Saturday, April 30, 2011

R.I.P. Bennet A. Masel, All-American Activist, 1955-2011

"I transcend your puny categorization."

What to say about Ben Masel?

Unlike many of the people mourning him today, I was never a close friend of Ben - more like an annoying hanger-on at his house, one of those punk kids on the porch. But Ben had an enormous influence on my life. What always impressed me about him was his ability to never, ever feel that the system would win. He was absolutely convinced that WE were winning, that the system had clay feet, that it could and should be fought. That anything, ultimately, could be done: it was only a question of us going out and doing it. I first met Ben in 1985 when I was a freshman at the UW and I cannot even begin to count the things he, Rob Koenig and Brian Allen turned me on to in politics, history and culture.

The first time I was ever busted, at the 1985 shanty town demos, it was Ben who calmed me down and let me know it was all part of the game. Ben was a true CITIZEN, in the most precise and absolute sense of the word. A person who realized that it is us who make the rules and the power, ultimately, and that we thus need to be responsible for them.

Ben Masel was one of the few really great people I have known in my life and not a week goes by that I don't think of him. Wherever I was in the world, there was always a big portion of my heart that was warmed just knowing that he was out there in Madison, kicking ass and taking names. That no matter how politically isolated I felt, no matter how unreal things seemed, I knew that Benny would look at what I was seeing, smile his sardonic smile, shake his head, and sum up in one pithy sentence an analysis of the problem that a lesser man (like myself) would have to use a thesis to describe. I could always comfort myself with the fact that as long as Ben was out there, someone would understand this shit and wouldn't let it defeat them, no matter how overwhelmingly awful it seemed to me.

Today, all I can think of is what a horrible moment it is for us all - especially those of us who love Wisconsin - to lose him. But then again, that was also a part of Ben Masel: he'd take us to where we could be effective, make sure that the dance was well underway and then he'd smile, go home, smoke a joint, watch T.V... He always knew when to step back. Then he'd return. The morale of any demonstration, occupation - any political event at all - would rise whenever his face appeared. My deepest pain, today, is knowing that we won't have that feeling again. But Ben always trusted that the rest of us would keep the ball rolling. Now that we no longer have him to fall back on, we need to make sure that we don't betray that trust. Big, big hugs out to all of you who are today missing Bennet Masel.

You are not alone.

In memory of Ben, here are two Pete & Lou Berryman videos. While virtually visiting with friends today, I realized that a big part of what I’m missing about Ben is the Madison Wisconsin of the 1970s and ‘80s that he represented so well. The demonstrators and radicals in The War at Home were my childhood heroes and when I arrived at the U.W. in 1984, Ben’s house was a hang out for those folks from that time who were still keeping up the good fight.

I think the first of these two videos represents the world’s sense that Madison at that time was a very magical conjuncture in human history and no one who lived there, then, can ever forget it.

In my dreams, I often find myself back in the old La Chateau Co-op or walking down State Street when it was still the city’s commercial center. Going into the old Pegasus Games, for example, and seeing Laurie behind the counter, passing by the Soap Opera, or studying at Steep & Brew (still there). So this video is very poignant to me, as I'm sure it will be to many old Madisonites.

The second video, however, is for those of you who, like me, are threatened to be overwhelmed by nostaglia and what we in Brazil call saudades. It’s Pete and Lou on the steps of the capitol during the demonstrations a month ago. This is the Madison we all love and remember and it’s so important for us now to keep it in our hearts and not let it die.

Hugs out to all of you who are missing Ben today. Please leave a commentary relating one of your best memories of Ben, so that they can be registered in something a bit more firm than Facebook.

Love to you all.

Ben in an iconic moment, and also as I best remember him.

"A new kind of Republican with nothing to hide"
Ben's campaign for Governor on the Republican ticket

Madison Wisconsin - Pete & Lou Berryman

Pete & Lou on the Capitol steps, 2011

(If you're looking for more information on who Ben was, go here. I'll add more links as other stories come in.)

Daily Kos on Ben.

We take the show to Minnesota, we take the show to Monterey

We fly to Boston on a plane and we drive to Portland, Maine
And we gig along the way
And at the end of each performance we blow the audience a kiss
And when following the show they come up to say hello,
Seems it always leads to this:

So how’s ol’ Madison, Wisconsin, is that Paul Soglin still the mayor
And is Rennebohm's expanding, the Club de Wash still there?
I used to sit out on the terrace and watch my grade point disappear
For the life of me I don’t know how I wound up here

Now I can see us in the future, we take a boat to Bengal Bay
From Calcutta on a train to the Himalayan chain
Takes at least another day
We hike for weeks among the foothills, it feels like 700 miles
We ask a Sherpa, could you please help us carry all our cheese?
And he turns around and smiles:


We leave Mount Everest behind us, we hop a steamer tramp to Perth
Old Australia seems to me's far away as you can be
And remain upon the Earth
But in our Bucky Badger derbies as we survey the billabong
We think we’re really off the map till a local sees the cap
And didgery-does a little song:


We leave Australia in a rocket, we hit the moon and take a walk
The craters all are full of guys with enormous buggy eyes
And they all begin to talk
It sounds like "hey gadeng vadaieda oh yah gadeng vadeida hey"
But we realize pretty soon, they mean 'welcome to the moon,
Have a beer and by the way'...

So how’s ol’ Madison, Wisconsin, is that Paul Soglin still the mayor
And is Rennebohm's expanding, the Club de Wash still there?
I used to sit out on the terrace and watch my grade point disappear
For the life of me I don’t know how I wound up here

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bruna Surfistinha: A Review

Note: the following review was also posted on Regina Scharf's "Deep Brazil" blog. Hat's off to Regina for letting me repost it here.

A week before Carnaval, Ana Paula and I had an opportunity to see “Bruna Surfistinha“, the new film by director Marcus Baldini, together with sex and gender researchers Gregory Mitchell and Fatima Ceccetto.

The film is loosely based on the writings and experiences of Raquel Pacheco, AKA “Bruna the Surfer Chick”, a paulista prostitute who became briefly famous in the early aughties as one of the pioneers of internet commercialized sex. Long before Craig’s List became notorious as a virtual meeting point for pros and punters, “Bruna” had her own website where she’d describe her day in florid prose and “grade” her clients as to their sexual performance. Punters apparently couldn’t get enough of it, confirming the old saw that what really turns most clients on is the illusion (?) that their sexual prowess impresses even sex workers. Bruna’s blog became an overnight sensation, winning prizes and even earning its author recognition by the Old Media. Surfing on her new-found celebrity status, Raquel retired from The Life, married a client and entered university as a psychology major.

I had to admit that walking into the theater, I had deep reservations about the film. Given the Brazilian media’s current artificially-induced panic regarding trafficking of women and sexual tourism, I expected a tiresome morality play. To a certain extent, I wasn’t deceived: the end of the film shows Bruna leaving prostitution to be reclaimed by society as a good girl and potential future wife. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by all the twists and turns the plot took to get to the predictable denouement. When I left the theater I felt that, while the film has major issues that need to be addressed, it does a better job showing the diversity and ambiguities of prostitution than any motion picture I’ve seen thus far.

The problem with most whore flicks is that they tend to focus on only one experience of sex work: either it’s a rollicking, laugh-a-minute blast (think “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) or a degrading, humiliating, awful experience akin to slavery (think “Cristiane F”). Few films, if any, deal with sex workers’ main complaints about their jobs: to wit, it’s generally boring work where employees are routinely treated like subhumans, PARTICULARLY by the folks who want to “save” them from “a life of exploitation and degradation”. Even fewer try to show the vast diversity of sex work, which ranges from quick “buck-a-minute” blowjobs to lavish “call-out” services which provide entire sexual fantasy packages for thousands of dollars a shot.

To its enormous credit, “Bruna Surfistinha” attacks both of these cinematographic blind spots head on.

The first half of the film focuses on the day-to-day routine of sex work in almost tiresome detail. Raquel and her co-workers are shown as a diverse group of people who are in the job for a variety of reasons. Sure, there’s the drug addict. But there’s also the single mom, whose kid is the center of her life and the black maid who’s delighted to be promoted to the position of prostitute. And there’s Raquel herself, who found in sex work an escape from a suffocating and patriarchic family. The madame at Bruna’s first job is neither a scheming, exploitative viper, nor a matronly figure with a heart of gold: she’s just a slightly bitchy businesswoman trying to run a knocking shop full of diverse and problematic personalities. The film also shows her kicking workers out for using drugs, something that’s far more common in the sex biz in Brazil than the oft-repeated stereotype that brothel managers use drugs to keep sex workers addicted and passive. (Anyone who’s ever had firsthand experience dealing with someone who’s far gone on booze and coke – prostitutes’ two drugs of choice – can testify as to how ridiculous that particular stereotype is).

And then there are the clients.

At first, I was afraid that the film would follow the tired old stereotype that punters are an evil brood of ugly, sex-deprived, quasi-rapist perverts. Raquel’s first sexual experience with a client is truly horrid, verging on rape. The camera zooms in on her wincing face as the john plunges away, oblivious to her discomfort. However, she soon gets into the swing of her job and as she does, her clients become better looking and more attentive. At first I thought this ridiculous, but afterwards, in a moment of fridge logic, I thought that perhaps this was the director trying to show Raquel’s changing perceptions of sex work: first, all the men are repulsive, creepy and stereotypical; later, they become more interesting, handsome and individuated. The film even shows her having what is possibly her first orgasm-through-intercourse with a client, something that pros from three continents assure me does happen from time to time (if not as often as punters imagine it happening). In a surprise switch, it’s Raquel’s awful and apparently heartless first client who’s always there for her in moments of crisis and who probably saves her life. The end of the film implies that, upon leaving prostitution, Raquel hooked up permanently with him. Now THAT’S a Chekov’s Gun few American directors would have the balls to fire.

Another great thing about Bruna Surfistinha is that it when it comes to showing the diversity of sex work venues, Baldini really gives it the old college try. Raquel is shown working, in sequence, in a small downtown brothel – or privé – as a rent-a-girlfriend at Love Story disco, trading blowjobs for transit-fines with cops, as a high-priced call girl, as an internet-based one-woman brothel and, finally, as an addicted, coked out whore giving it up for 15 reais a shot in a fast foda in crackolândia. (A scene which is responsible for what, IMHO, is the film’s best potential internet-ready meme: “Hoje não estou dando: estou distribuindo.”)

But for all its positive points, there are problems with Bruna Surfistinha. For one thing, in trying to show the diversity of sex work, the director puts Raquel through a veritable rollercoaster-ride of a career which only vaguely resembles the real woman’s memoirs. In real life, Raquel claimed she entered sex work with eyes wide open and a set goal: make a hundred thousand reais to pay for college and get out. She paid for health insurance (including psychological care) and registered as a tax-paying independent worker. Apparently, she did get addicted to coke at one point, but not to anything like the degree shown in the film. Shortly after she became an internet celebrity, she cashed in her chips and retired. By all accounts, Raquel is doing fairly well in the straight work market today.

In the film, however, “Bruna” rises meteorically from privé puta to high-priced call girl in one fell swoop. She then, predictably, falls into the degradation of drugs, trading sex for coke money in São Paulo’s worst zona (all without ever losing her swank pool-equipped penthouse, mind you). This “rise and fall of the whore”-style plot was hackneyed even back when Jesus was a kosher carpenter washing sex workers’ feet. Seeing it on the silver screen today can only make the spectator groan, especially if they’ve actually read Raquel’s book “O Doce Veneno do Escorpião”.

In fact, last Thursday I interviewed a prostitute in Macaé who spared no words in qualifying the film as “trash” specifically because of its “romanticized notion of prostitution as degradation”. “OK,” she said, “yes, there are women strung out on crack and other drugs selling sex. But hell, I’m 44 and entered into the life when I was 40 and I’ve already bought two houses for myself on my earnings. You mean to tell me the Bruna supposedly did all that, got a penthouse apartment and everything, and still didn’t put a single Real away for herself? That’s not how it works”.

But it’s perhaps too early to hope that the cinematographic industry would produce a “true-to-life” pop film about sex work, especially in today’s climate of hysteria regarding trafficking. When it comes to portraying the face of Brazilian sex work, “Bruna Surfistinha“, for all its faults, is a valiant effort and a necessary corrective to 2009’s execrable “Filhas do Sol”, though it’s perhaps not as good as 2008’s indy production :”O Céu de Suely”. With the reservation that showings of the film should be accompanied by readings of Raquel’s book, I can recommend it as a good resource for the professor who wishes to educate regarding sex work in terras brasilis.