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Review of Drama-Sutra by Nautanki Theatre: Indian and Chindian stories

When I arrived at Paramatta’s Riverside Theatre for the reading of the three plays in development in the Drama-Sutra Playwriting Project a few weeks ago, the first thing I noticed was the poster on the wall promoting the ‘Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee LIVE’ show.  I’m sure you know the image – there’s Anh Do’s ebullient smile, fabulous set of teeth, and in the background, the boat – ah, the boat, symbolising the perilous migrant journey and the moral fortitude needed to survive it. I have no boat in my migrant story, which is to say, I have no triumph over adversity, no grandiose narratives. I’ve always felt my migrant story not quite worthy next to Anh Do’s.

Which is a problem in our society, because all our stories should matter. All our stories belong to all Australians. All our stories should have equal value. That’s why these three plays by South Asian diaspora playwrights Sonal Moore, Kevin Bathman and Roanna Gonsalves are so precious, and resonated with me. I suspect the fact that I was born in India has some bearing. What’s important is that all three stories are different, and represent migrant stories we rarely hear about. All three stories have no boat.

Indian family stories of migration and cultural conflicts in Chindian marriages are not common, but some themes are. What I recognised in the three plays still in production by Nautanki Theatre are the feelings of dislocation and isolation, and the desires to create a home and sense of place in a foreign land through small things like food, shared sense of humour, exaggerated sense of morality. I love the characters that Roanna creates, she’s such a good writer, who imbues all her characters with a deep vein of humanity. And Kevin’s verbatim theatre is an ambitious project that has the potential to also be a great audio play. His ongoing research and documentation of Chindian lives in Australia is an important contribution not only to Asian Australian studies, but to complicating and expanding the contours of our multiculturalism.

Sonal’s work resonated with me the most, because it’s rare to hear about a family who has been transported to Australia as expats and decide to stay. The story mirrors my passage to Australia – my father came here as a company representative and we just decided to stay. When I told my mother about Sonal’s story, she instantly understood how Sonal’s mother must’ve felt, coming to Australia with no cook. My mother had the opposite problem – she arrived in New Delhi at the tender age of 22, and had to deal with a household full of staff. I’ve always loved her stories about battling with the cook.

It was a privilege for me to experience these plays in their draft form. Can’t wait to see all of them on stage in the near future.

 

Review of GLOW on Netflix: storytelling in the Trump era

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We all know that pro wrestling is not really sport, but an exercise in storytelling, right? The perilously tight spandex, the excessive ramming and slamming are just elements of the spectacle. And wrestling’s go-to plot is at the no frills end of narrative storytelling. It’s the simple story of good vs evil, or in pro wrestling parlance, ‘face’ vs ‘heel’.

In contrast, GLOW, a behind the scenes dramedy about a women’s pro wrestling TV franchise is layered and nuanced, with vulnerable, yet wilful characters who look as intriguing as they are interesting.

GLOW is fabulous entertainment with crisp, witty dialogue and unexpectedly affecting poignant moments

GLOW is fabulous entertainment with crisp, witty dialogue and unexpectedly affecting poignant moments, like the emotionally intimate scenes between sleazy director Sam and the protagonist Ruth. Yet GLOW avoids being too earnestly up its own arse by being fun and just downright silly most of the time.

GLOW is inspired by the 80s real life women’s wrestling franchise ‘Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’. The Netflix series takes the idea and the setting, but populates the cast with a mish-mash of ‘unconventional’ women, many in un-TV like female shapes and sizes. The director of the show within the show is cocaine snorting Sam, played surprisingly well by Marc Maron of podcast WTF fame, who manages to pull off deconstructed sexy by elevating disheveled to new heights with rampant misogyny.

In fact, there’s a lot to simultaneously marvel and cringe at in GLOW. All the women are encouraged to create their pro wrestling personas and the stereotypes they’re pushed to adopt are offensively absurd–a Cambodian woman becomes Fortune Cookie, an Indian student recreates herself as a machine gun toting terrorist called Beirut. And wannabe serious actor Ruth becomes the ruthless Russian ‘heel’ to ‘face’ Liberty Belle, the all American busty blonde in a glitzy stars and stripes leotard.

But the genius of GLOW is in the way these women begin to shine as they learn to inhabit their crass alter egos. It’s thrilling to watch their empowerment as they write themselves into the pro wrestling storyline, becoming more authentically themselves as they embrace their stereotype infested stage characters.

