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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Girls, Season One: Intimations of Reality

“Act like my life is real. Because my life is real.” This line from Lena Dunham's Girls, delivered by a young man to the girlfriend who's broken his heart and then seduced him into getting back together, while she's straddling him in bed, is not a good example of realistic dialogue, but it is thematically central to the show. The white, middle-class, liberals arts-educated modern Emma Woodhouses of Girls, who've reached their 20s with very little to distress or vex them, are monsters of narcissism, which the show plays for laughs and shock except in the rare, differently shocking moments when they and the viewer become momentarily aware of another (usually male) person's reality. The girls of Girls are so selfish, competitive, and critical in their friendships and so obsessed with maintaining the upper hand in their interactions with men that it's difficult to feel much sympathy when things go wrong for them, but if we can't feel it for them, we can occasionally feel it for their victims.

Not that the recognition of another person's reality always takes the form, in Girls, of a flash of empathy from someone whose life you've been treating like a game. Something similar occurs when Jessa, the most unapologetic predatory sociopath of the group, suddenly decides not to go through with seducing the married man she's been babysitting for, although her recognition that his life and his wife and children's lives are real is preceded by a different kind of recognition of his reality: her reaction of revulsion when he starts sobbing on her shoulder, overwrought from their adventurous evening, in the course of which she got him beat up. Dunham's acute interest in and fascinating treatment of sex is what distinguishes her most clearly from bleak, self-conscious male comedians she resembles, like Woody Allen, Larry David, and Louis C.K., and one of the ways in which sex permeates Girls is that the characters are (like their creator) pornographic fantasists who, however, are constantly confronted by a reality that does not perfectly assume the shape of their desire. So Hannah offers to fuck the boss who's been groping her only to have him demur and point out that he's a married man; or a venture capitalist picks up Marnie and Jessa in a bar and persuades them to come back his apartment, only to have them refuse to let him join in when they start making out.

The fabric of Dunham's universe is made up of this constant tension between the characters' fantasies and the stubbornly independent existence of other people, their lives, and their contrary wills. It doesn't matter whether your boyfriend is peeing on you in the shower in a mistaken belief that you'll find it funny instead of a bizarre violation, which happens to Hannah in one scene, or whether he's loving you when you're not ready to be loved. The latter situation occasions an hilarious exchange where Hannah tells her victim, as a lame excuse for ducking out of living with him, “I didn't think you were into that,” and he replies sarcastically, “Into what? Love?” Love can be a bizarre violation in the universe of Girls. Hannah might want it in theory, but she doesn't necessarily want the responsibility that goes with it, the heaviest part of which might be the responsibility to love back.

The girls of Girls veer between shrinking from a reality that's too demanding or too unresponsive and trying desperately to make their lives more real to themselves. To that end, Jessa, realizing that her career as a femme fatale is a dead end, suddenly gets married to the “venture capitalist,” whom we last saw flipping out when she and Marnie spilled wine on his priceless rug and lecturing them hysterically on the hard work through which he's achieved his material success. He's a real, grown-up man with a real job and grown-up money, representing everything that Jessa has rejected and thinks, for now, that she needs, and the joke is that this attempt to achieve stability is Jessa's wildest move yet. No matter how hard she tries to start living a real life, it just turns into a more elaborate game. Growing up doesn't involve learning how to treat other people's lives like they're real; it involves starting to treat your life, too, like a game.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Bigmouth Strikes: Gilmour Not the Norm, But Universities Still to Blame

Reflecting on the recent internet furor over David Gilmour's big mouth, I realized just how lucky my experience as a female in academia has been. During the 15 years I was (among other things) getting my two degrees in English at three Canadian institutions, 1995-2010, I was unfailingly treated with respect by my male professors, and in some cases something like awe. As far as gender-specific encouragement goes, I remember in particular the philosophy professor who told me “Don't let him get away with that!” when I backed down during an argument with a male student (I may have been the only woman in the seminar, but I can't remember because I paid no attention to my fellow students in university, only to the professor, the readings, and the ideas); and the high school math teacher who told me I'd be bored and stop attending class if I switched to business math (he was sweet but he couldn't do anything to interest me in math, not as long as there was literature to read). As far as encouraging me as a writer went, I remember the junior high teacher who slammed my screenplay assignment down on my desk with a big “A” scrawled on it and demanded, “Where did you learn to WRITE like that!??”

(Do I sound as pompous as Gilmour? Good, we can get that out of the way.)

I don't know about the rest of North America, but based on my experience, Canadian high schools and universities are far from being rife with male chauvinism. (In elementary school nearly all of my teachers, both male and female, hated me for being intelligent and intellectually curious, but that's another pedagogical kettle of fish.) Clearly these math and philosophy teachers had absorbed feminism's lessons about raising the self-esteem and engagement level of female students in these traditionally male subject areas. It didn't work with math but it did work with philosophy: I was interested in big ideas, not big numbers. Philosophy was my minor as an undergraduate, English my major, and I also have a Master's in English. I don't think David Gilmour is the norm – no, not even for his age. The majority of the male professors I took classes from, or simply socialized with, during 1995-2010 were between the ages of 45 and 65, and if they were 45 in 1995, that would place them within Gilmour's generation. Gilmour has no excuse.

You might think from the foregoing that I don't think that either North American Humanities departments or North American literary culture is male chauvinist, but you would be wrong. It's true that my English professors were 50/50 male/female (that's based on the total number of professors I took courses from, with my course choices dependent on my interests, what was available, and what was required for my program); my philosophy professors, on the other hand, were male straight down the line. Of all of the multiple-author English courses I took, the professor (male or female) managed to fit in a token female in about half the cases. The only course I ever took in which the female writers outnumbered the male writers was a Modernism course taught by a self-declared feminist. As for single-author course offerings: I took five on male authors (Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Donne, and T. S. Eliot), one on a female author (Austen), and don't recall in the 20 semesters of choosing courses seeing another one offered on a female author.

These experiences jibe with findings about the under-representation of female contributors and reviews of books by women in traditional literary journals like the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books. What's really depressing is that this under-representation is being carried over into new online journals like The Quarterly Conversation, which is ostensibly devoted to reviewing experimental world literature in translation but which you'd be forgiven for thinking is a space where men can hero-worship men, thanks to the shrines to Murakami, Wallace, and Bolano, and the low numbers of female contributors and subjects (in 2013 to date, together they hover at a little over 25%). Incidentally, the proof of my own devotion to Bolano is on this blog, and I have female friends and acquaintances that are among the biggest Murakami, Wallace, and Bolano fans I know. (That's how I discovered TQC: by looking for Bolano coverage.) So why is The Quarterly Conversation such an aggressively male space? And why is this considered literary culture as per usual, while spaces where women hero-worship women (e.g. Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Jeannette Winterson) are considered “feminist”? There are non-feminist female-dominated literary spaces on the internet, such as Goodreads, which seems to have been overtaken by chicklit-lovers – because, as Jonathan Franzen once lamented, in America women read and men don't. But that's average men and women. The literary elite is all, well, serious heterosexual guys – the writers and the reviewers. Women can have all of low literary culture to themselves as long as high literary culture remains the preserve of men.

What can we do to rectify this situation? Based on my own experience we are heading in the right direction in the universities, but we still have a long way to go, and it's not as though new media is going to automatically rescue us from ancient cultural assumptions. I can see the serious heterosexual guy contributors to TQC stamping their feet and pulling a Gilmour: “But I like what I like, and you can't make me like anything else! (And by the way, I only like The Best.)” And if the discouragement of women in subjects like philosophy isn't happening at the classroom level – where is it happening? Why have I heard from young female philosophy students that it's easier to get published with a male or gender-neutral pseudonym? If I were doing a minor in philosophy now, would I find more female professors, or not?

As far as my major is concerned, we have got to get female authors out of the Women's Studies ghetto (which should become Gender Studies anyway, and perhaps in some interdisciplinary cases, Sex Studies) and into the canon. Now that we've entered the 21st century this should be easier than ever, since there are plenty of well-known 20th century English-language female authors. But it's not as easy as it looks, since the two big “isms,” Modernism and postmodernism, are dominated by a roll call of male heroes (from Joyce to Beckett to Pynchon to DFW). To introduce more diversity into English Studies we might have to de-emphasize the traditional isms, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. On the contrary, since Modernism is widely seen (by its practitioners too) as being the end of traditional literary values, why shouldn't the postmodern literary canon be in perpetual flux and subject to perpetual debate?

