage, but the rest had not. This meant that a couple could marry in one state, only to find that their marriage was not recognized in another state. Under the US Constitution, states are required to give “full faith and credit” to each other’s official acts, records and proceedings.

Same-sex couples and their children also found themselves subject in many states to humiliating and discriminatory limitations on the privileges afforded to other married couples. They were treated differently in areas such as inheritance, taxation, parenthood, adoption, guardianship, health care benefits and other matters.

The majority decision—authored by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—referred to previous Supreme Court decisions intended to “correct inequalities in the history of marriage, vindicating precepts of liberty and equality under the Constitution.” Accordingly, the court declared that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”

The decision sweeps away an accumulation of reactionary laws passed by state legislatures seeking to appeal to right-wing and religious fundamentalist elements. It is a setback to efforts to infiltrate essentially religious criteria into the legal system in violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

The fact that the decision was reached by just one vote is, given the obvious democratic issues at stake, extraordinary. The tirades of dissenting justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are reactionary and obscene.

Notwithstanding all of the above, the self-congratulatory euphoria in sections of the political establishment and media is unwarranted and hypocritical. Especially grotesque were the attempts of the Obama administration to cloak itself in the mantle of freedom, equality and progress.

“This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts,” Obama declared. “When all Americans are treated as equal, we are more free. My administration has been guided by that idea.”

This from an administration that has presided over an attack on the most basic democratic rights and a historic transfer of wealth from the broad mass of the population to the super-rich. It has advanced pseudo-legal arguments for assassination of US citizens, shielded war criminals and torturers, persecuted whistleblowers, overseen the expansion of illegal domestic spying, deported immigrants en masse, and has constantly sought to accommodate itself to the far right on a host of matters relating to the separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court, too, has trampled on the Constitution and rode roughshod over basic democratic principles. This same Supreme Court is responsible, among the many other reactionary decisions that could be named, for a decision in recent weeks upholding the Obama administration’s assertion of the arbitrary power to deny an immigration visa to the spouse of a US citizen based on vague invocations of the so-called “war on terror.” So much for “the sacred institution of marriage”!

At the same time, the court is concerned about its own legitimacy and the majority opinion yesterday repeatedly references “public opinion.” The justices no doubt had the recent experience in Ireland very much in mind, which saw voters overwhelmingly approve same-sex marriage legislation. Given that the right to same-sex marriage has enthusiastic support among a new generation of young people, the majority on the Supreme Court was concerned that a decision denying that right would destroy whatever shred of confidence the population retained in the institution.

The public support for marriage equality reflects the basic commitment of the broad mass of humanity to democratic rights and the ability of the working population to overcome previous prejudices. The political establishment confronts vast changes in popular consciousness of a broadly democratic character that it neither encouraged nor welcomes.

While it has increasingly relied on identity politics focused on matters of race, gender and sexual preference to conceal the basic class divisions in American society, for many decades it utilized reactionary laws against the rights of gay people as part of its efforts to cultivate backward and fascistic layers.

It now feels the need to make certain tactical adjustments to preempt a further development of mass democratic sentiment along independent working-class and socialist lines. This is especially the case in light of demonstrations around the country against police killings and other signs of growing social discontent.

The political establishment is prepared to make concessions on some issues, particularly those that have a base of support among more privileged layers of the upper-middle class, while continuing its policy of social counterrevolution against the working class at home and imperialist bullying and war abroad.

Nobody should be fooled into thinking that the American ruling class has suddenly “seen the light.” No democratic right can be secured outside of a struggle against the ruling class and the capitalist system. The defense and expansion of democratic and social rights must be anchored in an independent political movement based on the working class. Otherwise, what is granted one day can easily be taken away the next.

Tom Carter

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/06/27/pers-j27.html

Where is Gay America going next?

future queer

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BY ALEXANDER CHEE
ILLUSTRATION BY NEIL GILKS
JUNE 23, 2015

THE DAY IN 2011 THAT I WENT TO THE OFFICE of the city clerk in lower Manhattan with my partner Dustin to register for our domestic partnership was coincidentally also the first day same-sex partners were allowed to register for marriage in the state of New York. A reporter was on hand, hoping to get a quote. As a prompt, she told us that the state’s marital forms had not been updated: Any couple registering that day would be required to designate one person as the man, and the other, the woman. Did we have any reaction?

