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Lookee What Broken English Drug In

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; befriends rather than belongs to a prosperous gorgeous couple), its premise falls in with the listless fare that comprises festival dockets 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 scorpio 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 doesn’t make it. And if it anticipates that it will make money, made it shall be — even if the script is riddled with holes, the stars are radically miscast, and the editing is as junky as the guys huddled on my corner. That the financial worth of these movies is predicated to some degree on people’s experiential (or anticipated) pleasure is the only place where aesthetic or social value enters this picture, ultimately, even if the associated 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, even if their only job is to entertain plain and simple, often those big Hollywood blockbusters do their job better than American indies do. Spiderman 3 may have been an inky, 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, 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 the illusion of stability but to our profound levels of dissociation. 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.

Didion’s Not-So-Magical Thinking

I’m trying to sort out what I think about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

I’ve always admired rather than adored or identified with Didion. It seemed to me her best work was created when she was younger, when she still felt fragile and vulnerable and used her writing to steel herself against the cultural and personal abyss roaring beneath her Pappagallo flats. It was in that vein that “Goodbye to All That” was anthemic. Today this essay about leaving NYC still speaks poignantly of a particularly fraught, personal-is-political moment of the mid-twentieth century, as does the rest of the rightfully lauded Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But by the ’70s, when she was more firmly established critically, commercially, and domestically, her writing, always economical, grew sparse and sometimes remote.

She’d always alluded to great feelings, even great passions, but in a way that never threatened to disrupt her prose. No menstrual blood stained her diction; no hysteria drew undue attention to individual paragraphs. She rejected the navel-gazing of her generation as paralyzed introspection, and purported to embrace action, movement, John Wayne sere. But that lack of a psychoanalytical impulse only translated into an ever-cooler inertness, sometimes even a flatline. Politically informed but mostly unaligned, spiritually and ideologically fluent but unconvinced, it was if she didn’t need her reader to like her so much as admire her. As a rule of thumb I admire any woman who doesn’t sing for her supper but in the case of Didion, I did so with a reserve that matched her own.

More and more, I suspect anatomy truly is destiny for, despite my political and academic training, I’ve come to believe our physical bodies are blueprints for the kind of experiences we create or crave or fear. Even as online everything makes it increasingly possible to transcend our bodies, we also are increasingly rooted in, defined and haunted by them. Or is it more that both are of a piece, that our written voices are in fact just another projection of our corporeal beings, however phantom? It is a long, controversial conversation that’s best pursed elsewhere, but I touch on it because any discussion about Didion always reveals these biases.

Suffice it to say I am a tall, blowsy woman with a big voice and a big mouth — there is a reason I call myself a broad rather than a chick — and I write long sentences and pieces that either send you packing or seduce you despite yourself. I’ve never resonated with Didion’s compact limbs and compact prose though I’ve studied the mechanics that facilitate those famously unruffled surfaces. I’ve even copied out some of her passages to experience what it’s like to write with such powerful restraint. But although a rawness always lurks in between those carefully arranged lines, there is something censorious, even stunted, in her economy that displeases me. Her screenplays–hackneyed in a uniquely “let’em’-eat-twinkies” sort of way–also allude to a mercenary quality.

I had intended to go on here and write that Didion’s prose always mirrored her ungenerous, angular physicality but I looked at some of her older bookjackets and a sly-eyed, full-lipped subvert looked back at me. Yes, she was always slim and small, but it would be wrongheaded to assert that she always had been the tiny, hawkish woman she is today. Recent experiences, and perhaps that infamous restraint, have wizened her. Like the irritating comment every woman hears when she hits 30: “Honey, now it’s your ass or your face.”

Which leads me to all the brouhaha that has greeted Didion’s recent publication. Although I still don’t know many who’ve finished the new book, name a major publication or lofty public radio affiliate and you’ll find pages and hours of genuflection at the altar of St. Joan. It is the best-selling book at most bookstores here in New York. Her readings have been standing-room only.

