Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reactions to Girls and Breaking Bad: Auteur TV, White Privilege, and Gender

After the most recent episode of Girls, “Beach House,” I've started to wonder if I'm watching the show wrong. I knew that there was a lot of hate for the show, but this season more than ever I wonder if the show itself wants me to hate its characters and, by extension, only enjoy the show when other characters are criticizing the girls or they're lighting into each other, in both cases as proxies for “the audience.”

Even though with every season, and this season with every episode, I'm less sure how to respond to the show, I'll say this for it: it's a radical experiment in tone. It's common for sitcoms to feature protagonists that you love to hate, from the lowbrow Archie Bunker to the highbrow Frasier Crane and from the cast of Seinfeld to innumerable British sitcom examples. The way it works is that you know the character or characters are loathsome but you enjoy watching them out of what's basically sadism (play is the only thing that distinguishes comedy from sadism, as Northrop Frye put it): you enjoy watching them make themselves and others suffer, and often enjoy their outrageousness while they do it. This is not the same trope, by the way, as the socially incorrect character in a group comedy, who wins the audience's love, without any hate, by doing and saying things you aren't supposed to do and say, even though the creators may intend him (it's usually him) as a criticism of what they're portraying: Alex P. Keaton, Barney Stinson, and, of course, the greatest of them all, Bender on Futurama. Sheldon Cooper is this type as well, although he's not a criticism of anything but rather a representation of a popular idea of autism.

The first thing that makes Girls different is that it doesn't seem to have won any love-hate for its characters: as one can plainly see all over the internet, a vocal portion of its audience just hates them, period, as if those viewers are watching a reality TV show where they can't find any characters to root for (except the men a little, sometimes). The second thing that makes it different is that Dunham and co. then ask us to sympathize with the characters anyway in their trials with relationships, jobs, their friendships, body image, mental health, etc., making far more soap operatic (and dramatic) demands on the viewer's emotions than most sitcoms. When sitcoms go into dramatic territory they usually change their tone to do it, and become sentimental, but Girls is never sentimental, and when it goes dramatic it just goes even darker than the comedy.

I continue to basically sympathize with the main characters, Hannah and Marnie, because I can identify with them as social types, and as the show goes on it starts to seem like they are two sides of one woman (their creator presumably). Shosh and Jessa are the “zanies”: Jessa is The Bender, the straight-up sociopath who's easy to love because, being rich, she gets away with everything and doesn't call for a complicated reaction; Shosh is The Phoebe, who seems like a ditz from another dimension most of the time but has a harder edge than any other member of the group and is the only one who'll let them know what morons they are. What's interesting about Jessa is that she's not, as she so easily could be, just a portrayal of a rich bitch who takes people's lives apart because of her own boredom, emptiness, unhappiness, and immunity to consequences. The show allows her to be that but also to be occasionally wise, although as with its other resident wise character, Adam, it's hard to know where the wisdom stops and the bullshit begins.

Girls, Awkward Black Girl, and Women's Fiction

Ray, we learned last week, thought he was “too wise for grad school,” definitely an example of bullshit masquerading as wisdom. Neither wise nor sociopathic, Ray has transformed from his humble beginnings as Charlie's bitches-hating homeboy into the show's heart, and a lot of credit for that must surely go to the marvellous Alex Karpovsky, who manages to make the most assholish things his character has to say seem to come from a place of sensitivity and pain. The show's writing needs more actors like this, who can bring the sense of a whole human being to the often one-note meanness of the dialogue.

In Season 3, more than ever, it feels like the two remaining main male characters are emotional ballasts for Hannah and Marnie, now that Adam's post-Hannah tailspin is in the past. Early in the first season, Hannah fantasized out loud about wanting to have AIDS; this was a fantasy about having no responsibility, so that no one could ask or expect anything from you and could only take care of you. In the second season she had a new version of that fantasy, with Patrick Wilson as her rich and handsome caregiver. By the end of the season she was living it out in a different way by becoming very, very ill, and although Adam coming to her rescue (she shuts out Marnie and she's abandoned by Jessa) seemed, at the beginning of Season 3, like only a momentary solution after all, the fantasy continues beneath the surface. I get that Dunham wants to make the point that female friendships aren't always like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, just like she wants to make the point that everyone doesn't have a Victoria's Secret body, but instead of counselling self-reliance as the alternative to placing destructive expectations on your friendships, she seems to counsel reliance on men (or, at least, on romantic relationships). Make no mistake, the climactic line of the big “Beach House” argument, Hannah's “I miss my boyfriend,” wasn't just a slap in Marnie's face, it was an Oedipal knife in the heart of Mama Feminism.

In my last post I talked about how the kind of privileged white girlness shown on Girls and its simultaneous celebration and critique can be traced back at least to Jane Austen's Emma, and Anne Helen Peterson LA Review of Books piece on Marnie, subtitled “Pretty Girl Privilege,” backs up my point while failing to recognize that “The Marnie” is not a type of real person but rather a trope of fiction. And it's fascinating, and a little disheartening, to see the extent to which cutting-edge women's fiction of the early 21st century relies on tropes that were used by Austen in the early 19th century. The Austenian core of Girls is the reason that the male love interests are more mature, older-acting (remember Adam's “Kid” nickname for Hannah) or actually older than the girls, and often take a tutelary stance towards them, which includes speaking criticism to privilege. This does not preclude sometimes siding with the “unruly” girls and finding the “grown-up” men tedious, as I suggested that you could when watching the “Dead Inside” episode. I also, however, tried to make a comparison between the men's finger-wagging attitude in that episode and Skyler's relationship with Walter in Breaking Bad, but that was a really big stretch. Fans of Breaking Bad will let you know that when women call men on their bullshit, it's “nagging” and “being a bitch,” while the hate-watchers of Girls (who can be found, for example, in the comments section of The AV Club, under the thoughtful and sensitive weekly reviews of Todd VanDerWerff) will let you know that when men criticize women, it's calling them on their bullshit.

Hannah dreams of a Mr. Darcy that looks like Patrick Wilson, but gets a sort of Heathcliff/Mr. Rochester brooding Gothic weirdo/soul mate, who, in Season 2, stalks her like Caspar Goodwood. But Marnie, who's way more of an Emma than Hannah is an Elizabeth, gets a proper Mr. Knightley in Ray. I mean, surely today Mr. Knightley would be a Classics Ph.D. drop-out-turned-coffee shop manager. And this young-ditzy-woman/older-wise-man love relationship ideal may even be conscious on the part of Dunham, who's namechecked Clueless as being among her influences.

The tropes of Austen, or perhaps one should just say women's fiction as it has been since at least the 19th century, also seem to haunt Issa Rae's addictive web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. When the show begins, the heroine, J, has two problems that most of us have experienced: she's single and she hates her job. In the first season, she's coached by her best friend to find love, which results in a whole season where she must try to choose between two men, Jay White, whom she nicknames “White Jay” for obvious reasons, and her black co-worker Fred. At the end of the first season, she realizes which man she really wants in an Elizabeth Bennet-style epiphany. But there are no real obstacles to the eventual relationship, not even J's own psychology. The who-will-she-choose suspense is generated entirely by the serial format: as befitting the microscopic storytelling of the webisode, the tropes of Awkward Black Girl are in their simplest and most basic form (the inventiveness and originality come into play with the comedy and the POV). What fascinates me is how compelling they are in that form.

George Eliot's Pretty Girls Issues

More even than Emma Woodhouse, in “Pretty Girl Privilege” Petersen is describing a Gwendolen Harleth:

There are Marnies all over the contemporary media, they just get everything that we've been conditioned to expect their looks, class, and education level meriting: outrageous success, perfect happiness.... The implicit message of these Marnies? If you work hard - if you have great hair – you will get the things to which you are entitled. The job, the boy, the body, all yours, simply through the force of your American will. You don't have to have charisma, per se, or even superlative, well, anything – you just have to let things happen.... You're a pretty, skinny, moderately intelligent girl, and every piece of media you've consumed has told you that your life would go one way.

Seriously, did Petersen have the heroine of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda in the back of her mind when she wrote this? And was she thinking of Harold Bloom's “Heroines of the Protestant Will,” a banner under which he includes Gwendolen as well as Emma and Elizabeth, when she wrote the phrase “your American will”? Eliot, who was beauty, had some deep-seated pretty girl issues that she took out on Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, whose vapid social climbing and overspending ruin the idealistic genius husband with whom she's grievously mismatched, and on Gwendolen, who learns, in Petersen's words about Marnie:

Only WAIT A SECOND, that's all bullshit, because American is neither a meritocracy nor a prettitocracy: it's all about connections, and no one in New York cares if you went to Oberlin and your mom has a solid upper middle class job as a real estate agent in New Jersey. Marnie spent so much of her life thinking that things would work out when she graduated that she forgot to actually become something.

To translate this into the terms of Eliot's Victorian novel: in ways that Simone de Beauvoir would understand perfectly, Gwendolen has been warped into a pathological narcissist (and neurotic) by being treated all of her life as perfect because she's, precisely, “pretty, skinny, moderately intelligent,” oh and rich, and she has been given her way in everything. She has been celebrated for who she is, immanently, without ever having to become anything, since it was never expected that she would have to be anything other than a socialite. When she learns that she's no longer rich, she at first thinks that she can support herself and her mother using one of her minor accomplishments, singing, and asks for the appraisal of an expert, who informs her that she has neither skill nor talent – a little like Marnie's YouTube video experience.

Girls is dealing with the echoes of these privileged white girl tropes from 19th century fiction even though, as I suggested in my last post, the circumstances that created the tropes have changed. Marnie has not been brought up to think that she will never have to earn a living, but she has, more vaguely and insidiously, been brought up to think, as Petersen says, that she will be a success. Because it can be deduced from her whiteness, prettiness, skinniness, and economic privilege that she will be a success, she has never had to work hard at developing any particular skill, including singing. And now she has to face the fact – if any of the girls were able to face any facts – that she is ordinary. Yet surely it's that sense of entitlement, that indomitable, irrational sense that she is better than all of this, better than her circumstances, that makes her attractive to Ray? 

It's interesting to compare the ways in which white girls feel entitled to the ways in white guys feel entitled, and the different reactions their privilege receives. Todd VanDerWerff wrote a piece for Salon on white male privilege in Breaking Bad in which his description of Walter White's entitlement sounds a lot like Petersen's description of Marnie's:

Walt's justifications for why he should have what he wants stem almost entirely from believing that he's owed in some way, that the universe has screwed him over. Yet when the series begins, he has a pretty good life. He has a beautiful wife, a loving son, a baby on the way, and a house with a swimming pool. Maybe he doesn't like either of his jobs, but who does? And when he gets cancer, old friends who feel a debt to him offer to pay for the treatments. Yet all Walt needs is the slightest provocation to look around himself, reach out for anything within reach, and cry out, "I want that!" like a spoiled toddler. 

Since writing my last post it occurred to me that a white girl defending white girls (“We're not all upper middle class! And even those who are have problems too!”) was as hypocritical and ludicrous as the white guys who whine about the bad name they seem to have with women and non-whites. And yet although it should be the same thing, in the context of premium cable TV viewing, bizarrely, it's not, because no one is hate-watching Breaking Bad, or any other TV show, in order to seethe and rail at the examples of white male privilege on display and to wait for those moments when the women call the men on their bullshit. On the contrary, the seething and railing going on are against any criticism of the show, or not the show (because VanDerWerff thinks it's self-aware), but rather Walter White himself, by fans, as one can see in the comments on the piece. It's hysterical hero-worship of Kurt Cobain intensity – and every Cobain, or stricken king, needs a Courtney/Yoko/Skyler. The show may be self-aware, but at the mythic level it's structurally misogynous.

White male privilege, as Walter White shows, involves thinking you're owed a fortune for your super-competence, while white female privilege (as we'd call it if we weren't stuck on that quasi-reclaimed pejorative “girl”), as demonstrated by Marnie, involves thinking you're owed the perfect life for your attractive appearance. Hannah Horvath (yay for TV protagonists with same-consonant-initials!), on the other hand, does think she's potentially a genius, but of course that's just more privilege and “self-absorption.” White women also, one notes, do not, as a trope, react to not getting what they think they're owed in life with a rage rampage, presumably because until recently, women had to get what they wanted in life through a husband or lovers. In noir, the trope is that if she couldn't get what she wants through her husband, she has to use her lover to get rid of the husband for her. She can't act directly but must always act by proxy. Even Scarlett O'Hara, the most direct and action-oriented of all the privileged white girls of fiction (she even get to shoot a man to protect her household), is forced to marry her sister's beau in order to save Tara since she can't just go into business for herself.

Up to this point, most TV, like most European and American fiction, has been about white privilege. Auteur TV seems to be calling attention to this in a new way, maybe because educated people are taking it seriously enough to analyze it, and maybe because it reflects the fantasies of a mostly affluent viewership more directly and visibly/audibly (through vivid cultural discussion and colourful internet commentary) than contemporary fiction does. These fantasies at the moment revolve around the idea of a broken-down economy and the sun setting on America and the American promise: the heirs and heiresses of all the ages growing up to discover that the fortune they thought would be theirs has been lost. And yet, somehow, we only get mad at the girls for their expectations. I do understand that this hatred of “bratty” white girls is the flip side of our purely symbolic overvaluation of them, which has been critically investigated, and simultaneously promulgated, in Anglo-American literature, movies, and TV from Clarissa Harlowe to Daisy Buchanan to Melanie Daniels to Laura Palmer.

Girls is a more subtle a show than it sometimes seems, and “Beach House” was very much the answer to “One Man's Trash” from last season, this time focused on Marnie and her fantasies instead of Hannah and hers. In both cases, a beautiful house that does not belong to the Girls, whose material splendour is emotionally reassuring (like the manor houses in Austen), plays a central role in the episode. But while Hannah gets her perfect couple of days, isolated from the rest of the world and her concerns, with one perfect man entirely focused on her, and only punctures the fantasy towards the end, Marnie isn't allowed the private “healing time” that she wants to her friends, largely due to Hannah's resistance. Hannah's fantasy is to be taken care of, even to the point, in the words of Jane Bowles, where “everything is taken off your hands and you flop around like a baby.” Marnie's fantasy is to be surrounded by friends who love her, or, failing that, to convey the image of it on Instagram. Although I wouldn't go as far as Chuck Bowen, who, in a lovely review on the Slant blog, calls Marnie “the center of Girls's empathetic imagination,” there's no doubt that the episode imbues her with a certain pathos: she's a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway whose recalcitrantly real friends (in a strain of Dunham's imagination that's been with the show from the beginning) just won't get on board with her aesthetic vision of the perfect moment.

I suggested in my V. C. Andrews post that very young women who are still in the process of forming their own opinions pick up the cultural signals that tell them to devalue women and obey them with the ferocity of zealots. I hear that same voice in comments and on blog posts in which female viewers criticize the characters on Girls for their narcissism, self-absorption, selfishness, privilege, and so on and so forth. Again, I just don't see young men watching shows about young men who do not live up to the cultural ideal of what men should be in order to berate the characters for their non-compliance, although maybe that's happening in some corner of popular culture that I'm not aware of. If Marnie and Hannah are two sides of one woman, they're Superego and Id, or the woman you're supposed to be and the woman who rebels (to the point of spending an entire episode/day in a green bikini that exhibits her ample cellulite to the world) against being that woman. And here's one genuine point of connection between Breaking Bad and Girls besides all of the white privilege: they're locked in a love-hate combat as brutal as Walt and Jesse's. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vogue-Jezebel Lena Dunham Dust Up

So we all know by now that the popular feminist site Jezebel offered $10, 000 for the unretouched photos from Lena Dunham's shoot for this month's issue of Vogue. If you cared about that, you will also have learned that Jezebel's readership did not take kindly to what they interpreted as mean-girling, concern-trolling, anti-woman click bait. It may have been a sad day for pop feminism when Jezebel posted that article, but it became a happy day when the readership decided they wouldn't put up with it. And surely it's the least we can ask from feminism that it not do anything that can be interpreted as bullying and shaming a woman who's in the public eye. Or at any rate, isn't it kind of sweet that we develop these protective feelings towards female celebrities when we think they've taken too much shit – from men and women, critics and internet trolls? It almost seems like there's a wave of girl-bashing every few months, followed by the backlash. And I've jumped to the defense of them all over the years: Courtney, Britney, Amy, Lana, Miley. I even watched The Simple Life, and thought it was pretty funny.