“We’re not here for that,” we said, smiling, as we passed her, and then we found we had to keep saying it at every point of the process, to all of the helpful clerks at each step who reminded us that we could register to marry instead. We thanked them and continued on to get our partnership. We had discussed marriage and decided it wasn’t for us, not yet, maybe not ever. A domestic partnership suited us. We joked a little afterward about which one of us would have been the man, which the woman, but without question, I had the uncanny sense of entering another world, one in which government officials recognized our relationship in a friendly, helpful way, even if we weren’t going to marry—and even if the forms weren’t quite ready for the many people like me about to get married. I remember thinking: This is the future.

I’ve lived through several of these moments. In 1995, for example, whenhighly active antiretroviral therapy, or what became known as the “AIDS cocktail,” was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and then later entered the lives of my friends with HIV or AIDS, I went from worrying if they were going to live, to worrying that they still smoked too much now that they were going to live. Or in 2007, when my sister, who’s a teacher, invited me to speak to her high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and the students there asked me why I didn’t come out in high school. I had to explain that such an act was unimaginable for a boy from Maine in 1984—as was anything like a student Gay-Straight Alliance—and I could tell my past was as unimaginable to them as their present was to me.

Or in 2008, when the Democratic National Convention adopted “Health care is a right” into its platform for the presidency. I remembered staffing a volunteer table for ACT UP in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in 1991, on the corner of Castro and 18th Street, and on my table were posters, stickers, and t-shirts that bore the same slogan in all caps—ACT UP slogan house style.

I wore one of those shirts to model for passers-by. People walked by me, uncomfortably most of the time, but on occasion, someone would come up and ask for a sticker or a t-shirt, and it felt like a little victory. This presidential platform moment, while huge, felt strangely small at the same time—still not enough.

ACT UP was trying to explain to Americans that AIDS could affect all of us, that health care that ended once your disease was expensive could affect more than gay men with HIV or AIDS. We were trying to tell them about the future—a future they didn’t yet see and would be forced to accept if they failed to act. But there was an epidemic of denial happening alongside AIDS, the belief that you could not get AIDS, not really, unless you were gay—and that you would never need the protections people with HIV needed. In 1990, health care was not something most people feared losing, and employer-based health care was not yet considered a business cost too high to bear. Blue Cross Blue Shield was not yet run for profit. But we had seen our friends and lovers abandoned by doctors and shunned by hospitals, and as we knew only too well, drug companies were run for profit, and there were drugs that needed to be tested in order for people with HIV to survive. The number of people infected in 1990 seemed too low to the people running spreadsheets at drug companies, and so they weren’t doing the tests on drugs that they could. There was no upside for them in making drugs that they believed would only benefit perhaps 50,000 people. This is a fate any American with a rare disease has faced—not just people with HIV—they quickly learn that their lives are the cost of doing business.

As of 2013, according to the World Health Organization, 35 million people were estimated to be living with HIV or AIDS globally, and 39 million have died from the disease. The epidemic of denial won, and now everyone knows there is money in the making of drugs for AIDS. There is now, sadly, a great deal of money in it. And, as some of my old ACT UP friends have noted, there is now no money in curing it. Instead, there is PrEP, the one-pill HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis, which promises condom-free sex, if you can afford it, at a price tag for the uninsured of $8,000 to $14,000 a year.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF WHAT YOU’VE INVENTED?That’s a question I often ask my students in fiction writing, as a way to get them to generate plots organically out of the little scenes that first come to them. So what are the implications of what we’ve invented?

For many Americans, marriage equality represents a capstone “here at last” moment for gay people, but it really is more of a beginning.

I live in a world today that I never would have imagined possible. I can serve in the military as openly gay, if I wanted. I can join my friends as they passionately, freely, and publicly debate the merits and downsides of the sex life that PrEP makes possible. I can choose from male, female, and “custom,” as well as my preferred pronoun, on my Facebook profile, where I get notices about the upcoming reunion of ACT UP SF alongside updates about my upcoming high school reunion. And, yes, I can marry in 37 states.

