Friday, November 23, 2012

The Secret Lives of Wives and Widows

So T.S. Eliot's wife has died.  Wait, what? How is that possible?

Of course you can probably guess: "Mrs. Eliot, who was almost 38 years younger than her husband, had been his secretary for several years at the publishing house Faber & Faber when they married in 1957." 

The Times obituary itself is a kind of accidental masterpiece, a perfectly calibrated mini-biography, evoking the strangeness of the lost worlds that passed away with her:

Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born in Leeds, England, on Aug. 17, 1926. Her father, who was in the insurance business, was a bookish sort who passed on to his daughter his love of poetry. She said she fell in love with Eliot — or at least his work — when, at 14, she heard John Gielgud’s recording of “Journey of the Magi.”
After her schooling, she worked at a library at the University of Leeds and then as a secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. When a family friend who knew Eliot mentioned that he was looking for a secretary, she applied.
I love those dashes. Because how is a 14 year old to know the difference between a man and a voice on a phonograph, one that doesn't even belong to that same man? 

 In my benevolent literary dictatorship when novels about professors who sleep with their students have been banned, I may make an exception for stories about those students, or other younger women who  marry much older men years down the road: what happens later when the men are not older but old or sick or dying? I know this sounds nasty or vengeful like, ha, they still grew old and died but I don't mean it like that. A while back I read the excerpt from Francisco Goldman's memoir/novel Say Her Name in the New Yorker. He says that when they got together, they would joke about how the future would play out, and he'd promise that if he was still alive at a certain point he would go off and leave her while she was still young enough to meet someone else, but as it turned out he was the one who lost her.

But of course more often the odds are not defied.  Valerie was 86 when she died. The marriage that put her obituary in the papers  lasted seven years. Her widowhood lasted forty-seven. 

My own grandmother was a widow for twenty-seven years, despite having married a man one year her junior. Only shortly before her death did I come to understand that so much of her personality and interests, so much of her way of being in the world - or what I had understood it to be - had been forged out of this widowhood, and that my mother and aunt and her husband and four sisters and known and loved a very different woman.  

For Valerie, of course, the widowhood that lasted more than half of her life was also her career. She managed his estate,  edited an edition of The Waste Land, edited his letters, got rich by authorizing Cats, started a foundation with that money, and defended his reputation. 

There are a lot of very obvious feminist points about this, about the trajectories of bookish girls born in 1926.  For a while I got kind of obsessed with the throw away descriptions of wives in profiles of artists and such and started collecting them. Things like this: 

During their thiry-five years of marriage, Natalia Dmitriyevna served as her husband’s first reader, editor, assistant, cook, driver, researcher, and (because Solzhenitsyn was a kind of literary monk) conduit to the earthly realm of agent, publishers, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. She also raised three sons because, she said jokingly, “the way Alekasandr Isayevich saw it, they would just grow up on their own.”

“The Widow’s Peak,” David Remnick, The New Yorker June 18 2012
 Or this: 

“It’s curious, and perhaps no more than curious, that the two most productive periods of Bowie’s career coincide with his two marriages.”

Thomas Jones, “So Ordinary, So Glamorous,” Thomas Jones, LRB, 5 April 2012 
"Perhaps no more than curious." Because of course one mustn't make too much of such things.
I always thought "And they were mostly, men" could be the great title for something: how that phrase, nine times out of ten consigned to a parenthesis, is called on to do so much by way of explanation and apology.

And yet. Were one to make the obvious feminist points, to reach for our Virginia Woolf and go to that passage I just taught my students, the one about how we're on "the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet," when we read of "a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother" - we might be led off the track.

For one thing, there is this: apparently Valerie hated talking to the press but made an exception when the movie Tom and Viv came out, defending her husband against the charge, among others, that Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, had written parts of The Waste Land and been denied credit. "The exemplary literary widow" delicately describes her understanding of Vivienne's illness, expresses sympathy for Ted Hughes, and asserts that the first Mrs. Eliot's role in creating The Waste Land was the traditional one: causing the misery that helped to inspire it.  Valerie comes across in The Independent as the reluctant truth-teller, making a more modest but more accurate claim for her role in the great man's work.

No doubt for some people this is a cautionary tale about the perils of looking too hard for the evidence of lost female genius. I remember one time in graduate school a certain professor saying that for the material we were looking at, 19th century French poetry, there were no women. "And not because they've been suppressed," he said with something like a sneer. But Woolf's point was not just about the things that don't get read, or the things that were written as "anon", or the ways women's intellectual capacities were channelled into work produced by men, but the things that never get written at all.

But in a way this all misses the point. In some ways,  literary history remains a stubbornly conservative field no matter how many of us pinkos teach it. The whole mythology of genius teaches us to spend our time thinking about creation as a process that is ultimately distant from the rest of human experience, done by a select few. We can expand the pantheon, and we can talk about "context," we can look at literary movements that tried to be collective, we can study popular culture, but it's very hard to ever have the cultural equivalent of social history or history from below, or to really study anything but a few works at a time, be they representative or exemplary, no matter what the "digital humanities" people say.

Looking again at the lives of those who live in proximity to the big names can of course be a part of this in the worst way, like those awful panels run by author societies where everyone talks about what so and so wrote to so and so and talks like they knew them, like when the nice Jewish lawyer in Quiz Show comes back from hanging out with Van Dorens talking about Bunny Wilson. That's what they call him, he tells his wife. Well, you don't have to, she says.

