Sunday, January 25, 2015

This Week's Lesson: Even Bad Art Has Soul

Olga García Echeverría

Angel was stalling at the door. I could tell by the way he was fidgeting with his backpack, waiting for his classmates to leave, that he had something he wanted to say. Once everyone was gone, he leaned into the classroom. “That’s what I don’t get about this literary analysis thing.”

“What don’t you get about it?” I was shutting down the computer station and putting my things away, but he had my attention. 

“How people can read something and then say they hate it. Or visit a museum and say the art sucks.”

“Do you like everything you read or see, then?”

“No, I guess not. But I think that writers pour their souls into their stories and artists into their art. That’s their soul, man. How can anyone say, ‘I hate your soul? Or your soul sucks?’ That’s why even if I read something that doesn’t speak to me directly, I say, ‘Thank you for sharing your soul, man.’ "

Angel’s words lingered in the classroom long after he’d waved goodbye and disappeared into the hallway. I have follow-up questions for Angel, like “Do all artists always put their soul into their work or is that merely an assumption, a romantic notion?” That will be another conversation on another day, but I got the gist of what Angel was saying at the end of class on Wednesday, Even bad art has soul.

Into The Woods: A Super Bad Review

I’m ashamed to admit I paid money to see it, but on New Year’s Day I gave Into the Woods a try. I blame Meryl Streep. I’ll see anything she’s in. I didn’t go into the movie theater completely blind; “Disney musical” says a lot. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for the horror of Into the Woods.

The movie is a medley of several of Grimm's classic fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Bean Stalk. It is clear from the onset that there is an attempt to deconstruct or subvert the original plots; however, this effort not only feels forced, it bores. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who keeps running to and away from the prince and singing about it, comes across as an indecisive tonta. Her golden slipper finally gets trapped in tar on the steps of the castle and it's too bad the tar didn't turn into a giant monster, like in The Blob (a really good "bad" movie by the way), and swallow her up. Johnny Depp, the Big Bad Wolf, is only In the Woods for what seems like a minute. Too bad. The charming princes (yes, there's more than one) are a royal drag.
Actually, there is a scene where these two prince-charmings, both in tight jeans, are pussyfooting around a river, singing “I wish, I wish...” They're fantasizing about their beloved princesses, wishing they were with them. My friend Persephone and I couldn't help but filter this scene through a queer lens. We were desperate and the popcorn and chocolate Raisinettes were all gone. “This looks like such a gay scene,” we whispered to each other, perking up for a minute. Wouldn't that be something? Two princes trapped in Grimm's fairy tales. They're expected to fall in love with, save, and then marry pinche princesses, but it turns out these two charming lads are really in love with each other. At the river, away from all the social and cultural pressure, they leap around like energetic ranas, singing “I wish, I wish, I wish I could marry a prince instead of a princess...”

We're So Gay! Let Us Out of This Hetero-normative Fairy Tale!

My student Angel would disapprove of me saying so because I am sure many people put their soul into this production, but aside from Streep and her fantastic blue hair and make-up, this movie sucked beyond belief. I give it three negative stars because the only thing worse than a bad movie is a bad movie being sung to you, badly. The fact that Into the Woods got nominated for both Golden Globes and Academy Awards is baffling, and yet a reminder that 1) Disney can do whatever it wants 2) You can't judge a movie by its nominations or awards and 3) Bad is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Perse and me killing ourselves cuz Into the Woods was THAT bad

La Drag Asesina: When It's So Bad It's Kinda Good

Speaking of killings, drag, bad art, and soul, Ed Wood Jr. wrote Killer in Drag in 1963. The copy I have was translated into Spanish by Tatiana Escobar and Olatz Acosta in 1999. This was tatiana de la tierra's book. I want to say I vaguely remember it in her house, lying around entre sus cosas and among all her other libros. Aside from being a writer and avid reader, tatiana was also a librarian, so she always had books lying around. Queer libros en español were a must, since this was one of tatiana's main areas of personal and professional interest. When she passed away in 2012, her books were dispersed. Many were donated to libraries, others kept by family members or given to friends. La Drag Asesina went from tatiana's home in Long Beach to Cat Uribe in El Sereno. In our endless recycling of tatiana's special things, Cat recently passed the book onto me.

At the Beach with La Drag Asesina and...tatiana? Is that you, tatiana?

I would love to spend an afternoon at the edge of the beach, talking to tatiana about La Drag Asesina, about the main character Glen/Glenda, and his/her sexuality. About the pulp crime sex genre that Wood was well known for in the 60's and 70's. About his low-budget sci-fi horror flicks of the 1950's. I imagine we would poke fun and laugh at the fact that Ed Wood was posthumously awarded a Golden Turkey Award as Worst Director of All Time. How the hell do you get nominated for something like that? We'd ask, and we'd fantasize of one day getting a Worst Algo award. These are the types of things we could have a lot of fun with.

tatiana unfortunately isn't here in the same way she used to be, so I can only imagine what her take on the book would be. One distinction/critique I think she would have made about La Drag Asesina is that it isn't organic queer lit en español. It's not Spanish-speaking Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Florida, East LA speaking of/about/to queerness. It's Hollywoodish, 1960's pulp queerish sexploitative fiction translated from English into Spanish. This doesn't necessarily make it all bad, though, just imported and perhaps somewhat distorted. And yes, La Drag Asesina is a bit contrite and predictable, ridiculous at times, yet it's also fascinating. Going back to the suppression of obvious (or at least potential) gayness in Into the Woods, Ed Wood Jr. was doing in the 60's what Disney wouldn't dare do today! Even in its badness, the soul of Killer in Drag was way ahead of its time. Because of this, La Drag Asesina has won me over. Why else? The short chapters, perhaps. The quick-moving plot; you can see the progression of the action in vivid scenes. The author's obsession with women's clothes is also a bit contagious. Thanks to Ed Wood, I now really want an angora sweater. The Spanish is also a plus. Mostly, though, I think it's the protagonist in the book that hooks. Glen/Glenda, the tender-hearted killer in drag who's dragging around his/her double identity in a suitcase because he's/she's on the run after witnessing the murder of the rich old maricon that he/she was just about to screw for social/economic mobility when...

I won't spoil it. If you haven't read this bad book yet, I highly recommend it, especially in Spanish. They translate toast as "tostada," but that's okay. I can deal with that. It's still a classic in the world of bad art, and it does have plenty of soul. The back cover sums it up perfectly, La Drag Asesina es “Un libro poco recomendable pero que nadie debe perderse.”

Tatiana and Me Full of Soul & Wearing Really Bad Wigs
Buffalo, NY Circa 2001



I read the original English version of Killer in Drag, and it's sequel Death of a Transvestite. It's brain-slamming amazing how these book deconstruct the whole tough guy/hardboiled genre. I imagine translating them into Spanish ads new layers of strange. Funny how sometimes "bad" art made for a quick buck by the right kind of mind can outdo fine art.

Viva Liz Vega! said...

I love this column! I fell asleep watching into the woods and la drag asesina definitely on my list!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your imaginary, with a lot of truth, discussion with tatiana. I also love how you brought the topics full circle. And I enjoyed learning about Killer in Drag. I had forgotten that he wrote books.

I like Angel, too.

liz gonzalez

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Gracias for your comments! Ernesto, I totally agree that there is a complete deconstruction of the "tough guy" genre. That was one of the elements that kept me entertained. I have to say the storyline got progressively worse (buying a circus was so over the top), but when I finished reading the last page, I knew I was gonna go on Amazon and order Death of a Transvestite in Spanish to continue the read. :)

Liz V, I am sending you my copy.

liz g, gracias for your words. They are appreciated. And yeah, Angel (alias) is very cool. XO