The pursuit of marriage equality has changed us. We privilege the life of couples over those who might never marry in a way we never did before. For many Americans, marriage equality represents a capstone “here at last” moment for gay people, but we know it really is more of a beginning. It is still legal to be fired for being gay or transgender in more than half of U.S. states. Those openly gay soldiers, should they marry, can be denied shared retirement benefits for their spouses in states where marriage equality is not (yet) the law. Increased trans visibility and the conversation around gender identities have generated more awareness than ever before about trans lives, and has resulted, for example, in advances, such as the inclusion of trans girls in the Girl Scouts. Yet terrible violence against trans people continues, often as brutal murders, many of them left unsolved, should they even be investigated, especially against trans people of color. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, are busy using the courts and legislatures to try to deny us the rights we have only recently gained—claiming that upholding the laws that have been passed oppresses their religious freedom, and that they must be allowed the liberty of their bigotry.

And so it is with a very strange sort of ambivalence that I await news regarding marriage from the Supreme Court. I feel we are at the edge of another one of those uncanny thresholds—that the future is sneaking up on me again. At my most pessimistic, I fear that this decision, along with the appearance of PrEP, is a sign of some sort of Freudian repetition cycle the whole country is in, in which marriage equality is always being fought for and decided, and AIDS is always the ground for advances in treatment instead of a cure—all while these other very serious issues also need attention, and we fight forever over the same inch of ground.

 

IF I WERE TO WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT A GAY MAN LIKE MYSELF in the future—let’s say the year 2035—his ability to marry another man, whatever the Supreme Court ruling, wouldn’t be in question—it could even be the conventional choice, the one his friends laugh at even as they attend because they love him. He might even be descended from two generations of officially recognized gay marriages. “Gay,” “Queer,” “Straight,” “Same-Sex”: these would be deeply retrograde terms—orthodoxies to be resisted, or historical fictions, even. Given the press of overpopulation on us now, I could imagine my character as having chosen a childless, single queerness, and could depict this as the green choice, sexually and emotionally. The rearing of children could be something that is done only rarely, especially given its increasing cost. More and more, having children is something only the wealthy can afford in the United States, so in 2035 it wouldn’t be science fiction to imagine an entrenched oligarchy as the only class legally allowed to have them. In a political twist, China’s one-child policy could be seen retroactively as both visionary and not having gone far enough.

My protagonist could find the process of questioning his sexuality and gender as normal as we now find deciding what to watch on television. He might have no single sexual identification—omnisexuality—and that could be the overwhelmingly mainstream norm. Or he could be a part of an elite group of wealthy gay men, all of them seronegative and residing in an intentional community sexually sealed off from anyone who can’t pass a credit check and an HIV test.

Marrying more than one person at the same time might also be possible for him within this system, especially if marriage is finally seen as the economic system it is—with fundamentalist Mormonism as something of a model for the legal future queer, but more like if the sister wives all ran away with each other and set up a home together. Or maybe my protagonist lives closeted inside a Christian radical white supremacist plantation state, complete with death camps for sexual deviants, married to a woman who is, perhaps, closeted herself.

Yet, when I think of the future for myself in real life and not fiction, I stick to what I know. Which is almost nothing. My hope is that marriage equality queers marriage, rather than straightening queers—that we reinvent it and keep reinventing it, and sexuality is finally acknowledged as having no inherent moral value except, perhaps, when it is ignored. But my generation never planned for this. Many of the men and women who might have showed us how to grow old while being queer are dead, and most of us, well, we didn’t think we’d live this long, either. One of the most punk rock things I can think of now for me and my friends from ACT UP, is for us to grow old with the people we love, however we choose to do it. Getting to be an old queer is our next revolution.

If I am alive in 2035, I will be 67, and I can easily imagine myself stepping down from a plane in Berlin to begin my retirement with Dustin, who, while he doesn’t quite believe in marriage and may never marry me, will also never leave me. In Germany, our immigration status as a domestically partnered couple is today protected in a way it wouldn’t be, say, if we were moving to the United States. And given the way marriage equality is in some states delegitimizing domestic partnership as a path to shared benefits, it could be that, at that time, we would be moving to avoid being forced to marry.

If I’m still in the United States, most likely, I’d be in the Catskills, having expanded the hunting cottage I just bought with my partner and our friends, Kera and Meredith, into something like a retirement compound. Kera and Meredith’s son Theo will be 23 by then, have just graduated college, if we still educate our young that way. Dustin and I are his gay uncles, and I will have taught him to pee standing up in the woods—we’re working on it now—and he won’t probably even remember it.