But when you look at these in another way, they can be something else entirely. My favorite part of the obituary is this:
He was made for marriage, he was a natural for it, a loving creature, and great fun, too,” Mrs. Eliot said in a 1994 interview. “We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble. He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed.”
If they'd made Tom and Valerie, no one would fall in love with Bertrand Russell and no one would go to the looney bin and I don't know how you dramatize thirty years spend editing his letters, but I would watch any movie that showed a moment like this. Genius is all well and good (actually it's not but that's another story), but she also serves who knows when to lose at cards.

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Inside Out

Imagine this scene: a woman in her thirties is standing in her apartment with her boyfriend of four years. She's leaning against the wall and turns toward the mirror and says, apropos of nothing, "I wish I could just be just one notch more beautiful."

Here are some things this scene is not. It is not the start of an argument between this woman and her boyfriend.  It is not a calculated moment of self-deprecation designed to make a flawless heroine more "relatable." It is not a part of a film "about" body image. It is not part of a film that will impart any lessons about lovable imperfections or self-acceptence.

Here is one thing the scene is: it is a moment in a film that creates and explores one woman's subjectivity. After she expresses this wish, she thinks aloud about something no character from a "body image" movie ever thinks or talks about: the actual experience of living in the in-between space where most women live, of feeling attractive some of the time, and thinking about it sometimes, in the course of a day when you're also trying to think about other things. . It's like I'm always on the border, she says. Like I have to make my case to every new person.

The scene is from Miranda July's second movie, The Future, which came out last yearAnd despite everything you might think about July, here are some things the film is not: it is not quirky, twee, ironic, or whatever they're calling it.  July's dancer character Sophie is no one's manic pixie and she's no one's dream girl.  But neither is the film a "response to" or "deconstruction" of manic pixies.  (Although this also a very worthy project!) Nor it is a "response" to irony or an embrace of neo-sincerity or what have you. As Andrew O'Hehir points out in an interview with her,  she's the rare indie auteur who doesn't seem to be responding to other films or to some theme or some aesthetic.  She's not "responding" to anything except the experience of being alive.

July wrote what is possibly my favorite short story, "Roy Spivey." The narrator of that story has an encounter with a famous person on a plane.  They build a connection but he explains that they won't be able to talk when they get off.  They come up with a code: he will say "Do you work here" and she will say, "no." But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. I work here, she says. I will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her.  This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to describe: the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside.

I heard "Roy Spivey" read at a benefit for 826. I was there with someone I was interested in, and it wasn't really going anywhere, and I'd done the lame "I have two tickets" thing.  Before it started I went on about how it was my favorite story, and how it perfectly described the experience I'd recently had during a brief encounter with a famous person. Maggie Gyllenhaal introduced the story and said it was something we didn't hear enough of, that it was about a woman's body from the inside out, not about how it looked but how it felt to be in it. That was the first time I realized exactly what July was doing in her stories and in her movies, and why the twee thing she gets tagged with is so wrong.  Like Mary Gaitskill, July is the opposite of an ironist. She's making a movie about artistic types in their thirties and the apartment looks like something out of Portlandia but she never makes fun of them for being what they are. If you think about it, that satirical impulse - making fun of hipsters, academics, what have you - is just another way of asserting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their (ok, our) lives and fears are fundamentally different from anyone else's.

As in Gaitskill, there's some very interesting, very un-twee sex in "The Future." I imagine that a lot of people probably looked at it and said, that came from nowhere or, why would she do that.  You can look at it and say, she's anxious in her relationship, or afraid of commitment, or afraid of growing older, or you can look and say she's narcissistic or masochistic or what have you. All of these things make sense, or none of them do. In a commentary to Three Women, Robert Altman talks about how strange it is when actors say, oh, my character does this because so and so. But people, unlike scripted characters, don't know why we do what we do. We don't act, he said, we behave. To the extent that July's character has a "motivation," it's a kind of poetic one. She and her boyfriend make the decision to "open themselves up" to new experiences and for Sophie that means that the boundaries between inside and outside start to dissolve. Women who "act out" sexually in movies or television are usually shown as lightweight and stupid or as vicious man-eaters or beautiful fuckups. With Sophie it's any or all of the reasons anyone might, or at least have the impulse to - and that's a different kind of psychological motivation to explore, that what ifs - restlessness, curiosity, transgression for the sake of transgression, not in the sense of shocking anyone but in the way that Brenda explained it on Six Feet Under: that your cross a line, and then you realize the lines are all in your head. (Brenda was one of the best-written female characters on TV, although they sadly pushed her a little too much towards the fuckup category and saddled her with shade-by-numbers Freudian motivations. Her parents were shrinks! And swingers!)

After we heard that story at that benefit, the guy I was with said, "yeah, it was ok, not really my thing." I remember feeling that thing I identify with being a kid, when you're all enthusiastic about something and try to explain it someone and they try to humor you but you can tell what they mean is, yeah, whatever, kid. It's why it's sometimes better to go on a date to a movie you only like so much, or not to try to teach your favorite texts. It was why I was glad to watch The Future at home with my baby sleeping on my lap. He slept through the whole thing, and so I had the rare treat of watching the whole thing without interruptions. At certain points I found myself thinking that that guy from the benefit or this person or that would hate it, and all their reasons, and just where it would lose them. But the film is all about indeterminacy and perspective. Unlike the ironists, July never distances herself from what she's doing. She risks being seen as pretentious. And you can choose to see it that way. Or you can let the boundaries dissolve, and think, maybe this has something to do with me, just a little bit.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

