Seeing Dutchman at the Flying Squirrel

I was intrigued that the performances of the racially-charged play Dutchman at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) would be followed by a moderated discussion on racism so I headed over.The play  was written by Amiri Baraka and first performed in 1964; it was later made into the film Dutchman. Although the dialog and situations were a little dated, the core story of a black man seduced-then-ridiculed by a white woman is still haunting and strong.

Rakiyah Tapp acted as facilitator for the discussion and did an excellent job keeping people communicating. She noted that there are three kinds of racism that tend to stratify into levels: [if I remember correctly] individual, institutional, and systemic. Systemic racism provides the discriminatory rationalizations for institutional racism (at the organization-level) and individual racism (one-on-one between people).

I started out by saying that I felt that "racism is taking culture too far". (Of course, I always seem to start with something that makes no sense and ends up alienating everyone, some of them for the entire night.) My point was that we're all biased by our stereotypes based on our first impression of someone, but racism is when those stereotypes obliterate the individual before us. I suggested that we should train ourselves to treat every new person as an individual and ignore cultural cues — at least at the outset.

In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that white-on-black racism is unique among the ways individuals discriminate against one another because the systemic component is so deeply ingrained. (In fact, the play's climax brings this idea to the forefront.) As such, no suitably complex analogy is available for whites. For women, gender bias is deeply ingrained, but it is not nearly as tenaciously sinister as racism, and for white men, there is no systemic discrimination of any appreciable magnitude. So the mechanisms I used to bond with another person — commiseration and analogous stories — not only fail, but backfire tremendously as I'm reinforcing my own lack of understanding.

So I step back from my original argument and simply say that what I do (declare all cultural and ancestral markers irrelevant when I meet a new person) is an attempt to break the back of systemic racism. Like any "good progressive" I discourage racial stereotypes and other divisiveness. But I'm also aware of how I appear to other people — particularly children. I was raised in a country where systemic racism has continued to thrive, but I choose to buck that and adapt my behavior to treat people as equally as I can. As time goes by, it becomes more and more natural to do although I can still hear the echoes of prejudice quite well.

Dogtooth at the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Kynodontas (Dogtooth). I suspected so, and sort-of confirmed when I checked Google's Language Tools: Kynodontas is the phonetic spelling of Κυνόδοντας which means "bicuspid" or what we'd usually call the "canine tooth". Breaking things down a bit, σκύλος is "dog", but κυνικός is "canine" and δόντι is "tooth" so it appears to me that the Greek is, as in English, literally "canine tooth". But in a way, calling the film "Dogtooth" makes more sense — the whole premise of the film is as if social customs were "translated" to another language then back again, repeating until no further changes happen.

The Dryden calendar describes the film as a "jet-black comedy about sexual repression". Their write-up implies that the universe where the film takes place is essentially the same as our own, and that the depicted family is highly unusual. I took away that the universe of the film is represented by the family — that the family is more a typical family than anything else. Since almost the entirety of the film is within the family's securely secluded compound of a home, there's little evidence to support either case.

The title comes from the notion that the central couple's two daughters and son must wait for a "dogtooth" to fall out before they are permitted to leave the compound. In the mean time, the family has fabricated games, they lie about language to their children (i.e. a "zombie" is a small yellow flower), and the outside world is said to be inhospitable and dangerous. But the story is told in an extremely dry fashion: as if it's all just a day-in-the-life of any family, with all the mundane details. Except, of course, that the behavior is so strange to us as to be disturbing — the father hires a woman at his workplace to engage in ritualistic, loveless sex with his son, for instance.

I saw the film in two ways. First was that it represented an example of fundamentalist logic. The father was the only one permitted to leave, and he provided for all the family's needs, and supplied all their information as he saw fit. Second, and more strongly, I felt it was just as bizarre as an outside culture may see how we live.

As it is, I spend a lot of time frustrated with the status quo and how it goes against logic, reason, and goodness. How can it be, for instance, that a person can be killed by a car and it's likely they will be blamed for it? Is it not the driver's responsibility to be in total control of their machine? It seems that an outside culture would be horrified to learn that we think this is okay.

The film just flooded me with more of the same. Has anyone ever killed a spider, bee, or snake for no logical reason other than we learned at an early age that these things are evil or dangerous? Can you think of a time when your parent (or you as a parent) ever told a child a lie about what a word means because they weren't "ready" to understand it yet? And what of all the myths that are passed off as fact in this supposed time of reason? — cell phones never caused a gas station fire (it's the static charge from getting into and out of the car), and insisting that patrons wear shoes does not make a restaurant more sanitary, to name a couple.

I will add that the film stirred quite a bit of controversy (and discussion).  Several people walked out during the screening, and almost as many people hated it as loved it.  One factor was some of the more shocking and visceral scenes which (curiously enough) depicted sex or violence. Another was the patriarchal, totalitarian state of affairs within the household. And the lack of comedy to many people's sensibilities. So it's definitely not for everyone, and not a whimsical film to enjoy on a rainy afternoon. At least not for everyone.