The future I can’t imagine, but want to imagine, is one where we’re all at peace, working toward something else. I find myself wanting to ask the religious right, which has fought so hard, all my life, to demonize me, if that is really the best use of their time on this earth. Because, as I think of my future, I think of all that I could have done if I hadn’t been fighting for the right to the basic freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy as Americans—freedoms gay people have never fully had. I hope we find some way to live together in peace. I just don’t yet see how.

Alexander Chee’s new novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming in February 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122091/future-queer-where-gay-america-going-next?utm_content=bufferf2488&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By David Walsh
24 June 2015

Directed by Julie Taymor; written by William Shakespeare

Julie Taymor’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream was screened in a number of movie theaters in North America this week for one night only (on or about the summer solstice). The film was shot during a run of Taymor’s version of the play at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2013-14.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

Scholars theorize that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Nights Dream, perhaps for an aristocratic wedding, in the mid-1590s. The comic-magical play, one of the few whose basic outline the dramatist did not derive from another source, has several interconnected plot strands.

Duke Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, are making preparations for their wedding day; four young lovers—Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius—attempt to sort out their relationships, in the face of a host of external and internal pressures; Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of Fairyland, are in the midst of a quarrel, with all sorts of implications for the natural world around them; a group of Athenian “mechanicals” (workmen) are rehearsing a play, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe [a story that resembles Romeo and Juliet], to be performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Much of the play takes place in the moonlit woods presided over by Oberon and Titania. Angered at his queen, Oberon has his “sprite,” Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, locate a flower whose juice, smeared on the eyes, will make any creature fall in love with the next person—or animal—he or she sees. Puck changes the head of one of the workmen, Bottom the weaver, into a donkey’s, and Titania, on seeing him, falls madly in love.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

Meanwhile, the four lovers are stumbling around the forest. At first, both Lysander and Demetrius are in love with Hermia, much to the unhappiness of Helena, who adores Demetrius. After Puck drops some of his potion in the wrong eyes, Lysander and Demetrius direct their affections and attentions toward Helena, who becomes convinced that the other three have conspired to play a cruel prank on her.

Bottom passes the time with Titania and her attendant fairies, until Oberon and Puck intervene and restore him more or less to his previous condition. In the end, Oberon and Titania are reconciled, the three other couples find their way to the altar, and Bottom and his fellow workmen stage their play successfully at the wedding reception.

Taymor (born 1952) is best known for spectacular theater stagings, especially of The Lion King (1997) and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2010). She has directed a number of films, including Titus (1999, based on Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus), Frida (2002), Across the Universe (2007) and The Tempest (2010). While visually intriguing, none of these films was an artistic success. Frida, about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, was significantly misconceived.

Taymor’s work in general has seemed a triumph of style over substance. Fortunately, with A Midsummer Nights Dream she has taken on a work that brings her considerable skill to the fore. Imaginatively staged and exuberantly performed, Taymor’s effort is largely a delight. If it does not explore the play or its themes deeply, and it does not, it certainly allows an audience to experience something of the work’s relentless beauty and poetry.

The play takes place on a stage deeply thrust into the audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. A central image is a giant silk bed-sheet that makes itself into a balloon, a sky, a sort of hammock, a projection screen and a good deal more. Taymor makes great use of lighting, harnesses, trapdoors and a variety of equipment, especially in the Titania-Oberon-Puck scenes.

Kathryn Hunter as an androgynous Puck, who twists herself into any number of poses, is thoroughly engaging, as are David Harewood as Oberon and Tina Benko as Titania. A crowd of small children charmingly represent the fairies. To her credit, Taymor has made the play accessible to contemporary audiences, without sacrificing the original play.

There is something genuinely breathtaking, almost “unbearable” (as I noted in a review of Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film version of the play), about the sweetness of the language in A Midsummer Nights Dream. This is Oberon to Puck:

Thou rememb’rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea maid’s music?

And further:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and eglantine.

And that sweetness is powerfully brought out here, by Taymor, Harewood, Benko and Hunter in particular.

