Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.8: Carrie Devall

Pleasures of 2012 
by Carrie Devall

Looking back, I realize that I spent much of 2012 reading novels and biographies and viewing films and museum exhibits that were all focused on the 1980s, thanks to a series of retrospectives and reissues.

Among the best of these was the biography of Vito Russo, Celluloid Activist by Michael Schiavi. (A biographical film, Vito, has also come out recently with good reviews.) Celluloid Activist nicely balances Vito Russo's personal and family history with the political-social backdrops of his work as a film critic and archivist, which culminated in The Celluloid Closet, and his work as an activist, including his involvement in the Stonewall riots, gay liberation including the GAA, early AIDS treatment activism, and his key role in ACT UP! Vito's ongoing ties to his Catholic family and his friendships with women, including radical lesbian feminist activists and celebrities such as Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin throughout these eras particularly fascinating.

The AIDS activism documentary How To Survive a Plague by David France was less nuanced, as it focused on the political stance and victories of treatment activists, one subset of both ACT UP! and other AIDS activist and service organizations. It also disparages the other points of view that arose within the group, i.e. those of leftists and feminists, making it seem as if only sectarians and provocateurs who were not themselves people living with AIDS disagreed with the men and handful of women who split off to form the Treatment Activist Group. Nonetheless, the footage obtained by David France from many individuals who recorded demonstrations and meetings with video and film cameras makes this material very personal, direct, and “in your face.” Peter Staley taking charge of a crossfire TV interview with Patrick Buchanan is not to be missed.

A novel that particularly captivated me was Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. Straight edge punk kids collide with hippie parents in the late 80s, the inherent homophobia and homoeroticism of straight edge hardcore is not side-stepped, and the prose is rich. Another that had some great observations, often couched in deadpan dialogue, about the particular character of the prevailing conservatism in the 1980s, was The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. This novel's investigation of class, race, and sexuality takes full advantage of the reader's knowledge of the AIDS epidemic that emerges by the end of the book, yet leaves room for coded, shifting readings of the narrator's seemingly forthright telling of his coming of age story.

A novel with a 70s-80s punk aesthetic that I really enjoyed was Elizabeth Hand's Available Dark, the sequel to Generation Loss. This mystery series delves deeply into matters like sexual serial killing and voyeuristic collecting without being exploitative or trite, akin to Laurie King's earlier novels. Hand's young adult novel, Radiant Days, was also particularly interesting to me, as she merged Arthur Rimbaud with my hometown Washington, D.C.'s graffiti writing history from the 70s and 80s as well as the better-known NY scene and Basquiat. My only beef was that Disco Dan and D.C.'s go-go writers deserved a little more credit for their early and unique influence on the generations to come, but that's the usual NYC/D.C. complaint that will never be properly heard outside the 202.

I read the whole Minnesota Supernatural series by Thomas Disch (The Sub, The M.D., The Businessman, and The Priest) and was not disappointed. The novels are truly horror tales because of their accurate depiction of this region's classed and raced eccentricities, complicated by the inherent ridiculousness of gender as social construction, and his piercing eye for religious literalism's weak spots. These stories revel in the grotesque and over the top in almost every possible way, yet ring so true in the finer sense.

A few other cool things I saw: Aelita, Queen of Mars, the 1924 Soviet film, likely the first Russian science fiction film, at the Walker Arts Center to awe-inspiring accompaniment by an organist and Theramin player. Striking visuals, visible strains between revolutionary zeal and the reality of bureaucratic takeover, and amazing footage of Moscow in the 1920s. Very few copies exist but the film is available on youtube in its entirety, I believe.

Two movies that provided a stark contrast to 80s repression and ignorance were the Icelandic gay teen coming out film Jitters, and Romeos, a German young adult film focused on FTM transitioning and gay romance. Both provide happy endings that could not have occurred twenty years before in the same way. Young adult novel Finding Emily by Rachel Gold also fits in this category, mixing Worlds of Warcraft with a coming-out-as-female story that does not rely on stereotypes to depict Emily's struggle with parents who are not immediately accepting.

Also worth watching is the 1981 two-part Soviet science fiction film To the Stars by Hard Ways (Cherez ternii k zvyozdam), an enigmatic environmentalism parable that inspired a women's hairdo craze that was very scifi. Nightwatch/Nochnii Dozor was a very watchable Russian vampire horror (not romance) film. Rereading Stephen King's Salem's Lot was a welcome return to the days when vampires were horrible and unredeemable, and so scary.

And Immanuel Wallerstein's After Liberalism and Historical Capitalism provided rejoinders to all the truisms we can so easily soak up from popular culture and mainstream news about economic history that is just dead wrong. It's a good reminder to rethink, question, and rethink again. Peter Edelman's So Rich, So Poor was a good summary of his work to date, loads of statistics and case studies on economic policy and the possibilities as yet unexplored in any lasting, substantive, and comprehensive way for making good on all that talk of equalizing outcomes.

Cory Doctorow's less-hyped young adult novel For The Win is a good compliment to these books, a rocking science fiction adventure with all the “As you know, Bob” moments focused on economic theory and the effects of globalization instead of physics or rocket science. It has its flaws, economically and socially and in terms of replicating the male gaze without full problematization, but nonetheless delivers a diverse cast of characters, some strong but believable females, and a plausible dystopic future from a gamer's perspective.

Last but not least, Judith (now J. Jack) Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure is a fascinating dive into the gender theory of SpongeBob, “Dude, Where's My Car,” and “Finding Nemo.” Gaga Feminism takes this further. Though I found it to be a somewhat repetitive and “lite” version of The Queer Art of Failure, it has some fun re-reading music videos and questions the solidity and ultimate value of the current focus on gay marriage in useful ways. Britt Mandelo's We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Truth-telling provided a nice counterpoint to Halberstam, returning to the 70s but moving theory forward at the same time.

The Halberstam books made me want to reread Urvashi Vaid's Virtual Equality yet again, for a reality check on where the current movement priorities came from, to put provisional/ostensible victories into perspective as the Vito Russo biography and the AIDS documentaries also do. I continue to feel there is something to learn from the grim and gritty side of the 1980s, and earlier eras, despite apparent sea changes.

Carrie Devall currently writes SFF at a glacial pace, battles annoying sports injuries, and blogs about books, films, running, and queer theory at

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