June 6, 2009

Kalup Linzy's "Keys to Our Heart"

He's got 'em.

This video (24:06 min.; 2008) was commissioned by Prospect.1 New Orleans and was also shown at the Fusebox Festival. The production is in a lush, vintage-y black and white and seems more polished than Linzy's earlier work; perhaps he's gotten comfortable that by now we know better than to take his work at face value.

Keys is an example of what I might call "quasi-narrative." There's a clear plot line, but various aspects of the piece subvert any "willing suspension of disbelief" or other inclination to relate to the piece as a conventional story.

The plot involves two entangled love triangles. Linzy, a black male, plays Lily, a lesbian with a jaded world-view. She and Dina (also black) are best friends who had sex once long ago. Now Dina has a boyfriend, John Jay (white or mixed), who treats her well. But Dina's been rebuffing him, sexually and otherwise; she and Lily exult in being "bitches." Lily advises the suffering John Jay that Dina will never love him unless he starts treating her badly, acting like an "asshole." John Jay distrusts Lily, but her words ring true. He confides in Sally Sue (white), who's friends with all of them. Sally Sue defends Dina to John Jay, and also goes to Dina to warn her that she could lose him. Dina starts to take Sally Sue's warning to heart, but while dithering, allows herself to be seduced into having sex with Lily again. Meanwhile, John Jay decides to give up on Dina and starts wooing Sally Sue. Dina resolves to approach John Jay to try to reconcile, but accidentally catches him having sex with Sally Sue. Lily then tricks the other three characters into meeting for a showdown in which Dina is confronted with the fact of John Jay's new relationship and Lily reveals that she and Dina have had sex twice and proclaims her love for Dina. Dina writes John an empathetic letter acknowledging her failure to appreciate him and seeking reconciliation. John Jay writes an empathetic letter back suggesting she'd probably be happier in a relationship with Lily.

As in much or most of his other work, in Keys Linzy himself plays one of the lead female roles and dubs in the voices of all the characters. The lines are spoken excessively slowly and enunciated excessively clearly, with an intonation that's at once overdramatic yet declamatory and slightly dead; and the voices themselves, other than Linzy/Lily's, sound completely unnatural. The weirdness of the dubbing lends an air of farce or surreality. (Trailer below; this is not the whole piece.)

Linzy's script is funny – my non-art-pro girlfriend LoL'd – and also odd. Most of the dialogue consists in the characters' explicating their own or others' inner motivations with more fluency than Woody Allen, in Oprah-esque pop psychological terms. And apart from a few clichés that are heavily repeated throughout the piece (discussed below), the characters' lines sometimes seem oddly literal or direct, sometimes almost robotic – e.g., here's John Jay, initiating his seduction of Sally Sue (in Linzy's unnaturally low, overly-enunciated voice): "Since you're single and have no boyfriend, I thought a late lunch with a male friend would serve you well."

The metaphor of "the key(s)" to [one or more persons'] "heart(s)" is used liberally throughout the script, and the characters are repeatedly referred to in terms of two, contrasting sets of stock types, one positive and one negative. Sally Sue announces the positive set: Lily is the "Queen," Dina is the "Princess," John Jay is a "good man," and Sally Sue is the "Sweetheart." Lily/Linzy proclaims the characters' negative identities: she and Dina are "Bitches," Sally Sue is the "Slut," and John Jay the "Queen of Assholes."

And the characters are often presented in an exaggerated, parodic style, as if intended to represent extremes of good and evil. But both sets of labels are shown to be over-simplifications. "Queen" Lily is played by an apparent drag queen – is Linzy sending up these stereotypes while at the same time reminding us of the extent to which they're often true – though perhaps not in the way we expected? In fact, the characters are neither good nor evil; the actions of all seem at bottom determined by self-interest, but the characters all also show compassion for their friends. Lily's manner of speaking generally seems the bitchiest, but the truths she delivers prove helpful to all.

The heavy-handed repetition of stereotypic labels and of the "keys" motif may in part be a reference to old soap opera scripts. Another soap opera-ish element in Keys is the use of stock dramatic or cinematic devices. These include the climactic scene in which all characters are brought together by Lily for the all-is-revealed! showdown. As usual in soaps, however, it turns out that all was not actually revealed; further insight comes through subsequent segments that deploy the stock device in which we see a character write a letter while we hear it read in voiceover – and one suspects any sequel would offer still further surprises. And then, of course, there's the soap-y organ music.

The lovingly detailed costumes and certain aspects of the sets invoke the 50's, while most of the music is Depression-era (the piece opens with Lily lip-syncing to a delightful 1930's recording by Lil Johnson of Get 'Em From the Peanut Man (Hot Nuts) (more on that below). And in one brief scene, as a fully-suited John Jay exits a door, Linzy speeds up the footage, giving it a Chaplin-esque look I associate with the 1920's.

The vintage accoutrements throw into relief aspects of the piece that may be common enough in recent decades but seem weird within the vintage-y frame:
• As mentioned, the characters spend much of their time pop psychologizing.

• The dialogue is larded with "foul" language in quantities difficult to imagine in anything other than a modern production (bitch, pussy, bullshit, fuck, etc.) – esp. coming from characters wearing ties or white gloves. The grammar's also off, in "modern" ways.

• One scene shows doggy-style sex in the kitchen; and no qualms are suffered regarding extramarital sex.

• The casting seems "color blind"; and miscegenation is a total non-issue.

• An open lesbian, played by a transvestite, seduces a repressed lesbian. Lesbianism per se and the concept of committed, long-term lesbian relationships are accepted non-issues.
At the same time, some of these aspects (e.g., the psychobabble, perhaps the color-blind casting, and the foul language – how long has Southpark been on?) are themselves already verging on cliché.

Linzy's mash-up of vintages operates to distance us from the conventionalities in which we're immersed today. The soap-opera and vintage frames give us poke and a wink, prompting us both to laugh and to reflect not so much on what we've inherited from earlier decades as on what we've done with it lately.

At bottom, however, part of what makes this piece so appealing is that, even if Linzy's intentions are parodic, his work is full of love. The weird or parodic aspects do distance us from the characters and their story, but one strongly suspects that Linzy feels genuine affection not only for the vintage and soap opera elements he deploys but also for pop psychology, foul language, color-blindness, etc., as well as people in general. To the extent Keys is parody, it seems to be parodying our present as well as old soaps, but it also seems to be loving both.

What ARE the keys to our hearts? We hear truth in Sally Sue's sentiment that "if you want to have a sweetheart, you have to have a heart that is sweet." Or do you? One suspects John Jay's suggestion is correct that the two "bitches," Lily and Dina, hold the keys to one another's hearts; sweetness may be key for John Jay and Sally Sue but not for Lily and Dina. And compatible sexual orientation proves the sine qua non for all.

There's been some interesting confusion in writings about this piece regarding the title. Is it key to our hearts, keys to our hearts, or keys to our heart? The last is correct, suggesting that perhaps we all share one great heart, but the key for each of us is unique: another cliché we can both smile at and appreciate.

Keys may also be an example of a trend I've observed in which artists import or export material from the past into the present or vice versa, in the process transforming both. I recently came across Dieter Roelstraete's discussions of a "historiographic turn" in art (see e-flux here, citing Mark Godfrey’s essay “The Artist as Historian,” published in [e-flux?] in October 120 (2007), and here). I was excited to find Roelstraete's articles, found them brilliant, and think he nails many important points.

But Roelstraete laments "contemporary art’s inability 'to grasp or even look at the present, much less to excavate the future,'” and adds, "our inability to . . . imagine the future seems structurally linked with the enthusiasm shared by so many artists for digging up various obscure odds and ends dating from a more or less remote, unknowable past—and the more unknowable the past in question, the deeper the pathological dimension of this melancholy, retrospective gaze."

Much of the video and other new media-based work I've seen in recent years seems to be within or relate to this historiographic trend, e.g. (you may have to search the pages at the following links for the artist's name), Matthew Barney (Drawing Restraint 13), Michael Bell-Smith (Battleship Potemkin), Guy Ben Ner (Berkeley's Island), Matt Marello (Sitcoms), Andrea Fraser (her "museum" pieces, e.g., here), Simon Martin (Wednesday Afternoon and Carlton), Steve Reinke (Hobbit Love is the Greatest Love), Laura Paperina (Joseph Kosuth versus Matthew Barney, et al. {and keep clicking "next" for a while}), R. Luke DuBois (State of the Union Address, and keep clicking next for a while), Airan Kang (and keep clicking next for a while), Shana Moulton (her Whispering Pines series), and Erica Eyres (The Male Epidemic).

I believe at least some of these artists are in fact using the past to illuminate the present, in the hope of improving the future. Maybe not an excavation of the future; maybe just an invitation to all of us to help create it in a more conscious way.

Lyrics to Get 'Em From the Peanut Man (Hot Nuts)
Recorded by Lil Johnson
Probably by Georgia White
Recording of March 4, 1936; from Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order, Vol. 1 (1929-1936) (Document DOCD-5307).
Sellin' nuts, hot nuts, anybody here want to buy my nuts?
Sellin' nuts, hot nuts, I've got nuts for sale
Selling one for five, two for ten,
If you buy 'em once, you'll buy 'em again
Sellin' nuts, hot nuts, you buy 'em from the peanut man

Nuts, hot nuts, anybody here want to buy my nuts?
Sellin' nuts, hot nuts, I've got nuts for sale
They tell me your nuts is mighty fine,
But I bet your nuts isn't hot as mine
Sellin' nuts, hot nuts, you buy 'em from the peanut man

* * * * *
More here.

UPDATE: Just found a great interview of Linzy at, of course, Interview, by Chan Marshall. Linzy names Meryl Streep, Lynn Whitfield, Kim Wayans, and Ashton Kutcher as actors he'd like to work with, then says, "I’m trying to imagine them in the context of my work, which is a little difficult. But . . . [s]ometimes people are good-enough actors that they can transform themselves into something kind of kitschy." The new John Waters? Later he mentions, "I definitely want to do a [soap-ish] TV series at some point." YEAH!

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