10 Plus Great, Interesting, or Favorite Movies Directed by Women

Inspired by this amazingly comprehensive website and this interesting thread at Shakesville, I've been mulling over some of my favorite movies directed by women. After Nora Ephron's death, a lot of people were quoting her list of things she wouldn't miss which included "panels on women in film," and it's easy to see how such discussions (and perhaps lists like this one) can be wearying. But it is interesting to think about the way that, despite all the auteur theory and fan-crushing on the next hot indie whatever, most people don't really internalize the sense of a film as having a voice or something that could be filtered through gender along with so many other factors. So we don't really think of the missing stories that an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry gives us they way we would if 90% of novels and memoirs were by men. And we don't really think of movies directed by women as a "canon" the way people think about classics of women's literature. This may well be for the best, given how the canon construction, even in its alternative modes, tends towards a reification that prevents people from forming their own individualized, subjective, complex relationships to texts. And god knows The Hurt Locker is like the Maggie Thatcher of films, existing to keep feminists honest. No, women don't have to make films about women, but they should probably come close to passing the Bechtel test. Yes, it was well done. But Thatcher was also a good politician. And the fact that it wasn't some kind of fire-breathing wignuttery made it all the more insidious as pro-war propaganda. Oh, and she's got one coming out this year about killing Bin Laden. So yeah.

But still, it's good to know that despite all the obstacles this stuff is out there. So in that spirit, this is in no ways definitive, and there are tons of candidates I want and need to see, especially non-American stuff, and it's not necessarily "the best," just great, interesting or important to me for different reasons.   Also in no particular order: 

- Winter's Bone, Debra Granik
Best movie I saw the year I saw it. Tight, perfectly shot and paced, with a great and classic story. It does a wonderful job depicting a young woman being tough and courageous and not in some ridiculous "kick ass" cartoonish way.

- Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Pierce
Like Brokeback Mountain, it works because it's a classic tragic love story, told in a classic and straightforward way. I didn't want to see it for a long time because I'd heard the rape scene was hard to watch. It was, but here's the thing: a "hard to watch" rape scene is ultimately less upsetting to me than one that's actually tittilating, which is to say, most of them. Of course, it was threatened with an X rating not because of that but because of the great love scenes between Hilary Swank's Brandon and Chloe Sevigny's Lana. Fun fact: in This Film is Not Yet Rated, Pierce recalls that the complaint from the ratings board was that Brandon goes down on Lana for too long. Ladies, isn't it that just the worst?

- Julie and Julia, Nora Ephron
My grandmother, an undying optimist, who kept asking me why so many "great" books were so depressing, called this the best thing she'd seen since Singing in the Rain. She had a point: it's really hard to show someone finding the thing they love and just doing it, and to make this dramatic. Yes, the Julie side is kind of hum, but Meryl and Stanley and Paris and the food more than make up for it. As Sady Doyle pointed out, Nora Ephron was underestimated by a lot of sophisticated types for a lot of reasons, but at least in part because people really, really underestimate how hard it is to make funny, strong, popular entertainment. It kind of should be obvious, given how few people do it. As Sady said, we should have listened to Mom, or to Baubie. 

- Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond), Agnes Varda
In the spirit of a lot of French New Wave with its young outcast heroine, but with a tight formal twist that resists psychological probing of its heroine. She's not letting us in anymore than anyone else. Tight, haunting, all that jazz.

- Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko
Not as well know as The Kids are All Right, but more interesting to me in its fluid approach to family, sex and creativity, with less contrived conflict as well as the sublime Frances McDormand getting a too-rare opportunity to cut loose. And not to get all essentialist but the wonderful sex scenes definitely feel like they're directed by a woman, or "queer" even the straight ones, which is probably not really an essentialist claim so much as a commentary on the sad predictability of sex scenes in most movies, at least in the U.S., which seems to have another ratings board rule that sex must be super super romantic or super super violent and that humor is in no cases allowed.

Friends with Money, Nicole Holofcener
Not to be confused with those friends who have kids or benefits. Holofcener seems to be pretty polarizing, and this film especially, mostly for her willingness to show her characters' self-pity. Viewers are funny people. We'll accept murderers and sociopaths as quirky and compelling looks at the human condition and congratulate ourselves for the ruthless self-examination we're putting ourselves through. Then, the minute a character gets in a funk about a gray hair we're all, BEGONE! Your humanity has not to do with mine!! When people say, it makes you uncomfortable, but in a good way, I usually run, but here it's really true. Plus, more Frances McDormand.

Harlan County, Barbara Kopple
A classic for a reason. Straightforward great documentary storytelling, without grandstanding but without pseudo-objectivity.

Orlando, Sally Potter
A suitably weird take on Woolf's weirdest book (ok, except maybe Flush). The weirdness of being born one thing at one time wrapped up in Woolf's ultimate topic, the weirdness of being alive.

Clueless, Amy Heckerling
Really. So much closer to the subversive spirit of Jane Austen than a dozen bloodless period pieces put together. "You're a virgin who can't drive." RIP, Tai.

I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron 
What happens if you're a misfit and you run away to be with the other misfits, but they're the new cool kids and you're still a misfit and just as much of an outsider as ever? Lily Taylor's Valerie Solanas is a rare complex but legitimately totally fucked up female anti-hero. Also, "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex" is a totally awesome first sentence. Especially the "at best." (As a piece of writing!)  

Some honorable mentions: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)Wild Man Blues (Kopple again)Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)Humpday (Lynn Shelton)2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy)Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair)The Piano (Jane Campion)  

A list of all the episodes of current TV shows directed by women on this list would also be fascinating. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5 Countdown

A while back Emily Nussbaum had a nice piece in the New Yorker on Game of Thrones that kind of summed up why I don't think I'll be watching it anytime soon. (Aside from the fact that, despite the best efforts of just about everyone I've ever dated and a bunch of other friends too, I just don't seem to have the fantasy gene.) She says that the show "is the latest entry in television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture. This phenomenon launched with “The Sopranos,” but it now includes shows such as “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Big Love.”"  (Big Love turned from something very promising to a creepy defense of said patriarchal subculture, but that's another story). But she also talks about what the sexysexy cable sex looks like in this particular patriarchy: it looks a lot like something designed to prove Andrea Dworkin right.  When you make a point like this, a million blog comments start to auto-compose: it's a critique! It's showing what that world is like, not endorsing it, you stupid puritanical philistine! Since I don't plan to see the show, I don't really know or care, but what I do find interesting is that Nussbaum makes a point that if I recall my women's college days of yore, somewhere late in the last millenium, Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon used to make. It's kind of an obvious point but rarely made: pornography is not pure representation, constructed in the mind and enacted by robots. It (in the live action non-anime version), is actual people having sex.  Which of course is not an argument against it, if you support legal safe sex work, which I do, but it does mean that talking about it as just in terms of representation and "free speech" is a way of erasing that work. As Nussbaum reports:
It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,” “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.
So I was thinking about this and about whether there's anything behind this "patriarchal subcultures" thing, any reason why it would be the setting for so many of these shows. Long form cable using its form to maximum achievement is all about the construction of worlds, layered worlds and worlds within worlds. In all these cases you're constructing a world in order to show how its rules, power structures and hierarchies, work, in ways that resonate for our own world where these things may be harder to see. It can be a fantasy past, like Game of Thrones, the recent past, like Mad Men, or subcultures like The Sopranos.  Now The Wire took this further by starting with subcultures and then layering them on until you had a whole culture,  defamiliarized and then refamiliarized. (Or perhaps the dystopia of the near future, in the neoliberal world where we are all Baltimore, or at least 99% of us.)  There have been some interesting exceptions - Six Feet Under, who's characters live in that atomized L.A. L.A. writers seem to love to write about - beyond the family, they don't have much social context at all. And In Treatment, which I've just about given up trying to get people to watch, because no one has, but which I just found out was created and written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's son, which is kind cool.

Anyways, it's six days until the start of the new season of Breaking Bad, and I'm wondering whether or not it fits into Nussbaum's category. It has a lot in common with The Sopranos, working the Dostoevsky thing about what is permitted for those not constrained by normal rules. With Tony S., he starts fallen and the whole show teases the possibility of redemption even though in retrospect it's clear there was never really that possibility. Breaking Bad seems to be about a decline, except that the decline is pretty much accomplished right away - as soon as that basement scene plays out, there's no going back. We realize right away that Walter is not so much a man fallen as a man freed to more completely be the asshole he always was.  Certainly this helps us see why there's never a real question of him stopping once he has enough money. It's all about ego, proving he's the smartest guy in the room, making sure he's daughter knows that he provided for her. We're firmly in The Sopranos/Mad Men world of status and hierarchy. But we're not in patriarchy, per say, except in the sense that all of contemporary culture still fits that mode. Which of course it does in certain ways. But we meet Walter in a world where status-seeking has been dissipated or sublimated beneath the haze of southwest sprawl. His old friend has achieved some post-alpha alpha success with his biomed company, and Walter is stuck as a teacher in a world where people are polite but quietly judge him as a failure - only the teenagers themselves are upfront about mocking him. While his alpha-crime career is beneath the surface, he's stuck in pissing contests of card games and drinking in front of the kids with his sort-of alpha brother-in-law, who in this mostly not-alpha world is mostly a comic figure. From the start, Walter was a wolf in sheep's clothing, and once the costume is off, he's pretty much a straight-up psychopath. Jesse, on the other hand, shows himself to be more and more sheep, which makes him the tragic one and quite possibly the show's real hero.

In short, Breaking Bad may not be a show about patriarchy, but it's definitely a show about masculinity. (Mad Men is both, of course, as well as being a much rarely thing - a show about femininity, in which femininity is interrogated as well as embodied.) There's a certain conservative streak, in that Walter is not trying to live up to some concept of manhood, like fellow asshole Pete Campbell. He just wants to dominate, and there's a certain "this is the true self every man would have if faced with dying" thing -  except that Jesse, in his oversized gangster clothes is there as a counterpoint. And, potentially much more radically, there is Walter Jr., who will never chase down drug dealers but admires some of his father's ruthlessness. I'm still figuring out predictions, but as for wishes: I want more Walter Jr. almost as much as I wanted more Carla.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What He Said, or, No Need to Write Another Hipster-Bashing Post, like, Ever

“This little band of bohemians, as grimly single-minded as any evangelical sect, illustrate, by the very ferocity with which they disavow American attitudes, one of the most American of attributes, the inability to believe that time is real. . . Society, it would seem, is a flimsy structure, beneath contempt, designed by and for all the other people, and experience is nothing more than sensation – so many sensations, added up like arithmetic, give one the rich, full life.”  James Baldwin, "A Question of Identity," from Notes of a Native Son, 1955 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dance, Little Monkey

So, there was a little kerfuffle recently about David Simon saying that it's silly that people spend so much time and effort doing episode-by-episode analyses of shows that are meant to have long arcs. Actually and not surprisingly, he was saying something much more important and interesting, about what happens when you actually try to say something through a cultural medium. Anytime someone talks about political art, there's lots of hand-wringing about how it can't be "preachy" or "simplistic" or a "pamphlet" and it has to do more than "preach to the choir." Well, here's someone who made a brilliant and genuinely radical piece of art that, even if it got less viewers than Jersey Shore or what have you, became a force in at least a segment of mainstream culture, and among a lot of media/cultural type people who we might think have some sway over how we talk about things. But as Simon notes, what becomes of that? You get a sports reporter asking a fanboy question of a certain fan who happens to be the most powerful person on the planet:

And yes, I understand that the reason for that interview – the precondition under which Obama participated, no doubt – was that it was a discussion of sports.  So, okay, no one needs to bring up a TV drama with the President of the United States for any sensible reason.  And yet at the end, Simmons chose to invoke The Wire.
If he were a hectoring asshole, an argumentative scold, a fucking killjoy, he might realize that he has The Man right there, and that he is at the end of the day acting as, well, a journalist.  So if anything is to be said about that show, well, here is a rare chance to break some ground.  He might swallow hard, seize the moment and say something along the lines of, “Mr. President.  I know you’ve said you’re a fan of The Wire.  Well, one of that show’s basic critiques is that the drug war is amoral.   More Americans are now in prison than ever before, and the percentage of violent offenders in prison is lower than ever.  We are now the jailingest society in the world, incarcerating more of each other than even totalitarian states.  How can we go on supporting this?”
Balls out like that.  Truth to power,  brah.  Get some.
Instead, to use a sportswriting cliché, Simmons choked, throwing up an ugly brick at the buzzer: “Who’s the best character in The Wire?”
So, yeah, the depressing news is that you can make a radical and brilliant work of art that gets some play, and make it entertaining  enough that it's not dismissed as yet another dreary liberal preachy thing, and people get so entertained they say, hey, chill out, it's just entertainment. Yeah, you were a reporter, but that just makes your entertainment nice and real. Neat little trick, that:  
Arguments about the taste of the bread or the look of the circuses go on forever, because, hey, Omar is cool and Bunk is funny as hell and isn’t it great when Clay Davis says the word shit.   Yes, it is nice to know that people were entertained.  It’s not that anyone begrudges an audience its pleasure; we wrote the cool stuff and the funny stuff and we enjoyed it, too.   But four years after The Wire is off the air, are we wrong for admitting aloud to other hopes and purposes for the finished work?

Probably some of my non-English major friends would say, well, yeah, that's the way things go, and that's why serious people should stick to serious straightforward journalism and activism. But it's not like earnest journalism doesn't just as often cause people to say, oh yes, and turn the page - they may not be entertained the way they were with The Wire, but it is similarly pleasure and not a spur to action that motivates them. Right now I'm sitting here typing this with my gorgeous almost-three month old on my lap, and listing to NPR, to reviews of books I won't have time to read and outrages I won't effectively combat (though I might toss off a rant about how NPR gets them wrong.)  And there is a reason "art" - however you look at it - creates the sense it might "break through" where the earnest and straightforward fails. Mike Daisey may have given creative non-fiction a bad name, but there's a reason so many people were drawn to his piece. And obviously there's lots of reasons why David Simon started writing books and making TV instead of being a full-time daily reporter.

I'd be curious how many cops or politicians watched The Wire, and whether it impacted their thinking. Closer to home, it made me think about my own profession, teaching somewhat differently. I'd like to think that if nothing else, it's some kind of counter-programming to the relentlessly pro-lock 'em up drumbeat of just about every other cop or lawyer show on TV. It's not impossible to imagine it spurring some people into action, and having a kind of cumulative effect with other forces pushing towards a more open debate and change. 

On the other hand, I read somewhere recently that The Good Wife had been called "the new Wire." Here's a show basically about a bunch of rich lawyers and their rich lawyer problems of every once in a while having guilt about letting people off, because on lawyer shows it's defense attorneys who are supposed to feel bad about themselves, never the prosecutors. It's enough to make one imagine Simon pulling a full-on McLuhan. In any case, the man knows a thing or two about pushing a form, and it's a treat to see blog writing that pushes outside the normal point and click.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Small Moments in Gendered Parenting Advice

It's the little things: from a list of "unnatural" barriers to healthy sleeping patterns, from Marc Weissbluth, MD:
- Mothers have to work outside the house, miss playing with their baby, and keep their baby up too late at night.

- Fathers or mothers have a long commute and return home from work late, want to play with their baby, and keep their baby up too late at night.
I'm sure it's very reassuring to all working fathers out there that they can't actually miss their babies like moms do, they just want to play with them, and that this can't just happen after a regular day at the office, or even a twelve hour day, but only if the have a long commute. I guess if Betty hadn't bought that damn house in Ossining, and lived in that swank Megan-pad with the kids, he would have been the perfect father!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Not-That-Much-Shorter Jonathan Franzen

"No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did." Exhibit A: she had a secretary type her shit! Silly girl? Doesn't she know that's what wives are for? Unless you're Kerouac and write shit that types itself! And not only that, Wharton was a rich white lady who shared the prejudices of rich white ladies of her time! Unlike every other writer in the American canon who are all perfectly non-racist, non-snobby humanitarians, and migrant workers to boot! But wait, perhaps we could consider that a ladynovelist born in 1862 might have faced some kind of struggle? What could that possibly be? Something that rhymes with -ism and starts with s? No, silly, it's that she was uggo! But she was an uggo and made a bad marriage - which has never happened to a beautiful woman, ever! Marilyn Monroe and Betty Draper married their perfect men and lived happily ever after: true fact! And then she had a passionate affair in her forties, but eww, gross. But sadly, unlike migrant workers, who of course dominate the American canon, so much do Americans "sympathize" with them, no one likes or sympathizes with uggos! Uggo ladies, that is. I mean, duh. Uggo for a male novelist just lends poignancy to the novelist/protagonist's desire for young and non-uggo ladies, who are of course metaphors for life, death, and being seventeen. Nevertheless, definitelynotalady novelist Jonathan Franzen has taken the time to write a few pages about her best novels, and decided that she overcame being a stuck up uggo richlady by writing well about some beautiful but damned ladies. Which was a great way of getting narrative revenge on the beauties! I guess uggo men write so they can fuck beautiful women, and uggo women so they can stick it to them more metaphorically.

Yes, I'm a month or so late on this and many others did a good job of taking him down. (This is probably the best.) Since I became a mom, not only do I fail to sleep when my baby sleeps, or leave the dishes until whenever, I can't give up my habit of trying to read every New Yorker straight through and in order, no matter how much farther I fall behind. Some ladynovelist probably has something interesting to say about what this says about my clinging to an illusion of control over my life, and my refusal to avoid reading things that will annoy me, but she's probably the kind of ladynovelist whose books are on Oprah, and so it probably wouldn't be interesting to the Great American Novelists who write about much more Universal Themes like suburban adultery.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mad Madness: Predictions Editions

Lots of predictions! But first a rant and a prediction that's really a wish:

I've written before about the show's treatment of Carla and show runner Matt Weiner's "that's the way it was" defense of the lack of black folks on the show. He's said something similar a couple of place leading up to the new season. I agree that there's something powerful in letting your heros be on the wrong side of history, showing how racism and indifference to Civil Rights pervaded the culture, not just some easy villains. But this must be cold comfort for black actresses and actors when so many "prestige" projects are "period." I remember reading something back when Shakespeare in Love was up against Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture saying, isn't it interesting that we find these settings so "profound," the ones where blacks don't exist, so excluding them is just historical accuracy? (Obviously there were blacks in WWII, but not in the same units with whites, so you get a totally white film if I'm remembering correctly.) But given the parameters, just because a culture marginalizes someone doesn't mean you have to. Weiner doesn't want to let us off the hook by creating a parallel sixties where African-Americans are welcomed into advertising. Fine. But since when is the show actually about advertising? Isn't it really supposed to be about outsiders? A number of people have pointed out that the very first episode begins with a conversation between Don and a black waiter, with Don asking if he would ever change his brand of cigarettes. Shilling stuff is who Don is; being on the other end of the sell is who the rest of us are, especially outsiders. It's a promise that the treatment of race on the show has yet to fulfill. So my prediction that's actually a wish would be for a full episode that's all about what happens to Carla after Betty fires her. We could see her own family, and how they react. Perhaps she has a teenage son or daughter who has been politicized. We could see Carla look for a new job, interact with her family, friends and neighbors, and catch sideways glimpses, Mad Men style, of what she's actually thought about the Drapers all these years, perhaps revealing a secret of theirs along the way that we're left to figure out.

And bring back Paul and Sheila while you're at it.

Onto the predictions:

- At the start of the new season, Don is still married to Megan, but things are already bad. Fixing his Clio was all well and good, but once things go bad such shoring up starts to look desperate. We seem first flirting with a new (blond, now that the wife is brunette) mistresses or love interest; that he's still married is a reveal the way his marriage was in the first episode.

- Betty will play a very minor role throughout the season. At some point she tries to make a play to get back into Don's good graces and bed: his marriage makes him more attractive to her, along of course with the trials of being Mrs. Henry Francis. Talk about being on the wrong side of history: the guy's a Rockefeller Republican.

- At the same time we'll get to see more of Sally. How wonderful an actress has Kiernan Shipka turned out to be? We'll mostly see her with Don and Megan. She'll start to turn on Megan, but we'll also continue to see just how profoundly she hates Betty.

- An obvious one, but nonetheless: Roger threatens to expose that he's the father of Joan's baby (already born as the season begins), but then kicks it. (If this weren't already an obvious prediction, given the end of his story arc, after Mrs. Blankenship died in episode 9 last season, Roger said he didn't want to die in the office.) Expect some awkward toasts and references to Sterling's Gold and the very welcome return of Mona and Margaret.

- Shortly thereafter, doctor rapist kicks it in Vietnam, but through some stupid drunken accident rather than in combat. Joan is quietly and discretely relieved, and with good reason: being a single mom is better for Joan's work life than being a married mom would have been.

- Peggy continues to kill it for the ungrateful boys of SCDP, and necessity forces them to let her go beyond panty hose into some of the big stuff they reach for to replace Lucky Strikes: booze, cars, maybe even an airline. But her job keeps causing problems with her an Abe. This is more of a dilemma for her now than before, as Vietnam and Joyce have likely furthered her politicization, but it's still no choice: she'll choose the job.

- Burt Cooper comes back, with or without his testicles.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What Happens to Academics on Leave

You have a dream that you meet a friend and he's headed for a conference with important people having important discussions and you say you're not going but you will wander through the book fair, and then you are doing just that, and the book fair is infinite and gleaming like the Dubai airport in your recurring dream, but before you look at a single book you run into another friend, who tells you she's just been talking to a certain important author who, unlike other authors you've written about, plays a definite role in your unconscious. She tells you that this author has had good things to say about a book about him that you're supposed to be reviewing. (This part is true - you're supposed to be reviewing this book, and you partly want to make this deadline and partly want to take some symbolic stand by not working on your leave and/or by being to enraptured with your baby to be able to.) But the part about him liking it rings false for all the obvious reasons. You ask your friend how it was she was talking to this certain important author, and she says, well, we were eating scrambled eggs. Of course they were. Then you hear some whimpering and it takes you a few minutes to realize it's not coming from the book fair but from your actual baby in his crib at the foot of his bed, yanking you back into the world Inception-style. You go to get a glass of water and are momentarily thankful that the world does not miss you.

Monday, March 5, 2012

More Vanity and More Despair

So, this is what I've been up to. Of course, there's an infinite amount to say about this, all of which is far too much and too overwhelming and too wonderful to give shape to just now. So for now I'm writing about easier things. Sadly, motherhood has not insulated me from the freak show that is the Republican primary, but distaste is a lot easier than love. Hence, Callista Gingrich.

During the 2008 election, I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld's novel American Wife, which revolves around a fictionalized version of Laura Bush. It was an odd thing to be reading at the height of Obama mania. At the end, there's a "twist": she didn't vote for him. On some level because she didn't want to be First Lady, but also because in her sensible librarian way she thinks the other guy is more qualified. When she thinks about all the decisions the Bush-like character has made, she tells the reader, hey, I just married him, you all elected him. It's a funny moment. It's also one that from a certain point of view could be seen as a kind of liberal fantasy, with all the flaws therein, an extension of the old knock against Pauline Kael not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon: the liberal feminist novelist can't imagine anyone who would vote for Bush, not even his wife. But Sittenfeld can't really explain why she married him either, except suggesting his sexual prowess from some scenes I'm still trying to get out of my head and which prevent me from recommending the novel to anyone in good conscience.

Another funny moment comes when the Laura character describes the low point of being first lady: the book she writes under the "pen name" of the first pet. It's a little unfair since as far as my google-fu can tell, she's penned only her memoirs and a children's book. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, is the author of "Millie's Book as dictated to Barbara Bush," while Hillary Clinton has Dear Socks, Dear Buddy Kids' Letters to First Pets to her credit along with Living History and It Takes a Village. It is of course beyond unfair to think this all says anything about these women; I'd wager that none of these were their ideas and that they spent no more than a few hours on them, and even if this weren't the case, so what?

Still, I'll cop to a curious fascination with the literary output of First Ladies and those who aspire to be First Ladies, which is how I ended up with a copy of Callista Gingrich's Sweet Land of Liberty, a romp through American History with Ellis the elephant, on my shelf. I started thinking about Callista after reading this brilliant profile by the always-brilliant Ariel Levy. I remember talking about it when I was in the hospital and a friend was flipping through the then-new issue. When I got to it a few weeks later, I thought, have I already read this? No, that was the profile she did of Cindy McCain the last time around. You have to hand it to these women: god knows it takes a lot of something to do what they do on the campaign trail: as Levy notes, they have to gaze adoringly while listening to the same stump speech over and over.

In Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple's documentary about Woody Allen touring Europe with his jazz band, we see Soon Yi taking care of his laundry and keeping the outside world at bay. It's a bit of a shock, given everything, to see her acting as a sort of mother figure to him. You get the same feeling reading about the third Mrs. Gingrich. When Sean Hannity poses and unwelcome question, she "raised her eyebrows slightly and replied in the implacable tone of a kindergarten teacher scolding a six-year-old." The sentiment seems to extend to her husband: "The woman is always the grown up," her husband is quoted as saying. "No matter what." No matter how much younger she is, presumably. It's been said lots of times before, but it's always stunning to hear this stuff from the traditional values crowd. Not that we feminist man-hating types never roll our eyes at stereotypical Peter Pan stuff, but we almost always have the good taste not to do it in public about men we supposedly love, let alone ones we're holding up as great leaders.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What I've Been Up To

"I have no name:
I am but two days old."
What shall I call thee?
"I happy am,
Joy is my name."
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!
- William Blake, "Infant Joy"

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.”
Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Feeling Sentimental

Apparently we pregnant types are supposed to be sentimental. Every other blogpost on the pregnancy part of Babble is about crying at the cotton commercial or something. For better or worse, I seem to be the same cynic I've always been.

Of course, there's a lot of suggestibility when it comes to talking about emotions. If I were being paid to blog about being pregnant and how I felt about being pregnant I would probably attribute a lot of things to it that I don't when I'm just going about my life. Which is why I was interested to find a link to this article, from New York magazine. Now, you might think that reading an article with the subtitle "Why Parents Hate Parenting" might be a bad idea for a 39-week pregnant lady, sentimental or otherwise. But it's a strong article because instead of falling into the normal lifestyle carping (singles are happier! no marrieds! no parents!) she sets out to solve the seeming paradox of why studies have consistently found parents less happy than those without kids although almost no parents would say this. A lot of it is what you'd expect: parents are in denial, parents expectations have become too high, etc. But the real meat comes at the end, when she demonstrates how, like always with such studies but is so rarely mentioned, it really comes down to the questions being asked. When you ask moment to moment things, like, do you have more stress, of course parents say yes. But when you look at more existential questions, like feelings of loneliness, parents come out as less depressed. One of the parents are less happy people doesn't buy it, because life is actually experience as series of moments, not as what we make it in reflection. I'm not so sure. I've always been fond of what Annie Dillard says, that good days are not hard to find, it's good lives, and that a day spent reading is not always a good day but a life spent reading is always a good life. People like to tell aspiring creative types or whoever that you have to enjoy every part of the process, the doing, not just the having done. But the process sucks lots of the time for almost everyone. So if we are not so happy moment to moment, but construct ourselves that way in retrospect, is that really such a failure? "Being in the moment" may be a balm against anxiety, but does it take us away from where the meanings are - in where we've come from and where we're going?

So I was thinking about this and thinking maybe I'm not so unsentimental after all, and then I came across Philip Levine's wonderful poem "You Can Have It" in Rita Dove's new anthology, and thought especially about these lines:

. . . We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctor's appointments, bonds
wedding certificates, diveres licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then the bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.

Like any good feminist, I'm skeptical about nostalgia. The nostalgia here totally takes me in, but mostly because it's for a time before my birth. "Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Radio Days" are my favorite Woody Allen films. It's as impossible for me to imagine commemorating 1994 the way Levine commemorates the year he turned twenty. It's as impossible as imaging my kid at twenty in 2032(!) Maybe my youth was just less textured and nostalgia-worthy than Levine's. But Levine's nostalgia goes hand in hand with its impossibility. The past as we imagine it, his 1948, his being twenty, is as if it never was, unless he wills it back, give it to us, who were never there. It's a construction, but just maybe it's not a lie, the way I always thought it was. Life may be a string of moments in which the average parent is more unhappy and stressed, but it's also the string of moments who trail behind, as equally unfixed as any vibrating present the happiness gurus could imagine.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vanity and Despair

So I was so absorbed by Downfall, the 2004 Hitler's bunker movie and father of the father of internet memes, that I subscribed to London Review of Books just to read this amazing review by Bee Wilson of a new biography of Eva Braun.

Before watching Downfall, I hadn't thought of Braun as much more than a Woody Allen punch line. As Wilson tells it, she was a throughly apolitical person, enamored with Hitler from their initial meeting when she was seventeen. She took endless photos of their life together, and mostly wanted the same things any younger mistress of a powerful man might want: more time, more attention, nice clothes and nice parties. As Wilson notes, she didn't fit the Nazi's propaganda of the selfless self-sacrificing wife and mother, but her apparent sentimentality and complete lack of self-reflection make her very recognizable. How different is gleefully cheering for your man and clinging relentlessly to the idea of your relationship, with all the photos to prove it happened, from being any kind of functionary? Sentimentality is the ideology, just like the bureaucracy was for Arendt.

Looking at the reviews of Downfall it was funny to see echoes of the tired debates about whether or not art should "humanize" Hitler or other Nazis to help us understand "how such things happen," and whether viewers need to be reminded that the Nazis being portrayed were really, really bad people. The whole thing is particularly funny when film critics take this on, as if any three hour film could "explain" anything. Shoah is nine and a half hours and it only works because it sticks to its own dictum to describe rather than to explain. Anyways, Arendt had the last word on this a long time ago.

"Vanity and despair" was a phrase Robin Morgan once used to describe the dominant subjective conditions of patriarchy. Reading about Braun is particularly unnerving because there's so much vanity and not enough despair, at least not until the bunker. I didn't know before seeing the film that they got married 36 hours before they killed themselves together. Guess the apocalypse is one way to get a commitment. It makes me think of the end of Shaun of the Dead, when the main character laments having to kill his zombified mother, best friend and girlfriend in the same day. "What makes me think I'm taking you back?" the on-again off-again girlfriend asks. "You don't want to die single, do you?" he answers. Wilson ends her review by noting that she may have also been trying to persuade him to have children, posing him for pictures with the children who came to call. But charm and sentiment only got her so far.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Poetry Corner: Transformations

Early in my pregnancy, when the changes were subtle and undetectable, I compared the experience to music playing in the background: something you would tune into or out of many times over the course of a day, without fully realizing it. At the same time, actual music was taking on more weight: instead of having the ipod on and being half tuned in while I read, it took all my attention to keep up. Along with music, poetry seemed more interesting than anything else I was reading: against all the books and columns and blogs of deadly literal advise and polemics, nothing seemed more appropriate than the metaphoric. Not surprisingly, Plath's "Metaphors" has held on as a the ur-text through all eight syllables (and counting) so far.

Anne Sexton's classic 1971 collection Transformations is among other things a fascinating combination of the literal and the metaphoric. The back of my edition describes it use of fairy tales as "reenactments, parodies" but that doesn't seem quite right to me. True, there's a lot of humor in juxtaposing the stories to contemporary language and metaphors: the miller's daughter in Rumplestiltskin is a "poor grape with no one to pick./Luscious and round and sleek./Poor thing./To die and never see Brooklyn." Later, after she becomes queen, and tries to bargain with Rumplestiltskin for her child, she is "as persistent as a Jehovah's Witness." But the stories themselves are mostly told straight: dwarfs and Kings and death behave much as they're supposed to. It's the language and, especially, the more generalized openings of each of the poems, prior to the start of each narrative, that cast them in a their frame. Thus "Cinderella" begins: "You always read about it:/the plumber with twelve children/who wins the Irish Sweepstakes./From toilets to riches./That story," while "Rapunzel" begins with the witch Mother Gothel's apologia: "A woman/who loves a woman/is forever young." It's the sympathies and not the stories that bring in the revisionism. Interestingly, along with Gothel, Rumpelstiltskin, another child-stealer, also comes in for sympathy: "She offered him all the kingdom/but he wanted only this -/a living thing/to call his own./And being mortal/who can blame him?"

The so-called "confessional poets" have fascinated me for a long time. A lot of people seem to look at them the way a lot of people look at second-wave feminism: a necessary step, but incomplete, and certainly less sophisticated than what's come since. There are a lot of connections, of course, and Transformations especially resonates with the feminist criticism of the period, with "images of women" and the rereading of the existing canon. But for lots of contemporary readers and feminists it's all too blunt, too much about the body and babies and breasts, and did Sexton really have to write "The Ballad of he Lonely Masturbator"? But I don't think so: no social movement or body of work is perfect or even complete, but that doesn't mean that those of the recent past should be seen as relics or as stages on the way to where we are now, the way the fairly recent past is so often judged.

"A strange vocation to be a mother at all," Sexton writes in "The Maiden Without Hands." Even when children are not stolen, they are everywhere contested, made strange; they transform and are transformed. At its best, the project shares the ambition of the feminist classics of the period. The movement says, what has been is not what what will be, and the poetry says, what is is already not as it is.