I first met Carrie Brownstein 20 years ago. Sleater-Kinney were playing their first New York show, and she and Corin Tucker came up to me, asking if I could write about them for Spin. They weren’t happy with the writer who had been assigned to the story, but even though I loved the band, I couldn’t help them out. (I wrote about them plenty over the following years, of course.) I hadn’t seen Carrie for maybe a decade when the Los Angeles Review of Books asked me to interview her in April, while she was in town for the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Here’s what she had to say, about Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, Transparent, and her book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.
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Shirley Ann McDonnell died peacefully in her sleep at home in Laguna Woods, California, on May 7, 2016, after an almost five-year bout with cancer. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Arthur and Guyla Harrod, she was the youngest of six children. The family moved to Los Angeles during World War II. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Occidental College with a BA and an MA in History, and earned a Master’s in Education from UCLA. She was a lifelong teacher, starting her career at Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale, where she developed a program for gifted students.
Shirley married John McDonnell in 1957 and they had two children, Brett and Evelyn. In 1968 the family moved to Beloit, Wisconsin. Shirley spent most of her career teaching social studies at Hononegah High School in Rockton, Illinois. She won several awards and fellowships for her educational initiatives, which included developing Advanced Placement courses, teaching women’s history, incorporating computers in the classroom, and developing curriculum around immigration, the environment, and racial injustice. She went to the Netherlands as a Fullbright Fellow, to Princeton with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and to North Carolina as a scholar in residence at the National Humanities Center.
After her divorce and retirement, Shirley moved back to Southern California in 1997 to be with her extended family. She lived in Laguna Woods, where she met Gerald Pomeroy, also a retired history teacher, at a dance. They both loved dancing and were involved in the American Ballroom Dance Club. Jerry was at Shirley’s side when she passed.
Shirley loved reading, dancing, aerobics, crossword puzzles, yoga, and movies. On the night before her death, she watched two of her favorite old musicals: Funny Girl and Victor Victoria. As it got late and Jerry suggested going to bed, she slipped into a confused state and replied, “Sure, we can shoot this scene later.” Then, she began talking about costumes. Shirley always wanted to be a musical star, and her family likes to think she went to bed believing she was one, a dream from which she never awoke.
Shirley is survived by her children, Brett and Evelyn, and their spouses Paul Rubin and Bud Shankle; her longtime companion, Gerald Pomeroy; her grandchildren Karlie, Kenda, and Cole Shankle; her brothers Royce and John Harrod and sister-in-laws Colleen and Maria Harrod; and numerous nephews and nieces. During the last months of her life she was well taken care of by nurse Gina Mendoza of Hospice Care West. Her ashes will be taken to Michigan. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Habitat for the Humanity or the National Foundation for Cancer Research.
I am happy to announce that Loyola Marymount University has granted me tenure and promoted me to Associate Professor. Also, on Friday, I was officially elected Director of the Journalism Program.
For my next act, I will go on sabbatical.
A tall woman in a black leather bodysuit flails on the sidewalk in the center of Loyola Marymount University. Kim House wails into a mike. About 50 students form a circle around her, spectating and protecting as the lunachick enacts a fit. Her guitarist and drummer lay down a heavy thrash sound that bounces off the brick and stucco buildings. Kim and the Created are the final act of the first-ever Grrrls on Film festival, and they embody just about everything that has been depicted and discussed over the last three days of screenings and panels: noise, representation, damage, diversity, power, support, expression, transgression, disruption, eruption, punk, feminism. Several of my students are there, and I recognize the light in their eyes: the spark of transformation, the recognition of great talent and also the reflection of themselves in this soul who expunges pain then leaps back on stage, ready to sling a bass over her neck and bang out deep, propulsive vibrations.
In terms of attendance, attention, and smooth operation, Grrrls on Film, held March 18-20, exceeded my expectations. People came from all over LA – a rarity for this Westside campus – and mingled with students and faculty, filling or nearly filling the Mayer Theatre. Thoughtful articles in the LA Weekly, i-D, The Argonaut, Grimy Goods, The Loyolan, Bust, and Los Angeles Magazine, and interviews on KPCC, KPFK, and KXLU, helped spread our message and the works of our featured filmmakers, speakers, and performers. All scheduled guests showed up in a timely manner, and we stayed within our budget. As first-time producers, my colleague/coconspirator Sharon A. Mooney and I breathed several sighs of relief.
But more importantly, I feel like we succeeded on a profound level, in terms of stimulating important discussions about gender, art, and activism; connecting creators to each other; and impacting the lives of young women at a particularly crucial crossroads in their life. Riot Grrrls reunited. Filmmakers from opposite coasts exchanged notes and numbers. Punks addressed difficult parts of their history that had been suppressed for decades: the misogyny, homophobia, and racism that lashed back against their outsider disruptions. Students tweeted their discoveries and discernments. Tweens made videos, and faculty stepped out of their silos to think deep about what it means to be an oppressed group speaking truth to power.
Emotions ran high. The four female filmmakers at the kickassoff Girl Power panel Friday night – Karyn Kusama, Angela Boatwright, Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, and Leena Pandharkar – spoke frankly about the inequities women face in the industry. “The indie world is an economic ghetto,” stated Kusama, maker of Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body and the new The Invitation. “Rather than creating separate programs for women and minorities, why don’t we just hire them,” asked LMU alum Littlejohn.
The festival’s first screening paired two films about coming of age in Los Angeles: Michael Lucid’s 1996 documentary Dirty Girls and Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 feature film The Runaways. Afterwards both filmmakers and two of the subjects of Lucid’s movie, Amber and Harper, answered audience questions. It was an auspicious start: Film students rubbed elbows with veteran directors, as talk of mentoring and hustling filled the air. “We need all your parts, all the oddities,” said Dirty Girl Harper. “Your uniqueness exists only in you, and without it, the world is missing it.”
Saturday offered a movie marathon. It started with the future, via the past: the cyberpunk animation of Golden Chain, followed by lost/reclaimed classic Born in Flames. Filmed in 1983, Born in Flames is a startlingly prescient dystopic film whose imagined prospects offer eerie parallels to today — intimations of Sandra Bland, Occupy Wall Street, and 9/11. Director Lizzie Borden depicts the US 10 years after a peaceful socialist revolution, which (surprise surprise) has done little to improve the lives of women. Feel the Bern? “Myself, I think it would be great to have a woman in the White House,” the filmmaker said in the Q&A afterwards.
All makers of the shorts and features shown at GOF answered questions after the screenings of their movies, including Penelope Spheeris and her daughter, Anna Fox. The screening of Spheeris’s groundbreaking 1981 LA punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization was one of the festival’s most anticipated events, and most controversial. For many people – including myself – when it debuted, Decline immersed us in a punk subculture that provoked and inspired. It has rarely been seen in the decades since, until its release, finally, on DVD and Blu-Ray this past summer. For many people – again, including myself – it has shocked us all over again; the hatred of others that is spewed on screen by white men like Lee Ving of Fear” has not aged well.
The seminal punk musician Phranc saw herself in The Decline of Western Civilization for the first time since it had been shot at the Grrrls on Film screening. Sitting next to her daughter, she was deeply disturbed by the film’s depiction of misogyny, homophobia, and racism. She came back that evening to articulate what her frustrations, hopes, and desires had been as a Jewish lesbian navigating through the nascent punk scene. Phranc was on the LAy of the LAnd: We Will Bury You panel with three other powerful figures of the LA underground: Alice Bag and Nicole Panter (both of whom are also in Decline), and Raquel Guttierez. Their discussion was blunt and historic; “without question the best panel discussion on punk rock I’ve ever had the pleasure to see,” posted punk musician and historian David O. Jones on Facebook afterwards.
Phranc talk: “Any time a woman takes the stage, it tamps down misogyny.”
“You were the thing before you did it,” said Panter, writer and former Germs manager, summing up punk, and the festival’s, DIY spirit. “You didn’t wait for anyone’s stamp of approval.”
Between Decline and We Will Bury You, two vintage, black-and-white shorts by Lucretia Tye Jasmine probed experiences of sexual assault, police violence, slut-shaming, body image, and bulimia – before they were today’s hot-button topics. When such prominent actors as Lex Vaughn, Nao Bustamante, and Jennifer Locke hammed up the unfinished script of Jill Reiter’s In Search of Margo-go, indulging in silly costumes and ‘80s nostalgia, it provided a welcome, hilarious release from a weekend of tough confessions and hard exegeses.
The last films of the festival aired Sunday at noon. Vega Darling’s Lost Grrrls and Abby Moser’s Grrrl Love and Revolution: Riot Grrrl NYC both documented the Riot Grrrl movement that helped swing punk back from an environment of violent exclusion to one of empowered inclusion. The spirit that had been celebrated in movies all weekend came alive at the Grrrls on Stage festival afterward, featuring spoken word by Kari Krome and Sarah Maclay, music by Peach Kelli Pop, Colleen Green, and Kim and the Created, KXLU DJS, host Allison Wolfe, and lots of cool booths. LMU professor Alicia Partnoy spoke and sang, in English and Spanish, about her experience being imprisoned by the Argentine dictatorship in the 1970s, only able to touch her daughter through glass for three years. All-girl roller derby teams skated around Alumni Mall. Kids made fanzines at a table staffed by the William H. Hannon Library. At a table housing three different rock camps for girls, anyone could make their own short music video, with costumes and confetti. The bands crushed it.
I figured that the only thing I was going to feel all weekend was stress and then, hopefully, relief. Instead I too was moved, as I realized I was accomplishing my own mission as a teacher. Thirty years ago I was that young woman writhing in the center of a college campus, only I wasn’t performing. My undergraduate years were one of the most difficult periods of my life, as I struggled to find myself far from a home that was disintegrating, in a class milieu in which I did not fit, stumbling through relationships that made me how little feminism had accomplished in terms of the dynamics of love. At a time that I had been told/sold would be one of the best of my life, when I was supposed to be coming into my own as an adult, I was lost. Every weekend I fled the confines of my Ivy League school and found myself in the local clubs, where bands played loud music and sometimes, sometimes, there were women on stage.
Grrrls on Film was not for everyone — although we were funded and organized by a collaboration between multiple colleges and schools; my colleague Ruben Martinez, moderating the We Will Bury You panel, pointed out that interdisciplinarity is a eight-syllable word. Grrrls on Film was for the student with a disability who was in my office in tears two weeks ago, wrestling with her identity and sexual orientation. It was for the other young woman the following week, who bravely spoke in class about her experience having been sexually assaulted. It was for me, three decades ago, stumbling stoned through my campus, bandanas tied around my wrists to hide fresh scars, looking for connection. “Today I was proud to be a Lion and a woman,” Tweeted one student. In a paper for a film-studies class, another Lion wrote:
“Between both the panel and the screening, I found myself re-thinking about my choice in career path, but not in a bad way. When I told my family and friends that I was going to go into film and attend film school at LMU, some of them thought I was insane. “The industry is dog-eat-dog”, “There’s not a lot of girls on set”, “You want to write?” were a lot of the responses I got. But after listening to these women on the panel speak, hearing what they had to say, if anything, made my passion and fire for working in this industry burn brighter. I want to be able to do my damn best work and put myself out there and TRY in the world of film and TV. I want to prove everyone wrong. I want to be like the women on the panel who campaigned and raised money for their films, who took on a mostly female crew, who fought tooth and nail to get their projects made and who have a career in something they are passionate about and love doing. They have inspired me to work harder and to accomplish my lifelong goals of being in the industry as a writer and an actor. They had discussed how most of them are getting into producing now so that they can have more control over their projects. Producing was something I had never once thought of doing, but after listening to them talk about it and their reasoning behind why they are doing it, I have become incredibly willing to learn more about producing and to have more control over the stories I write and the projects I make. The Grrls On Film events I attended both humbled me and pushed me as a female in film. “
I suppose the greatest compliment a new undertaking can receive is the question, are you going to do this every year? Even before the weekend started, Sharon and I kept hearing that. And no, we will not produce a three-day festival again next year – sorry, we have lives to lead, our own art to make. But we’ll do something, I think. What’s important is not necessarily what we do, but what all those people who came to Grrrls on Film do next. This, I hope, was just the beginning.
On March 5, 1982, Prince played the MetroCentre in Rockford, Illinois. For a 17-year-old high-school senior living in a small Midwestern city, I was pretty savvy about music, but I didn’t know much about the show my older, Chicago-bred boyfriend took me to. This was Prince’s Controversy tour. A few months before, Rolling Stones fans had booed Prince off stage when he opened for the rockers in LA. I remember being in the Rockford bathroom between acts and realizing I was the only white woman in there. Not that it felt weird, or bad, but it marked a moment, when the artist futurely known as the Artist was starting to cross over to integrated audiences – Paul and I and his roommates represented that initial vanguard.
The Time and Zapp with Roger opened. Roger Troutman played the vocoder, and Morris Day was the consummate dapper showman. What can I say, it was a great bill. I was a punk who loved funk and couldn’t have been happier.
And then there was Prince. I had seen Bruce Springsteen for the first time several months earlier, so I knew what a good concert was. But Mr. Nelson took my breath away. Like the Boss, Prince was a showman in the great tradition of James Brown, whipping his band into a tightly controlled frenzy and playing with his audience’s expectations. He was also an amazing guitar player and sang with that playful growl and falsetto. He was so sexy and beautiful in his elfin androgynous tunic and undies. I think I only knew his song “Controversy,” but I don’t think I ever sat down – nor did the rest of the crowd that filled the small arena.
I will never forget the way he made love to his guitar. Prince took the whole concept of the solo and revealed it for what it was: masturbation. He sat with that instrument between his legs and slid his hands up and down the frets, up and down, exaggerating the innuendo of the motion, just wacking the thing off. Then he laid on top of it and ground. It was not only the hottest live sex act I had/have ever seen, it also sounded great. I was transformed, a convert, a fan. In fact that whole experience – adventuring to a show of an artist I knew little about, discovering great talent, going home with my ears ringing and new songs in my head – became my life obsession, my career even.
I saw Prince many times after that: at the Apollo, in a tiny Miami press room previewing the Superbowl half-time, at the Inglewood Forum five years ago. But a girl always remembers her first time, and I’ll never forget that Rockford epiphany.
We’ve lost so many musicians this year; Prince, so young and so hugely important, is the most shocking of all. Rest in Purple.
Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil have made history and song together for more than a half century. In the mid-’60s, they fomented the Tropicalia revolution in their native Brazil. They were imprisoned and exiled for their troubles, an experience documented in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Veloso’s memoir, one of the best and most important music autobiographies you’ll ever read.
The two elder statesmen have reunited for a tour, which brought them to the cavernous Microsoft Theater in LA last night. It was just the two of them and their acoustic guitars on the mammoth stage — two graying septuagenarians — with sometimes the audience joining along. Veloso’s voice in particular gets more hauntingly beautiful every time I see him; he may now be my favorite artist of all time (sorry Bruce). Having been a “soft Brazilian singer” (to borrow a phrase from one of his songs) — albeit one fond of static disruptions and eruptions — his whole life, he hasn’t blown out his cords one bit. If anything, they’ve become more supple, precisely tuned instruments. Gil, the former culture minister, sounds a bit raspier, but when he took the high notes and Caetano the low, the paired melodies took my breath away.
It made me think of a comment Carrie Brownstein had made earlier that day, in her on-stage conversation with LA Times critic Lorraine Ali, at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, about how she and Corin Tucker offer two narratives instead of the usual one as the front people of Sleater-Kinney. Veloso’s and Gil’s narratives have long entwined in a dialogue about race, colonialism, pop culture, and politics. Thinking of a way to explain to others the importance of the show, I thought it’s like seeing Dylan and Marley on stage together — if Dylan could carry a tune. These men are giants, who sing mostly in Portuguese, but also in Spanish and English. And then, sure enough, they closed with Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Maybe I was reading into it, but was the refrain — “Every little thing’s going to be all right” — a message to the many Brazilians in the audience, as their country goes through perhaps the most intense political and economic tumult since the 1960s? The leftist regime that Gil was once a part of is under investigation and attack, in a country whose cultural icons still remember how it felt to be locked up by a military dictatorship.
But that was a subtext in an evening that was all about two of the most beautiful voices you might never hear together again, singing a half-century’s worth of songs of freedom.