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Pool Sharks

The University of Houston’s reading series invited heavy-hitters from around the world.  In my three years alone:  Seamus Heaney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Edna O’Brien, amongst others.  After the readings, wealthy donors living in the River Oaks neighborhood would host receptions for the biggest names at their houses.  A satellite image of River Oaks Boulevard shows one palatial mansion after another, each with a chlorine-blue outcropping, a de rigueur private pool.

The Golf Specialist

River Oaks Boulevard ends in a loop in front of the River Oaks Country Club.  It boasts 18 holes of golf across 6,868 yards of Bermuda grass.  Players are expected to repair divots and marks on the greens.  Soft spikes only.  A marshal enforces tee times.  A guardhouse along River Oaks Boulevard keeps wayward graduate students from getting too close.  From our old, rickety cars, we saw the white colonnades and trimmed hedges and knew that we’d gone too far.

The Dentist

Marion Barthelme, Donald Barthelme’s widow, also hosted parties at her house, in the West University area.  Her house, in comparison, seemed more modest than the ones in River Oaks, even though she had remarried to the former CEO of Tyco International.  Marion, not surprisingly, was much more involved with the University of Houston’s creative writing program.  After her receptions, for instance, she pulled out a stack of newly-bought Tupperware containers.  For leftovers, she told us.  I know how you writers get hungry.  None of us were shy about claiming one.  For days afterwards: cold lamb brochettes, chunks of unidentified French cheese, beggar’s purses.  Our teeth remembered how it felt to eat.

The Fatal Glass of Beer

At these receptions, booze flowed freely.  We sat on her sofa and looked around her house, scrutinizing the signatures on the artwork lining her walls.  She had Picasso pencil sketches along the stairwell.  One late night, red-rimmed wine glasses and empty beer bottles occupying every flat surface, one student pointed out the de Kooning in the living room, and another student, clearly blitzed, said, “Yeah, that.  That’s just a decorative de Kooning.”

The Pharmacist

In the display case separating the dining room from the living room, Marion had a small, wooden box with antique pharmacist’s bottles — clear, small ones used to hold powders and tinctures and ointments.  These, however, were filled with marbles and sand and sea glass and pinfeathers.  I wanted to shake them, just to hear the sound the objects inside made.  “Bad idea,” someone said.  “I’m pretty sure that’s a Cornell box.”

The Barber Shop

I learned recently that Marion Barthelme died from cancer.  She lived not far from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and I wonder what treatments she had sought.  I wonder if her hair had fallen out.  That’s a stereotype, of course — Susan Sontag would have my hide for that — but there’s no other way to think of Marion than with her brown hair, packing away hors d’oeuvres, and we graduate students lining up, grateful, as always, for her generosity.


This semester, I taught a section of the First Year Experience, a one-credit, pass/fail class that’s essentially a banner announcing, ‘Welcome to college.’  My students, for the most part, are good kids:  sometimes rowdy, sometimes apathetic, sometimes distracted and beyond my reach.

But, as I said, basically good kids.

Prompted by the recent spate of high-profile gay suicides, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to talk to my freshmen about anti-gay bullying and harassment.  In particular, the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after an intimate encounter with another student was broadcast without his knowledge by his roommate, raised issues that went beyond the bullying — negotiating privacy, living with other people, controlling your on-line image.

The discussion went well, I thought.  When I told Clementi’s story (amazingly, some hadn’t heard about it, which I expected from the international students, but not the English-speaking ones), one of the guys in class (who looks familiar with the Jersey Shore) commented, “That’s fucking demented.”  Towards the end of the conversation, he glanced up at the clock repeatedly, but he got it, I thought.  He understood.

That night, when I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, the first thing that popped into my head was:  Joan of Arc, gender warrior! Of course, she was persecuted for heresy, but when the warty, jowly judges press her about her preference for men’s clothing, it brings to mind Daphne Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress.  When Joan is first asked, Renee Falconetti, wide-eyed, nervously fingers her collar, as if the clothes are tightening around her neck.  When another judge presses — “So God orders you to dress as a man?” — her eyes are half-closed, as if in resignation.  Her answer doesn’t receive an intertitle, but her whisper is unmistakable:  Oui.

Yesterday, I took my class to the student center on campus for a lecture.  On the front of a building were posters announcing an upcoming drag show.  The featured drag queen, Sahara Davenport, was plastered on every window, in every conceivable color Hammermill provides:  fuchsia, goldenrod, lime, taupe — a Warholian whirl of fabulousness.  As we entered, the Jersey Shorean student muttered, “Seven bucks for a fucking tranny?”

Fucking tranny.

What upsets me is not that he said what he said — but that I didn’t stop right there and say something.  I kept walking.  Students sat at tables, eating their lunches.  The smell of fried Chik-Fil-A sizzled in the air.  His words hung there, unconfronted, unaddressed.

I’m no Joan of Arc.  At best, I’m Jean Massieu, the monk (played by Antonin Artaud) who knows better but is cowed into silence.  He supports Joan in spirit, but when things get hot, he bows his head, and lets his tonsure reflect his shame.  We share cowardly silence.  As punishment for our sins, how many more martyrings will we be forced to witness?

Two words:  Inuit porn.

That’s not a knock on Nanook of the North.  Or pornography, for that matter.  I’m admittedly a  conflicted admirer of porn — with the caveats that it be consensual and non-exploitative.  (Also, it helps when the performers actually look as if they’re enjoying themselves.  Nanook, for instance, stares directly into the camera, grinning as he chomps down on raw walrus meat.)

But let me explain my analogy of Nanook and porn:  long before the short-attention-span-friendly fragments of disembodied body parts littering the Internet, full-length ‘adult’ videos oftentimes were preceded with the ridiculous disclaimer that the film was for education purposes.  And while I’ve learned certain things from porn (for instance:  how to react when the pool boy approaches, the proper way to tip the pizza delivery man, what really happens in automotive garages), the educational gloss is merely an excuse to make entertainment seem respectable.

And so, one could approach Nanook of the North as an ethnographic examination — look at how much I’ve learned about igloo construction — or as entertainment.  Or even both simultaneously.  Whereas most porn producers know their work is only nominally educational, Robert Flaherty did intend Nanook to be instructive.  The fact it’s also entertaining speaks to its value beyond the appearance of two sets of Eskimo boobs.

My Nanook-porn association continues into Flaherty’s method.  Though he’s acknowledged as a progenitor of documentary film, Flaherty filmed Nanook in a way that doesn’t necessarily fall under the category as we understand it today.  Flaherty, after a previous failed attempt to make a movie of Eskimos in their natural habitat, returned to Hudson Bay to re-stage the film.  So while it has the appearance of ‘real life,’ there’s an admitted artificiality to Nanook.  (Its subtitle, A story of life and love in the actual Arctic, emphasizes the constructed, narrative dimension.)  Compare this to subcategory of “gonzo” pornography — a form that purports to be ‘real life’ but is as artificial as, uh, the other kind.

One aspect of the film bothered me, however (and this reveals a personal squeamishness more than an inherent flaw in the film):  the butchering of animals on-screen.  And this comes from someone who’s watched both Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Holocaust (albeit with my fingers laced in front of my eyes during the animal-death scenes).  With Nanook, the animals are pre-deceased when they’re flayed, though that doesn’t make it easier to watch.  This is why I’m not a hunter.  This is also why I’d classify the two Cannibal films exploitative, and Nanook not.

I admit, analogizing Nanook to the North to pornography probably reaches too far, so here, I reformulate my critique in a more family-friendly way:  Nanook of the North shows man’s indomitable spirit against the forces of nature.  (This, of course, could also describe my attempts to watch a midnight showing of Birdemic:  Shock and Terror, as I wandered the streets of Center City Philadelphia, dodging the ladies in short skirts and knee-high boots — blubbery seals waiting to be harpooned.)