Are people so agog about this new memoir because they feel protective of this fiercely slight woman? Or are they drawn to her brand of “cool customer,” as she describes herself with a characteristic irony? As arguably our nation’s ideal lady writer, hers is a calm, collected femininity: no flab and no fuss. Literally and literarily, we can count on her not to throw herself on her husband’s grave.

She was the right kind of girl, then the right kind of woman. Now we are looking to her to be the right kind of widow.

For central to the intrigue that cloaks Didion like a mink is her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne. While the rest of the country divorced and remarried and divorced again, Dunne and Didion worked and lived together, presiding over the American literary scene as a golden couple who straddled the NYC hustle and Hollywood shuffle seemingly effortlessly. They wrote reviews and nonfiction and fiction and screenplays sometimes together, sometimes separately, and mostly, it was reported, in the same room. But if Dunne’s bluster allowed for–dare I say enabled?– Didion’s remove, I wondered if the safety of that union also hampered her prose. Their codependence seemed key to her status as “the right kind of woman”–as in, not so strident that she couldn’t keep a man. Certainly she leaned on Dunne, as she writes in this memoir, “to stand in between [her] and the rest of the world.”

I must admit — I’m not proud of this — that when the news of Dunne’s death hit the wires I was curious about how his widow would bear the loss. That I might not have been the only one also explains how eagerly her book was anticipated. (Perhaps the breathless reviews are compensation gestures for that prurience?) I wondered: Would her characteristically bloodless prose gain some color? Would the floodgates open, shedding insight not only into her union but her famous containment? Would she genuinely (finally) evolve creatively and personally?

The answer, honestly, is no.

In this slim tome and in the many interviews she’s conducted since its release, she acknowledges she writes because that is how she makes sense of her life. She has also acknowledged that she has looked forward to the flurry of distractions that the book publication has promised to provide her. All of which goes a long way toward explaining this slender volume’s stunned, stunted prose but not toward excusing it. I find this memoir genuinely alienating, even self-aggrandizing. In fact I resent it, just like I resent everyone’s piety in their treatment of it.

Didion is still the careful researcher, wading through written material about the process of grieving for–what? Insight into how she should behave? Into what she is feeling? Fodder to fill out her anorectic paragraphs? She studies psychological texts, consults poets. And she lingers longest on Emily Post’s etiquette manual on mourning, ostensibly because Post accepts death as a part of life. Really because Post regards grieving externally, providing practical instruction in the proper appearance of mourning. Didion is still very concerned with the surface of things, if only to approach her situation cautiously from the outside in. Still with that signature remove.

Perhaps as a result of writing those screenplays, Didion’s prose has grown increasingly cinematic, with observations neatly folded into anorectic paragraphs and a strange redundancy of phrases that do not substitute for the punch her earlier prose packed. The Year of Magical Thinking is no exception. No doubt because she wrote it in the first year after her husband’s death–a year crowned by the loss of her daughter, who surrendered to an illness about which Didion is also doggedly avoidant–she writes like a child tasting her own tears with numb wonderment. Even the repetition of that most shattering of sentences–“my husband is dead”– devolves into cliche rather than keening rhythm because it is married to no insight, delves no depths. I get the same feeling here as when I view Woody Allen’s movies: that this is art made to dissociate from the rigors of reality rather than as a bold effort to accept them.

Understand I do not condemn Didion for being shellshocked about losing her husband and child in the span of one year. I do, however, resent the brittle book she wrote about those events to avoid genuinely experiencing them. I resent that she did not have the courage to surrender to her grief before she took up a pen to write herself back into shape; I resent that she failed to use those losses as a way to connect to a larger context that for a very long time she has merely judged. As a reader, I feel..used. Transitional object in absentia.