There's always an “it” girl, someone we can't stop talking about, that we're obsessed with as a culture. We ogle, we nitpick, attack her appearance, laugh at her if she's supposed to be dumb, dismiss her as a “hipster” if she's smart. She's not the girl that everyone can agree to like, who's often presented as her opposite, like Lorde and Miley Cyrus, as if all women come in contrasting pairs, a Good Example and a Bad Example. The “it” girl phenomenon is perhaps partly the result of pop culture being pretty much wall-to-wall men (with eye candy hanging on the walls*), so that we can only think about one woman at a time, and partly the result of the general public (or mostly women?) projecting soap opera narratives onto the private lives and psyches of female celebrities in a way we just don't for men. The backlash is the result of men and women needing to decide on what represents acceptable femininity. If I say “I like this girl” or “I don't like this girl,” it is momentous, because I'm deciding on the kind of woman I want to be; and whatever side I choose, you can be sure I think I'm righteous, because of how, you know, civilization itself is at stake.

This is sort of a companion piece to my post on the David Gilmour PR fiasco. Anyway, I've pulled out the numbered list again. 

I'm Thinking of a Woman Called Jezebel, Who Did Evil in the Sight of God...”

1. Lena Dunham is an ordinary-looking woman, say some. Or, is she a hideous beast? According to others. Or is she in fact a better-than-average-looking woman? Which, I'd contend (like Bette Davis before her – or is Judy Garland the better comparison?), in some ways she is. She has celebrity charisma and an appealing clown face, excellent (as well as her slumped clown body) for comedy, that reminds me above all of Giulietta Masina.

2. Jezebel was trying to humiliate her by scrutinizing the appearance flaws in her unretouched photos. Or – Jezebel didn't think they're flaws. They thought that Vogue thought they were flaws. Jezebel thinks she looks fine without retouching! Only none of the commenters believe that. But does that mean that they think Dunham is a hideous beast, or that they think that Jezebel thinks that, whereas they think that Dunham looks fine? Is it possible for anybody to come out of this without admitting that they don't think Dunham looks fine?

3. Is it different to compare before-and-after photos of models or sex symbols and to do it with Dunham? Is is ever valiant to educate the public by showing the unrealistic standards to which the media holds women's appearance? Relatedly, in the episode of Girls where Hannah finds out her e-book editor died, I got the fullest view of Dunham's body in a while, standing up in nothing but panties, with nothing obscuring it, and I was surprised to see that she's bigger than I remembered, or thought she was from viewing her clothed figure. BUT. Take a look at Catherine Deneueve in Belle de Jour (1967), when she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. By today's toned, retouched, and implanted standards, she's chunky and small-breasted. THEN AGAIN. Check out Cary Grant in his shirtless scene in North by Northwest (1959). Half a century ago, that was fan service for the ladies, but by today's cruel standards, he looks skinny, saggy-breasted, and undefined. (He's also got a real Dunhamesque case of slope-shoulders.)

Not good enough!

4. Also, please note, people, that even the greatest beauties in history have facial flaws that were removed from sight so that their beauty could enter the realm of art and fantasy, where it rightfully belonged. Did you want to see Vivien Leigh play Scarlett O'Hara with a moustache? Even if it would make you feel better about your own femmestache? (Saw the before and afters in a book on Gone With the Wind. Also removed: eyebags. That was a long and stressful shoot.)

5. Why this idea by both Jezebel and some of Dunham's defenders in the comments that the unretouched photos show what she “really” looks like? There's no “really looks like” to a photo. A photo can be flattering or unflattering, depending on lighting and angles. On top of which some people are photogenic and some are not despite being attractive in person. I sure hope my worst “somebody tagged you” Facebook photos aren't what I “really look like.” On the other hand, there is such a thing as retouching beyond recognition, or to the point of inhuman flawlessness.

6. It's not exactly that male celebrities are allowed to be more flawed. Things like wrinkles aren't considered flaws on men; they lend gravitas, which is considered attractive in men, whereas women are supposed to always look like they did at peak baby-making time. I'm sure that nevertheless magazines retouch the hell out of pictures of male celebrities, they just get to leave certain things in. And we're used to seeing a greater variety in men's appearance in the media, from exceptionally handsome to average to sloppy, because the role of women in the media is still largely to be eye candy for men, and if they are also actors, or singer-songwriters, or comedians, they are still expected to be eye candy on top of that.

7. Is Dunham a hypocrite? Is she's all for body positivity, why appear in evil Vogue, which conspires to hold women to an impossible ideal? Well, I hope it's because Lena Dunham loves Vogue. I certainly did as a teenager and in my early 20s, back when I emulated current high fashion on a budget by shopping in thrift stores. After I stopped expressing my creativity through my clothing, I also stopped buying fashion magazines; the Dunham cover is the first time I've picked one up in maybe a decade. I was more interested in the clothes than in the models, although I loved Kate Moss like everyone else. But there's nothing wrong with beauty. And while it would be great to see Vogue expand its notion of beauty a little (beyond “anorexic 19-year-old”), photo retouching has not become oppressive for women because of the fashion magazines, but because everywhere in the media women are held to that standard.

8. Speaking of Kate Moss, unleashed photo retouching has allowed supermodels to have careers that go on forever and ever. This is good for the models, but not so good for women in general, since the effect is that, more than ever, we're not allowed to age.

9. The effect of all of this is that we have actually forgotten what real women look like. And I don't mean some ideal “real woman,” who is somehow more “essentially womanly” because she's heavier-set, say. I mean “real woman” as opposed to a made-up media ideal. And a lot of the Dunham hate coming from men on the internet is because men, too, have been brainwashed into thinking that women ought to look like women on TV, in movies, in magazines, and in ads... oh and porn. And yes, that has to stop, and on her show, Dunham is trying to help put a stop to it. We, men and women, have to be able to look at a physically imperfect woman in the media without freaking out and thinking she's a monster.

10. Carol Burnett was a funny-looking comedian. Did she take this much crap, or was there a time when women didn't have to be hawt to be on TV? What about Mayim Bialik over on The Big Bang Theory? My impression is that she's a very popular character, and while the show sometimes calls attention to the fact that she's less hawt than the two other main female characters, it never makes her the butt of jokes based on her looks, and she is definitely presented as sexually viable (albeit also frustrated because she's dating the asexual Sheldon). Why does she get away with playing a female nerd, and Dunham doesn't? Conversely, why don't we hear about everything that Bialik is doing for female body image?

Rocking the cardie for comedy

11. I understand that by confronting us with her naked body a lot on Girls, Dunham is desensitizing us to what a real woman's body looks like, and that's a good thing. That said, I don't necessarily want to see imperfect naked male bodies on TV, either. For example, I have a big crush on Jason Schwartzman which I'm pretty sure would only be negatively impacted by constantly seeing him undressed on a TV show. Yes, we're used to seeing a lot of average-looking men on TV, but then again, George Costanza kept his clothes on**. Well, mostly.

Ilu, and because ilu, I will try to forget I saw this

Naked for comedy. I can never forget I saw this

12. This idea we have, by the way, that you can't say or imply that a woman is less than lovely without causing irreparable psychological damage and being a brute – where does that come from? It seems to have been behind the irate reaction of Dunham's producers to a reporter who questioned her about her nudity on Girls, another Dunham story that was all over the internet recently. Dunham goes out of her way to look awful on Girls, while cleaning up nicely in her (public) private life and making an effort to look pretty, because, some women (obviously not Hannah Horvath) like to do that sometimes. It's a sad day for a comedian when your fans and even your producers feel that they have to jump in and reassure you that you're beautiful all of the time. Pretty sure Jason Alexander does not inspire, or require, this reaction, or Woody Allen. And all it does is reinforce the idea that appearance and desirability are a woman's most important attributes.