There’s a bunch of feminist questions being explored right there–questions about the roles women are allowed to play in society, or the kinds of bodies they’re allowed to inhabit. Or how desperation and a devil may care attitude, a result of  being down and out and on the fringes, can actually push people to be ‘their best selves’, to borrow from self helper extraordinaire Oprah. As Sam tells Ruth in one scene, ‘try not giving a fuck. There’s a lot of power in that.”

GLOW is subversive in the most delightful way because it challenges that middle class belief that there’s a smooth road to self actualisation. GLOW seems to be saying that life’s a right mess really, and there’s no such thing as a predictable plot line, the kind you can expect in the pro wrestling ring. Which doesn’t mean you can’t willfully take control of your own narrative, and this is what the glorious women of GLOW do with immense dignity, amid the crassness.

That’s why setting this series in the pro wrestling ring is so inspired. It highlights the vast difference between the reductionist, mind numbingly simple storytelling of pro wrestling with the complex shifts and multiple perspectives that animate GLOW’s carefully constructed arc. And it’s this aspect of the series that stood out for me as significant in this confusing era of Trump.

Back in the good old days when people still thought Trump was merely a bad joke, commentators pointed out that Trump’s boorish tactics were taken straight from the pro wrestling handbook. Tactics like name calling (‘Crooked Hillary’) have been so effective that some Trump’s opponents have been urged to also examine the pro wrestling formula for ideas on how to trump Trump. This New York Times video is scarily insightful and worth  2 minutes and 3 seconds of your life.

I suspect the key appeal of pro wrestling’s tactics is moral transparency. Everyone wants good to triumph over evil. Everyone wants a ‘heel’ to blame, in Trump’s case, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Obama. The pro wrestling formula offers a simple one size fits all answer to all humanity’s problems.

And let’s face it, hissing at the ‘heel’ and whooping at the ‘face’ just feels right. It’s the spectacle that attracts, which is what philosopher Roland Barthes pointed out in his essay on wrestling published in Mythologies:

‘This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time.’

What Barthes is articulating here is that unlike boxing, in which competitors hone their skills and pitch their physical and mental prowess against opponents, wrestling is about excitement, entertainment, popularity, showmanship. It’s is about playing the prescribed role, not playing for results. Wrestling is about the moment, which is the aspect Trump exploits so well.

He dominates the news cycle by bombarding the media space with outrageous utterances, demonstrating utter disregard for political rules. While other politicians are laying out their policies, Trump will metaphorically step outside the ring, pick up a chair and wack his opponent over the head with it.

But the problem with Trump’s strategy and pro wrestling is that there is no arc. What happens when the spectacle is over? The simplistic storyline might work for some, but from Shakespeare to Netflix, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that humans desire, even demand good stories.

If storytelling is to have any impact on our lives, to inspire us to ‘go high when they go low,’ then it has to reflect the complexity that is humanity. As storytellers, we need to complexify, not simplify. We need to offer narratives that raise questions, inspire discussion, incite honest debate, not preclude it as Trump does. That’s the only way we can find the safety of compromise and firm common ground. We need more storytelling like GLOW.

I’m already looking forward to Season 2. And I’m glad GLOW is about pro wrestling. The hair, the costumes and the occasional blood spilled in the ring make this series so much fun.

GLOW is an American series created by Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive; Executive Producer is Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black fame; Season 1 is being streamed on Netflix in Australia from June 23, 2017

Here are some great pics of the real life women of GLOW

Review of Podcast Missing Richard Simmons: it’s no S-Town

Unlike many of my esteemed radio producer colleagues, I really liked the 6 part podcast series Missing Richard Simmons by Dan Taberski.

Review of Missing Richard Simmons Podcast

Unlike many of my esteemed radio producer colleagues, I really like the six part podcast series Missing Richard Simmons by Dan Taberski.

Yes, of course I feel uncomfortable that Taberski stalks the flamboyantly self promoting, short shorted fitness guru, who–after decades of sunning himself in dazzling celebritydom–mysteriously retreats from the public eye without explanation, to the great consternation of his fans.

But ethics is not the podcast’s major problem. Its length is. The last few episodes could’ve been condensed into one or two in my view, because the so called investigation into his disappearance (which is really rampant speculation) doesn’t advance the story, nor do we feel any more empathy for the characters, including Taberski.

