Depeche Mode’s “Spirit” is a reminder of how political the band can be

“Grabbing hands, grab all they can”:

The group’s latest studio LP is a byproduct of and commentary on today’s global political upheaval

"Grabbing hands, grab all they can": Depeche Mode's "Spirit" is a reminder of how political the band can be
Depeche Mode (Credit: Sony Music)

The members of Depeche Mode spent the weeks leading up to the release of their 14th studio album, “Spirit,” fending off an association with the far-right movement. In late February, white nationalist Richard Spencer — a self-avowed “life-long Depeche Mode fan” — facetiously called the influential synthpop group the “official band of the Alt-Right.” The act swiftly issued a crisp statement through a rep: “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the Alt-Right and does not support the Alt-Right movement.”

The exchange was a reminder that Depeche Mode was actually tangling with politics more than it had in recent years. The Martin Gore-penned “Where’s the Revolution,” the first single from “Spirit,” encourages people to engage in mutiny against oppression. Although not explicitly liberal, a sampling of chorus lyrics (“They manipulate and threaten/ With terror as a weapon,” “Who’s making your decisions?/ You or your religion/ Your government, your countries/ You patriotic junkies”) points to a left-leaning perspective.

As many reviews have noted, the rest of “Spirit” also has an overt political bent. However, it’s more precise to say that the album features commentary on (and is a reaction to) the societal and cultural elements that led to 2017’s global political upheaval.

“Going Backwards” juxtaposes technological progress with decaying morals and devolution to “a caveman mentality,” while “Worst Crime” calls for people to own up to corrupt behavior: “We are all charged with treason/ There is no one left to hiss.” The electro-dirge “Poorman” is specific about its stance: “Corporations get the breaks/ Keeping almost everything they make/ Tell us just how long it’s going to take/ For it to trickle down.” And “Scum” pulls no punches in how it portrays a faceless person presumably abusing their position: “Hey scum, hey scum/ What are you going to do when karma comes?”

Speaking to Rolling Stone about the album, Gahan didn’t necessarily reveal inspiration specifics. “We called the album ‘Spirit,’ because it’s like, ‘Where’s the spirit gone?’ or ‘Where’s the spirit in humanity?’” he said. Earlier in the article, he admitted he “wouldn’t call this a political album, because I don’t listen to music in a political way. But it’s definitely about humanity, and our place in that.”

One could argue that the latter idea — someone deeply considering where they fit in the world among their fellow citizens — is inherently political. However, Gahan has a good reason for demurring on specifics. In a recent Billboard interview, he discussed not just the Spencer incident, but also how his band’s music has been misunderstood. “I think over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted — either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.

“If anything, there’s a way more sort of socialist — working class, if you like — industrial-sounding aesthetic to what we do,” Gahan continues. “That’s where we come from. We come from the council estates of Essex, which is a really s—-y place, just 30 minutes east of London, where they stuck everybody when London was getting too overpopulated in the late ’60s.”

From a sonic perspective, Depeche Mode’s early music captures the cloistered existence Gahan describes. The fogged-up-window synths of 1981’s debut, “Speak and Spell,” give way to sharply modern keyboards on 1982’s “A Broken Frame.” That record’s programming conjures textures that are simultaneously drab and chirpy: dripping faucets, a dull church service or a melodramatic sitcom theme.

On subsequent records, Depeche Mode employs clanking production and scraping sound effects, as well as midnight-hued keyboards and generous slathers of reverb, to convey increasingly hollowed-out angst. The sounds of industry remain an aesthetic influence on a song such as “Black Celebration,” which resembles a bustling, belching factory, and on the “electronic metal” the band embraced as the ’80s progressed. But although modern technology and different production techniques changed the band’s sound — giving it a sleeker, dystopian and minimalist vibe — Depeche Mode has never lost its utilitarian, greyscale synthpop essence.

What’s more intriguing is how the thematic bent of “Spirit” revisits and amplifies aspects of the band’s past. Notable parallels can be made to 1983’s “Construction Time Again,” the record containing the greed-demonizing “Everything Counts.” That LP’s cover image features a chiseled, real-life ex-Royal Marine hoisting a sledgehammer. From an iconography perspective, it was a striking statement — even if its intent had many layers.

In a documentary about the record, Martyn Atkins, a longtime Depeche Mode-associated designer who worked on “Construction Time Again,” said “The kind of political look of the things was more fashion than a specific statement. If you look back, you’ll see a lot of those kind of elements creeping in, of both fascist and communistic kind of iconography. It was exciting looking stuff. And I think that nobody had really plundered it to market an everyday product like a record.”

Yet in an interview with NME journalist X. Moore, the members of Depeche Mode were firm about their political awakening and how the concept of “The Worker” dominated the record.

“The general tendency of the album is very socialized and The Worker sums it up — it’s the obvious image to get across socialism,” said keyboardist Alan Wilder. “It’s like, the first thing you think seeing the cover is that the hammer is smashing down the mountain, but not to destroy. Because he’s a worker, it’s to rebuild it, it’s positive. That was the overall idea of the album, to be positive — that’s why it’s construction time, not destruction time.”

Later in the article, Gore was more explicit about the ways his lyrics dealt with greed and money, and the disproportionate way wealth is distributed. “The thing is, the people in power don’t care about someone with a low wage, they only care about their own power. But I think people should care about other people, y’know, ’cause from the moment we’re born we’re put into competition with everybody else.”

Going forward, that kind of direct commentary emanated from Depeche Mode’s catalog only occasionally, although these moments resonated. “People Are People” somewhat clumsily (but sincerely) addresses bigotry: “It’s obvious you hate me, though I’ve done nothing wrong/ I’ve never even met you, so what could I have done?” The murky “New Dress” criticizes tabloid frippery (“Princess Di is wearing a new dress”) that is focused on to the detriment of more important matters: “If you change points of view/ You may change a vote/ And when you change a vote/ You may change the world.” And uproar over the sexual overtones of “Master and Servant” obscured the song’s coded societal commentary: “Domination’s the name of the game/ In bed or in life/ They’re both just the same/ Except in one you’re fulfilled.”

Still, it’s not like the group was an apolitical entity the rest of the time. Mat Smith’s excellent essay about the band’s political nature points out how ’80s Depeche Mode reverberated “in places like East Germany or Russia that were divided and separate from the West by ideology. Depeche Mode’s music spoke to a generation of young people that felt betrayed by Communism, capturing the hearts and minds of a youth who heard something in this music that we’ll probably never fully appreciate unless we were living through it with them.” And Gore’s lyrics very much politicize personal matters: His vignettes about spiritual struggles, romantic turmoil and internal battles with the self are charged with divisive emotions.

Depeche Mode might have been seen as comparatively lighter, because ’80s synthpop tended to deal with surprisingly weighty issues. Industry’s “State of the Nation” condemns needless (and deadly) wars, as does Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes.” The Human League’s monstrous “Dare” LP features “Seconds,” a song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy from the perspective of the shooter. Bronski Beat’s sociopolitical statement “Smalltown Boy” is about someone leaving home after being bullied about his sexuality. And nuclear war or nuclear apocalypse were popular thematic jumping-off points; Ultravox’s “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” OMD’s “Enola Gay” and even Modern English’s “I Melt With You” all fit into this category.

These topics might seem quaint or retrograde now, but as Depeche Mode cautions on “Spirit,” political backsliding is lurking around every corner. Speaking about new song “The Worst Crime” to NPR, Gahan says “The way we divide each other — you know, racial divides. [It’s] kind of calling out to really question that, to kind of check yourself — me included, everyone else included.

“Like, where do you really stand, what are the choices you’re really making? Do you really love thy neighbor, and are you willing to accept the differences? We just seem to be slipping backwards.”

 

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

Dying, with a lifetime of literature 

When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I didn’t expect the books I taught for 30 years to define how I coped

Dying, with a lifetime of literature 
(Credit: Shutterstock/Penguin/Salon)

When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I was determined to not let the disease define me. With the exception of one fundraiser, I declined offers to give talks, blog, or even write a narrative essay about my struggles with the debilitating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS). While I held to my promise, I hadn’t expected that the classic literature I’d been teaching for 30 years would define how I coped with my illness.

I was diagnosed with ALS in August 2015 — on the Friday before school was to resume. I slipped into my classroom that weekend and filled a box with mementos, leaving behind my personal copies of literary masterpieces and cabinets filled with curricula — at least I thought I was abandoning a lifetime of literature.

At first, my only thoughts of school were met with relief. Relief that I had left my job before greeting 150-plus new students, taking them on a journey of uncertainty and loss; at 17, they had plenty else to worry about.

As the months passed, however, my physical strength waned, and unlike the industrious doer I’d been my whole life, I became dependent upon others. After losing the use of my hands, it became difficult to find meaningful ways to spend my time. I despaired having no control over my life. I strove to focus on the moments of the day when I was warmed by a kind word or an image of natural beauty. When I did pause to appreciate these instances, I’d hear the words “This one is warmed . . .”

At first I was at a loss for the source of the line. I was certain it was from a Toni Morrison novel, but when I consulted Google, I was reminded that the phrase harkened from Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Near the conclusion of her lecture, she tells a brief story about a wagon filled with slaves journeying to a plantation where their lives will end. The driver stops at an inn for a meal, leaving the slaves shivering in the back of the wagon. Two children tend to the slaves, giving them food and sips of warm cider. Morrison sums up this respite from pain and impending hopelessness: “The next stop would be their last, but this one was warmed.” I too was nearly at my last stop — death — but pausing to appreciate the moments that were warmed by small gestures and glimpses of natural beauty dulled the pangs of despair, and I had Morrison to thank for expressing the ineffable emotions that I may have missed had it not been for her words echoing in my mind.

With my mobility limited and my voice diminished, I would often lie in bed and find myself bothered by ridiculous things: a shriveled leaf on a house plant or a crooked lampshade. When someone entered the room to visit, I would seek a way to ask them to correct the irritant. But if they plucked the wrong leaf or didn’t understand me at all, I would usually realize the foolishness of wasting energy on getting my way and somewhere from the recesses of my memory be reminded, “Do not seek to be master of all . . . ”

At first I assumed those words harkened from the New Testament or possibly the humanist Shakespeare, but when Google insisted that Sophocles quilled those lines, I found myself sharing the tragic stage with Oedipus as his brother-in-law Creon admonishes him for failing to learn that fate cannot be circumvented. Oedipus and I both had to learn acceptance. Although acceptance sounds like a passive stance, it would become the hardest work of my life.

Acquiescing to my fate and allowing others to do what they deemed best for my unfamiliar and uncooperative body took patience. But when my confinement to a wheelchair required dismantling my office into a bedroom, replacing my desk with a ramp and my bookcase with a portable commode, I balked. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who awakened to find himself a giant cockroach, I felt alien in appearance and among unfamiliar surroundings. In an attempt to make me more comfortable, my family, like Gregor’s, had replaced my furniture — my identity — with utility. I slept in a motorized bed with bars and awoke alone, with a green button to summon my husband to untangle my limp legs from the blankets. Despite the love and care I was receiving, nothing except the occasional dream let me pretend that I was myself.

Eventually all my inner turmoil will have to give way to complete surrender. I’m not quite there yet. But I do hear one of Hamlet’s less-famous lines spoken after most of the chaos in the play subsidies: “Let be.” Resonating in those two words is Hamlet’s acceptance: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I pray that I may soon die accepting this lesson that’s taken a lifetime to learn.

Lynette Williamson taught high school English and coached debate for 30 years in Sonoma County, California, where she and her husband Don raised two children who had better keep their promise to their mother and produce grandchildren one day. 

10 Ways Trump’s Taste in Interior Decor Would Fit Right into a Third-World Dictator’s Palace

CULTURE
Most dictators want to live their lives surrounded by gold.

Photo Credit: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock

Gold, mirrors and marble: These huge-scale, opulent interior design elements have become so effectively branded by Donald Trump that “Saturday Night Live” would have no trouble evoking a chuckle of recognition from over-the-top Trumpian set design, before a comedian’s first line is uttered.

In a recent Politico article titled “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” Peter York puts Trump’s style in gruesome context. York describes looking at photos of an unidentified home in late 2015 whose description today couldn’t be mistaken for anything but that of Donald Trump. But at the time, faced with a veritable checklist of what York calls “dictator chic” design, he thought it bore more similarity to some of the 16 case studies (“strongmen from Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz to Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic,” in York’s words) he researched for his 2006 book, Dictator Style.

Here are 10 features of “dictator chic” York identifies.

1. When it comes to size, York advises dictator designers to “go big.”

2. Use “brand spanking new” materials even when imitating antiques.

3. “Think French,” York says, because “French [design] can always be counted on to say ‘money.’”

4. Don’t skimp on the gold: “’If I’ve only got one life,’ most dictators seem to think, ‘let me live it surrounded by gold.'”

5. Perhaps most relevant to the 45th U.S. president is this weird rule: Use hotels as design inspiration.

6. Glass is good, “the better to reflect one’s abundant opulence.”

7. Not just any marble will do for a dictator: “New, shiny marble, of course, not the worn, old stuff.”

8. When it comes to art, dictators “prefer big and bright 19th-century potboilers, or their modern equivalents, to Old Masters (too dark and grim) and to contemporary or abstract art (too ugly and pointless).”

9. Branding is key: “Dictators also like known-value items—things that people will understand instantly, aka brands. If you’ve got Lamborghinis and Ferraris out front, you want the equivalent inside: Aubusson carpets (new copies, of course), Chinese Ming vases (ditto) and bright Versace-style fabrics.”

10. The most important brand is oneself, of course, so a life-size portrait of the dictator is necessary. As York explains:

“A trick that dictators have pinched from the old aristocratic world is getting themselves painted, life-size or bigger, in grandiose situations, imperial get-ups or heroic endeavors, and hanging these pictorial hagiographies so that they dominate entryways or key rooms.”