13. Likewise, every time someone reacts to criticism of Dunham's appearance by objecting, “But Lena Dunham isn't ugly – she's cute!” or “But Lena Dunham isn't fat – she's average!”, my immediate thought is, “Well then, what about the women who are ugly and are fat. Do they not deserve to be represented in the media? And would they deserve the hateful attacks that you are saying Dunham does not because she's not?” The media is always going to be a place where pretty people thrive, but when a female entertainer isn't permitted to look any other way, even if the departure is as minor as it is in the case of “Hollywood Homely” Dunham, that's a problem.

Internalization and Defiance

Incessant criticism of one's appearance can be psychologically damaging to a female celebrity, however. Look at Judy Garland. Look at Courtney Love, although her examination of cultural expectations of female beauty was so intense and personal that her plastic surgery just seems like an extension of it. Look at Amy Winehouse. Bette Davis weathered it out and took advantage of the acting opportunities it gave her, and the opportunity to be taken seriously as an actor, but she so frequently made herself appear grotesque that you know she took it to heart. Katharine Hepburn, however, an actress criticized by the Hollywood moguls for her “sexlessness” and the general public for her privilege and the confidence and eccentricity that went with it, came equipped with enough narcissism that she seemed impervious to the first kind of criticism, at least. I strongly advise any Hepburn fans to check out the fascinating, prickly Dick Cavett interview, where, early on, the elderly Hepburn repeatedly insists that he check out a picture of her taken for a play as a half-naked teenage hottie, a picture so smouldering that, she claims, it launched her in Hollywood.

I assume it's this one.

However, Hepburn did seem to internalize the public's criticism of her personality, to the extent that she commissioned a play from Philip Barry that would humble her persona and therefore, she hoped, finally make her a popular actress. The self-abasement worked, but this aspect of The Philadelphia Story still makes fans of the original, uncompromised Hepburn cringe. To judge by the new season of Girls, Dunham seems to be internalizing the criticism directed at her in a different way: instead of trying to appease her critics, she defiantly keeps making Hannah Horvath more and more unlikable. Which I find a bit of a shame, because I never understood why Hannah was supposed to be unlikable in the first place. In her cadences, her irony, her articulate, paragraph-long observations and reports on her inner life, Hannah reminded me of girls I knew in university, fellow English students – the kind of girl I'd want to be friends with the moment I heard her and took in her wonderful, awful fashion sense. The kind of girl I was. 

I'm so predisposed to empathize with this character type that Hannah's flashes of unmistakable sociopathy still feel OOC to me, and when the other characters gang up on her, as in "Dead Inside," and try to browbeat her into conforming to social norms, I side with her the way I used to side with Oscar the Grouch against the sanctimonious adults on Sesame Street when I was three. "Adults" on this show are often the regular male characters, Adam and Ray (who is in fact significantly older than the girls); they, in any case, see themselves as adults, and talk like adults, although Ray can't pull his own life together and Adam is capable of egregious interpersonal misjudgments, to say the least. In that respect they serve a killjoy role a little bit like the Skyler one (a very little bit) on Breaking Bad, scolding the girls for their bad behaviour; as men, however, they also represent the norm that the girls are passively-aggressively rebelling against. 

"Very Little to Distress or Vex Her"

Dunham's not just any other “it” girl, or controversial, Courtney-like hate-magnet. Her genealogy traces back through Hepburn to Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, the seminal privileged white girl of Anglo-American fiction, who irritates readers because of the confidence and narcissism that her sheltered life has given her. That confidence, however, is the reason that, to use Lionel Trilling's sexist phrasing, she is one of the rare heroines of fiction who “has a moral life like a man”; which is to say that she sees herself as the protagonist of her life, and she has enough power that her morally incorrect decisions have consequences for others. Dunham, however, isn't pretty enough to be an Emma – but she'd make a great Elizabeth Bennet, who's not supposed to have much going for her in the looks department except “a fine pair of eyes.” Maybe Patrick Wilson would like to play Darcy?

Bizarrely, some of the hatred directed at Girls by some media commentators seems to derive from the archaic idea that privileged white girls are the most useless human beings on the planet, parasites (because this idea was born in a world where women could do nothing with their lives except marry) who nevertheless think of themselves as the height of human perfection because they've been raised to believe that the world revolves around them. It can't possibly be that the girls of Girls are self-absorbed, petty sitcom characters like any other self- absorbed, petty sitcom characters – like the Seinfeld characters, say, or the central characters on any number of British sitcoms, like Peep Show, or for that matter, Absolutely Fabulous. (Joanna Lumley's Patsy is surely what Jessa is going to grow up to be.) 

No, because they're young girls from privileged upbringings, they must be “princesses,” towards whom we must direct a special hatred to compensate for all of the undeserved love we think they must have been given. Including all of that undeserved love from critics, since depending who you ask, Girls is either the most hated or the most overrated show on television.

Besides, if shows that ask the viewer to sympathize with the trials of privileged white people are the problem, go complain about Downton Abbey. Seriously.

* The argument can also be made that the relative lack of celebration of male beauty and the male body in our male-gaze-assuming, heteronormative culture is bad for men in all kinds of ways, while "metrosexuality" is in some ways a gain for men. Of course it can, and if you want to see how it can, check out the fascinating writings of my friend Mark Simpson

**On the other hand, if you want to know what male privilege was like in the bad old days, when it was assumed without question that the only value a woman had was her desirability to men, a while back on the Facebook Film Forum, someone posted a link to some "off the record" interviews with Orson Welles from which the press had pulled his remark about Bette Davis that he couldn't watch her movies because he couldn't stand to look at her. To which I replied, "I wonder how she felt about looking at Orson Welles."

Sunday, January 26, 2014

V. C. Andrews, Family Romance, and the Aesthetics of Adolescent Shame

Dolly Haze, Meet Cathy Dollanganger

A middle-aged man boarding in a widow's house, Humbert Humbert, becomes infatuated with her 12-year-old daughter, and when the widow is killed in a car accident takes advantage of the opportunity to kidnap the daughter with the intention of raping her. After becoming lovers they settle in another town, posing as father and daughter, until the girl tires of his possessiveness and escapes with the help of another older man who is infatuated with her. They split up after he tries to involve her in pornography and she ends up married, pregnant, and poor. Humbert helps her out with money, but she dies in childbirth at the age of 17.

This, as everyone knows, is the plot of Nabokov's Lolita (1955), considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

After losing her husband in a car accident, Corrine Dollanganger, a beautiful young widow reveals to her children that their family is fabulously wealthy and that she will be taking them to her grandparents' mansion, Foxworth Hall. They arrive at night and are taken to a far-off room leading to the attic, as well as meeting their grandmother, a terrifying Bible-thumper who makes no secret of hating them. Corrine explains that her sternly religious parents' disapproved of her marriage to their father because he was her half-uncle, and that they will have to stay in the room for a few days or weeks, until she wins her father over. The “few days” turn into months and then years of waiting for the old man to die, during which their mother appears less and less frequently. The children can only play in the attic, which they decorate to resemble a garden. The monotony of their existence is broken up by surprise visits from the Grandmother, who spies on them and doles out whippings and other torture for disobedience or any hint of sexuality. The growth of the two younger children is stunted because they are never outdoors, while the two older children go through puberty and, with no one else around, develop a romance. Meanwhile, their mother gets remarried, to a man who knows nothing about them. When one of the young twins dies, from pneumonia according to their mother, Cathy and Christopher resolve to finally escape. When they see that their dead brother's pet mouse died after eating one of the powdered-sugar donuts that has been added to the picnic basket recently, they realize that they're being poisoned. Worse, they deduce that the poisoner is not their grandmother but their mother, having learned that the grandfather added a codicil to their will that she will forfeit her inheritance if it's proved that she had children from her first marriage.

This, as everyone knows (though perhaps not in all cases the same “everyone” who knows about Lolita), is the plot of V. C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic (1979), which is set in the 1950s upon which Lolita is often presumed to pass scathing commentary. Whereas both Lolita and Flowers critique the nuclear family and the cheerful, suburban American ideal that conceals its secret passions, Lolita also criticizes the kitsch of American existence – tacky hotels and slangy, gum-snapping teens. Both novels are also first-person narratives, although Lolita is told from the perspective of the abusive adult (every bit as much of a charmer and self-deceiver as Corrine) and Flowers from the perspective of the abused young girl (the oldest girl, Cathy).

