Seeing Alison Bechdel Speak at RIT

Although I also wanted to go see Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars at the Dryden, I opted for the irreproducible Caroline Werner Gannett Project lecture at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) with Alison Bechdel. In all honesty, I know practically nothing about Bechdel, instead relying on my faith that the lecture series draws interesting people (perhaps TEDx Rochester could learn a few things.)

Anyway, she's a cartoonist — a self-described not-very-good writer and not-very-good artist that combine to form a rather excellent cartoonist. Her lecture was titled Drawing Words, Reading Pictures. If you had heard of her before, it's likely as a "lesbian cartoonist" with a long-running strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, or perhaps the misattributed Bechdel test for movies (conceived by her friend Liz Wallace and documented in a strip in 1985 … or so Wikipedia says).

She went into great detail about how she constructed one strip and quipped that you just need to repeat that a thousand times or so to make a book. She spoke a lot about her childhood, dovetailing into her most recent book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. She spoke about her journal as a child where she began to realize that words alone were not adequate to relate an idea, adding small "I think" bubbles in sentences wherever meaning could be ambiguous. Later she started using a large caret-like gesture (^ only bigger) through words, and eventually discovered she could "protect a whole page" with one overlying notation. This eventually led her to using the comic form as a way to reduce ambiguity.

I was thoroughly excited by this notation. A growing panic and frustration develops inside me whenever I begin to discuss the utter inadequateness stemming from the bleeding ambiguity in language. I mean, "the sky is blue" makes perfect sense even though there are clouds that are part of the sky, or it might be the night sky, and blue … wow … I assure you it's not blue like my old Ford Escort which was also blue. So, stealing Bechdel's notation in typographic form, "the ^sky^ is ^blue^" makes much more sense to me. I had to ask if she finds that ambiguity relieved by cartooning (which she did) but I was more surprised at her surprise that I felt that way too. They had microphones up front, and when I was addressing her she probably took two steps back when I relayed essentially what I just wrote.

As such, I felt a kindred connection. I deduced who she was prior to the lecture (an easy task even though I'd never seen her photograph) and had felt that a bit already. I was warmed by the way she stepped partway up the auditorium to observe how the stage and computer projector were set up. And I was amused at a male crew-member gingerly adjusting her lapel microphone as if he were defusing a bomb.

In any case, I bought her book and had a chance to meet her and have her sign it. She even "^" notated my name and sketched her face with a cartoon bubble, "what is Jason really saying?", then with a wry smile added below, "we might never know." [Curiously, I recalled it from memory as "what is Jason saying really?", and "we may never know."]

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book. What I'm finding is that the cartoon format doesn't resolve ambiguity as much as it amplifies the ambiguous parts of the text. So like that "^" notation, it's another way to say, "this is how I think it happened, but you're never going to get it."

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Back of the Throat at Geva Nextstage

Ali and I went to Nextstage at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the first screenplay reading of The Hornets' Nest series: Back of the Throat by Yussef el Guindi. In it, a man of Middle-Eastern descent (Khaled) is being questioned by two federal agents (Bartlett and Carl) shortly after September 11, 2001. The agents are not charging Khaled with any particular crime and Khaled — an American citizen — is glad to help in any way he can until the agents start to become suspicious.

Popular media teaches us that police officers know who's guilty and they just need to shake out the right information to catch the crooks. In reality, they are not nearly as prescient as a scriptwriter. When the illusion of prescience is lost, the whole process of open-ended interrogation works only to blur the difference between the innocent and the guilty rather than to help define it.

Regardless of whether Khaled is innocent or guilty, as the questioning continues, he appears defensive which looks both like innocence and like guilt. So as a tool for divining the innocent from the guilty, this is a particularly poor one. Worse, though, is that the agents become more confident in their belief that Khaled is guilty, so they press further, and the more defensive he becomes, the more they feel he's guilty and uncooperative.

In some ways I find the script-in-hand readings more powerful than a performance. When an action or object is described briefly in words, it has a naturally ambiguous realization — whereas in an actual performance, the actions and objects are all specific, concrete examples. So in a case like this, the ambiguity echoed and amplified the overall effect, making for a very disturbing reading.

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