About six weeks ago I watched my first 10 minutes of Masterchef. I had recently moved in with three girls and hence have rapidly had my horizons broadened in regards to the wretched depths that television can stoop to. Having said that, it seemed a bit silly to write off a show based entirely on the flimsy premise that I had no interest in the subject matter and hate every other example of the genre, so I guess it was only fair for me to give it a go.
The basic set up of the show is eerily similar to an episode of Spy vs Spy, with a few minor differences. Masterchef forgoes the awesome booby traps in favour of cooking food, and instead of the age old tale of black vs white the producers had gone for the more politically correct red vs blue. Also, now there were whole teams involved, rather than two lone saboteurs. The similarities are so obvious and numerous that I won’t insult your intelligence by listing them all.
In this instalment, the spy chefs were charged with cooking bread. An angry little man named George kicked off the show by breaking into the contestants’ apartment at exactly 11:33pm and waking them with the aid of an industrial strength flashlight. There is then a small montage of various contestants explaining that George just woke them up and that they are tired because they were sleeping and one of them claims that they are not even in a state to boil an egg, let alone do some mastercheffing which, frankly, is pretty fucking pitiful. I don’t really buy that they were all fast asleep at 11:33pm. Surely at least one of them stays up to watch South Park repeats or, considering the subject matter, masturbate over the soccer mums in late night Magic Bullet infomercials. Anyway, Furious George goes on to explain around the kitchen table that bakers keep late hours and that in order for fresh bread to be ready for customers in the morning then it needs to be cooked even earlier in said morning. One contestant has their mind explode and slumps dead into the fruit bowl, while the rest brush off the entrails and pile into a minivan.
Sane man and Masterchef host, Furious George
At the bakery, it becomes evident that Kumar, 61, is really looking forward to baking bread because he really enjoys it because he says so directly to the camera. Dani, 25, hypothesises on the importance of bread because cracking open a dinner roll is the first impression you get of a restaurant, not the service or the menu or the decor or the reputation or the Fevola pissing on the window or the overheard musings of the lone and sad looking couple sitting in the corner of an otherwise vacant premises bitching about the consistency of their creme brulee.
The owner of the bakery, Andrew, then turns up and the contestants applaud him like schoolchildren, while Furious George and some other guy get on their knees and fawn at his magnificence, drooling all over the floor in the desperate hope that they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the resulting lake of salivate despite their respectfully averted gaze. Andrew folds his arms like the culinary badass he is and introduces himself over the top of some equally badass rock music, going on to explain that his bakery is different to all the others because they like to make good bread. Also, their sourdough is naturally leavened, which as far as I know could be good or bad but judging by the pride in his voice it is probably good.
It becomes evident that the masterchefs are to bake bread for some restaurants in their teams. Some of the contestants tell the camera that they want to win, which seems reasonable if unnecessary. The arbitrarily chosen captain of the red team explains that if his team wins it will look good for him but if his team loses it will be bad for him and I begin to feel myself getting a bit lost, wondering if the rampant intellectualism on display means that much of this show’s content is whizzing right over the heads of some of the more casual viewers unschooled in the complexities of good being good and bad being bad.
Furious George asks Andrew about the things that could go wrong as the masterchefs begin their onerous task. First problem is the mixing of the dough. Dough is inherently sticky, claims Andrew boldly, and if it is not done correctly then whole species will be wiped out and the colonel’s 11 secret herbs and spices will be exposed as merely oregano and airplane glue. Andrew does not say this directly but it is heavily implied. The second possible hurdle was something else, I think baking, though I’ve just been told it might have been something called proofing. Having now watched it again on the Internet, I can confirm it was baking, and thank Christ for that as I don’t think Channel Ten can risk alienating too many more simpletons with all of these technical terms. “Wow!” exclaims Furious George. “There’s lots of processes, and it seems like every process has to be right, and time’s ticking.” Well, two processes George, but whatever. You’re just there to intimidate viewers to an extent that they’re too afraid to switch off, lest you break into their homes at night and force them to bake and deliver superfluous monologues at camerapoint.
Roars like Cthulhu
The guy that I previously described as some guy suddenly roars like Cthulhu, explaining that it is 1am as the camera pans to a clock to confirm his story, exclaiming that he is loving the fact that they are learning and that it “is all touch and feel” and that “you never know, we might get some great bread at the end of this. Time to move it!” He is just yelling this at no one, everyone’s baking and he’s screaming at the cameraman. Some lady seemingly unworthy of having her name displayed on screen declares that “baking bread is a total gamble. We’ve followed the recipe so it should turn out right, we’re not going to know until they come out of the oven.” Clearly cheffing is not for the faint of heart.
At this point my attention was drawn by something else. I don’t recall what. Perhaps thoughts of self mutilation, or the necessity of shoe horns. I do not know, nor particularly care, though I am grateful to whatever thought it was, as I’m sure the reader is. I could write an essay on how terrible this show is and why it is unworthy of being on television and drawing millions of viewers and how much Furious George reminds me of my friend whose voice doesn’t echo. And maybe I will. Maybe me writing the essay will be be turned into a reality show that people can relate to because, like cooking, everyone has used a word processor at some point.
People can watch me banging away on my laptop, and I won’t even need to enter the diary chamber of secrets for my monologues because I have a webcam. Then there’ll be a competing show on a rival network about some other guy writing a thesis, then another channel will go one up again in the pissing contest by green lighting a show about four couples who need to renovate someone else’s poorly written thesis and correct all of the grammatical errors and spelling mistakes with a budget of $5000 and only one gigantic bed between them all, and one couple gets voted off each week though there are random celebrity wildcard couples that enter the compound for a weekend at a time just to shake things up by getting wasted and criticising sentence structure. But everyone still needs to do a nightly cooking challenge, because cooking fucking rules and just makes for compelling television.
Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival
Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you
LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).
This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.
In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.
“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”
In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:
I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived
In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.
Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power
Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.
When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.
by Staceyann Chin
Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.
A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus
The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.
In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:
“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.
There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.
While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.
Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.
Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.
Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”
Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.
The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.
In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.
Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.
I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.
If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.
To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.
Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22 September 2019.