Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Where All The White Women At?

Scene: Opening Night at the Brown Derby production of R. “Handy If You’ve Been Stung by a Stingray” Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet at Rebar.

For the out-of-towners, the kids at Brown Derby specialize in taking the hokey extremes of Hollywood screenplays and twisting them all to hell. They don’t spend a lot of time preparing for a show (usually a production is slapped together during the week before it goes up), and the time promised, and often delivered, is a booze-fueled and hilarious gender/sexuality mind-fuck of the typical Tinteltown tripe, filled with horrible puns, slapsticky bawdiness, and off-the-cuff adlibs.

Usually content with sending up nostalgic detritus like Dirty Dancing, Heathers or Rosemary’s Baby, they decided to step a little outside their norm and attack R. “Helpful in Fighting Athlete’s Foot, Also” Kelly’s ongoing “hip-hopera.” To say that they delivered on their promise to make a train-wreck even more train-wreck-y would be an understatement. The night was a rowdy success.

(For a slightly more in-depth discussion of the Trapped in the Closet phenomenon, check out this Rushkoff-lite write up.)

A couple of things to get straight: 1) TitC’s description as a hip-hopera is apt, especially in the sense that it’s about as overwrought as your typical soap. In the 13 episodes (of a theoretical 32) thus far released, R. Kelly has presented a tale of his thug-lite persona who finds himself, in the first episode, hiding in a closet from a recently cuckolded husband; as the tale is woven, it very quickly spins out to include situations of homosexuality, police interrogations, interracial marriage, a midget (who is trapped in a cupboard, no joke), and blah blah blah, you’ve doubtlessly either read or heard about all of this already (or seen it. And if not, here’s the almost mandatory Wikipedia entry, and You Tube link. Completely worth your time). Trust me, in ways both intentional and not, the damn thing is hilarious.

2) I’m just gonna say it: The Brown Derby Kids? Mostly melanin-challenged (this is Seattle after all). This production had about 10 – 12 cast members; of these, only two, maybe three, could have feasibly been cast in major roles for the original production. To stack the deck even further, one actor simply read quotes from R. Kelly’s DVD commentary, which really doesn’t paint him in the best light. The various R. Kelly’s in the production just wore corn-row wigs and goatees.

So, opening night, the place is almost, but not quite, packed with your usual Seattle theater-going types, and the place was roaring. In the midst of all this, back at the box office, a little tempest in a wee teapot had started to brew. About five audience members were trying to get a refund. Why? Because they felt it was a racist treatment of the material.

Let’s talk about these people for a second…Firstly, they admitted to owning every piece of R. Kelly merchandising out there. They also admitted that they took the material seriously, and had never seen a Brown Derby before. Needless to say, they were hoping for a more faithful interpretation. They were all young women in their early 20s.

The last detail is simply that these women were white.

This reminds me of the apocryphal Seattle story about the letter to the editor of the Times asking if it was racist to laugh at Blazing Saddles

Now, I’m as fond of instigating white liberal guilt as the next ethno (enough to go as far as writing a sketch about how much I like perpetuating it), but this raises more than a few issues with me.

Look, I appreciate the concern, but how about you let minorities dictate amongst themselves what is or isn’t racist? This most definitely isn’t an easy process for any ethno-group, and there will be instances of a group being far too sensitive; by and large, though, people have a sense of humor, as evidenced by the black people in the opening night audience who were laughing loudly.

In fact, because they were stepping outside their comfort zone, this production was about as reserved as Brown Derby gets; they simply presented the material for what it was, and made more fun of the fact that these were all white folks with some rhythm problems than anyone’s color in the video. The tone was a lot more reverential than this Wonder Showzen clip.

At the same time, as reflexive as I believe their actions to have been, the women at least stuck to their overly-sensitive guns. If the material had actually been thoroughly offensive, I’d be praising these young white women for doing the right thing.

That said, would they react as strongly to Little Man, White Girlz or Date Movie? I’m not saying they should, but those movies have their own flavor of racist humor going on, and the racism is about their own demographic…

Hell, what did they think of the subtle racism, mysoginy and homophobia in the original TitC? What of the story's treatment of the Bridget character (she's the white wife)? The rote answer to this question, usually delivered by the artists, is that they are simply representing how these people behave, speak, and believe. A semi successful argument can be made that these topics are treated in a winking and humorous manner to try to create new ways of thinking of these topics...just the same, those charges could be leveled against their fave artists' work.

Ultimately, the question is: Where does the line begin? We still don’t have the complete answer to this question, and it’s doubtful that we ever will. What we do have in place is a system that errs on the side of safety a little too much.

I mean, would Blazing Saddles be made and released today? I don’t think so, and that’s a problem. That movie pushed buttons and pushed them well; if it were to be remade, all you’d get would be variations on the camping scene over and over again. The movie is a primary example of how to be intelligently offensive.

I’d prefer it if, instead of hiding this type of humor from past media (the Warner Bros. Cartoons of the 40s and 50s come to mind), these pieces were kept unsullied. They’re a part of our past, and it shows us where we are coming from. It’s something we can point to and say “there, that’s an example of going too far.” *

I think it’s probably best for us to expect to stumble into the toes of others every once in a while, just as our toes will be stepped on from time to time. And that’s fine with me; this stance encourages discussion and interaction, which I prefer a hell of a lot more than reflexively assuming something may or may not be offensive.

*It’s no secret that I find the WB cartoons from that era, racial implications and violence included, pretty fuckin’ funny.

26 Comments:

At 3:51 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Being completely disinterested in R. Kelly and unfamiliar with the piece being satired, I say right on, as far as your analysis goes. Offense is like exercise, in that it makes you stronger in the face of the mundane. The WB cartoons are a good example, as is Blazing Saddles. I remember when we rented that a number of years back: 'Stine hadn't seen it, and it'd been so long since I'd seen it that I had practically forgotten the whole thing (I was also probably too young to get some of the satire as a kid--all I could remember was, "Candygram for Mr. Mongo!" and the pie fight in the studio). Anyways, the first 30 minutes or so were really shocking in the wake of '90s political correctness. So I think you're right: such a piece wouldn't be made now, and that's a shame. I hate to agree with Christian conservatives, but it does seem, sometimes, like the only group we aren't afraid of offending is, well, Christian conservatives. And since I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that we stop offending those cats, I think we could all afford to thicken the skin a little and spread the offense around.

 
At 4:08 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

Is your disinterest in R. Kelly at all related to your general disinterest in classic and butt rock? ;^)

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

That's an interesting parallel . . . What, to your mind, is the connection between Kelly and buttrock (other than my disinterest)? I think I just see Kelly as emblematic of the watered down nature of modern R&B.

 
At 5:10 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

I'd say it's that watered down aspect you mentioned, though I'd argue that hairmetal is the more watered down of the two.

another similarity would be the commercial success of both genres.

I can't say that I've had more than a prurient interest in Kelly's career (the whole trial thing), just found it interesting how stealthily he bounced back, thanks to the nature of this project.

Should he be the first to try to attempt a rock opera with hip hop and be succesful with it, ideally? Probably not. I'd love for someone like Chuck D, or Kanye West to do so. (Prince Paul had already done it with A Prince Amongst Thieves)

But he's the one that tried it, and as flawed as the thing is (oh, it's flawed), ya gotta admire the chutzpah.

I still say it's worth a check out.

 
At 8:15 PM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Look, I appreciate the concern, but how about you let minorities dictate amongst themselves what is or isn’t racist?

I dig the sentiment here, but oughtn't you at least encourage us melanin-challenged (MC) folks to think about what racism is and is not? Or perhaps try and engage the question of whether a piece is racist or not?

Sure, there is a line to what I'm asking. But consider how ridiculous what you are saying can get. Are you and I equally qualified to remark upon whether something is anti-semitic or homophobic? Or do you have a minority trump card that gives your take more weight?

Maybe it is like universities recognizing certain credits from certain types of universities? Like, gays can weigh in on gender but not race, and Natives can weigh in on what is offensive to Mexicans but not blacks?

No, but seriously folks... I'm just saying that I understand that sentiment, and can see how it was inspired by these girls. And I'd be inclined to agree if they had made the road trip from Olympia. But, are 20 year old chicks that follow R Kelly really smart enough to act in anything but a reflexive way?

Granted, they should have just said they were offended, felt misled, and wanted out. It was almost like their version of playing the race card to add racism to reasons for wanting to leave, while in fact they have been issued no such card to play.

Is-or-isn't-racism, offensiveness, art all have to be dialogues. Their are fluid concepts that can at best be identified at this moment. That was the gift Uncertainty gave to social dialogue, if only we were willing to accept it (but it so undermines rhetoric and spin that it is slain every time it rears it's beautiful lamb's-wool head).

word ver bowwy

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger Stine said...

I dig the sentiment here, but oughtn't you at least encourage us melanin-challenged (MC) folks to think about what racism is and is not? Or perhaps try and engage the question of whether a piece is racist or not?

- I couldn't agree more. What better way to foster dialogue and understanding. Yes, I realize we are not pounding out trade resolutions at the UN, but you get my point.

Sure, there is a line to what I'm asking. But consider how ridiculous what you are saying can get. Are you and I equally qualified to remark upon whether something is anti-semitic or homophobic? Or do you have a minority trump card that gives your take more weight?

- I mean seriously? Who would decide this shit? In response to any kind of written commentary, who would draw the line? The implications are hyperbole.

No, but seriously folks... I'm just saying that I understand that sentiment, and can see how it was inspired by these girls. And I'd be inclined to agree if they had made the road trip from Olympia. But, are 20 year old chicks that follow R Kelly really smart enough to act in anything but a reflexive way?

Granted, they should have just said they were offended, felt misled, and wanted out. It was almost like their version of playing the race card to add racism to reasons for wanting to leave, while in fact they have been issued no such card to play.


- I do think this example is very specific and based on the situation at hand, and the people involved. I think it broaches the broader question of why any of these race reasonings are issues in the first place.

 
At 10:23 AM, Blogger Christopher said...

Interesting discussion. One of the things about the obvious racial satire in "Blazing Saddles" that needs to be considered is that much of that was actually written by Richard Pryor, certainly someone who never shied away from confronting these types of prejudices in his own work.

I suspect that's one reason why Brooks hired him to help with the dialogue; precisely because he would give it that racially-charged "edge", but in a way that would also be genuinely funny, and yet also force the audience to examine its own reactions in the context of the situations being played out on the screen.

You see a parallel of that in the little old lady character, who moves from being openly hostile to Cleavon Little's character, to begrudgingly appreciative, to a situation at the end of the film where the entire township is willingly following Little as a bona-fide leader.

That's one of the great, nay brilliant aspects of that movie - it completely turns the entire notion of racial bigotry on its head, but in very subtle, almost subliminal ways until the audience (vicariously through the characters) reaches a point late in the film where they've accepted Cleavon Little as an equal - at which point Brooks starts the whole dialogue all over again by having the newly enlightened townsfolk (and their former adversaries) litterally attacking a studio full of gay chorus boys!

Effing brilliant!

 
At 10:29 AM, Blogger the beige one said...

the li'l ol' lady also holds one of my favorite lines ever uttered in a movie. She brings the sheriff a pie, post-Mongo, and is feeling a little shamed about her last encounter. First things out of her mouth:

"I'm sorry about the 'up yours, nigger.' Here's a pie..."

more to come

 
At 11:42 AM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Just to throw some more kindling to the "how fine the line" discussion, there is Chappelle, who writes and films things he thinks are funny and then decides are just racist.

I know this isn't quite the same is an ism tied to institution, but I can remember telling jokes I honestly thought were funny about a certain Kunda many of us know, but decided post-joke that one was not funny but merely mean. Ended up buying the bitch a bottle of booze to apologize.

 
At 4:28 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

"I'm sorry about the 'up yours, nigger.' Here's a pie..."

And of course the punchline to the whole scene: "You will of course have the DECENCY not to mention I was here."

Baby steps, Ellie, baby steps...

 
At 4:43 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

I dig the sentiment here, but oughtn't you at least encourage us melanin-challenged (MC) folks to think about what racism is and is not? Or perhaps try and engage the question of whether a piece is racist or not?

Pardon me while I look for the instance where I said not to...Of course I believe it's important for everyone, not just the melanin-challenged, but the "melanin-gifted" as well, to think and look and talk about what constitutes racist thinking and representation in the arts.

Are you and I equally qualified to remark upon whether something is anti-semitic or homophobic?

No, only the corresponding minorities would be qualified to make those judgements...In my mind, this would take place in a Geneva-style summit meeting, much like those "Man Law" commercials.

Or do you have a minority trump card that gives your take more weight?

Not necessarily, but I would have more experience with the subject matter than you would. Does that make me more qualified? Again, not necessarily...

But, are 20 year old chicks that follow R Kelly really smart enough to act in anything but a reflexive way?

I really have nothing to say here, I just wanted to highlight the sentence and let it speak for itself.

Nevermind, I do want to comment. The rest of this entry, starting with this paragraph, assumes that this sort of behavior can only be seen in those who belong to a specific age demographic. Or...

I do think this example is very specific and based on the situation at hand, and the people involved.

Absolutely not the case. This behavior isn't necessarily rampant, but does happen often enough to be noticeable.

It is well-intentioned, let there be no doubt about that, but somewhat presumptuous for anyone, no matter how young or old, no matter what status their melanin may be, to take up the charge on behalf of people who could, and should, speak for themselves.

I'd be curious to see that the denizens of middle America think of that Wonder Showzen clip linked in the entry, is it racist? (Though, the associated test market footage gives me the willies.) I'm sure that, should there be any backlash from those very citizens, there's a good portion of the population who'd think "serves you right."

...there is Chappelle, who writes and films things he thinks are funny and then decides are just racist.

It's a tar baby, all right, and I'm reminded of the R. Kelly episode of The Boondocks, oddly enough.

To bring this back to the personal, there's the case of the Wayans Brothers' In Living Color. I was never that big a fan of the show; mostly because I felt they crossed the racist/offensive line often and pointlessly, much like Mind of Mencia.

I'd talk about this with people, only to be rebuked by the very people I thought they were offending: homosexuals, latinos, Jamaicans, disabled, women, etc.

At which point, I had to just shrug and switch the channel.

 
At 5:06 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Blazing Saddles was pretty much my favorite movie growing up. So much so that I would even watch it when the local CBS station ran it on late-night with all the horrible edits.

I can remember being shocked, even at age 11, when they replaced the lil' ol' lady's "Up yours" with "Outta my way", but left "nigger."

Truly, "up yours" is far, far more offensive.

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Joe, I just watched a little edited-for-TV Goodfellas the other day, and they edited out "Ay, you popped your cherry" from Paulie when the young Henry gets arrested the first time, but left in "Two niggers just stole my truck" moments later.

Seriously, really, I think it gives some maybe most MC folks a little nipple boner to hear, or especially say, that word.

And, TBO, perhaps I was misinterpreting you, but to answer this:

Pardon me while I look for the instance where I said not to...

I was looking at this from the original post:

Look, I appreciate the concern, but how about you let minorities dictate amongst themselves what is or isn’t racist?

There may well be a distinction there I ain't getting.

 
At 11:23 PM, Blogger rob said...

Why are we wasting time talking about what is racist and who should dictate social mores when we could be talking about how UTTERLY AWESOME AND TERRIBLE R. KELLY'S LATEST ENDEAVOR IS?!?!?!

The man has snapped. That's all there is to it. He's fucking certifiable.

I LOVE it!

 
At 3:44 AM, Blogger the beige one said...

Rob, I think we're the only ones to have seen it, in this group. Everyone else seems to be "above" it.

 
At 9:41 AM, Blogger the beige one said...

all right, so far my favorite aspect of the whole thing is the Bridget/Mr. Big thing, which just cracks my shit up...Particularly the sincerity with which the narrator introduces Mr. Big.

 
At 10:12 AM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Everyone else seems to be "above" it.

Oh, now, don't be like that. I just have a hard time carving out the time to catch up with anything.

This morning, for example, until this moment, I've been dealing with a sobbing, freaking out child who will only tell me that the reason she is upset is "a secret."

"Above it" my ass - I like Adam Sandler movies, dude. Ain't much I'm above.

 
At 4:04 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

I object rather pointedly to the notion that I place myself "above" R. Kelly or his work. I'm just not particularly interested in either.

 
At 4:22 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

uhm, what's more "above it" than apathy?

ps - please, y'all, realize I'm tweaking you on purpose.

 
At 4:57 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Granting that you're tweaking me on purpose . . . if I expand on what JJ said, we're all swamped with something. There's a lot of entertainment out there, and we can't all keep up with all of it. So we stick with that which does whatever it is we hope entertainment does for us.

To me, the idea of being "above" something entails a relative value judgement, i.e., my worth is this, R. Kelly's worth is this; therefore, as a a consumer of art, his effort is "unworthy" of my appreciation. But my process is more one of preference; given that I have limited time and resources, that which already entertains me--or that which I expect will entertain me--will receive priority over that which, based on past experience, is less likely to do so.

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

given that I have limited time and resources, that which already entertains me--or that which I expect will entertain me--will receive priority over that which, based on past experience, is less likely to do so.

Sure sure, and granted, but, at the same time, how do you know if something is worth checking out, if you don't, you know, check things out? Particularly if it's well outside of one's comfort zone.

I have no interest in teenybopper movies, yet I went to see Bring It On; even less interest in uber-rich-skinny-slut-hobags-with-no-gag-reflexes-who'll-pretend-to-sing, yet I listened to as much of Paris Hilton's single as I could stand to check it out.

And if one is an artist of any kind, I think it's almost imperative to see what's going on around us. Would Paul Thomas Anderson have been able to make Punch Drunk Love if he hadn't taken in Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison? If all one knew of Outkast was "Hey Ya," and you didn't like it, should that stop one from checking out Aquemini?

And yes, I realize I'm saying this to the same person introduced me to STGM and Wizzzardzzz; all I'm saying is that you managed to take the time to find them, right? Though, I don't think those are the best examples...Think back to the first album you listened to that led to your appreciation of those two bands. What was/were that/those album(s)? How'd you find it?

What's funny is that I'm saying all this in an attempt to spread awareness the works (such as they are) of R. Kelly. I get where you're coming from with the general dislike of the material...I'm only familiar with pap like "I Believe I Can Fly."

But when I read that the water sports aficionado was doing something dealing with the subject matters I described above, I had to check it out, and I think it's worth checking out, with an open mind.

That said, I don't care if you do or don't check it out. If you do, however, decide to do so, do me a favor: Pretend it's the next Miike project, okay? Get rid of whatever well-earned preconceptions you may have of R. Kelly and his works.

god knows the last thing I need is to relive the Freddy Got Fingered incident. ;^)

 
At 9:17 AM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

I grant you that I've made my share of discoveries--low-, middle-, high-, or otherwise-brow--by leaving my comfort zone. Indeed, there's enough variety within my comfort zone that I'd suggest its boundaries are less circumscribed than most. I DID try to watch Happy Gilmore, and stopped because, well, it didn't transcend painfully stupid to become even mildly amusing after 40 minutes (one should always know when it's time to abandon ship). What can I say? It's a matter of personal taste.

I did attend 14/48 this last weekend, despite long-held misgivings about it conceptually, and was more than pleasantly surprised at how well it worked.

I listen to albums, generally, when I BUY them; I'm lucky if I can scrounge together enough money to buy one every coupla months (Wizardzz's Hidden City of Taurmond was actually the last music I purchased). By that time, the "queue" is generally full-to-overflowing (and, I might add, with a fairly impressive variety of sounds).

If what you're getting at is that we should approach any art without our preconceptions, to allow that even our least favorite artists, forms, or genres can surprise us, hear, hear (and I'd suggest, again, that I already do this better than most--5 years ago, I didn't like ANY metal; now I'm a fan of such metal and postmetal luminaries as Pelican, Isis, SGM, Himsa and the Dillinger Escape Plan . . . though I've yet to save up enough money to buy any of their albums). If you're saying that us po' folk should spend our MONEY to thus expand our aesthetic understandings, this penny pincher has to disagree. We should try to see much of what's around us, but we'll never see EVERYTHING.

My question for you would be this: since one inevitably has to filter both awareness and consumption to fit time and resources, is there ANY way of doing so that you WOULDN'T see as placing one's self "above" certain kinds of work?

'Stine was the one who didn't like Freddy Got Fingered; I passed out drunk after 30 minutes (during which I laughed a good bit, if only for pure shock) and don't remember a thing except Tom Green hitting that one lady's prosthesis with a golf club and swinging the baby around on its umbilical cord. Tom Green, unlike Adam Sandler, is actually subversive enough to be funny; Sandler is so patently inexpressive that he's actually better suited to crypto-dramas like Punch Drunk Love or even the mediocre-but-persistently-pleasant Spanglish (which, as a mainstream rom-com, is WELL outside my supposed "comfort zone").

 
At 6:22 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

Indeed, there's enough variety within my comfort zone that I'd suggest its boundaries are less circumscribed than most.

No argument here. And by the way, the only reason I bring up the "Freddy Got Fingered incident" is because there wasn't really an incident...it's a misnomer, there was no drama attached.

I do slip back and forth between the General "you/yours" and the Specific "you/yours" in that last entry. sorry. "your comfort zone" was not meant as "Lyam's comfort zone," for example. The top part of that last entry is meant to be a lot more general than it came across.

That said...

If what you're getting at is that we should approach any art without our preconceptions, to allow that even our least favorite artists, forms, or genres can surprise us, hear, hear...

that is precisely what I'm getting at. As one who is also fiscally challenged (and paycheck to paycheck is such a beast), I can't very well tell anyone that they need to spend in order to keep aware.

Which is why, time commitments notwithstanding, the reluctance to even check out TitC gives off that air of being "above it." YouTube costs nothing, and a single episode hasn't lasted longer than 5-6 minutes, and it's on the interweb, which as we can see, is exactly where you're reading this...Beyond R. Kelly not being your bag, which is understandable, but again, not reason enough, what's the deal?

since one inevitably has to filter both awareness and consumption to fit time and resources, is there ANY way of doing so that you WOULDN'T see as placing one's self "above" certain kinds of work?

It's simply a matter of language.

 
At 9:30 AM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

I have to confess here to not even knowing what YouTube is; that it's free--in Amerika, no less--makes it sound a bit like a cousin to the Easter Bunny.

So for me, "checking it out" means (or meant, right up until this very moment) purchasing the CD, which would be kinda fucked up, given my backlog of 200-300 CDs (at least) to pick up in the way of both recent and "canonical" (for me, anyway) releases.

But sure, if I find myself with some time and a patient YouTube guide (I'll first need someone to explain to me what this strange, free, patently anti-capitalistic service entails), I'll gladly spend--or waste--said free time sampling the over-the-top opus of cheesy R&B's favorite pederast. :^)

 
At 9:34 AM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Also, it's worth noting that I was getting at why I haven't checked out R. Kelly, not why I wouldn't. I saw--and actually enjoyed--a friggin' Michael Bay movie last year; I'll clearly give anyone the benefit of the doubt if the right offer comes up.

 
At 2:45 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

I was looking at this from the original post:

Look, I appreciate the concern, but how about you let minorities dictate amongst themselves what is or isn’t racist?

There may well be a distinction there I ain't getting.


You make a good point about my usage of language here, JJ. I gotta say, though, that when the minorities in the room are having a good time with what's being presented, odds are it's not racist. Or at least, not offensively so.

 

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