It remains to be seen whether English Studies is even going to emerge from the demands of diversity, on the one hand, and the challenge of the digital era, on the other, in any kind of recognizable form. Should English finally be liberated from the theological close reading model? Is it possible that the kind of enrichment and pleasure offered by the close reading of aesthetically accomplished texts – the study of the canon – is only one kind, and that others that are just as good can come of reading and literary analysis? Is it coincidence or zeitgeist that I conceived the idea of reading The Recognitions side by side with its cultural evil twin, Peyton Place (the difficult male masterpiece vs. the trashy female bestseller), not long before I read Andrew Seals's Quarterly Conversation article on Franco Moretti's cheeky canon-revising concept of “distant reading,” “We Have Never Been Well-Read”? It does seem as though we're going to have to whittle down the pre-20th century canon even more, get those Great Dead White Males and smattering of females out of the way so that we can then pick our way through the ensuing flux, realizing that there is absolutely no way for us to read everything of value and interest, so we might as well study whatever we want to? Moreover, in North America this decision to educate oneself in these matters – to spend your youth thinking, to become a contemplative and critical citizen – is undertaken at a gouging cost with little if any financial reward at the end of it – but that's another cultural battle.

Meanwhile, I want to say these things to the commenters who've been defending Gilmour yet who seem to known nothing about either the study of literature or feminism, which pretty much rules them out from commenting:
  1. David Gilmour is not a “specialist.” He does not even have a Ph.D.. He's a literary author. He's stated that by his own choice, in fact insistence, he only teaches “what he loves.” That he only loves fiction by ageing white guys doesn't make him a specialist in fiction by ageing white guys. Just like if I only liked to read vampire fiction, that wouldn't make me a specialist in vampire fiction. I would be a specialist in vampire fiction if I chose that as my field of scholarship (with research and theses and discoveries about the genre and all of that), regardless of my feelings about vampire novels. 
  1. Yes, there are courses devoted to the exclusive study of literature by women. No, that's not a double standard, given the under-representation of female authors in English literature courses that I've described above. I've also stated that I think it's time to get rid of Women's Studies, but not so that we can go back to the old way of doing things. If the young male university students proclaiming their butthurt at the existence of Women's Studies are being sincere rather than disingenuous, I am sincerely concerned about their ability to reason. As for all of the young female university students (again, I presume that's what these women are) who have rushed to proclaim that they hate female authors too – all I can say is, good luck with that. Seriously, Canada, you're producing real winners.
  1. The issue is not whether or not it's important to be “passionate” about your subject matter. The issue is that by declaring himself passionate only about literature by “serious heterosexual guys” (and Proust... but whatever), Gilmour revealed that he's a close-minded, sexist, parochial ninny. Yes it is sexist to only read authors of your own gender, yes I would say that if a woman declared she was only interested in reading books by women.

I can definitely see how, as some commenters have claimed, Gilmour is a popular teacher. It probably is fun for a change to be taught by someone who is not a scholar, who has the privilege of only teaching what he loves (not what best represents his area of speciality, nor what would be best for the students), and who feels no obligation to be objective and distance himself from his feelings about the material. This is one of the benefits of hiring arts celebrity instructors; the other is that in this way such usually-struggling artists can earn a few more peanuts. Gilmour, however, has abused the privilege he's been granted of teaching what he loves by only loving what superficially resembles him. He is absolutely free to love what he wants and read what he wants, whatever anyone may think of it (as we are free to state what we think of it, given that he publicized these views). He is not, however, free to teach whatever he wants. University instructors and universities have obligations to their students. Gilmour is free to be uninterested in diversity in his private life, but not in his pedagogy.

And yet this opens a can of worms, which is presumably why the principal of Victoria College is defending Gilmour and hiding behind that ludicrous (in this context) word “specialized”: can professors be forced to include works by women and other examples of diversity in their syllabi? Should I have been upset that I didn't read anything by women in my philosophy classes? (I don't think I did, though I don't know about all of those analytical philosophy articles, and maybe they were using pseudonyms or initials.) The issue, however, is not that inclusion of texts by women is mandatory, but that Gilmour appears to be excluding certain authors from his syllabus because they are women, and that is discriminatory. The only way that would not be discriminatory is if he were teaching a course on male fiction.

I think it's endearing that the student protestors responded with the mantra “Gilmour! Read more!” (which was the first thing his Hazlitt interview made me think, after “What a nincompoop”) and by dressing up the statue of the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye in drag. Although I think there are grounds for firing Gilmour in his statements, what the outcry should really be about is making not Gilmour but English lit courses in general more diverse. It doesn't matter whether individual serious (white) heterosexual guy professors share Gilmour's sentiments: those sentiments are institutionalized. And we know that in the consumer-student era, students can get what they demand. They might as well use that dubious, debt-bought power for good.

This post belongs to a series on thinking about how cultural criticism should be practiced, and oddly enough, given the occasion, I'm more optimistic in this entry than I was in the first.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

American Eccentrics, Hollywood Transcendentalism, and Progressive Politics

Academic feminist film criticism has brought some attention to the woman's film as a genre, but most widely-known woman's films gained their cultural prominence through the attention of men – gay men, who made a cult of Garbo and Dietrich, Hepburn and Stanwyck, and especially Crawford and Davis. It's an oddity of the history of Hollywood film reception that straight men hero-worship the male directors they've nominated as “auteurs” while gay men diva-worship the female stars. Moreover, to judge from the type of directors likely to be embraced as important auteurs by either the French New Wave critics or their American followers you might assume that the great American cinematic subject is “men being violent” (although sometimes this subject is under scrutiny, as in the films of Nicholas Ray and Paul Thomas Anderson). Perhaps the only prominent male critic to write about the woman's picture is Stanley Cavell in the 90s, and I have never seen this work cited by other critics, whereas I see his work on screwball comedy cited all the time. Douglas Sirk (taken seriously since the championing of Fassbinder in the 70s) is the single fashionable auteur who directed woman's pictures.

The “machismo” of the American film canon is all the odder when you consider that the gynocentric side of the war between Fieldingites and Richardsonians in academic criticism of the English novel triumphed over the androcentric side long before the advent of academic feminism, with F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948) a pivotal salvo in the battle. Harold Bloom has often spoken of the “lines” of Richardson and Fielding and their separate supporters; Leavis wasn't fond of either, but his favouring of Austen, Lawrence, and honourary English novelist helped to put heroines at the centre of the English lit canon. But this is the English novel. American Romanticism and the odd “novel” that it produced is, as Leslie Fiedler pointed out, often conspicuously and purposefully devoid of women, although one must also contend with Hawthorne and that cultural misfit, his admirer, James.

I am not so much pleading for criticism of American films to adopt a more gynocentric approach as I am pointing out the arbitrary elements of canon formation, which in this case reflected the way that both American and French male critics (and Pauline Kael) thought about what it means to be “American.” Likewise, the gynocentric slant of criticism of the English novel reflects what critics came to think the novel should be about, namely interiority; although with Modernism an even more highly developed interiority is instead attached to the autobiographical protagonist, who will now be male when the author is male (as he usually is).

Given the present state of the American film canon, however, a corrective may be in order. With the field divided between a macho auteurism that favours movies in which women, if present at all to a significance degree, are relegated to the sidelines and traditional roles (however feisty they may be in them, as in the Ford and Hawks Westerns), and the seemingly endless fascination with film noir, a genre in which women are represented by the femme fatale, it can't hurt to bring more attention to the woman's picture and to the many interesting directors (such as Frank Borzage, William Dieterle, and frequent woman's picture director King Vidor) who have never become fashionable auteurs perhaps in part because they were not especially interested in masculinity as a subject.

A film critic friend of mine once told me that noir was the only genre of which it can be said that every member was interesting, and while I agree with him about the inherent interest of noir, I think the same can be said for the woman's picture if it can be considered a genre. Does a Hollywood movie become a woman's picture just because it stars a woman – meaning that women will watch movies starring men but not vice versa? It can sometimes seem so, although women can also be the stars of horror films (or, today, action films*) and the co-stars of romantic comedies and dramas. In the woman's picture, however, men are usually love interests or secondary characters. A woman's picture can star a man, however, like Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, which puts Fred MacMurray in the same trapped middle-class position as Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows; just as a woman can be the protagonist of a noir (e.g. Ophuls's The Reckless Moment), although noirs with female protagonists are usually considered noir/woman's picture hybrids, which by rights should be the most interesting genre of all – and it's true. There is also a sub-genre of woman's picture, or woman's picture/noir, in which the male protagonist falls in love with a woman he's never seen in the flesh, who does not appear for the first stretch of the film (e.g. Preminger's 1944 Laura and Dieterle's 1945 Love Letters), which shows the influence of the Gothic on both genres and serves as a bridge between Wilkie Collins's 1859 The Woman in White and Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo.

I was prompted to reflect on these things after seeing a couple of interesting forgotten classical Hollywood, Nicholas Ray's A Woman's Secret (1949), with a screenplay by Herman (of Citizen Kane authorship controversy) Mankiewicz, and People Will Talk (1951), written for the screen and directed by the other Mankiewicz brother, Joseph. Joseph Mankiewicz is not a fashionable auteur even though as a writer-director and sometimes writer-director-producer he is an auteur a la lettre. Is this because he was so often associated with woman's pictures, such as his most famous movie, All About Eve? People Will Talk, released the year after All About Eve (and with its same producer, Darryl F. Zanuck), is a remarkable comedy-drama in which Cary Grant's eccentric, progressive, cultured, and magically benevolent Dr. Praetorius (that's correct) becomes romantically involved with a woman who's become pregnant out of wedlock (that's correct), for which she is neither shamed nor punished. It's evident that attacks on 50s conformism started early in the movies – a lot earlier than Sirk's 1956 All That Heaven Allows (a movie kindred in spirit), maybe as early as the great Mildred Pierce (1945). The tension between conformism and individualism in American culture is American culture, of course, and People Will Talk sometimes reminded me of a Mr. Deeds Goes to Town if the latter were populated by atheist intellectuals instead of small-town innocents.

Jeanne Craine is not as much of a feminist in this film as she first appears... but Cary Grant is.

As for A Woman's Secret, it seems to have slipped through the cracks of the canon because it made no impact at the time and does not fit in with the auteurist-friendly subject of many of Ray's later films, starting with the success of Rebel Without a Cause on: aforementioned masculinity. It's easy to see why A Woman's Secret did not set the world on fire at the time of release, and it's for the same reasons that it's so delightfully charming now. It is absolutely a screenwriter's picture, and Mankiewicz has no interest in any of the genres that it dabbles in, from woman's picture to murder mystery. The murder plot in fact makes no sense psychologically, and the two women it involves (played by Maureen O'Hara and Gloria Grahame) are shoved into the background and flashbacks while Melvyn Douglas takes centre stage as a world-weary author avatar.

Drat... I just had that rug cleaned!

The Svengali melodrama in which O'Hara and Grahame are embroiled could be a lot of fun, as it is in the Cukor-directed Gothic melodrama A Woman's Face (1945), starring Douglas, Joan Crawford, and Conrad Veidt. Mankiewicz, however, gives it perfunctory treatment, instead developing the comedic characters of the long-suffering elderly police inspector and his exceedingly eccentric, mystery novel-reading, amateur-detective wife, who finally, semi-inadvertently, provides the key (literally) to the mystery. The sharp-edged interaction between these characters, played by Mary Philips and Jay C. Flippen, is delightful; while Philips's character is a patented “batty woman,” it's evident that she chafes at her husband's mild/gruff, but withal complacent, patriarchal authority, and Philips gives her line readings just the right note of off-kilter menace to be laugh-out-loud funny, especially when she seizes an opportunity to declare, “I could have you committed, you know,” soon after missing his coffee cup and dumping a spoonful of sugar into his lap.

As an ill-educated but strong-willed floozy, Gloria Grahame also delivers line readings that tease out the absurdism in Mankiewicz's literate and whimsical dialogue. Douglas is the flippant playboy from Ninotchka, but even more dissipated ten years on, with a touch of Oscar Levant about his piano-playing wisecracker – if Levant could ever be imagined as conducting an affair with a woman or as giving up his bachelor ways in the final moments. The Douglas-O'Hara extra-wedlock affair is another one slipped past the censors, suggested by a reference to her jealousy of Grahame and confirmed by his louche body language with her in a later scene. Blink and you'll spend most of the movie thinking he's her gay best friend.

Speaking of American non-conformists, it struck me on a recent viewing of the 1934 Anne of Green Gables that one of the greatest of them in literature isn't a citizen of the United States at all. In Canada, beginning with my generation it's been a rite of passage to grow up with the mid-80s made-for-TV movie starring Megan Follows, and it seems evident that the later adaptation's casting of Marilla and Matthew and especially Anne herself owe a lot to the 30s film. The latter, however, adds a romantic plot to the episodic novel, focusing in fan fiction style on Anne's relationship with Gilbert Blyth. The movie's Gilbert Blyth himself departs from the studious young man of the book with whom Anne intellectually competes to become a sort of teenage proto-John Garfield type; especially hilarious if one was a fan of the 80s movie's daringly effeminate Gilbert.

Jonathan Crombie's "daringly effeminate" Gilbert Blythe... Candrogyny strikes again?

But although the 30s movie doesn't stick to Montgomery's vision of the clash between Anne's imaginative and impulsive ways and the town's demand for decorum and propriety (brokered by Marilla, who appreciates both Anne's ways and the town's), there's an early scene in which Anne elaborates on her preferred way of praying, as opposed to the way she's been taught, that's shocking in its frank portrayal of the young adolescent's “pagan” animism and antidoctrinalism. Exalted by her Romantic imagination (Elinor Dashwood would never approve), Anne is in some ways more of a Transcendentalist even than Jo March, in a line of Protestant heroines that descends from Jane Austen and ends up in two superb woman's pictures that explicitly grapple with philosophical subjects in a Transcendentalist context, the great Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager and Douglas Sirks's All That Heaven Allows.

The Anglo-American noncomformist spirit has often been represented by heroines presumably because women have traditionally had to do so little to not conform to their social role**; because being female is already to not conform to the male-determined “norm” (hence the emphasis in the initial chapters of Anne of Green Gables on the mistake of ordering her instead of a boy); because women are encouraged to develop their imaginations and middle-class women traditionally had the (double-edged, as the non-Anglo-American example of Madame Bovary emphasizes) leisure in which to do so; because women are not encouraged to challenge their circumstances or environment, which makes it all the more dramatic when they do. See also the heroines of Theodor Dreyer, an auteur very much concerned with both spirituality and nonconformism. Another good example from cinematic history is Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth (1950), in which Jennifer Jones plays a peasant woman who identifies with her dead mother's paganism, who cannot find happiness with either the Baptist minister who thinks she's an innocent child of nature or the swaggering squire who satisfies her body but threatens her soul, and who scandalizes her community in her attempt to achieve fulfilment (compare Dreyer's Day of Wrath).

Since seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master I've wanted to compare it to Now, Voyager: both are “therapy” movies that use sea voyages as metaphors for spiritual journeys, and in both cases the protagonist must work out their relationship to male authority, represented by a guru/mentor. Since Now, Voyager, with its overt reference to Whitman, is about the process of becoming an individual (and shows how Transcendentalism might have special application for women, who historically have not been encouraged to think their own thoughts and lead their own lives), Davis resolves her relationship with male authority with relative ease (her mommy issues are another matter); in contrast, in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix seems to be offered charismatic authority as a solution to his “male” anger and alienation, and a finally unacceptable one. (His mommy issues, too, are another story, and one that, along with the central performances by brothers who ape James Dean's persona in remarkably different ways, makes The Master a fascinating companion to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, which, come to think about it, is also about the search for/escape from a problematic male guru as much as about longing for the mother.) 

*I can't comment on “chick flicks,” the contemporary equivalent to the studio-era “woman's picture,” since I have seen very few of them. They do often appear to indulge in gender essentialism, but whether that's also true of studio-era woman's pictures and I simply overlook it because of their cultural context, or whether the few hundred woman's pictures that have any reputation are exceptions that challenged that context, is something I haven't studied. I know that some feminist film critics have embraced blockbusters with female appeal like James Cameron's Titanic, but that's further than I'm capable of going even though I'm willing to admit that theoretically Cameron's dopey, historically dodgy, and impeccably pop-feminist blockbuster could be the true heir to Gone With the Wind.

