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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Great Gadsby: an overnight lesbian feminist ‘comedy’ sensation 10+ years in the making (& 3 millenia overdue)

Four days ago, my friend Andrew Shields posted this cryptic exhortation in Facebook:      “Do you have Netflix? Then watch @Hannahgadsby’s Nanette. If you don’t have Netflix, sign up for a free trial month of Netflix, and watch Nanette. In other words, watch Nanette.” My respect for Andrew’s judgment is formed in part by our keenly shared appreciation for the beauties and genius of Austen’s fiction and Federer’s tennis. So, since I do have Netflix, I wasted no time in watching Nanette, without reading any reviews (of which, I now know, there were already 2 dozen on the Net singing Gadsby’s praises}.

While it took me a while to tune my lazy Merkin ear to her Aussie accent, it was nonetheless apparent within minutes that Andrew had made a great gift to me. And, as Gadsby’s one-hour performance progressed, it grew steadily in power and impact, until, at its emotional crescendo -- to borrow Mark Knopfler’s phrase – it exploded in my heart (and mind)! When it ended, I hit “Restart” and watched it again in its entirety; and that rewarded me with a much better sense of Gadsby’s astonishing rhetorical alchemy. (I’ve since watched it a third time, last night, when I shared the gift of Gadsby, so to speak, with my wife, and I have it on in the background as I write now).

The remainder of this post contains SPOILERS about Nanette, in which I’ll explain why I’ve joined the chorus of those who see Nanette as extraordinary inspiration to us all to persist with #MeToo. So if you can watch Nanette now, before reading further, please do so, and enjoy the same amazement that many have felt, and then return here straightaway! Or, if for whatever reason you’re not yet tempted to watch Nanette, then allow me to entice you to do so when you can. And please read this post to the very end.

I’ll set the stage for my observations with excerpts from the most insightful of those earlier reviews, by Rachel Syme, from 2 weeks ago:
“It is rare to see a work of art met with a rapturous reception. Sure, there are always fans, but I’m talking about fanatics. I’m talking about work that makes instant evangelists of those who behold it, that has people rushing to their social channels to urge strangers to watch this now, it changed my life and it will change yours too. When it happens, that kind of swooning tends to pass into legend; we roll our eyes when we hear about people passing out in front of Impressionist nudes at Parisian salons as if they’d never seen cellulite before. But every now and then, a work by a new voice breaks through, and sharing it with others becomes a compulsion, even a kind of moral duty. This is what has happened in recent weeks with Hannah Gadsby’s revelatory hour-long comedy special Nanette, which started airing on Netflix in late June. Gadsby is a queer woman from Tasmania; she spent her whole life living slightly adjacent to the mainstream, but never quite veering into it. With Nanette, that is all changing.
‘I’ve been a professional comic for 30 years,’ the comedian Kathy Griffin wrote, ‘I thought I had seen everything... until I watched Nanette.’ Monica Lewinsky called it ‘one of the most profound + thought provoking experiences of my life.” Television producer Gloria Calderon Kellet said it ‘is one of the most beautiful & tragic reflections of our world.’ […] Above all else, Nanette is an interrogation of comedy as an art form, a bracing inquiry into the ways that comedians use the medium to mask personal truths. Early on, Gadsby admits that, as a gay woman in comedy, who wears dapper tuxedo jackets and sports a short swoop of brown hair, she spent the first decade of her career making self-deprecating jokes. She cheekily calls this her ‘lesbian content,’ which she says she no longer feels comfortable including in her sets. ‘I don’t want to do that anymore,’ she says, about 17 minutes into rapid-fire punchlines, her tone turning suddenly somber. ‘Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore.’ […] Gadsby is right. She is in her prime. In Nanette we witness the shock of the new, a voice that dares to speak to this frustrating and often hideous cultural moment, a comedian willing to drop the act. I would call Gadsby a genius, but she would likely push back against that term. The idea of genius gets us into trouble, she warns; it allows certain people to gain power and wield it over others. Gadsby, I think, would rather just be known as a human, full-hearted and flawed, full of bravery and grace.”

Syme’s review, while no replacement for the experience of watching Nanette, penetrates to the core of Gadsby’s inspired method and madness. I now add my own two cents, with the caveat that, as a single white straight man, I do not dare to mansplain what Gadsby has already perfectly expressed. I wish only to illuminate a few aspects of her achievement from my perspective as a literary scholar specializing in interpreting the genius of another non-heterosexual, radically feminist author -- one who died 201 years ago (today, as it happens), and who is herself two centuries late in being recognized as she really was – Jane Austen.

Two years ago I answered the call of my friend, Dr. Jane Vogel, abuse/trauma expert and founder of AGE ( ). I began to serve on AGE’s Board, assisting Jane and our mostly female colleagues in an unswerving quest for intersectional gender equity in theater (and other arts), initially in our town, Portland, Oregon. In a mere 4 years, Jane, whose vision of a post-patriarchal arts world is congruent with Gadsby’s, has made great strides toward gender equity in holding the pen and taking center stage, which controls the stories told. So I see writing this post as support of AGE’s mission.

Which brings me to my first point –I see a profound poetic justice, in the way Gadsby works Picasso’s ‘face’ into her performance, even as she displays one of Picasso’s famous Cubist paintings showing many sides of a female face. How satisfying it is as Gadsby in effect sentences Picasso to perpetual ‘community service’ for his misogyny; she dismantles the untempered adulation which his art has received, and then hints in every possible way without saying it explicitly, that she is “painting”, in words, the misogynist “faces” of Picasso and his ilk (Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, et al). In short, I believe Gadsby deliberately created Nanette as a kind of Cubist video-painting; one which presents the female and other ‘not-normal’ perspectives previously been ignored in the history of all the arts.

Second, one of the articles quotes Gadsby as saying “we've been cock-blocked the whole way through, since the Bible. This is an exciting moment." 
For the past 20 years --since I first read Richard E. Friedman’s modern update of the Documentary Hypothesis of Bible interpretation – I’ve firmly been of the camp that the Yahwist a/k/a ‘J’ (i.e., the anonymous Torah author of the most metaphorical tales of the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, the Flood, etc., in which God is depicted as an angry boychild who destroys his “toys” when they don’t obey his arbitrary demands) was a woman! And what’s more, the Yahwist’s extraordinarily modern writing was co-opted by the (male) Israelite priests who saw the power of her stories, and cynically stole her power by erasing the Yahwist’s individual female identity, burying her writing inside their own rewriting, all in service of their nationalistic misogynistic religious cult. A sad story indeed.

Third, I want to extend the insights of two more of the recent articles that perceptively pick up on the nuts and bolts of how Gadsby constructed Nanette:
“One of comedy’s most effective tools is something known as a callback, wherein a story or a bit from earlier in a set is mentioned again later, and the repetition amplifies the joke’s effect. A callback helps to establish a rapport between the comedian and the audience; now they’re in on the joke together. In “Nanette,” Gadsby subverts this technique to devastating effect…”
“Much of the special features interrogations of the form of writing jokes about such things; how to structure them effectively, and how that structure wrongfully contributed the way Gadsby sees herself. She is an artist dissecting her own art form, using the classic comedy callback to gut punch viewers in ways you can't see coming.”

I suggest now that Nanette is, in its entirety, a matryoshka doll, composed of subtle echoes reverberating back and forth between its hundred different parts, on multiple structural levels. In short, and ironically given how Gadsby slyly suggests her art history degree has had little value for her, Nanette is a work of genius and hard work, worthy of study of its structure, as much or more as any of the masterpieces one sees hanging in museums around the world – and the “story” of Nanette couldn’t be more contemporary. Nanette bears -indeed it demands --re-viewing, to be sure we all absorb Gadsby’s revolutionary message!

THE GREAT GADSBY & THE GREAT AUSTEN: I see a crucial, ironic difference between how great female and great male artists have been romanticized. As Gadsby brilliantly argues, male artists are romanticized by muting and rationalizing his worst character defects, in service of adulation of his artistic reputation; whereas with a female artist, especially one of the past like Jane Austen, it is still all too common to minimize their artistic achievements and aspirations.

It might seem to those who haven’t studied Austen that Gadsby’s message and Austen’s message were worlds apart. The prevailing impression of Austen’s stories is that she was the greatest purveyor of  sophisticated heterosexual romance, in which a smart, clear-thinking young heroine winds up with the man she loves despite all obstacles. Turns out that under the official surface, my research has shown me a thousand times that Austen’s ‘shadow stories” are mostly LGBT, that Austen was a connoisseur and collector of female literary voices, even as she satirically deconstructed male narratives.  If Austen were living today, I’d like to think she and Gadsby would collaborate, and rock the world even more together.

YES, YES, NANETTE!:  It occurred to me only as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, that there was one more clue hidden in plain sight by Gadsby, begging an answer to the question – who was Nanette, really? I ask that, because there is something quite fishy about Gadsby beginning Nanette as follows: 
‘My show is called Nanette, and the reason my show is called Nanette is because I named it before I wrote it. I named it at around the time I’d met a woman called Nanette who I thought was very interesting, So interesting, that I reckon I can squeeze a good hour of laughs out of you, Nanette. But, it turns out...nah….I met her in a small town café…”

Gadsby then segued to the topic of growing up in a small town, and she never mentioned Nanette again. I’ve read enough Austen to be suspicious of a writer with such a compelling message as Gadsby’s, who gives the prominence of her opening words –in an article, it would be called the all important ”opening lead”-- to a subject, the origin of the title Nanette, which she promptly abandoned without any real answer, and never returned to it.

