I’m up early today, already digging on the different quality that a mere extra twenty degrees imparts to winter air, because, really, I never fell back asleep after I screamed at the kids partying on the first floor of my building.
Rest assured I loathe the word “party” as a verb, but that’s the word for the loathsome activity that had been holding my entire apartment building hostage last night. The coked-up Alexander Dumbasses in 1R had been blasting their mediocre dance music and scrabbling around in the hallway on audibly cheap heels, repeatedly slamming our heavy front door and screaming to each other in MySpacese. I’d been lying in my bed, simmering and then seething, reminding myself that at some point that might have been me. Another voice kept hissing, though: Dude, you taught yoga in your 20s and went to Quaker college. At least you would’ve given your neighbors a heads-up that there was going be a party and I know you would’ve tapered it off before the older Italian couple on the second floor started dressing for church. Not to mention you would’ve been blasting music that actually got you laid.
At 5:45 am I finally lost my shit. Threw a robe over my hideous nightgown and thumped down two flights of stairs, hair standing on end in an uncultivated way that might’ve looked cute when I was, say, my neighbors’ age. But now: just pissed-off hair on pissed-off me.
I banged on the door as hard as cops do and when a girl opened the door — her eyes glassy, her nose rabbity, her skirt Robert Plant-short — I balled my fists and barked in a voice I’d almost forgot I had: “What is it going to take to get you to shut the fuck up?”
The girl stared at me, entirely blank, and whispered, “Okay.” The music went off immediately. Five minutes later a mass trampling in the hallway was followed by one last, weakly defiant slam. Mama had ended the party.
I tromped upstairs, and lay back in bed, heart thumping in my throat, Max and Ruby’s tails swishing furiously. Nearly 37, a cat lady alone on a Saturday night, and still I thought I was better than those douchebags sowing their seemingly endless wild oats. Let them do this for two years, I thought, and then rush back to the suburbs that spewed them once NYC seemed so dang safe. Let them have two more years of bad sex and overpriced meals and dumb outfits in histrionically overdocumented spaces. Give them two more years of something to blog about and then, just as they’re rounding 30’s corner, let them scurry back to 401ks and their expensively reproduced DNA that they’d freak if they didn’t have to remind them to grow up. Let them pretend they’re city dwellers but never really learn anything from or about the very place they live. Let them live in this fabulous, dreadful quagmire for two more years without once silently nodding at someone whom they’d never run across in the cushy world from which they emerged. Let them be hipsters; I’m a bohemian who never wants to return to the mostly dark muddle that spawned her. Fuck’em if they can’t shut the fuck up.
I blame the whole thing on the Wire, honestly. For five months I’ve been in Wire boot camp and it doesn’t exactly teach you to suffer fools gladly. Yancey and I watched the first three seasons together, but after the split I couldn’t bear to watch Season 4 when it aired. Eventually I got over that silliness and realized I needed to start from scratch before Season 4 came out on DVD. The last five months’ free time — which has scarcely existed, save for certain trips to Massachusetts — has been spent in the following way:
1. My Wire buddy Kristal comes over or I skulk over to her East Village joint.
2. We eat a meal that one of us prepared with more care than we’ll ever admit to the other.
3. We drink a bottle of something strong while we silently watch as many Wire episodes as we can.
We barely talk about anything not Wire-related. If we do talk about anything else, it’s mostly comprised of the famous Fucks, Bunk and McNutty style. Mostly we just sort out the show and let it sort us out. To extol its virtues here would be radically redundant: you’ve either already surrendered to its brilliant articulation of power theory or you will. As well, since the show is finally reaping a modicum of what it’s due, much has been written about it elsewhere.
But I will say this: what the show most thoroughly achieves is perspective. It throws into high relief how overstated everything else is — not only onscreen but in daily life and conversations. This show possesses heart and brains and balls and yes, mofo, pussy, and it does so without once laboring to make sure you know. God knows it doesn’t cater to those baby tomatoes who can’t catchup. And it sure as hell doesn’t fall prey to the Klever with a K meshigos that I apparently will never resist. It just tells an untold story with wit and empathy, and leaves it to you to keep track of its bits and pieces. This may be the only TV show that not only teaches you something in particular but makes you generally smarter. It coaches you to really pay attention. Gives you what they call in the Baltimore Police Homicide Division “soft eyes.” Goes on to show that every cog matters — especially the ones that have been officially erased because they can achieve that much more since no one’s looking. Any self-aggrandizing just falls against the natural order this show lays out. Vanity is a luxury ill-afforded; egoism the true crime. That’s what idiot-savant McNulty’s rise and fall and rise and fall teaches us.
Which is why, going back to my neighbors, I’ve become less tolerant as of late. I moved to Brooklyn 15 years ago not because I thought it would be a lark but because I never thought there’d be another place for me. I didn’t just come here for some stories to tell later; I came here to finally live amongst people who weren’t all like me or each other, and didn’t aspire to be. I came to Brooklyn, not Manhattan, and even then I was aware I was part of the very gentrification that we’d all come to bemoan. But back then we did it differently. We planned (or at least I did) on sending our kids to NYC public schools, and involving ourselves in improving them. We smoked dope; didn’t do bumps. We worked in Community Gardens, got involved in local causes. We got to know our neighbors. I always picked up litter — and yelled at kids for littering. (Still do.) I was aware of my tendency to pat myself on the back for mixing with what I still viewed as local color, but I hoped I’d grow out of that shit, and I mostly have. Hell, these days, as a late-30s woman who’s hung on to her rent-stabilized pad even during the years that crackdealers and a real-life brothel also inhabited the building, I think I’ve actually become part of the local color. I’ve been doggedly un-upwardly mobile because I just couldn’t bear the kind of job I’d been programmed to seek, but I was at least conscious that my poverty was a choice rather than the inescapable reality experienced by many in my chosen city and my family of origin. And when I finally did surrender to that stable gig — which, yes, I did this fall — I became another taxpayer, as they say on the Wire. Someone who wants her stoop nice.
So it’s going to take more than those punks on the first floor to get me to give up on my sleep. Not only because those kids don’t bode enough real danger, Bodymore style, for me to steer clear, but because, hell, I can’t respect how they just can’t shut the fuck up. And if Omar and Keema and Bunk and Lester and Daniels and Rawls and Stringer and Avon and Prop Joe and Marlow have taught me anything, it’s how to back somebody down with a silent stare followed by a few well-chosen words that pack a punch no one knew was coming.
Of course that leaves me in a funny place as a film critic. During this fall that I’ve been immersed in the Wire, all cinema has seemed so damn spelled out. Yes, I’ve still been sitting in on tons of screenings — I’ve been writing for Flavorpill more than ever and even writing up some mainstream ditties for my mainstream mag — and am more than willing to admit that 2007 was the best year US cinema has seen in at least five years. I have even concocted my top-11 list (quel Spinal Tap, I know):
11. Romance & Cigarettes
10. Michael Clayton
9. The Host
7. The Bourne Supremacy
6. Broken English
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
3. Away From Her
2. There Will Be Blood
1. I’m Not There
But most of this list overlaps with those of my colleagues and what doesn’t I haven’t been in the mood to discuss. I’ve held every film and every conversation to The Wire‘s tremendous economy and long view, and what can live up to that? I suspect, for example, I might not have hated films like Eastern Promises or Gone Baby Gone quite so much if I hadn’t been watching a show that made Scorsese seem incredibly overdone.
I wasn’t surprised by this year’s trend of wildly violent Westerns — both withholding and overdrawn — given that the US impulse of Manifest Destiny is currently tearing the entire Middle East an unnecessary new asshole. (There Will Be Blood is by far the best of this lot.) I took to Away From Her and Broken English but knew their grown-up, terribly feminine sadness would drop like a thousand trees in an unpopulated forest. And I loved I’m Not There in such a personal, fierce way that it hurt to argue about it as I did whenever the subject was broached.
