News & Notes: Something’s rotten in the States

Lisa D'Amour's 'Detroit' and Maguy Marin's 'Salves' stir up some controversy with their analysis of the West

Let’s start this edition of News & Notes with a paraphrase of an axiom from Marx!

The ideology of the ruling class is the dominant ideology of the ruling class’s society.

I know. We’re not supposed to talk about ruling classes in democracies, because the ruling ideology should be democratic. But the contradictions (another good Marxist word) in the West, especially the U.S., between the concentration of wealth and practice of democracy are impossible to overlook. So, without going into a full description of terms and exceptions, maybe we can just leave it at that.

We have bigger fish to fry! We’re going to talk about a dance, specifically Maguy Marin’s “Salves,” and a play, Lisa D’Amour’s ‘Detroit.” From what I’ve been able to gather, these are the two most-disputed arts events we’ve had here in a long time, maybe since Marin’s last visit to town, and their opposition to the prevailing ideology about society itself and art is part of the reason.

No, I’m not going to do a Marxist analysis of the two, because honestly, I couldn’t if I wanted to. But I can point out how subversive they are, how they resist comfortable narratives about how life should be lived, how they point out the tricks and failures of the ideology they critique.

Other artworks attempted to do that in the past, and some of them pop up in “Salves”: Picasso’s “Guernica” and Goya’s “The Shootings of May 3,” for example, among the most powerful indictments of wars prosecuted against ordinary civilians by powerful, anti-democratic elites. In “Salves” copies of each are hung on a wall and soon slide off and disappear, reduced to little pictures of no particular power. Ditto the images of Elvis that were themselves Warhol’s sly critiques of art and the marketplace: The dancers fill a wall with them, and then they disappear.

Compagnie Maguy Marin in "Salves"/Christian Ganet

Compagnie Maguy Marin in “Salves”/Christian Ganet

In the age of mechanical reproduction (and it’s apparent that Marin knows her Walter Benjamin), what about movies? “Salves” is loaded with film references (French New Wave, Fellini, maybe “Age d’Or”—once you start playing the game you can get carried away), but it’s more that it moves film techniques to the stage, as the numerous film projectors onstage suggest: close-ups and tracking shots, strobes, and other devices. Nim Wunnan’s review for ArtsWatch talks about this aspect of “Salves” compellingly.

But I think Marin is suggesting that for subversive purposes, the stage escapes the capital requirements of films, both for making and distributing them. “Salves” is oppositional, analytical, discomforting (as Wunnan wrote). It refuses to quiet us with fine old music and fine new dancing. It tells us that our culture is casually racist, casually violent, halted by sentiment. If I look for something “positive,” it’s the speed and organization with which the dancers sometimes organize work–moving and building things. But opposition to the dominant ideology isn’t a gentle business. Marin’s object is to wake us up.

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In my review of “Detroit” I argued that Lisa D’Amour was NOT specifically referencing either the decline of the city of Detroit or the Great Recession of 2008-09. I suggested that the “meaning” of “Detroit” could be found in her specific characters, but I didn’t push that thought.

Deployed in two couples (Ben and Mary, Kenny and Sharon), those characters aren’t the victims of a specific downturn in the economy. Things could be better financially for Ben and Mary–he’s lost his job at the bank–but their lives would be just as empty. Kenny and Sharon are near-wraiths, just out of rehab and perhaps slipping back into addiction, so no, a sudden drop in the unemployment rate isn’t going to help them much, either.

Brooke Totman toasts the Decline of the West  in "Detroit" at Portland Playhouse.

Brooke Totman toasts the Decline of the West in “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse.

In his director’s notes, Brian Weaver hangs his hat on their “dreams,” conflating actual dreams and life fantasies. But their fantasies are ridiculous. Ben, in order, fantasizes about 1) being British, and 2) starting an online financial advice service. He’s much further along with the first, which says something about the second. He enjoys grilling some good meat, too, and though he seems pretty self-regulated, he turns into easy prey for one of Kenny’s fantasies—a night at a skanky strip club. Now, THAT one has a good chance of happening, though D’Amour makes sure even that one doesn’t happen. Does it make “Detroit” safe for consumption to interpret it as a heart-warming story of dreams and community? No, because I think that interpretation collapses under any sort of scrutiny.

Let’s see: If we were to guess what Mary’s dreams are, we’d say better quality furniture, more exotic and expensive foods, and when she’s feeling particularly down and hopeless about these, a dream to live on the land on a permanent camping trip, preferably without her husband. Kenny and Sharon? We don’t know what their dreams are, really, though we suspect that a good part of their brains is filled with thoughts of drugs.

We instantly recognize these characters, especially Mary and Ben, because we see them as expressions of or displaced reactions against the dominant ideology, yes? Mary’s camping survivalism responds to her fear of thwarted caviar dreams. Ben would rather flee the world of coding up a website (is that actually what he’s doing? We don’t know.) and financial guru-hood and enter a separate online reality game. Of course, they aren’t prepared to do any of these things, not really. They are silly and isolated, and that makes them absurdist and comic, even though we’d have to admit that D’Amour and the Portland Playhouse actors have made them good-hearted, even lovable.

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D’Amour leaves it with the characters. “Detroit” isn’t obviously ideological itself, though if we look we start to understand how badly the dominant ideology, let alone the economic system, serves them. At that point, the viewer is allowed to dive in with his or her own “solutions” for these lives, provide a little philosophical or political therapy, depending on the viewer’s own philosophy and politics. All Ben needs to do is take a few classes in financial advising at the community college, and he’ll be all set! (So, why didn’t Ben think of this himself?)

Based on her previous work, though, I’m betting that D’Amour’s “Detroit’ is a warning: This is who we’re in danger of becoming, if we’re not already there. Theatricalized, sure, but a good description.

Artists who aren’t connected to the Entertainment Economy (and even a few who are) are issuing this warning with increasing intensity. The contradictions in the society are too great. The coherence of our lives is seriously compromised as a result. Reactions may vary, but they will often be irrational and sometimes violent.

Maguy Marin’s “Salves” conveys that message intellectually, I think, but also viscerally. This is what we are doing to to ourselves. “Detroit” is more oblique—after all, the chattering class to which I belong interpreted it primarily as a sign of the precariousness of individual financial lives after the Great Recession—but perhaps no less effective.

This is disputed ground. After a hard day in service to the ruling class (especially if we ARE the ruling class), the last thing we want is someone telling us we are tearing ourselves apart. We’d prefer someone dancing sweetly or enacting one of the old stories, one with a happy ending, something narcotic, the aesthetic equivalent of what Kenny and Sharon were in rehab for. And sure, art can soothe us. It can’t, however, eliminate the structural problems that make us require soothing in the first place.

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