The interesting question before us is, of course, why Lolita is considered a masterpiece and Flowers in the Attic a piece of irredeemable yet strangely undying trash. Usually a novel is only considered “trash” if its subject matter is “trash,” which is to say, deals with an unacceptable form of sex; otherwise the milder pejoratives “garbage” or “junk” suffice. Obviously I have no systematic way of proving this anecdotal observation, but you know what I mean: novels dealing with taboo sex are put in their own category of “badness” and assumed to be bad until proven, by the defense of the cultural elite, to be aesthetically good, which, according to that elite, mitigates or negates their moral badness, and is in any case the more important value, or perhaps I should say, the appropriate value when dealing with art. The fact that Humbert Humbert keeps the reader morally anaesthetized by aestheticizing his predation of a child only makes the novel better by making us aware that the aesthetic defense is problematic.

But no novel survives because of its prose style. We make distinctions between novels based in part on the sophistication of the language, concepts, and structure, in part on things like whether or not it belongs to a genre (most genre fiction has to be around for a very long time before it's accepted into the canon), on its marketing, on what happens to be popular among the literati at the time (e.g. since Modernism you have to be a Modernist), and, yes, still in many cases the gender of the author (and presumed audience). But novels survive because of their archetypal power, and at that level there is frequent continuity between acknowledged great novelists and great popular novelists: it's interesting to compare the character types and the romantic endings of Portrait of a Lady and Gone With the Wind, for example, and Henry James is another progenitor of Flowers in the Attic, particularly in “The Turn of the Screw.”

Childhood, the Gothic, and Freud

Dickens is a rare case of a great popular novelist who is also considered uncontroversially canonical; but this is unlikely to happen to V. C. Andrews, because there is far too much shame associated with her oeuvre. If the day comes that that shame is no longer present, the novels will have lost the power that makes them important. If FITA's chronologically immediate progenitors include sensational bestsellers like Peyton Place (1965), with its themes of incest, illegitimacy, and adultery, and the child abuse memoir Mommie Dearest (1978), it also takes its place among such memorable horror novels of the 70s as Stephen King's Carrie (1974), the ultimate account of female adolescent shame, and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), which also features a tremendously dysfunctional mock-nuclear family, this one headed by two male vampires, and the idea of doll-like children who are at once mature beyond their years and unable to achieve physical maturity, in a hellishly suspended puberty.

Both Rice and Andrews revived and developed the “Turn of the Screw” theme of the sexualization of children that appeared at the same cultural moment as Freud's theory of child sexuality – an idea that still makes as uncomfortable. The question that torments the Governess in James's Gothic novella is whether she is projecting sexuality onto the children or whether she has accurately assessed their sexual knowledge, in which case the source of contamination was their previous caretakers, Jessel and Quint. Her morbid fascination with the question of the children's innocence, however, is itself a kind of voyeuristic objectification of them – which finds one kind of logical development in Lolita, whose heroine is erotic for the narrator because she is non-sexual, and another in IWTV, in which our cultural fetishization of children and infantilization of women is played out in the form of a kind of nightmarish curse instead of the usual fantasy. Peter Pan is another fairy-tale progenitor to these horror novels; the Lost Boys are motherless children taken care of by Wendy, the Victorian Little Mother who can't wait to get out of the nursery, or rather get out of the nursery and then re-enter it as a mother. Only Peter Pan himself (like Rice's Nietzschean Lestat) boldly refuses to grow up (or in Lestat's case, grow old and die). It's perhaps interesting to note that a dead child featured centrally in the lives of both J. M. Barrie and Anne Rice: in Barrie's case, his older brother, whom Barrie would imitate (e.g. by wearing his clothes) in order to get the attention of his grieving mother; in Rice's, her daughter, who died of leukemia soon before her sixth birthday.

Adolescent Shame and Aesthetic Embarrassment

Although King's Carrie may be the ultimate account of female adolescent shame, with the DePalma movie still being discovered by new generations of teenage girls (even those who would never otherwise watch a movie made before they were born), FITA goes a step further: thanks to its “icky” incest theme, it is itself contaminated by that shame. The shame that one felt reading this smut as a pubescent girl transmutes later into an even more agonizing aesthetic shame: one can see it in the comments, essays, and blog posts by former readers of the series, who are only willing to confess their former fandom if they also excoriate Andrews's writing. The more recent the repudiation, the more hysterical the tone; the psychological mechanism is similar to the one whereby a generation of American movie critics who grew up with Jerry Lewis turned him into the bete noir of American film criticism when, as adults, they attempted to establish the seriousness of the medium, their enterprise, and their country's films in particular. Lewis, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued, epitomized the shame of the unruly pubescent body; but the sexuality of the persona was officially neuter, with even his lavish displays of sexualized affection for Dean Martin falling under the permissible neuter category of male puberty. In FITA, the shame that the pubescent girl feels about her changing body and biology and her curiosity about sex are projected onto the mother, who hides her children away and then forgets about them, while the book itself becomes another dirty secret, the act of incest objectifying and rationalizing the shame and embarrassment that the hazy idea of sex inspires in well-brought-up young virgins. Internet fan fiction, mainly written and consumed by young women and girls, now serves this purpose, and is aesthetically excoriated accordingly. It's perhaps to be expected that this demographic has internalized the idea that “female genres,” such as romance, are aesthetically worthless, and mixed up this cultural embarrassment with their sexual embarrassment and general adolescent shame or the shameful memory of it.

Andrews's Gothic Tropes

Andrews may not have been much of a prose writer, but, based on the names dropped in FITA, shewas a great reader, and there is a sophisticated as well as an instinctive side to her understanding and development of the Gothic genre. Take the invented name that the children's parents adopt for the family: Dollanganger calls attention to the doll-like qualities not only of the family's “all-American” beauty, but of their approach to gender roles (with Cathy as the ballerina doll and Chris as the doctor doll); it suggests the “gangliness” of adolescence and Cathy's “anger” at their mother's betrayal, as well as containing the word “gang”; and of course, as many have pointed out, it resembles “doppelganger.” Camille Paglia has written about how the profusion of doppelgangers in Gothic suggests psychological obsession and claustrophobia on the part of the writer. The Dollangangers are all doppelgangers for each other and serve as substitutes for each other: Cathy competes with her mother first for her father, then for Chris, as a substitute for her father; she wins (partly because of their sexual relationship), but only precariously, aware that Chris may at any time revert to his original love for their mother, for whom, Cathy knows, she is only a substitute.

Brother-sister incest has a respectable Gothic pedigree going back to Byron's Manfred, and Paglia has written about how Romantic incest is idealizing, with the “sister-spirit” as a manifestation of the poet's androgynous nature. FITA, however, is told from the sister's perspective. Chris is no Muse; he is, curiously, the sexually safe choice within the terms of women's romantic fiction: incest as the comfort of the familiar, a little like Isabel Archer's relationship with her cousin Ralph in James's Portrait of a Lady. Like many a romantic novel (or novel series) heroine, Cathy isn't especially in love with any of the men she seduces, but any of the others are more challenging to her than Chris – including Julian, whose “vulgar” attitude to sex she can't abide, and Bart, whom she comes closest to loving because her competition with her mother for him creates emotions that are strong enough that she mistakes them for love. But the only actual emotion Cathy is capable of feeling the love-hate (mostly hate) she feels for her mother/doppelganger, with whom she's stuck in the adolescent position of wanting to establish her own identity/wanting to be nothing like her and wanting to be just like her (the all-powerful seductress that she worshiped in childhood). She ends up with Chris not because they're Cathy-and-Heathcliff-like soul-mates, but because she can't escape the matrix of her family romance: she can't cathect onto anyone outside her immediate family. That claustrophobic psychological situation is spatially reproduced in the room and attic where they're kept prisoner, a womb-space where unpleasant emotions strangely change into pleasant ones. The reader, too, wants to return to that site of trauma, supercharged with emotion and meaning, which is why even though the second novel in the series, Petals on the Wind, is an enjoyably soapy coming-of-age and revenge story, the most exciting scene is the one where Cathy returns to Foxworth Hall to confront the Grandmother, raising the spectre of a horror that Cathy learns, to her disappointment, is now part of a past so irretrievable that revenge will always miss its mark, even though that past will haunt her for the rest of her life.

