On Privilege

So, I went to this show last night in TriBeCa. My friend Abeline curated it. Her dad owns the space—a huge space, three floors or something—and he allowed Abeline and her friends to put on an art show there. The idea is that the show separates commerce from creativity; since the space was provided for free, artists could create just to create rather than to sell. Since the space was divorced from commerce, it also allowed people who don’t generally see themselves as artists—or maybe do, but haven’t been able to represent themselves as such to society because they don’t have the money, time or connections—to gain exposure. This resulted in a diverse representation of artists’ voices, in contrast to an increasingly homogenized TriBeCa culture of corporate consumerism that surrounds the gallery (think SoulCycle, double strollers, people saying “on the marriage track” a lot).

The show’s goals were lofty and the the output was interesting. I’m no art critic so I can’t speak to specific influences at work in the show, but there were different mediums of expression—paintings, sculpture, sketches, collage, multimedia. There was a lot to consume and consider—or not. At one point I asked one artist about the intent of his piece, and he succinctly replied, “Well, I’m the graffiti king of New York City, and they asked me to do something. And this is what I did.”

Simplistic as those artistic motives may sound (if such things exist), the friend who accompanied me, G, was also impressed by the show—as much by the conviction of these young artists than the work itself. And yet, as we walked through City Hall Park afterward on our way back to Brooklyn, she was noticeably quiet. “What’s up?” I asked. “Tell me what you’re thinking.” Continue reading

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My Best Movies of the Year List*

*Disclaimer: I haven’t seen a lot of the awards show frontrunners, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Stories We Tell, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Her.

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1. Inside Llewyn Davis

I haven’t been able to get the music from the Coen Brothers’ film out of my head, but even more than that, the film’s melancholia has really stuck with me. Maybe it’s because the day after I saw the movie at Union Square, the frigid, snowy New York I had journeyed to onscreen arrived in real life in the form of a snowstorm and freezing temperatures. Suddenly, as I walked through snow flurries with my reddened fingers stuffed in my pockets, my mind flashed to Llewyn. Something about that character has burrowed into me, in a way that feels—like the movie—sort of funny and sort of uncomfortable and sort of poignant.

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2. Blue Is the Warmest Color

The image above is from a scene that is typical of the three-hour love story Blue Is the Warmest Color: the main character, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), takes a break from a breach trip with her primary school students to float in the ocean. It’s a scene that is not particularly plot-driven—the camera sits on Adele in close-up as she immerses herself in the water—but that doesn’t make the shot simple. In fact, it’s incredibly layered, and at once challenges and welcomes the audience to imagine what Adele is thinking and feeling. This film, at its core, is the portrayal of a young girl finding and losing love, and in that process finding and losing herself. It’s a beautiful piece with extraordinary performances. When Adele floated in the water, I thought of The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier, so galvanized and subsequently broken by her own sexual and emotional self-discovery. It’s easy to feel an intimate connection with a literary character, whom we can connect with through first-person or close third-person narration. The connection between audience-member and onscreen character can be harder to forge, but Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adele feels as alive as anyone on the page or in the world.

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3. 12 Years a Slave

My favorite scene in 12 Years a Slave is a quiet one, when Steve McQueen’s camera meditates on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he sits in the woods, simply trying to convince himself to survive. The moment may be quiet, but it is not a respite. There is no safe space here; the film is full of awful sequences in the most antiquated sense of the word—”awful” used to connote a state not simply of horror, but of awe—of reverence, even. McQueen crafts images that are at once terrible to watch and visually luscious to the eye. There is immense power in that friction, and in the work done by Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupito Nyong’o.

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4. The Great Gatsby

Is The Great Gatsby a perfect film? Definitely not. It has an extremely clunky framing device. Some of its visual interpretations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose are so literal that it’s embarrassing (Leo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby literally reaching for the green light across the bay, for one). Its special effects border on cartoonish. But for me, when DiCaprio turns around as Gatsby in all his glory, framed by fireworks and backed by, what else?, Rhapsody in Blue, it’s a wonderful cinematic moment. Is it over the top? Yes, but so is Fitzgerald’s story; so was the age he sought to capture, and director Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic take on the American tragedy is perfectly fitting of Gatsby. Plus, Leo DiCaprio sparkles in his first role in a romance in years.

5. Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s portrait of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by transit police in Oakland, California, features a powerhouse performance by former TV favorite Michael B. Jordan. Jordan is a personable screen presence, but with edge—Coogler and Jordan don’t let Grant become a martyr, and the film is much better for it. It is heart-wrenching because it celebrates something American society often overlooks or demonizes: a young black male’s humanity.

6. Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s winsome comedy portrays a very specific social milieu: the vaguely privileged, vaguely employed, vaguely creative, very white world of young New York professionals. And while the script delights in the specificity of that world, the film—ultimately a coming-of-age story—manages to be universal but not simplistic, quirky but not self-indulgent, romantic but not cliched. Cinematographer Sam Levy sets a high bar by conjuring memories of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with Frances Ha’s black-and-white New York, but the film meets those expectations.

7. Enough Said

Nicole Holofcener’s comedy made me lough out loud more than any other movie this year, and features great insights into the ways we communicate and connect. Her vessels are Julia Louis-Dreyfus, equal parts sweet and salty, and James Gandolfini, all warmth.

Beauty School Dropout

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“You carry your brush with you?” my friend Abeline asked me incredulously the other day. We were studying in a coffee shop and I pulled a brush out of my backpack to comb my tangled hair.

“It’s a new development,” I said.

I’m not exactly sure what drove Abeline to comment, but it made me think about the impetus of the new brush situation. I am half-Arab, one-quarter Italian; my hair is very dark, very thick, and, right now, very long. Usually I don’t bother with it much. It takes too long to style. If it’s in my way, I either put it up in a bun or in a braid. It’s kind of heavy and sometimes it looks pretty, but in general I don’t think about it that often.

Until I started working at a school. At my job as, essentially, a classroom assistant, my sixth graders are constantly commenting on my hair. A couple of the girls love to twist it into elaborate braids during lunch. When it’s down, I often flip it from side to side because it gets in my eyes, and my students always yell, “Why do you always do that?” The running hair commentary makes me pay closer attention to my appearance than I normally would. I have never put much effort into my looks because 1) I never developed the skill set and 2) I was never presented with the incentive. Around sixth grade, when one starts processing these things, I noticed that there were “pretty girls” in class that got a lot of attention. The most popular was Destiny. She had huge boobs, naturally tan skin and an easy smile. A cute boy with dimples, blonde hair and green eyes moved into our class—Sean—and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Destiny and Sean would become a couple—the couple. One day during reading period, Sean walked up to me and said matter-of-factly, “I like you and Destiny.” Then he walked away. I was sort of shocked. I was not unpopular, but I was not one of the “pretty girls.” I was one of the “smart girls.” Nevertheless, Sean was interested, so he became my first boyfriend, and also taught me a rather trite life lesson: looks aren’t everything.

I have a very clear memory of watching Grease when I was a kid and feeling like at the end, when Sandy got the perm and the tight clothes and ended up with Danny, that I was missing something. There was something I didn’t get. My mom didn’t really ever talk about looks, so at that time I didn’t have the language to frame what had happened at the end of Grease. When I got older, I understood that it was a ubiquitous cultural narrative: you get pretty so you can get a boyfriend. My sixth-grade experience, though, held true through high school and into young adulthood. No matter what the ads and movies said, I had seen no evidence that I needed to wear makeup or invest any undue effort into my appearance to attract men, and so I never learned how. I never figured out how to use a curling iron or put on eyeliner or choose my lipstick shade. I learned that as a very hairy girl thanks to my Italian-Arab jackpot, I felt more comfortable with my appearance when I got threaded, and that I liked how my nails looked with a manicure, so I began to invest in those beautification procedures. Beyond that, I didn’t really get into a beauty regimen.

Once I reached young adulthood, I realized that girls do not adopt beauty routines strictly for the benefit of the male gaze, that some young women feel empowered and excited by makeup and fashion—but I didn’t understand that until I was through my formative years, when a lot of those interests and habits form. Thus, I felt like I basically missed the window for developing a proficient beautification skill set, and I wasn’t troubled by that since it had never seemed to work against me. The last thing I thought about when I decided to become a teacher was the way it would affect my beauty routine, or lack thereof. I anticipated all sorts of challenges: having to learn to censor myself in certain situations, dealing with disruptive kids, defusing angry parents. What I didn’t think about was my hair. And yet, as soon as I was surrounded by sixth graders who were, like my sixth-grade self, becoming situated with beauty standards and social messages about looks and the dynamics of a classroom crush, my appearance became part of their conversation. My hair is no longer just my hair; my choice of shoe is no longer just my choice of shoe—these are potential classroom distractions.

I always thought there was a current of sexism running through requests for women to look “office appropriate”—which to me suggested a full face of makeup and immaculately blown-out hair. The implication seemed to be that a woman in her more natural state would somehow be a hindrance in the workplace, which fit into the larger cultural narrative that women should conform to certain models of femininity in order to be accepted. But now that I’m working with youth in a school setting, I am more aware of some of the subtleties at work when it comes to self-presentation. Luckily my current position is still fairly casual, but once I begin teaching full-time, I’ll definitely have to learn to strike a balance between being myself and looking professional—whatever that means.