Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Judy Garland

The Harvey Girls, Judy and the Limits of Camp

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Illustration found here

Every Millennial at one point or another will have to answer the inevitable question, “Are you a hipster?” (Every Millennial who wears glasses and has some sort of interest in the arts, at least.) I faced the question at a wine party last year and replied in the negative. I admitted some of my fashion choices may fall in with the cliché of the hipster (though I never succumbed to skinny jeans, aviators or wolf sweaters), but my music taste is much too ‘top forty’ and my personality too earnest.

“Oh, come on, Max!” my friend Amy shot back. “You’re such a hipster! You read the New Yorker.”

“Since when is that a hipster publication?” I cried. “It’s not VICE.”

“The hipster thing wouldn’t be VICE anymore,” someone else chimed in. “It’d be the New Yorker.”

Obviously, we settled nothing that night. I bring this up to illustrate that identities are complicated and how others see you is often vastly different from how you see yourself. While I will continue to shriek in protest against the label ‘hipster’ until my dying breath, there is one label I’m totally at ease with.

I’m gay.

And I use that word purposefully. I’m not a ‘man who sleeps with men’. I’m not ‘attracted to masculine performance’, as one guy I met convolutely defined himself.

Every generation has to redefine sexual identities for themselves and it’s a wonderful development the struggle for equal rights has expanded to include lesbian, bisexuals, transgender, two-spirited and intersex individuals, among others. (Lesbians were a part of the gay rights movement from the very beginning, but men managed to hog the spotlight. It’s what men do.) A scan of news headlines, from Russia to Uganda to Toronto’s City Hall, demonstrates the fight has only begun.

But speaking personally, I like the word ‘gay’ and I’m proud of gay culture and history. All sorts of pieces have claimed the death of that word or identity, from Foucaultian academic treatises to blog posts. But I’m not done with it yet. If anything, like the child of immigrant parents, learning about gay history and culture helps me feel connected to my past forebears. It helps me understand who I am.

For example, learning about gay history put my camp humour into perspective. I can’t tell you if I was born with it or it was somehow learned (these are debates too big for WordPress) but I do know from a young age I acted with a little camp performance. By ‘camp’ I don’t necessarily mean effeminate, although that’s part of it. Rather, it’s living life as though you were on stage, doing things as though they were in quotation marks. There’s a home movie of my little brother and me sitting on the kitchen floor, banging on coffee tins with wooden spoons as if they were drums. When my mom asks me what I’d like to play, 6-year old Max taps his fingers on his chin and looks off dreamily.

“Let’s see,” he says, overacting the process of thinking. “What should I play?”

In contrast, when it’s my brother’s turn he immediately starts banging the wooden spoons like he’s Animal from the ‘Muppet Show’.

Performativity is a part of how I speak to this very day. Every third sentence that comes out of my mouth is in quotation marks. Sometimes they’re direct quotes from movies or TV, but mostly they’re the type of thing you’d hear in fiction. I’m asking the listener, with exaggerated language and tone of voice, to understand I mean them as clichés.

On occasion, this habit gets me in trouble or someone fails to understand the joke. It’s probably more difficult when English isn’t your first language. When I lived in Dublin I worked with a girl named Daria who was from Mongolia. She spoke English very directly. Once she told me, “I didn’t like you at first, but now I like you.”

When I got a minor promotion at work (I don’t even think a raise was part of it), I turned to her and, waving my head around flamboyantly, said, “Now that I’m the ‘coffee master’ for the café I don’t want you to treat me any differently. I’ll never forget where I came from. I want you to know that, truly.”

She stared at me blankly. “Why are you saying this?”

Camp is very complex to define, but one of the most succinct summaries comes from Steven Cohan, author of ‘Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical’: “Camp can be defined as the ensemble of strategies used to enact queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality.” In an era of deep oppression, camp allowed gay men to both engage with the discriminatory dominant culture while mocking it in a manner invisible to outsiders. Sociologist Esther Newton, who interviewed drag queens in Chicago and Kansas City in the 1960’s, said the main tenets of camp are incongruity, “its subject matter”; theatricality, “its style”; and humour, “its strategy.”

By treating a minor promotion at Starbucks as a Broadway star would talk about landing the lead role, her name emblazoned in glittering lights, I gently mocked the absurdities of being a minimum-wage-earning barista. Camp also might explain why, when I have to be assertive, I imagine myself as Joan Crawford, Margaret Thatcher or Elizabeth I (as played by Cate Blanchet), rather than any of the aggressive male personalities available. I’m playing at being angry so I can float above it.

Which leads me to Judy. In first year university I read Gerald Clarke’s biography of Ms. Garland, ‘Get Happy’. I became a bit obsessed with her and I couldn’t figure out why. I grew up on MGM musicals it’s true, but I watched ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘American in Paris’ far more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’. (Gene Kelly’s ass is just as likely to turn you gay as anything Garland ever did.) Perhaps, I thought at the time, I related to Judy’s personal struggles, often the explanation people give as to why gay men appreciate her. At the time I was a popular undergrad with many friends but no boyfriend, which sometimes plunged me into feelings of loneliness and unattractiveness. Judy Garland was loved by countless fans but never felt intimately loved enough. It’s a human tragedy with no solution.

Lastly, as a cultural history buff, I liked the era that Judy’s career spanned and the change you can see in American pop culture from Rooseveltian patriotism to 1960’s cynicism. (It’s probably a good thing that near the end of her life Garland was fired from ‘Valley of the Dolls’ in which she had been cast as Helen Lawson, a cruel caricature of herself. It may have damaged her reputation in the manner Joan Crawford’s was bludgeoned by Faye Dunaway’s wire hanger.)

But ten years on, after watching ‘A Star is Born’ every year and reading everything I could get my hands on camp and gay history, I think I have a better explanation. Judy Garland performed with a camp attitude, including her over the top singing style and her delivery of lines as though they were in quotation marks (which of course as scripted lines they were). Her singing voice gave more emotion than her films usually called for, while her awkward, fidgety acting suggested discomfort with the Ohioan girls-next-door she was often asked to play. Unlike Joan Crawford, who is appreciated as camp but not a camp performer herself (her caramel voice always oozed sincerity), Garland wins out with gay audiences because she seemed in on the joke.

Why Judy performed this way is up to debate, although I think Roger Edens, musical arranger, gay man and longtime friend of Judy who taught her how to sing for the camera, along with Kaye Thompson, another music arranger and author of the Eloise books, who taught her how to move, have a good deal to do with it. Garland was a mimic who entertained her friends by impersonating people they knew. Not hard to imagine, given all the gay men surrounding her (including a couple husbands) that she would start acting camp.

I like the Garland-as-camp-performer theory better than the Garland-as-sad-sack-and-gays-are-also-sad explanation because it gives Judy agency. As well, it explains why gay men who grew up long after the Stonewall riots, when camp was supposed to disappear with the smashing of closet doors, might still be interested in her. (I know I’m not the only one.) As David M. Halperin wrote in ‘How to be Gay’, times have changed but little gay boys still need strategies to cope with and find a place within a dominant heterosexual culture.

Re-watching films I’d grown up with I saw Garland’s campiness over and over again. I also saw myself. In ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ Judy’s character is a lovesick teenager and the part would have been dull if played by another musical actress. Director Vincente Minnelli got mad at Judy when they started filming for mocking the lines. The story goes that Judy eventually came to trust Minnelli, turned in a sincere performance and the pair ended up married. But watching the movie now I see traces of Garland’s tongue-in-cheek attitude, as though she’s whispering to the audience, “Oh, as though I’m supposed to be silly teenager from Missouri!”

Before a dance, while Judy’s character Esther and her sister are getting ready, she folds her hands and says in a matter of fact voice: “I’ve decided I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.” Her sister is scandalized and says you’re not supposed to kiss until after you get engaged. (It’s supposed to be 1904.)

“Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off,” she claims.

“Personally, I think I have too much bloom,” Esther says as her sister walks away. “Maybe that’s the trouble with me…” She then pinches her cheeks (turn of the century rouge) and flutters her eyelashes at herself in the mirror in a mock pretty-girl flirtation. She then drops the mask, sighs at herself and gets up from the desk. It’s the type of thing I’d do.

 

But there are limits to my fandom. Judy couldn’t single handedly rescue every picture. I finally made it through ‘The Harvey Girls’ (1946), a movie which I tried to watch years ago but gave up after it completely lost steam after its big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” musical number. Set in the 1890’s, and oh you should see the size of their puffy sleeves, what little story there is centres on a group of waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurant company, the first chain restaurants in America. (Sadly, unrelated to the hamburger joint Harvey’s.)

According to the film’s introduction, “When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Sante Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had know… the Harvey Girls…these winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons…Not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.”

‘It’s a good thing the land was empty for all these white people to come and serve beefsteak,’ I thought. Then in the big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” number, when all the “winsome waitresses” arrive at the sleepy cowboy town of Sandrock to bring civilization and coffee, the filmmakers dare to include Native Americans as extras, or at least actors meant to be Native Americans.

‘Oh,’ I said to myself. ‘There’s the civilization that white people eradicated by way of railroads and chain restaurants!’ As the Native American extras bob around merrily to the song, the women sing about all the different states they’ve come from. They’re in the Old West to be waitresses but really to be wives, and the cowboys of the town leer at them approvingly while tightening their brightly coloured handkerchiefs.

‘But wait,’ you ask. ‘Weren’t there women in the town before?’ Not really, unless you count sex workers as women. The movie is from the 1940’s so it doesn’t call them sex workers. But at the end of musical number the waitresses look up to see a group of feather headdress-wearing, corseted showgirls glaring down at them like vultures from the balcony of the saloon. These are the ‘bad girls’ who entertain the single men with booze, gambling, and whatever else. They’re threatened by the arrival the Harvey Girls, who may marry their customers and straighten out the town. The extinction of their way of life, and not that of the Native Americans, is the subject of the film.

The most fun casting is that of the head bad girl. She’s played by Angela Lansbury, who puts on a tough, world-weary accent. (Sadly, they dubbed her singing voice. It would have been fabulous if she had performed her songs like Mrs. Potts!) She gets the best outfits, though—sequined monstrosities that make her resemble a Christmas tree. MGM let the gay men in the costume department go a little far. 

As Judy becomes a Harvey Girl and their schoolmarmish boss instructs them on always having a clean apron (they look like freakin’ nuns) and the rules of costumer service, I rolled my eyes and shouted at the screen, ‘Oh, shut up!’ When Garland and Lansbury start competing for the same man you can’t help but route for Lansbury. Who decided that a movie about goody two shoe waitresses was more interesting than one about showgirls?

Most disappointing, Judy doesn’t subvert any of her characters lines, nor does the film undermine any of its sexist and racist themes. In real life, Fred Harvey chose the prettiest girls as waitresses (something the film implies), which doesn’t seem that far off from pimping. He also hired actors to play Native Americans to provide ‘local colour’ for tourists. While it was still going on, the Old West had to be faked for white audiences. Even for MGM of the 1940’s, this is an insanely conservative Americana movie, managing to combine Manifest Destiny, fast food, and the post-WWII move to shove women back into the home.  

I would love to remake ‘The Harvey Girls’ as a stage play/drag show, using the same songs and basic plot but with the opposite point of view—the ‘bad girls’ as the protagonists and the priggish waitresses as the villains who ruin all the fun. Although there may be some movies, Judy or no Judy, that are beyond rescue. 

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Michael Hughes: A Star is Born

Speaking of Mickey and Judy, I saw ‘Mickey & Judy’ on Friday night. Part of the Fringe Festival, the one-man musical revue stars Michael Hughes, a singer and actor who has worked in Canada, the US and Japan. Although he has played Tony in ‘West Side Story’ and Gilbert in ‘Anne and Gilbert’, he clearly wants to be Judy Garland. So, like Rufus Wainwright before him, he’s stepped into those legendary ruby shoes.

Accompanied by just a keyboardist and wearing a Dorothy-esque gingham cowboy shirt, Hughes presents his ‘pseudo-memoir’ alone on a blank stage, save for a framed photo of Garland resting atop an old fashioned trunk. His first number is ‘You Made Me Love You’ with an intro addressed to his idol, “Dear Ms. Garland…”, a modified version of the love letter teenage Judy sang to Clark Gable in ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’.

A series of Judy and Broadway-related non-Judy songs follows, interspersed with Hughes’ tragi-comic tales of growing up as a little boy who just wanted to sing, dance and dress up. His worried parents took him to a child psychologist, who eventually, based on his tendency to wear flowered dresses and pearls, broke the news to them that their son was inevitably going to become…an actor.