Anticipating those who might scoff at dissecting interior design to reach any meaningful conclusions about a homeowner—as if the room were The Great Gatsby left to the divinations of a middle-school English class—York offers this defense: “Domestic interiors reveal how people want to be seen. But they also reveal something about the owners’ inner lives, their cultural reference points and how they relate to other people.”

York examines some of the possible psychology conveyed by interior design choices: “No matter how you looked at it, the main thing this apartment said was, ‘I am tremendously rich and unthinkably powerful.’ This was the visual language of public, not private, space.”

Rule #5 on hotels may be linked, according to York, to “the grandest ones” seen by young “would-be dictators who came from modest backgrounds as rebels or soldiers.”

With such a dizzying abundance of White House tradition-breaking detail surrounding this administration to be analyzed, perhaps it’s better to start with cabinets rather than with chairs.

Read Peter York’s article in Politico.

It’s not an attack on the arts, it’s an attack on communities

Art and architecture critic March 16 at 3:03 PM
Things could get worse, much worse. The president’s proposed budget eliminates much of the government’s long-standing commitment to the arts, to science, to education, to culture, to public broadcasting and community development. It calls not only for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, but also proposes the elimination of groups such as the Woodrow Wilson Center, a highly respected think tank that studies national and international affairs and just happens to be hosting a program Thursday called “The Muse of Urban Delirium: How the Performing Arts Paradoxically Transform Conflict-Ridden Cities Into Centers of Cultural Innovation.” It’s almost as if someone tried to fit as many dirty words — dirty in the current administration’s way of thinking — into one evening: Arts, Cities, Culture, Paradox, Innovation.

These cuts aren’t about cost savings — they’re far too small to make even a ding in the federal budget. They are carefully calculated attacks on communities, especially those that promote independent thinking and expression, or didn’t line up behind the Trump movement as it swept to power through the electoral college in November. But the president’s proposed budget also includes attacks on communities that did indeed support Trump but that are too powerless to resist. Among the independent agencies set for elimination: the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports things such as job training, economic diversification (including the arts), tourism initiatives and Internet access in states like West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky.

The strategy, perfectly calculated for a new era of rancor and resentment amplified by social media, is to focus people not on what will be lost, but who will lose. Why attack communities that support you? Because losing isn’t just a question of what side, what arguments, what ideology prevails in the political debate. Rather, losing is a stigma, a scarlet letter to hang on the necks of people who are losers. Losers are essential to the project of building a new political coalition, a coalition that celebrates winning. Winners are strong; losers are sad. If your aversion to being branded a loser is strong enough, you may even embrace policies that cause you harm.

President Trump’s proposed budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Small and rural programs would be hit hardest. (Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)

Read through The Washington Post’s coverage of the budget proposal, and you hear what begins to sound like a broken record: These cuts will primarily affect marginalized or minority communities, people on the losing end of the American Dream. From an article about the Interior Department: “Historic-sites funding is important,” according to one expert, “because it supports tribal preservation officers and provides grants to underrepresented communities.” Or from the Labor Department: “The Trump administration proposed $2.5 billion in cuts for the Labor Department in a plan that would significantly reduce funding for job training programs for seniors and disadvantaged youth.”

Just in time for today’s announcement is an op-ed by Washington Post columnist George Will, who also calls for the elimination of the NEA. Will’s article would be a risible period piece — he is still seething over culture-war debates from more than a quarter century ago — if his hostility to the arts were not politically empowered by the democratic peculiarities of the last election, which brought into office a deeply unpopular president allied (for now) to a Congress pursuing deeply unpopular policies because many of its members are protected by gerrymandering.

Will rehashes the usual arguments: He reminds readers of a handful of grants that were deemed offensive by some in the early 1990s; he asserts that people will pay for the arts if they want the arts, and that state and local arts agencies will step up if the federal government (which helps fund these agencies) forsakes them; and argues that the arts are no different, no more a social good, have no more utility or spiritual value than “macaroni and cheese.” He not only fails to understand the nature of the arts, he also fails to understand the uniquely American three-legged stool system of federal stimulus allied to state and local support and bolstered by private donations that has enriched the arts and the country for more than half a century.

“The myriad entities with financial interests in preserving the NEA cloyingly call themselves the ‘arts community,’ a clever branding that other grasping factions should emulate,” he writes, cloyingly. “The ‘arts community’ has its pitter-patter down pat. The rhetorical cotton candy — sugary, jargon-clotted arts gush — asserts that the arts nurture ‘civically valuable dispositions’ and a sense of ‘community and connectedness.’ And, of course, ‘diversity’ and ‘self-esteem.’ ”

The arts have a powerful economic effect on our society and employ vast numbers of people, but the arts community is hardly an assemblage of cynical, self-interested, deep-pocketed financial interests (for that, look to the president’s Cabinet). The “pitter-patter” of this rapacious arts juggernaut is indeed well practiced by now, but only because attacks on the arts are now a seasonal performance from a determined minority political faction. The arts do indeed foster a sense of “community and connectedness” . . . in places like Nebraska, Alaska, Missouri, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. And the other 43 states of the Union. And not only do they nurture diversity, they also express and preserve the variegated richness of culture celebrated in that musty old Latin phrase “E pluribus unum” (it’s on the money, if you want to check).

But the most jejune moment of Will’s extraordinary performance is this: “What, however, is art? We subsidize soybean production, but at least we can say what soybeans are.” For a few centuries now, it has been the nature of art to wonder what art is. That’s how the arts think, how they operate, how they define the parameters of aesthetic experience. And for the entire history of the species, art has been fundamentally different, less tangible, less utilitarian in its function, than soybeans. These things are obvious, if you’ve ever spent time with the arts community, which in fact exists and adds immeasurably to the stability, cohesion, intelligence, beauty and resilience of the nation.

When Japan Had a Third Gender

A figure in a translucent kimono coyly holds a fan. Another arranges an iris in a vase. Are they men or women?

As a mind-bending exhibition that opened Friday at the Japan Society illustrates, they are what scholars call a third gender — adolescent males seen as the height of beauty in early modern Japan who were sexually available to both men and women. Known as wakashu, they are one of several examples in the show that reveal how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s.

The show, “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints,” arrives at a time of ferment about gender roles in the United States and abroad. Bathroom rights for transgender people have become a cultural flash point. The notion of “gender fluidity” — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is roiling traditional definitions.

Detail of “Two Couples in a Brothel” (1769–70), by Suzuki Harunobu. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“This brings us back to history to think about the present and the future,” said Asato Ikeda, an assistant professor of art history at Fordham University and the guest curator of the exhibition, which covers the Edo period from 1603 to 1868.

She said that like other societies in the past and present — the hijra in India; the “two-spirit people in some American indigenous cultures — the diversity in gender definitions and sexual practices in Edo Japan challenges modern notions that male and female are clear either-or identities.

The art on display shows how many permutations were acceptable in Edo society: men or women in liaisons with the adolescent wakashu; female geisha dressing like wakashu and engaging in rough sex; male prostitutes cross-dressing as women; men impersonating women on the Kabuki stage, a tradition that lasts to this day; and even a male Kabuki actor impersonating a woman who pretends at one point to be a man.

Detail of “Merry-Making in the Mansion” (1624-1644), by an unidentified artist.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

That suggests, Professor Ikeda said, that some blurring of gender identity was deliberate, playful and often arousing, since the prints were relatively inexpensive and widely circulated, some as erotica.

The wakashu are a case in point. The term describes the time a male reaches puberty and his head is partly shaved, with a triangle-shaped cut above the forelocks that is a telltale way to identify wakashu. During this stage of life only, before full-fledged adulthood, it was socially permissible to have sex with either men or women.

In the prints, the wakashu are presented as beautiful and desirable, sometimes practicing what were seen at the time as feminine arts like flower-arranging or playing the samisen. Like unmarried women, wakashu who belonged to the samurai class could wear the long-sleeved kimono known as furisode. In several prints, you have to look closely to find the shaved triangle in the hair, or spot a sword tucked in a samurai wakashu’s sash (or, in the erotic woodblocks, to see the genitals on display), to differentiate between the wakashu and the women pictured near them.

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints Video by JapanSocietyNYC

In some cases, there are sly literary allusions that deliberately transpose gender. These prints depict episodes from classical literature, or Buddhist and Confucian traditions, but flip the genders of the main characters, or recast the men as wakashu.

“O-Kuni,” from the series “Patterns of Flowers” (1896), by Kobayashi Kiyochika.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The art in the exhibition ranges from lively snapshots of daily life to uninhibited portrayals of desire. A screen shows several wakashu surrounding a Buddhist monk, teasingly holding down his hands, plying him with alcohol and tickling his feet, suggesting foreplay before male-male sex. A young woman passes a love note to her wakashu lover behind the back of an older artist who is signing his name to a painting. A wakashu dreams of sex with a famous prostitute, while another woman tenderly covers him with a jacket.

Several prints reflect Edo society’s strict hierarchy of class and age, one reason the curators caution it is misleading to compare gender norms directly to the present day. The Edo period was one of relative peace in Japan, following many years of war between competing samurai. It was also marked by nearly complete isolation from the West. That is one reason it may have offered space for sexual experimentation, but only within certain bounds.

“Dancing in a Kabuki Performance” (1800s), by Kaian (Megata Morimichi).CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Any hint of adult male-male sex was confined to outcast groups such as Kabuki actors or prostitutes, said Michael Chagnon, the curator of exhibit interpretation at the Japan Society, although homosexuality was practiced among samurai for centuries and commercialized during the Edo period. Men are usually in charge, both in pursuit of sexual partners and in sexual positions, except for experienced women who pursue younger wakashu. There is virtually no depiction of lesbianism, since women were not granted the sexual freedoms men were. The only print showing two naked women is ambiguous, with art historians uncertain whether it suggests mutual desire. Older men have sex with younger wakashu.