To borrow from Chekhov’s famous comment, if Gadsby hung the name “Nanette” on the wall in her “first act”, then where is the part when her choice of the name is explained??? I could not open Google fast enough to Google “Picasso Nanette” – and look at what blew my mind when I read it:

Picasso’s World of Children (1996), p. 65, a reminiscence by Picasso’s granddaughter, Maya:
“The adorable Paloma, even though more interested in the tadpoles than in posing for the greatest painter in the world, is already completely absorbed in her work. With me it’s exactly the same; he’s shown me hugging my doll. I was delighted to see that it was the one I liked the best (I still remember her-she was called Nanette—you see, I’m telling you everything!), but even more surprised to see myself….”

So, can it possibly be a random coincidence that Gadsby (an art history major so wonky that she knew Van Gogh took digitalis for epilepsy, thereby making him experience the color yellow more intensely; and also knew that Picasso had justified having sex with a 17 year old while he was married and a quarter century older than her) just happened to title her breakout performance, the culmination of a decade of her life’s work, with the name of the favorite doll of the girl child born of that sexual relationship between Picasso and his too-young mistress, the condemnation of which is one of the most powerful moments in Nanette?

Before you answer, consider also the tragic additional fact that Marie-Therese committed suicide in 1977 at age 69, three years after Picasso died. Her suicide therefore seems like strong evidence that, in Gadsby’s terms, Picasso, from the grave, “burned and destroyed” Marie-Therese, when viewed with “hindsight” provided by Gadsby. Marie-Therese seemed to be fulfilling Picasso’s mandate, drilled into her by decades of domination by the "great artist", that she die, because she could have no life of her own beyond his, and so it seems that Marie-Therese never had a “prime”!

And armed with that anecdote, I went back to Google, and was astounded once again:

“Paris, Feb. 28 [2007]—Two important paintings by Picasso estimated by the police to be worth a total of about $66 million have been stolen from the Left Bank home of his granddaughter Diana Widmaier-Picasso…Paris police officials said the two oils, Maya with Doll from 1938 and Portrait of Jacqueline from 1961, were taken sometime overnight…Ms. Widmaier-Picasso and her mother, Maya, the daughter of Picasso’s longtime mistress Marie-Therese Walter, were asleep in the house when the theft occurred ….Maya with Doll is a colorful Cubist portrait of Picasso’s daughter as a child clutching a doll…Maya Widmaier-Picasso is often called on to verify questionable works attributed to Picasso, while her daughter, an art historian, recently published an illustrated book of Picasso’s erotic works called ‘Art Can Only Be Erotic.’ “

What I take away from that, is that Gadsby surely knew that factoid as well, and thought it fitting that, in her Robin-Hood-like “stealing” Picasso’s true story for recycling in Nanette, she named her show for the favorite doll of the little girl “created” by the tragically abusive relationship of Picasso and his victim Marie-Therese. So, I believe Gadsby is giving Nanette. as a kind of healing “doll”, to all the women of the world -- especially the “non-normal” ones -- to inspire each of them on the journey to her “prime”. I’d say that Gadsby’s “art history degree” came in very handy, indeed!

CONCLUDING FANTASY: Might Hannah Gadsby one day grace Portland with a performance in conjunction with an AGE program? She’s clearly on the threshold of international stardom, and she has certainly earned every bit of it. Therefore, my fantasy would be to see Gadsby sell out the Moda Center for a performance of Nanette in front of 20,000 of my fellow Portlandians --- and then be joined onstage afterwards by Jane and the extraordinary Brenda Tracy @brendatracy24 , who recently spoke at an AGE salon, united in solidarity to transform the world!

[ADDED 07/26/18: Here's a followup I wrote drawing parallels between Gadsby and Jane Austen:  ]

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


John C said...

Hello, Love your Blog, like, Love-LOVE it. I recently watched Nanette. I consider myself aligned with the Humanists agenda (e.g. Universal HealthCare) and am involved with various LGBTQ efforts in my community thus, Nanette was recommend to me. After watching I had a completely different reaction than yours. At the end of it, I mentioned to the group I watched it with that the performance was very "Trump-esque," with regard to its handling of "facts" (and the interpretation of those facts) and the emotional, pathos-based coercion the performance employs.

Anyways, a heated discussion occurred after the watching, myself on one side and my friends on another, which lasted just a few minutes, until it became apparent the discussion was veering into a confrontation. I was somewhat surprised at this. After a couple of days, I tried to talk with another group of friends about my thoughts on the work, and that too, went south. I started writing a little something about my experiences with a working title: "Nanette and the end of the possibility of critique." The basic question is: Are we allowed to critique Nanette? with a sub-questions of: Shouldn't we critique Nanette?

Would be curious as to your thoughts, is Nanette a critique-able piece of art?

Arnie Perlstein said...

John, it is critiquable, but I don't understand your analogizing Nanette to Trump -- please explain!