Come to think of it, the G-A-Y word was barely uttered all night. Perhaps it didn’t need to be: when Hughes describes being bullied in school we know the exact reason why. (The audience was an interesting mixture of middle-aged snowbirds and hip young queers with V-necks and tattoos.) Although he jokes about himself as a child loving watching himself cry in the mirror, he clearly needed the solace he found in heartbreak songs (his medley of ‘Do It Again’, ‘But Not For Me’ and ‘The Man That Got Away’ is quite moving) and claims, completely seriously, that Judy Garland saved his life.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For decades queer writers have declared the death of camp and the end of diva-worship. Torchy renditions of ‘Over the Rainbow’ were not supposed to outlast the pre-Stonewall generation, who were thought to be self-loathing closet cases. Instead, Garland continues to be the fairy godmother of sensitive outcasts, who project their disappointments onto her trembling voice. And it’s not just gay men: writer and Sigmund Freud-descendent Susie Boyt claims that Judy’s songs got her through dark times in My Judy Garland Life. Take that, psychoanalysis!

Even if you’re not a Friend of Dorothy (or Judy, for that matter) you will enjoy your evening with Hughes. During his opening performance there were moments he seemed nervous (his parents may have been in the second row) but that only added to his achingly earnest charm. His smooth singing voice is better suited to the American song book than Wainwright’s nasal whine, and his mannerisms and inflection were enough like Garland’s to be a tribute but not an impression.

‘Mickey & Judy’ is like spending the evening catching up with that sensitive boy from your school who loved choir and hated gym, for whom even the threat of being pummeled in the face couldn’t prevent the show tunes. Thankfully, the boy is doing all right, especially with the help of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. Especially for the older members of the audience, the ones more likely to know the words to the ‘Trolley Song’ than the hip queers in V-necks, it must have been interesting to see how hokey old songs from the studio era can be reclaimed by a new generation.

It came as no surprise that, after the standing ovation, Hughes said quietly into his microphone, “Alright, one more song.”

“Gee, I wonder which one it will be,” I said to my friend.

Hughes’ rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ was a fitting tribute to the simple little melody which unexpectedly became one of the theme songs of the 20th century. For Dorothy, the rainbow was an escape from the dreary sepia of Kansas. ‘Oz’ was one of the last Hollywood films shown in England before  WWII and British audiences embraced the hopeful song as a symbol of better times ahead.

Salmon Rushdie in his book about ‘Oz’ sees ‘Over the Rainbow’ as an immigrant’s song, significant for anyone who yearned to start life fresh in a new land. And, of course, gay people embraced it, adopting the rainbow as their movement’s symbol and never feeling closer to Judy than when she asked, “If happy little blue birds fly/ Beyond the rainbow/ Why, oh why, can’t I?”

Catch the show at Tarragon on Tuesday July 12 at 10:30 p.m., 
Wednesday, July 13 at 4:00 p.m., 
Thursday, July 14 at 1:45 p.m., or 
Sunday, July 17 at 3:30 p.m.

Camp-ing in the Outback

Starstruck

Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy), the lead of the Australian musical ‘Starstruck’ (1982) wants to be famous. She’s a singer, but her real talent is for getting attention. She pairs her bright red hennaed hair with flamboyant New Romantic crinolines. She walks a tight-rope at her Mom’s pub. Her 14-year-old cousin Angus, who fancies himself her manager, convinces her to replicate the stunt between two office towers in downtown Sydney. He phones up reporters telling them to cover the event because “it’s the type of news you write about when you don’t want to cover the real news.”

When her mother (a tough broad with an immobile Pat Nixon bouffant) questions Jackie’s talent, Angus leaps to her defense:

“She’s got star quality!”

“And what is that?” the pub patrons grumble, to which the two cousins both recite, “That little something extra.”

The quote is from ‘A Star is Born’ (1954), just after James Mason has witnessed Judy Garland singing ‘The Man That Got Away’. Responding to her overwrought singing style, Mason concludes Judy has “that little something extra” to make her famous. Steven Cohan in Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical argues that what Mason is enjoying is the campiness of Garland’s performance: her twittering emotionalism, her indulgent vocal bursts, and the manner in which she ‘acts’ the song (despite it being a sad number and her seeming almost-hysterical whilst singing, she smiles as its concluded).

Camp can be defined as a deliberately over-the-top, stylized attitude which, in its irony and incongruity, subverts the traditional cultural products it draws upon. Cohan’s book shows how Old Hollywood musicals, with their heteronormative plot lines, cheesy songs and outdated values, are invested with a queer subtext for a select audience who relish the outlandish sets and costumes, the flamboyant choreography and the overacting leading ladies.

When done intentionally, camp is a ‘wink’ to the audience that what they’re viewing is a performance, a forgery of real life. In this way it can be viewed as a very early example of post-modernism.

Starstruck

The Garland reference is not accidental, as the makers of ‘Starstruck’ meant the film as a deliberate tribute to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland ‘backyard musicals’ of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, in which the pair would inevitably “put on a show!” in order to save their parents’ careers, or stop a theatre from being knocked down, or build a home for British war orphans. Often, the show would include a black face number. Stuck with two young stars of an awkward age, MGM accidentally invented film’s first teenagers.

While ‘Starstruck’s plot mimics that of an MGM musical (Jackie eventually has to put on a show to save her Mom’s pub) stylistically the film is more ‘Rocky Horror’ than Mickey/Judy (it shares ‘Rocky’s production designer Brian Thomson). With its outlandish costumes, garish primary colour scheme, accented over-acting and message that all problems can be solved once you get on a stage and perform, ‘Starstruck’ is a direct precursor to a string of movies in the early 1990’s I’m going to call Australian Camp: ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992), ‘The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ (both from 1994).

Fans of his later camp classic ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) will see early traces of Baz Luhrmann’s style in ‘Strictly Ballroom’, about the sparkling but intense world of competitive ball room dancing. Gawky wallflower Fran (Tara Morice) is transformed into a sexy, sequined swan when she embraces the tango traditions of her Spanish parents.

Strictly Ballroom

The transformations of ‘Priscilla’ are more pronounced, as Hugo Weaving, Guy Pierce and Terence Stamp don unbelievable wigs, costumes and make-up while crossing the Australian outback, lip-synching to opera and ABBA atop of their shiny silver van (one of film’s all-time unforgettable images).

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert

A pre-stardom (and pre-skinny) Toni Collette also uses ABBA as an escape from the drudgeries of everyday life as the title character in ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. As a depressed pre-spinster, Muriel hides in her room from her family’s taunts (“You’re terrible, Muriel!”) and repeatedly listens to Sweeden’s favourite pop band on audio cassette. Only with the encouragement of her new best friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) does she later perform ‘Waterloo’ on stage in a blond wig and white jumpsuit.

Muriel's Wedding

These films not only share a camp style (with overly made-up faces being shoved into the camera and general artificiality softening hokey dialogue and plot lines) but they are about camp as they demonstrate the transformative power of performance, be it ballroom dancing, drag, karaoke or New Wave pop. Significantly, these movies are set in a gritty, working-class Australia in which burly female pub dwellers are as scary as the male ones and people microwave their tea.

They also share a witty take on the history and culture of Australia, such as when the ‘Priscilla’ drag queens perform dressed as lizards, ostriches and the Sydney Opera House, or when ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bursts out of a kangaroo costume to sing at a hip club.

While camp arose out of a queer subculture, questioning gender roles through drag and heterosexual romance through camp readings of mainstream fare like movie musicals, the irony, incongruity and wit of camp can help liberate non-queer identities as well. When the drag queens of ‘Priscilla’ interrupt some Aborigines having a bon fire, one of them joins them in a rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ (complete with didgeridoo), their shared mistreated, outsider statuses helping the two groups to bond.

But most of all these films use camp to challenge society’s expectations for women. ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bombs on a local music show when she gives up her hairdo, clothes and backup band (ie. who she is) to perform like a docile lounge singer. Only when she embraces her wildness, and wildly teased hair, does she achieve stardom. The villains of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ are traditionally-attractive dancers and bridesmaids, whose pretty faces mask ugly characters. In the last scene of ‘Muriels’ a blonde ‘frenemy’ screams at her as she drives away, “I’m beautiful!” looking anything but.

Strictly Ballroom

It is interesting that the three non-drag queen movies feature ‘ugly ducklings’ who transform themselves, but not in the terrible way of American teen movies (take off glasses, undo pony tail). For the record, Kennedy, Morice and Collette are attractive women, just not in the standard Hollywood way, just as young Garland was beautiful despite being nicknamed ‘the little hunchback’ by the MGM brass.

Muriel's Wedding

It leaves the question, why Australia? My understanding of “down undah” is that it’s a pretty conservative, patriarchal society. How did it give rise to these sequined classics? Perhaps the conservative ethos pushed the film makers to extremes (if you’re going to do something different, might as well go all the way and use drag queens!). Or maybe their distance from America, unlike in Canada, allows them the space to develop a camp appreciation for the silliness of Hollywood.

The makers of ‘Starstruck’ admit that Australian audiences didn’t really ‘get’ the film when it came out but, like the other three, it has had a second life as an international cult favourite. Who would have thought that, along with Vegemite and sexy bad-boy actors, Australia would export camp around the world?

I Shop therefore I Gay

While I’m all over the WORN blog, my absolute dream would be to get a story in the actual magazine. I entered my internship thinking I had all sorts of ideas, I quickly became insecure that none of them were good enough. WORN only comes out twice a year, so we have to be very strict about what goes to print. I eventually remembered that queer history was the focus of my Masters and that, as the first gay male intern, it would also be good representin’ if I wrote something about gay men and clothing.

So here’s what I’ve got so far, and to help me get moving on it (the pitch is due in October) and to act as a sounding board, I’m going to tell you what I’m thinking.

The stereotype that gay men like clothing and fashion is so entrenched in our culture that we rarely question it, and at times act as though it is somehow biological. Remarkably, the persona of the Oscar Wildean dandy from the end of the 19th century still holds sway. Daniel Harris, in his amazing book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture,  which heavily influenced the way I think about all this stuff, argued that shopping and clothing was a more economical way of asserting snobbish queer sensibilities than art-collecting or going to the opera, the preoccupations of the aristocratic dandy.

“We have devised an ersatz aestheticism that we cultivate, not only through our involvement with the arts, but through our involvement with department stores, through shopping, the purchase of expensive toiletries, vintage wines, fashionable clothing, and designer accessories like Rolex watches and Ralph Lauren eyewear. The display of our refinement as consumers…easily replaces the display of our refinement as art lovers. In the course of the twentieth century, homosexuals have turned the aestheticism of art and culture into the aestheticism of products, the commodities that spill out of the Macy’s bags constantly swinging from the arms of the urban homosexual, a figure laden with the spoils of his spending sprees, an image that has largely replaced that of the monocled fop twirling his cane and sniffing the carnation in his lapel.”

In the same essay, Harris, like many other scholars, focuses on the desire of gay men to find each other as the motivation for a lot of gay culture. From cruising at bars, dropping cinematic hints (“Are you a Friend of Dorothy?”), and even attending Judy Garland concerts simply as an excuse to “act gay” in public, explanations of gay traditions have often focused on identifying oneself to others, either for sexual or communal reasons. This has also been the case with gay fashion, be it leather and jeans, pink mohair sweaters or the legendary colour-coded handkerchief symbols. (And, okay, I can’t really get into this here, but apparently a houndstooth bandanna sticking out of your pocket means you’re into biting, and if you stick a doily back there, you like doing it in public restrooms! Amazing!)

But what about shopping for one’s self and dressing as a means of asserting identity, as sociologists now think about it? Cara Louise Buckley wrote “In the transition from modernity to post-modernity, the notion of an essential self…has been displaced by a far more fragmented, fluid, and contingent understanding tied to image, style, looks and hence consumption.” So, it’s not so much ‘I Shop therefore I Am’, as Barbara Kruger’s photo has it, as ‘I Am because I Shop.’  

Rather than focus on who gay men were trying to attract with their clothing, I would consider clothing, consumption and fashion as an important step in their development of a gay identity, both personally and collectively.

And there’s no escaping the seventies, the decade when queer culture crossed-over,  gay politics went mainstream and people were encouraged to come out of the closet en masse. The 1970’s are to gay men what the 1770’s are to American patriots: a founding era whose traditions, style and legacy are still drawn upon today.

In Forging Gay Identities; Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco 1950-1994, Elizabeth Armstrong presents a useful breakdown of the three phases of the gay rights movement: the early, conservative ‘homophile’ activism of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the radical leftist revolution of 1969 and the early seventies, and the ‘lifestyle’ era of the mid-seventies onward, in which homosexuals (mostly white, middle-class gay men) asserted their identity through shopping, clothing, music, clubbing and interior decorating. I would use Armstrong’s framework and place clothing and fashion into the context of 1970’s gay identity formation, arguing that dressing up has been an essential aspect of accepting one’s homosexuality and coming out of the closet for many gay men since.

What I’m still wondering about is whether I should focus mostly on the 1970’s and make it a historical piece, or if all that should be the background leading up to a series of interviews with gay guys now. It might make sense to focus on the seventies, but I would have to do a lot of primary research (scanning every copy of The Advocate from that era, say, for articles about fashion and photos and illustrations of clothing). On the plus side of doing interviews, I off hand can think of twenty gay guys I could ask about clothing, their personal style and their shopping habits, but with no guarantee of useful answers.

Thoughts?

 

Howdy Neighbour!

 

And suddenly, it’s autumn.

I woke up this morning freezing. Fortified by three cups of coffee, I attempted to build a fire to bask in and warm up the cottage. How can you resist the smell that lingers on your clothes from a wood-burning stove?

After several tries (“Oh, that’s why you’re supposed to crumple up the newspaper!”) I appear to have succeeded and am currently defrosting my toes in the orange glow.

My family used to spend many an autumn up here, sometimes staying as late as Thanksgiving. I remember falling in piles of leaves, the windy walks and the lake crashing around like the Atlantic. Even as a child, you sensed the feeling of everything winding down; the summer chairs stacked away; the hammock folded up; on the final day, the water being turned off.

There was also less pressure to run around outside (not that there was ever much) and we would cuddle up inside watching That’s Entertainment videos on our little TV.

Had to just tend to my fire. Why is it that buildings can burn down by accident, but starting a fire in an enclosed fireplace is difficult?

My Dad: “We have a copy of Cher’s workout book we can burn. It’s hardcover… How’d it get here?”

Anyways, for the uninitiated, the three That’s Entertainment films consist of clips from classic MGM movies, mostly musical numbers. The first was released in the 1970’s and their appeal is supposedly nostalgic, but as a child, I just loved them. (Insert gay joke here.)

The change of the seasons reminds me of this number from Summerstock (1950). Although her relationship with the studio had turned sour, and they were soon to kick her off the lot, it is appropriate that Judy Garland’s last movie at MGM resurrected the troupe from the beginning of her career of putting on a show “right here in the barn!” There was tension on the set, with Judy’s erratic behaviour and drug use, but none is discernible on screen. “How dare this look like a happy picture!” one of the MGM brass after seeing the rushes.

Mostly remembered for the ‘Get Happy’ number, shot two months after the rest of the film, thus explaining Garland’s obvious weight loss, I have a fondness for this song. Supposedly, Judy got tired filming it one day and asked “Why am I on this tractor? Where’s Vincent, I want to go home?” The eternal questions.

I hum it when we drive past farms in the country or when I’m taking a walk amongst the fire-coloured leaves.

The Pilgrimage

Emily Dix and I love Judy Garland. During our second shift together, after learning that she enjoyed classic cinema, I eventually ventured “How do you feel about Meet Me in St. Louis?” We’ve indulged in our obsession ever since. Our coworkers became quickly frustrated with our multiple conversations on the backstage drama of The Wizard of Oz and joked that the first interview question put to potential-hires should be “Do you like Judy Garland?” We took to talking about her furtively, but on closing shifts when it was just the two of us we’d stack the CD player and then drown it out singing along. This also turned out to be the fastest way to empty the store at the end of the night.

So when she found out that the Cinematheque at the AGO was showing A Star is Born, Judy’s melancholy masterpiece, we had to go.

No matter what.

The last time I saw the film was right before I left for Ireland. I spotted a photocopied poster on Queen West with an illustration of Judy doing the famous ‘framing face’ gesture, next to a design for Battleship Potemkin.  Reg Hart, who was described to me, by a member of Team Macho no less, as “prophet without a flock”, was showing the two movies as part of a “GAY FILM MAKERS TRIBUTE FOR PRIDE”. (A Star is Born was made by George Cukor, a great director from the golden age who specialized in ‘women’s pictures’ and was surprisingly open about his homosexuality).

I invited my friend Jeremy and only as we had dinner at Mars diner on College before hand did I tell him that the film wasn’t being shown at a real movie theatre. Rather, Reg Hart shows them on a big screen in his converted living room, with movie posters and bookcases with Edward Gorey memorabilia crowding on each side. He let us bring wine, though: “Pretend you are in Europe” read the poster.

Jeremy is not a huge musical person, and I feel very protective of A Star is Born, so I was nervous. But he liked it, and wrote the whole experience off as a crazy, Toronto night, and we remained friends.

But I was really excited to see it on an actual big screen and with a real audience. Emily and I had planned to go for at least a month, plenty of time for me to come up with an outfit. I ended up wearing a bright red shirt (bold, 1950’s lipstick-red is a thematic colour throughout the entire film) and a twee bow-tie, my version of Judy’s boyish look.

Then, just as they did on the set of that production, things started to go wrong. They switched the schedule at work and Emily discovered that she was supposed to close the store that evening. We both wrote frantic letters to a co-worker (mine went along the lines of “Emily and I are sick, we know, and we’re trying to get help, but our psychologist thinks it would be detrimental to our well-being if…”) and she kindly agreed to switch shifts with Emily.

Then, as I was working on a piece about retro eyeglasses for WORN, basking in my personal air-conditioning, the power went off. This was an hour and a half before I was supposed to meet Emily downtown.

“Is the power off down there?” I asked frantically on the cell.

“No, I think it’s fine,” Emily said.

“Well, I’m coming. The show must go on!” And I slipped my recently-purchased DVD (“Nearly 4 hours of special features!”) into my bag as a back-up plan.

My neighbourhood was all out, but the buses and subway were still running, thank God. My bus driver muttered insults about the other drivers to himself (“Really nice driving there, fella!”) and I wondered if it was too much to ask for the TTC not to employ public servants who act like crazy people. Probably.

Oh, and I walked straight into an old Chinese woman at Spadina station. It was her fault. I was getting off the subway and she was getting on, and left practically no room for me to walk past her, and that to me is breaking the covenant of the TTC, so I just boldly walked forward and ended up pushing her. She let out a loud ‘guffaw!’ and I thought, ‘Well, maybe next time you’ll let the other passengers off first!’

Then I got karmic retribution when I was getting on the streetcar and the doors closed on me.

Also, just before I got off in Chinatown, the streetcar rear-ended the one in front of it. Power was out along Spadina and cops were directly traffic and yelling at old Chinese men and Kensington Market hipsters who crossed whenever they wanted.

Luckily, the power was fine further east and the AC inside the art gallery was nirvanic.

Emily was nine minutes late (“Five on my watch!”) but I forgave her because she was wearing a home-made t-shirt with a young Judy on it, emblazoned with rhinestones.  

“So many things could have prevented us from being here,” I said. “So many things… But we made it!”

And the movie did not disappoint, despite having seen it ten times. It was shot in cinemascope, so it really benefited from the big screen, and having never watched it with an audience before (the viewers were mostly young gay guys, older gay guys and middle-aged AGO members) I learned from their laughter that some scenes are actually quite darkly funny, and during dramatic moments there was perceptible tension in the room.

The movie, which shows the two sides of fame through the rise to stardom of Esther Blodgett (Judy) contrasted with the end of her husband Norman Maine’s (James Mason) career, is meta double tragedy. Despite the sadness of the plot, at least Judy is the winner in it, although biographical ironies abound. It has been suggested that the film is really a portrait of Garland split in two: Esther is the talented one everyone loves, and Norman is the alcoholic bent on self-destruction. “Sometimes I hate him,” cries Judy in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes captured on film. “And I hate me too, because I failed him!” And she points at herself through mascara-smudging tears, a possible clue to the audience about who the scene is really about.

But I called it a double tragedy because, interestingly as a movie about a sudden rise to fame, the film was meant as a grand comeback for Garland, the definitive Hollywood survivor. But it didn’t work. No matter how many suggestive lines they threw into the script (“All they want is more of your pictures,” a producer informs Judy) and how many well-wishing celebrities came to the dazzling opening, the movie had cost too much and the Warner brothers destroyed it through editing. The final straw came when Judy lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly, a pretty but useless actress not dissimilar to the phoney dumb starlets in the movie Norman Main dated before meeting Esther.

Despite making three more movies, A Star is Born signalled the end of Judy’s film career and, in many ways, the end of the big-budget musicals of Old Hollywood.

Perhaps it is all that pathos that led Emily and me to feel that we had to go, braving heat-spells and black-outs, to pay devotional tribute at our musical Mecca.  

Not about the World Cup

Although I may start rooting for the French team just for kicks: I love how their melodramatic theatrics have turned them into the ultimate stereotypes.

And speaking of stereotypes,

I love musicals. I grew up on Singing’ in the Rain and That’s Entertainment! (parts I, II and III). In first year I read the Judy Garland biography Get Happy and connected her ‘singing through the tears’ emotionalism with my romantic disappointments. I always have ‘The Man that Got Away’ playing somewhere in my brain on a continuous loop. During my Masters, I discovered academics who shared my obsession: finding Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical by Steven Cohen in Robarts library sent me into giggly fits of delight.

But, somehow, I had missed Gypsy. The 1962 movie, based on the 1959 Broadway show, was a huge hit when it came out and thought of as the definitive backstage musical, and arguably one of the best. It recounts the rise to fame of real-life actress and burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, pushed into showbiz by her mother, Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mom.

Mama Rose initially put all of her attention on her Shirley Temple-ish younger daughter Baby June with Gypsy playing back-up (I had no idea how much of how much the opening section of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was indebted to Gypsy). But when Vaudeville goes caput and Baby June runs off with a dancer, Mama Rose decides, rather than throw in the towel and live a “normal” life, to turn her shy, elder daughter into a star. It is at this point, stranded at a foggy country railway station, and delivered to her frightened daughter, that Mama Rose sings the famous ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, a song which I never knew had ironic undertones.

Rosalind Russell, fresh from camp-orgy Auntie Mame, was cast as Mama Rose despite not being a singer. The film editors did an incredible job of mixing Russell’s voice and that of contralto Lisa Kirk. I was surprised to learn that Natalie Wood, who had been dubbed in West Side Story by workhorse Marni Nixon, used her own voice as Gypsy. The part of Mama Rose had been originated by Ethel Merman on Broadway but the belter, in the grand tradition of Mary Martin and Carol Channing, had been denied the film role which she had made famous on stage. Although it’s a shame, I think that Merman’s performance would have been too broad for the film, always aiming for the backrow even with microphones, and Russell managed to bring out the character’s grating determination as well as her pathetic desperation (Mama Rose has been called musical theatre’s King Lear).

My dream casting would be Judy and daughter Liza Minnelli, whose ages were been perfect in 1962. It would have been the ultimate art-imitating-life, as Liza knew what it was like being raised in a performing family, and Judy, who started on the Vaudeville stage with her sisters as a toddler, had an intricate understanding of that world and its pressures. Indeed, Mama Rose might have been potentially too similar to Judy’s determined mother Ethel Gumm and playing her may have brought up childhood demons best left undisturbed.

After her mother’s futile attempts to turn her into incarnation Baby June, Gypsy’s career spirals downward until ending up at the Wichita Opera House, which turns out to be a theatre of the burlesque. At first, Mama Rose puts her foot down and refuses to let her daughter perform, but the lure of money and a little fame eventually smothers any ethical concerns. In real life, Gypsy Rose Lee never set out to be a strip-tease performer, but the cheers that accompanied an accidental slip of a shoulder strap inspired her. Although three-quarters of the movie had recounted (often painfully slow) their false starts, once Natalie Wood starts stripping her rise to fame is summarized in the tradition three-shows-each-in-increasingly-glamorous-theatres montage. Wood’s performance is stylish and sexy (and her gowns, tailored to come off in sections, are amazing) and you wonder why, given the return of burlesque via Dita von Teese, Gypsy hasn’t been rediscovered by a new generation.     

Now that she’s famous with all the perks (personal dressing room with gold star on door, ridiculous pink feathered dressing gown, sessions with French photographers in bathtub) Gypsy has little time for her meddling mother, and brushes off the woman who dedicated her life to her daughters’ careers. (Ethel Gumm, after her estrangement from Judy, worked at an airport and died in its parking lot).

“Why did I do it?” Mama Rose asks Gypsy, distracted with posing for pictures in a corseted bathrobe.

“I thought you did it for me,” Gypsy replies.

The movie ends with the incredible ‘Rose’s Turn’, a stream-of-consciousness song in which Mama Rose grills herself over her motivation for pushing her daughters into showbiz:

Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give ’em love and what does it get ya?

Mama Rose realizes that it was her dreams of fame and fortune that propelled her, leading to the famous ‘Mama’s Taking Loud, Mama’s Doin’ Fine!’ chant, familiar to Arrested Development fans from Lucille and Buster Bluth’s record-playing. (Lucille’s line, “How do you like those eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?” is also from the musical and one wonders about the Bluth family-Gypsy connection). I was familiar with this song from the Bernadette Peter’s tragic rendition from a Broadway revival and Kurt’s version on an episode of Glee. I can picture myself belting it in front of my bedroom mirror for years to come. But again, I wish Judy had sang it. There were only a few songs which fully utilized her vocal and acting talents simultaneously, and who knows, by placing herself inside the world’s most famous stage mom, she may have finally forgiven hers.

Other People: Emily Dix

As fascinating as I am, I’ve decided to devote one post a week to one of my fabulous, interesting friends. Emily Dix is an actress, singer, director and model, although she is currently grinding beans at a cafe, which is where we met. We have been bosom buddies since we discovered a mutual love of Judy Garland. She will soon be producing a stage show ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ for the Victoria College Drama Society at the University of Toronto (click here for the facebook group). The original film is one of the funniest, most underrated movies of all time. She has a wise old soul under her cherubic face.

MM: What is the most exciting thing you’re doing right now?

ED: Honestly, I think the most exciting thing I’m doing at the moment is looking for an apartment with my boyfriend. We’re moving in together the beginning of August and I’m pretty psyched. It’ll be nice to get a pretty new place we can decorate together, somewhere that actually feels like home. That and the couple little film projects Matt and I are working on together. We both need to build up our demo reels (I’m an actor, he’s a writer/director) and so that’s our goal for the summer.

MM: What would you like to be doing in 10 years?

ED: Oh wow, so many things. Well, at heart I’m a real housewife: I hope I’m married, have a kid or two, and a nice home. That’s the number one goal. As far as a career, I’ve always wanted to be a high school English and drama teacher. I love teaching students and those are the subjects I’m most passionate about. I also have this little dream of one day opening up my own arts studio, somewhere that encourages kids to get involved in dance, drama, singing, anything artistic really. I’d like to manage that, and do some of the teaching as well. Annnnd…I guess I’d like to still be acting too, hopefully in something a little better known by then.

MM: Describe your bedroom.

ED: Well first off, it’s a mess. The thing is, at the moment my bedroom is my entire apartment because I live in a bachelor. So there’s clothes, books, dishes, papers, movies, JUNK strewn everywhere. To add to that, Matt pretty much lives with me already as he’s here about 5 or 6 days a week. So add to that mess his comics, movies, clothes, coffee cups- we call it “the abyss”. But, when we move, it will be a bit better. Underneath the mess you can see vintage movie posters, a few odd dolls and stuffed toys (I’m sentimental AND a pack-rat, dangerous combination), a lot of books and movies in every genre you can imagine, and basically just a lot of colour.

MM: Where is the next place you’d like to travel?

ED: I haven’t really been much of anywhere, so I’d like to go anywhere really. Matt and I have talked about going to New York. I went there once but it was a school trip with a lot of limits on what we could see and do. I’d love to go back to the museums and of course see a Broadway show. I have also always wanted to go to Tokyo: bright lights give me such a rush, and I think the only thing better than Times Square would be a main strip in Tokyo. Plus I love the whole culture, and tried to (mostly unsuccessfully, unfortunately) learn the language a few years back. I’d like to try again. Immersion would help.

MM: What book should everybody read as soon as possible?

ED: Dry by Augusten Burroughs –The only book to make me laugh AND CRY. I am not a girlie girl, it takes a lot. It’s this darkly funny and touching “memoir” (I use the term loosely as I feel it may be another A Million Little Pieces type thing, but I don’t think the accuracy of the stories should have any weight on how the reader is affected…anyway…) written by a gay alcoholic advertising genius. Don’t let that scare you off. Even if you know nothing about being gay, or an alcoholic, or advertising, I PROMISE you, you will find something relatable in this book. It’s great. Go read it now.

MM: You’re into film and theatre: what are your most and least favourite things about each?

ED: Well, favourite thing about theatre is the thrill of seeing a character come to life, whether I’m the actor, or the writer, or director. Seeing something you had some part in creating really come to life on stage is just…awesome. When I’m onstage I can become a completely different person, and it’s ok! I live for the audience’s reaction (laughter is especially thrilling, but I’ll take tears too, depending on the show of course, heh). And if I’m involved in the behind the scenes, it’s the same kind of thing, and I’m proud of the actor when they do a good job, it’s the same feeling I get when I’m teaching. Film is similar too, except without the audience reaction. So I guess what I like about it is that I can be really creative with what exactly is shown, and I love to play around with techniques and an interesting score. Now, as far as least favourite, for both, without a doubt, would be some of the people associated with it. There are a lot of pretentious film and theatre people out there, and they get on my nerves like you wouldn’t believe. I can’t stand snobs. And I don’t like how competitive some people get with it too, not the healthy fun competition, but the mean back-stabby kind. There’s no need for it.

MM: Tell us about the absolute worst day you ever had at a job.

ED: There are way too many stories for this one. Buuut I’ll stick with a recent one. It’s the customers, you know? I’ve worked retail for 5 years and you meet a lot of interesting (see, *awful*) people, but I think the lowest of the low was a woman I had the other day who complained about the deaf/mute woman in line in front of her. Now, I’ve had customers scream at me, threaten me, question how I was raised, threaten to have me fired, call me a b*tch and far worse, but THIS woman struck a chord in just how INSENSITIVE she was. My first customer of the day was this very sweet woman who was deaf and mute, and apparently unable to read lips. To communicate we had to write back and forth to each other. Now, this did mean it took a little longer than usual, but the whole conversation took under 2 minutes, less than it would have taken had I been dealing with a complicated order. The woman in line behind her sighed and rolled her eyes the entire time, muttering things like, “for god sakes” and “this is ridiculous”. She repeatedly cut in with dumb questions like, “Where’s your coffee? It’s not on the menu” (it’s right at the top, actually). I kept telling her I’d “be with you in a minute ma’am, I’m with another customer” but she wouldn’t shut up!

When my co-worker finished whatever she was working on and came over to say, “Can I help you” to which the snob’s response was “any time today!” She then spent several minutes complaining about a dog outside, wasting FAR more time than the other woman had. And then she stormed out when she found we kept the coffee in canisters LIKE EVERY OTHER SHOP IN THE CITY. I wanted to strangle her.