The Southern Gothic, Invalidism, and the Family Romance

One of the ways that reviewers of the new Lifetime movie adaptation dealt with their embarrassment over the subject matter of FITA was to accuse the movie of not being “campy” enough. But FITA, although full of stylized (successfully or not) dialogue and first-person narration, is the least campy of the novels actually written by V. C. Andrews. The feverish My Sweet Audrina, whose heroine must attempt, like the young J. M. Barrie, to channel the spirit of her dead older sister, “the first and best Audrina,” in order to please a parent, is easily the campiest of the novels actually written by Andrews (there are so many deaths-by-falling-down-the-stairs that it's like Ed Wood wrote a soap opera), and as such would probably best lend itself to dramatization. It also best fits into the Southern Gothic tradition exemplified by writers as diverse as Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. Like those other famous female Southern authors, Andrews found inspiration in illness, in Andrews case the arthritis that afflicted her from the time of a teenage accident; like McCullers she used a wheelchair, and like O'Connor, who moved in with her widowed mother as an invalid, she lived most (all?) of her life with her widowed mother. (All of this I've gleaned from the Wikipedia article on Andrews and a couple of web biographies.) Andrews and O'Connor were also both visual artists as well as writers; Andrews, however, did not turn to writing until she was in her 50s, and died of breast cancer early in her bestselling writing career. My Sweet Audrina features two classic Southern Gothic “grotesques”: Billie, a double leg amputee who becomes Audrina's mother-in-law as well as her dad's girlfriend, and Audrina's intellectually disabled little sister, Sylvia. The plot, however, is Henry James meets Robert Aldrich.

Unlike the angry, vengeful heroines of the Dollanganger and Casteel series, Audrina is purely passive: she's Andrews's Maggie Verver, except that the libidos and drama swirling around her belong to hillbillies instead of members of high society. Just as Maggie gets her marriage into hot water by clinging to her emotionally incestuous relationship with her father, Adam, thus driving her husband into the arms of her friend Charlotte, who's also, by the way, her stepmother, since she married her off to her father so he wouldn't be left lonely by her marriage; so Audrina, by clinging to her childhood and shrinking from the physical side of her marriage, lets her jealous cousin and illegitimate half-sister (that's right: dad had an affair with her mother's sister before he met her mother) step in and seduce her husband. Audrina, however, has a pretty good excuse for her regressive tendencies: although she thinks she's afraid of men and sex because her older sister was gang-raped and murdered in the woods, in fact she was the rape victim, although everyone in her life has conspired to persuade her otherwise.

In both the Dollanganger and the Casteel series, the heroine has younger siblings whom she feels obligated to take care of, but in My Sweet Audrina it's obvious that Sylvia – who, like Carrie in Petals on the Wind, but intellectually instead of physically, can never grow older – symbolizes Audrina's regression. Audrina has been trying throughout to escape from her controlling father and his house, but in the end, even after learning the truth, she agrees to stay because Sylvia wants to. Andrews's abused children ultimately don't want to leave the scene of trauma, which is also the cozy womb of family romance, and Audrina and Sylvia's choice reflects the one that Andrews actually made. Incidentally, this excellent essay, "V. C. Andrews and 'Disability Horror,'" by Madeleine Lloyd-Davies, avoids the hysterical or otherwise embarrassed tone of much internet commentary on Andrews and also reflects the intelligent analysis of someone who's read My Sweet Audrina a lot more recently than I have.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Comedy of Truth Telling: Louis C. K.'s Louie and Simon Amstell's Grandma's House

Preface: Very seriously, if you don't like spoilers, don't read any of this blog post, which contains MAJOR SPOILERS for events old and new on all three sitcoms it discusses: Louie, Grandma's House, and Peep Show. The kind of spoilers that dwell on the profound televisual pleasure of the skillful revelation of surprises, ruining them for you in the process. So do not read on unless you've already seen these shows and want to compare reactions, or you like to read blog posts about TV shows you'll never watch, or on an impulse that you'll regret immediately after, cringing at each MAJOR SPOILER that erupts in your face.

For two comedians so drastically different, Louis C. K. and Simon Amstell have a remarkable amount in common. They both star in artistically ambitious, autobiographical sitcoms of the “comedy of humiliation/discomfort” sub-genre, playing less successful versions of themselves who are awkward, vulnerable, and have a difficult time finding love and getting laid. Both men have Jewish ancestry on the paternal side; C. K.'s parents divorced when he was ten, Amstell's when he wasn't much older; both shows are haunted by paternal absence. The strong autobiographical element in their comedy goes along with a broader concern with truth telling: Amstell became a minor celebrity in the UK by mocking celebrities, first as a presenter on Pop World, then as the host of the pop music-oriented quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, while (to judge by the bits featured on the show) C. K. prides himself in his stand-up comedy on telling uncomfortable truths which often have to do with sex.

But that's where the similarities end. C. K. is an out-of-shape man in his early 40s who's obsessed with the idea that he's decrepit; Amstell is a wisp of a waif in his early 30s who's as fat-phobic as C. K. is food-addicted and who frequently remarks on the youthfulness of his own appearance. When in Season 3 of Louie, Louie confronts the idea of failure, it's as a middle-aged man whose aim, given his career in show business, has always been to become a stupendous success, and who has started to realize that it may not happen, and soon his best years will be behind him and he will have no more opportunities. When in Series 2 of Grandma's House, Simon grows more desperate after giving up his TV host job, it's as a once-precocious success who thinks his best years may already be irretrievably behind him even as he watches his peers, such as the oft-mentioned Russell Brand, take their careers to “the next level.” It's important to the comedy of both men that we believe they're too prickly, insular, hapless, and, of course, honest for mass popularity; but in truth there's no inevitability to these things. Before Forgetting Sarah Marshall, only five years ago, it might have seemed that Russell Brand was too edgy and outspoken to make it in America; and (being Russell Brand's age) I'm old enough to remember when David Letterman, then in his mid-40s, was being considered as Johnny Carson's replacement, and everyone thought he was too edgy – in his case, acerbic and facetious – for the position. Edginess and awkwardness may reduce your chances of success in entertainment, but they doesn't preclude the possibility.

One of the most obvious differences between the two men is that C. K. is heterosexual and Amstell homosexual, which in their case affects not just their sexual preferences but their stance towards masculinity. C. K. struggles with what it means to “be a man”: fear of fighting and whether that compromises his masculinity; shame over his “disgusting” fantasies about women; a mixture of shame and defiant pride over his masturbation addiction; nervous mockery and jittery tolerance of male homosexuality, accompanied by homophobic/homoerotic fantasies (e.g., the denouement of the dentist episode). Amstell, on the other hand, seems as far from wanting to approximate traditional masculinity as he's incapable of doing so, with his adolescent appearance and voice; in Grandma's House the only function that traditional masculinity serves is to be mocked as absurd in the form of Simon's mother's boyfriend, Clive, an erratic alcoholic who calls Simon “Captain” and whose blustery attempts to engage in male bonding with his amused and horrified pseudo-stepson tend to evoke pity and fear.

The Trouble with Truth Telling

An unfortunate aspect of Amstell's truth-telling persona is his nastiness towards those he deems deserving, whether celebrities or relatives; although in Grandma's House this is tempered by self-deprecation, on the one hand, and intermittent compassion towards most of the other main characters, Clive included. An unfortunate aspect of C. K.'s truth-telling is that he seems to think that he's speaking for “men” and hides behind this idea when he tells us unsavoury truths about himself, such as about his sexual thoughts and habits. The same can't be said of Amstell: when in his stand-up show, Do Nothing, he tells us about his attraction to young men who are thin and vulnerable, like himself, he's not talking about anyone else's foibles but his own, and one is astonished, as throughout the show, equally at his confessional bravery and his infinite narcissism.