Suffice it say that it was the first successful music biopic ever made because it wasn’t so much about Dylan as it was about the ’60s that bore him — the state of mind that really sprawled from Guthrie’s ’40s to the Vietnam ’70s. It was about the last time Americans thought that not only they could change but that they could love their country and still seek to change it. It’s about how much artists can reasonably be expected to owe their audiences and how much influence they can reasonably expect to wield. About whether art can really impact social change, and whether it should be expected to. It is even about the mutability of identity, and the impermeability of soul. Lofty stuff, for sure, and I’ve been accused whenever I’ve attempted to discuss this of being everything from fake-populist to elitist, but I think that big ideas beget big ideas and it’s okay to expect our film and even our television to aspire to such levels and it’s okay to try to talk about them. Even fake populist to not try. Certainly a loss. With all apologies to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, Todd Haynes created in I’m Not There easily the most original film of this decade, which renders it the most original film of the millennium. And he did it by achieving a cinematic expression as variegated and ragged and unhappily gorgeous as his subject(s).
But more than that, this movie feels like home because it nails so many moments and emotions that carve at the loneliness I carry. It channels what I love about my borough and The Wire, too. The willingness to acknowledge (as Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns suggest over and over in interviews) that no one is solely a saint or a sinner. That human nature is so complicated that unnecessary embellishments are at best whistling in the dark and at worse a disavowal of the richness that already exists on every corner. That sometimes a new language must be manufactured in order to communicate what we don’t normally say, even to ourselves. And that learning a new language doesn’t exactly entail easy listening.
I cannot wait for The Wire Season Five premiere. But I’m going to try, just like I’m going to try in this new year to not hold every other show as well as myself to its impossibly high standards. Otherwise, I may never write more than 200 words of criticism at a time again.
I watched her skin, primarily, and the way her wrists moved. She had the manner of inner grace and intelligent beauty that women only begin to realize in their late thirties. Everything is texture and wise emotions. It was in her voice, her gestures, in every habit. A certain familiarity with obstacles. She glanced, not fleetingly from side to side, but up and down, to herself and then back to me. Her eyes were deep and tired with wrinkles from the sides like picture frames. Beatriz’s veins stood away from her neck and those thin wrists, so beautiful — there I could see every sorrow and useful labor. I got excited for the first time in a long time, realizing that this was in my future as well. Not just knowing her, but myself, becoming that beautiful. It had been too long since I had such hopeful imaginings.
–Sarah Schulman, After Delores
Just when we women become salty and beautiful is when the real Ophelia Syndrome kicks in, and it’s just so unnecessary. I’m tired of even talking about it, honestly, but since we female-identified persons (not just biological women) climb into true adulthood ever-apologetically, I am grateful when I stumble upon a passage or a song or a person that reminds us that our daily iridescence only becomes a matter of fact when we’re old enough to know who we are. Schulman does so in every line of her work.
She has an ability to nail truth; a passion for lowdown New York as if it were as distinct from the rest of the globe as the Earth is from the rest of the solar system (and as if leaving it were as difficult); and a love of women that is specific and fierce and generous and still, somehow, not self-obliterating. There is something crummy and self-pitying about her characters until you grasp that the misery and sisteroutsiderness they channel are necessary to produce their steady onslaught of insights. The full-frontal honesty that has been deplored in me exists as her finest attribute so I cling to her baggy Levis as if she were a spiritual big sister. She writes in a series of snapshots that connect to each other through the pussy and the heart, and their timeliness and timelessness read at first as casual but turn out to be irrevocable. I challenge you to connect to all of it. To try, at least. Just the effort will sneak up on you worthily.
Broken English is the exact sort of film that gets lost in the Sundance shuffle. About a sadsack 30something single wiling her days in a nearly there New York existence (she works a chi-chi downtown hotel job rather than the art world gig she’d desired; friends with rather than a member of a prosperous gorgeous couple), its premise falls in with the listless fare that comprises festival fare these days. Not to mention that it stars lil Miss Indie America herself — Parker Posey, who acrobatically jumped her own shark nearly half a decade ago in a drift of tiny ironies masquerading as movies.
Anyone who’s read this blog over the last few years knows of my mounting frustration with the American independent film scene. Why I reserve my ire for this world rather than Hollywood is simple: I refuse to play frog to the scorpion of the major studio system. Complaining that a major motion picture is crap is pretty much like whining that Twinkies don’t yield nutritional value. The studio system is predicated on a business model in which the value of individual films is calculated on how much money they produce, plain and simple: if the studio doesn’t anticipate a film will make money, it shan’t be made. And if it anticipates that it will make money, made it shalt be — even if the script is riddled with holes, the stars radically miscast, and the editing as junky as the guys huddled on my corner. That the financial worth of these movies is predicated to some degree on people’s experienced (or anticipated) pleasure is the only place where aesthetic or social value enters this picture, ultimately, even if the individual cogs –the directors, the actors, cinematographers, editors, what have you—still care fiercely about the quality of the work they are producing for financially unrelated reasons. So a feature that boasts strong pacing and visual style — Ocean’s Thirteen, for example — is preferable for everyone. It will last longer on the shelf due to good word of mouth; it will be more fun to plunk cash down to see.
And, let’s face it, if their only job is to entertain plain and simple, often those big Hollywood blockbusters do their job better than the American indies do. Spiderman 3 may have been an inky disaster, a nasty clot of conceits and plotlines, but its predecessors provided great fun that snatched you right out of your mishegos for a solid two hours with great wit and color. The films with greater pretenses are harder to bear, obviously; those hardheaded bids for Oscar validation that glut the cineplexes as the end of each year approaches. I pretty much hate them all—the biopics, the Spielberg Serious Ventures (with the exception of Munich, which I didn’t mind for all its bumpiness), the war porns—but so does everyone, including the Academy, which is why they less and less frequently get made. All Hollywood does really well these days is Dissociation Junction: blockbuster action movie and the occasional romance (in which clothes and posh interiors usually star) and gross-out, no-schmabortion comedies. God love them all. A waste of money, but a fun waste: our country right now, in other words, for better but mostly worse.
For if Hollywood reflects America’s unchecked capitalist impulse, the state of US indies reflects our enormous identity crisis in its wake. We are a country at war but rarely acknowledge it except to make a point at someone else’s expense. We discuss how we are systematically decimating our environment while we swig from tiny disposable plastic bottles and veer SUVs down our ever-increasing highways. No one fully cops to how wide the gap between rich and poor grows daily because everyone on both sides of that great divide might judge themselves unfavorably. Not to mention: We barely educate our young. We sicken and die of the worst kind of diseases overly developed societies have to offer (diabetes, autism, cancer, lifestyle-related heart disease). And we live under the most corrupt, mendacious regime that this country has ever known. By many counts, we didn’t even elect it in — yet another sign that our democracy has grown largely theoretical. That we don’t storm the White House and completely revolt speaks not only to our addiction to comfort and to the illusion of stability but to the profound levels of dissociation that we all sign on to every morning when we get up and face ourselves in the mirror. The levels that Hollywood plays a large part in ratcheting up. God love it.
None of this is news, not in the slightest. I am either preaching to the choir or to deaf ears, and either way the question is she breaks nearly nine months of silence for this kneejerk song and dance?
And my answer is, yes, yes, yes. Because these facts are wildly relevant to the state of independent film. An institution I still care about and, more to the point, deeply need, but one that has proven as dysfunctional as most of the other deep loves of my life. For how do you make conscious film, film presumably made for other reasons besides profit and resume-building, in this environment? If it’s true that art is only as healthy as its culture, and I truly believe that it is, then independent film, the art made in some way to illuminate the human condition or to celebrate it or at least remind us that we are human, is bound to suffer. And it has.
To be fair, many filmmakers are trying. It’s just that their efforts show, and I resent being bombarded by the seams of a filmmaker’ intentions — no matter how earnest they are. Truly, most indie fare these days suffers from overearnestness of one ilk or another. There are the Sayles babies, who attempt to solve or at least tackle all the world’s problems in one swell foop. Even those ventures that are banging in theory still go down like medicine that could use a spoonful of sugar. Then there are the many indie filmmakers content to merely approach their own problems via the medium of film. Admittedly, this self-searching, however initially masturbatory, has served as the chief impetus of most art since the beginning of time. (As a certain someone has been known to say: “now you’re going to start knocking my hobbies?”) But there’s a difference between, say, Noah Baumbach, who dresses his 90-minute therapy session (Squid and the Whale) in early 80s nostalgia rather than in any greater relevance, and European film, which philosophizes about human emotion rather than wallows it. So much of American indie that doesn’t labor to wake us with dirty buckets of cold water — clunky ventures such as Fast Food Nation or, oy, The Situation — languishes instead inside the grime of a writer-director’s navel, albeit one charmingly or whimsically adorned.
But I still believe movies satiate very primal longings in this crazy constructed modern world we call home these days — call it the desire to be understood; the need, ideally fulfilled in meditation or prayer, to surrender to your problems from a healthy remove in order to more thoroughly comprehend them; and the need to connect those problems to someone else’s, to many else’s. Boys, and some girls, who never cry in their real life sob unabashedly at the movies. Girls, and some boys, sneak into romances or, you should pardon the expression, chickflicks when our own love lives come tumbling down round our ears. It’s why the only moderately talented Sandra Bullock radiates such great appeal. She willingly swings us and all of our problems, be they loneliness or addiction or rampant immaturity, over her shoulder in an emotional rucksack as she embarks on often surprisingly successful pilgrimages for redemption.
Ideally, films connect us back to our authentic selves rather than our mere egos via a painless honesty typically only achieved through drugs or spiritual transcendence. But that’s because film is a drug and movie theaters are our temples. Where else can you at least expect so many varied humans to sit in rapt silence for hours on end these days? Where else can you hope in this ruptured dream that we call the US that we might commune with both beauty and truth shoulder to shoulder with strangers and loved ones alike?
Admittedly, it’s a lofty way to regard film. But (and here’s the real but) why not? Why can’t the films purportedly not solely made for profit aspire to be art? Art that does not merely proscribe our wretched existences but prescribe a little insight even it’s merely insight into our what’s breaking each of our hearts? And why not expect such films to entertain as well as to illuminate? As Edmund White once wrote, “What I really like in art is entertainment, if what is being entertained is the mind as well as the parts of the spirit and body that can register pleasure.”
So on said admittedly lofty note I wind myself back to the example of the little-indie-that-barely-did: Broken English. In the face of all the solitude that has proven to be the ides of my 30s, the hard questions that being alone raises amongst the Noah’s Arks coasting in my New York sea, I can recognize myself in this film without hating Posey-as-protagonist or even me in absentia. Posey for once has less channeled her bratty deadpan than offered herself up as a cracked, dusty mirror that’s beautiful in all of its flaws.
Small but not small-minded, linear but not leadfooted, herein lies a film that channels an American optimism grounded out by a European ability to withstand personal misery. In fact, the film is bighearted in its acceptance of misery, important in its insistence that misery doesn’t always require company in order to be ameliorated, political in its suggestion that coupledom is so often a placebo. And that often true solutions only appear when we’ve settled into their absence.
I knew at the critics’ screening that this film largely would falter in reviewers’ eyes. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; its pacing at time devolves from graceful ambling to downright choppy. But it faltered because it’s not about people who’ve fallen through the cracks grandly nor is it about the critic-by-proxy nor is it about the odds-beaters (though the ending is for sure a gimmee). It’s about a wildly condescended-to demographic: the single woman, and Zoe Cassavetes, who knows of what she writes/directs, attempts to articulate that existence with more low-key dignity than sturm und drang and soundtrack cues and lascivious winks. I contend that lady indie filmmaker did her job well. A fact, in this current environment, that is worth noting. Trumpeting even. Like this.