MM: If it was socially acceptable which five movie characters would you dress like?

ED: My mind is immediately searching through all the stunning dresses I’ve seen in MGM musicals over the years. Well, I guess first off I’d have to say Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Not the most glamourous dress I know, but since I was a kid I’ve loved (ie. worshiped) that film, and so the dress is sort of a staple fashion piece for me. Sad Fact: I actually already own 2 versions of this dress; the true-to-film version my mother made me when I was 12 (it still fits! early growth-spurt) and the “sexy” Halloween version (imagine it as a mini skirt and low bust-line). I sometimes wear it while watching the film- your guess which version ;-P

Then there’s the cute little number Jane Powell wore in Royal Wedding for one of her big dance numbers with Fred Astaire, the one to “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You”- an early 50’s beatnik getup, yellow and black, tight and fabulous. It’s so stylized, how could I not love it? And I’ve always loved vintage fashion.

Judy Garland’s ensemble during the “Man That Got Away” scene in A Star Is Born is adorable. It’s neat, clean lines  show off every curve, and I feel like it’s something that could still be worn today without standing out TOO much. Plus I just love that scene and would think of it every time I wore it.

For the sake of having something a little more modern, I’ll look to the movie Grease, and in particular, the red hot number Rizzo wore for the big school dance. I know this is set in the 50’s, but there’s still something very early 80’s about all the stuff in it, in particular Rizzo’s outfits and Sandy’s final skankified number. I think it’s sexy and cute at the same time, and love the bit of retro flare.

And last but not least…geez, I can think of dozens upon dozens of stunning gowns, but I guess I’ll stick with the slightly more casual ones I’ve been citing…ooh! No, okay, its not really a casual outfit, but it is a nightgown! in Bringing Up Baby the brilliant flick starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. There is a scene where Susan (Hepburn) is trying to convince David (Grant) to come over and deal with a leopard she has acquired from her brother Mark. She’s sitting there in this RIDICULOUS frilly, poofy, CRAZY nightgown and I love it. No one should ever be that dressed up while lounging in their own home, but it is so fitting of the overly glamourous 40’s that I really wish I had it.

The Satanic Verses

My book club might hate me.

The one thing I miss about being a student (besides library access and student card discounts) is reading books as a group and discussing them. My Dad has a book club (middle-aged academics who often get distracted by arguing about Israel) but the idea to start my own only took shape when my best friend’s boyfriend Dan expressed interest in joining one. “Why join one when we can do it ourselves?” I asked, almost slipping into the sing-song-MGM-Mickey-and-Judy-‘Let’s put the show on right here in the barn’-voice I am want to do. So we cobbled together a merry band of twenty-something (mostly) former-English students and began meeting at an Annex bar at which we’re already legendary with the bar’s staff. So far, we’ve read Czechoslovakian outcast and sex addict Milan Kundera and witty effete Anti-American Evelyn Waugh. In a short time we had developed a system for choosing books (everyone would have a month) and a friendly, open discussion style. The third pick was my choice and I may have ruined everything.

I have been intrigued by Salman Rushdie and his owlish little eyes since falling in love with the first chapter of Midnight’s Children in high school. Since then, I read his book about The Wizard of Oz and my favourite part of Bridget Jones’s Diary is when she asks him where the toilets are. It was reading Sandra Mackey’s book about Iranian history (titled The Iranians) and learning about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses decided my choice for me. I wanted to have an opinion about the book that was so controversial that Rushdie had to have secret service protection for a decade (and a few international translators were killed over), and I thought my book club should too.

The Satanic Verses is not a short book. Okay, so it’s 561 pages, a fact I may have neglected to tell the club. The title refers a controversial story in the Koran in which the Prophet, in order to convert the people of Mecca, appeared to call on three pagan goddesses and thus corrupt his monotheism. The novel deals with this incident through dream sequences of characters living in the present. Another subplot concerns a wealthy Indian man who becomes enraged and turned on by a possibly-psychotic young woman who claims to be a prophet and eats butterflies. She convinces a large group of villagers, including the man’s wife who is dying of cancer, to go on a suicidal mission to Mecca on foot, claiming that the ocean will part ala Moses. The man follows after them in is Mercedes Benes, preaching rational scepticism to the supposed-prophetess’s faith, and picking up villages as they become disillusioned. This was the most memorable allegory of the perpetual symbiotic relationship between believers and non-believers I have ever read.

But the main plot concerns two Indian actors who, in the first couple pages, get blown up in a plane. Rushdie describes the two of them suspended in mid-air, and then their plummet towards earth, so vividly in multiple places that you feel like you know what it’s like to be surrounded by blue sky with air rushing past your falling body. Inexplicably, neither men dies, but rather have been chosen by some unknown force (of good or evil) to perform some kind of task. One of the men notices an orb of light emanating from his head, while the other grows horn-like bumps on his forehead.

As though this wasn’t enough, the novel is also about Indian-ness and British-ness (and the characters’ devotion or disgust towards the contrasted cultures), the immigrant experience in Thatcherite Britain (a description of a Bangladeshi woman’s disappointing marriage, exodus to England and management of a restaurant was at once so universal and individual that I read it three times), and Anglo-Indian men dating white women (presumably, drawn from Rushdie’s life). Salman is a writer’s writer, with passages that could be described as indulgent and overwrought, but other times I wanted to highlight phrases with a pen and scrawl in the margin “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THIS!”

I knew it was a dense book and so I suggested we take another two weeks when book club members said they weren’t finished yet. I grew nervous as a few of them appeared stuck in the page 150-range, and felt personally responsible for complaints that it was “too long” or that the story didn’t “suck them in”. I told people to come anyways, even if they had read just part of it, as there were more than enough ideas in there to talk about. As I walked in to bar, wearing a vest with a white flower pin to celebrate my surprise at not hating Sex and the City 2, I prepare myself for a barrage of criticism and glares.

Turned out, I was worried about nothing because only Dan showed up. And, although he had also gotten bogged down around page 150, we discussed the book’s themes, the Ayatollah and Salman Rushdie in Bridget Jones and then just hung out and bonded over bad dating stories and the potentials and frustrations of writing in the era of Twitter.

And don’t worry, I’m being facetious: I know my book club doesn’t hate me. Next time, perhaps I’ll pick War and Peace.