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My Testament: Fiona Shaw’s Mary Is Not My Mary

Now that The Testament of Mary, actress Fiona Shaw’s latest theatrical collaboration with director Deborah Warner, has closed after only a few weeks, it’s probably poor form to stomp upon its grave. But stomp I shall. This Broadway adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about Jesus’ mom after his crucifixion proved so bottomlessly negative that, if it’s slightly blasphemous to kick a play when it’s already down, then at least blasphemy about purported blasphemy may amount to a double-negative positive. Pretty to think so, anyway.

There’s not much more pretty to be found in this production, which features a Mary who’s hardly a picture of beatific peace and purity. Pacing the room to which she’s been relegated since her son’s death, she smokes, drinks, bellows, gnashes her teeth, matter-of-factly strips, and calls bullshit left and right. This is a Mary who’s not buying the claim that she gave birth to the son of God. If she were the type to pun—and she’s too pissed off for such folly—she’d likely call the fallout from his death a crucifiction.

Before the play officially begins, Shaw sits, uh, mum in a centerstage elevated glass box, draped in soft flowing fabrics and decorously posed, the very picture of the Mother Mary statues flanking every corner of my Italian-American neighborhood. Audience members from the orchestra seats file onstage to ogle her and the haphazard set: furniture upturned, books and barbed wire strewn wily-nily on the floor, and old newspapers stacked in piles upon piles—the international sign for “crazy person.”

But once the lights darken and everyone settles back into their seats, the box lowers and Shaw steps from her throne, instantly breaking the reverie. “They want to know what happened,” she says, drawing in on a cig and exhaling slowly. “Memory has filled my body.” It’s clear it’s an unwelcome invasion. Pacing the stage fitfully, she changes her clothes frequently, as if she were trapped in that state of misery and rage and discomfort when nothing feels right, not even your own skin stretched across your skeleton.

Slowly, her version of her son’s transmutation emerges. It is not unlike the story of many women who feel abandoned and betrayed by their offspring. Her sweet son grew too big for his britches. He got mixed up with the wrong crowd, dangerous people who encouraged his folly and led him to trouble. He disrespected her in front of others. He flew the coop and never came back. In her dotage she has been abandoned with no creature comfort, not even the sanctimony of the blameless, for she is horrified by how she abandoned her son as he died upon the cross.

She speaks in hoarse, ragged tones, and when she really gets up in arms, screams a smoker’s impotent scream. It is totally empty of force. “He used such strange, proud words,” she rages. “He said, ‘Woman, what am I to do with you?’ But I am not one of his followers.” When she relays how he changed water to wine, she scours the event for evidence of his manipulation. Where did those kegs of water come from? she wonders. It all seemed a little, well, convenient, didn’t it? She’s your standard impossible-to-please mother here, blaming everyone, including herself, and nurturing none. A Thoroughly Modern Mary, disenfranchised and alone. You can practically hear Shaw, Warner, and Tóibín slapping themselves on the backs for their radical subversion of the Good Mommy paradigm that forms the backbone of Christian mythology. Continue Reading →

O May! O Mary!

Of all the months in the year, this one belongs to Mary and the archetype of the divine mother—and that’s exactly what our our country and our planet needs right now. I always feel both Mary Mother and Mary of Magdalene are more misunderstood than any other abiding symbol in our culture. Rather than “whore” or “virgin,” the two represent a beautifully still and compassionate energy: wise, receptive, and regenerative. As a friend reminded me recently, May is another name for the Mother Goddess, Maia or Maya; in Northern Europe she was called Maj or Mai, the Maiden. And today, May Day–or Beltrane, as it is sometimes known–is the Celtic festival of fertility. This is when transformational powers are released, allowing us to break free of old patterns and renew our commitment with the earth and the deepest parts of ourselves. Now is when we should take off our shoes and wiggle our feet in the soil. Or just go outside and breathe as deeply and quietly as possible. Don’t make a wish, don’t set goals, don’t try to will anything into being. Just be willing. Just be. Breathe in that amazing beauty all around us. Tap into the big, peony-scented energy. Back in that radical receptivity and rose-scented love. It’ll take you all the way to May 31st—which, no joke, is the Feast of St. Mary.

The Krazy Kool-Aid of Korine’s Spring Breakers

It’s that time of year. We’re living in the lull between the winter film festivals (Sundance, South By Southwest) and the spring ones (Tribeca, Cannes). Most strong films, typically released at the end of each year to ensure awards consideration, have already been malingering in theaters for months or are being reserved for Fall 2013 releases. And the blockbusters—or blockblusters, as I’m wont to call them—won’t really start wending their way down the pike until May. Which means what we’ve got on our hands is a bona-fide case of cinnenui.

The good news is that such a lull can inspire cineplexes to showcase films that resist fish-or-fowl categorization and thus are known as “tweeners,” a term as treacherous in film distribution as it is in human development. In 2011 this time of year Beginners, writer/director Mike Mill’s revelation about modern love, was released— and duly landed not only on mine but many others’ top-ten lists. And last year at this time, it was The Deep Blue Sea, a wonderfully painful paean to unrequited love that established Rachel Weisz’ chops to anyone still unconvinced. So though I’ve been moaning and groaning about how slim the cinematic pickings are, I’ve also been sure that something great was sure to come this month.

Instead, we got Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s first feature in four years. Despite its title, this is a poor respite for anyone’s cinennui.

Here is what it is about: four college girls—two blonde and one pink-haired and one a relatively modest brunette—who do whatever it takes (including armed robbery) to finance a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, for spring break, where they pursue the activities that all red-blooded American girls apparently like to pursue: participate in orgies, drink and do drugs copiously, parade about in bikinis and high-topped sneakers, make love with and to guns, and murder gangbangers. Filmed in a hypnogogic sea of looping images, singsong catchphrases (“sprang break, sprang break, y’all”) and Kool-Aid colors—even the bloodshed seems curiously pastel—this vapid enterprise could go without mention except that it gleefully occurs at the expense of barely-of-age female bodies, as portrayed by girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez) who’ve been immersed in Hollywood franchises since before they had a chance to form a sexuality separate from their objectification.

Here is the problem with talking about this film: there is no way to critique it without being dismissed as a. unclever b. curmudgeonly c. sour grapey.

So after my friend and esteemed colleague David Edelstein went on the sacrificial lamb with his terrifically searing review, I saw no need to chime in my two cents. (He even incorporated my one clever observation on the subject: “camera as tongue.”) But while Spring Breakers is a dangerously problematic movie, one that cowers beneath the rickety awnings of “meta” and “irony” even as it benefits from the machine it purports to lampoon, what’s moved me to speak is my shock that it has been so well-received. Though it exists in the same hazy twilight as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994)—all soft-focus flashbacks and nekkid limbs lit up by pistolfire—Spring Breakers lacks any of the social or political urgency, even interrogation, that legitimizes Stone’s endeavors, like’em or lump’em. Which puts those of us watching SB in a funny position. Korine has achieved some level of indie cred, a fact that underscores how fundamentally reactionary the values of “indie cinema” have been ever since Tarantino made movies about big tits and guns seem edgy with Pulp Fiction. (That Korine has been referred to as an “auteur” demonstrates how mightily that term has fallen. That he refers to himself as a feminist demonstrates that feminism is as feminism does.) In turn that indie cred has allowed many viewers to embrace the film as knowingly fun commentary. All in all I call that a really glaring case of Ye Olde Have Your Cheesecake and Eat It Too, to apply Edelstein’s phrase. To wit: Let’s watch nubile young bodies fuck and suck, not to mention pump lead into a lot of black bodies, and feel clever for doing so.

But to truly do so would defy a central if lesser-known law of physics: any body, when ogled without a reciprocally appreciative gaze, will render the viewer a sleaze by the transitive property of perversion.

Art only can be deemed subversive if it dismantles the status quo rather than bolsters it. So such a film only can be excused if it proffers new insight that validates its delivery system, and this one really, really does not. Which means, bottom line, that viewing it renders us all either dirty old men or disapproving maiden aunts. Or both. I feel about this film the way I do about certain political demagogues: that to even engage with it is to already perpetuate its nastiness. Not only camera as tongue, but our gaze as tongue. A big, lewd tongue making the kind of “give it to me baby” waggle common in sex offenders on a 2 am G train. Put on them Spring Brakes (Spring Brakes), y’all.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy