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Mar
3
2023

Solomon Brager (contributing writer): It’s a rough time to be a trans person, okay? Every day, it seems like there are new attacks on our access to healthcare and our right to exist. When I need a break from the doom—a moment of trans joy (and messy trans drama) that doesn’t tiptoe around cis scrutiny or try to teach cis people to be better—I usually look for relief in the four-panel, lo-fi Instagram comic Vivian’s Ghost, authored and illustrated by YA novelist and librarian Hal Schrieve.

The comic follows three friends and former lovers, who were all gay trans boys when they met as teenagers: Collin, a classic Brooklyn freelancer with a delightfully messy polyamorous romantic situation; Cathy, a detrans activist on a fertility journey with a nice husband and a dark secret; and Vivian, an ambiguously evil ghost who clings to Collin’s soul and wreaks havoc in the lives of the other characters (I have a developing analysis about the particular dybbuk-like quality of the still-teenage Vivian and his ghostly malice). Antagonizing the group is Leon Donegal, an anti-trans journalist who is “just asking questions,” and just really wants to save the youth. Leon is writing a book, you see, and he wants Cathy and her dead friend Vivian right at the center of his thesis.

Vivian’s Ghost could be seen as a response to the horror show of the New York Times opinion page—if you wanted it to be one—but it’s principally concerned with the lives of trans people and the worlds we create with each other. It’s one of the most substantial and gratifying portraits I’ve ever seen of what it’s like to be a trans youth trying to become a living, breathing, thriving trans adult. The way the comic lays out the delights and horrors of growing up trans on the internet, including an instantly recognizable and deeply moving portrait of romantic teen friendship, is a highlight and a treat. We also end up receiving a real overview of the belief system and strategic machinations of the detrans movement via Leon and Cathy, but the comic goes to great lengths to give us a detrans narrative that is sympathetic without trying to detransition us all. And it depicts its actively transphobic characters with, like, a truly massive amount of nuance while also revealing the bad faith of their bad, very bad works. It’s also incredibly funny, sexy, well-paced, and does a ton with straight-to-page linework art––in short, it’s a delight to read. God, what a relief.

Hal started publishing Vivian’s Ghost online in the spring of 2022, and the new strips quickly became the highlight of my day, returning me to my own extremely-online teenage years, during which I eagerly awaited webcomic posts and LiveJournal updates from cute trans boys. I became deeply grateful for the camaraderie of the VG comments section, and the experience of all of us being there together, waiting for a good trans update in our trans days. Did I basically set upon Hal at our shared shul during the High Holidays to pepper hir with questions about what was next for Vivian? Yes, I did.

I imagine that one day soon Vivian’s Ghost will exist in the world as a collected volume, but for now, it is available via Hal’s Instagram and as four collected PDFs available via pay-what-you-can donation here. Do not skip the delightful side plot, “When Collin F*cked Ronnie’s Rabbi.”

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): In the climactic monologue of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s two-part masterpiece from the early 90s, Prior Walter, who has been chosen by God’s abandoned angels to carry a prophecy of stasis, refuses the message. “We can’t just stop,” he says. Angels is something of a personal bible, and yet this very important line is one I’ve come to question over the years. In the age of climate catastrophe and rapid technological transformation, where it seems a lot of our problems might be solved by at least slowing down, Prior’s assertion feels, frankly, dated. These days, it hits my ears almost as apologetics. This is human nature; nothing can be done. But of course something must be done. And it might involve stopping.

In some ways, Agnes Borinsky’s The Trees, at Playwright’s Horizons until March 19th, is a perfect rejoinder to Prior. At the risk of “spoiling” something that happens five minutes in: Two casually estranged siblings, David and Sheila (Jess Barbagallo and Crystal A. Dickinson), wake up from a drunken evening sleeping en plein air to find themselves literally rooted in place—like trees. If I recall correctly, David utters a version of Prior’s line: we can’t just stop. But they have no choice.

The play unfolds as a kind of meditation on what it means to stop, what kinds of ecosystems can blossom in the presence of rootedness. In their immobility, the siblings are newly vulnerable and requiring of care, which in turn creates the conditions for a different kind of community to form around them. By the end, I was thoroughly moved by the depiction of this community, the way it responded to very real threats with a kind of slow and defiant being. It reminded me a little of the Palestinian value of “sumud,” steadfastness—a form of nonviolent resistance carried out largely by staying put, continuing on.

Another note to recommend The Trees: While it seems as though David and Sheila might be Jewish in some vague and attenuated way, there are two very explicitly Jewish characters in The Trees. (One, a rabbi, comes onstage holding a first generation Jewish Currents tote! Reader: I nearly died!) I’m always on guard when Jewish characters appear where I’m not expecting them—especially in work by Jewish artists—as these characters are so often kitschy comic relief, Jewishness as the joke. This is one of the best depictions of Jewishness on stage I’ve seen in a while; the characters feel Jewish without it having to be overperformed or telegraphed. They are not played for laughs or for pathos; they are not explicitly connected to grand narratives of Jewish suffering, but rather—like everyone else—to the intimate, little suffering of everyday life.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema began yesterday at Lincoln Center, and runs until March 12th. I would like to talk, too briefly, about some of the films that shouldn’t be missed.

Arnaud Desplechin’s Brother and Sister is the centerpiece of the festival, and the equal of any of the previous works by this stellar director. Featuring remarkable performances by Melvil Poupaud and Marion Cotillard, it’s a film about sibling hatred gone mad. While it seems to be hinted at late in the film, we’re never explicitly told the source of the animosity, and that’s precisely the point: Sibling hatred needs no reason. The brother and sister must navigate death and illness, even as they can’t be in the same city, much less cooperate or sympathize with each other under such stressful circumstances. The depths of their hatred is, of course, the mirror of their former love, and Desplechin and his cast express all these complexities brilliantly.

Philippe Faucon’s Les Harkis follows a battalion of Harkis, Algerians who served in the French army during Algeria’s war for independence. The post-independence lot of the Harkis, tens of thousands of whom were killed in free Algeria, is a black mark on the French, who left them behind after promising never to abandon them. The film sets itself a very difficult dask—how do you make the fate of these men, collaborators in a war against their own people, sympathetic?—and succeeds. It’s an excellent but morally troubling history lesson.

On a radically different note, Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing—a wonderfully absurdist comedy about a team of superheroes who use the different carcinogenic elements of a cigarette to kill villains by giving them cancer—was the funniest film I’ve seen in months. The superheroes of the Tobacco Force are told to go on a team-building retreat, which is interrupted by members of the squad and random others, including a barracuda in the process of being fried, telling scary stories. Dupieux, who previously made a comic crime film in which the murderer was a loose rubber tire, is no stranger to comedies with a tenuous relationship to reality. Smoking Causes Coughing is utterly ridiculous and hysterically funny. If you miss it here, it’s due for commercial release on March 31st.

Before you go!

We’re seeking letters to the editor in response to our Rest issue! Send us your thoughts about our responsa, which explores anti-work politics and the meaning of Shabbat; the Fayer Collective’s manifesto from the threatened Atlanta forest; Bench Ansfield’s essay on “burnout,” which returns the term to its origins in landlord arson; or any other piece that struck you. We’re also interested in responses to the issue as a whole: Was there anything in its approach to rest you found unexpected or provocative, restorative or illuminating? Responses to the accompanying coloring book are also welcome. Please submit letters of about 250 words to editor@jewishcurrents.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

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