I’ve been rereading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, and I came across a passage that has always resonated with me so deeply:
There’s something about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of any sort of anesthesia that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid….Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug. If it feels warm and fuzzy, it is probably the [addictive] choice. If it feels dangerous and scary and threatening and painful, it is probably healthy.
These days, I no longer automatically distrust what feels right. I have learned that if you are honest with yourself for long enough, you start to parse out the differences between your reflexes, which often aren’t to be trusted, and your instincts, which emanate from your truest self. But I will be forever aware that the more I fear something, the more I should clamor to learn from it. And when I first read the above passage, I was just beginning to undertake a journey not unlike a detox although I was sober. It was like reading a transcription of my secret thoughts — of my dawning recognition of all the different anesthestics, from love affairs to friendships to food to books to the business of being a prettygirl, to which I deferred rather than simply trusting myself. I was 25 and still afraid of my own shadow, let alone my independence.
Knapp died in 2002 from lung cancer. Though she was a life-long smoker, she clung to the belief that her beloved cigarettes did not kill her. Either way, I believe it was better that she died clearheaded than with a clear set of lungs, if she had to be felled by one of her addictions. For I looked up to her as one of my literary and spiritual big sisters, although I doubt we would have liked each other very much in person. She was shy and somewhat socially conservative: a true-blue Bostonian, the sort who sent larger-than-life me fleeing the region to black-sheep NY as soon as I could. But the beauty of a really skilled memoirist is that through her words you can connect with someone whom you might not admire or even recognize in regular life. It is a testament to how good Knapp was at her job that I wept for most of the day I heard about her death although I never met her while she was on this earth. I knew that, unlike most people, she actually stayed present for most of the life she managed to live.
So it is not strange that I miss her still. Selfishly, I miss the possibility that she could live more and learn more and write more so I could continue to understand more of my life through the lens she so painstakingly provided. So that I could keep anticipating from her example more of my own challenges and progress. Sometimes I fantasize that she will posthumously pen another one of her fiercely precise memoirs (she wrote three in all), this time about what it was like to die.
There are so many ways that growing up is lonely, but perhaps the most daunting is that eventually, whether or not we like it, we become the grownups by default. Although, as Knapp herself wrote:
It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I’d never before really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less of a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and mantain. I’d spent most of my life waiting for maturity to hit me from the outside, as though I’d just wake up one morning and be done, like a roast in the oven. But growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. You begin to let go of the wish, age-old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.
I’ve been watching Family Stone while cleaning — a friend lent it to me is my only thinly veiled excuse — and what strikes me most is how bad Sarah Jessica Parker is. I never thought she was terrible on Sex and the City. As Carrie Bradshaw, even if she stumbled a bit when a strong emotion was called for, her physical comedy harkened back to old Broadway in the very best way. She threw out vaudeville one-liners with panache. She tripped well. She wagged. She mugged. She arched her eyebrows with the best of them,
But she is God-awful in this film. I mean shite and shinola. Parker is no more a terrible stage actress than she is a terrible television actress, but now that I consider the body of her filmwork, she truly fouls up celluloid every time she crosses its path, except for maybe in Footloose. Pictured on a big screen, her long face and wiry body resemble those of a 1950s drag queen, which is hardly her fault. That she overreaches and stammers is. She falls so out of step with her fellow actors that she comes off as more humanoid rather than fully human. Someone get this woman a musical. Just ban Aniston from the same fate.
For I’m stuck on the idea that not every actress is suited for every medium. Film requires a level of honesty that the small screen doesn’t, but television requires a level of give and take and an insouciance that the long incubation of moviemaking often renders impossible. And stage requires a level of engagement and vibrancy that almost inevitably proves too much for any sort of screen actor. Of course there exist the likes of Glenn Close, who rarely falters, not even in The Shield, of all things. Kathy Bates, in town for a reading of Eve Ensler’s Necessary Targets, is smart, honest and accessible in every medium known to man. And God knows Helen Mirren never misses. British broads basically are equipped for everything, all attendant metaphors applicable.
But can you imagine how dreadful Meryl Streep, who excels on stage even more consistently than she does on film, would be in a sitcom? She’s already almost too larger-than-life for the big screen. (To be fair, she turned in the best performances of her later career in Angels in America, but HBO hardly counts as TV anymore.) Or take Catherine Keener, a star on stage and big screen whose snide demeanor would merely come off as a lack of affect on TV. Maggie Gyllenhaal is such an ideal film actress that I can scarcely imagine her in any other medium. Jennifer Aniston has flatlined in every movie she’s ever appeared in except for Office Space, in which bad acting was actually the point, but she sported genuine comedic chops on Friends. Julia Roberts really is a decent movie star, if a limited film actress (a whispering Mary Reilly will forever haunt my dreams), but her sputtering guest turn on Friends flailed and Broadway ate her for breakfast with forgivable glee. Some actresses whom I’ve seen shine on stage over the years have never made it to screens of any sort (save the requisite Law and Order episode) not only because their looks didn’t translate but because they couldn’t stop pitching to the back of the house.
The list goes on and on — and I haven’t’ even tackled the European actresses. It’s like a missing lesson from the Free To Be You and Me soundtrack: Not every actress is suited to every medium and, hey, that’s okay.
God help me, but critic Armond White’s article about why it takes so long for the “American Eccentrics” — namely, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola — to churn out their films is really great. White’s metareactionary reviews normally get my dander up, but if I didn’t cop to digging on this piece, I suppose I’d be guilty of the grandstanding I smell in most of his work. Or did I just evidence it now, already? Oy. Meta, meta, meta and not a drop to drink.
Here’s the Amex ad by Wes Anderson he references. Much better than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.