Sand, film, and comics: representing the oppressed

So, first things first.

Pussy Goes Grrr in the best of WordPress

This is a screenshot from Tuesday of an earlier post, “Asking and Telling,” being featured in “Freshly Pressed: The best of… WordPress.com.” Which is, to put it bluntly, awesome. It led to a scad of views (a whole scad!) and was a pleasure to learn about. I have no idea who selects this list, or how it’s determined, but whatever; it’s a point of pride, and I take it as an indication that this blog is going in the right direction. Whatever that direction may be (possibly drilling diagonally into the mantle of the earth?).

So, with that out of the way, there is much to discuss. Thing #1: following up on Ashley’s recent post, I watched the beautiful, moving video and decided to look up Kseniya Simonova. She’s a 24-year-old Ukrainian artist who is currently enjoying a wave of worldwide popularity for winning Ukraine’s Got Talent. Her art is both aesthetically striking and highly unusual – it’s a visual performance, not something we frequently see. It reminds me of a movie I haven’t actually seen, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, which similarly films an artist creating in real time, as well as one that I have seen, Lotte Reiniger’s dazzling The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first extant feature-lenghth animated film (take that, Disney!), which uses shadows in a way similar to how Kseniya uses sand.

I think what I like best about Kseniya is that she’s such a heroic anomaly: artistically, for creating and destroying images (with sand, no less) right in front of an audience, and geographically – well, when was the last time the global Internet community paid attention to anyone from eastern Europe, let alone the Ukraine? (Likely but disappointing answer: when the Moldovan band O-Zone’s song “Dragostea din tei” was popularized as the “Numa Numa” song.) And better yet, she’s not just an artist who happens to be from eastern Europe; it’s wonderfully integral to her art, which concentrates on the wartime atrocities suffered by the Ukraine, a nation with the misfortune to lie right between Germany and Russia.

Ukraine's location, courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s fascinating, too, how Kseniya’s performance really is a performance: she’s not just drawing in sand and letting the pictures telling the story. She tells it as much with her hands and with the music, whose pace is synched up with hers. It’s so appropriate that a piece of art about how war changes the shape of a country – in terms of people, buildings, connections, identity – should be done in such a temporary, rapidly shifting medium where each hand movement looks arbitrary but ends up producing a precise, recognizable image. And the final status of the sand, with what appears to be a family torn apart and the words, “You are with us always” (alternately translated as “You are always near”), makes a bittersweet conclusion to a uniquely told tale of a human landscape, savagely altered by sand and bombs. Even if Kseniya fades away like most foreign Internet sensations, hopefully everyone will still be just a tiny bit more thoughtful and more open-minded. And maybe we’ll eventually get a show called “America’s Got Genuinely Interesting Talent” (but I doubt it).

[It’s worth noting that Ashley discovered the video of Kseniya when it was linked by Neil Gaiman on Twitter with the words, “If you are an ad executive planning to rip off this Ukrainian Sand animation for Coke or Sony, please die first.” Which means he’ll be indirectly responsible for like 2/3 of the content of this blog – pretty amazing.]

Other topics need exploring: one is Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé (2004) which I watched recently, one of the few African films I’ve seen. It deals with the subject of female genital mutilation, placing it within the context of the greater battle between tradition and modernity in western Africa. On one side of the conflict are a group of women, led by the buoyant, defiant matriarch Collé Gallo Ardo Sy. When a group of young girls fight against the “purification” rite and opt to remain “bilakoro” (i.e., uncut), they receive mooladé, or sanctuary, in Collé’s home, signified by a rope stretched across the doorway. As the film progresses, other groups – the male leaders, who include Collé’s husband, and the Salidana, the female elders who administer the cutting – take more and more desperate measures to curb Collé’s rebellion, but the ending is nonetheless triumphant and inspirational.

The Salidana and their would-be victims

Mooladé lets its audience see the initial attitude toward female circumcision as the status quo, a religious rite that signifies a coming of age, and then the traumatic personal consequences that lead to a wellspring of activism and solidarity from the village’s women. We see how one person’s disobedience, even when prompted by children’s fears, can help overturn firmly entrenched mores (interestingly, bilakoros are denigrated and considered unfit for marriage, which at first reinforces the cutting as normal). Mooladé both strikes a blow for human rights and tells a powerful story; it also makes me want to watch more African movies.

This is kind of a laid-back post, trying to get across some random thoughts about various art I’ve been experiencing. One of the most sublime experiences I’ve recently had has been finishing Neil Gaiman’s comics epic The Sandman after 10 volumes and, I’ve been told, about 2,000 pages. So you can expect to hear a lot about it in the coming days. Especially because there’s so damn much to look at! The Sandman is, simultaneously, a great, beautiful tragedy; a compendium of horror and fantasy stories; a series of character studies; a re-examination of mankind’s myths and folk tales; its own elaborate mythology; and a masterful juxtaposition of words and pictures. Much has been written already about the series, but as with most great literature and art, there are still, I’m sure, rich veins of gold lying just under the surface, still waiting to be tapped. And what that ornate metaphor means is that with such an ambitious, expansive (and recent) work, there’s sure to be some layer of meaning nobody’s dived headfirst into quite yet.

In conjunction with earlier posts, then, I want to look into the fascinating subject of LGBT characters and issues in The Sandman. Glancing over some information on the subject, it’s interesting to see how slow comics as a whole and mainstream/superhero comics especially have been to incorporate diverse sexualities into their stories. Fredric Wertham speculated about Batman and Robin’s relationship in Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code banned homosexuality, and reportedly Marvel Comics in the ’80s had a “No Gays” policy; Marvel’s first outed character, North Star, became so in 1992. Sandman #6 (“24 Hours”), meanwhile, was published in 1989 and features Judy, a visibly lesbian character (who, like everyone else, sadly comes to a very unfortunate end).

Judy in "24 Hours"

My point is not just that Gaiman was ahead of his time in writing these characters, but that they’re written sincerely; they don’t feel like he’s filling a diversity quota by randomly making a character gay. They feel, as is so vital to Sandman‘s literary power, like real people, or barring that, at least like convincing characters. One of the big reasons for this is, naturally, that Gaiman (as he’s disclosed in interviews) gathered a lot of his details from real life. The behavior of a character dying from AIDS in The Kindly Ones, for example, comes from his own knowledge of friends who died from AIDS. Another reason, I think, is that the characters’ sexuality isn’t foisted upon them as a superficial, obvious trait, let alone their single attribute, as with so many stereotypical gay characters in the past. It grows organically as part of their character as a whole, just as naturally as the sexualities of anyone else in the series. Gaiman clearly likes his characters, and I really think this helps.

Chantal and Zelda sleeping

On the other end of the spectrum, The Doll’s House contains one memorable character Gaiman describes as gay because he only eats the eyes of little boys: The Corinthian. The strange boarding house Rose Walker stays at also introduces some new and varied queer characters: there’s Hal, a drag queen, and Chantal & Zelda, the spider women, who share an ambiguous relationship (clarified slightly by Rose in The Kindly Ones when she says, “Their only drug was each other”). One of the beauties of these characters is that they’re so fleshed out, yet understated – Gaiman says the spider women are based to a degree on a couple he knew, and they’re certainly very remarkable, unsettling characters. But ultimately they’re just another very satisfying side dish to the main narrative, one of many secondary characters who populate the series’ bizarre yet believable world. They’re introduced and developed, but not lingered upon.

Hazel McNamara with Barbie (The Sandman #33, "Lullabies of Broadway")

This changes somewhat in A Game of You, the fifth volume in the series. One of The Sandman‘s “female” stories (along with The Doll’s House and The Kindly Ones), it draws a group of women from New York into a Narnia-derived fantasy world, including the very cute, friendly Hazel and Foxglove (the latter of whom, under the name Donna, was the ex-lover of Judy from “24 Hours”). This story also establishes a character who, I’m guessing, must be one of the most lovably portrayed transgender characters in all of comics, Wanda Mann (formerly Alvin). Wanda is brassy, maternal, loyal, and ultimately sacrifices herself for another character, who in return makes a sweet gesture with “Tacky Flamingo,” Wanda’s favorite shade of lipstick. Wanda’s death comes largely as a result of the cosmic forces of the moon regarding her as chromosomally male, but as she retorts:

Well, that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am.

This forceful self-determination, regardless of what the gods of nature may think, is backed up twice in the final pages of A Game of You, both by friendship and by one of Sandman‘s most beloved characters, Death. Overall this story arc, like the series as a whole, comes down on the side of individual concerns, decisions, and interpersonal relationships over any lofty, world-shaking forces. The characters are defined by their decisions, and Wanda’s decision is to be female; she takes this self-definition to her grave, and beyond.

The motherly transsexual Wanda (The Sandman #34, "Bad Moon Rising")

The series contains a few other LGBT characters – I couldn’t forget Alex Burgess and Paul McGuire, who appear briefly in both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Kindly Ones, the latter of whom quotes Quentin Crisp in describing himself as “one of the stately homos of England” – but I think I’ve gone over the most significant ones. The Sandman is a series that emphasizes the kinship of all beings: gay or straight, fairy or 16th century English actor, talking raven or nightmare incarnate, immortal Greek witch or living concept. And, through Gaiman’s incredible storytelling abilities, the series introduces a number of likeable, well-defined characters allowing for the representation of queer people in a medium that has historically shut them out.

So that’s about all I have to say on that topic for today. I think the three works this blog touches on just show, very well, that art and beauty are alive and well in the world today. And God, am I thankful for that.

1 Comment

Filed under art, Cinema, Media, Meta, Sexuality

One response to “Sand, film, and comics: representing the oppressed

  1. Pingback: Best films of the 2000s: a premature list « Pussy Goes Grrr

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