In fact, the podcast is fairly thin on content after the first episode, and had it been a simple one hour offering, perhaps listeners may not have been so disturbed by Taberski’s protracted stalking of Simmons in the guise of trying to get to the ‘truth’ of Simmons’ disappearance from public view.

Despite this, the initial episodes are very engaging. They explain how Simmons actively befriends just about everyone he meets including Taberski, phones many personally to help them through their weight loss journeys (Simmons was obese as a child and suffered as a result). He cries, he emotes, he over-shares. Simmons is intimate with the members of his exercise class in a way I can’t imagine Michelle Bridges ever being. Simmons purposefully insinuates himself into people’s lives.

That’s why I understand why Taberski, who had visited Simmons in his home, feels like he is a ‘friend’, and how puzzled he is when the consummate attention seeker suddenly becomes an avid recluse. Simmons is not just any celebrity. The man even personally greets busloads of gawking tourists who come to his home! He does more than project a friendly image. He is his image. And that’s why I think Missing Richard Simmons is an insightful commentary on what it means to be a public figure today.

Simmons is not just any celebrity. He does more than project a friendly image. He is his image. And that’s why I think Missing Richard Simmons is an insightful commentary on what it means to be a public figure today.

The general agreement is that the private/public divide remains intact as long as celebrities stay within the confines of their own created projections, do not stray out of the limelight of their own reflected glory. But Simmons clearly broke this rule by trying to be ‘real’ with people he met. Even professional in-your-facer Kim Kardishian, despite exposing more of herself than we ever fear to see, doesn’t do ‘real’. Well, maybe there is just no ‘real Kim’ left, but then, I don’t care.

But Taberski makes me care about Simmons. Because it seems obvious to me that he cares about Simmons.

And while this fossicking around in the trail left by someone’s life raises similar ethical questions to those raised by the more substantial and engagingly complex podcast series S-Town, the big difference is that Missing Richard Simmons is NOT journalism. S-Town and its sibling Serial follow journalistic conventions, while Missing is a procession of Taberski’s obsessional thought bubbles in podcast form. Not everything we encounter in the public realm has equal value. So if you just take this podcast at face value–that it’s just Taberski’s ruminations–what’s the harm?

If you’ve never taken a selfie or posted something private on social media, then yeah, by all means, be self righteous, appropriate the higher ethical ground. But today, most of us constantly blur the boundaries between private and public. And we consume ‘reality TV’ as if it were real, while rejecting news and reportage as if it were fake.

Missing is a podcast that illuminates and questions this 21st century phenomenon. And that should make us all uncomfortable…

Here are a few reviews of Missing Richard Simmons:

The Atlantic

The New Yorker

The New York Times

Vox

Postscript: Richard Simmons issues statement on April 20, 2017 that he’s not missing. But Dan Taberski probably still misses him….

Netflixtherapy: or how the power of narrative saved me from depression

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CONTENT WARNING: Please be aware that the following contains material about mental illness, which may be a trigger for some.

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For most of the past year, I was stuck in a depressive slump. An emotional ravine, a mood pothole. Luckily, it never reached bell jar severity requiring intervention (I’ve been hospitalised twice), but managed to hover perilously around the ‘can’t get out of bed’ plateau.

This onset of melancholy felt ominous because I’d been depression free for much of the past decade. Prior to that, I was taking a shitload of Prozac. It made me numb to the searing pain but not the panic and anxiety. In my pre-Prozac era, I toyed with the cleansing appeal of self inflicted pain. I sliced off the fleshy part of my hand by karate chopping a plate glass window. I also pondered cutting myself in the plump, hairless expanse of my inner thigh. But that just made me feel worthless because I couldn’t plunge deep enough to make the cutting really meaningful, really worthwhile.

In the harrowingly erudite, intimate memoir Darkness Visible, American author William Styron described his descent into depression as a feeling of ‘horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind’.

In the harrowingly erudite, intimate memoir Darkness Visible, American author William Styron described his descent into depression as a feeling of ‘horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind’. I know that feeling too well, and know that once befallen, that black cloak of despair that invites escape into self destructive oblivion cannot be fought off, medicated away, therapied out of existence.

The fact is, depressive illness just happens to certain people for no apparent reason. Yes, genetics, yes, life circumstances, but as it was for Styron, depression can take hold even when life’s rolling along just splendidly.