This willingness to speak on behalf of “men” is no doubt a large part of the reason that C. K. has been embraced as philosopher-comedian, appealing to the same middle-aged white male demographic, confused and disoriented in a world that is no longer theirs even though it still pretty much is, for whom Walter White is a badass. C. K.'s weird, prematurely-curmudgeonly, anti-modern world stance must also have something to do with it, as well as his absolute confidence in the familiar fallacy that if he thinks something, and it's unpleasant, it must be true. The nadir of this attitude is on display in an early episode in which he asserts that lesbianism is wrong “not ethically, but geometrically,” a repetition of the stale sexist idea that “it can't be sex if there's no penis involved,” and therefore lesbianism is neither harmful nor serious. Those silly girls can do what they want to because nothing real can happen until men are involved; and if you find that offensive, it must mean it's true, and not a culturally dominant prejudice that denies the truth of another person's experience.

A World Populated by Psychopaths

In a way, Louie has more interesting things to say about 21st century masculinity than more progressive sitcoms like Grandma's House or Jonathan Ames's on Bored to Death, which is a kind of post-masculinity buddy-comedy. Louie doesn't get the kind of firm, clear exemption from masculinity of an Amstell or Jason Schwartzman, baby-faced men whose adolescence has wondrously survived into their early 30s. He's a farting-and-masturbating “regular guy” who's nevertheless as neurotic and anxious as Woody Allen (although by Season 3 he's become almost as inarticulate as Jerry Lewis); whose “ordinary” appearance is brutally criticized throughout the series, mostly by men; and whose pathological relationship with food would appall Bridget Jones.


A more troubling aspect of C. K.'s comedic persona on Louie is the fact that he is almost always presented as a sane man surrounded by psychopaths, albeit a sane man with a binge-eating disorder and, quite possibly, clinical depression. That would be enough to make you a freak on most shows, but it's nothing compared to the eccentric, hysterical women he encounters in personal situations (dates, sisters, mother) and the strange men who put him and others in dangerous situations. Louie the character and Louis the writer rarely make any attempt to find out what is making these people act in the strange ways they do: why the woman who approached him for sex after the PTA wants him to buy her blueberries and spank her in bed and why the spanking makes her break down in sobs of despair; why the bus driver doesn't know where the field trip is, how to get there, or the regulations about taking buses on highways. Once these people have confirmed for Louie, once again, that the world is an insane and scary place, nothing more is needed from them. Sometimes the dynamic flips, in the episodes where Louie goes into a panic that turns out to be unjustified; then he is blindly hysterical, with the difference that we know the cause, and it's a good one. This does happen with another character in the show, once: the teenage bully who threatens to kick the shit out of Louie in front of his date, whom he then stalks to his house, where he confronts the boy's father and discovers that both of his parents are physically and verbally abusive. This of course ends up feeling a little like an after-school special, but if C. K. is so drawn to unhappy eccentrics and extreme situations, he might try a little more often, Cassavetes-style, to help us understand these characters and feel something for them. One of my favourite episodes is the one where a fellow comic that Louie's known for years, but not very well, chooses him as the person he's going to say goodbye to before committing suicide because his life is empty, facing the viewer with the question of whether this is always a stupid decision, sometimes a sensible one, or simply a personal one.

While I watched the first two seasons of Louie with half-interest and occasional detached admiration, for me Season 3 is the big pay-off, where Louie and the show together try to push beyond their boundaries. Season 3 contains not one but two inspirational plotlines, although they're only “inspirational” within the context of the show's dark universe. First, Louie finds a new woman to obsess over in the form of Parker Posey's bookstore clerk, who agrees to go on a date with him, during which she reveals herself to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, pushing him to try things and do things he wouldn't normally do, to make the effort to enjoy life while you can. And then the season settles into its major arc: Louie's attempt to “get in training” for taking over Letterman's job on The Late Show. Fighting his own terror of failure, which manifests itself as a horror of effort, and his settled, comfortable conviction that he's a niche comic who can't entertain the mass audience, he pulls it together in order to be a role model for his little girls and show them that if you want something, you have to try. The more layers of cynicism and self-doubt that Louie strips away, the more vulnerable he becomes, and as he allows himself to want the job and believe in himself it's hard not to root for the underdog. He isn't allowed to get what he wants, or it wouldn't be Louie, but his triumph is that he thought he could, and knows he could have.

And then in the final episode, Parker Posey briefly reappears and we learn the reason for her sudden melancholy at the end of the date episode, while she was sitting, exhilarated, on the edge of a high rise roof; and that she was not a Manic Pixie Dream (or Nightmare) Girl after all, but Milly Theale. Like the Letterman opportunity, she, too, taught Louie to be a little less afraid of life; and she's denied to him even more brutally. In Season 3 of Louie, the world is perhaps even more insane and scary than ever, but Louie has somehow found the inner resources, and outer motivation, to take some risks, and C. K. shows the real difficulties and rewards of opening yourself up to possibility despite fear and pain.

Do Not Go Gently Into the Post-Masculine Era

Something similar happened to the protagonist of Peep Show, Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell), in the initial Series 7 of Peep Show, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain's point-of-view-cam sitcom, with voice-over access to the thoughts of Mark and deuteragonist Jeremy (Robert Webb), a couple of hopeless losers, Mark an anti-charismatic nerd and Jeremy a vaguely charismatic, irresponsible, unemployable mooch. Before I saw Louie, I thought Peep Show was the darkest sitcom I'd ever seen, with the most excruciatingly humiliating and generally horrifying situations. The first four seasons focus on Mark's seemingly hopeless obsession with his co-worker, Sophie, first leading the viewer to sympathize with and root for Mark despite his frequent ineptitude, then making us realize, with delicious dawning horror, that Mark is incapable of a functioning romantic relationship, never really wanted Sophie in the first place, and has fucked up her life by winning her over.

Armstrong and Bain then take us through the revelation of Mark's true, but involuntary, awfulness and manage to bring us around almost to sympathizing with him again as he keeps fucking up on Sophie and adding to her hatred of him. When Mark gets a crush on a new co-worker, a cute, funny nerd girl, we're relieved that it seems as though something is finally going to go right for him, and at the end of Series 7 it looked like he might be ready and able to take baby steps towards “growing up” by kicking Jez out and moving in with a completely awesome woman.

If Peep Show had ended with Series 4, it would have been a masterpiece. Series 7 doesn't add much to the proceedings, instead drawing out the question of whether Mark's “growth” will prove illusory and Dobby will turn out to be Sophie II, which no longer has the ability to surprise, or whether this time he won't screw it up, in which case Mark and Jeremy split up and the show has to end. Peep Show has gone into a soap-opera holding pattern and could go on this way for years with ever-diminishing returns. Grandma's House, on the other hand, is over too soon after only two series: proving true to his perfectionist and somewhat antagonist stance, Amstell has said that he likes to end things once they're good and while they're still liked. As for Louie – isn't he, too, going to have to get the girl and start getting his life together (if they're not equated) at some point, and won't that be the end of the show? Mark's emotional trajectory with Sophie makes perfect sense for Louie as well, but I'm not sure if C. K. hates him enough to tarnish the beauty of his wistful, delusional feelings for women he can't have. Louie's self-loathing is always on the border of self-pity, which is a frequent difference between British and American dark comedy, and which is something else that Louie has in common with Walter White. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, ageing white dudes. Or whimper, whichever. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Performance in Inside Llewyn Davis

Towards the end of the new Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, the titular character, a folk singer, plays a song about seafaring for his elderly father, who's in a nursing home and unresponsive to the world around him. After the events of the movie, Llewyn has given up on his chosen career and is taking his farewell of his father before joining the merchant marines, his father's own profession. We know from a previous discussion with his sister that he has a troubled relationship with his father, whom he has contempt for as a non-performer who “just exists.” What we're witnessing, then, is Llewyn's attempt to reconcile with his father and have a moment of connection with him before he leaves. It's significant, too, that he's trying to forge this connection through his art, which he's renouncing. We watch and listen as Llewyn sings the beautiful, moving song, wondering if Llewyn's music will be able to break through their estrangement, through his father's dementia, through the barriers of taste and personality that separate them even as Llewyn is resigning himself to becoming his father. The elderly man's face changes; there appears to be some emotion, some struggle in it, though we can't tell what it means. What will his verdict on the performance be? Then Llewyn's expression changes and he stammers out "Wow," twice, in shock. Jump to the next scene, where we were learn in another conversation between Llewyn and his sister that his father shit himself during the song.