As we noted in 1999, A Midsummer Nights Dream is perhaps “the gentlest of Shakespeare’s works.” That review went on:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream[Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

“Puck plays his pranks, and Oberon takes his relatively harmless revenge on Titania, but this is not a nightmare, it is a dream born of a warm summer night. Oberon takes pity on Helena, ‘a sweet Athenian lady … in love with a disdainful youth.’ Puck says, although mistakenly, of Hermia lying near Lysander: ‘Pretty soul, she durst not lie / Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.’ Later Oberon instructs Puck to prevent a fight between jealous Demetrius and Lysander, and declares his intention to release Titania from her spell, ‘and all things shall be peace.’ Or, as Puck puts it, even more suggestively, ‘Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill.’”

One of the remarkable themes of the play, bound up of course with great changes in social relations in Shakespeare’s time, is the extraordinary and novel malleability of human personality and emotions. Granted that Oberon and Puck intervene supernaturally from time to time, but the four young people, as well as Titania herself, demonstrate that love, for example, is hardly a sentiment fixed for eternity.

Demetrius observes that his love for Hermia—which he was only cured of the night before!—“seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon.”

Titania declares her undying love for Bottom at the beginning of one scene (“O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!”) and, only a few scant moments later, once having woken from her “visions,” exclaims, “How came these things to pass? / O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!”

As we noted in 1999, A Midsummer Nights Dream suggests “a world of infinite possibility. After all, this is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays in which a man on the Bottom sleeps with (or by) a Queen, at her instigation no less. In the forest in the middle of the night in a dream all things pass into one another and are transformed, love and hate, man and animal, spirit and matter.”

The rapid, dramatic changes of Taymor’s set and design have the advantage of suggesting something of this transmutability.

The weakest point here is Max Casella’s Bottom, or rather, not the actor, but Taymor’s direction. Casella is far too broad, with his clichéd New York-New Jersey accent, and works far too hard for broad and rather cheap laughs.

Shakespeare was not writing his play principally for “mechanicals,” for laborers, although they formed a section of his audience. And certainly there is a degree to which the playwright laughs along with Duke Theseus and the rest of the Athenian elite at the artistic-theatrical pretensions of the weaver (Nick Bottom), carpenter (Peter Quince), bellows-mender (Francis Flute), tinker (Tom Snout), joiner (simply “Snug”) and tailor (Robin Starveling).

As occasionally foolish as the “mechanical” actors are, however, their essential geniality, solidarity and sincerity come through. Is there a genuinely warmer moment in Shakespeare than that in which Bottom makes his reappearance, after losing his asses’ head, among his fellow artisans?

BOTTOM

Where are these lads? where are these hearts?

QUINCE [and the others]

Bottom! O most courageous day! O most happy hour!

BOTTOM

Masters, I am to discourse wonders: but ask me not what; for if I tell you, I am no true Athenian. I will tell you every thing, right as it fell out.

QUINCE

Let us hear, sweet Bottom.

Essential to the success of the “mechanical” scenes is the workers’ spirit of togetherness. Despite their various idiosyncrasies, they stick up for and stand by one another. In Taymor’s version, Brendan Averett as Snug, Joe Grifasi as Quince, William Youmans as Starveling, Jacob Ming-Trent as Snout and Zachary Infante as Flute all do well, even memorably. Infante’s “death scene” as Thisbe is quite remarkable. On the other hand, portraying Bottom as something of a scene-stealer and “ham,” and not simply an enthusiast, is a mistake and detracts from the work.

Whatever intentions he had in his head to begin with, Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and once he began to work through a character’s situation, he generally got to the heart of things. We recently noted the comment by Orson Welles that Shakespeare’s Falstaff (who appears in a number of the history plays) was “the most completely good man, in all drama.” Then Bottom is certainly one of the kindest and most endearing.

He is the favorite of the artisans; during the time he spends away from them in Titania’s company, they are at a loss. He has, according to Flute, “the best wit of any handicraftman in Athens,” and he is “the best person, too,” adds Quince. “O sweet bully Bottom,” cries Flute, sadly.

We noted in 1999: “The weaver is unfailingly thoughtful and considerate, and apparently unfazed by any of the astonishing things that befall him. When Titania unexpectedly proclaims that she loves him, he replies, ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that.’ Nonetheless, it is not unthinkable, for ‘to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.’