What’s important is that the fog does lift eventually as Styron stressed, and the aim is to just hang in there until it does, to imagine a light flickers somewhere in the not too distant beyond. What’s hardest is that even if you reach the light, the illness can come knocking again, as it did for me.

For a while, the knocking was just occasionally, and rather meekly at the back door, a soft tapping like rain on grass.  But eventually, the whole gang – anxiety, fear, panic, paralysis, sleeplessness – came charging in, belligerently taking over my living room, putting their stinky feet on the coffee table, drinking my good whiskey, scattering biscuit crumbs on my parquet floor.

I retreated to bed. Everyone experiences depressive illness differently, but sluggishness bordering on paralysis is very common. I dissolved into a human shaped lump, turned on Netflix and slid into binge-watching.

You’d think overindulging on Netflix would make depression worse. In fact, recent studies link Netflix bingeing to feelings of depression. But ‘feeling depressed’ is qualitatively different from the malaise that Styron and I experience.

In fact, that state of near paralysis brought on by an almost unbearable psychic pain feels to me like losing myself, losing my subjectivity. I suspect that it’s the same effect as that brought about by torture – being bombarded with overwhelming physical stimuli leading to a breakdown of the self.

This zoned out state is indeed scary, but not always destructive. In fact, mystics from nearly every religious tradition have used excessive physical pain caused by beds of nails, freezing water, fire and knives to voluntarily dismantle their own subjectivity. But Saint Theresa of Avilathe crucial point here is that the self inflicted bodily pain has religious meaning, so by praying or performing rituals while in this state, mystics found a way to become closer to the divine, the sacred.

Take Carmelites John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Their self wounding was about sharing in the redemptive pain of Christ. Author of Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul Ariel Glucklich claims that the experience of pain is dependent on a complex interplay of biology and culture that gives pain its subjectivity or meaning. These meanings depend on the human ability to empathise with another’s pain. Without this ability to share pain, the passion of Christ would have little symbolic value.

So what does all this have to do with my depression and Netflix? If nothing else, Netflix is an ever growing repository of stories, of great narratives. And stories are how we create meaning, subjectivity, make sense of our world.

And at this point I step into the purely speculative world of pop psychology based only on my experience: I suspect that binge-watching Netflix had a similar function on me that religious ritual or prayer had on the mystics – I found myself empathising with and ultimately sharing the pain of the characters in the stories. And rather than becoming distressed by their suffering, I found that their pain brought me back from the brink, made me feel human again.

Because all good narratives, no matter how black in theme or tone, are essentially about illuminating the human condition. And the blacker the story, the more it illuminates.

Because all good narratives, no matter how black in theme or tone, are essentially about illuminating the human condition. And the blacker the story, the more it illuminates.

Which is why I’m drawn to binge-watch dismally dark stories about death and violence – narratives that plumb the depths of human depravity.

Netflixtherapy: Jessica Jones

No card carrying feminist could avoid commencing their Netflixation without first watching Jessica Jones, the series about the Marvel comic uber babe with seriously unresolved issues. Despite her superpowers, Jessica is a rape victim to whom justice is elusive because her perpetrator, played by a ferociously wild-eyed David Tennant, can control her mind. And he controls her because he harbours an overwhelming  desire for Jessica, wants her to love him back.  It’s a rape of a higher order. How deliciously complicated is misogyny in this series.

Two seasons of Jessica Jones was followed by sci-fi horror Stranger Things, then four seasons of Orange is the New Black, Homeland, then a job lot of murder/police thrillers like River, The Killing, Hinterland, The Fall, Luther, all with deeply flawed crime fighting protagonists, whose self destructive natures are as demonic as the evil criminals that they are up against.

I’m drawn to these beautifully scarred characters because in my state of utter despair, I can recognise the contours of their inner conflict, sense the force of their existential despair, and watching them live their complex lives made me want to live.

Let’s be clear though, I’m not describing some efficient, clinical version of narrative redemption. Unlike Teresa of Avila, I don’t believe suffering is redemptive. I don’t think pain can ever be redeemed, certainly not by a story, no matter how perfectly constructed, perfectly poignant.

Nor do I believe that these flawed characters help me understand myself. Even if they did, self-knowledge does little to reduce the acute suffering of depressive illness. And I don’t subscribe to the theory that we story ourselves, that we can rewrite our own narratives, but that’s another story…

What I do believe though is what one of the world’s favourite fictional characters once told his little friend…

‘I’m scared’ said Piglet ‘A story will help’ said Pooh ‘How?’ ‘Oh. Don’t you know? Stories make your heart grow.’

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…stories make your heart grow.

Here’s a related article about medicine, healing, and stories.

Review of Star Sand by Roger Pulvers: simple, short, sweet, a little too starry

Review of Star Sand by Roger Pulvers

Author Roger Pulvers is a polymath with a  formidable list of achievements that after perusing, usually require a lie down with a cold cloth on my forehead. He is the kind of person we might refer to as ‘atama ga agaranai’, a person whose achievements are so humbling that you are compelled to bow down to them.

In his recent novella about World War II, Pulvers explores a theme that is as important as it is eternally poignant-war and peace. I think Pulvers is saying that the tragedy of war is not that we are forced to hate the other, but that ‘in the end, you come to hate your own more than you hate others’ (p.184 in AmazonCrossing paperback, 2016 edition). We just have to reflect on the heated ‘history wars’ being waged even today within Japan to understand how true this is.

By locating Star Sand’s narrative on one of the tiny islands of Okinawa-a kind of internal ‘other’ place within Japan, and by choosing three main characters who are ‘misfits’ for different reasons, I get what Pulvers is saying about displacement and the ethics of being on the margins.

By locating Star Sand’s narrative on one of the tiny islands of Okinawa-a kind of internal ‘other’ place within Japan, and by choosing three main characters who are ‘misfits’ for different reasons, I get what Pulvers is saying about displacement and the ethics of being on the margins. Hiromi, the main protagonist is a Japanese-American, an embodiment of the conflict that instigated the war in the Pacific. She is both war and peace.

What I most enjoyed is that all the ‘action’ in this story-love, death, hate, violence, reconciliation-happens inside a tiny, dank, air deprived cave on a virtually uninhabited island. The theatre of war is, after all, fought in the tiny crevices of our minds and hearts.

Yet after whizzing through this novella, I’m left wondering why  Star Sand is so unformed, almost too simplistic and girlish in tone. The plot seems inconceivable, the writing is so plain, and the diary structure doesn’t work for me. I had to really strain my suspension of disbelief to go with the narrative flow.

And for me, the  imagery of Hiromi, the 16 year old bottling star sand or hoshizuna (star shaped shells that can be found in the Okinawan islands), while delightful, was a little too reminiscent of a shoujo manga (comics for girls). There was something too contrived and too starry-eyed-innocent in this image. Perhaps I expected something with a bit more gravitas from the likes of Pulvers rather than something so airily light.

Not that airily light is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe this story was written for a younger audience? The appearance of university student Shiho in the final scenes to wrap up the story suggest that maybe a youthful readership is targeted. Or perhaps something has been lost in the translation from the original Japanese, but given Pulvers wrote both versions, I’m not really sure what happened.

I think Star Sand works if I rethink the story as impressionistic literature. Perhaps the details of the life in the cave or on the island, the characterisation or even the plot don’t matter as much as what Hiromi perceives. Because seeing World War II through her eyes changes everything.  After all, if war is really about conflicts that lie within all of us, then it is incumbent on us to look inside ourselves, to look to our own ethics rather than lashing out externally (as does the murderous brother, the fourth person in the cave). Hiromi implicates all of us in the story of war and peace.

This novella is a breezy read despite the seemingly heavy subject matter. It’s in fact a good holiday book. It was for me.

This novella is a breezy read despite the seemingly heavy subject matter. It’s in fact a good holiday book. It was for me.

Star Sand by Roger Pulvers; Publisher: AmazonCrossing; 2016; originally published in Japanese as Hoshizuna Monogatari; Publisher: Kodansha; 2015; The Star Sand movie debuted at the 9th Okinawa International Movie Festival in Naha (April 20-23), 2016

The end of PocketDocs: a loss to all humans with ears

Natalie Kestecher, presenter of PocketDocs, ABC RN
Natalie Kestecher, presenter of PocketDocs; Photo ABC RN

The emotional love life of the majestic krill as presented by realer than real Attenborougheseque naturalist Wayne Funnell, the unsettling inbuilt pathos of Edgar Oliver’s voice in Son of Rex, a boy’s first bone cracking heartbreak written and narrated by Gary Bryson or the harrowingly tender redemptive letter Dear Antoinette are some of my favourites in the line up of short audio stories that make up the recently axed PocketDocs.