**Nowadays, on the other hand, it's probably easier for a boy or man to fail to conform to his gender role than it is for a girl or woman. This kind of nonconformism, however, has not yet been absorbed into our narrative consciousness. At the same time, it's hardly the case that women have total freedom to ignore conventional gender self-presentation. It's interesting to see self-declared feminist Janelle Monae – sporting Bette Davis's pompadour from Now, Voyager – bring female androgyny to a pop arena in which female bodily display and conventional attractiveness remain mandatory (hence the abuse Amy Winehouse took). Even in indie, where conventional sexiness is met with disapproval (hence the abuse that Lana Del Rey gets), there's a weird emphasis on long, flowing Pre-Raphaelite hair (Kate Bush, Neko Case, Florence Welch... heck, even Courtney Love in recent years... that's totally enough for a thing). Camille Paglia may have been right that Madonna was the most important feminist of the 1980s because she proved that sexiness and power were not mutual contradictory, but once the lesson of Madonna was absorbed by a new generation of women in pop that message became muddled: no one doubts that Beyonce, for example, is powerful (i.e. she's famous, wealthy, and in charge of her career), but unlike Madonna, she does not project an image of power (not even when she specifically manufactures one in the form of Sasha Fierce). Should she? What were the goals of feminism again? For women to be self-determining and financially successful or for women to be a threat to the status quo, a.k.a. scare the bejesus out of heterosexual men? And what do we make of the fact that despite the continued insistence on women's sexual self-display in pop music, most of Madonna and Beyonce's male fans are gay? It's a crazy world out there, kids....

"Mother... I'm not afraid!"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

In a Lonely Place: Male Melodrama in Vincente Minnelli's 'Some Came Running'

The Hollywood melodrama reached its zenith in the 1950s: the same decade that enshrined the 20th century bourgeois values that continue to haunt us – upward mobility, materialism, repression, conformism, the nuclear family – also produced movies deeply critical of those values from auteurs like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli. After over a decade of blockbusters catering to fantasy fans it's safe to say that fantasy is no longer an underdog genre, and it should therefore cause no butthurt if I remark that it might be interesting for a movie to take a long hard look at contemporary life and values now and then. At least Hunger Games had the virtue of allegorically reflecting something about Occupy-era boomer-Millennial relations.

Any movie that's not a comedy is a melodrama in the broad sense, but there's also the melodrama, a genre characterized by over-the-top acting, lurid subjects, and a focus on family and/or marital relationships. The melodrama is usually associated with women because of that relationships-focus and all of the emotion and stuff, and until recently I thought that melodramas with male protagonists were largely covered by film noir (usually centred on a sexually and existentially anxious doomed protagonist) and movies about dangerously angry and alienated men (starting in the 50s with Nicholas Ray and continuing in very different ways in the films of Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, and Anderson). Sometimes there was overlap between the types, as in Ray's In a Lonely Place or (arguably) Taxi Driver. Sometimes a melodrama that still fits comfortably within the realm of the “woman's picture” (focus on a single romantic plot) might have a male protagonist, like Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow or Dieterle's Love Letters. The woman's picture/noir hybrid, meanwhile, produced movies that anticipated 1950s melodrama in their critique of American bourgeois values and the nuclear family, like Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945) and Max Ophuls's The Reckless Moment (1949).

But there was a time when bestselling novels written by men, featuring male protagonists, attempted to deal with problems of class and sex in American society. (Not only men, and not only male protagonists, but that's what I'm talking about here.) For better or worse, this kind of novel was shrugged aside by academics because it didn't fit with the narrative whereby the serious novel can never recover from Modernism: The Recognitions is an acceptable sprawling novel of American life, Peyton Place is not. I wrote about a movie based on one such bestseller, Kings Row (1942), in my last post, and now I've seen another, Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). It seems like a novelty today to see a film that is neither a romance aimed at a female audience nor a romantic comedy, in which the whole concern of the male protagonist is to be loved by a woman rather than to bond with or prove himself among other men, and in which this is not an indication that the man is a stalker.

Thanks to feminism we have a heightened awareness of the cultural tropes that demonize female sexuality, and from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy to Preston Sturges there have always been male authors interested in protesting against the sexual double standard. Some Came Running, however, shows how similar tropes can be used to demonize male sexuality. Frank Sinatra's Dave Hirsh, an Army veteran and unsuccessful novelist, returns to his hometown, where he meets Gwen, a creative writing and literary criticism teacher who's a fan of his work, through his semi-estranged older brother, who became a successful businessman through his wife's wealth. Dave falls in love with Gwen, who's conflicted about her feelings for him. Dave's a drinker and a gambler who sometimes takes up with “tramps,” and as such the educated, upper-middle-class Gwen feels that he's not good enough for her. More particularly, she's concerned that because he's been with “whores,” his desire for her means that he thinks she's a “whore” – and any desire she shows for him would confirm it. She rejects him out of affronted pride and jealousy, in the same way that, Freud speculated, “Dora” neurotically rejected her employer's advances even though she had feelings for him because she learned that he'd made the same advances to a lower-status woman a few days earlier. For the movies, this is pretty advanced sexual psychology, even if a female viewer may feel that there's a simpler explanation when a woman acts like Gwen, and it's called "she's just not that into you." 

In any case, Gwen's cuturally-conditioned conflict isn't presented especially sympathetically, and she would come across even more as a typical 50s movie melodrama portrait of a “frigid” woman (see also the “nymphomaniac,” as in Sirk's Written on the Wind) and neurotic female intellectual/career woman if it weren't that Hirsh jerks around and leads on Shirley MacLaine's Ginnie in much the same way. He can't love Ginnie, who loves him with even less pride than he loves Gwen, because she's a tramp and because she lacks education: Gwen can't understand his sexual life and Ginnie can't understand his intellectual life. In other words, Hirsh is as divided, conflicted, and neurotic as Gwen, a point driven home when we glimpse Gwen discussing the phenomenon of great male writers' debauched sex lives with her class. The movie is troubled by Hirsh's unconventional sex life – as pathologized as the sexuality of the “frigid” woman or “nymphomaniac” – and asks for understanding of it.

A couple of interrelated subplots flesh out this portrait of middlebrow American sexual hypocrisy. Dave's unhappily married brother seeks consolation in the arms of his much younger secretary; when his daughter discovers this she goes wild and takes off to a nearby big city with a man who's picked her up, where she runs into her uncle, who makes him scram and puts her on a bus back home with admonitions about not turning into a “tramp.” Later we learn that she's decided to break way from home in a healthier way, by getting a job with a publisher in New York. When we first met her she told her uncle that she admired the male freedom that allowed him to see all different sides of life, but if her desire to emulate Dave and its proto-feminist implications are explored in the novel, they're not in the movie. We only know that a middle-class young woman can't emulate male freedom without becoming categorized as a “tramp” – although we also know that Dave, to a lesser extent, is also considered damaged goods, although being the victim of such attitudes doesn't make him any less disposed to exhibit them towards women.

The movie cuts the Gordian knot of sexual hypocrisy using the melodrama trope of the good-hearted whore and her refreshing honesty. Throughout the 60s MacLaine just kept playing sexually aberrant women. What was it about the fey, offbeat personality and the androgynous haircut that screamed “prostitute” and “fallen woman”? It all started here, anyway, with her grating/endearing, abject and masochistic performance as Ginnie, which won her an Oscar. Having a gamine actress play a virgin/whore character is a familiar European gambit (see Bresson's Ladies of the Bois de Bologne and Fellini's Nights of Cabiria); the actress's ethereal quality makes the virgin archetype stand out in relief against the soiled and vulgar reality. Two years later MacLaine would play a similar role (for which she got an Oscar nomination) in Wilder's The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon's junior businessman must face up to the fact that as a 99%er, he's a prostitute in relation to the big boys just as much as MacLaine's suicidal abandoned mistress is, and must choose between joining their ranks by exploiting women or choosing “feminine” values by rejecting power. Which come to think of it is also the theme of Some Like It Hot, in which Lemmon more literally embodied the feminine.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Jackie Brown, Kings Row, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: Men Critiquing Men in the Movies

I've complained on this blog (in which post or posts I can no longer remember) about male indie directors taking no interest in making films with female protagonists, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough. At the moment there's Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, a character study of a woman in her late 20s who in type is a cross between a rare female loser, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and a hipster Bridget Jones (with the desperation for a man thankfully omitted; or perhaps it's rather that the clinginess essential to the character has been changed into a homoerotic dependency on a more grown-up female friend instead). The movie's effect on the viewer will largely depend on whether one is susceptible or allergic to Greta Gerwig's brand of fey charm – see also Giulietta Masina and Anna Karina, both of whom I adore; my reaction to Gerwig was complicated by identification with a present-day actress/heroine, albeit one almost decade younger than me. 