The exhibition raises and confronts questions of pederasty or exploitation, given that wakashu were sexually available after puberty, younger than would now be considered the age of consent. The curators consulted social workers and lawyers during the original exhibit, held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, to make sure the work was not considered child pornography.

Mr. Chagnon said marriages and sexual liaisons took place at an earlier age than the present day, partly because people died so much younger, often by their late 30s. The notion of age of consent did not exist in Edo Japan, he said, and was imported later.

Detail of the perspective picture: triptych of “Three Poems on Autumn Twilight” (circa 1742–1744), by Okumura Masanobu. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The Edo period ended after Japan was humiliated by demands from a militarily superior West – the black ships of Commodore Perry wrested concessions from a country that had once confined Western traders to offshore islands. And it was then in the late 1860s, as Japan rushed to adopt Western technology and forms of government, that it also imported more rigid Western notions of gender and permissible sexual expression. The tradition of wakashu ended. Homosexuality was outlawed for a time.

Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan today, although it was debated in the legislature in 2015 and some cities have allowed partnership certificates for same-sex couples. A gay subculture flourishes, with many artists playfully shifting and layering identities, mainly through the internet. But gay men are generally expected to marry women and produce children, fulfilling social expectations while conducting their sexual lives discreetly.

In an uncanny echo of the past, some Japanese men today, known as “genderless danshi,” are once again blurring lines, dressing androgynously, using makeup or wearing clothes typically seen as feminine.

“Even though we have this rich tradition of gender, prints like these are not found in our textbooks,” said Professor Ikeda, who grew up in Japan. “We don’t do these kinds of exhibitions in Japan.”

It is one of the many reflections on contemporary society that this provocative exhibition raises. Walking through it is a reckoning with categories, definitions and how they resonate in societies still uncertain about whether lines between genders should be bent or blurred.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/arts/design/when-japan-had-a-third-gender.html

A comment on Robert Osborne (1932-2017), host of Turner Classic Movies

By David Walsh
8 March 2017

Robert Osborne, the longtime principal host for cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), died March 6 at 84. He had been largely absent from the channel since early 2016. The cause of his death has not been announced.

Osborne was a calming, affable and intelligent presence on American television—something terribly rare! He came across as a decent person and clearly had a genuine commitment to the films he introduced.

In recent years, in the face of the overall condition of American television, it felt at times not simply that TCM was the best channel, but that it was the onlychannel one could watch.

Robert Osborne in 2014 (Photo credit: The Peabody Awards)

Osborne was born in the small town of Colfax, in eastern Washington. His father was a high school principal. Osborne fell in love with the movies at an early age. After graduating from the University of Washington, he tried to find work as an actor, with limited success. Lucille Ball, at whose Desilu Productions Osborne was under contract as an actor, suggested he concentrate on writing about American film history. He eventually became a critic and columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. He also wrote Academy Awards Illustrated (1965), with an introduction by Bette Davis. He became a host at TCM on its launch in 1994.

What role Osborne played in TCM film programming over the years is difficult to say, but clearly intriguing things happened in an undertaking with which he was associated. He certainly had a feeling for film history and traditions. Turner Classic Movies began operations, quite deliberately, on April 14, 1994, in New York City. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016), Osborne explains: “That day marked the 100th anniversary of film in the United States. It had been on April 14, 1894, that the first kinetoscope [early moving picture device] parlor opened in New York City—the launch of the film industry in the U.S. of A.”

Interior view of Kinetoscope with peephole viewer at top of cabinet

Over the past 23 years, in a generally difficult cultural landscape, TCM has proved one of the few locales in the American media-entertainment universe where decisions were made largely on the basis of artistic merit. However and by whoever it was established, a certain integrity seemed to reign there. The cable channel continues to broadcast several hundred older films a week, most made before 1970, uncut and without commercials.

In regard to the latter issue, Osborne told an interviewer, “It’s so essential to see films without commercial breaks and interruptions. If you see Hitchcock’s Rebecca … that whole movie is predicated on mood and slow suspense. You can’t break that mood for a commercial. You lose the rhythm and the impact of it.” Readers around the world may not find the thought of commercial-free film presentation so startling, but, unhappily, in the US, where television is largely a scaffolding for corporate promotion—in November 2015, nearly 20 percent of all programming minutes were devoted to paid advertising (the figure is closer to 25 percent on major networks)—it is extremely, almost provocatively, unusual.

Speaking of a certain integrity, Osborne publicly identified himself with opposition to the Hollywood purges, hosting “Survivors of the Blacklist: A Panel Discussion” in November 2009 in New York. Actress and blacklist victim Lee Grant, along with Christopher Trumbo (son of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) and Joe Gilford (son of Jack Gilford) were among the panelists.

It is not necessary, of course, to make Osborne into more than he was. At its weakest, Osborne and TCM pandered to Hollywood nostalgia, small talk and star worship. Not every one of his introductions was especially profound.

But then on TCM, out of the blue, one would encounter Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, or Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite or a program of 26 films by Akira Kurosawa (in March 2010, to mark 100 years since the Japanese filmmaker’s birth)—and one’s jaw would drop. This—something that doesn’t obviously and immediately earn large profits, something that seems to be done merely for the beauty or the interest of it—on American television! It won’t last, someone will see to that!

Poster for Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) (1933)

It is probably true that no other enterprise has done as much to make important films accessible to a wide audience. According to media reports, TCM has an audience in the US of some 62 million people a month, many of them unswervingly loyal.

To Osborne’s credit, he insisted on showing a variety of films. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies, he wrote: “The programming plan for the channel was always to show movies from all countries and from all eras, big productions, small ones, legendary ones, as well as B-budget movies.”

Where else on American television would you have had the chance to see Nine Days in One Year, the 1962 Soviet black-and-white drama film directed by Mikhail Romm, or The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), another Soviet film? Or R.W. Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire ? Or various Italian neo-realist works? Or Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959)? Or films by Michael Powell, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Federico Fellini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Abbas Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni, Max Ophuls, Yasujiro Ozu and Alain Resnais?

Aside from introducing younger audiences, and others, to some of the remarkable and complex efforts made by American studio directors from the 1930s to the 1960s, TCM programmers have made genuine efforts to broaden its viewers’ tastes, showing silent films, short films, and documentaries and raising the issue as well of those who have been largely excluded from Hollywood productions. The cable channel broadcast “Black Images on Film” in 2006, “Asian Images on Film” in 2008, “Latino Images on Film” in 2009, “Native American Images on Film” in 2010 and “Arab Images on Film” in 2011. In 2007, TCM aired the series “Screened Out,” on the history of the representation of homosexuality on film.

In its “Star of the Month” segment, TCM focuses on dozens of films by a particular performer, often bringing to light relatively obscure or forgotten works. Aside from the obvious luminaries, those performers have included Leslie Howard, Christopher Lee, Jane Wyman, Kay Francis, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Robert Ryan, Jean Harlow, Susan Hayward, Fred MacMurray, Marie Dressler, Ava Gardner, Ann Sothern, Rita Hayworth, Sterling Hayden, Lauren Bacall, Stewart Granger, David Niven, John Garfield and many others.

In one of the more intimate and often charming TCM segments, various contemporary performers or commentators (or offspring) pay brief tribute to actors and actresses of a previous period. So, over film imagery, we hear Elizabeth Taylor on Montgomery Clift, Robert Redford on Natalie Wood, Kevin Spacey on Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh on Norma Shearer, Julianne Moore on Myrna Loy, Bill Irwin on Harold Lloyd, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Laura Dern on Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Curtis on Cary Grant, Claire Bloom on Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda on Henry Fonda, Ernest Borgnine on Robert Ryan and so on.

There are many reasons for the decline of American filmmaking, and this is not the occasion to discuss them. But just let it be said here that, without for one second intending to, the mild-mannered, unassuming Osborne and the countless films he introduced stood as a sharp and constant rebuke to the generally empty, crude, noisy and dull efforts of the contemporary movie industry.

 

La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism

Show me the money: 

How post-Depression movie musicals choose the dollar bill over happy endings

Show me the money: La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism
La La Land (Credit: Summit Entertainment)

From its opening number — a cross between a restrained “Gotta Dance” from “Singin’ in the Rain” and a demure “Hot Lunch” from “Fame”— “La La Land” promises a Hollywood musical about fools who dare to dream and dreamers who dare to be fooled, both about love and career, though never the twain shall meet. From the moment the nameless hopefuls hopefully leap from their cars on a stalled Los Angeles freeway and begin singing about how they left their small towns for Tinseltown and Emma Stone gives Ryan Gosling the finger, director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle promises both screwball comedy and a nostalgic paean to the gilded age of musicals past. For the most part, he delivers.