The Sublime and the Scatological 

What does this mean? Is it a statement that art is not powerful enough to transcend all of those barriers? Is it the filmmakers' verdict on Llewyn's art? The father's? Is it an absurd juxtaposition of the sublime and the scatological, art and mortality, with no further meaning? A comment on Llewyn's egotism even when he seems to be doing something generous and loving for another person? In any case it seems to be the movie's most succinct proof that Llewyn is incapable of doing what his more successful peers effortlessly do: in the language of Bud Grossman, the Chicago impresario who told him (after another moving performance) that there's no money in his music, he can't “connect with people.” It also literalizes the rancorous metaphor of his friend's girlfriend, who's pregnant with a child who may or may not be Llewyn's, in which Llewyn turns everything he touches "to shit, like King Midas's idiot brother.”

The Coen Brothers make movies that connect with people – both critics and the public – although oddly by concocting protagonists who can't connect with people. Or so I've heard. Actually Inside Llewyn Davis is the first time I've watched a Coen Brothers movie all the way through since Barton Fink (1991). Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of that film, as vitriolic as Jean's attitude to Llewyn, so eviscerated the filmmaking duo for me that it's taken me over 20 years to want to watch another one of their movies. Ironically, Inside Llewyn Davis is Barton Fink revisited, and while it's more artful and less arty than the much earlier film, Rosenbaum's central complaints still apply: that the filmmakers refuse to commit to any side, instead condemning artists and commercial impresarios alike as phonies. If the brothers are fond of anyone at all in Barton Fink, it's John Goodman's psychopathic, pyromaniac “common man,” with his furious refrain, “I'll show you the life of the mind!” But although Goodman seems to have materialized to take revenge on Fink, the intellectual, political playwright, for his condescending delusion that he can write about the lives of ordinary people, one suspects that the brothers are able to get behind him because his nihilistic viewpoint is where their true sympathies lie. In Inside Llewyn Davis, that viewpoint is encapsulated by the encounter between father and son and art and shit in the nursing home.

The viewpoint for which the Coens seem to have the most sympathy in Inside Llewyn Davis, however, is the non-human one of the two identical (except in gender) cats: Ulysses, who starts off Llewyn's adventures by escaping when he leaves the apartment where he's crashed; and the female cat whom Llewyn mistakes for Ulysses, who accompanies him on the trip to Chicago when she's rejected by Ulysses' owners, who is abandoned by him on the highway, hit by him on his way back in a different car, and is last seen hobbling into the snowy woods in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Nothing too bad is allowed to happen to either astonishingly resilient feline, which somehow makes the movie feel relatively gentle-spirited despite the protagonist's ill-luck and ill-behaviour. The Coens may still have contempt for humanity, but they've found a way to give their movie a heart even so, and it's a relief for the viewer, as for Llewyn, to be able to just worry about the cats rather than about the meaning, if any, of Llewyn's loser life. Cats, after all, don't seem to be troubled by the fact that they just exist.

The Good and the Great

The other big advance over Barton Fink is that it's not as simple to dismiss Llewyn as a phony when several times in the course of the film he treats us, rather beautifully, to a song. He may be an obnoxious fuck-up whose career is going nowhere, but he's a talented guitarist and singer who appears to be fully in earnest when he sings. For that reason, the movie raises, in Rorschach fashion, many more questions about art and the artist's life than Barton Fink. I went to the movie with a musician friend who confidently asserted at the end of it that the protagonist was “only mediocre” as a performer; most reviewers seem to more or less agree, with the general consensus being that Llewyn Davis is “good but not great,” and the movie a parable about what happens to artists in that category, who are, after all, more numerous than the great; a minority of reviewers, however, have thought that the protagonist is obviously talented and merely unlucky.

It's comforting, of course, to think that great artists will always be recognized, sooner or later; but I don't think we have to take that away from the movie. What I took away was the rather more unsettling notion that an artist may be as good as anyone else and yet never become successful. Everyone knows that the majority of artists are unsuccessful, and not necessarily because most of the unsuccessful artists are merely good and most of the successful ones great. First, someone in a position to help you has to believe, rightly or wrongly, that you're good, or that money can be made off of you, or both; and then you have to be able to sustain a career after the first break. It's accepted wisdom that the wise accept the verdict of those in the industry and quit when it's clear that they're getting nowhere, as Llewyn does; on the other hand, it's also accepted wisdom that many famous artists faced a lot more rejection than that without giving up; then again, sometimes going on despite years of rejection and failure really is delusional (compare Burton's Ed Wood).

But the noncommittal stance of Inside Llewyn Davis undermines an idea about art that's even more fundamental than the idea that greatness will ultimately be recognized and rewarded: the idea that we are able, without any external cues, to tell a good performance apart from a great one. How, aside from the reaction of the people in the movie, do we know that the performance we've seen is a great one? And how often, in real life, are we exposed to new music, or a new movie, or new book, without any context at all – not a murmur of buzz, not a glimpse of a review, not a word of reputation? The last time it happened to me was with Lana Del Rey's “Video Games,” a song that made me believe I'd discovered a new artist of genius; and after I went online and read that she was a label-manufactured phony, and then read all of the stuff about what an embarrassment her Saturday Night Live performance was, I doubted my impression. I'm often incredulous at the things that people think are great (especially premium cable TV shows), but I'm easily intimidated into thinking that things aren't as good as I think they are, at least if there's no vocal, influential, articulate minority taking up the cause of artist or artwork. 

So Inside Llewyn Davis, whether purposefully or incidentally, raises questions not only about the life of the artist but also about art itself. There's only one director I can think of who uses performances in his movies in such a way that the viewer is convinced that the performance we've witnessed is great even though we're unfamiliar with the performer: I'm talking, of course, about David Lynch. The two most striking instances occur in Mulholland Dr., and they are Betty's audition scene and the Club Silencio performance of “Llorando,” in which Lynch lays bare the elements that go into making us believe that a performance is great. Our ability to be moved by the performance depends on our belief that the singer is, in that moment, feeling the emotions she's singing about, even though we know that we're watching a recorded performance and that, even if it were live, the singer may just be “putting on” the emotion. It helps, too, that the song is intimately familiar and yet rendered in a foreign language so that our sense of its emotional power isn't hindered by the banal lyrics of Orbison's classic pop song. Likewise, in her audition scene Betty transforms the banal soap opera dialogue and scenario she's been given into great drama by calling upon her tortured emotional life and unearthing her dark sensuality. When Lynch has the singer collapse onstage while her pre-recorded voice goes on, he calls attention to our assumption that a great performance means the unveiling of the performer's inner life in front of our eyes. It couldn't be that the performer is faking, or miming, that experience. If the most authentic emotion can be faked, how can we ever trust that we know what's going on inside another person; and if we can't do that, how can we allow ourselves empathy? Is performance a window into the performer's soul, or a mask that the performer assumes?

The Coen Brothers' interest in performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is very different from Lynch's in Mulholland Dr. or than Jerry Lewis's in films like The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, and The Patsy: Llewyn the loser and failure is not allowed a moment even in dreams or in a fantasy sequence where his skill as a performer is unmistakably spotlighted, and his father's reaction to his song in the nursing home is at a polar extreme from Betty and Rita's tearful, epileptic/apocalyptic response to “Llorando” at Club Silencio. It would seem that one of the things that Inside Llewyn Davis is about is, after all, countering the alchemical myth of art: no matter how beautiful it may be, it cannot transform dementia into lucidity or estrangement into a miraculous rediscovery of the meaning of home and family, which is to say, the sense of presence. “It's not opera!” Llewyn shouts at the man who's beating him up in an alleyway, It's a Wonderful Life style, for heckling his wife the night before. But when he finds some opera on the radio while driving home through a snowstorm at night, the gorgeous, peaceful music becomes the soundtrack to suddenly slamming into the reappearing cat. The beauty of art offers us no shelter from the demand of other beings that we respond to their needs, or our demands on them, or from our and their complete inability to meet those needs; nor does it count as a response, although it may count as an appeal.