There is also of course Cassavetes, who has made movies with female protagonists and one specifically about the experience of being female. There's Todd Haynes, a major exception; unfortunately, I don't like his movies. Lars von Trier – another exception whose movies I also don't like, but by this time it's starting to look like I don't have much of a case, even before I add David Lynch, whose movies I do. Directors who truly have no time for women like Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick may have gained enormously inflated reputations in the initial burst of American independent films, and indie auteurs from Cronenberg to Kaufman to Anderson may be gender literalists about their author avatars, but perhaps 25-50% percent of high-profile male indie directors are more adventurous in their approach to gender. Does that arbitrarily made-up percentage sound correct? Sure!

And there's Quentin Tarantino, who, for all the pulpy macho violence of his films, can't be accused of taking no interest in female protagonists given the Kill Bill movies. But also given Jackie Brown, which I finally watched yesterday. 

Please note: all discussions of films below INCLUDE SPOILERS.

Jackie Brown's Deconstruction of Machismo

Jackie Brown belongs to that category of crime film that quietly deconstructs the machismo that belongs to the genre, like other female-lead members such as Cassavetes's GloriaGloria, however, is considerably more conventional in its portrayal of gender, with the former gun moll played by Gena Rowlands standing up to the ruthless gangsters in order to protect a little boy – the mother-tiger archetype. As far as its examination of gender goes its most interesting aspects are Gloria's fierce independence (of Cabiria proportions) – she's a loner-cousin to Rowlands's character in Minnie and Moskowitz – and the way it seemingly depicts men in relation to women through the character of the scrawny prepubescent boy whose distinctly romantic love for Rowlands leads to comic attempts to act “like a man” but actually leaves him overwhelmed.

While sort of vaguely admiring Tarantino on a few fronts, I have never exactly been a fan, which is why for me Jackie Brown, which I only just saw for the first time, stands out in his oeuvre like another low-budget triumph by an auteur better-known for bigger films, Tim Burton's Ed Wood. One flaw I did find in the film, in common with many reviewers at the time of its release, was its pacing and length, although not due to the talky scenes and incidental episodes that serve little purpose but to allow actors of the calibre of Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Pam Grier, and Michael Keaton to interact in warped, hilarious, and frightening ways – as if once upon a time Tarantino could have become the Preston Sturges of crime films. I was bored because the movie didn't ratchet up the pace the nearer we came to the quadruple-cross (or whatever the number was) climax, instead alternating between peaks and valleys of tension in a way that made it seem as long as it is. I had the same problem with Pulp Fiction: by the time it enters its final act I'm snoozing.

Something I don't share with the critics whose reviews I've found online is their complete disregarding of the film's gender and racial politics. Yet surely the only reason we're expected to sympathize with Jackie is that by double-crossing both the cops and Jackson's criminal she's simultaneously sticking it to the White Man and the macho culture that transcends race and that results in the death of Fonda's character, shot by De Niro for needling him about misplacing his car after a money exchange. In fact it's hard to know how this film would have played if the lead character were white, as in the Elmore Leonard novel it's based on, although there's a specific discomfort in reflecting on the fact that the plot involves a black woman stealing the life's earnings of a black man, whether or not she's in danger from him and he's put her in danger from the police.

There would be ways to make Jackie's betrayal of Ordell seem much less uncomfortable, and both Tarantino and Jackson know what they are – instead of which they choose to portray him as relatively complex within the film's cartoonish terms. Just let him be the one to kill Fonda rather than De Niro; even let him strike her (rather than just recommending it to De Niro as a course of action preferable to murder) or Jackie and he would easily earn his betrayal and death by most audiences' standards of fictional justice. But Tarantino wants things more interesting and Jackson, thanks to his masterful comedic abilities, is up to that challenge. As a study of betrayal within a macho criminal universe it's not nearly as harrowing as Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky but should perhaps be considered its distant relative (especially given the gift for dialogue and love of talk he shares with May).

What a Man's Gotta Do

Charming and generally affable and reasonable but also practical, Ordell kills associates only when he must, to protect himself, and maintains a not-very-well-run patriarchal household with Fonda's stoned and insolent Melanie. Melanie sexually solicits De Niro's Louis, an old associate of Ordell's who was recently released from prison, and it briefly looks like they might form an alliance to rob Ordell. But in a scene at a bar with Ordell and Louis afterwards it becomes clear that Melanie is a mere object of exchange in their homosocial bonding: Ordell “lent” her to Louis and only bonds the harder with him over his friend's sexual betrayal. Moreover, Melanie is one of several women he has set up in houses. Having had her and feeling guilt over it that feeds his disgust at her own disloyalty to Ordell, Louis increasingly turns on Melanie after this exchange, becoming irritable, threatening her with violence, calling her a “bitch,” and finally killing her when she refuses to shut up and stop making fun of him. When Ordell learns of this he's not sentimental but he is nonplussed; after a few protests, however, he concludes, “If you had to do it then you had to do it,” a line that Jackson could have made much more chilling – instead what's chilling about it is that it's completely matter-of-fact. In his warped perception, killing a woman for no reason at all is sometimes what a man's gotta do.

Melanie perfectly matches Simone de Beauvoir's description, in The Second Sex, of a certain kind of woman who accepts her place within the patriarchal structure and therefore accepts that men are masters of the universe, but spends all her time mocking individual men for their failure to live up to this ideal. Given the value set on femininity in the macho criminal world the film depicts, the way she ends up is hardly surprising. Jackie Brown is something else: economically self-sufficient even if she is a black woman nearing middle age in a low-income job, she uses her wits to first set herself up as Ordell's “manager,” demanding 15% of the cut, and then, in a huge gamble, to take it all from him as her last chance to forestall a dismal future. She's one of Tarantino's cherished underdogs, but in that respect Ordell isn't far behind her, and the way she uses his trust of her to accomplish her own ends and betray him makes him vulnerable and sympathetic at the human level no matter how dangerous and ideologically despicable we know him to be, much like Claude Rains's villain in Hitchcock's Notorious.

De Niro, incidentally, also gives a masterful comic turn: Tarantino (of all people) gets a rare restrained performance out of him, all low-key mumbling and shuffling until at last he's called upon to turn on the sickening menace, but even then Ordell thankfully shoots him before he can get into Cape Fear monster mode. The restrained De Niro performance is in keeping with Tarantino's uncharacteristic handling of violence in this film: the shootings mostly (all?) take place off-screen and have at least some emotional cost for the killer, the audience, or both.

By the way, in case you ever thought gender doesn't affect the way you interpret a movie (because I'm tiring myself out with these endless gendered viewings of media), Variety critic Todd McCarthy, in a positive contemporary review, gets this out of Melanie's fate: “De Niro plays a seedy, relatively uninteresting sideline character for most of the way, only to erupt in the late going in ways that are both insanely violent and touchingly honest and loyal.” I spent a solid thirty seconds wondering what he could possibly be talking about before I realized that he must have approved of the homosocial loyalty that makes De Niro so irritated with Fonda that he shoots the “bitch” with no provocation except teasing. Touching? I don't know about you, but it brings a tear to my eye!

Interestingly, like the "undateable" Frances (as a semi-infatuated male friend dubs her), Jackie Brown ends up alone at the conclusion, not because she has no opportunities but rather seemingly because the male filmmaker doesn't want to diminish her by making it seem like her goal in the movie was a man all along or that now that she'll have one she'll be fulfilled. Since of course nearly every movie, commercial or indie, with a male protagonist ends with a romantic pairing, this means that our image of self-sufficiency is still gendered feminine, although only in the rare feminist movie that goes counter to the prevailing trend. At least I can't think off the top of my head of any representations of male self-sufficiency in movies to counteract the sociopathic loner image, but if you know of them let me know.

Kings Row and Progressive Gothic

Odder still than the fact that I'd never seen Jackie Brown is that I'd never even heard of Kings Row, Sam Wood's Oscar-nominated 1942 melodrama about class, mental illness, and sadism in a Midwestern town. David Lynch's cinema has a lot of disparate sources in lesser-known corners of American cinema, but this is one of them. (I recently saw another for the first time, the 1962 no-budget zombie mood-piece Carnival of Souls.) It seems like more than coincidence that this forerunner of Peyton Place made a star of Ronald Reagan, during whose 50s-throwback presidency Lynch made his masterpiece about uncovering dark secrets in a white-picket-fence small town, Blue Velvet. I found the film remarkable for both its open depiction of the love between the two male best friends who are the movie's central characters and its proto-feminist theme of patriarchal sadism and silencing of women who know the secrets of powerful men.

Best friends embrace.

Although the young psychiatrist-hero ultimately decides to take the side of the troublesome “hysterical” woman, in a rather better reaction than Jake's in Chinatown, one gains a strong impression between three of the four young female characters of thwarted female sexuality: even Ann Sheridan's lively lower-class character, who has enough social leeway to be a tomboy as a child, ultimately has to sublimate her attraction to her husband (Reagan) after his legs are amputated, although at least the speech where she talks about her new “calm” love for him seems nearly as awful as the scene where he loses his legs. Although set at the turn of the 20th century, the film depicts both male and female premarital sexual activity with due Code-evading ellipses but without judgement; in this Freud-informed fictional universe everyone has a sexual appetite.The movie is also a rare example of a male melodrama, a genre known to literary fiction, it seems, but not well-regarded by movie producers; another example cropped up recently in The Great Gatsby. Of course plenty of movies about men are melodramas but try to disguise this fact by a focus on violence and "rites of passage" rather than assuming the traditional, relationships-focused form of melodrama. 

David Lynch and the Fantasizing Protagonist

The silenced woman, kept captive by patriarchy, becomes an overt theme in Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which I've described on this blog as “one of the worst films I've ever seen.” I don't really want to deprive Lynch of that honour, since he's also made some of the best films I've ever seen – Mulholland Dr. has frequently occupied top spot in my favourites, with It's a Wonderful  Life and Vertigo as its only serious rivals. However, I'm willing to concede that I may be wrong about FWWM, for a number of reasons: because it was important enough to Roberto Bolano for him to namecheck it in 2666, and while this may be the result of cross-cultural misunderstanding on par with Godard's admiration for Jerry Lewis, it may also be the result of an artist from another culture understanding an idiosyncratic auteur work better than critics at home... like Godard's admiration for Jerry Lewis; because for the first 20 minutes of my first viewing of Mulholland Dr. I was ready to declare it the worst movie I'd ever seen, which tells me something about the reactions Lynch can provoke due to both subject matter and style.

Most of all, however, it's because in the comments section of online reviews of FWWM I noticed that more than one woman claimed from experience that it was the most realistic representation of sexual abuse she'd ever seen. This made me reflect that perhaps what disturbed and angered me about FWWM was not that it treated the subject of incest exploitatively but that it treated the subject at all. It was something I didn't want to think about or see, which one could argue is my contribution to our cultural silence on the topic, which is also a silencing of victims. We seem to be much more uncomfortable as a culture with depictions of incestuous sexual abuse of minors than with depictions of rape in general, perhaps because the specter of sex in the nuclear family is something we all work very hard all of the time at repressing. I mean, it was bad enough for Oedipus when he realized he'd married his mother, but combine the family romance with unequal power relations and patriarchal proprietorship and you get something as nightmarish as – well, as FWWM.

My discomfort with the subject matter, which Lynch makes as emotionally and viscerally unbearable as it should be, is not, however, the only reason I've rejected FWWM on my two or three viewings to date. Like Henry James – a fellow American genius whose prurient/puritan keyhole approach to adult sexuality Lynch shares – in “The Turn of the Screw,” Lynch plants a story about sexual abuse in a supernatural setting, as though they feel obliged to treat the subject obliquely. But whereas all we know about the ghosts in “TTOTS” is that they want to take possession of the children, Lynch creates an outlandish mythology with Black and White Lodges, suffering that takes the form of creamed corn in a demon dimension, and on and on. While some fans of the movie – to go by YouTube comments – love it for exactly these surrealist sci-fi flourishes, I have no idea how to process a movie that's at least as impenetrable as Eraserhead while also having a lucid, tragic plot about a high school student who's beginning to realize that she's being abused by her father, but not in time – as we know – to prevent him from murdering her. In any case, beneath the layer of weirdness Laura Palmer is a Christ figure in the Clarissa Harlowe line, relentlessly terrorized and abused by her creator in a way that Lynch would return to, more abstractly, in INLAND EMPIRE, in which Dern's anxiety is still sexual but also existential.

It may have been when he came up with the Leland/Bob solution to the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” that Lynch first got two ideas that would become central to his later work: the idea of interdimensional or alternate universe doubles (isn't Leland/Bob just like Betty/Diane?); and the idea of a movie that is entirely the fantasy or dream, but in any case the nightmare, of its protagonist. I see no indication in FWWM that the Bob portions are intended as Laura's fantasy; on the contrary, they're objectively presented, which is obviously not the case in “The Turn of the Screw.” However, it certainly makes sense of the Bob story to view it as Laura's “cover story” for her father's abuse. Of great importance to Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. is the idea of a fantasy concealing an emotionally unbearable reality (in FWWM, “My father sexually abuses me,” in the other two movies, “I have killed the person I love”); and in FWWM and MD, in very different ways, the horrifying reality “peeks through” the fantasy. Lynch's fantasies of interdimensional evil and beleaguered innocence place him in a tradition that's not only Jamesian but also Blakeian, although it's by using the vocabulary of pulp and pop culture that's he's intermittently spoken to a wider audience and both tapped into and created archetypes that resonate even when his intentions at the narrative level are unclear.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Troublesome Feminist Classics: The Second Sex and Courtney Love

Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), the seminal work of modern feminism, is fat enough that reading it used up all of my library renewals; consequently, I have no copy to refer to in reviewing it. I can say that I tore through The Second Sex, fascinated even as I violently agreed or disagreed with every sentence (or tried to decide which): it has the scope and generalization of a work of philosophy with the detail and psychological insight of an epic novel. It's easily one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I've ever read, fiction or non-. In fact I don't think I've been so thought-provoked since I read its obvious progeny, Paglia's Sexual Personae, as a teenager.

Ironically, it's as feminism that The Second Sex may be found wanting today. In de Beauvoir's use of existentialism, as wearisomely repeated throughout the work (which is nothing if not doctrinaire in its philosophical framework), the subject must realize him/herself by transcending him/herself through action in the world. Otherwise we “sink” into “mere immanence,” which to de Beauvoir is pure “emptiness.” This is how de Beauvoir explains the position of women at present: men have stifled their potential for action in the world; consequently, women are useless creatures of immanence.

Here are just a few problems with this conception of feminism:
  1. For de Beauvoir, the traditional male subject position is the human subject position. Because every subject sets him or herself up as sovereign and essential through positioning others as the “inessential Other” and trying to dominate the latter (more of de Beauvoir's existentialism), and because women were originally at a slight disadvantage vis-a-vis men because of the burdens of pregnancy, childbirth, and child care, men stopped women from achieving this full human status. Consequently, for de Beauvoir equality will be achieved when women are allowed to act exactly like men.

    For contemporary feminists or anyone who's opposed to gender essentialism or all that's meant by the catch-all “patriarchy,” this analysis doesn't go nearly far enough. De Beauvoir could not have foreseen that the democratic impulse would one day, not very far in the future (about half a century), lead to the deconstruction of what we mean when we say “masculinity.” The Second Sex opens with de Beauvoir mocking the essentialists of her time and their question, “Where are all the women?”; now they ask, “Where are the men?”
  1. De Beauvoir's insistence that action in the public sphere is the only vehicle for human fulfillment leads to some strange and uncomfortable conclusions. She glorifies playground violence in the process of lamenting the way that girls are prevented from natural self-expression through physical action, from climbing trees to smacking your companion. Women, she asserts, have no opportunity to test themselves against others, whether through the exertion of their strength or, later, at work, and so they have no true sense of their own abilities and come to falsely value their selves instead (i.e., they become narcissists). But there is no analysis here of the way that boys are coerced from their playground days into violence that may frighten and repel the majority of them.

    While overvaluing violence, de Beauvoir severely undervalues maternity – and must do so through the logic of her argument. While she seems to be offering a corrective to the view that marriage and maternity are the fulfillment of the female “destiny,” in fact motherhood for de Beauvoir must always take second place to the true fulfillment of the human destiny, work, even as it interferes with that destiny. The de Beauvoirian feminist could only ever be childless by choice, which unfortunately makes de Beauvoirian feminism completely non-viable, not only because the world has to be populated but because the vast majority of women want to experience motherhood. For de Beauvoir such women are victims of social programming (or “advertising,” as she wittily calls it at one point) who have “accepted their feminine destiny” as the easy road to achieving regard instead of the “authentic” way. But even if you are childless by choice, as I am, it's a grim version of feminism that defines motherhood as a species necessity that prevents women who indulge it from ever completely realizing the fully human destiny.
  1. Abstractly, the idea that the human destiny is to realize oneself by transcending oneself through action in the public sphere in the form of work sounds good, but de Beauvoir herself realizes that work in its present form is far from living up to the glorious role she gives it. Consequently she also must periodically admit that the vast majority of men are no more fulfilling their human destiny than women are. At one point she even admits that the only place where we see the difference is in the case of a tiny minority of male creative geniuses. It's unclear whether her brand of existentialism implies socioeconomic reform for all so that both men and women can achieve fulfillment or whether she is elitist and wants the path cleared for exceptional women to join the pantheon of exceptional men.
Here, on the other hand, are a couple of key feminist arguments that I'd formerly agreed with unthinkingly, but which I was persuaded of by de Beauvoir:
  1. There can be no equality for women without access to birth control and abortion. If women are at the mercy of their biology they will not be able to participate in the social world created by men and will remain, to a substantial degree, chattel. For the same reasons I was finally fully convinced, as well, that maternity leave, parental leave, and access to affordable or free daycare services are essential components of an egalitarian, civilized society.
  1. There can be no equality for women without economic independence. No one can be a free person who is in a state of economic dependency on another person. This, again, makes motherhood problematic – and I should note here that everything in The Second Sex implies that problematic status: according to the argument presented (and it is a compelling perspective), the equality of women does not become a social problem until we have reached a very advanced stage of individualism, and individualism makes the natural in the human, as vividly symbolized by maternity, extremely problematic. In cases where the division of labour in a child-raising partnership is such that one person earns while the other raises the children, child-raising must be legally recognized as work in case of divorce and consequent loss of one's means of support. What de Beauvoir could not have foreseen is that men might decide to be the ones to stay home – if the inclinations of the couple are aligned that way, or if the woman happens to have the better job.
Courtney Love and the Failure of Feminism

The moment when I first became really cognizant of Courtney Love was a feminist epiphany, though of a peculiar sort. It was when I saw the video for “Violet” for the first time, when I must have been 19, in 1994. What struck me about the video was the way that Love mingled traditional feminine imagery with a depiction of herself as massively messed-up. At 19 I had read Camille Paglia; I thought I knew how I felt about feminism; I thought that (as de Beauvoir prefaces The Second Sex, published in 1949) most of the significant battles had been won, or close enough; I did not feel hampered by my gender in my writing career or my ambition to be an academic; I thought that Western women were free of the old stereotypes and could choose to adopt “femininity” or discard it at will, always viewing it ironically. From my late teens through my mid-20s, the period of my life when I was most interested in style, sometimes I cut my hair short and dressed to resemble Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc or David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth; sometimes I grew it longer and dressed to resemble Grace Kelly, complete with a string of pearls.

The message that the “Violet” video sent me was simple: feminism had failed. Young women were not okay. We were not “over” the stereotypes and expectations. If anything, feminism had contributed to our confusion and frustration, because we found that we couldn't live up to either traditional or feminist expectations. We did not feel powerful. The woman in the “Violet” video wasn't just angry; she was raw, vulnerable, masochistic. She was no feminist ideal except in the sense that she was everything the culture did not want to see: the culture didn't want to know about women's rage and pain and conflict. You were supposed to be pretty on the inside, too; and if you couldn't be, then you at least had to hide it and keep it pretty on the outside.

I had previously been aware of Love from an interview in the NME that I started reading because Love, on the cover, was juxtaposing feminine imagery and punk style in a way that I'd started doing at 17; reading it, I was impressed that she had read Paglia's Sexual Personae. I didn't know anyone else at all who'd read the book that had changed my life, and it certainly wasn't the kind of thing you expected a celebrity to talk about. Oddly, all of the things we had in common didn't make me check out her music. A rabid Smiths fan, I was following the early developments of Britpop in the form of Suede and Elastica; I liked glam, not grunge.

Soon after that, I got married and thought that I had to give up my teenage obsession with pop music, which, I felt, would have consumed my life and made it impossible to live in the real world. As it happened my husband was a Hole fan and recommended Live Through This to me when I mentioned my reaction to the “Violet” video. But the cover of the album, with its distorted image of a demented beauty queen, in combination with the band name, frankly scared me. Love was getting at deeply uncomfortable things about women's relationship to their femininity, and I wasn't ready for it. It had to wait until my mid-20s, when I was a divorced frustrated playwright, for me to be angry enough to appreciate Live Through This, which I played constantly in my tiny dorm room, alternating it with The Marshall Mathers LP.

Googling Courtney

That was the year 2000, the same year I became an internet user in a serious way, after getting access to it as a research assistant. During my lunch break or after I'd finished my work for the day I'd sit in my office doing things like googling Courtney Love. Googling Courtney is in many ways an ill-advised thing for a fan to do: between her many moments of seeming madness, all the drugs, and the (sometimes paranoid) online vitriol directed at her, a bout of Courtney googling lasts me for years. I must have had one or two more little ones in between 2000 and the last few days, the latest prompted by seeing her live for the first time, on her I'm Still Alive tour, at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. A good thing about only googling a celeb at long intervals is that when you go back there's a wealth of new material.

Courtney Love's relationship to feminism is as controversial as everything else about her. I'm sure there are better feminist role models in rock: women who were only ever interested in music, not fame; who have quietly released one good album after another; who are famous only for what they have done, not for whom they married; whose wealth is entirely their own. Kat Bjelland has been at pains to clarify that when Courtney came to her in the late 80s with the idea of creating an all-girl band, Courtney could not play an instrument or, therefore, write songs. This, however, put her in no different a position than Morrissey's when he met Johnny Marr. Like Morrissey, she had only a talent for writing lyrics, a willingness to sing, delusional-seeming ego and ambition, and a misfit's desire to get revenge on the world by becoming famous. While Morrissey has never changed his strange ways, Love, as a woman, had more to prove, and consequently eventually became a proficient guitarist and learned how to craft classic pop songs. In early interviews (such as one with Cobain in Sassy) she complains that women in music are known as lyricists rather than songwriters and declares her ambition to join the ranks of the latter. 

Feminism is a theme for Love from the beginning, and she's never stopped talking about it. And the young Love, I discovered this time (through the excellent VH1 Behind the Music documentary), has some serious feminist bona fides: she “demanded” that Faith No More make her their lead singer, crashing the all-male rock party directly, until, naturally, they booted her out, preferring to go in the direction of “a male energy”; whereupon she resolved “to have an all-female band that took over the entire world.” At that point she hooked up with Bjelland, but Love's drug use got in the way; she went to L.A., started an abortive movie career, eventually formed Hole with Eric Erlandson and pursued first Billy Corgan and then Kurt Cobain.
Internet defenders of Love have it that Hole was outselling Nirvana two to one when Love and Cobain first met; I see no reason to doubt this, and in that case Love's "groupie tendencies" indicated only that her desire to be a rock star had a fascination with rock stars as the other side of a single coin.

It's not original to note that the unequal “feminist” supercouple of Cobain and Love was rock's answer to the Clintons in the same decade. Two decades later we seem no closer to a female president of the United States (and Canada is doing no better in that regard), but we are getting better at entertainment supercouples, such as Jay-Z and Beyonce – a marriage between multimillionaires of equal fame. But while there's always been room for both men and women in mainstream pop, there has not been room for women in rock. There is no competition between Jay-Z and Beyonce because there is no idea that Beyonce might want to be Jay-Z. Why would she? In rock, however, there can only be one great star per generation, and Courtney Love wanted to be it. Instead, her husband was it, and hated it so much that he committed suicide, which only made him more it. In a further irony, the explosion of Nirvana and Cobain's suicide were practically the last moment that rock mattered. American alt-rock got a commercial boost from Nirvana's success that lasted through the 90s, while England celebrated guitar pop in the same decade, but by the turn of the millennium the commercial scene was dominated by hip-hop and dance-pop and the alternative scene by various kinds of post-rock (from twee through electronic), aside from the blip of The Strokes/Libertines/White Stripes. The mantle Love was after, that was going to redeem her existence – to be a rock star like the male rock stars, not a girl rock star in a girl rock ghetto, a rock star like Jim Morrison or Mick Jagger or Eddie Vedder, but also unlike them because a woman doing the same things can't mean the same thing – has dematerialized.

The Cultural Significance of “Bad Feminism”

Courtney's “bad feminism” is one of the things that makes her more culturally significant than the good feminists of rock. In her we see a woman of limitless ambition, great talent, and an insatiable need to rebel in constant conflict with cultural expectations. Love has always wanted to conform as powerfully as she wanted to rebel. An outsider by virtue of her appearance and attitude, she wanted to become an “insider” in the world of celebrity, of the wealthy and powerful and famous; her literally compulsive name-dropping is Proustian snobbery transposed to the “democratic” era of celebrity. At the same time, she has never been able to conform for long; the tragic part is that her form of rebellion is so self-destructive.

Love's relationship with physical beauty is as conflicted as her relationship with the beautiful people, as though each were a metaphor for the other. 80s photos reveal that before the plastic surgery started, Love was definitely no one's idea of pretty, although she was cute and stylish in a street urchin way; sometimes she looks like a young Pete Doherty. After she dyed her hair blonde and the facial adjustments began, that briefly turned into a cross between Marie Antoinette (suitably pictured, with her head chopped off, on the cover of Nobody's Daughter), Bernadette Peters, and early Madonna. From her earliest interviews Love maintained that sexual attractiveness was a more interesting choice than being sexless or plain, and the way Love played with the blonde baby doll/beauty queen archetype from Pretty on the Inside through Live Through This was as much a part of her significance as her music and her rage. She was certainly fascinated by the sexual charisma of male rock musicians, but that could not be reproduced by a woman because the mass male audience does not find aggression sexy or sexiness aggressive. She knew that she would have to be a new, unknown archetype – but she wasn't going to ignore sex.

One reason Courtney wanted to become an insider, or at least be accepted by the insiders, is summarized by her statement in an early 90s interview: “I want to affect culture in a very large way.” She had no interest in being eternally viewed, despised, and dismissed as a punk; she wanted to be taken seriously and to reach a mass audience. This has, of course, always been indie's dilemma: how to be anti-mainstream outsiders without limiting one's ambition; and on the other hand, how to reach the mass audience without selling out/conforming. Courtney has acted out that dilemma, just as she's acted out the conflicted relationship of women to beauty and sexual “power” (from a woman whose background includes a stint in foster homes where molestation was a constant threat, from which she escaped partly by stripping for cash). No good feminist is supposed to admit that she wants to be beautiful, maybe more than anything in the world, as no good punk is supposed to admit that she wants to be famous. Conflicts like these are part of what makes Courtney Love reflect, and in doing so affect, culture.

Ground in the Very Mill of the Conventional

At the moment Courtney is being a good girl again. She wants to promote her new album, whose release has been pushed back to coincide with the Xmas season appearance of her memoir. There's a good chance that the memoir will sell, so maybe it'll help the album – who knows? To increase its chances she's doing the rounds of genteel publicity in order to endear herself, as she put it in one interview, to the people in Texas who think she's still on crack. She showed up on The View, well-groomed, and let Barbara Walters grill her; she appeared looking like Grace Kelly via the ghost of Madeleine Elster in Vanity Fair, which, as kind to her as usual, skewered her for her truly distressing paranoid obsession with the Nirvana finances (although given that the intermittently incapacitated Love seems like anything except a businesswoman, it's entirely possible that her complaints have some foundation in truth).

She has also accepted an offer to be a reality TV show judge. “I never wanted to be comic relief,” goes the one line that she altered for herself on the one song she didn't co-write on Nobody's Daughter, Linda Perry's “Letter to God.” But in today's celebrity circus, it's hard to know what other role Love could fill. Kurt Cobain's recent transformation into a Muppet (no, not like when it happened to Angel) confirms that he and Love have become 90s nostalgia kitsch detritus. Assuming she can stay off non-prescription drugs, will it be Courtney Love's fate to replace Sharon Osbourne as the reigning rock wife bitch of reality TV? Well, it's true that her first bid for celebrity was when she auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club... by reading a Sylvia Plath poem. 

But here's the thing: Courtney Love still puts on a great show. I'm as surprised as anyone, between all the drug abuse, the self-indulgence, and the fact that she seems a little bit nuts in recent interviews. To be sure she's always seemed a little bit nuts, but a little bit nuts is charming in a brilliant, ambitious young person or a rock goddess at the height of her fame and glory; less so in a stupendously wealthy middle-aged 90s star with a plastic surgery addiction who's developed an obsession with the idea that people are stealing money from her.

Love, however, is sane and together where it counts for fans, which is on the stage. When I got my ticket I didn't even know what the tour was for, I just wanted to see Courtney. With the low price tag of $51.50 for the mosh pit, I was not only expecting but looking forward to an evening of brand-new material, instead of which we got about half each of Live Through This and Celebrity Skin, plus a couple of covers and a couple of songs from Nobody's Daughter. In interviews I read afterwards Love states that this small-venue tour is for “super-fans” who, she believes, know all the words to her songs. I didn't know there was such a thing as a Courtney Love super-fan because I didn't know there was such a thing as a casual Courtney Love fan, but in any case I was caught out when she directed her microphone at the crowd, handing over every other line of songs like “Miss World” and “Doll Parts” to us. Love is a great lyricist of her generation, but not in a Morrissey way: her lyrics are more like poetry than like prose; they evoke moods and images rather than telling coherent stories, and I've never felt the need to know or understand everything she's saying.

However, to my surprise a good portion of the crowd did seem to know all the words – especially to the Live Through This songs, especially the young women who looked to be in their early 20s. Rather adorably, these same girls imitated Courtney's hand movements during some of the songs like you might expect at a Taylor Swift concert, and exactly one tall young flannel-wearing dude raised his lighter during "Northern Star." (I guess no one carries lighters anymore.) Other young men and women engaged in enthusiastic headbanging, which was also adorable. The almost all-white audience was about 50/50 in terms of gender, with, I think, some trans representation as well; as for ages, to me it looked like about 50/50 20s and 30s. 

Courtney seemed buoyantly happy, e-cigarette dangling from her mouth, throwing roses to the crowd throughout – I caught one when its head became detached from its stem and bounced over audience heads right into my hands. She's in top voice and full of energy, and although she made us scream for an encore (as well she should), when she returned she played four more songs and then lingered on the stage as, handing out the remaining roses to fans in the front row and then examining the “lingerie” (bras and panties), as she called it, that someone had draped over the mic stands while she was offstage,and grinning at us like she was having such a good time she didn't want to leave.

I went with David Fiore, who agreed that it was like when our parents went to see The Rolling Stones in our youth. Of course the difference was that we were 90s indie kids and our rock heroes were never famous on that scale, with the exception of the weird blip of Nirvana, a freak of the zeitgeist; hence the strangeness, though suitable for punk, of seeing a legend in almost a club setting. And regardless of the fact that her career has been overshadowed by her husband's fame and her own drug problems, CL is a legend: as a persona, a performer, and a songwriter. She may not have convinced the world that she's the rock star of her generation, but for a small group of us, seeing Courtney Love in 2013 means exactly what it would have to see The Stones in the early 90s.