Barely a year old, this half hour offering on The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National presented by the inimitable Natalie Kestecher is on the money in this podcast obsessed era because of the format (short, easily digestible audio pieces), eclectic subject matter and approaches (fiction, essays, documentary, experimental stuff) and most of all, it’s uplifting art without being pretentious. It’s a damn fine broadcast/podcast.

Of the gazillion podcasts that now jostle for our audio attention, PocketDocs is one of the most professionally produced, always surprising, artistically sound shows in the English language.

Given time, its back catalogue will become a listening room treasure trove, like a bottomless fridge of audio morsels.

Given time, its back catalogue will become a listening room treasure trove, like a bottomless fridge of audio morsels.

PocketDocs was also a departure from the more factual, information based direction of recent Radio National offerings, after a spate of axings of ‘artsy’ programmes like the Night Air , Poetica as well as the whole drama department in recent years.

I have no idea what the rationale for axing PocketDocs is, though the reason given probably had dollar signs attached to it. And I appreciate that in this fluid media environment, no-one can predict how exponential changes in technology will mould the shape of radio/podcast/audio storytelling.

But surely, someone up in the ABC management clouds can see how important it is for Radio National, the ‘ideas’ network to go beyond the news or reporting what’s right in front of our eyes to the stuff that moves us as humans (the bovine utterings in Passing the torch moved me), that lifts our souls beyond the everyday mundane (take an audio excursion with The sound of peace), that opens our eyes to what we cannot see or know (a new take on mindfulness), that instills hope (Mr Fixit was so delightfully sad it was hopeful) and help us transcend our everyday boundaries so we can aspire to live the ‘good life’? I’m not suggesting PocketDocs does all these things, but it takes a good jab at it.

What the podcaster wannabes may or may not realise is the amount of time, effort, care, love, dedication that goes into each even 2 minute piece. Here I have to admit my bias for PocketDocs because I contributed two pieces this year, and I know first hand how much attention to detail was given to every broadcast/podcast second by not only me, but the sound engineer and Natalie. These skills, expertise and corporate knowledge will be lost to our/your ABC with this axing.

PocketDocs’ unique strength also lies in the curatorial expertise of Natalie and executive producer Claudia Taranto. Not only can they effortlessly (seemingly) put together a 30 minute programme each week of disparate stories linked together by a thematic thread, but they also have an enviable reputation in the world of audio storytelling that can attract contributions from a high calibre of producers and writers from all over the English speaking world.

I don’t like everything on PocketDocs, some stories are bloody annoying. But that’s its strength. PocketDocs will piss you off if you let it, and also make your heart soar. Listen, now before it all ends in a few weeks.

Here’s a quote from Tolstoy…just because:

‘Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.’

Review of Transparent Season 3: transcendent transgressions

Review of Transparent Season 3: transcendent transgressions
The gorgeously fucked up Pfeffermans in Season 3 of Transparent, about a family transitioning

After  watching three seasons of Transparent, I find myself envying the Jews. The transgressions of the self absorbed, upper middle class Californian-Jewish Pfefferman clan makes my own dysfunctional family seem so excruciatingly banal that I’m wishing I could wallow in all that Jewish trauma. Which is perverse of course, and that to me is the attraction of Transparent. The Amazon Studios series is so wonderfully complex and constantly surprising that I can’t help but delight in my perverse reactions to it.

Take the first episode of Season 3 when Maura, the newly gender transitioned p/matriarch of the Pfefferman family, screws up her response to a distressed cry for help from a suicidal young caller to the LGBTIQ helpline. Maura tries to rectify her mistake not out of compassion, but out of a self directed desire to ‘learn about that whole world’ as she states earlier in the episode, ‘that world’ being her recently adopted trans community. Setting out on an ill considered rescue mission, she gets lost in south LA, far out of her socioeconomic comfort zone where she offends everyone she meets, eventually ending up begging for help from the suicidal caller she set out to help in the first place.

Yet rather than feeling dismayed with her transgressions, I find myself warming to her. Perhaps because Maura, with her droopy painted lips is so drenched in pathos that her ability to easily offend others serves  merely to expose her vulnerability, making her insensitivity self deprecating rather than obnoxious. Maura is somewhat clueless, but her efforts to transcend herself through her desire to be her ‘authentic self’ illuminates queer suffering in a way that seems tragically heroic and poignant.