For let me say it out loud. Her loss, though great, it is not the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, especially not in recent history. And even if it were, the sheer accounting of it would not merit publication. Many, many women have lost their families and not written books about it. Why Didion’s book could have been special is because she could have shed insight, with her characteristic finality, not into how she healed, for healing from great grief is not a finite process. But insight into how she got through the initial shock of it. Instead, she seems to have written this account of her husband’s death in an effort to not to get through it. Aptly titled, it reads as a (seemingly unsuccessful) meta-attempt to coax herself into believing it took place at all, the way an overtherapized person will tell you over and over that her parents abused her so she will believe it is true. I long for what Didion eventually might have authored had she not written this last year away in a dissociative, now overly lauded fugue. Or is that more magical thinking?

I don’t know Didion’s official stance on blogs, but I’m going to take a wild guess that she views them with disdain. And yet, what she’s written here embodies blogs’ worst qualities with none of their intimacy: Information introduced and reintroduced endlessly without ever fully being digested. To wit: Your husband is dead. By the way, your husband is dead. Your husband had heart trouble and you didn’t want to face up to that. Now he is dead and you don’t want to face up to that, either. Your daughter is dangerously ill for reasons you don’t want to unpack. Now she is dead, which you also won’t unpack. By the way, everyone is dead. By the way, the end.

How about: How will you go on? How have you gone on so far? What does your abyss look like, and what have you excavated from it? How will you find emotional and physical sustenance, and from whom? In recent interviews, you have confessed you didn’t like being single before you married Dunne. Do you know who you are separate from his embrace? Have you the courage to find out rather than subject us to ever-more brittle prose? Will you examine your meticulously unexamined life?

Her answer, at least according to this volume, is: not yet. My suggestion to the rest of us: Wait until she is. It still could be magic.

Dickless Jane (Klute with Just a Dash of Leaving Las Vegas)

The sudden reemergence of The Many Faces of Lady Hanoi Jane Vadim Hayden Turner Fonda (a possibly ill-advised return from retirement, the new book) has inspired me to revisit Klute (1971). In it, she portrays Bree, a stalked prostitute who spends her free time shtupping detective Donald Sutherland, then processing the affair with such a clinical remove that it as if she’s her shrink’s colleague, not client. Like everything else Fonda, her depiction of Bree shouldn’t be as effective as it is.

No matter what the role, Fonda never ditches her clipped, boarding-school diction. The effect is distancing–even condescending–though she sometimes may intend the opposite, especially when portraying working-class women (as in Stanley and Iris) or working girls (as in Klute). Those precise, strident tones–dare I call them “brays”–ring hollow, as if she holds these women at such bay that she is speaking of rather than as them.*

But in Klute that distance works, partly because Bree is someone who holds herself at bay. She also brilliantly evokes that hush which creeps into a life unpopulated by real human connection. In her presence, even Sutherland seems uncharacteristically muted. Alone in her poorly lit rooms, she smokes dope, leafs through books, stares down her ugly walls with the grim resignation of someone who knows a silence that threatens to extend forever. Backlit by Gordon Willis’ gorgeously melancholy cinematography, she luxuriates in her isolation as if it were warm, dirty bathwater. You feel rather than observe that she can tolerate no intruder save her cat, and that kindness unwires her, even angers her, however irrational she recognizes that fact to be.

Klute is not a terrific movie by any stretch of the imagination. It falls prey to many ‘70s movies pitfalls, including a surplus of self-important pauses and poorly built suspense. (A high, female voice accompanied by a single piano note does not in and of itself conjure fear.) But the first time I saw it I’d been alone for a long, long time, and it felt so familiar it was as if I were kissing my own arm.

*Also, why hasn’t anyone pointed out that Shue’s prostitute character in Leaving Las Vegas draws so much on Fonda’s Bree? Both women strut and speechify with that aggressively middle-class can-do assertiveness, and both films deploy that oy-vey storytelling technique of a broad confiding in her off-camera shrinks while jazz trumpets bleakly.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy