Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Gravitas Girls: Olive Kitteridge, Lena Dunham, and Sheila Heti

Another post where I find myself thinking about women, and other things, through the lens of a couple of female artists and an anti-heroic female protagonist created by a female author.

I wanted to like Olive Kitteridge, for reasons having to do with womanness. The miniseries is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by a woman, Elizabeth Strout. It stars a woman, Frances McDormand, who also served as executive producer, and one feels for the position of the woman in her late 50s in Hollywood, who may have to turn producer to get good roles. It was directed by a woman, Lisa Cholodenko, and the screenplay was written by Strout and another woman, Jane Anderson (who has the distinction of having written an episode of Mad Men and three episodes of The Facts of Life). And when the story started and it quickly became clear that Olive was thoroughly unlikeable, I thought that maybe all of these women were trying for a female anti-hero, a laudable goal.

There were so many womany reasons to like this miniseries, which was met with universal critical ecstasy. Unfortunately, Olive Kitteridge is absolutely ridiculous. It could almost be camp, except that it's in such good taste (restrained, full of pretty Maine scenery) that it squanders that opportunity. This slice of misery porn is like a Newbery Medal-winner for an adult audience, or like Precious for affluent white people in their 50s and 60s (i.e., HBO's demographic). Full of scatology and both random and deliberate violence, and every bit as misanthropic as its eponymous protagonist, Olive Kitteridge manages to mock both the hick inhabitants of the small town where it takes place (like the woman who sings Olivia Newton-John's “Magic” while accompanying herself on the grand piano at the family restaurant) and the more modern, worldlier outsiders (Olive's son's uptight blonde California princess first wife and his New Age-y second wife, who indulges her bratty little boy). The miniseries has contempt for every human type – except maybe Olive herself. But its affection for her is mysterious.

Longing, Repression, Suicide, and Poop in a Small Coastal Town

I already knew it wasn't going to get better for me after the first (and, in my opinion, best, because least focused on Olive) of the four segments. But after the scene early in the second segment in which a suicidal young man who fears he may be “bipolar,” like his mother, hallucinates (courtesy of CGI) that Olive, seated on the car seat beside him, is an anthropomorphic elephant eating peanuts out of a bag (not a type of hallucination I've ever heard of being associated with bipolar syndrome), I had to keep watching in fascinated horror, to see if the series could really sustain that level of blindness to its own ludicrousness. And to be sure, the most ludicrous bits occur early on: the elephant hallucination and, in the first segment, Olive getting turned on, maybe for the only time in their marriage, by her husband when he boasts to dinner guests that as a boy he could track deer when dad took him hunting by smelling fresh doe droppings to tell if the doe is in heat. But there are subtler gems in the two last segments: Henry and Olive, facing the emptiness of their future when they learn that their son is getting divorced and therefore they probably won't be grandparents, only to go out for dinner with friends their own age and hear what disrespectful little shits grandchildren are, so that life is equally empty either way; or, in the last segment, where after Olive does this show's version of a “meet cute” with an ever-charming Bill Murray and you're waiting for whatever extremely horrible thing is going to immediately happen to him, she learns at the start of their first date that he listens to Rush Limbaugh.

Feces plays a supporting role in two of the four segments and a starring role in one. We also get treated to: an accidental death; an accidental near-death; an accidental death that may be a suicide; a father who committed suicide; a mother who commits suicide (a “bipolar” woman who thinks there are purple snakes in the appliances); two near-suicides (the woman's child and Olive); a boy who commits murder (a former elementary school student of Olive's, glimpsed only once in the series, in detention, drawing a picture of a person holding their severed head); two young drug addicts who brutalize and threaten to kill the sparse staff and the couple of elderly people at the hospital they're robbing; the sudden death of an elderly woman; the bipolar mom taking advantage of the distraction of the elderly woman's sudden death to score some extra Valium at the pharmacy; an elderly man's stroke; and an elderly man's near-stroke. Dying or coming across someone who has died or is dying is apparently as common as breathing in Crosby, Maine. I'd feel safer in Twin Peaks.

The only moments that might almost be good occur in the first segment, which focuses on the only nice characters in the miniseries, Olive's husband, Henry, and the woman half his age (at least) with whom he becomes infatuated, played by Richard Jenkins and Zoe Kazan. Once upon a time I had the idea of doing a sort of Wide Sargasso Sea version of Madame Bovary that retold the story from Charles's point of view, and the first segment of Olive Kitteridge sort of does that. It's completely baffling why, instead of following the titular character's infatuation with a Scottish (or something – Welsh?), alcoholic fellow schoolteacher, which is made to bear a great deal of the weight of accounting for her subsequent nastiness and bitterness, and which could give us a sense of the person Olive might have been if she were happy – instead we're taken into the inner life of Henry. Which – thanks to the astonishing warmth and openness radiated by Jenkins and to Kazan's delicate performance, both of them playing characters who could otherwise have just been caricatures – turns out to be a beautiful place. I think it's Jenkins, not McDormand, who deserves the acting kudos in the miniseries, although that's perhaps because he's at least given the basic materials for playing a human being.

Yet we don't need to know anything about Henry, so the story of the nobly asexual relationship that develops between him and his naive little employee (namby-pamby, Ned-Flanderish Henry would never be unfaithful to his wife, or take advantage of such a young woman) is pointless in terms of the larger story. Strout's portrayal of Olive has a chic postmodern opacity: even on the rare occasions when she convulsively shows her pain, it doesn't make her more sympathetic (to me, at least) because neither the writers, nor the director, nor the actress is able to show its connection to her compulsion to hurt. (I'm thinking, by way of contrast, of Bette Davis's miraculous William Wyler-directed performance in Jezebel.) And if it's not in the performance, it has to be in the writing. We know that her father committed suicide, but knowing what has happened to an unlikeable character in the past isn't as important in making us understand and (ambivalently) root for them as knowing what they want. Emma Bovary wants her life to be beautiful and exciting and meaningful, and can't face the fact that life is not like that; Hedda Gabler wants control over the destinies of other people because, as a woman in the late 19th century, she has no control over her own destiny; Regina Giddens wants to be rich and have fun in the big city, and knows, as a woman in the early 20th century, if she were a man she could get the things she wants rather than having to go through her brothers and husband. Olive, however, isn't even allowed to really want to run away with her Romantic Scotsman (or whatever): when Olive's husband tells her that this was only a fantasy of happiness, she seems to believe him, and so do we, if only because it's impossible to imagine Olive getting along with anyone.

But then, part of the way through the final segment, it suddenly struck me that McDormand was, consciously or not, playing the character as“autistic,” in the pop media sense, and that was why her relentlessly monotonous performance (the same note over and over, as with her character in Fargo, but with the opposite mood) made sense, contrasting unfavourably though it did with the nuances of Jenkins's characterizations. People seem to love this – critics, cult audiences. Although Olive is a kind of pop-autistic sociopath, however, she's neither a genius nor a badass – let alone both, a la Walter White. She's not completely devoid of decency; she's not prejudiced against the mentally ill; and she's not a bigot. But she's a teacher, wife, and mother who appears to have done everything in her power to make her students, husband, and son as miserable as she is.

There's an interesting subject amidst all of the pointless violence and ugliness: how the repression that once kept incompatible couples together, and sometimes does even now, resulted not only in mutual misery, anger, and resentment, but also in entangling them in each other's lives to the extent that they truly were each other's closest companion, albeit perhaps only as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which the more passive partner is in thrall to the more aggressive one. Although, this show being what it is, the message is that all you get in return for even that boon is the loss of your companion, either directly to death or to stroke or dementia or ongoing illnesses and then to death. And more people than we'd like to think are in Olive's position when that happens: estranged from family and isolated in the midst of a community. At the end the show, like Olive, loses heart, and gives her a fake happy ending, gesturing toward the possibility that she'll get a new boyfriend, repair her relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, and develop a relationship with her grandchild. And in fact sometimes such people do redeem themselves as grandparents. For others (and I couldn't help but think of the Vivian Maier doc, watching Olive toward the end), the isolation only worsens.

Body Bildung

Sometimes glancing back over this blog makes me proud, and other times it makes me cringe – depending on the post, and depending on my mood. There are times when I can't even imagine what I was trying to do, like when I posited a parallel between the HBO comedy Bored to Death and Madame Bovary – something about boredom moving from the provinces to the urban centers – which managed to be both dubious and pretentious. I thought of that dubious and pretentious parallel, however, when I was listening to Lena Dunham read the audio book of Not That Kind of Girl.

Although only in her late 20s, Dunham affects a bored, world-weary tone, both as a writer and in her vocal delivery. It's especially striking when she discusses sex, which she does often. She has been presenting herself this way since she was in her early 20s: that kind of irony and detachment is her schtick, present even in her physicality in front of the camera, which is what made me think of Woody Allen and Elaine May when I first saw her, in the first episode of Girls. It didn't come as that much of a surprise, then, that Dunham actually quotes from Madame Bovary as the epigraph of NTKOG. The passage (beginning “Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen”) does not describe Emma's boredom, but rather her febrile state of waiting, as a young woman, for the adventure of her life to begin. I think we can gather from what follows that the reality of womanhood, for Lena as for Emma, is a lot more of a mixed bag than she anticipated.

Although I know it's a thing that people do regularly, I seldom buy a book by a comedian I like. Exceptions include a Jerry Lewis craze and Roseanne Barr's My Life As a Woman, which I think I found second-hand somewhere. I bought both Russell Brand's My Booky Wook and Craig Ferguson's American On Purpose, but didn't get around to reading either of them (or did I just seriously consider buying American On Purpose but had learned my lesson after Booky Wook?). I gave in and bought the audio version of NTKOG because the online controversies about some of the sexual stuff in it made me madly curious. I'll save my take on the Barry chapter, about what she has taken to calling in the media her sexual assault, for an upcoming epic post about feminism. As for her polymorphously perverse early relationship with her younger sister, it's illustrative of Dunham's dilemma: she thinks like a serious writer, drawn as she is to the murky ambiguities and uncomfortable areas of human sexuality, but she is a celebrity, and one who is best-known for working in the medium of TV, which has never been able to handle much ambiguity. In fact that's the reason for Dunham's unique cultural position: she's bringing to TV a darkly comic, provocative sensibility to a medium in which envelope-pushing always stands out because it is so rare.

Girls, although only a cult show, has undoubtedly brought Dunham to the attention of a much wider audience than any novel by a person in their 20s could have reached, and Dunham, while not considering herself an actress, uses herself – her persona, her body – in her work to great effect, so I don't consider it a great loss to the world that Dunham's celebrity probably will never now allow her to develop into the introspective prose writer she might have been. As with many of the brighter men and women in pop culture (e.g. Morrissey, Courtney Love, Russell Brand, Roseanne Barr herself), I think we see in Dunham a need not only to make art, but to be famous; to have an audience react to and think and talk about not only her art, but her, and to make her relationship to the audience and the culture part of her art.

Nevertheless, Dunham's sense of herself as a public person, in NTKOG, often seems to be in conflict with her sense of herself as a writer. She can't just present a series of personal essays, interesting for their insights; as the quasi-self-nominated Voice of Millennials, she has to present herself (as per publisher instructions?) as giving advice to other Millennial women. At the same time, she's forced to be humble and use quotation marks in the self-helpy subtitle, “A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'” knowing the kind of shit she'll catch as a famous Millennial with literary pretensions who was raised by rich artists for daring to suggest that she has any wisdom to impart. I guess that's not so bad – why did Brand call his first book My Booky Wook if not to try to deflect criticism for having the audacity, as a person famous primarily for his drug addiction, sexual exploits, erratic public behaviour, and big hair, to think he had anything of interest to say?

In the one interview with McDormand about Olive Kitteridge that I read, she mentioned that one thing that drew her to the part was that Olive was a "full" and "messy" character – who belches, for example. One can see where an actress might get the impression that to portray a “real woman,” in contrast to the kinds of women we normally see on our screens and on magazine covers, means to portray a woman who is both aggressively flawed and aggressively corporeal – even though I can't think of any examples of being treated to a male character's digestive maladies where it's not played for laughs. Dunham's interest to me as a voice and a performer is centered on her obsession with her corporeality: with nudity, with her body's aches and pains and potential diseases, with food, with sex between clueless young people and all of the ways it doesn't resemble its depictions by either Hollywood or pornography, perhaps especially when it's influenced by the latter.

The reaction of many men to Dunham's use of her body as a writer-performer is a reminder that while men's imperfect bodies – like men's bodily functions – are the stuff of comedy, women's imperfect bodies – like women's bodily functions – easily elide into the territory of horror. Olive Kitteridge, too, borders on body horror, in this case not the horror of the young, nude female body that should be desirable (that's it's only function), but isn't, but the horror of the elderly female body, which inspires revulsion because it can no longer inspire desire. Dunham's use of body horror in her comedy, however, unlike Elaine May's, gives no indication of masochism. She doesn't show us the too-corporeal female as an object of revulsion; her offence seems to be, rather, that she doesn't presuppose a male gaze at all. (Nor does she give us a female gaze in its place: there are no sex objects in Dunham's work, except Patrick Wilson in a one-off episode that seems to take place outside the normal universe of the show.)

Don't Be That Girl

In the prologue to NTKOG, Dunham writes about the derision that greets young woman who try to talk about their lives but who, by virtue of their youth and gender, are thought not to have the “gravitas” to make their stories art-worthy. One of the phases I went through as a teenager was an infatuation with Anais Nin and her diaries, probably sparked by the release of the movie Henry and June in 1990, when I was 15. In that movie, Nin takes up, in both a literary and a sexual fashion, with Henry Miller and his wife, June (played by Uma Thurman). Nin is famous for being exotically pretty, for the lifelong project of her diaries (on a volume of which the movie was based), for being part of literary and artistic circles whose members show up in her diaries, and for a general interest in sexual experimentation that included the claim that she had an incestuous relationship with her father as an adult.

Like other teenagers who want to be writers when they grow up, I kept diaries, and the example of Nin made me think that this was a worthy enterprise, up until I read one essay on Nin and her cult that dismissed her with a single word: “narcissistic.” I tended to like the idea of narcissism; I was a fan of Oscar Wilde, who (as in the quotation from which this blog takes its name) used it to push back against bourgeois sentimentality and the cult of self-sacrifice and duty. Yet it was the particular way in which the author (a man, I'm sure) backed up his dismissal of Nin that made me back away from her example. It wasn't just that she nattered on about herself; he pointed out that she couldn't bear to not repeat a compliment. I understood the implication that was she just another vapid, shallow woman who believed that every event that happened to her or thought that occurred to her was fascinating because she got attention for being pretty, and – since I didn't stop keeping a diary (and have intermittently kept one of some kind throughout my life) – for years I tried my best to never record a compliment, at least about my appearance, even when I really, really wanted to.

I thought of that author's comment when, years later, Camille Paglia dismissed Naomi Wolf's Vagina by calling her a “compulsive diarist.” Between the stereotype of the narcissistic woman, left over from when women did not have access to the public sphere, and lingering sexist doubt that women are able to write as well as men do, we have this notion that when women write about ourselves it's because we're incapable of creating art. All we can do is scribble like silly, self-obsessed teenage diarists. De Beauvoir herself provides a good example of this suspicious take on female literary activity. “Thus it is well-known,” she writes approvingly in The Second Sex, “that [the woman] is talkative and a scribbler; she pours out her feelings in conversations, letters, and diaries. If she is at all ambitious, she will be writing her memoirs, transposing her biography into a novel, breathing her feelings into poems.”

Meanwhile, the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has riveted the international literary community by documenting his life in the form of six autobiographical novels published between 2009 and 2011. If ever an author might fairly be called a “compulsive diarist,” surely Knausgaard would be it. De Beauvoir herself wrote four volumes of memoirs and a couple of romans a clef. Nevertheless, even today the female author who writes about herself exposes herself to the suspicion that she is doing it not as a possibly misguided artistic choice but because she cannot, by virtue of her gender, create art.

New Yorker fiction critic James Wood frequently bestows the highest praise on female authors, so there is presumably some reason other than sexism that caused him to write a review of Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? that is deeply distrustful of its interest in drawing directly and openly from the author's life (although he did later claim, bafflingly, that the review was a recommendation), and then, a mere two months later, write a favourable review of the first of Knausgaard's autobiographical novels. It's probably obvious to many that a silver-maned Norwegian guy in his early 40s has more gravitas than a North American woman with whimsical bangs in her early 30s (Heti was 33 when HSAPB? was published), but not to me. Although she's a Gen-Xer like me, not a Millennial like Dunham, the Gen-X Peter Pan (or “puer,” the more exotic term used by Sheila's Jungian psychoanalyst in the novel) probably has more in common with Millennial hipsters than with boomers, which, however, naturally hasn't stopped many Gen-Xers from taking up a stance of hatred toward Millennials. Maybe it's self-loathing.

I thought it was absolutely hilarious that the New Yorker fiction critic distanced himself from the main characters in HSAPB? on the basis of their “privilege”: “They are writers, artists, intellectuals, talkers, and they sit around discussing how best to be. This sounds hideously narcissistic. It is. Who cares about a bunch or more or less privileged North American artists, at leisure to examine their creative ambitions and anxieties?” Really? Is this the same James Wood who went to Cambridge? Is contemplating the art of the novel, which Wood has been doing for his entire adult life, somehow less of a “privileged” enterprise than discussing how best to be? And is Wood upset because Heti's stabs at answering her “religiously important question,” as he calls it in the first paragraph, are shallow, or because having the time to contemplate it is shallow? He doesn't seem to know, but it all makes him uncomfortable.

Two Serious Ladies

Yet this is one of the major questions engaged by the book – and in my opinion, one of the least interesting aspects of it. HSAPB? is deeply concerned with the question of whether the people in it have a right to be making art; whether even making really good art, as Heti's friend, the painter Margaux, does, is a good use of your time in such a troubled world, or whether it inevitably makes you a monstrous narcissist. When an artist takes herself as her subject, she exposes herself (like Francesca Woodman) to accusations of narcissism as an ethical failure and aesthetic limitation; or as an aesthetic failure (as in the case of the female talkers and diarists De Beauvoir describes), meaning that she is shallow, a lightweight. Heti takes on these connotations of narcissism in relation to art, and to the kind of art she is engaged in, but also addresses the possibility that the whole enterprise of art-making is the self-indulgence of the privileged.

At bottom, HSAPB? is the story of two artists, Sheila and Margaux, their friendship and their relationship to art. Warning: spoilers ahead. Sheila, who is spending years trying to write or avoid writing a play that has been commissioned, is having a crisis of faith regarding not only her own abilities but her medium – fiction. Her crisis eventually infects Margaux, who, we have learned, enjoys painting but does not trust the medium: it is not, for her, an inherent good. Wood is right to detect a note of anti-art puritanism in the real Heti's comments in interviews about the motives behind the book's form. Whereas Margaux (as depicted in the book) seems to worry that she should do something useful in the world, however, Sheila is convinced that her own life, and especially her relationship with Margaux, is far more interesting than any fiction she could manufacture.

At one point early in their friendship, Margaux mentions how she has always pined for “a girl as serious as I am.” I found this annoying since it promotes the sexist fallacy that it's difficult for smart, thoughtful women to find similar members of their gender to befriend, which is not a problem that I've ever had. As the book proceeded, however, it became starkly evident that Margaux and Sheila were indeed “serious” in some fundamental, elemental, and rather frightening way (although, interestingly, not in a way that conflicts with finding them “shallow”). Both women seem spectacularly neurotic, though it's Sheila's breakdown we witness. There were moments where Sheila, with her towering writer's block, her indecisiveness and impulsiveness, her simmering self-loathing, and her “puer” syndrome, made me think that this is what it would be like to read Jane Bowles write about herself if she had ever done so in a directly autobiographical way.

For me the best stretch of the book occurs when Sheila, after deciding that she has damaged Margaux obscurely but irreparably, suddenly takes off for New York City and has a couple of banal, random encounters with talkative men: a man in a “copy shop” who keeps trying to gain control of their absurdist conversation about Judaism and gender, and a man in a bar who tries to pick her up and shares a cliched story about his marriage that nevertheless manages to be touching and some thoughts on God. Here Heti shows her skill with dialogue and opens herself up to other people, people who are not like her friends, and the strangeness and opacity and pathos and specificity of the ordinary. Yet while I could have done with more of these sections, and with less of the short, more-or-less impenetrable essay-chapters, the variety of forms employed by the book keep it interesting even as the focus never shifts for long from Sheila's psyche. There are even a couple of long descriptions of Sheila's dreams, which I'm sure many would find obnoxious but which I found both boring and fascinating – especially the second one, which prompts her decision to return to New York, and in which her relationship with Margaux – for reasons the reader will never understand and I'm sure Heti doesn't either – becomes fodder for an epic vision of sexual violence that would make Roberto Bolano blush.

Where Wood – perhaps taken in by the book's marketing, which folded it into the Reality Hunger trend – sees formlessness, I see a tremendous instinct for structuring. In fact, the confrontation and crisis followed by an escape to another location and a return and resolution is the basic structure of many 19th century novels – notably, Mansfield Park (which shares Heti's distrust of theatre). However much she may hunger for “shapeless” reality, Heti can't stop shaping her experience, can't stop finding aesthetic correspondences to her emotions or turning the gathering and relaxation of psychological tension into pleasurable form – just as Margaux, when she tries to make her ugly painting, can't get away from her talented hand. I remember reading some biography of Andy Warhol, or maybe Edie Sedgwick, in which the biographer or interviewee produced the opinion that Warhol developed his method of producing art in a lifelong effort to escape his “talented hand.” Despite what Heti – or perhaps it's only Sheila – thinks, what's fascinating about HSAPB? certainly isn't her friends or her conversations with them, but rather the novel's internal battle between form and dissolution.

How a Woman Should Be

Heti, as if anticipating the kind of response she will get for writing about herself, repeatedly begs the reader to find Sheila shallow, and Wood takes the bait, censoriously quoting her first attempt to answer the question of her novel's title: “I sometimes wonder about [the question], and I can't help answering like this: a celebrity.” Sheila goes on to say, as Wood goes on to quote, that she doesn't really want fame, though, because she wants – in a Jane Bowlesian turn of thought – a “simple life,” which is to say, “a life of undying fame that I don't have to participate in.” It sounds like a strange thing to wish for until one realizes that this, after all, describes how we all act on the internet. The internet wasn't really a revolution in communications technology; it doesn't build on the phone or the printing press. The internet is really a vehicle for giving fame to everybody. In fact the internet can't actually do that, but what it can do is allow everybody to act like they're famous: post pictures of yourself looking cute so friends can envy you and strangers can admire you; blog or podcast about your thoughts as though somebody wanted to hear them. Even if you do develop a following, the kind of fame that the internet has to offer is, in the vast majority of cases, not so great that your life will change. You will not get rich, paparazzi will not stalk you, you will be able to go to the grocery store, and you will not need plastic surgery. Again, however, the more important relationship between the internet and fame is not not that the internet actually makes you famous, but that it allows you to act like you're already famous in public.

And that, I think, is what Heti wants, and what she achieves in HSAPB? (The internet is more of a model here than reality TV, which actually can make you famous enough that you have to “participate in it.”) The quality of fame is the quality of always believing that everyone wants to know everything about you and cares deeply about your crises, and it is in that way, perhaps, that we give meaning to our lives in the easiest fashion in a post-religious world. We've always needed to believe someone was watching us and finding our lives fascinating, and it's probably somewhat less egotistical to imagine that that's the world rather than God. Fame, indeed, may be a large part of how a person should be.

I had a strange experience the first time I saw a copy of HSAPB?, in the Chapters bookstore where I was working. It was the hardcover version with a yellow-and-orange wraparound cover that showed Heti, in almost-full profile, facing another young person, a man, with spiky hair. Although we can only see her face and shoulders and one arm and hand and a small part of the man's face, it looks like they're sitting on a couch, and I assumed that they were at a casual get-together in someone's house. Heti (whom I did not yet know by name but already took to be the author and subject of the book) looks quite young, like in her 20s, and neither pretty nor plain. More striking than the refusals of femininity delivered by the too-short bangs and the strong nose is her expression of slightly disgusted boredom, eyes at narcissistic half-mast, as if she's lost in thought or a reverie in the middle of the party.

I grabbed the book in excitement and carried it all the way across the big-box store to the cash desk to show it to my sister, declaring that I had never before seen someone who looked so much like me. I have had too-short bangs in my life; I have a fair-sized nose; above all, I have worn that expression at parties, and it has been captured in a photo, when I was around the age that the author probably is on the book's cover. When later I learned that Heti was Canadian, it all made sense to me. Canadian women don't look the same as American women; strong noses sneak into public more often; there is less pressure to fit a particular mold. Or anyway, that's the story I told myself to explain why I felt such a strong kinship for this author based solely on a photograph. 

Having now googled Heti, I know that we don't actually look much alike at all, a general indefinable Canadianness aside (and that her book bangs are a trademark, not a mishap).

But upon further investigation, there were other similarities besides noses and aloofness. We both started out as playwrights, and attended the National Theatre School of Canada. We have both struggled mightily to complete commissioned plays. According to Wikipedia, Heti took a decade to complete her play, and it was eventually performed, though not by the theatre that originally commissioned it. The commissioned play that I struggled with after my husband and I broke up (right, Heti and I also both married young and briefly) only took me about three years to write, but it felt longer because I spent way more time not working on it when I could and should have been working on it than I did working on it. The commissioning company weren't even interested enough in the drafts to give it a workshop and we eventually fell out of contact. I did, however, have a couple of plays produced before giving up playwriting. Heti describes her menial post-divorce job of sweeping and shampooing hair at a salon while trying to write her play; I have done nothing my whole life but go between bouts of post-secondary education and menial jobs. Heti is a year-and-a-half younger than me. For all of that, I didn't cry out, “It's me!” when I read the book, as I did when I saw the photo. The thing I identified with most in the book, at this point in my life (late 30s), was the struggle of the author – not the narrator – with questions of form. Not for form's sake, however, but for the sake of asking questions about life that, for a write, are inseparable from questions about representation.

HSAPB? gets a lot of hate on Goodreads. Heti appears to be as polarizing a figure in the smaller world of minor literary fame as Dunham is in the larger world of minor TV fame. It all seems to be young women – and probably some who are not so young and ought to know better – frantically trying to distance themselves from narcissism-by-association, in much the same way that ex-V. C. Andrews fans turn violently critical of her, devoured by embarrassment, when they learn that they're supposed to regard her writing as trash. No one is more passionately devoted to proselytizing about how women should and should not be and think and write than other women, especially young ones. Although there are one-star reviews by men, on the whole the men who do read the book (the majority of reviews, positive and negative, are by women) seem to have a much less conflicted relationship with it – and no problem at all identifying with the “narcissistic” author/narrator/main character.

In addition to making other white women have tantrums about their “privilege” (which I guess covers anyone white with a university education, although Dunham is from an extremely affluent background and became extremely successful at an extremely young age, whereas Heti, as far as I know, is from an ordinary middle-class background and appears to have lived in hipster poverty for much of her adult life), Dunham and Heti also freak people out with their explicit and deeply uncomfortable depictions of sex. If you wanted to make diagnoses about the sex lives of women who were born after second-wave feminism from the writings of these two women, you'd start to be really worried. Luckily, I can neither relate to the misery that Dunham and Heti depict nor tell you whether they're more representative or I am. Certainly, it's laudable to depict the ways in which the sex lives of modern heterosexual young women are not always glamourous, as in the movies, or fulfilling and empowering, as they're supposed to be if you're a good feminist, but the conclusions that Dunham and Heti appear to draw about sex do have me worried about trends. In NTKOG, Dunham presents herself as someone who, in early youth, was hell-bent on having sexual adventures, only to learn that this is not possible for a woman because she'll end up unhappy and possibly abused. In HSAPB?, Heti is definitely in an abusive relationship, and seems to be seeking some kind of spiritual experience through her degradation, just as she does with drugs. The question is whether it's necessary for her to seek it in that way – that is, whether as a woman the only kind of sexual adventurousness open to her is abuse – and whether it's possible for her to experience it that way – that is (as with drugs), whether she's really achieving some kind of transcendence in that way or merely indulging her self-destructive tendencies.

The Embarrassment of the Contemporary

Dunham presents herself as someone who knows better, now: to have self-respect with “jerks” is one of things this young woman has learned. That is part of the book's self-help language and self-help leanings, and HSAPB? has also been marketed as, among other things, a self-help book. This seems to be in order to avoid cross-marketing it as a philosophy book, which would imply hard thinking for no purpose to a general audience (or so, I guess, publishers think), whereas “self-help” implies that the reader's going to get something important out of the book by the end that will help them lead a better life. This marketing ploy does, however, reconnect philosophy with the self-help purposes it has often served historically. What most people, including most first-year liberal arts students, want philosophy to be about is asking the big questions about existence, reality, values, and meaning, and maybe even coming to some provisional conclusions. These questions remain important to people, although our present branches of academic philosophy are not interested in addressing them – neither analytic nor postmodern philosophy.

Unlike Dunham, who gamely tries out the persona of wisdom-dispenser even though it neither suits her as a young person nor plays to her strengths as a writer (the construction of scenes of sexual or comedic discomfort), Heti does not come up with any clear answers. HSAPB? isn't the kind of self-help book whose protagonist gives you answers, but rather the kind whose protagonist asks questions, questions that get projected onto Sheila and Margaux's relationship and played out in that intense, Persona-like drama. Or not even that: it's clear that Sheila is making up much of the drama that takes place between her and Margaux. But not all – Margaux does say some weird things, like when she compares Sheila to a spider that she'll be forced to kill if it comes too close to her, but it's impossible to say, from the little we're given, how she actually sees their relationship. In the end we don't know much of anything at all: why Sheila has such an extraordinary reaction to Margaux; how Margaux sees and feels about Sheila; how Margaux is able to go back to painting after her Sheila-induced vision of herself as an evil Buddha, full of privilege and empty of empathy. But despite how little we know, the spectacle of their relationship is compelling.

One of the novelistic problems that HSAPB? seeks, awkwardly, to address, is how to depict contemporary life and the contemporary subject. That's always the problem of the novel, and it is never less than urgent. Our contemporary problems always seem shallow and trivial – for example, our concern that we seem, and may be, shallow and trivial. This is a particular concern in North America, which is surely one reason why Knausgaard and the equally prolific and trendy Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (who writes using a pseudonym but whose work some have hypothesized to be autobiographical) do not, overall, generate similar worries in critics; that, and we probably always look sillier to ourselves; and Knausgaard and Ferrante are writing domestic narratives, which, while not immune to charges of self-absorption (for those who prefer political fiction about world events, say), are less susceptible to them than a novel about a childless woman who earns money sweeping up hair in a salon, not because she couldn't get a better job but because she's either uninterested in or incapable of having one, if there's a difference, who spends most of her time worrying about the impression she makes on others and how to improve her blow jobs and doing drugs, and who's able to impulsively decide to move to New York City and then change her mind after a few days. Definitely, this is not what we want to think about when we think, with full gravitas, about “close attention to life as it is actually lived.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nightcrawler and The Social Network: Sociopaths, Entrepreneurs, and Masculinity

I finally saw The Social Network after joining the conversation about David Fincher's latest movie, Gone Girl. I gave the former a miss when it came out because I read Zadie Smith's scathing article on it in The New York Review of Books, where she describes how the movie's central idea – that Zuckerberg created Facebook so that socially inept, computer-loving nerds like himself could have the illusion of having friends – was based on fabrications about Zuckerberg. Specifically, whereas the fictional Zuckerberg is dumped by a girlfriend in the first scene and starts down the path toward creating Facebook as an act of revenge, the real Zuckerberg has been with the same woman (now his wife) since they met at Harvard, where she was a fellow student. If you google her, she's both accomplished and gorgeous. Whatever trouble he may or may not have had making or being nice to friends, Zuckerberg evidently had no trouble attracting or maintaining relationships with women.

But then The Social Network isn't about Zuckerberg, or about Facebook. It's about the myth of the internet, and of a new masculinity that doesn't look much like the old kind but has all of its problems anyway.

Angry Guys on the Internet and Beethoven in a Hoodie

Remember all of those pop sociology books that came out when the internet was exploding, about how geeks had gone from being at the bottom of the social hierarchy (and, it goes without saying, the hierarchy of masculinity) to being the future of business, but without having learned any social skills? Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is that guy.

He's also, of course, as Smith notes in her article, an irritable and irritating “autistic genius,” which is how we've come to picture genius in the digital era, although on TV this type has been associated with professions ranging from medicine (House M.D.) to physics (Sheldon Cooper). The ancestor of the type is Sherlock Holmes; Steven Moffat's updated Holmes, the first series of which aired the same year that The Social Network came out, explicitly married the modern “autistic” Holmes to the idea of the sociopath. I can't imagine what autistic people think about all of this – but, to paraphrase Jerry Lewis, these are the tropes, let's face it.

As Zuckerberg, Eisenberg never smiles, a striking way of communicating the flat affect and lack of social skills associated with autism. If you google Zuckerberg, he's always smiling. He looks like a nerd, alright – but like a kind of goofy dork, not like Beethoven in a hoodie.

Fictional Zuckerberg is also “an angry guy on the internet,” as someone calls him at some point (is it Rooney Mara, the dumping girlfriend?) in response to his revenge-on-all-women move of inventing on online game in which Harvard students can rate the attractiveness of their fellow – and female, naturally – students. Already in 2010, way pre-GamerGate, the internet is gendered, and way pre-Elliot Rodger, the world is concerned about its presumed denizens: basement-dwelling young men without social skills who are so desperate for sex and status that they've turned misogynous.

This isn't my internet, I hasten to add. I've been a non-angry, non-male internet user since 2004 or so, and in the early days, when I was thrilling to being one of the settlers of the cyberwilderness, I was writing and reading fan fiction, and, accordingly, hardly ever interacted with a male on the internet, angry or not. I kept hearing in the media how it was mostly men on the internet, but I couldn't have told you where they were, or what they were doing.

None of this changes the popular narrative, in which the internet is gendered male, and women are either indifferent or even hostile to it (like Mara in the movie, who is so uninterested in social networking that she sneers at the newly popular Eisenberg, “Good luck with your video game, or whatever”), or endangered by it. Watching The Social Network, I felt the thrill that you can only get when your subculture is recognized by mainstream media when Zuckerberg blogs on LiveJournal – except that the movie associates LiveJournal with “online misogyny” by making it an angry post about the girlfriend who just dumped him. I knew LiveJournal as a fun, messy, transgressive place where women – queer, straight, cis, trans, single, coupled, students, graduates, moms – poured their guts out in journal posts and participated, often raucously, in fan communities. The Social Network is so committed to its message about masculinity, to fusing the tech nerd with the internet user and making them both misogynists, that even though the film is critical of masculinity and misogyny, it feels like having my experience erased – which is no new experience for women.

A Genius at What?

Our cultural concern about angry men is hardly anything new either; the internet just provides us with a new angle. Fictional Zuckerberg is hardly your angry guy on the internet stereotype, though. He's going to Harvard, not playing RPG games in his parents' basement. As we learn in the hilarious scene where the athletic, blond WASP twins use their connections to get a meeting with some Harvard bigwig who finds their request that he intervene to stop Zuckerberg from stealing their idea ludicrous, Harvard is the breeding ground for the entrepreneurs who will be tomorrow's leaders. While the scene itself is comical, it's hard to know how seriously, or ironically, this sentiment is supposed to be taken. Certainly, if the young men who are either brilliant or privileged enough, or both, to be at Harvard do not take advantage of the opportunity to make some kind of cultural contribution, it's a huge waste. Zuckerberg, the business innovator, is doing exactly what's expected of a Harvard man.

And I say “man” advisedly, because despite the recognition that women are among the students (their looks get rated, remember?), this is a movie about the power plays of men. The men do some of the things they do for or because of women, but even in the 21st century, women are not imagined (neither by the movie nor by the men in it) as being among those future leaders that Harvard churns out to justify its existence. And in fact, there were no women among the key Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: the names we know, besides Mark Zuckerberg, are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Google and Yahoo were founded by men (two each).

The Social Network is bookended by scenes between Zuckerberg and a women. In the first, Zuckerberg is spurned by his girlfriend; in the second, he receives some sympathy from a young female lawyer. We are meant to believe that even the lawyer has “people skills,” by virtue of her femaleness, and that Zuckerberg's achievements compensate for not having the access to people that women have because of their people skills or the access to women that he could have if he had people skills. In his only other scene with Mara, the one where she belittles his “video game,” he sees her at a table full of people who are her friends – one of them a black man. Mara's black friend serves as a symbol of those effectively debarred from Harvard and all it represents, despite its “diversity” (the WASP picture is complicated by the presence of the twins' pal Divya Nirendra, who, according to Wikipedia, is the near-perfect-SAT-scoring son of immigrant doctors from India).

He is also a symbol of those with no social capital, who are of no interest to fictional Zuckerberg. In the first scene with Mara, he snobbishly puts down her school and obsesses about the high-status clubs at Harvard while making a strenuous effort to prove to her that he's smarter than she is. The thing is – he sort of succeeds, although she does get in a couple of good psychological diagnoses. (People skills. Women have those. You got that, right?) The Social Network may critique the White Male Genius archetype, but it doesn't question it. Only this new White Male Genius isn't creating art, or adding to our scientific knowledge. Ultimately he's a businessman, even if his product happens to have changed the way human beings socialize. But what's unique about the movie's Zuckerberg is that his story is not one of becoming an all-powerful, Charles Foster Kane-style tycoon. It's one of a new American dream/nightmare, exemplified by Facebook and the way it forces us to be constantly social and visible: of being a loser and becoming cool.

Nightcrawler: American Nightmare

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum is Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. When we first see him, he's a lone, violent thief who's having no luck getting legitimate work although he's seemingly willing to do anything. We don't know anything about his background or how he came to this state. He talks about unemployment and the recession; presumably his employment was precarious, he lost it, and now he can't cross back over to legitimacy.

Bloom doesn't have Zuckerberg's genius, although he does seem to share his “autism.” Gyllenhaal plays him in that general mode, twitchy, odd, and clueless about human interaction. He's given to rigid repetitions of platitudes and long business-speak diatribes. At other moments, flashing an oxymoronic creepy charm, he channels Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates. We see him at first as a victim, possibly, albeit a potentially dangerous one. Definitely, he's a desperate man, and if one is able to identify with him, on the basis of his need and vulnerability and Gyllenhaal's freaky charisma, one can't help but hope that he'll succeed in pulling himself by his bootstraps. That is the bait the movie holds out, I think; and if you take it, you are put in a position of moral complicity as Bloom does what he has to do to go from loser to success.

Lean, mean, and misanthropic, like its protagonist, Nightcrawler is no more interested in creating a complex sociological portrait of contemporary urban life than Bloom is in saving the whore whom he takes on as his “intern” – a young man who's lived on the streets and whose only source of income, currently, as Bloom understands right away, is turning tricks. Given Bloom's isolation, alienation, and general oddness, I, too, like some critics, thought of Travis Bickle (and I think we're supposed to in the one scene where he lets out some animal rage, into a mirror), but Bickle has a kind of innocence that makes his violence all the more horrifying – because it's the expression of his innocence. Bloom has a wide-eyed (saucer-eyed, in fact) credulity with regard to the American religion and philosophy of business and success, but he is no innocent. His credulity and sociopathy are one and the same: he embraces this sociopathic philosophy of exploitation without a qualm, believing in it with the faith of the hopeless, and it rewards him.

Nightcrawler is less a new Taxi Driver than an American Psycho for bust-phase capitalism, proving that you don't need money or power to be a corporate psychopath. Whereas Taxi Driver is, I think, really trying to understand urban male isolation and alienation and how it leads to violence, Nightcrawler is a blackly comic parable. The reason Bloom can't get sex isn't his oddness but his lack of success. We only see brief glimpses of him going about his domestic life in his tiny apartment, laughing at Danny Kaye on TV or watering his plant, but it's enough. A man without money or prestige can't get sex, which makes him doubly unmanned.

When we first see Rene Russo's morning news director, she appears to be a ball-busting, no-bullshit, empowered female boss who offers herself as a mentor in sleaze to Bloom. When he makes a pass at her, the power seems to be largely on her side: despite the fact that she's twice his age, as she points out, she's an attractive woman of normal social skills (when she's not busting balls at work) who seems to be in a position of power, and he's a 30-year-old man who's socially inept and barely starting a career. He's in no way sexually viable. The gender's on the wrong foot, but Bloom is going to set that right. First, he “negotiates” her into having sex with him by reminding her of the things he's learned about her from his internet research (the same way he learned business philosophy), which show that her employment is precarious, and convincing her that his footage is the only thing that's going to save her job. He doesn't persuade her into bed based on these facts, mind you, since he lacks the social finesse for that: he blackmails her into it by threatening to stop bringing her footage if she doesn't comply.

The next time up, he fucks up royally, and she chews him out in front of staff as he used to watch her do to other men. Russo is great in this scene, her voice cracking a little hysterically for the first time during one of her harangues: she let him have sex with her and now if he doesn't “man up,” as she puts it, it will all be for nothing. It's after this emasculation that he briefly goes wild in front of the bathroom mirror. But once he deals with his competition, he makes the next big opportunity he has really count. Russo is so impressed with the results that she coos at him, submissive for the first time, and it's hard to know whether she's just doing what he wants so that he'll give her more of the same or if she's genuinely attracted to him now that he's done what he's supposed to do to prove he's a "real man." Does she even know herself? 

Scrounging for Survival

The point of the movie's satire is not, I think, that the problem with corporations is that they're staffed by individual sociopaths. It's that the fact that Bloom is a sociopath makes him better at following corporate principles than normal people who have ethics and empathy. The movie isn't necessarily saying that all entrepreneurs are sociopaths, only that sociopaths make great entrepreneurs.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort is another kind of sociopath – one without any autistic traits. I don't know about the real Belfort, but DiCaprio as Belfort has such lust for life that he's fun to watch no matter how much you disapprove of him. Gyllenhaal is fun to watch in a different way: for me there's no way not to want him to succeed despite what it entails, because the stakes are so great and so final every time. Nightcrawler – in sharp contrast to both Wolf and Network – shows exactly how difficult it is to not only make a living but get ahead. The competition is incessant and terrific: Bloom's with other freelancers to get and sell the footage; Russo's with other stations. Every fuck-up makes a huge impact on his business – a word I want to put in quotations, except that's what it actually is. It's not much different from scrounging for survival as a thief, except now he has a chance of eventually making big money and getting respect. Because it's America.

The movie's third main character, Rick, is, of course, in a precarious position as well. To show the contrast between Wolf and Nightcrawler: when Belfort meets his second-in-command, the man gives up his life to follow Belfort, like a twisted Jesus, after hearing how much money he's making as a penny stocks salesman; in Nightcrawler, Bloom, who has nothing so far except for a contact at the lowest-rated station in the city and his vision, tells the desperate young man who's taken three buses to meet up with him in response to his ad that he's got the job, and then announces, “It's an internship.” The American dream, in Wolf, is to be making more money than you know what to do with, right away – by whatever means you can get away with. The American nightmare, in Nightcrawler, is to be making no money at all for a long time and still having to sell your soul.

For Rick, who has no job history, the “choice” is between working at a dangerous job for a madman for $30 a night (as he manages to negotiate) or going back to the streets and prostituting himself. Actually, the latter seems almost better, but the former is at least a real job with, he's told, a future, even if it pays less than minimum wage. When Bloom needs his help to do something both shockingly immoral and dangerously illegal, Rick finally “mans up” and manages to demand half of a large reward, and for a moment it seems as though Bloom might want to be a mentor to him and make him a full partner. Maybe, just maybe, homosocial dynamics will triumph, and a man will fare better with Bloom than Russo's character did. Rick, however, makes the mistake of thinking, like we do, that's he's done the thing expected of him as a man, and can now speak to Bloom like they're equals. Women can fulfill physical and emotional needs once they've been made subservient (one of the most horrifying, and hilarious, parts of the blackmail scene is that Bloom specifies to Nina that he is negotiating for her friendship as well as her body). But men who aren't subservient are merely competition. These are the laws of capitalism and masculinity, and the profession of nightcrawler shows them in about as naked a form as it can get – with no golden parachutes or offshore accounts.

On High in Blue Tomorrows

The reason that women aren't Mark Zuckerberg is, possibly, that we're not Lou Bloom. The entrepreneurial spirit has less to do with privilege or perfect SAT scores, Nightcrawler says – both movies say, really – than with being socialized to think that your identity depends on being successful and having sex, with the latter dependent on the former. But that doesn't mean that women can't or won't want to learn how to be self-made like Lou, a point the movie makes when it includes an eager-looking young woman the three new interns Bloom has hired as part of his expanded business in the movie's final moments.

Another movie that one can compare Nightcrawler to in its critique of the American dream and the men whose identity depends on pursuing it is Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, in which the young Jewish protagonist, already feeling suffocated by his new marriage, meets the WASP princess of his dreams on his honeymoon and begins a pursuit of her that's all the more relentless because he understands now that life is not worth living for him if he can't get the things he's been conditioned to want. The subversiveness of the script and direction lies in the way that it's impossible not to want him to succeed even as you're outraged by the things he'll do in order to do it, because he's doing exactly what he's supposed to: he wants what he's supposed to want and he's showing initiative and persistence in going after it. The black comedy of Charles Grodin's performance resides in his character's endless ability to justify himself as, like Lou Bloom, he talks and talks and talks. Whereas The Heartbreak Kid ends with a subtle hint that attaining his dream is a bit of a let-down, however, Nightcrawler suggests that today's entrepreneurs of tomorrow have their needs fully met by the philosophy of business. After all, if your goal is to eternally grow and expand, how can there ever be that moment of disappointment when the dream doesn't live up to your dream of it?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girls: Amy Dunne, Francesca Woodman, and Vivian Maier

Note: Spoilers for David Fincher's Gone Girl begin in the first paragraph and continue throughout, and it's not a movie that you want spoilered.

In an atmosphere on the left where it often feels like one is walking on eggshells to avoid giving offence, David Fincher's Gone Girl, based on the novel (and screenplay) by Gillian Flynn, is less a breath of fresh air than a bull in a hatchery. A movie that has the capacity to seriously offend both feminists (a heroine who is highly skilled at faking that she's been raped) and MRAs (the same heroine gets away with brutally murdering a man), Gone Girl is probably the most controversial movie about gender roles and relations since Paul Verhoeven's 1992 Basic Instinct, which also featured a psychopathic blonde as an uncomfortable figure of female empowerment. But whereas Sharon Stone's Catherine was an independent career woman, Rosamund Pike's Amy Dunne is a throwback, a woman who is obsessively concerned with her marriage.

Our new concern with marriage and wife roles can be traced back to Mad Men and its retro premise. It showed that while TV viewers could become deeply attached to a male throwback and his reassuring masculinity, with all of the flaws that entails, and to a flawed female character who showed all the proper “modern” characteristics of women, all of our disavowal and disapproval of those former times was directed towards “the wife,” whom we sneer at as passive, pampered, parasitic, and puerile. Then Breaking Bad proved that the show doesn't have to be set in the past in order to generate viewer contempt for “the wife”: just make her blonde (it's part of every man's American dream) and make her the stay-at-home mom to the protagonist's breadwinner. Skyler got on fanboys' nerves even more than Betty did because she stood up to her husband. “The wife” doesn't know how to be assertive, unlike the independent career woman, so if she's strong-willed she just comes off as “shrill” and “shrewish.” If she's not, but doesn't succeed in pretending to be nice, either, then she's manipulative and passive-aggressive.

Either way, she's a “bitch,” as Flynn's screenplay insistently reiterates in Gone Girl. It's not really all wives that we hate, though. It's the privileged woman who is the “princess” that parents are supposed to raise and men are supposed to desire, but whom, at the same time, we consider a waste of space. Hence the anger and resentment toward Girls, and the use of that character in Orange is the New Black, where she's still hated but the show more obviously examines her privilege.

The banality of the Hitchcock blonde that is not captured by the character of Catherine in Basic Instinct, who owes a lot to her but also to the femme fatale of film noir. Originally representing nothing more than Hitchcock's own sexual fetish, the Hitchcock blonde was a reserved, ladylike, empty-headed socialite, ideally realized by Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Vertigo got meta about the Hitchcock blonde, who's shown to be nothing more than a fiction, while Jimmy Stewart victimizes a real woman due to his obsession with the fiction. Psycho made the Hitchcock blonde (downsized to an outwardly demure secretary) the victim of a serial killer, and in doing so spawned the slasher genre.

Sometimes a victim, the Hitchcock blonde becomes a victimizer as well in Marnie (1964), in which Tippi Hedren's heroine is a psychologically damaged frigid woman who serially exploits men by robbing the places where she works as a secretary. Sean Connery's Mark becomes obsessed with her apparently due to her exploitation of him, offers her marriage or jail, and rapes her on their honeymoon. He also helps her to discover the roots of her trauma and deal with some Mommy issues. At the end of the movie she reiterates her choice of him over jail, but still does not seem overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the marriage.

In Repulsion (1966), Roman Polanski wedded blonde, frigid Marnie to Norman Bates in the person of Catherine Deneuve's heroine, who has a psychotic break when her sister goes on vacation and leaves her alone in their apartment, alternating between murdering men she deems sexually threatening and fantasizing about sexual violation. Deneuve is repelled by men and sex because of the cultural script that requires women to be innocent, which is the same reason she can only imagine sex as men forcing themselves on her against her will. Her murders of the men are treated as black comedy: one is a lecherous landlord who thinks he's found an easy victim, the other a monologuing boyfriend who's so oblivious to her reality as a person that he doesn't even realize she's completely insane. Likewise, Marnie's thefts, as we see in the case of Strutt, a portly businessman in his 50s, are clearly depicted as evening the score not only for her bosses' objectification of her but also for their greater socioeconomic power.

Unlike Marnie, who's from the lowest socioeconomic stratum and who, as a single woman in the 1960s, must struggle to get by as a secretary, Amy in Gone Girl doesn't just look and act like the WASP dream girl: she's the real thing, Harvard-educated, with a trust fund. Like Marnie, she's the archetype of the woman-as-actress, lacking any fixed identity or sense of self. Marnie changes her hair colour and name as she goes from job to job; in one shot we see that she keeps her different identity cards behind her compact mirror. But she's no mastermind manipulator of appearances like Amy.

As many critics have noted, Gone Girl is all about Amy's relationship to roles and narratives. Her parents let her know that she was supposed to be perfect by writing a better version of her in their Amazing Amy children's stories, while the world didn't know that she couldn't live up to her fictional self. In her Vertigo-like midway point voice-over monologue, we learn that she pretended to be a certain kind of woman for her husband so that he'd love her; we know that she felt he cast her in the nagging wife role after they lost their money in the recession and he lost the will to make an effort. By staging her husband's murder of her, she invents another, better Amy. Missing Amy, the victimized woman, like Amazing Amy, the perfect woman, has great popular appeal: they are both things that women are supposed to be.

Going into hiding, Amy dresses in a slovenly manner and pretends to be poor. She's not as good at that role, and her companions see through her act. The Hitchcock blonde can be a working-class woman pretending to be upper class, but it doesn't work as well the other way around. After she's robbed, she has to take refuge with her first great love, who's still writing her, and who she claims has stalked her in the past. In another Vertigo reference (thematic this time instead of structural), he continually, unsubtly prods her to get to work on herself so that she'll look like the woman he remembers – “like yourself,” he tells her. He has an idea of who she really is or ought to be, just like her parents did and her husband does. She may think she's her “real self” now: no makeup, with weight put on from the snacks she's been gorging on since leaving her husband and becoming “dead.” But that, too, is just another woman written about in a faux-empowerment magazine article, a Bridget Jones idea of “real womanhood.”

Gone Girl is so postmodern that it's hard to know when its satire is supposed to be directed at the news media, when it's supposed to be directed at movie narratives, and when it's aimed at our actual relationships. Is Gone Girl about the narrative device of the murdered woman, as Todd VanDerWerff suggests when he says that the movie “takes a character who would just be a corpse in so many other stories and turns the entire movie over to her” – the Marion Crane or Laura Palmer? Instead of presenting us with a corpse wrapped in plastic around whose absence the narrative turns, or killing the heroine part of the way through the movie, Fincher and Flynn let the corpse speak and act.

What's fascinating, however, is that at first all Amy can foresee for herself is turning herself into that corpse. She briefly imagines her corpse floating under the water, which reminded me of that greatest of all movie images of an aestheticized dead woman, after Shelley Winters, responding rapturously to her preacher husband's patriarchal misogyny, takes the submissiveness of the Christian wife to its logical extreme by pretty much acquiescing in her husband's (eroticized) murder of her.

For a moment, Amy is confused about whether she wants to be part of the “gone girl” narrative or to manipulate it for her own ends. Although she chooses the latter course, her masochistic streak does not go away, whether she's hitting herself in the eye with a hammer to look like a battered woman or penetrating herself with a champagne bottle to fake her rape. Like Marnie and Repulsion, Gone Girl juxtaposes the ideas of woman as victim and woman as victimizer. Amy is as fascinated by the idea of her victimhood as anyone else.

In one of the most extraordinary scenes, Amy learns that her ex is monitoring her every movement using the security cameras at his lake house. If this is a metaphor for filmmaking, Amy is both star and director; I also like it as a metaphor for the scrutiny under which women exist turning into megalomania. There's a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street (a movie I loved) that seems to be a direct allusion to Basic Instinct, in which Leonardo DiCaprio's trophy wife tries to punish him for already cheating on her by denying him sex and parting her legs to show him what he's missing. We then learn that he's had the upper hand all along when he reveals that she's exposed herself to a hidden security camera – and the security guy watching the screen. It's a curious and uncomfortable little scene that made me ponder double standards. Was what he did to her a sexual violation? If a man were to accidentally expose himself, the audience would surely just find it funny – as DiCaprio apparently finds his prank on his wife. If a man were to accidentally expose himself to a member of the opposite sex, we'd probably think it was a violation of her faster than we thought it was a violation of him. Our views of female sexuality are often still shrouded in an unexamined Victorianism, which feminist discourse too often reinforces.

What Amy does is – of course – immediately size up how she can gain the upper hand on her creepy ex by faking her rape for the cameras. She gets power not by using her sexuality – which, as the Wolf of Wall Street scene shows, and as we saw in the recent furor over the online theft and distribution of female celebrities' nude photos, is also a source of vulnerability for women. Instead, she understands that her vulnerability is her greatest source of power, because the world just can't get enough victimized women. We construct lurid cultural narratives in which women, because they're vulnerable, are victims, and, because they're victims, are pure. To be a gone girl is to give everyone what they want. As your husband's murder victim, you will finally achieve perfection, the narcissistic goal toward which middle-class, high-achieving girls are prodded.

Gone Girl wears its influences (discussed by Flynn in interviews) on its sleeve: I caught the reference to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also alluded to in another strange and dark recent film about marriage, The One I Love) and saw the influence of Notes on a Scandal and the tonal nod of the ending to Rosemary's Baby (as in The One I Love). In Richard Eyre's film version of Notes on a Scandal, Cate Blanchett's WASP wife and mother is manipulated by Judi Dench's psychopath, who has contempt for her and her banal life but also desires her. In Gone Girl, it's the wife who's the psychopath and who has contempt for the women who are actually the way she's supposed to be. Fine as long as she's part of a New York City power couple, she's too sophisticated for the small-town wife role when they move to Missouri, yet her problem doesn't seem to be the Hedda Gabler one of ennui.

The fact that she goes psycho on her husband's ass when she discovers that he's having an affair with a younger woman doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Traditionally we have given our sympathy to women whose husbands throw them over because they are economically dependent on the men and devoted many years of their lives to raising children. But Amy has no children, she's only been married for five years, and she owns the bar that her husband runs. Contra VanDerWerff, there's no reason we should give any greater sympathy to her decision to get revenge on her husband than we would to a male character's decision to get revenge on his wife for cheating on him – which I'm pretty sure we would consider a misogynous impulse originating in a desire to control female sexuality.

But of course no man would choose this way to get revenge. Okay – no woman would either. But no man could get revenge this way if he did choose to. The Gothic plot of the misogynous bastard who disposes of his wife after he's found a younger woman is a narrative to which our culture subscribes, although admittedly I think it's one that we find in movies and books more often than in news stories. But even in a movie, we'd never buy a man framing his wife for murdering him. Well, unless she's Courtney Love.

My point is that it's not about getting revenge on your husband for cheating and symbolically on all men for their cheating ways. Richard Brody mentions Medea in his review, but although Medea's punishment of Jason far outweighs the crime, a savage retribution (by an actual witch) for all of the wrongs men had done to women up to that point in history, the fact is that Jason has done some serious dirt to his wife. By agreeing to help Jason out of love for him, Medea gave up her family, her homeland, and her status as a priestess. Jason agreed to take her home with him and marry her in return for her help, without which he could never have acquired the Golden Fleece. He has children with her, but then agrees to a political marriage to another woman, leaving Medea, a “barbarian,” without any status at all. The moral of this story is: don't promise to marry a priestess of Hecate to get what you want and then piss her off.

Amy is no Medea, made desperate by a man. Furthermore, if she's angry enough at her husband for cheating on her to murder him, why doesn't she go ahead and do it herself? Women attacking or killing their unfaithful husbands isn't unheard of. It's less that Amy has to fake her murder to get revenge on her husband than that she uses the excuse of her failed marriage to arrange her disappearance and fictional death. Amy, I would contend, has always wanted to be a gone girl; she has always been tempted by the desire to disappear. Disappearing is the ultimate act of exhibitionism.

A Real Gone Girl: Francesca Woodman

And no one knew this better than Francesca Woodman, the precociously talented photographer who took her own life when she was 22 years old. Woodman's work is indescribable if you haven't seen it (which fortunately you easily can, because internet): unique, haunting, theatrical, disturbing, sensual, irreducibly strange. She usually used herself as her subject, sometimes nude.

Woodman's photographs often show her disappearing into her environment – often a decaying house, sometimes the outdoors. (The haunted house as a metaphor for a woman's body, as in Kate Bush's “Get Out of My House.”) She camouflages herself, for instance by pulling wallpaper over her nude body, but the act of concealment makes her extremely conspicuous, although it's impossible to know whether that effect is intentional. It almost seems as though it must be in photos like the one where she's “hiding” behind a mantel that has seemingly become detached from a bricked-up fireplace, looking less like she's becoming part of the architecture than that she's the mantel come to life, or a genius loci. Her photographs visualize Keats's notion of the identity-less poet who wants to know what it “feels” like to be not only other people but even inanimate objects.

In my favourite of the photos I've seen online, called It Must Be Time For Lunch Now, Woodman's blurry, androgynous face (her flowing, Victorian hair, an important feature of many other photos, is in shadow) floats into view under a windowsill and a piece of cloth. There are utensils on the windowsill, and what seem to be painted utensils on the cloth, and a fork rests on the upturned palm of Woodman's hand, as though she and the cloth and the windowsill are imitating a table. But why – any of it? Windowsill imitates table, cloth imitates windowsill imitating table, Woodman imitates cloth imitating windowsill. Her face is unsettling, animation in the midst of the inanimate, as if your lunch looked back at you, or as if she waited there forever, calm and serene, for you to discover her and be startled out of your wits. She offers herself up for consumption, everything turns into and pretends to be everything else, and she is a liminal being, a creature of thresholds.

Sometimes the photo doesn't seem to record much more than the simultaneous, contradictory impulses of concealment and exhibitionism, as in one photo where she crouches in front of a wall and puts a hand over the lower part of her face, covering most of her mouth, while using the other to raise her shirt, revealing some skin and a bit of a breast. Sometimes she used long exposures to show her in the process of disappearing, her presence in the photo speaking of her absence. In a series called “Angels,” she leaps around in a white Victorian-looking costume in what looks like a warehouse, with a large, theatrical-looking pair of wings looming over the scene, or simply hangs from a doorway, from her hands, with her face concealed. In one photo she lies limply on the ground, off to the side of the frame, vulnerable to attack or perhaps already dead. A small snake (responsible for her condition, like Blake's invisible worm?) slithers over her arm, incongruous against the elaborately patterned carpet and given that Woodman is wearing a party dress.

About the only thing that's clear from her photographs is that Woodman obsessively imagined, staged, and rehearsed her death, or disappearance, or transfiguration, for years before she committed suicide. She was also, more broadly, obsessed with herself, her body, and her sexuality. Like other female photographers and filmmakers who have taken themselves as subjects (e.g. Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman), she has been accused of narcissism. I don't see why anyone should feel the need to defend Woodman against that charge, since narcissism is as likely a basis for great art as anything else. We should recall, however, that since men have made women such an important subject of Western visual art, it's hardly surprising that some women, when they enter that tradition, should take up that subject, using themselves and viewing themselves as object and Other. Male artists are often autobiographical to the point of narcissism, but they do not typically consider or present themselves as sex objects or play dress-up to explore alternative identities. Robert Mapplethorpe springs to mind as an exception, and I imagine his homosexuality had something to do with his willingness to see himself as “feminine,” and therefore objectified.

The Woodmans is C. Scott Willis's 2010 documentary about the impact this gone girl's absence continues to have on her family – her parents and brother, all artists. Her father was a high WASP, her mother of Eastern European Jewish extraction. They came together over their devotion to art and are obviously still extremely close. One gets the feeling of a close-knit family full of intense, brilliant personalities, like the Jameses, say; a family where ambition developed early and from which one might never entirely escape, psychologically, because the rest of the world is fatally less interesting. A family where one's parents were at least as interested in each other and in their work as they were in you – unless you could prove yourself brilliant too.

The father seems more emotional, more vulnerable, and more taken with his lost daughter, whose “sparkle” he describes. The mother gives off a whiff of harshness, reserve, rejection; probably just a different personality type, trying, with the best intentions, to correct for Daddy's besotted indulgence of their weird, charismatic daughter, although ultimately she is just as in awe of the girl. After Francesca killed herself, her father imploded much more obviously than her mother did. Later he switched from painting to photography, using a style whose resemblance to his late daughter's is even more marked than he seems to know. It's as if he's trying to understand Francesca and to keep her with him even as he acknowledges her far greater ability; as if she has possessed her father, the weaker artist and personality.

More than one blogger has speculated that Francesca Woodman was the victim of sexual abuse. It's sheer speculation; when it occurred to me, from hearing about her suicide and contemplating her imagery and themes, I googled it and found no corroboration, only blogging. It would conveniently account not only for her suicide and many aspects of her imagery, but also for the teenage promiscuity mentioned in the documentary. However, we have no way of knowing. Without that speculation, we have the story of a young woman who developed early, sexually and artistically; who took her sexuality as one of the main subjects of her art; a young woman whose intensity and fragility are obvious in her art; and who killed herself when she was barely out of her teens because a relationship ended and her career was not advancing as quickly as she wanted it to.

The Francesca Woodman whose oddities are not explained by something a man did to her is a total mystery in every aspect. How could someone have developed their own, wholly original, artistic language and be so single-mindedly committed to their vision at such an early age? Why was this artist's dream life dominated by the idea of her own disappearance – as well as her appearance? Why would she need recognition so fast – as if her premature artistic development was something she'd brought on through impatience?

Victim and Victimizer: Vivian Maier

Speculation about abuse also comes up in the course of the documentary about Vivian Maier, a “spinster” nanny who obsessively took photographs but seems to have never seriously tried to get attention for them, and who is now seemingly in the process of slowly becoming part of the canon of 20th century street photographers. Abuse is called upon to account for Maier's solitariness, as well as the expressions of disgust with male sexuality recalled by her former charges. We do know, from one of those former charges, that Maier herself had a terrible temper and could be physically abusive.

In a piece on the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, in the New Yorker, Rose Lichter-Marck argues that iconoclastic “difficult women” are treated by biographers as “problems that need solving,” writing, “The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference.” It's true that unconventional people are often treated this way, but men are hardly exempt. Writing about biographies of Joseph Cornell and Samuel Steward, I noted that the sexuality of each man was pathologized by their biographers (a woman, in Cornell's case) for opposite reasons: Steward was too sexual, while Cornell wasn't sexual enough. Reactions to Woodman and Maier can be divided along these same lines, although there is one gendered difference: when a woman is a sexual outlier, we assume she was made that way by a man, whereas when a man is a sexual outlier, we at least grant him the dignity of getting that way himself. (Well, maybe with a little help from mom.)

Joseph Cornell seems like the closest temperamental parallel to Maier among well-known 20th century artists. Cornell never married and had no relationships until late in life. He worked at low-paying jobs for most of his life and lived at home with his mother and his brother, who had cerebral palsy and whom Cornell helped care for. He was a self-taught artist who made only a small effort to be part of the art world, but by the end of his life he had developed a reputation. Like Maier, he was a hoarder, although he used his hoarded magazines and junk to create his collages, shadowboxes, and experimental films.

Cornell and Maier are the artist as intensely private ascetic with a vivid mental life that occupies them to the exclusion of relationships. The opposite of Woodman in this regard as well, Maier continued to make art prolifically throughout a long life despite having no recognition at all; what makes her as much of an enigma as Woodman is the fact that she seemingly never attempted to make herself known as an artist. Her activity wasn't even known to her family and friends, because she had no close friends and the last of her family was in Europe. She didn't hide the fact that she obsessively took photos, but she didn't show those photos to her few friends and family members, or discuss her intentions with them. In fact she was more interested in taking the photos than in even developing them and looking at them herself.

Even if simply the fantasy of being an artist was enough to keep her going all those years, what did she think about her life's work towards the end? (And what do I mean, “the fantasy of being an artist”? Are you not an artist if no one sees the art you make?) Was she too poor and senile to reflect on it? Did she hope that somehow her work would be discovered rather than discarded after she was gone? But how could she have anticipated what happened – or how the internet would make her instantly famous, without waiting for the slow process of canonization?

To me it's important to look at the lives and think about personalities of artists like Cornell, Woodman, and Maier, and colourful minor historical figures like Steward, who show us very different ways in which people can live their lives than the narrow choices we're presented with in the media, as well as in the more familiar narratives of the lives of artists who were famous in their lifetimes. It's not that any of these people were content; on the contrary, they all seem to have been demon-haunted. But is contentment the most important thing in life? Or is it more important to have the courage, or foolishness, to live the way you want to live, unhaunted by conventional notions of importance and success? 

What Lichter-Marck says of Maier is equally true of Cornell and Steward: “To suggest that her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain. But this shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.” That also goes for assuming that Cornell and Steward chose the lives they did because they were damaged somehow – Cornell, his biographer speculates, by repressed homosexuality; the extremely unrepressed Steward by societal disapprobation of his homosexuality.

Maier and Woodman are two very different kinds of gone girl. Maier was invisible in plain sight, not considered an artist by anyone despite her constant picture-taking because of her low economic status. She spent her life as a servant, the favourite persona of Robert Walser, a writer so consumed with the idea of disappearing that he was only able to trick himself into writing by writing in microscript. Woodman's art revolved around making her proleptic absence visible and dramatizing her relationship to visibility.

How To Be a Gone Girl

Just because Gone Girl has gender on its mind doesn't mean it has anything coherent to say about it. As I already indicated, if this is a blackly comic feminist revenge-on-men movie in a fine tradition that stretches from Medea in the 5th century BCE to Hedda Gabler at the end of the 19th century, and in the film era includes Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (Medea as a screwball comedy), Repulsion, and Basic Instinct, Amy's angst lacks what T. S. Eliot called, critiquing Hamlet, an “objective correlative.” There is no real difference in power between her and her husband. If anything, the balance is in her favour. 

This gap between Amy's situation and her actions has allowed critics to read into the film what they will, depending on how they feel about such loaded things as marriage and gender. In the New Yorker piece “Marriage Is an Abduction,” Elif Batuman argues that the film is about the tragedy of still raising women to think that marriage and motherhood will be the most important events in their lives even when those women are well-educated and have career aspirations. When that happens, says Batuman, marriage – and men – are sure to disappoint. Again – is finding out that your husband has been socially constructed to be a useless slob (which you could have learned from watching The Simpsons) enough of a reason to frame him for your murder?

I also think it's a mistake to simply say that this is a movie about women's victimhood when it goes out of its way to call that notion into question. Batuman has to really fudge facts to fit Amy into the victim role, claiming of her bizarre masochistic tendencies that she “doesn't invent abuse so much as anticipate it,” and recounting the plot like so: “At one point she hits herself in the face [actually, she takes a hammer to her eye!], to look like a battered wife – and a few scenes later a couple gangs up on her, beats her, flings her onto a motel bed, and steals the money she wears under her dress, leaving her howling into a pillow.” Actually, it's made pointedly explicit that the woman has orchestrated the robbery (she tells Amy so), and it's also the woman who beats her, smashing her head into the wall, apparently in retribution for her faked abuse (she declares, “I bet you've never really been hit”).

It's true that despite mocking the Gothic narrative of the murdered wife, the movie seems to partake of the Gothic genre itself. The world is portrayed as an extremely dangerous place for women – at least for pampered middle-class women who can't avail themselves of their socioeconomic power because they're hiding out in grubby motels. After being exploited by the robbers, she's forced to turn to the only person in the world who'll always help her – her stalker ex-boyfriend. And that, of course, turns out to be another situation of peril, as he makes it clear that he intends to keep her a prisoner and badger her into sex (and working out and wearing makeup). (Are Neil Patrick Harris's Scottie Fergusonesque demands parallel to the bit of effort to be a better person that Amy demands of her husband?) The logic of the movie is not that she anticipates abuse, rather than inventing it, but that she can only get out of situations of victimization by staging a much more elaborate, camera-friendly victimization.

What is a gone girl? There's the wife of Gothic fiction, shoved into an attic so her husband can marry someone less “difficult” or murdered for her fortune. Sometimes – or okay, just in Lolita – the less difficult “woman” is her own pubescent daughter. There's the dead, blonde, victimized woman, whose death perfects her “feminine” passivity, beauty, and purity. Vertigo is the ultimate meta-examination of the “falling in love with a dead woman” plot. Laura Palmer was an updating with more of a sleazy, ripped-from-the-tabloids vibe: the universally beloved homecoming queen who was secretly a bad girl because of even-more-secret abuse.

Layered on top of these tropes is feminism's idea of the silenced woman, which we (ironically) hear a lot about: the women whose voices were removed from history, and still aren't fully represented in public life; the women who are apparently afraid to speak up in class (my professors had to actually tell me to stop talking so that someone else could have a chance, but anyway); the women whom men interrupt or talk over all the time (apparently, again); whose online harassment is not like men's online harassment, because it represents a concerted effort by men to force women offline so that they can no longer air their opinions. Mingled with those ideas is, again, the notion of abuse: of the abuse victim who is afraid to speak out, who has been peremptorily silenced by the patriarchy. Surprisingly, it's a trope that predates second-wave feminism, present in the 1942 melodrama Kings Row. Maybe the ur-example is the fate of Philomela, although to call Philomela a "silenced woman" is to forget that she finds a way to speak out even after her rapist cuts out her tongue.

Just as there are many sources of the gone girl, there are many reasons to long to be one. Internalized misogyny combined with received notions of femininity are a great recipe for masochism; add to that an ambivalent attitude toward being looked at, which is the surest source of your power and also a huge source of vulnerability. You want to be looked at and know that the surest way to get people to pay attention to you is to act the part of a victim, so you perform your masochism (and may even observe your own victimhood with the excitement of an onlooker). It all makes sense in the feminine id, which is on fascinating display in Woodman's photographs – and in Fincher and Flynn's Gone Girl