What makes Maura and her equally self absorbed family members’ existential angst compelling is the particularity of the Jewish context. The beautifully evocative flashbacks to 1930s Weimar Berlin and Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research in Season 2 or the luminous Mikvah scene and the references to the rituals of the Passover Seder running through Season 3 point to a specifically Jewish cultural framework that acts as the narrative bedrock of Transparent.

But Jewish trauma and suffering are not to be seen as reasons behind the Pfefferman’s many and constantly evolving neuroses. Jewishness, the series’ creator Jill Soloway seems to be saying, is a stand-in for otherness. And let’s face it, the undeniable reality of the holocaust implicates all humanity in the historical othering of Jews, which means that Soloway might’ve chosen the perfect particular family to explore the universality of this theme. And just as we are all guilty of excluding ‘the other’, we’ve all experienced the brutality of being excluded, shunned because of our otherness. I suspect that’s why I recognise the pain of the Pfeffermans (albeit a privileged white suburban angst).

So the middle sibling Josh’s tragicomic embrace of Christianity to appease his estranged evangelical preacher son, or the bisexual/S&M carryings-on of eldest daughter Sarah may seem farcical at first glance. But in the scripted world of Transparent, these are the entertaining stories of people perpetually questioning their identities, trying to locate a space where they are safe and are not ‘othered’, a space just to be themselves in this postmodern world of competing ‘authentic selves’.

And therein lies the conundrum at the heart of Transparent: just what is the ‘authentic self’? I love the scene where youngest sibling Ali is accused by her fellow women academics of ‘white fragility’. What’s white fragility asks Ali innocently, to which a black woman replies, ‘it’s when people think their white tears matter more than black blood’. Is black ‘more authentic’ than white? What about yellow? What about trans? Is intersex on par with gay? The fact that Maura continually finds herself ostracised from various subsections of the LGBTIQ community which she claims is her ‘chosen family’ may point to this unresolvable tension between ‘authenticity’ and otherness. Just what chance do the rest of us have to find a safe place to express our ‘authentic selves’ if the ‘chosen people’ can’t?

And that brings us back to Jewishness, still central to the non-Orthodox Pfeffermans, who occasionally seek affirmation in Jewish rituals, and mostly fail. Their attempt to share the Seder meal in the last episode of Season 3 for example, ends in disappointment. Season 3 explores spirituality and its relationship to identity more fully than the previous series. That’s why the gorgeous Rabbi Raquel, perhaps the only immediately likable person in Transparent, has such a tough time of it. (She appears with dishevelled hair in the opening scenes, and never seems to get a chance to put a brush to it.)

Throughout Season 3, Raquel is ravaged by inner turmoil that is essentially left over from her failed relationship with Josh Pfefferman in earlier seasons. Yet in one heartbreaking scene, she attempts to comfort Josh in his hour of need, embracing him in a hug, at which point Josh proclaims, ‘I could just live right here, in this hug, sell everything and just move in’. That’s when Rabbi Raquel gently unravels from the embrace.

Is this the Jewish embrace, the embrace that signals shared identity, shared history and shared pain? Is this warm embrace of inclusion necessarily associated with the searing pain of otherness?

Identities are so complex that no one identity can hold all of us. So when you set out to emerge as your true gender as Maura has done, it’s inevitable that you end up embracing isolation too. Maura’s question posed at the very beginning of Season 3  is so poignant. She  laments that despite having family, friends and a lover who support her coming out as trans, ‘why do I feel so unhappy?’ I just love this carefully calibrated melancholy in Transparent…it’s nicely nuanced to counterbalance the humour.

But perhaps what I love the most about Season 3 is the final scene when Shelly, mother Pfeffernan performs a spectacular one woman show retelling her own traumatic life narrative. It’s triumphant, feminist, transcendent and an awesome performance, not least because a thin, often irritating and irritable older Jewish woman in a sparkly dress sings the shit out of Alanis Morissette’s One Hand in my Pocket to reclaim and rewrite her own story. I think I might’ve spontaneously high-fived her.

Transparent is an American series created by Jill Soloway for Amazon Studios; Season 3 is being streamed on Stan in Australia from September 24, 2016