“Offered the part of a lover in the workmen’s theatrical, Bottom expresses the desire to play a ‘tyrant’ instead. No one is less fit for such a part. So concerned is he about the ladies in the audience becoming frightened, because a lion appears in the piece, he explains that were he to play the part, ‘I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove. I will roar you an ‘twere any nightingale.’

“Worried as well about the impact on the female spectators of his character killing himself, Bottom suggests adding a prologue in which he will explain that ‘we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus [his character] is not killed indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. That will put them out of fear.’ I think Harold Bloom is entitled to assert in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that Bottom is ‘a sublime clown … a great visionary … and a very good man, as benign as any in Shakespeare.’”

In any event, despite the missteps in this regard, Taymor’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is enjoyable and absorbing. It will open more widely later in the year.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/06/24/amid-j24.html

Porn and video game addiction leading to ‘masculinity crisis’, says Stanford psychologist

 A leading psychologist has warned that young men’s brains are being ‘digitally rewired’ by unprecedented use of video games and pornography

A leading psychologist has warned that young men are facing a crisis of masculinity due to excessive use of video games and pornography.

Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University Phillip Zimbardo has made the warnings, which form a major part of his latest book, Man (Dis)Connected.

In an interview on the BBC World Service’s Weekend programme, Zimbardo spoke about the results of his study, an in-depth look into the lives of 20,000 young men and their relationships with video games and pornography.

He said: “Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation – they are alone in their room.”

“Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”

Zimbardo says there is a “crisis” amongst young men, a high number of whom are experiencing a “new form of addiction” to excessive use of pornography and video games.

Zimbardo gave a TED talk in 2011 outlining the problems facing young men’s social development and academic achievement, which he puts down to excessive use of porn, video games and the internet.

He cited the example of a mother he met while conducting the study whose son does not see the problem in playing video games for up to 15 hours a day.

Zimbardo said: “For me, ‘excess’ is not the number of hours, it’s a psychological change in mindset.”

Giving an example of the mindset of a gaming and pornography-addicted young man, he says: “When I’m in class, I’ll wish I was playing World of Warcraft. When I’m with a girl, I’ll wish I was watching pornography, because I’ll never get rejected.”

Zimbardo claims that this relatively new phenomenon is affecting the minds of young men.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02qyfc7/playerCiting the research he and his team conducted for the book, he says: “It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain, and produces a kind of excitement and addiction.”

“What I’m saying is – boys’ brains are becoming digitally rewired.”

He also mentioned the growing problem of a disputed phenomenon called ‘porn-induced erectile dysfunction’, or PIED: “Young boys who should be virile are now having a problem getting an erection.”

“You have this paradox – they’re watching exciting videos that should be turning them on, and they can’t get turned on.”

An article from Psychology Today, however, argues that there are no demonstrable scientific links between porn consumption and erectile dysfunction.

In his opinion, the solution is to accept that the problem is serious – parents must become aware of the number of hours a child is spending alone in their room playing games and watching porn at the expense of other activities.

He also blamed negative images of men in the American media, which show men as being “slobs, undesirable, only wanting to get laid and being inadequate in doing that.”

He also called for better sex education in schools – which should focus not only on biology and safety, but also on emotions, physical contact and romantic relationships.

The pressing issue of male mental health is now a much more prominent concern than it once was. Last year saw the first Male Psychology Conference at University College London, intended to encourage the British Psychological Society to introduce a male specialist section, to sit alongside its female equivalent.

Zimbardo believes that excessive, solitary use of video games and porn is seriously stunting boys’ social development

The charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM, was started in 2006 and has gained a high profile in recent years, for its efforts to encourage men to discuss mental health problems and bring down the male suicide rate.

Phillip Zimbardo is famous for the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which 24 students were asked to play the roles of ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ in a mock prison at Standford University. Intended to last for two weeks, the experiment was abandoned after six days, after the previously normal ‘guards’ became extremely sadistic and the ‘prisoners’ became submissive and depressed.

The experiment is believed to demonstrate the extreme impressionability and obedience of people when they are presented with a supporting ideology and power.

READ MORE: IS MASCULINITY IN CRISIS?
CELEBRITIES SPEAK OUT ON MASCULINITY PROBLEM
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MENS’ MENTAL HEALTH

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/porn-and-video-game-addiction-are-leading-to-masculinity-crisis-says-stanford-prison-experiment-psychologist-10238211.html