Listen, no one will ever be Fred and Ginger. As my wife would say, Fred Astaire is the Michael Jordan of dance. There is, however, a certain dreamy, floating quality to Mia and Seb — Stone and Gosling — that is more reminiscent of Astaire movies than, say, the deranged earnestness of Garland and Rooney. The hopeful hopefuls trying to make it in the big town and put on a show. And by make it, I mean, make hay and make hay. Let’s remember that Fred Astaire movies were big at the height of the Depression. In fact, all movie musicals of this era are about class and entitlement. (See “Gold Diggers of 1933.”) Thus the obsession with the rich people falling down in the mud and the idea of the madcap heiress in a gilded cage or the girl who struggles as a dance instructor becoming a big star (“Swing Time”). Interestingly, aside from the Golden Age — the forties and fifties — the leaning of the Hollywood musical is more rom-trag than rom-com. For one, the music people were listening to on the radio had changed. “Hair” happened. While Broadway is mostly built on nostalgia and happy endings, “Hair” was a takedown of the establishment that basically ruined musical theater for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, “Grease,” a puff-piece valentine about a nice girl who puts on hot pants so everyone will like her, stole America’s left ventricle and reminded us how fun it was to be a slut and a delinquent and then get into a car and fly away.

When you really think about it, the “Grease” blip makes total sense after Watergate, as “La La Land” does in the era of 45. America hated all agents of power. Hollywood began banking on the fact that people were trapped in a nostalgic reverie of epic proportions. People knew America was in the shitter. The country witnessed an expansion of an earlier trend from pre-Depression capitalism that operated in a narrow band of faith. In short, the Depression, put on pause, merely popped up in the seventies. Thus the message of musicals: Democracy is a lie, capitalism is flawed, so forget that sunset, kids.

Capitalism may also be why the ol’ juggling-love-and-career trope rears its seemingly sexist head in “La La Land.” It’s not that Mia should choose a man over vocation as Annie Oakley was forced to in “Annie Get Your Gun,” as much as a bittersweet reminder of what still keeps us apart. How who we were make us who we are and what you have to sacrifice to make it in this lousy world. Is Seb a sellout? Is Mia? Does it matter? In America, the two most coveted dream gigs are movie star and rock star and this film kinda brass-rings it for both, at least from a bank account perspective. Aside from the song “The Fools Who Dream,” one of the most poignant moments in “La La Land” is when Seb listens to Mia talking to her mother on the phone about his lack of work as he gazes sadly at a rust stain on his popcorn ceiling. The rust stain is his stalled career. The death of jazz. Maybe even Hollywood itself.

True, class tension exists in all comedy, especially musical comedy. See Plautus or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The low-person-brought-high gives itself over to certain types of story that make it easy for a storyteller to expose a certain tension in certain systems about power and desire. This is what commedia is about. Love and money, the girl and the gold, hearts and dollar signs and the itchy impossibility of trying to get both simultaneously. In “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Millie, a lovable gold digger, comes to the big city to get a job and marry a rich man but instead ends up with a “green-glass love,” AKA the dorky loser who, lucky for her, turns out to be the son of an heiress.

What’s more, as Watergate made America embarrassed about itself, the idea that sad endings were more real and relevant pervaded.” Grit was good. Movie musicals, even those with “happy” endings, moved into complex territory. Even “Sound of Music,” the most successful movie musical pre-Nixon, was a harbinger of bittersweet endings to come — The von Trapps cross the Swiss mountains on foot only, oh wait: all the Jews died in an oven. “Cabaret” is both about the Holocaust and wacky broads who make life out of tragedy. “Chicago” has a happy ending about two vaudevillian murderers who manage to get away with it, and in “Rent,” Mimi, another performer, somehow rises from the dead, though we can only assume this will be short-lived.

In Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” we see the entire debate between love and money writ large. Will the hooker with a heart of iron pick the penniless artist or will she sell herself out to the wealthy man? Obviously, we’re supposed to root for Ewan McGregor and hope that Nicole Kidman joins him to starve in a garret. Because rich people are villains and capitalism equals the root of all evil. Money bad. Heart good. Only Nicky Kid dies in a big musical number in front of all of Paris, so not only does the whore die — yeah, yeah— but capitalism dies; so what are we left with? A new kind of story, where the nice rebel boychik gets his start in show biz by writing a tale that will live forever. Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Arnstein.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the anti-“Moulin Rouge!” yet with a more rueful intensity. It’s about love and life and what could have been and can never be because of class and family and war. At the end of it all, Geneviève rolls up at Guy’s gas station in a Mercedes looking fab and they have a chat and then they say a wistful goodbye. Snow is falling. He kisses his children. There is, in this film as in “La La Land,” a sense that these characters wound up with the life they needed to have. I mean, Catherine Deneuve pumping gas? Get real. It’s not that they shouldn’t love each other, it’s that they cannot have a happily ever after. What’s romantic about “Umbrellas” is that they tried. . .

Maybe it’s not that love and commerce can’t intermarry, or that the girl can’t get the guy and the gig and the gold. Indeed, the pull of rich versus poor wages a strange war on a country’s heart. Who knows. Maybe they can still be friends.

Emily Jordan is a YA writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyBeJordan.