Friday, January 16, 2015

City Fixes, Women's Stories

The evening promised several things, but I never saw the urban brilliance or oral sex coming.

I'd begun at the Virginia Center for Architecture's opening of "Reprogramming the City," the latest exhibit. All I knew was that it involved re-imagining city systems and structures, which didn't sound like it had a lot of razzle-dazzle to it.

Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. This wide-ranging overview of global brilliance sucked me in with clever, thought-provoking ways to make city living better.

First off, I learned something. You know why there's always so much scaffolding in NYC? Because they have an ordinance requiring every building have a facade inspection every five years. What that means is that scaffolding will always be a fact of life in the city.

Along comes someone with the idea to make the most of this necessity. Added to the scaffolding are counters for eating, pull-down seats and planters, making something formerly purely utilitarian now pleasant and inviting, a reason to linger, even.

In Sweden, where sunlight is at a premium during winter, many people experience seasonal affective disorder. So what do those smart Swedes do but install sunlight-simulating lamps in the bus shelters to allow people to grab rays while waiting for the bus. P.S. Bus ridership is way up.

Or how about the brilliance in St. Petersburg, Russia where they've installed "lampbrellas," light poles with umbrellas built in that sense rain and open automatically. People caught outside without an umbrella have a dry place to wait it out.

You know how seriously Parisians take their food, so they came up with tables that can be grafted onto plaza steps of buildings to create tables where people can eat sitting across from each other. The tables are easily put up and taken down. So civilized.

Even those airheads in Los Angeles showed off by converting former billboard frames into air-cleaning bamboo gardens. Do you know how much more attractive a billboard structure looks with bamboo growing out of it instead of some smarmy marketing message? Gardens in the air, beautiful!

In Vienna, Austria, phone booth usage was down but more people were buying electric cars, so what do they do? Add charging stations for cars to the phone booths.

As I walked around the exhibit, I was repeatedly blown away by how cities are re-purposing existing objects for 21st century lives.

It was the kind of show where complete strangers would be looking at something with you and then turn and begin discussing some aspect of it. It happened to me several times.

Best of all, they had a big glass bowl for suggestions for ideas to improve our own fair city. I say we start by copying L.A., Russia or Paris and move on from there. No sense reinventing the wheel right off the bat.

When I left there, my intellect was fully stimulated as I let my mind consider the marvelously creative ideas I'd just witnessed.

My next stop (yet again) was Balliceaux and this month's edition of the Noir Cinema series, one of my new favorite events. This month, they'd brought in director/actor Ka'ramuu Kush to screen his short, "And Then..."

After finding a seat in the third row, I looked around for someone I recognized besides the woman who runs the event. Not a soul. A few minutes later, a guy I see at shows took the chair next to me, immediately asking what I thought of last night's New Orleans band, The Naughty Professor, and, just like that, I had company.

But woman can not live by conversation alone, so I also enjoyed a Scotch egg, something new from the kitchen. The soft-boiled duck egg was covered in sage and thyme sausage, rolled in cornbread and deep fried before finding a home on a bed of shiitake mushrooms and beef demi-glace. Oh, yes, and there was a bit of shaved truffle on top.

It was obscene and I mean that in the most complimentary way. A couple of those at brunch and you wouldn't want to do anything but spend the day napping. I shared part of it with the guy next door lest I fall asleep during the film.

I needn't have worried. Even with an hour delay in starting due to technical difficulties and plenty of spirited conversation with strangers (about the history of the Moors, "Selma" and British actors doing American southern accents), enthusiasm for the film stayed high.

In fact, it probably grew when L.A. filmmaker Kush (originally from Detroit) introduced the coming of womanhood film, saying he was glad there were no kids present because, "This is a film for grown folks."

It begins with a close-up of feet dancing and moves up to where we can see two very attractive people dancing together (he was one of them). From there, we go to the bedroom where she's screwing up her nerve to tell him she didn't like something he'd done in bed while they were having sex.

When she tells him, it leads to a wonderfully honest scene between them as they discuss what they do and don't like - about sex and relationships. His key point is, "Hurting you can never make me feel good." You could almost hear the women in the room swoon when he said it.

But it was the denouement that caught everyone by surprise and not just because it involved obvious oral sex, although that part had some in the audience reacting very vocally.

Given a title of "And Then..." you can probably guess that no answers were provided at the end of the film. Each viewer was left to decide what may have happened next. For a lot of women watching, there was some serious fanning going on after that final scene.

If the DJ had begun playing at that point, there would have been no telling what might have happened on the dance floor. Instead, Kush took  the director's chair in front of the screen and the audience unleashed a torrent of thoughtful questions on him.

Mostly it was women, curious about his take on relationships, communication and ego. Many times, he commented on what good questions were being asked, but I think it was mainly a case of women (because 98% of the questions came from women) wanting to discuss the points his film raised.

Namely that certain conversations need to be shared in a relationship, even if the man's ego is on the line. Even if they're difficult conversations he doesn't want to have. He almost got cheered when he said that because men have the privilege in a relationship (like whites over blacks or rich over poor), it's up to them to try harder to talk about the things that matter to a woman.

Before long, we were discussing deep stuff brought up in the film. At what point in a relationship does having sex become making love and when do you talk about which you're doing? How valid is marriage realistically? How far should you go to accommodate someone you love?

Because Kush chooses to make films that tell women's stories, he took a lot of questions about how he gets in the head of the other sex. In the case of this one, he and a female friend traded off, each writing one page of script and then turning it over to the other for another page. "These are conversations that need to happen between couples in real life," he said.

In this case, it meant that he got to write some women's parts and she some men's, making for a distinctive viewpoint that resonated with the audience. Women just kept asking him questions, not just about the film but about men and relationships.

When one asked how old he was (41), he laughed and asked why she wanted to know that. "Because you seem really thoughtful and intuitive so I figure you must not be too young since you've figured out so much already." One woman asked if he got handed panties and phone numbers after he screens the film (head shots and bios mostly).

The Q & A went on for well over an hour, an obvious indicator of how many women in the room related to the issues raised. He's shooting his first full-length feature this summer and it'll also deal with sex and gender issues. We even got his word that he'll screen it here for us.

And then...we'll probably have another fascinating discussion about coupling. Why? Bamboo on billboards: easy. Men and women: still a work in progress.

Just ask any grown folk in the room tonight.

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