Wednesday, December 27, 2006

my other hair is a mercedes

In another life I was an entertainment writer. My pearls of wisdom could be found on the Internet and in a couple of local newspapers, here and there. In that incarnation, I did a passel of movie reviews. I will admit now, for the first time, that I was assigned one or two films too heinous for all but the most hardcore and drunken cinephiles and that because I fit into neither category, I reviewed those movies without the benefit of actually seeing them.

What, do you really think Ebert and Roeper watch all the dreck they give thumbs up? Bah.

But if I'd been called upon to review Dreamgirls, I would've jumped at the chance to watch it. And now that I have, I can say I would've been glad that I did, versus wishing I could've saved two precious hours of my life by making shit up.

All kinds of meaningful (says me) commentary and penetrating (also says me) observations about race, colorism, class, gender, and culture run through my mind when I think about the film. Foremost, I realize that the portrayal of Black folks in American cinema has come a long way. It's terrifically consequential to have popcorn fare like Dreamgirls and a weightier existential concern like The Pursuit of Happyness playing at the same time. But, it's still easy to fit the characters in Dreamgirls into the stereotypes film historian Donald Bogle proffers in his book Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes, and Bucks. In fact, let's take a look at the main characters: Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), coon; Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), buck; Deena Jones (Beyonce), mulatto; Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), mammy. Well, there we have it. If anyone disagrees, read Bogle and get back to me.

I find it best not to get lathered up over these things. Dreamgirls is, above all things, a high-hatted musical in the grand tradition. If it were a dog, it would be a big, slobbering St. Bernard, jumping on you and knocking you down, getting all in your face to get you to show emotion. It's that emphatic. And, take my word, it will get some feeling out of you. But it's neither the triumph nor the tromping of the dream girls themselves that will make you cry, it's the way they sing about it all in the film's two big musical numbers.

If we wanted to dabble in real life here, we'd take a closer look at what happened to the people these characters are based on. Diana Ross/Deena Jones ricocheted straight to the top, knobby knees and all, while Florence Ballard/Effie White sank to welfare and a gravelly grave at age 32. But we don't want to see that in a movie. We got our own troubles.

So let's talk about what we do want to see, and how Dreamgirls delivers the object of our desire with the force of 10,000 dancing Rockettes.


The wigs, they rule.

Of course this isn't even a sixteenth of the tricked-out wigness featured, and not even the best. There are wigs in Dreamgirls that make the mouth water, the jaw drop. Real hair that naturally grows from scalps is so over. None of it is good enough, and I don't care if you're freakin' Cher, circa 1972. This movie hips you to the fact: you need to get yourself a wig. You only have to wear it during moments of high drama, if that makes you more comfortable, but you simply must have at least one, and that's that. How else are you going to fake your way to the top?

In his New York Times review of Dreamgirls, A. O. Scott laments that "The decades are marked by the progression of hairstyles, lapels, jewelry and dresses...." To which I say, You damn right!

I've listened to the 20th Anniversary benefit concert on CD, and didn't go to the movie expecting anything provocative or lasting. (Or even an engaging musical journey. With the exception of the anthem "And I Am Telling You," the rest of it remains stage music, inextricably weighted by the story it has to help tell.) For me it was all about aesthetics, and Dreamgirls drips with aesthetics.

Schmin, my movie buddy, hadn't thought about much of this beforehand, but agreed that the wigs were badass. He was also impressed with the acting, and with Anika Noni Rose, his official nomination in the sexy category.

Here we are on Christmas day. In anticipation of the happening head coverage to come, I'd brought a little drama of my own.

Here's a link to the LA times article on Jennifer Holliday's reaction to the film. I know the filmmakers weren't obligated to her, but still.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

blue suede christmas

I've been holding off on posting because I've been in the doldrums. Several times I almost posted some serious waaa waaa waaa, but told myself to wait. Not that I minded crying here. It wouldn't have been the first time I've cried in public. I'm sure it wouldn't have been the last. The thing was, I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong, or, rather, on how to capture what it all felt like. This is a place where I like to be articulate. Even if I don't know what ails me, I need to be able to write about it with lucidity, to satisfy myself.

One day I was over at one of my favorite knitting blogs, Nik's Knits, enjoying an entry on a baby sweater she'd raced to complete in time for a shower. At one point, she described the disdain she felt upon walking into her apartment and seeing an "exploded view" of the sweater. She posted this link to illustrate what an exploded view is. I saw the picture and immediately thought, That's it, my whole life looks like that picture. Only take away the numbers that correspond to the diagram. And scramble it up some. Make it really blurry. There, you have it.

I started writing about this revelation and again a voice said Stop. So I didn't post, went on doing whatever it is I do.

The thing about shouldering on is that while you're at it, sometimes light creeps in through a side door and things start to make sense.

I think of myself as immune to the holidays. Especially now that Schmin's grown up and I don't have to run around town hunting down DuckTales, Transformers, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Bubba and I are pretty low key. I like to send out New Year's cards and some years I get to it, some years I don't. Holidays schmolidays.

But this year doesn't look like any other year. You know how you look around and wonder how you came to where you are? It's not that you reject this place, it's that you have a piercing memory of having been some other place and what you can't figure is how that time came to be over and why it's impossible to get back to.

What I'm saying is that I miss my mother. Her death is my greatest loss. What it's like to dwell in the space she left is ineffable. This is my 8th Christmas without her and it's particularly painful because damn this has been a hard year. It's been a year that's left me feeling abandoned and bereft, low right down to nothing, only to circle me back and make me know that people care, I am never truly alone, and that Somebody is hauling me up by the armpits.

This holiday season has proved to be a microexperience of the year's emotional landscape. One day up, one day waaaaaaay down. So far outside the boundaries of PMS that there's no scapegoat. Here, two days before Christmas, I've had a soft landing in a place of gratitude because, I will grudgingly admit, that which hasn't killed me has made me stronger. (Grudgingly because do we not want, just one time, our rescue fantasy to come true? Perhaps I should make a New Year's resolution to let this go.)

I have also landed on terra firma because I make things. And it is my great good fortune to be surrounded by other people who make things. From noise (see all entries containing the word "Schmin") to music to clothes to words on a page or a website. I think many people underestimate the power of The Make. I know I did, before I got down to brass tacks and started knitting and sewing. When you make things, opportunities for uplift abound. I present my case:

Even if you've never touched a shred of yarn in your life and don't ever plan to, how could this not appeal to you? All the warmth and color and play.

These paddy cakes came to be because of my good friend Ellen, whose generosity really provided me with a lot of light this weekend. Go on her blog and see what a tremendous talent she is (bask in the whimsy of the dolls she made for holiday cards). I'd bought myself a ball winder thinking I could make do without a swift (if anyone else ever wonders if this is possible, the answer is NO) and I mentioned to Ellen that I was planning to buy one. At our SnB holiday party Thursday night, she gifted me with one of hers.

I brought it home and got to winding up yarn I don't plan to knit for years. It's obscene how much fun it is to wind yarn this way. As opposed to my old system.

Ellen's swift is cantankerous and seasoned, and I love it. When she gave it to me, I got the feeling an Elvis fan would get if The King himself were to take off his blue suede shoes and hand them over. I prefer things that have history; it humbles and thrills me to think of all the incredible art I've seen Ellen make, much of which started on this swift. Now it's my turn to dance a little bit.

Like I often say, Sometimes God She Smiles on You.

Though my mother won't come around this year to cook our holiday meal, lie around with me and Schmin and Steven, be happy about whatever Christmas present we buy for her, no matter how big or small, it will be a two Schmin Christmas. My boy and I have plans, just the two of us. We're going to see Dreamgirls -- because we're not that jaded -- rent some DVDs, and scrounge for food, probably at Ralph's.

I hope no matter where you are or where you thought you would be, you have a very merry Christmas day.

Friday, December 08, 2006

this is what happens when you're popular

First thing in the morning, you walk into the Gap sporting all your handmade goods. You feel empowered because even though you're still not safe from zigzag stitching your thumb when using your sewing machine, you truly believe that if you see something cool in the store, you can truck on home and whip it up. And how. You stroll along awhile, feeling stylish and capable. You finger the knitted accessories, flip a couple over to check the construction (call me foolhardy, but I think I've got the skills to knock off most of these babies). Before long, you notice these:

And by god, look what you happen to be wearing:

Your very own non-Gap inspired version of the jeans-to-skirt recon. Yours is of course made of a pair of Levi's you got for 9 bucks at Ross three years ago, thus earning you a net savings of 30 bucks.

But money saved isn't what's got you so excited. It's the fact that, thanks to crafting, you've finally stepped up to claim some small corner of the world as yours. At last, you've wiggled at least part way out of the door of consumerism and you can see your own creativity waving to you from a red convertible parked near the curb. It's revving the engine, ready to roll as soon as you jump the passenger door, and you feel your heart going thump thump because you know for sure that you're this close to being free. You feel the hot breath of manufactured goods on the back of your neck and you know it's coming after you, but you look up and there's the sun, and you don't even give that beast the time of day. Instead, you take one more sure step toward that curb.

And you plan your next project.

Monday, December 04, 2006

yellow is my new favorite color

I can turn down the best of parties, but I always think twice when asked out with the boys who love boys. One of the last times I danced from Saturday night until time to go to work on Monday morning was at a gay club in Atlanta, years ago.

So when Mister Stevens asked me and The Bubba to join him and his friends for boys' night at a historic place called The Victory Grill while we were in Austin, I said yes. I figured I'd at least get an earful of cheeky comments and that maybe there'd be good house music and I'd get in the mood to dance.

What I got was even better: good running commentary, some cutting of the rug, and the coup de grace -- the chance to preside over a competition between troupes of young, muscle-y, sweaty boys who lacked much in the way of either inhibition or clothing. Mercy mercy me.

Check out those tight little asses. Er, I mean, isn't yellow a nice color?

Turns out the night in question was host to a J-Setting contest. If you've never experienced this phenom, you simply must get yourself down South (I hear that's where it mostly takes place) and check it out. (If you do it before Madonna gets wind of it, you can beat her and claim you started it.)

A little history: Black colleges have drill teams that consist of sassy colored girls who come out with the band and show-out during half-time (or whenever duty calls) by dancing and strutting their stuff. The pre-eminent troupe is out of Mississippi, Jackson State University's Prancing J-Settes. They were the first, and they're widely accepted as the best. (Here's a clip of them in action and some background info.) Black gay men have taken the drill/dance squad from the football field to the dance club. They form groups and compete against each other in a series of dance moves they call "J-Setting," after the creme de la creme, the Jackson State team.

Now, don't get the impression that I knew about any of this before my night at the Victory Grill. I didn't, having only been to one Black college football game some donkey years ago and not having found it particularly appealing because no one actually watches the game but instead everyone mostly watches everyone else. Anyhow, you learn something new every day if you're lucky. And if you're really lucky that something new involves young supple nubile males dancing so close to you that you can reach out and pinch their sweet perky bottoms. And if you're blessed with the mother of all luck you're asked to serve as one of the judges of their dance contest.

I take my work very seriously.

I guess J-Setting became part of the gay community because the brothers couldn't let the sisters have all the fun and, seeing as the choreographer who helped bring the Prancing J-Settes to prominence, the late Hollis Pippins, was himself a member of the boys' club (this according to my mother-in-law, who would know, because she used to live in Jackson where word is said to really get around), it seems they have a right. Over the last five years or so, J-Setting has become the new vogueing among the Black gay male and flexible set.

Having said all this, the truth of the matter is, I don't care where it came from as long as the boys keep doing it.

I clearly want the boys in blue and yellow to c'mon to my house so I can give them candy, but the opposing team, seen in the top photo wearing black pants, white tank tops, and white Sateen gloves (which The Bubba liked so much that he nicknamed them Black Elegance), won the contest. I didn't vote for them, though I now agree they should have won as they did give a great performance -- okay, the guy below kissed me after Mister Stevens pointed me out as one of the judges and now I wish I had voted for them. But my vote went straight to those hotpants. Oh yes. You cannot have a body like these young 'uns, sheath it in sunshine nuthuggers, and not expect me to vote for you. And dancewise, my boys weren't too shabby either.

Because I'm now officially obsessed with all things J-Setting (and almost no things concerning my bread and butter, the study and teaching of grammar), me and Mister Stevens (see, I told you) would like to gift you with this footage. All but the guy in pink were members of the winning team, forever known as Black Elegance.